Just one week remains on the NFL schedule, and a very muddied playoff picture is starting to become a little more clear. The Jaguars, Patriots, Steelers, Chiefs, Saints, Vikings, Eagles, Rams and Panthers have all clinched a playoff spot, leaving only 3 spots remaining between the two conferences. The front-runners for those spots are the Falcons, Ravens and Chargers but the Titans, Bills, eahawks are still holding on, with the Cowboys/Seahawks game essentially eliminating the Cowboys.
As we move into January, it’s time to take a look at the teams in the picture and what they must do to make a run into February. We’ll start with the AFC.
AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE
#1. New England Patriots
The Patriots will retain the #1 seed should they (likely) beat the Jets next weekend, cementing the road to the Super Bowl going through Boston on the AFC side. The Patriots haven’t “looked” themselves all season long, but are still as dangerous as ever.
- Biggest Strength – This should be obvious, it’s Tom Brady. He’s the core of this team and his presence alone makes them a Super Bowl contender. Defensively they have really been on the last half of the season
- Biggest weakness – I have a hard time finding one, but if I had to pinpoint one thing it would be their rush defense. It’s marginally average and could become an issue depending on who they run into
- How they can make the Super Bowl – Lean on Tom Brady and do relatively well against the run.
- How they can lose their first game – If they run into the Chiefs they have to do their absolute best to contain their running game and not allow that offense to open up on them. It won’t be an easy road.
- Prediction: Lose AFC Championship to Jacksonville
#2. Pittsburgh Steelers
As long as they don’t blow it against the Browns, the Steelers will be your two-seed heading into the postseason, giving them a first-round bye. Their offense has peaked ever since they got the dog snot beat out of them by Jacksonville, but the defense is still a liability.
- Biggest Strength – As previously mentioned, their offense is their best asset. They can seemingly score at will and Haley does a great job positioning Brown at the Line of Scrimmage. They’re never out of a game.
- Biggest weakness – Defense. I mentioned before it’s their biggest liability. Not double-teaming Gronk on the final defensive drive of the Patriots game was one headscratcher among many defensive calls this season.
- How they make the Super Bowl – Lean on Todd Haley. He’s been able to out-scheme a lot of defenses all season and can continue to do so in the postseason.
- How they go out the divisional round – I’m interested in seeing a Jags-Steelers rematch to see just how far the Steelers have come this season. Jaguars rocked them and we questioned whether Ben Roethlesberger still had it, this will be his final test.
- Prediction: Lose Divisional Round to Jacksonville
#3. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jags had a shot at the one-seed but had a complete meltdown against San Francisco (although give the 49ers credit, they’re improved immensely with Jimmy at QB). Despite that, they’re still a pretty solid bet if you had to lean on anyone.
- Biggest Strength – Their defense. They don’t call them Sacksonville for nothing. Consistent pressure on QBs without having to blitz (52 sacks, one of (if not THE) best Corner duos in the league and the ability to create turnovers. That combined with an efficient offense has propelled them to their first division title since the 90s.
- Biggest Weakness – You would think I’d say Blake Bortles, but he has actually been rather consistent this season and one of the better QBs in the league, when he’s on. He’s a liability, but so is the run defense. If there’s one thing San Francisco exploited about Jacksonville, it’s coverage mismatches that ended up putting the defense on its heels and allowing some major outside/off tackle/stretch runs.
- How they can make the Super Bowl – getting early leads and letting that pass rush go to work. They have to lean on their rotation of running backs and let Bortles create with his legs as well (5.6 ypc with 3 20+ runs). Don’t hold back on offense, but play mistake free football.
- How they can lose the first round – Bortles reverts back to his old self.
- Prediction: Super Bowl LII Berth
#4. Kansas City Chiefs
After a disastrous midseason run, the Chiefs righted the ship just in time to keep the Los Angeles Chargers from taking over the division by winning 3 straight games. Are they back to the 5-0 team that we saw in the beginning of the season, or will their 1-6 stretch rear its ugly head at the wrong time?
- Biggest Strength – Believe it or not, it’s Alex Smith. He’s shed the captain checkdown status and has had his best season yet. His 67% completion percentage is 5 above his career average, he’s averaging 8 yards per attempt (fourth in the league behind Brees, Brady and Winston) and he’s giving his playmakers opportunities to make plays. As long as Smith continues to test defenses deep early and often the Chiefs have a chance.
- Biggest Weakness – The Chiefs offense spent the better part of 6 weeks trying to lean heavily on the explosive playcalling. They were living and dying by the sword. Adjustments prior to the Jets game saw the offense open back up by falling back on plays designed to get their better players into space. Mixing these two elements together is what has KC on a 3-win streak. So basically it’s playcalling is my point.
