Could the NFL champion be playing wild-card weekend?

Rick Gosselin

Playoff wild cards are earned by teams that did not win division titles but deserve a shot at a championship.

The Los Angeles Chargers, for instance. They finished 12-4 this season but did not win the AFC West. The Kansas City Chiefs posted an identical 12-4 record but were awarded the division title on a tie-breaker, owning the better conference record.

The Chargers thus become the 17th team with a 12-4 record to gain admission to the playoffs with a wild card. Two of those wild cards went on to win the Super Bowl, the 1997 Denver Broncos and the 2000 Baltimore Ravens.

But you don’t need 12 wins as a wild card to capture a Lombardi Trophy. The 2007 New York Giants and 2010 Green Bay Packers both entered the post-season as wild cards with 10-6 records and went on to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

That gives the defending NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles hope. They qualified for the playoffs as an NFC wild card this season with a 9-7 record. Both the Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks qualified with 10-6 records.

There have been 11 wild cards – non-division winners – that have reached the Super Bowl and seven won a Lombardi Trophy, starting with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1969. But there has been a dry spell of late. The last wild card to win a Super Bowl was those 2010 Packers, who prevailed as a sixth seed. No wild card team has reached the Super Bowl since then. Top seeds have won the last five Super Bowls.

So do any of the eight teams that play this wild-card weekend – four division champions and four wild cards – have a shot at glory this February? Here’s an analysis of those eight participants with explanations why they can – and cannot – win a Lombardi Trophy in February.

AFC Saturday: Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans

Why the Colts can win: The offensive line of the Colts gives Andrew Luck the chance to win every game with his arm. Indianapolis has the best pass protection in the NFL, allowing only 18 sacks this season. The Colts have two first-round picks protecting Luck’s blind side, tackle Anthony Castonzo and guard Quenton Nelson, and they play like first-rounders. Nelson was voted to the Pro Bowl as a rookie. Luck has been sacked once or fewer in 11 of the 16 games. Give Luck time and he’s fatal to a defense, having passed for 4,593 yards and an NFL-runnerup 39 touchdowns this season.

Why the Colts can’t win: There’s a reason the Patriots have gone to eight Super Bowls and won five Lombardi Trophies. They annually rank low in penalties. Yardage is difficult to come by in the post-season and the Patriots don’t give away many free yards with penalty flags. New England was penalized only 93 times this season, fourth fewest in the league en route to 12 victories, an AFC East title and a first-round playoff bye. The Patriots were penalized only 93 times when they won their last Super Bowl in the 2016 season. The Colts, on the other hand, were the fourth most penalized team in the NFL this season with 120. They were penalized 51 times on offense, 42 times on defense and 21 times on special teams. Luck is a Pro Bowl quarterback – but a steady diet of third-and-longs in the playoffs could spell an early exit.

Why the Texans can win: The AFC South champion Texans keep teams out of the end zone. Only four NFL defenses allowed fewer points than the 316 of the Texans. Houston held seven opponents under 20 points and allowed an average of only 19.7 points per game. Why is that important? Because the most telling statistic in Super Bowl history is scoring defense – 45 of the 52 Lombardi Trophy winners finished in the Top 10 in the NFL in scoring defense. The Texans are one of seven teams in the playoffs that finished in the Top 10 in scoring defense this season along with the Bears, Ravens, Cowboys, Patriots, Chargers and Colts. History says the next Super Bowl champion will come off that list.

Why the Texans can’t win: Quarterback DeShaun Watson is the key to their success but the Texans can’t protect him. He was sacked an NFL-high 62 times this season – the first time an NFL quarterback has been sacked 60 times in a season in 12 years. Those sacks aren’t always on the blocking front, though. Aaron Rodgers takes sacks in Green Bay because he refuses to throw interceptions. Watson seems to share that mentality. Watson and the Texans can’t continue to survive in January with those 6 & 7 sack games of October and November.

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NFC Saturday: Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys

Why the Seahawks can win: Seattle has the best rushing attack in the NFL. They have three running backs with 100-yard games this season and a quarterback (Russell Wilson) with a 90-yard game. When you run the ball, you control the clock. That's how you beat all those high-powered passing offenses you’ll face in the post-season -- hold onto the football and keep them off the field. The Seahawks have an average time of possession of more than 31 minutes. Chris Carson finished fifth in the NFL in rushing with 1,151 yards and both Mike Davis and rookie Rashaad Penny turned in 100-yard games as well. When the Seahawks win games of keep-away, they win games of football.

Why the Seahawks can’t win: The NFL has indeed become a passing league and the Seahawks have the worst passing offense in the playoffs. Seattle ranks 27th in the NFL in passing with an average of 193.3 yards per game. Wilson managed only one 300-yard passing game all season. He failed to pass for 200 yards in seven games. The Seahawks didn’t have a 1,000-yard receiver and Wilson has taken a beating in the pocket with 51 sacks.

Why the Cowboys can win: The Cowboys will ride the NFL’s leading rusher Ezekiel Elliott. He has played 40 games in his three-year NFL career and rushed for 100 yards in half of them. The Cowboys are 16-4 when he rushes for 100. And the more he touches the ball, the better the Cowboys play. The Cowboys have given Elliott 25 touches on runs and receptions in 22 games and they are 18-4 in those games. He has touched the ball 30 times or more in seven games and the Cowboys are 6-1 in those games. The Cowboys will go as far as Elliott’s legs will carry them.

