Diving into the NFL Playoff Picture

Samuel Darley on Nov. 27, 2018

Now that we have stuffed our faces on Thanksgiving, while the weather gets cooler, the NFL postseason chase intensifies. Eleven weeks are in the books, leaving only six games remaining in the regular season. For some, the playoffs are a realistic possibility. For others, time is running out or they are simply looking towards 2019. Looking at the current playoff picture, how does the season end? Who are the contenders most likely to hoist the Lombardi trophy? Who are the Pretenders?

Current Picture:

AFC:

  1. Kansas City Chiefs 9-2
  2. New England Patriots 8-3
  3. Houston Texans 8-3
  4. Los Angeles Chargers 8-3
  5. Pittsburgh Steelers 7-3-1
  6. Baltimore Ravens 6-5

NFC:

1.New Orleans Saints 10-1

  1. Los Angeles Rams 10-1
  2. Chicago Bears 8-3
  3. Minnesota Vikings 6-4-1
  4. Dallas Cowboys 6-5
  5. Washington Redskins 6-5

Contenders, AFC:

New England Patriots: For starters, they are the Patriots, and as long as Brady and Belichick are running the show, no matter the record, you cannot discount New England. Every year, the Patriots start the season off sluggishly, causing everyone to speculate whether their run of greatness is ending. Then the calendar flips to November and December, and New England takes their game to another level.

Everyone is falling in love with the Chiefs because of the season they are having, and I'd like to remind everyone who believed the then 11-1 Texans were the team who was going to end New England's run. That did not happen, as the Texans were destroyed not once, but twice, by New England. The kicker for the Patriots, is, how will they handle going on the road?

The last time New England failed to reach the Super Bowl was 2015, when Denver advanced to the Super Bowl. If New England fails to lock down one of the top two seeds in the AFC, things could get interesting. The Patriots have been the AFC representative in the Super Bowl in four of the last seven seasons, so I'll believe someone can knock them off the throne when I see it.

Kansas City Chiefs: What a crazy game the world was treated to between the Rams and the Chiefs. Kansas City's offense was on full display, dropping 51 points on the road against a very good Rams team. I view the Chiefs as a contender because of their speed and athleticism which has translated to the most prolific offense in the NFL, outside of the Saints. Andy Reid is one of the best coaches in the league, having been to four conference championship games and one Super Bowl, all with the Eagles.

If there is one grey area with the Chiefs, it is their recent postseason struggles. Kansas City has not been to an AFC title game since 1993, when a beyond-his-prime Joe Montana was their quarterback. A year ago, Kansas City blew a 21-3 halftime lead at home against Tennessee. Can this Chiefs team conquer their postseason demons, and advance to the franchise’s first Super Bowl since 1965 in which they were in the AFL?

Houston Texans: I have the Texans as a contender because they boast the NFL's 6th best scoring defense, headlined by the resurgence of JJ Watt. Quarterback Deshaun Watson has gotten healthy as the season moves along, and his offensive line, which was atrocious through the first four games of the season, has improved steadily. Watson isn't shy of playing on a big stage, shredding Alabama twice in back-to-back national title games with Clemson. Clemson lost in 2015 but came back with a vengeance beating Alabama the following year. As long as the Texans do not suffer another catastrophic injury, like Will Fuller's torn ACL, the Texans will be a force come January. Very similar to Kansas City, the Texans have never seen the AFC title game. Come January, can Bill O'Brien push Houston over the hump and get towards a championship?

Contenders, NFC:

New Orleans Saints: The Saints offense has been a freight train and it’s unclear if anyone can slow them down. While Brees (who should be the MVP) and his offense gets most of the attention, the Saints defense has been flying under the radar. The Saints defense, in 7 of their 10 games, have held opponents to under 30 points, and overall on the season have allowed an average of only 24 points per game. Come playoff time, if the defense can continue to complement their explosive offense, the Saints are poised to be in Atlanta on February 3rd. While Brees does not appear to be slowing down at age 39, the way the season has gone, this may be his best chance of bringing another Super Bowl win to the Big Easy.

Los Angeles Rams: The Rams have a strong run game led by Todd Gurley and brilliantly coached by Sean McVay, but their defense has been leaky of late. In the last three games, the Rams have given up 45, 36, and 51 points. While the offense has been consistently great this year, if they want to get past the Saints and reach the Super Bowl in Atlanta, they need their defense to get things turned around.

