1. Baltimore Ravens
The 10th winningest post-season QB in the 99-year history of the NFL is riding the bench for this team. Let me repeat that. Only 9 quarterbacks have ever won more playoff games than Joe Flacco. But he finds himself on the bench, as the 5th QB taken in this past draft has had the most team success of all of them, but the jury is still far from settled as to whether or not he can be a franchise quarterback. Despite not starting a game until Week 11, Jackson broke the record for rushing attempts by a QB. This Ravens team is probably as close as we’ll ever see to a triple-option team that we’ll ever see in the NFL. Many suspect coaches will find a solution to Lamar Jackson and this current iteration of his game will see less succes. The question is when will it happen? RGIII, who is on this team, led the most similar offense since then and everything all fell apart in the Wild Card round. The road to the Super Bowl goes through Kansas City in the AFC, and just a month ago we saw the Ravens take the Chiefs to OT, thanks to in their ability to run the football and keep the Chiefs offense off the field. The second reason they nearly pulled off the victory was their elite defense. This defense is great in a vacuum, but when combined with their offense, even Terrell Suggs manages to stay fresh with the way time melts off the clock. Can John Harbaugh become the first coach to stop Manning and Brady’s AFC dominance since John Harbaugh? Has anyone solved the Ravens’ offense yet? Will the sideline cameras collectively zoom in on the 10-time playoff game winner Joe Flacco if Jackson’s offense stalls? Will football fans get to watch four quarters of defense for the first time since 2016 this February? I’ll be glued to the edge of my seat as long as they’re playing.
2. New England Patriots
Tom Brady will almost certainly not receive an MVP vote for the first time since 2012. The Patriots’ best weapon on offense has been released just before the playoffs, and Rob Gronkowski now plays a position that more closely resembles an, “End” from the leather helmet days. They “only” won 11 games this year. Yet no one is going to rule this team out of it until they actually are done. Make of this what you will, but the Patriots only lost games to teams not in the playoffs. No other team left standing has beaten the Patriots, and they’re the only team that can say that. No QB-coach combo has ever risen to the occasion so frequently, and Belichick has this team playing defense at a passable level, which is something their much better selves couldn’t say last year. While he seems to have lost a step, Tom Brady has still been a top 10 QB. The Patriots have written the history of the NFL over the last 20 years, and no matter what they do this year it will likely be what these playoffs are remembered for.
3. Nick Foles
Nick Foles is not better than Carson Wentz. But he might be exactly what the Eagles needed. Maybe the heartbreaking loss to the Cowboys was a wakeup call, but maybe having Foles in at QB really seems to be inspiring the team. The new look Eagles already have gone in to Los Angeles and own and also beat the Texans. Nick Foles is expected to be playing hurt with some bruised ribs, so things could completely descend to pandemonium If Sudfeld enters the game. The secondary is so bad that Foles will have to call bring his A game to win games this postseason, and when he is on, it’s a delight to watch. The defense is coming off a shutout, and the defending champs are the definition of a wild card right now.
4. New England Patriots
Pop quiz: When was the last time a team whose starting QB was not Tom Brady or Peyton Manning earned the one seed in the AFC? It was the 2008 Tennessee Titans. Kerry Collins was their quarterback. They lost 13-10 to the 6th seeded Ravens in the divisional round. A Chiefs loss would in the divisional round would set the Patriots up for another AFC Championship Game in Foxborough with one more win. A lot of the fate of this season and the parity of the NFL hangs in the balance. The Chiefs are one bad Patrick Mahomes game from a total meltdown. This franchise hasn’t made the AFC Championship Game since 1993. Andy Reid hasn’t won a home playoff game since 2006. The Chiefs dropped two of their last three and didn’t look great against the hapless Raiders in Week 17. A healthy one seed hasn’t looked this vulnerable in a long time since the 2015 Broncos defied expectations and won it all. This team’s performance will reinforce or rewrite a lot of narratives.
5. Los Angeles Chargers
Teams like the Chargers are why the playoffs are so open this year. At 12-4, they have the second-best Wild Card record of all time. Rarely is there a Wild Card team this good, and it usually coincides with a huge favorite being the 1 seed. Instead, the Chargers have already won in Kansas City and are only here because of a divisional tiebreaker. Their path to the Super Bowl will be very difficult, but they have as good of a shot as any team to be the first Wild Card to make the Super Bowl since the 2010 Packers won the whole thing as a 6 seed. The other major storyline for this team is of course Philip Rivers. His legacy so far only makes him a borderline Hall of Fame candidate. He has great volume and efficiency numbers, but has infamously never made it to the big one. Warren Moon is the only Super Bowl era QB to make the Hall of Fame without ever winning an MVP or making a Super Bowl. With only 4 playoff wins on his resume, Philip Rivers can alter his public perception forever with a deep playoff run.