Why the Cowboys can’t win: You win in the playoffs with touchdowns, not field goals. But the red-zone woes of the Cowboys have produced way too many field goals this season. Teams scored touchdowns in the red zone a league-average 59.1 percent of the time in 2018. The NFC East champion Cowboys finished 29th in the NFL in red-zone offense, scoring touchdowns only 48.0 percent of the time. As a result, the Cowboys are the lowest-scoring offense in the playoff field with an average of only 21.2 points per game. It’s absurd that Elliott would lead the NFL in rushing with 1,434 yards but have only six rushing touchdowns to show for all those yards. Just four of those TDs were scored in the red zone. In comparison, NFL rushing runnerup Saquon Barkley scored 11 touchdowns in his 1,307 yards.

AFC Sunday: Los Angeles Chargers at Baltimore Ravens

Why the Chargers can win: As a wild-card, the Chargers face a long road to Atlanta, literally -- potentially three road games. That’s OK by the Chargers. They are a better team outside of Los Angeles than they are at home. They have the NFL’s best road record at 7-1 – and the one road loss came against the cross-town Rams at the Coliseum. So when the Chargers board an airplane, they win. Among L.A.’s road conquests have been the Chiefs, Seahawks and Steelers – all tough places to play. Two of Melvin Gordon’s three 100-yard rushing games came on the road as have as two of Keenan Allen’s three 100-yard receiving games.

Why the Chargers can’t win: The Chargers are one of only two teams in the playoffs that finished in the Top 10 in both offense and defense. So there’s no problem on first through third downs on either side of the ball. If Los Angeles has an Achilles heel, it’s special teams – the game’s hidden yardage. The Chargers had two punts blocked and finished last in the NFL in net punt average at 37.2 yards. One of the blocked punts was returned for a touchdown by the Rams and the Chargers also surrendered a 91-yard punt return for a touchdown by Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill. Placement kicks also have been an adventure. The Chargers missed seven conversion kicks and five field goals, which forced L.A. to change kickers at mid-season.

Why the Ravens can win: Defense wins championships – and the Ravens have the best defense in the NFL. Baltimore allowed the fewest yards in the NFL and the fewest points in the AFC. The Ravens allowed only one 100-yard rusher, three 100-yard receivers and three 300-yard passers all season. In comparison, the AFC's top-seeded Chiefs allowed six 300-yard passers, eight 100-yard receivers and two 100-yard rushers. Philip Rivers threw a TD pass in 15 of his 16 games for the Chargers with the lone exception the Ravens, a 22-10 loss. Baltimore collected 11 sacks in a game against Tennessee, six against Buffalo, five against Cleveland and four against the Chargers.

Why the Ravens can’t win: The AFC North champion Ravens are the only playoff team with a rookie taking the snaps – and no rookie quarterback has ever taken a team to a Super Bowl. Former Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson started the final seven games for the Ravens but passed for 200 yards only once. He has thrown just five TD passes in those seven starts. His legs are what threaten defenses. He is averaging 17 carries and 79 yards on the ground in his seven starts and has almost as many rushing touchdowns (four) as TD passes (five). He’s had a 100-yard rushing game, two 90-yard games and three more games in the 70s.

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NFC Sunday: Philadelphia Eagles at Chicago Bears

Why the Eagles can win: There are only three former Super Bowl MVPs competing this post-season and the Eagles have one of them – Nick Foles. He’s joined by Tom Brady and Drew Brees. There’s magic in Foles…or at least the Eagles believe there is magic in their backup quarterback. He’s 9-2 over the last two seasons filling in for an injured Carson Wentz. He beat the defending NFC champion Falcons in the 2017 playoffs, then beat the Vikings in the NFC title game and the Patriots in the Super Bowl. This December he beat a pair of division champions, the Rams and Texans, to get the Eagles into this post-season as a wild card.

Why the Eagles can’t win: NFL champions don’t repeat in today’s NFL. It’s been 13 years since the NFL has seen a repeat champion. That was the Patriots in 2003-2004. The 2013-14 Seahawks went to consecutive Super Bowls, as did the 2016-17 Patriots. But in each case, the Seahawks and Patriots won the first year but lost in the return trip. Also, the Seahawks and Patriots were the top seed in both seasons and benefitted from homefield advantage. The Eagles are a sixth seed this post-season and will not see the Linc again until next fall.

Why the Bears can win: The NFC North champion Bears don’t just take the ball away on defense, they score with it. Chicago led the NFL with 39 takeaways and returned an NFL-high six of them for defensive touchdowns. Pro Bowl safety Eddie Jackson tallied three of them, returning interceptions for touchdowns against the Lions and Vikings and a fumble against the Bills. There were 66 touchdowns scored across the NFL on interception and fumble returns this season and the teams that returned them posted a 55-11 record. So if an NFL defense scores a touchdown in a game this season, it won 83.3 percent of the time. The Bears have the most opportunistic -- and highest-scoring -- defense in the NFL.

Why the Bears can’t win: You don’t necessarily need great quarterbacking to get to the playoffs but you need it once you get there. Mitch Trubisky had a rocky rookie season in 2017, throwing only seven TD passes in his 12 starts. But he made great strides in 2018 under new coach Matt Nagy, throwing 20 TD passes in the first 10 games of the season to propel the Bears into first place in the NFC North with a 7-3 record. But Trubisky injured his throwing shoulder in the 10th week against Minnesota and sat out the next two games. In the four games since then he failed to throw for 250 yards in a game with four touchdowns and three interceptions.

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