After seventeen weeks and dozens of COVID cases, somehow the NFL has made it to the playoffs. When the league initially expressed their desire to continue with a normal season I don’t think many envisioned them getting this far, but hey, here we are.
As we preview this weekend’s slate of 6 games, it’s important to pay attention to each team’s recent play in comparison to their entire body of work. Storylines and conceptions over the first half of the season just aren’t true anymore, and if you don’t believe me, look at the fact that the Bears are in the playoffs. With that being said let’s take a look at where all 14 playoff teams stand as they approach the postseason.
When sizing up the remaining teams, there’s a clear quartet that has been playing the best football over the last 5 weeks. Each of these teams ranks in the top half in points scored, points allowed, margin of victory, and are a combined 19-1 over that span. They are the Bills, Packers, Ravens, and Buccaneers.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to see Buffalo or Green Bay in this group. They’ve been featured in multiple primetime games over the last month, and are led by MVP caliber quarterbacks in Josh Allen and Aaron Rodgers. The Packers however are on bye this weekend after earning the #1 seed in the NFC, so we’ll focus on the Bills for a moment. No offense has scored more points than them over the past 5 weeks (40.4 points per game), and they have won those games by an average of 21.8 points, also a league-high. While they have a tough draw against a similarly streaking Colts team, there isn’t a team playing as well as Buffalo right now, and that includes Green Bay.
Then there’s the aforementioned Ravens and Bucs. Both are wildcards and will be on the road this weekend, but they are playing at such a high level right now that it’s hard to bet against them. Baltimore hasn’t lost since week 12, and while they haven’t beat the best collection of teams, these games haven’t been relatively close. Outside of their 5-point Monday Night win over the Browns (which was very impressive), the Ravens have won each of their last4 games by double digits. They would love for this to continue against Tennessee, but that one question continues to loom large–can Lamar Jackson win a playoff game?
In Tampa Bay, it’s a little different. No quarterback has won more playoff games in NFL history than Tom Brady, but can he make a run with a new team at age 43? Over the last 5 weeks they’ve been winning by 14 points on average, with their only loss coming to Kansas City. They’ve definitely beat up on some not-so-great teams, but again, that’s part of the job when being a playoff contender. It’s also arguable that at 7-9, their opponent, the Washington Football Team, is not-so-great as well.
The next 3 teams are like your classic buffalo wings. They’re not going to overwhelm you with flavor or heat, but they get the job done, and have been for a little bit now. In the NFC you have the Seahawks and Saints, while in the AFC it’s just the Colts.
Over the first few months of the season, the Seahawk’s defense was looked at as an incredible liability that would keep Russell Wilson and co. from making a deep playoff run. However this past month, there wasn’t any unit in football playing as well as Seattle’s. They’ve allowed just 13.4 points per game over the last 5 weeks while cruising into the playoffs at 4-1 over that span. The problem has become their offense who seems to have lost their spark. Russell Wilson hasn’t thrown for over 300 yards since week 9 after doing so 4 times in the first 7 games. This complete 180 should allow for some early playoff success, but a long run may be in doubt.
For New Orleans, there’s a lot to love as well, as they’ve scored 38 points per game since Drew Brees’ return. However, they would probably like to see more of the defense that gave up 7 points to Carolina in week 17 than the group that gave up 33 to Minnesota the week before. With Drew Brees on the doorstep of retirement, I don’t envision the Saints losing to Chicago, but they’re going to need more consistency to beat teams like Green Bay, Tampa, or Seattle in the postseason.
And lastly, there’s Indianapolis who snuck into the AFC’s final playoff spot in week 17. Everything seems to be looking up for the Colts, but the obvious question mark is Philip Rivers. We’ve seen the Colts go 4-1 over their last 5, scoring just under 30 points per game (which ranks 8th amongst playoff teams). The formula has been defense and most importantly running the football, which is never bad this time of year. But in those moments where the game is put in Rivers’ hands (see week 16 against the Steelers), I’m just not sure he can be a difference-maker. With that being said though, they are certainly a tough 7-seed for a dominant Buffalo team to have to host.
There’s then this modest group of 4. Very unassuming or one-sided, but adequate. On any given day their strengths could play perfectly into a victory but their flaws could very quickly lead to destruction.
First, the Rams, who have found their identity on defense, but still lack any potent offensive consistency. A team who doubled down with solid wins over the Cardinals in weeks 13 and 17, but couldn’t find the courage to beat the Jets. They’ve given up just 16.2 points per game over their last 5 which is good for 3rd best amongst playoff teams, but have also scored just 21.8 points per game over that span. Now that’s winning football, but not a very reliable formula.
There’s then the Football Team who are like the Rams but more polarizing. There’s no playoff team who has scored less than them over the entire season, or as of late, and I don’t expect that to suddenly change come playoff time. If they’re going to beat Tampa Bay or anyone thereafter it’s going to be on the back of their defense who has given up just 15.8 points per game since week 13.
On the flip side, there’s the Bears and the Titans who ride strong rushing attacks and formidable play action games behind not so spectacular defenses. No one has given up more points over the last 5 weeks than Tennessee (30.8 per game) and Chicago is not far behind ranked 12th of the 14 playoff teams. However, both rank in the top half of scoring, boasting over 30 points per game. They’re just going to need their playmakers on defense to step up if they’re going to make any sort of a run.
Just Not Hot
The equivalent to pounding a dozen garlic parm wings on a Sunday afternoon. There’s no spice, no bite. We’re relying on a combination that doesn’t normally result in success in order to win playoff games. And the sad reality is that one of these teams has to win.
That’s right, there are no two playoff teams playing worse football than the Steelers and Browns as of right now. And this weekend, they’re set to face off.
The Steelers are 2-4 over their last 6, (2-3 if you don’t count their week 17 loss where many starters were benched) and have scored fewer points than everyone not named The Football Team in that time. They’ve lost to several competitive teams and even in their wins have looked so unconvincing in doing so. Their defense who is supposed to be a saving grace couldn’t win them some close games and as a result, they dropped to the 3 seed after starting 11-0.
For the Browns, there’s just so much unpredictability. In week 13 they won a highly contested game against the Titans. In week 14 we saw them give up 47 points to Baltimore but gain nationwide praise. They followed that up by beating the Giants but then somehow losing to the Jets. And in their final game, they tied the bow on their first playoff season since 2002 by squeaking by the Steelers B-team.
But with all of that being said one of these teams is going to be playing next weekend and we have to be ready for them to do so.
You know I couldn’t forget about the defending Super Bowl Champion Chiefs. They just don’t fit into any category. Amongst playoff teams, they rank in the bottom half of points scored, allowed, and margin of victory in their last 5 games (when everyone plays) but they won every single one of those contests. It hasn’t been pretty but it’s clear that the Chief’s margin of error is so high. We saw them make double-digit comebacks in every playoff game last season, and I would not be shocked to see them do it again at least once.
They have not been playing their best football by any stretch of the means, and by the next time we see them, it will have been 3 weeks since the important starters last played. Somehow they continuously find ways to win but their luck seems destined to run out. There hasn’t been a back-to-back Super Bowl winner since the Patriots in the early 2000s and it’s so hard to tell if the Chiefs can change that.
So whatever you want to call them. 5-0? Very hot. The way their offense has looked at times over the last month? Incredibly mild. Something like lemon pepper I suppose.
There’s a lot of football left to be played, though.
Are recent results a guarantee of continued success? Not necessarily, but it’s easy to play well in the postseason when you’re already doing so.
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