- How they can make the Super Bowl – If we see the Chiefs team from early in the season that knew how to put their better players in space and Alex Smith continues to test defenses deep, they can run through anyone on their schedule.
- They’ll go out first round if – they run up against a defense that can match their offensive talent, especially in man-to-man situations.
- Prediction: Lose to Ravens on Wildcard Weekend
#5. Baltimore Ravens
No one seems to be interested in what the Ravens have to offer, but overlooking them could be a major mistake for whoever they run into in January.
- Biggest Strength – It’s the defense. While not quite the 2000’s defense, Baltimore has created turnovers at an otherwordly rate with 22 interceptions leading the NFL and 11 recovered fumbles. The defense and special teams have provided their offense the 2nd best average starting field position in the NFL, starting at their own 32-yard line.
- Biggest Weakness – The offense. There’s little to no output, no dependable receiver, and one thing we don’t talk enough about is Joe Flacco’s regression. He’s not the player he was in 2012, but then again, he doesn’t have the run support he had back then either. Flacco has 12 INTs on the season, and unlike his much-compared 2008 counterpart, Matt Ryan, Flacco’s interceptions are largely his fault (we’ll get to Ryan in a minute).
- How they can make the Super Bowl – Flacco gets 1/5th of the hot hand he had in the 2012 season. This defense is good enough to beat Pittsburgh and New England, I would be intrigued to see a Ravens/Jaguars matchup in the AFC Title game.
- How they’ll go out the first round – Turnovers. Period.
- Prediction: Lose to the Patriots in the Divisional Round
#6. Tennessee Titans
Oh boy. The fight for the current 6-seed in the AFC picture is a hot jumbled mess with the Titans holding on for dear life. In a year where Luck continues to be out of the picture and Watson tore his ACL, the Titans were primed to take the AFC South. A lackluster and dry offense has largely prohibited this from happening and if they miss the postseason after being in the picture all season long, you might expect some changes to be made.
- Biggest Strength – I had a hard time pinpointing this one too. Tennessee has a lot of talent that is not being utilized correctly. Murray continues to get touches over Henry, who has performed when given the opportunity and Mariotta can’t seem to find a consistent receiver to work with. Defensively they’ve been good at getting to the QB (41 sacks) but not creating turnovers. So we’ll just say defensive front seven.
- Biggest Weakness – The offense. I can’t stress this enough. There’s way too much talent in the backfield to average 21.3 ppg. If they get down at all in the postseason, I don’t see them keeping up.
- How they make the Super Bowl – Give the ball to Henry more than Murray and Mariota has to test teams down the field. It would take a miracle for them to even make the conference championship in my opinion.
- How they go out the first round – keep doing what they’re doing and they might not even make the postseason.
- Prediction: Miss Postseason
#7. Los Angeles Chargers
Regardless of whether or not they get in, Anthony Lynn should be commended for taking a team that started 0-4 after coming off 4 and 5 win seasons over the last two years and keeping them from imploding on themselves. The Chargers rebounded by winning 7 of their next 9 games before losing to the Chiefs a few weeks back. A win against the Jets puts the Chargers in the position to sneak into the playoffs if the Titans lose to the Jaguars.
- Biggest Strength – Philip Rivers. Offensively, they don’t wow you, they can run the football and have a strong potential for explosive plays. Philip Rivers is what makes that go, he’s tied his lowest interception percentage in his career (2009 – 1.9%) keeping turnovers minimal and giving his team more chances to be successful after last year’s disastrous turnout.
- Biggest Weakness – Run defense. The Chargers have a great pass rush, and one of the Top 5 defenses in the league when it comes to fewest yards allowed, but they’re in the bottom 3rd of the league when it comes to stopping the run (98.7ypg). Kareem Hunt ran for 155 against them when the Chiefs dismantled them. That can’t happen again.
- How they make the Super Bowl – Build early leads and let that pass rush go to work. They haven’t been able to do that this season, and their wins have been nail biters, so the more realistic viewpoint would be to let Philip Rivers sling it.
- How they go out first round – Get ran out the stadium, literally. If they sneak in, they’re looking at a matchup against the Jaguars again.
- Prediction: Lose to Jacksonville in the Wildcard
#8. Buffalo Bills
Buffalo’s 2017 has been quite impressive considering expectations heading into the season. Still, a wonderful 5-2 start was marred by headscratching decisions made at the QB position, one that has seemingly cost them as the team that beat their backup QB holds the tiebreaker over them. Even with that, the Bills have a chance to end the league’s longest playoff drought.
- Biggest Strength – LeSean McCoy has been their workhorse all season and a gamebreaker when they absolutely need it. McCoy’s ability to be a utility is the only thing that functions on this offense aside from Tyrod Taylor.
