After 17 grueling weeks, here we are. It’s playoff time in the NFL. The temperature is low, and it’s time here in the next five weeks to crown a champion.
This year, it may not be so easy to predict. After all, the season itself didn’t exactly go the way most believed. Who would have thought that the Atlanta Falcons would be the only NFC team to return to the playoffs from last season? Who would have believed the Bills and Jaguars would be playing each other on Wild Card Weekend? How about the Los Angeles Rams, who flourished under first year head coach Sean McVay? They are legitimate title contenders after looking lost last season.
All of this craziness happened this season, and we are in store for much more craziness in the postseason. Let’s take a look at each team.
New England Patriots (1 Seed)
Why they’ll win: Everything in the AFC fell into place for the Patriots. They get to avoid the Jaguars outstanding defense until the championship game, if they make it there. Plus, they have the number of both the Chiefs and Steelers in the postseason. Despite the report of the alleged rift in the organization that came out today, the Patriots are still geared up for another run. Tom Brady is still playing at an MVP level, and the defense has improved from the beginning of the year. This might be their easiest road to the title game.
Why they could struggle: The Patriots struggle when teams can rush four and get there. Brady has been beat up at times this season. When he gets hit early, the offensive rhythm struggles to maintain itself. On defense, they are better, but still struggle against high octane offenses. If they are to be beaten, they will have to be outscored, which has happened this season.
Pittsburgh Steelers (2 seed)
Why they’ll win: Getting Antonio Brown back would be a great start. If they get him back at at least 80 percent, the offense will put defensive coordinators on high alert. With Le’Veon Bell healthy and a big time playmaking rookie in Juju Smith-Schuster, the Steelers have the offense to go far. They also still have talent on defense to rush the passer. T.J. Watt and Cameron Hayward are having good seasons, and they can provide the pressure the secondary needs.
Why they’ll go home: The Steelers still cannot find a way to get out of their own way at times. They make silly mistakes and don’t execute at the most important times. Back against the Pats in week 15, Pittsburgh still had a chance to win after the Jesse James catch came back. Ben panicked on the fake spike, and threw an ill-advised pass that was picked. The other reason? The secondary. If the pressure doesn’t come on defense, the Steelers tend to give up big plays.
Jacksonville Jaguars (3 seed)
Why they’ll win: They have the best defense in the league. Adding Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye in the offseason, then Marcell Dareus via trade have made a huge difference. Combining that with the improvement of Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack, and the Jags have a spectacular unit. They also can run the ball effectively with their trio of Leonard Fournette, Chris Ivory, and T.J. Yeldon.
Why they won’t: To keep it short, the inconsistency of Blake Bortles. He has five interceptions in the past two weeks, which isn’t a good sign heading into the postseason. Bortles has had good games this season, but everyone knows he has bad games waiting in the wings. If he’s inconsistent, the Jags won’t go far.
Kansas City Chiefs (4 seed)
Why they’ll win: For one, they are the only AFC team left who’s beaten the Patriots. The offense is potent enough to sustain drives and keep defenses honest. Kareem Hunt had a fantastic rookie season. Tyreek Hill was very productive in his first full season at wide receiver. They also still have Travis Kelce. With Andy Reid at the helm, they can put points up on the board. The defense still has studs. The pass rush is led by Justin Houston. Rookie Tanoh Kpassagnon got meaningful snaps down the stretch as well. They are getting back to playing complete games.
Why they won’t: The corner position still isn’t solved opposite Marcus Peters. That is a weakness teams will exploit. Plus, we’ve all seen the Chiefs team in the postseason. If they play like past Andy Reid teams, they won’t survive the AFC gauntlet.
Tennessee Titans (5 seed)
Why they can win: It’s tough to find a scenario where the Titans make it further than the divisional round at best, but if they are to win, establishing the run with their backs is important. Plus, Marcus Mariota needs to be at his best. We’ve seen efficient Mariota before, but not as much this season. On top of that, the defense needs to stay opportunistic, especially Kevin Byard on the back end.
Why they won’t: We’ve discussed the inconsistent Mariota, which is what we’ve seen all year. This team just doesn’t have the firepower on both sides to continue to move through each week.
Buffalo Bills (6 seed)
First off, congrats to this Bills team for making it to the playoffs. It’s been a long time coming, and they deserve it, along with the city.
