2018 NFL playoffs preview

The 2017 NFL season was an odd one to say the least. The league saw countless injuries to star players such as Aaron Rodgers, J.J. Watt and Odell Beckham Jr just to name a few.

To even more surprise there are a total of eight teams in this years playoff field that failed to qualify for last seasons playoffs. Only the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons appeared in last years playoffs.

This years field is also more wide open than in years past. Even the Patriots, who are the favorites to win the Super Bowl, have shown flaws throughout the season that prove they are not unbeatable. The top two teams in the NFC, the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles, have suffered countless injuries which make them as vulnerable to an early exit just as any other team is.

Here’s a preview on how each team looks heading into wild card weekend.

AFC

6. Buffalo Bills (9-7)

Who would’ve thought the music city miracle would be the last time the Buffalo Bills would see the postseason for 17 years after it happened? Certainly not the organization, fan base known as Bills mafia or football fans in general.

Thanks to grinding out wins throughout the season, and a little help from Andy Dalton, the Bills and Bills mafia ended their misery as they snapped the longest playoff drought in American professional sports to date.

For the first time this century the Bills will get a taste of playoff football. Their reward? The young and explosive Jacksonville Jaguars, who have one of the best defenses in the league.

What makes this task even more difficult is the uncertainty of the health of pro bowl running back LeSean McCoy, who suffered a right ankle injury in week 17. He has since been listed as day-to-day and will be a game time decision.

Facing a team who forces turnovers like it’s nothing, the Bills finished the season with a plus nine turnover ratio which was seventh in the league. Their opponent, the Jaguars, finished fifth with a plus 10 turnover ration. Turnovers may be hard to come by in their first round match up. This means that the Bills defense will need to put stops together in order to keep the game close against the Jaguars who finished fifth in the league with 417 points scored this season.

As for the Bills, they finished 22nd with 302 points scored this season.

However, it is the playoffs and anything can happen. Even more so with two young, inexperienced playoff teams squaring off. The Bills will have a tough road if they want to become the third six seed ever to win the Super Bowl.

For the Bills to win they will need to utilize every weapon they have with the uncertainty of McCoy’s status, as well as focusing on ball security. The secondary will also need to come up big and lock down the Jacksonville receiving core. For further help it will be vital for the front seven to pressure Blake Bortles to force poor decisions and capitalize on them.

5. Tennessee Titans (9-7) 

For the first time since 2008, the Tennessee Titans will be playing meaningful football. Yet, head coach Mike Mularkey is rumored to be on the hot seat. Could how well the Titans do in the playoffs determine his job for next season? Only time will tell. For now, the Titans have a tough task facing the high scoring Kansas City Chiefs.

The Titans have been constantly inconsistent all season. They were positioned to win the AFC south this season if it weren’t for losses to the less than impressive San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals, Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders. Then they were also blown out by the Steelers on Thursday night football in week 11.

However, they are here for a reason. They have a dynamic duo at running back in DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, who can impact a game both in the running and passing games. Although, Murray has been ruled out for the teams wild card match up which will certainly impact how the Titans game plan for the Chiefs.

Their defense was 13th in the league allowing 328 yards per game as well as 16th allowing just over 22 points per game. Their opponent Chiefs allowed just over 21 points per game.

This could be very high scoring if the Titans execute all around.

For them to win they will need to shut down the Chiefs dynamic offense and take advantage of the Chiefs suspect defense, especially on third downs where the Chiefs allow their opponents to convert 40 percent of the time. The Titans will need to keep up their stout third down defense as they were eighth in the league allowing their opponents to convert 36 percent of the time.

Bottom line, they need to carry over what they did well in the regular season and force the Chiefs to make mistakes and capitalize. It will be a tough task to slow down Alex Smith and company. However, experienced defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau knows how to prepare for games such as this. Don’t overlook the Titans.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)

What a strange season it was for head coach Andy Reid and his team.

They came out of the gates red-hot, defeating the Patriots in week one however, it cost them all-pro safety Eric Berry for the season as he suffered a ruptured Achilles. They would then rattle off four more wins in a row to start the season 5-0 and look like the team to beat in the AFC.

