Eyes on the Prize- How the 14 NFL Teams Left can Lift the Lombardi
The day is Saturday, January 9th. Today, millions of fans across America are either preparing to watch their team in the playoffs or demanding that their coach is fired. In a season as chaotic as ever, 14 teams still have hope that they will last all the way until February and be crowned Super Bowl Champions. While for some teams this road is probable, others will have to fight for every point they score. However, as the 2011-12 New York Giants showed us, it doesn't matter where your team is at the beginning of the playoffs, it matters where they lie at the end. With that being said, here is how hard it is (1 being easiest and 10 being hardest) for every NFL team still remaining to win the Super Bowl.
#1 Kansas City Chiefs- Grade: 1--- Kansas City is the team to beat in the NFL, and it's pretty obvious why. They have a former MVP in Patrick Mahomes, two All-Pro caliber receivers in wideout Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce, and a above average running back core with numerous weapons. Along with that, they boast a defense in the top half of most defensive statistics and an elite coaching staff headed by Andy Reid. This may not sound like much, but the team's overall chemistry helps them overpower opponents. Simply put, there may not be a team out there who can beat the Chiefs, and it will take nothing short of a miracle for any team to do so.
#2 Buffalo Bills- Grade: 2--- Buffalo has an interesting look this season. They only have three losses, two of which are to teams that made the playoffs. Josh Allen has proven himself and finished as a dark horse MVP candidate. New acquisition Stefon Diggs has made an immediate impact and leads the league in receptions and receiving yards. Although the defense has not been stellar, Jordan Poyer has stood out and is among the league leaders in tackles. Additionally, the Bills enter this week with surging momentum after destroying the division rival Dolphins on Sunday. The only thing stopping this team from making the Super Bowl is the Kansas City Chiefs, who handed the Bills a 26-17 loss in Week 6. But, if the Bills can overcome the Chiefs, there is little argument to say that they cannot win the Super Bowl.
#3 Pittsburgh Steelers- Grade: 4--- Pittsburgh is a hard team to evaluate. After starting off 11-0, the Steelers dropped four of their last five games, including two to teams with losing records. Veteran QB Ben Roethlisberger continues to perform well, although there are questions about his health and age. The wide receiving core is inconsistent, and have often been struck with butterfingers at crucial points of games. However, wideouts like Diontae Johnson, JuJu Smith Schuster and Chase Claypool have proven to be dangerous if left in one-on-one situations, and a core that deep will prove challenging to defend. However, the main reason Pittsburgh remains a top team is their defense. Being 3rd in yards allowed per game and points allowed per game doesn't come easily. The Steelers' defense is deep, and have been able to withstand multiple season ending injuries. One player that opponents must watch out for is T.J. Watt, who leads the league in sacks and is the likely Defensive Player of the Year. If the defense holds opponents to under 20 points per game this postseason, a playoff run won't be out of the question.
#4 Tennessee Titans- Grade: 5--- The Titans are starting to look legit. Derrick Henry has rose to superstardom and surpassed the 2,000 yard mark this season. Ryan Tannehill has finally achieved his potential that the Dolphins drafted him for. Tannehill also possesses numerous weapons such as wideouts A.J. Brown and Corey Davis as well as tight end Jonnu Smith. This has allowed Tennessee to become one of the most dangerous duel threat offenses in the league. But why are they a grade five? Unfortunately, the Titans have a defense that is in the bottom five in points allowed per game, and the bottom five in yards allowed per game. This is something that likely won't slide in the playoffs. Also, they have a tough road to the Super Bowl, likely having to beat the Ravens, Chiefs, and Bills to get in.
#5 Baltimore Ravens- Grade: 5--- After a year of being one of the teams constantly in the spotlight, it seems that the Ravens were almost overshadowed in the AFC this year. However, they are not to be slept on, and could make a playoff run under the right circumstances. Quarterback Lamar Jackson can make any defender look foolish with his duel threat ability, and the rushing game led by rookie J.K. Dobbins has picked up immensely as the season has went on. Although the passing game has felt lacking at times, Jackson has proved he has the ability to turn it on and make tough throws when necessary. One thing to also note is that the defense is top ten in virtually every stat, which is vital to stop powerful offenses like Tennessee, Buffalo, and Kansas City. Although it appears that the Ravens have a tough road, discrediting them is unwise at the moment.
#6 Cleveland Browns- Grade: 7--- Wow. The Browns have made the playoffs. Although this is their best team in years, it just feels weird to think that the old laughing stock of the league has made a full 180 degree turn. The offense has a plethora of weapons including halfbacks Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt and pass catchers like Jarvis Landry and Austin Hooper. On the other side of the ball, rushers such as Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon have put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Although the secondary has been a weak spot, allowing 247.6 passing yards per game, it can be bailed out if the front seven can force sacks on a more consistent basis. There is hope for a playoff run for this Cleveland team, but it requires a few upsets, including one against their division rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
#7 Indianapolis Colts- Grade: 9--- The Colts got a blessing when Miami lost, but are they really playoff ready? Indy has been one of the most inconsistent teams this year. Despite having great wins over teams like the Packers and Titans, they have struggled to beat the 1-15 Jacksonville Jaguars, and even handed them their only win. For an upset to happen over the second seeded Bills, the Colts will need another impressive performance from their defense, who boasts a few stars like DeForest Buckner and Darius Leonard. Additionally, they will need rookie running back Johnathan Taylor to keep his momentum running high, as the young back comes off of a game where he ran for 253 yards and two touchdowns. If all else fails, then it will come down to veteran quarterback Philip Rivers, who has plenty of playoff experience to rally his team around. Although a Super Bowl is very unlikely, nothing is impossible for the 11-5 Colts.