- Biggest Weakness – The passing game leaves a lot to be desired and as much as I praise Tyrod and hammer the Bills about how they treat him, there is a glaring issue with him that he has to address: taking shots down the field. Tyrod is hesitant when it comes to the deep play as he’s more so just worried about turning the football over. That hesitation has handicapped this offense at times and is the main reason behind the Peterman moved. Even with that, it shouldn’t have happened as it cost the Bills a position in the postseason, that win would have them at 9-6 with one win putting them in.
- How they win the Super Bowl – LeSean McCoy has a 2012 Flacco-like run. He’s already the team’s leading receiver as well as leading rusher. If they make the postseason and make a run, it’s through him.
- How they lose the first round – IF they get in, they’ll likely lose the first round due to an anemic offense that only puts up 18 ppg. A 6-seed would net them Jacksonville who will likely bury them easily.
- Prediction: Miss Postseason
NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE
#1. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles were cruising into the postseason as the NFC favorites until Wentz tore his ACL in a major game against the Rams last month. Now with Foles at the helm, the offense has looked a little stagnant, can they rekindle the magic before January?
- Biggest Strength – The Eagles defense hasn’t stopped flying and is a large part of the reason why Philly has been so successful this season. Brandon Graham leads the team with 9 sacks, while Fletcher Cox*, Derek Barnett and Chris Long have collected 5 each (*Cox has 5.5). Their ability to pressure opponents, create negative plays and turnovers has put Philly’s offense in great field position (4th in the league in average starting field position) which they have taken full advantage of.
- Biggest Weakness – Without a doubt it’s Nick Foles, or at least he’s the biggest questionmark. They’re going to have to lean on Blount and Ajayi if they want to make it into the Conference Championship.
- How they make the Super Bowl – Lean on the aforementioned running backs as much as they possibly can, get your playmakers in space and don’t let Foles make too many difficult reads. He was hesitant against the Raiders and got outright scared after the dropped pick six.
- How they go out the divisional round – Foles plays them into a hole they can’t get out of either through turnovers or poor reads.
- Prediction: Lose to Carolina in Divisional Round
#2. Minnesota Vikings
When rookie Dalvin Cook and QB Sam Bradford went down, not many people gave Minnesota any chance of finishing any better than 3rd place in the NFC North. Case Keenum has been one of the best stories of the 2017 season and has played better than many even projected Bradford to do. Closing out the season with a win against the Bears would guarantee them a first-round bye.
- Biggest Strength – The defense that Mike Zimmer has put together in his time in Minnesota is as good as they’ve done dating back to the Purple People Eater era. They’re the foundation for this team that has allowed Keenum to flourish offensively as he didn’t have to do too much to win games for them. They’re the best in the league in getting off the field in 3rd and less than 7, which is a situation that every offensive team tries to put themselves in.
- Biggest Weakness – If there is a weakness I would venture to say that it might be Keenum’s lack of playoff experience. There haven’t been too many spotlight games for the Vikings and therefore less pressure on Keenum. However, he did perform very well against the Rams in a game that ended up deciding who got the first round bye.
- How they can make the Super Bowl – With Wentz going down, they should be the favorite from the NFC. As long as they do what they’ve done all season long: force offenses to punt early and often and run the clock down with Murray and McKinnon.
- How they go out the divisional round – It’s possible to run into a team that can best them on 3rd down if they’ve got a nice collection of weapons. The Rams and Saints come to mind here as both of those teams would force a little more out of Keenum, the way they lose is by him not being able to match the superior QBs he’s going to go up against.
- Prediction: Super Bowl Berth
#3. Los Angeles Rams
Sean McVay is four months older than my brother and three years older than me. He was a senior playing for Miami University (OH) when my cousin arrived as a freshman to play football in 2007. The NFL’s youngest head coach turned around a team that many had left for dead, proving he’s the brilliant offensive mind many thought he would be.
- Biggest Strength – Todd Gurley has been the difference for the Rams in several games this season. The only two times he was actually shut down resulted in 2 of the Rams 4 losses. With Gurley finally being properly utilized, Goff was able to showcase his talent and why he became the #1 pick.
- Biggest Weakness – This team is actually very well built and has been as steady defensively as they have offensively. They give up about 5 yards per play, which ranks in the middle of the league, it’s honestly going to come down to how well Goff performs and if teams can keep Gurley in check (19 total TDs)
- How they make the Super Bowl – Keep feeding Gurley. Keep feeding Gurley. KEEP FEEDING GURLEY.
