With the New Year upon us, playoff football is back as the first round of games begins on Saturday, January 5. The field of teams vying for the Super Bowl has been constantly reshuffled throughout the course of this turbulent season, and so to make your viewing experience easier, here is The Radnorite’s comprehensive guide of the 12 teams left standing.
AFC (in order of seed):
- Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)
Strengths: Led by second-year quarterback and MVP candidate Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs’ offense has decimated teams this year, and will likely continue to wreak havoc on defenses in the postseason. Mahomes spearheaded this league-leading offense with the most yards per game (425.6) and points per game (35.3), while also throwing for 50 touchdowns, for only the third time in NFL History. Considering Mahomes’ performances and the threat his teammates Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce pose to any team, this Chiefs offense will have no problem scoring 35 points in the playoffs.
Weaknesses: Prior to their Week 17 dismantling of the Oakland Raiders, the Chiefs went on a 2-3 skid in which their defense led the league in most points allowed per game (35.6) and first downs allowed per game (28.4). This regression of their defense is not a hopeful sign, and it is imperative that they regain their early season form to enable Mahomes’ offense to extend possession of the football.
Outlook: Andy Reid’s Chiefs have everything to lose now with the number one seed, but with the competition, their path to Super Bowl should not be that difficult as no team is truly able to combat their offense at full force. The Chiefs have only won one playoff game in the past 24 seasons, but the only thing stopping them this year would be a total defensive collapse.
- New England Patriots (11-5)
Strengths: The Patriots have been a dynasty for almost two decades. Led by the greatest player-coach combo in NFL History in the form of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, they are the best-coached team, the best-prepared team, and always pose a threat to any team in any situation. Plus, they are the only team this year to go undefeated at home, and so for teams playing in Gillette Stadium, beware.
Weaknesses: Simply put, their team is the all-around weakest it’s been in the dynasty’s span. For starters, they lack a true offensive catalyst. Sony Michel, Julian Edelman, and Rob Gronkowski have all been solid options, but none has devastated offenses like the stars of other playoff contenders. In addition, their defense lacks consistency. They allowed only 32 points in their last three games, while letting up 34 in the game prior in a loss dubbed “The Miami Miracle”.
Outlook: It is never a safe bet to count the Brady-Belichick duo out, but this team has the least likely chance of making the Super Bowl out of any Patriots team in the past twenty years. That being said, given the fact they have a bye, it is not an insurmountable task for Brady to win two games and get his team in the Super Bowl again.
- Houston Texans (11-5)
Strengths: The Texans defense is most certainly their strong point, as they are fifth in points allowed (316), fourth in rushing yards allowed (1323), and fourth in takeaways (29). Led by star JJ Watt, this defense has the potential to wear teams out in the playoffs, a rare commodity only a handful of NFL teams possess.
Weaknesses: Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins was targeted fifth most in the NFL (163 times), and had 33% of his team’s targets. The next highest mark was 45, held by the injured reserve Will Fuller, who is out with an ACL tear. Bottom line is that quarterback Deshaun Watson has no targets other than Hopkins, which could become a problem late into playoff games when he cannot throw into double and triple coverage.
Outlook: The Texans have a very balanced team with a great defense and an often deadly offense. However, if teams are able to shut down DeAndre Hopkins, and Watson is not able to take control of close playoff games, the Texans’ hopes of making the Super Bowl are futile.
- Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
Strengths: Three teams in the NFL playoffs possess a defense capable of stopping any team at their best. They are the Texans, the Bears, and the Ravens. The Ravens defense has been unbreakable this season, leading the league in yards allowed (4687) and second only to the Bears in points allowed (287). Veteran safety Eric Weddle anchors this top-notch group that is effective at stopping both the run (4th in the league) and the passing game (5th).
Weaknesses: While the Ravens’ running game has been excellent (2nd in the league), their passing offense has been nonexistent. Rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson has proven to be a threat on the ground, but the question is if he can mirror this success into his passing game, as it is necessary for successful playoff quarterbacks to be able to throw.
Outlook: A Ravens-Chiefs second-round match-up could produce a Baltimore upset as the Ravens run game and offensive suppression could outmatch the Chief’s offensive onslaught. Getting there might be their toughest challenge, though, as it would require Lamar Jackson to step up his game in a big way.