Why they can win: Running the football, making timely throws and playing tough defense is the Bills way, and that’s what will keep them going. They have the defense to create turnovers. Rookie Tre White is having an excellent year. They may be old school, but history shows it’s effective.
Why they won’t: They are similar to the Titans in that they don’t have the firepower to stick with teams like the Pats and Steelers. Also, if they don’t have LeSean McCoy, that puts a wrench in the power running attack. More pressure on Tyrod Taylor isn’t a good thing.
Philadelphia Eagles (1 seed)
Why they can win: Home field advantage is a good start. The road to Minneapolis still runs through Philadelphia. Despite losing Carson Wentz, the Eagles still boast a good roster. They can get to the quarterback with four, something every team would love to have. The secondary is also better than advertised this season. They also have four running backs who carry the rock, and being able to run the ball in January is a big factor.
Why they won’t: Nick Foles isn’t Carson Wentz, and that’s just fact. If he can’t make the throws he needs to, the offense won’t run, and the Eagles could be out of the playoffs real quick.
Minnesota Vikings (2 seed)
Why they’ll win: They look like the most complete team in the NFC right now. The defense is elite on every level. They have a front seven that will frustrate a run game and the secondary to throw the passing game off of rhythm. On the other side, the offense is balanced and they have enough weapons to be a threat offensively. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are a true duo to reckon with, and Kyle Rudolph is underrated as always.
Why they won’t: Case Keenum had a great year this year, but he’s in uncharted waters now. He hasn’t felt the playoff pressure, and the quality of opponents only goes up now. It’s fair to question whether or not he can lead a team to the Super Bowl.
Los Angeles Rams (3 seed)
Why they’ll win: The Rams have the coach of the year in Sean McVay (my opinion). He turned the offense around after an abysmal 2016. Jared Goff is playing much better, and Todd Gurley is the all-world running back we expected him to be. The Rams have a plethora of weapons for Goff, and enough up front to protect him. On defense, Wade Phillips has the unit in great shape. Aaron Donald is the best defensive player in football, and the unit around him does plenty to keep teams off the scoreboard.
Why they won’t: Jared Goff didn’t do well against consistent pressure this season despite a vast improvement. The Seahawks and Vikings both threw the rhythm out the window. If the offensive line can’t keep Goff upright, the offense could sputter. Plus, this is his first playoffs as well.
New Orleans Saints (4 seed)
Whey they’ll win: Drew Brees has been here before. He has won a championship. There’s no doubt he can take control if he needs to. Luckily, he doesn’t always have to with the excellent running back duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. The defense has the talent to actually get teams off the field this season. Cam Jordan is playing to of his mind, and he’s had help from second year pro Sheldon Rankins. The secondary has new juice with Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams.
Why they won’t: Injuries have racked up for the Saints this year, especially on defense. They’ve lost players on every level. The secondary is a little more leaky than the middle of the year. Also, they don’t have a ton of weapons on the outside. A faster defense can give them problems.
Carolina Panthers (5 seed)
Why they’ll win: When Cam Newton is hot, the Panthers can get rolling. He has a good group of running backs around him and Greg Olsen back at tight end. The offensive line paves the way in the running game, and teams still have trouble with the read option. The defense still has the front to wreak havoc, and their linebackers fly around the field.
Why they won’t: When Cam Newton is off, the offense looks anemic. They can’t grab the rhythm and hang onto it, and days like last week happen. They are also vulnerable in the secondary, and that showed playing in a dynamic NFC South. If the offense doesn’t show up, they’ll be out in a hurry.
Atlanta Falcons (6 seed)
Why they’ll win: The Falcons know what it takes to get to the Super Bowl. Their roster is still in good shape. The offense isn’t otherworldly like last season, but they are doing just fine. The running back duo is still great, as is Julio Jones. The defense has new blood in Takk McKinley, while the returning young guns have improved. This is an extremely complete group.
Why they won’t: It’s tough to win three games on the road to get to the Super Bowl. The Falcons can do it, but they will have to win tough games. There are certain games that could be shootouts, and their offense hasn’t played up to shootout caliber. Plus, do they still have the mental warfare of last year handled?
BONUS: If I had to pick every game right now, here it is.
Wild Card Weekend
Chiefs over Titans
Falcons over Rams
Jags over Bills
Saints over Panthers
Falcons over Eagles
Patriots over Chiefs
Steelers over Jags
Vikings over Saints
Pats over Steelers
Vikings over Falcons
Super Bowl LII
Pats over Vikings