6. Chicago Bears
Da Bears are back! This team is a pretty known commodity at this point. They have the best defense we’ve seen since the 2015 Broncos, and they could cement their case for being better with a great postseason run. This Bears team feels like what the Ravens aspire to be like next season. Trubisky has been right around average as a passer, and is 5th among QBs in rushing yards. Chicago’s three-headed rushing attack can control the pace of any game, and they could probably be marketed as the 2015 Broncos with an above average offense. This team has a better chance at winning a road playoff game than any team beside maybe Baltimore. Will the Khalil Mack trade end up changing team building philosophy around the NFL?
7. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks are back?! Ultimately, this team might not be talented enough to have a real chance at winning three (potentially just two) consecutive playoff games, but they definitely can put the whole league on notice with a short playoff run. They’re not as good as the 2012 Seahawks, also a Wild Card, but feel pretty similar. The Baby Boomers are the best NFL nickname for a unit since the Legion of Boom. The offense jumped from 23rd in team rushing to 1st in just one season. They’re young and feel like a mirror image of themselves from six years ago. Pete Carroll’s reanimation of this team has been a tactical masterpiece over the last few seasons. Oh, and Russel Wilson has the second most Super Bowl experience of all QBs left standing, and has never gone one-and-done in the postseason.
8. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts are the AFC version of the Seahawks. Except they are more exciting than any of their past selves from earlier in the decade. It feels like a whole career ago that Andrew Luck reached an AFC championship game, and because of that many fans may have forgotten his lackluster playoff performances. 304.8 Y/G, 9:12 TD:INT, 70.2 passer rating, 5.29 Net Yards per Attempt, and 1 4th quarter comeback. You might remember that 1 4th quarter comeback, it just so happens to be the second biggest comeback in playoff history. Take away that game and the numbers get more concerning. Of course, this Colts team may already be the best roster of his career, and Luck is unequivocally a great QB when healthy. That Jets trade has done them wonders as Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard are already top three at their positions. This team has won 9 of their last 10, and much like the Seahawks, can fire off a warning round to the rest of their conference with a win or two. If Luck catches fire, they can become the first six seed to make the Super Bowl since the 2010 Packers.
9. Los Angeles Rams
The Rams are a very good team, with maybe more star power than any other team in the league. They certainly have made the biggest moves in the NFL ever since trading up for the first overall pick. My concerns about them are that they may have been built with the goal of winning over new fans and selling tickets to a new stadium, and that they lack star power at the most important position. This team is not very deep, and are very suspect to injury. They lost Cooper Kupp for the season and Todd Gurley will be playing injured. The Marcus Peters trade has not looked great in hindsight, and that leaves them thin at secondary. Goff looked like an MVP candidate to start the year, but has experienced an ugly regression over the last quarter of the season. He may be dependent on the great line and weapons around him, as well as Sean McVay’s schemes that coaches have certainly been dissecting. That is the complete list of bad things you can say about this team though. The last four games have been concerning, but they are still a top three team. If they mask these flaws for the next three games, they’ll probably win the Super Bowl.
10. New Orleans Saints
The Saints are the most predictable team in the NFL. They’re just really good, with a QB who has been elite for over a decade. Drew Brees doesn’t need another Super Bowl, but he would really like it, and it would further elevate him into the GOAT conversation. The secondary can cause problems the rest of the team doesn’t deserve, but outside of that this team is elite at nearly every position. There is a lack of great pass catchers outside of Michael Thomas. No team is more likely to make the Super Bowl, and they’re a joy to watch. There’s not a whole lot of intrigue surrounding this team beside the expectations though. What are postseasons without favorites?
11. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys may be the second hottest team entering the postseason. Having won six of their last seven, the Cowboys look revitalized since acquiring Amari Cooper, and Dak has looked like a different QB. The Cowboys have taken some risks on rookies with huge question marks the past few seasons and it’s paid off as Randy Gregory, Jaylon Smith, La’el Collins, and Jourdan Lewis have all been as productive as they were in college this season. But it does seem like this team already peaked with their 13-10 victory over the Saints at home. In 2016 they became the only 1 seed to not make the Super Bowl in the past 5 years, and that team went 13-3. They certainly can knock out a contender, but it’s hard to imagine an offense that has looked so flat at times winning two consecutive road games against better teams (presumably). This is also the Cowboys, so you probably feel strongly about them one way or another.
12. Houston Texans
The Texans are well-rounded, and a jack of all trades master of none team. The defense is very good, but won’t entirely shut down offenses. The offense has two of the most exciting players in the playoffs: Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins has the opportunity to make himself seen as the best WR in the NFL for the first time in his career, and Watson can begin to define his legacy as a QB. He’s the first QB we’ve ever seen who could forge a legacy of being a clutch in both the NFL playoffs and the CFP. JJ Watt is back and has an opportunity to pickup his legacy where it left off, and Jadeveon Clowney is still a freak of nature. Ultimately this team could be the best team playing this weekend, but there are few fans expecting them to make it out of the AFC, or avoid losing in New England again next week. The stars are the most exciting part about this team.
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