- San Diego Chargers (12-4)
Strengths: Phillip Rivers has been with the Chargers for fifteen years. While the future Hall of Famer has never mirrored his regular season successes into the postseason, this year seems like the year it could all come together for Rivers. With 4,308 yards and 32 touchdowns to his name, Rivers has made a solid MVP case for himself, playing one of his best seasons yet. Rivers is the heart and soul of this team, and this year his hunger and determination for playoff success could lift the Chargers to the next level.
Weaknesses: After an electrifying start to the season, the Chargers have slowed down in the first half later on into the season. In the past, playoff games are often decided in the first half and the fact that since Week 9 the Chargers rank in the bottom third of the league in first-quarter scoring is not a reassuring statistic for any fans of the team.
Outlook: If Rivers performs to the best of his abilities as he has time and time again in the regular season, then the Chargers will bounce back and could pose a threat to any team they face.
- Indianapolis Colts (10-6)
Strengths: Andrew Luck’s resurgence as a top-level NFL quarterback this season has been the main talking point for this Colts team, but the success of the offensive line has been the unsung hero of this well-oiled offense. Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith lead this young group of blockers that have been a large part of Luck’s recent successes, currently ranked as the third-best offensive line in the league.
Weaknesses: Quite simply: do the Colts have the talent to compete with teams like the Chiefs and the Patriots? We know they have a solid defense and Luck’s offense looks fine, but they have no true, one-hundred percent healthy star to lead them on any side of the ball. 3-4 against other playoff teams, it is hard to see them matching up against teams with depth in the postseason.
Outlook: If they fire on all cylinders, the Texans-Colts first-round match-up will be interesting, but that would require a tactically-sound game and a super-human performance from an inexperienced quarterback.
- New Orleans Saints (13-3)
Strengths: At this point, the Saints are the team to beat. They have everything a Super Bowl winner needs, including a dynamic defense with a great secondary, great coaching under Sean Payton, a proven veteran at quarterback in Drew Brees, home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and countless offensive weapons at their disposal including Alvin Kamara and Mike Thomas.
Weaknesses: The only slight blip in an otherwise flawless team is the recent dip in production on the offensive end. In Weeks 1-12, their offense racked up 36.6 points per game, leading the league. This mark dropped to 20.25 in their final four games. While other factors such as resting players may have been to blame for this drop-off, it is not the most reassuring sign for the team heading into the postseason.
Outlook: It’s the Saints’ Super Bowl to lose and provided that everybody stays healthy and the team’s stars all perform, nothing is stopping the New Orleans Saints from capturing their second title.
- Los Angeles Rams (13-3)
Strengths: Aaron Donald, the favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year with his league-leading 20.5 sacks, anchors a stifling interior defense that will be able to wear teams out in crucial playoff games. In addition, the Rams have a host of explosive offensive players such as Todd Gurley III and Brandin Cooks who are in great form and will look to exploit opposing defenses.
Weaknesses: Quarterback Jared Goff, who looked untouchable at the start of the season, has dipped in performance as of recently in terms of possessing the ball. In a recent five-game stretch, the third-year man out of Cal got picked off 6 times and had seven fumbles. Goff needs to be able to avoid turnovers and regain that early season success if the Rams are to mount a Super Bowl push.
Outlook: The talent is there for Sean McVay’s Rams, so it is only a matter of Goff keeping the ball, stringing together consecutive scoring drives, and the defense stopping the pass—all things they did at the start of the season.
- Chicago Bears (12-4)
Strengths: Legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant once said: “Offense wins games…defense wins championships.” If this proverbial statement holds any truth then the Bears are well on their way to a championship. Led by new acquisition Khalil Mack, their defense was the top-ranked by DVOA by a longshot, a luxury that allows the offense to have extended time with the ball.
Weaknesses: Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky is unproven in big games and has been unable to display consistent production in passing. 20th in passing yards and 23rd in QBR, Trubisky is average at best with his passing game, often preferring to hand it off or run on his own. A one-dimensional offense is stagnant and predictable, and so the Bears fate rests in their quarterback’s ability to pass the ball.