Carolina Panthers: This choice may surprise people because Carolina is not as safe as the Saints are in regards to their playoff positioning. Why do I view the Panthers as a contender? Outside the Saints and Rams, Carolina would have the best coach and quarterback combination in the playoffs, at least as of right now. While their defense has not been as tough this year as they have been in recent years, knowing they have an MVP quarterback in Cam Newton, along with their ability to run the ball effectively, Carolina has a chance to be that sneaky wild card team.

Pretenders, AFC:

Pittsburgh Steelers: I am going to get a lot of weird looks for putting the Steelers in this category, but despite Pittsburgh being the current number 5 seed in the AFC, I don't believe in this team. Sure, they have a Hall of Fame quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, guiding the 4th best offense in the league and boasting the 10th best scoring defense in the NFL. The reason I put the Steelers here, is none other than Head Coach, Mike Tomlin.

In the Mike Tomlin era, since losing to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in the 2010 Super Bowl, the Steelers have reached the conference championship game only once, and they were dominated by the Patriots. The Steelers have the tools to be considered a contender, but I don't believe Tomlin is a good enough coach to push the Steelers back to the promised land. After all, Tomlin could not get his team ready to play Blake Bortles in last year’s playoffs, and we all saw how that game ended.

Los Angeles Chargers: As good as the Chargers are, they have a habit of coming up small in big games. Among the top three quarterbacks drafted in 2004, Eli Manning has two Super Bowls, Ben Roethlisberger has two Super Bowls, but Phillip Rivers, who was selected 4th overall by the Giants and then traded to the Chargers, has zero. Rivers’ legacy is very similar to Tony Romo's: great in the regular season, but can't deliver in the clutch. The Chargers, barring a collapse, will make the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Knowing the Chargers postseason track record, coupled with being on the road against either the Texans, Patriots, or Steelers, the Chargers’ return to postseason action will likely be a quick one and done.

The Bengals/Colts/Ravens: These three squads are the three teams I feel have the best odds of winning the AFC's final playoff spot. What will their prize be? A trip to either New England, Houston, Kansas City, or even Pittsburgh. The Colts would probably put up the best fight with a healthy Luck, though I don't trust the Colts defense enough to view them as a contender. Baltimore has not been in the playoffs since 2014, and with Flacco dealing with injuries, their odds of making it are slim. As for Cincinnati, they have not won a playoff game in the 15 years Marvin Lewis has been their head coach. With the 32nd ranked scoring defense, as well as whom the Bengals could face in the first round, the Bengals will likely be one and done... again.

Pretenders, NFC:

Minnesota Vikings: I don't trust Kirk Cousins in a big game, and neither did the Redskins, which is why they never kept him long term. Per Vikings ESPN reporter Courtney Cronin, Cousins is 4-12 in his career in prime-time games. I like their defense, and Mike Zimmer is a great coach, but if your quarterback does not rise up when the spotlight is on, that makes your team more a pretender than a contender.

Chicago Bears: The Bears acquired Khalil Mack and, all of a sudden, the Bears went from a pretty good team to a team on the verge of winning the NFC North. Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky has enjoyed a really impressive sophomore season under first-year Head Coach Matt Nagy. An inexperienced quarterback and a rookie head coach are what makes the Bears pretenders, though with the 6th ranked scoring offense and the 4th ranked scoring defense, who knows, the Bears may have a chance to upset either the Rams or Saints.

The Entire NFC East: Let's be realistic here: the NFC East is a mess. Regardless of who wins the division, that team is probably staring at a one-and-done. The Redskins looked like they were going to be the heavy favorite in this division, but following losing Alex Smith for the season, their odds greatly diminished. Regardless of who the winner is, no team is a threat to make any real noise in January.

How will the Final Playoff Picture Look?

AFC:

  1. Patriots 13-3
  2. Chiefs 12-4
  3. Texans 12-4 (Chiefs will finish with a better conference record)
  4. Steelers 11-4-1 (I hate ties)
  5. Chargers 11-5
  6. Colts 10-6

NFC:

  1. Saints 13-3
  2. Rams 13-3 (lost to the Saints Week 9)
  3. Bears 12-4
  4. Cowboys 9-7
  5. Panthers 10-6
  6. Seahawks 9-7

Final Thoughts

My preseason Super Bowl prediction was Patriots vs Saints. The Saints are about as complete of a team you will see, while the Patriots simply own the AFC until someone else steps up. A Super Bowl with two Hall of Fame quarterbacks and two Hall of Fame head coaches: what a treat that will be for NFL fans.

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