Eight teams remain in the NFL playoffs as we head into arguably the most exciting weekend on the league’s calendar. The playoffs this year are a study in contrasts; a handful of teams clinging desperately to the final years (or maybe games) of their franchise quarterbacks’ careers and a handful of teams excitedly rubbing their hands together at the prospect of many years to come with their under-25 star signal callers. Now that the weak links have been plucked from the field, we’re left with a handful of teams that are (mostly) capable of going on a run to the Super Bowl.
Here, we will rank their chances of doing so, explaining a little bit about the how and why along the way.
1. Green Packers
Biggest key to winning it all: Why am I so confident in Green Bay as opposed to the Chiefs or the Saints? Two reasons, both of which have to do specifically with how the Packers would match up against the defending Super Bowl champions. In 2019, Andy Reid and the Chiefs faced a steady diet of teams running the brand of offensive football that has been popularized by Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco but evolved upon by the likes of Matt LaFleur in Green Bay and Arthur Smith in Tennessee. Of the Chiefs’ worst defensive performance in the 2019 season, two of the lowest in terms of Expected Points Added (or removed) defensively were against Green Bay and Tennessee (they also lost to both teams in the regular season before beating the Titans in the playoffs). It’s a system that can challenge the heart of what the Chiefs’ defense does well at its most basic tenants, but it is also piloted by the masterful Aaron Rodgers, who is having the type of season that is difficult for all of us to ignore.
I’m also making a big bet on defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, whose unit was pantsed by the 49ers in the conference championship game a year ago. They finished the year 15th defensively in Football Outsiders’s DVOA metric, which takes into account situational occurrences and the strength of an opponent. However, his history of simulated pressure defenses and the schooling he has in that discipline could effectively speedbump the Chiefs if given the opportunity. The Packers’ QB pressure numbers are down from a year ago but I wonder if Pettine can call upon his past, which historically showed an ability to rush the passer organically and from every spot on the field. That is key for managing Patrick Mahomes; getting after him with a combination of both size and speed.
What could go wrong?: As we mentioned before, there are defensive vulnerabilities. Each of the remaining opponents in the NFC Green Bay could face after the Rams have steady veteran quarterbacks and devastating offensive skill sets. Beyond Jaire Alexander, whose standout 2020 yielded an opposing quarterback completion percentage of 51.3% and an opposing quarterback rating of 67.4, the Packers are going to have a harder time removing teams deeper at wide receiver from the game.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
Biggest key to winning it all: Just being the Chiefs. Putting them No. 1 on this list would be the easy thing to do, if only because of the way they effectively jogged through their worst moments this year and remained unscathed. This is an offense so subconsciously trained that many of the difficult in-game situations teams face are totally routine for Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes. All of this we know. However, one of their best assets might actually be the elevation in play they’ve gotten from unexpected places this season, especially guys like L’Jarius Sneed, who since Week 13, has carved out a larger role for himself on defense and has shown versatility in both the slot and as a wide corner.
What could go wrong? My sole hesitation in putting the Chiefs No. 1 on this list is the sheer difficulty and improbability of winning two Super Bowls in a row. I don’t know if this meritless statistic can somehow counterbalance a team that essentially had one loss this year and is tearing through the league with the most efficient offense we’ve seen in modern NFL history. They did not have a game this year with a negative EPA offensively but … but! ... they did have some of their worst games offensively against teams that either had an exceptional pass-rushing presence or a deep, versatile set of defensive backs. There are a few teams like that remaining in the field right now.
3. New Orleans Saints
Biggest key to winning it all: I like the Saints for multiple reasons, but almost all of them start with their defense. Their divisional weekend opponent, Tom Brady, had by far his worst slate of games against New Orleans this season, with an average PFF grade 30 points lower when facing the Saints. In both contests, Brady was essentially shut out of using the deepest 25% of the field. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore also tends to play exceptionally well against Mike Evans (nine catches on 20 targets over seven games). New Orleans has elite players at every phase of its defense and with players like Sheldon Rankins coming on at the right time, its fleet of pass-rushers could evolve from disruptive to one of the great, revered playoff defenses in recent NFL history.
What could go wrong?: That’s a loaded question for the Saints, right? In their losses this season, they’ve struggled to keep pace offensively in shootouts, which is a strange distinction for a team led by Drew Brees and Sean Payton. Over the final seven weeks of the season, New Orleans’s defense has taken a pronounced lead in dictating its successes and failures, while the Saints’ offense has settled into a middle-of-the-pack performance. Their Expected Points Added from Weeks 10 to 17 are more in line with the Vikings, Texans, Colts and Browns than the NFL’s top, elite offenses.
4. Buffalo Bills
Biggest key to winning it all: It is a good time to be a Bills fan. They are riding the longest winning streak in the NFL, Josh Allen scratched his way into the MVP conversation and there is a sound argument to be made that Buffalo is one of the three best offenses in the NFL this year. They are a matchup-generating nightmare that has picked apart opponents this season and created comfortable throws for their developing quarterback. If their offense can survive this weekend against an extremely versatile front—similar defenses have resulted in some of Buffalo’s tightest games this season—it is difficult to see what, outside of a thrilling shootout, is going to stop the Bills.