Outlook: The defense is the best in the league, and easily has the caliber of talent required to win a Super Bowl. Mitchell Trubisky needs to step it up if the team wants to make a postseason run, as their run game is not good enough alone to get them far into the playoffs
- Dallas Cowboys (10-6)
Strengths: While all the attention has been put on Ezekiel Elliot’s dominant run of games in which he secured the rushing title for this season, the improvement of the defense has also paved the way for the Cowboy’s playoff berth. Breakout rookie Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith have proven themselves as tackling machines in the second half of the season, allowing the Cowboys offense to thrive as well.
Weaknesses: Wide receiver Amari Cooper was the catalyst for the Cowboy’s resurgence in the middle of the season, reaching his pinnacle with 217 yards in Week 14. However, he has not scored a touchdown in the last three games. It is imperative that both he and Elliot play well if the Cowboys are going to do anything in the playoffs.
Outlook: The team has the makings of a Super Bowl contender with a solid defense, a solid o-line, and an offensive star in Elliot. These parts just all need to be working and Elliot needs to be helped on offense for the team to be successful.
- Seattle Seahawks (10-6)
Strengths: The Seahawks play a very efficient style of football, taking care of the ball on offense and grinding down the opponents on defense. Nearly breaking the single-season record for turnovers with 11, the Seahawks also had 26 takeaways, putting them in the top 10 for that category. If this efficiency carries over into the postseason, the Seahawks will be able to hang in games with any opponent.
Weaknesses: Relying heavily on their running game already, the Seahawks have three starting offensive lineman either out or not one hundred percent, forcing them to adapt to a more balanced style with equal passing and running.
Outlook: The “Legion of Boom” defense has always been there for Seattle, so it is just a question if the offensive line and the offense come to play.
- Philadelphia Eagles (9-7)
Strengths: There is just something special about Nick Foles. With under half the amount of starts Carson Wentz had, Foles has won nearly as many games, going 4-1 in this impressive stretch. The defending champs are keen to remind everyone that Foles, their “backup quarterback,” won them the Super Bowl last year, and so it is perfectly reasonable for other teams to label him a threat.
Weaknesses: The hunger of last year’s team just has not been there at all this season, making it feel as though this team is lacking in many departments. It almost seems as if their playoff berth was a fluke, as their secondary is one of the worst in the league and their offense is average at best even with Foles.
Outlook: Barring a magical Nick Foles playoff miracle, the Eagle’s chance of a repeat are small… but it is there.
AFC Wild Card Round:
Texans-Colts— The Colts just do not have the offensive firepower to match the Texans stifling defense. Advantage: Texans
Chargers-Ravens— The Chargers upset the Ravens as Rivers’ experience outclasses the youthful Lamar Jackson. Advantage: Chargers
AFC Divisional Round:
Patriots-Texans— The Patriots are at home and have not lost a first-round game since 2010. I don’t see them losing to an inexperienced quarterback. Advantage: Patriots
Chiefs-Chargers— The Chiefs offense is too much for the Chargers defense to overcome and Phillip Rivers can do nothing as his team gets slaughtered. Advantage: Chiefs
Chiefs-Patriots— The Chiefs are at home against a weak Patriots team and Mahomes shines against an aging Brady. Advantage: Chiefs
NFC Wild Card Round:
Bears-Eagles— The magic of Nick Foles is no match for the sheer might of Khalil Mack’s defense. Advantage: Bears
Seahawks-Cowboys— The Seahawks efficiency and ability to keep the ball on offense will wear the Cowboys defense to a pulp before stifling them on defense. Advantage: Seahawks
NFC Divisional Round:
Saints-Seahawks—The Saints are like Seahawks 2.0, with a better offense, better defense, and better coaching. Advantage: Saints
Bears-Rams— I predict that Jared Goff flunks his first playoff test and the Bears head straight to the conference championship.
Saints-Bears—Again, the Saints offensive onslaught will test the Bears defense in new ways, while the Bears offense will go absolutely nowhere with Trubisky. Advantage: Saints
Saints-Chiefs—In a shootout, the Chiefs are unable to outclass and unnerve Brees and his near flawless team wins their second Super Bowl. Champion: New Orleans Saints