#1 Green Bay Packers- Grade: 3--- The Packers are probably the favorite to make the Super Bowl in the NFC, and it is easy to see why. Other than having the likely MVP in Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, they have a top running back in Aaron Jones (4th in rushing yards) and two stud pass catchers in Davante Adams (1st in passing TDs) and Robert Tonyan. On the flip side, pass rushers like Za'Darius Smith have been brutalizing quarterbacks week in and week out. In the secondary, cornerback Jaire Alexander and safety Darnell Savage have held opposing receivers to only small yardage and have capitalized on any inaccurate throws. The Pack should have an easier route than most to the Super Bowl, as they have a bye this week. But, they still will have to beat some tough opponents to get there.
#2 New Orleans Saints- Grade: 4--- Similarly to the Packers, the Saints have stars everywhere. Although quarterback Drew Brees has certainly not been as good as usual this year, the tandem of him and all around player Taysom Hill has been lethal against defenses. Running back Alvin Kamara has also been a demon this year, going for 1,688 total yards to go along with 21 touchdowns. The wideout game has been shaky, but the talent from Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders is still a presence in most games. However, the defense is where most opponents fail to compete with the Saints. The team as a whole allows the fourth least yards per game and also has the fourth most takeaways. Individually, lineman like Trey Hendrickson (13.5 sacks) and Cameron Jordan (7.5 sacks) have consistently forced bad passes and knocked quarterbacks to the ground. In fact, they've overshadowed some studs in the secondary like Malcolm Jenkins, who has three interceptions or 33% of the teams total takeaways. There is easily a world in which the Saints make the Super Bowl, and all it requires is for their players to keep doing the job they have done all season.
#3 Seattle Seahawks- Grade: 5--- For a team that started so hot, it almost feels disappointing to see the Seahawks as the third seed. As usual, Russell Wilson looked like the clear MVP for the first half of the season, and then proceeded to fall off. Don't get me wrong, the Seahawks are still a dangerous team with loads of offensive weapons like Wilson, running back Chris Carson, and wideouts DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. But, they do have a slight problem on defense. Allowing 380.6 yards per game, the Seahawks defense allows the second most of any team in the playoffs, only behind the Titans. Yet, they have still found ways to win the game this way, and Seattle currently sits at a four game win streak. In short, although the Seahawks are fully capable of making a deep playoff run, they will need players like Bobby Wagner and Jamal Adams to step up on their side of the ball.
#4 Washington Football Team- Grade: 9--- The only team with a losing record in the playoffs, it seems safe to say that the Washington Football Team has at best a slim chance at making the Super Bowl. In fact, the only thing keeping them alive all this time has been their defense. Washington's defense allows only 304.6 yards per game, which is second in the NFL. Despite an average linebacker core, linemen Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen and Da'Ron Payne have led the team to 47 sacks, the sixth most in the league. In the secondary, Kendall Fuller as well as rookie Kam Curl have been able to clamp down on opposing receivers. They will need those two in particular to step up, as they will play the Buccaneers in the first round, who boast talents like Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. On the offensive side, running back Antonio Gibson and wideout Terry McLaurin have been the highlights in an otherwise lackluster group. However, these two are slightly banged up, and the team may rely on guys like J.D. McKissic, Peyton Barber, and Logan Thomas to outperform. Although the chances are extremely slim, if the Football Team can hold their opponents to under 20 points, playoff win(s) may not be unreasonable.
#5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers- Grade: 4--- When Tom Brady initially came to Tampa Bay, there were a lot of people, myself included, who doubted he would be the same as he was in New England. Well, we were wrong. Brady has thrown for 4,633 yards and 40 touchdowns, good enough for third and second in the league respectively. Part of this may be due to a weapons increase, as Brady now has elite receivers like Chris Godwin and Mike Evans to complement a solid running back core headed by Ronald Jones. On the flip side of the ball, veterans like Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett as well as youngsters such as Devin White and Antoine Winfield Jr. have stepped up and punished opposing offenses. The Buccaneers also have an easier route to the Super Bowl than most, as they play the 7-9 Washington Football Team this week. Additionally, Tom Brady is Tom Brady, so anything short of a Super Bowl appearance is a disappointment for him.
#6 Los Angeles Rams- Grade: 8--- Like the Football Team above, the Rams are a team that relies heavily on their defense to carry through. Especially with the quarterback options being an injured Jared Goff or backup John Wolford, who as some of you may know, still keeps his LinkedIn account because of his tumultuous football career. However, they separate themselves from Washington in regards to their offensive core, which still includes talents like rookie running back Cam Akers, tight end Tyler Higbee and wideouts such as Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. In terms of their road to the Super Bowl, the Rams must beat their division rival, the Seahawks. In two matchups this season, each team won one game. However, the road only gets harder from there if they win, with likely matchups with Green Bay and New Orleans after Seattle. It surely isn't impossible for the Rams to make a run, but it will require the Rams to continue to hold opponents under 300 yards, while picking up at least 3-4 sacks in each game.
#7 Chicago Bears- Grade: 9--- First off, DA BEARS. Sorry, I love saying that. Anyways, Da Bears are back in the playoffs. As per usual, they host a strong defensive front but are weak on offense. Although quarterback Mitch Trubisky has been hot lately, it will be much harder against stronger defenses like the New Orleans Saints, who the Bears face in the wildcard round. Truthfully, the talent of the Bears is not the main reason that a playoff run is out of reach. Rather, it is their schedule. In order to even make the Super Bowl, the Bears would likely have to defeat the three top seeds in the NFC. If you thought one upset over the Saints was improbable, well... then three upsets is more like impossible. Sorry Bears fans, this is just not your year.