- They go out the first round if – They run into a team that can match them offensively or slow Gurley down enough to put more on Goff’s shoulders and “force him to beat them”
- Prediction: Lose to Vikings in Divisional Round
#4. New Orleans Saints
In what’s a major theme for NFC teams this season, the Saints are another team that wasn’t expected to make a lot of noise in 2017, but here they are defying odds. The Saints cannot achieve a first-round bye, but can clinch the division by simply beating the Buccaneers on Sunday.
- Biggest Strength – Even though the defense has improved tremendously this season, Alvin Kamara is the most important piece on this team. If you need any proof look into the first time the Saints and Falcons played a few weeks ago. When Kamara went down with a concussion, the Saints offense became nearly nonexistent.
- Biggest Weakness – Dependency on Kamara, although Michael Thomas could set the Saints franchise record for catches in a season. The heavy dependency on Kamara’s ability to become a mismatch against virtually anybody will pose a problem for a team that figures out how to stop it. Or if he goes down.
- How they can make the Super Bowl – Lean on Kamara until someone stops him and feed Ingram.
- How they go out the first round – The worst case scenario for Saints fans would be to remain the 4-seed as that would mean getting Carolina one-more time. It’s hard to beat the same team 3 times, let alone a Carolina team that’s really finding their groove as of late.
- Prediction: Lose to Carolina Wildcard Weekend
#5. Carolina Panthers
Remember how commentators used to say that Brett Favre always looked like “he was just having fun out there”? Well that’s Cam Newton to a tee. He’s having fun and making this offense hum.
- Biggest Strength – Cam. Cam. Cam. Cam. Cam. When he’s on there isn’t an offense that can stop him, he threads the needle and fits passes into windows that absolutely should not exist. Adding McCaffery to this offense gave him the utility he always needed and this offense has continued to flourish without Benjamin.
- Biggest Weakness –
- How they can make the Super Bowl – Rely on Cam Newton to build your leads and then unleash the defense. They play well with a lead and are 3rd in sacks (49) giving them the ability to put away games. A possible first-round bye is still in play.
- How they’ll go out the first round – As much as the Saints should be worried about seeing them a 3rd time you’d have to think that the Panthers don’t want them again either, but that matchup looks inevitable. Teams that beat the Panthers were able to run the ball on them almost at will, which is what the Saints can do. However, if they make it out of New Orleans without a scratch and Atlanta doesn’t advance, I think they play in the conference title game.
- Prediction: Lose to Minnesota in Conference Championship
#6. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons have largely struggled offensively this season under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. While Sark was able to find a groove playcalling wise as the season progressed, the players have largely failed to execute. Matt Ryan has 11 interceptions on the season, but eight of them can easily be attributed to drops by receivers.
- Biggest Strength – The defense has actually played surprisingly well this season after being a liability early on last year. They have been average against the run, but they’ve kept a struggling offense in games all season long.
- Biggest Weakness – Execution. Dropped passes, tipped passes resulting in interceptions, penalties killing drives, you name it and it has happened to them.
- How they can make the Super Bowl – If receivers start holding onto the football and they cut out penalties, this offense can click like it did last year. The potential will be there with these players, but it has not shown all season long.
- How they’ll go out first round – Keep playing like they’ve been playing and the Rams will make quick work of them.
- Prediction: Lose Wildcard to the Rams
#7. Seattle Seahawks
Russell Wilson has put this team on his back the entire season. The fact that they are even still in playoff contention says a lot about what he has done this season. The Seahawks are about to be in for a retooling offensively, for the last few years they have been trying to find a replacement for Marshawn Lynch instead of recreating their offense entirely.
- Biggest Strength – Russell Wilson. Without his feats, this team is easily a 5-6 win team trying to stay out of the basement of the NFC West. He continues to create with no run support and has basically replaced the RB position for Seattle.
- Biggest Weakness – No run game. While the defense is not as strong as it was in the Legion of Boom’s peak, it is still a foe that you have to account for. They are largely susceptible to the run, allowing 101.9 ypg. Russell Wilson is the team’s leading rusher offensively with 550 yards, think about that for a second. The next closest rusher is Chris Carson with 208.
- How they make it to the Super Bowl – Miraculously find a running game, meaning that either McKissick or Carson start getting 4 to 5 yards a pop, effectively taking pressure off Russell Wilson offensively. If they manage to make that happen they have a group that’s been through the postseason multiple times that could get them back.
- How they lose the first round: Their inability to run the football with anyone not named Wilson kind of dooms them from the start. As talented as Russell is, I don’t know if they survive the Rams, but if they do pull it off they could find themselves in the NFC title game as the Eagles aren’t much of a threat.
- Prediction: Miss the postseason.
Super Bowl Prediction: Vikings vs. Jaguars