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NFL Playoff Picture: Analyzing the Best Early Matchups and Biggest Sleepers

The NFL playoffs are set. How each team got here, and why Chargers-Ravens is a must-watch game of the wild-card round.

Breaking down the NFL playoff picture:


1. Kansas City Chiefs
2. New England Patriots
3. Houston Texans
4. Baltimore Ravens
5. Los Angeles Chargers
6. Indianapolis Colts

How we got here: With every seed up for grabs going into Sunday’s games, the Chiefs handled their business against the Raiders, the Patriots waxed the Jets and the Texans throttled the Jaguars to earn the top three seeds. The Ravens edged the Browns to clinch the AFC North title, and the Colts topped the Titans to eliminate the Steelers.

Best early-round matchup: Chargers at Ravens (Sunday Jan. 6, 1:05 p.m. ET): Lamar Jackson is the perfect playoff foe for a talented L.A. offense. He is leading a scheme that saps the clock at a disturbing rate, but is also talented enough to hit a deep ball and keep the Ravens in a shootout. Baltimore is 6–1 since Jackson took over as QB1 back in November, with their only loss a 27–24 overtime thriller against the top-seeded Chiefs. For Los Angeles, it’s a chance to avenge a loss to the Ravens from two weeks ago. For Anthony Lynn and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, there will be immense pressure to find some cracks in a sturdy Ravens defense that shut down the Chargers just before Christmas. Philip Rivers passed for fewer than 200 yards, Melvin Gordon rushed for fewer than 50, and Keenan Allen didn’t catch a single ball for more than 20 yards.

NFL PLAYOFF SCHEDULE: Matchups and game times

Dream finale: For anyone who was at the Patriots-Chiefs headliner back in October—how could you not want a round two? This was arguably the best game of the season, with Chiefs-Rams in the running, as well as Chargers-Chiefs II. The brilliant contrast between Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes, and the strategic porousness of both defenses bending and breaking provided the perfect setting for a premium matchup. Is Mahomes the vehicle that finally helps erase Andy Reid’s playoff troubles? Can the Patriots elevate their uneven offense for another shootout?

Biggest sleeper: If the Chargers somehow get by the Ravens in Baltimore, I think this is a matchup just about every coach is dreading. This team has played on the road all season, has a fearless head coach and a running game capable of milking the clock in January. In just about any other season, they are good enough to host a home playoff game, but the best two teams in the division may have both come out of the AFC West. 


1. New Orleans Saints
2. Los Angeles Rams
3. Chicago Bears
4. Dallas Cowboys
5. Seattle Seahawks
6. Philadelphia Eagles

How we got here: The cliffhanger on Sunday centered around the Eagles and Vikings for the final slot. A clearly distraught Minnesota team stumbled through a horrid matchup against Chicago in their season-finale, falling out of the playoffs and handing Philadelphia another bona fide miracle. Against the Bears, some simmering discord between Kirk Cousins and his receivers seemed to bubble over on the sidelines, while a difficult-to-stop Matt Nagy offense kept the score out of reach. Nagy’s next act is trying to take down the saintly Nick Foles in the wild-card opener.

Best early-round matchup: I like Seattle-Dallas (Saturday, Jan. 5, 8:15 p.m. ET) if only because it’s two teams who like to play a relatively similar style of football. Legion of Boom schematic architect Kris Richard is now coordinating the Cowboys’ pass defense, and Dak Prescott might be playing some of his best football of the season. Both teams come into this matchup following some unexpected-but-inspired last-minute wins in Week 17. Russell Wilson is a tremendous challenge for Dallas’ fantastic linebacker tandem, which may be one of the few units in the NFL capable of eliminating him as a run threat altogether.

Week 17 Takeaways: Foles and the Champs Return to the Playoffs, This Year the Ravens Hold on, Vikings Have Soul-Searching to Do

Dream matchup: I want to see Seattle get out of the first round, to start getting a crack at some of these premiere offenses at the top of the bracket. While New Orleans is the most complete team in the NFL right now, I don’t think there’s a team more unsure of their limitations than the Seahawks. Give me Saints-Seahawks in the divisional round on the fast track in New Orleans and consider me happy. The potential for a Saints-Seahawks/Bears-Rams slate to determine the conference title game is very real, and very enticing.

Biggest sleeper: Seattle, for certain, though there aren’t many teams playing better or more consistently than the Bears. We’ve seen schemes elevate quarterbacks in the postseason before, and while Mitchell Trubisky has been someone to work around instead of build off of, there’s always a chance we see some maturation on a bigger stage. Let’s hope so. The Bears are one of the most original offenses in the league right now, and they complement a vicious defense well. 

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