What could go wrong?: I think if the Bills’ defense allows Lamar Jackson to get into a rhythm throwing the football, which would force them to lighten the box in order to get help to their secondary, Buffalo’s season will be over this weekend. The Bills’ defense struggles to stop the run when undermanned in the box, which is an interesting note from NFL’s Next Gen Stats, whereas the Ravens count on opponents lightening the box so they can hammer teams with their super-potent rushing attack (even though their stable of running backs are also quite effective against eight-man boxes or greater). Buffalo’s defense has tightened considerably down the stretch this season but reverted to old habits against the Colts. Only a handful of teams in NFL history allowed 470 or more yards of total offense and won a wild-card playoff game.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Biggest key to winning it all: The Buccaneers are one of those teams that could barrel their way to the Super Bowl and make us all regret the obviousness of it, or a team that could catastrophically show its age at the worst moment and flame out unexpectedly. If we did not see a few signature lows this season against elite competition, this would be out of the question. However, the Buccaneers’ marriage of what Tom Brady is most comfortable with and what Bruce Arians has historically done well was not without its growing pains. No staple of Arians’s offense explains that better than Brady’s wild successes and failures in the deep passing game. There have been weeks of total ineffectiveness followed by stretches of historic potency. If we can get the latter, again, a big ask against New Orleans, I would caution the rest of the league.
What could go wrong?: More than Brady, if their defense buckles it might be too difficult for the Buccaneers to weather a trip to the championship game. Devin White’s return is a positive and almost guarantees the league’s top rushing defense remains destructive even as their opponents get better, even against a Saints team that has been marvelous at picking apart teams on inside runs this year. However, Tampa has displayed some vulnerabilities against the pass this season and a vintage performance by the likes of Brees and a healthier Michael Thomas could throw a wrench in their plans.
6. Baltimore Ravens
Biggest key to winning it all: I could see a postseason run in Baltimore that makes a lot of NFL teams feel silly. I appreciated a piece done by NFL Network’s Peter Schrager on Baltimore’s defensive coordinator, Don Martindale. The 57-year-old was not interviewed for any head coaching vacancies this year, despite interest on his end, and I could see this being a postseason where he lets us all know what a mistake that was. In most situations when the league’s second-best scoring defense is facing the second-best scoring offense, I’ll favor the quarterback. In this case, Baltimore intrigues me against Josh Allen because of all the Ravens’ talent and institutional memory. Is there a chance they could play him in a way that he has not seen before?
What could go wrong?: Lamar Jackson was situationally effective against the Titans, which ended up being enough. His performance last Sunday though was more in line with a middle-tier playoff quarterback than the kind of performance that can diversify and lift a run-first offense enough to take them all the way. Marquise Brown’s starring role last week against the Titans could bode well for a scenario where Jackson has more chances to stretch the field, but without a weapon set that lends itself to more confounding looks for opposing defenses, there is more pressure riding on Jackson alone.
7. Cleveland Browns
Biggest key to winning it all: I realize I’m about to sound like Terry Bradshaw here, but Cleveland’s ability to control the line of scrimmage and run the football has been critical to its success this year and if the Browns somehow manage to get on a roll like that against the Chiefs, there are few teams that are going to be able to steal enough possessions to keep pace. Cleveland was imperfect in the win over the Steelers, but with their best offensive linemen now in place and a head coach more in tune with clock management, the Browns could be one of the hidden strongmen of the postseason this year.
What could go wrong?: Thanks to Kevin Stefanski’s system and a rebuilt offensive line, Baker Mayfield has been surprisingly effective against the blitz this year. His previous two seasons have been a constant, maddening look at how an offensive coordinator can hang one of his best players out to dry, forcing him to float in the pocket endlessly looking for options. Mayfield is not Russell Wilson, though, which is why Stefanski has done a good job placing him within parameters and giving him defined options. That said, the Chiefs have one of the five best opposing passer ratings and completion percentages when blitzing this season. If Mayfield begins to struggle and reverts to his pocket meandering days, Cleveland is in big trouble.
8. Los Angeles Rams
Biggest key to winning it all: We’ve written about the Rams’ historic defensive effort this season, which landed Brandon Staley some well-deserved buzz during the coaching process. If they can somehow, miraculously limit their opponents to 14 to 17 points over the course of a game, allowing a battered offense to keep up, then they have a chance. Do we imagine that happening against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers? Probably not. Is it possible? Yes. This Rams staff is exceptionally well prepared on a weekly basis, which is the one thing that perpetually keeps them in the conversation. If they can take advantage of Green Bay’s (relative) soft spot against the run, we could see a situation where they pull of a miraculous win and get their QB back to fighting strength enough to make some serious noise.
What could go wrong?: A struggling Jared Goff, who was nursing a broken thumb and slinging knuckleballs throughout the game last week can walk into a buzzsaw this weekend against the Packers. Seattle’s inconsistent defense helped, whereas Green Bay can effectively limit big plays and remains difficult to score on in the red zone.