Then from weeks 6-13 they went 1-6 before finishing the season 4-0.

However, the Chiefs find themselves in the playoffs yet again and will try to put their rollercoaster season behind them and take it one game at a time. They will also look to snap their drought of five straight home playoff losses that dates back to 1993.

Their postseason success will come from their explosive offense with their defense being so shaky throughout the season.

They allowed the fifth most yards per game in the league this season with 365. Their third down defense was less than impressive and they had trouble getting to and sacking opposing quarterbacks.

Their opponent, the Titans, recorded 43 sacks this season, tied for fifth in the league. The o-line will need to protect Smith to give him time to ensure ball security and find his weapons. If that is the case, it will turn into a track meet as the Chiefs love to get into open field. When and if they do, good luck stopping them.

If the Chiefs defense shows up they could find themselves making a run. If not, the Titans have the ability to make them pay and hand them a first round exit.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) 

It was a fairytale season for the Jaguars and they have no intention of ending it now. It’s been 10 years since the Jaguars last playoff appearance and they have the talent to stick around for a while.

Their defense came to form this year after signing and drafting tons talent on that side of the ball. They finished second in the league with 55 sacks, one behind the leading Steelers who had 56, and earned the nickname “Sacksonville.”

They also finished second in the league in interceptions forcing 21 throughout the season. Without a doubt their defense will be the reason they make a run in the playoffs.

However, don’t overlook their offense either.

They finished fifth in the league scoring just over 26 points per game on average so they have the ability to light up the scoreboard at any time. This is mainly because of their lead leading rushing attack, led by rookie Leonard Fournette. Blake Bortles put together a decent season even without top receiver Allen Robinson.

Their lack of experience may come into play however, they face a Bills team who too has a lack of playoff experience.

Tyrod Taylor has made poor decisions under pressure this season, so if the Jaguars can keep getting to him they may find themselves cruising into the divisional round. They can’t allow Taylor to escape the pocket either and extend plays like he does so well. That’s where he can hurt the young Jaguars defense.

However, the Bills are also a team with a fairytale season who don’t want it to end.

Sometimes with football you need to look past the numbers and look at heart and momentum. The Jaguars lost their final two games of the season and the Bills scratched and clawed their way in. Both teams want it, it’s a question of who wants it more.

I’ll say this right now, DO NOT be surprised if the Jaguars find themselves in the Super Bowl. The only thing stopping them is their lack of experience which, if they are playing good football, won’t be a factor.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3) 

The Steelers were a controversial call away from being the top seed in the AFC. However, it was what it was and the Steelers enter the playoffs as the number two seed.

All season long they were a top five offense, not just by way of numbers but with talent as well.

Ben Roethlisberger is a two-time Super Bowl winner who knows how to play in the postseason. Le’Veon Bell is a top running back in the league that can kill a team with his patient running attack and his ability to become a receiver out of the backfield. JuJu Smith-Schuster came onto the scene with his rookie season. Antonio Brown is a top tier receiver in the league and should be good to go for the divisional round.

Their defense suffered a major loss with the scary injury to Ryan Shazier but have done well playing without him. They led the league in sacks this season and only allowed just over 306 yards per game and 19 points per game. The Steel curtain is alive and well to say the least.

Many of their starters on both sides of the ball will be on two weeks rest after not playing week 17 and getting this weekend off with the first round bye. As we have seen in years past this is not always beneficial. Players have come back cold and under performed at times with multiple weeks rest. With that, the Steelers need to be sure they are in top shape for whoever they play next weekend. If it is the Jaguars they will need to take a deep look at the week five film in which they were routed 30-9, a game in which Roethlisberger was intercepted five times.

They are a sound team all around, and with that they can’t take any team lightly. If all goes well the Steelers may very well find themselves winning the Super Bowl this season let alone the AFC.

1. New England Patriots (13-3)

Just like any other year in the Tom Brady era, the Patriots are the top dog in the AFC. Only this time the AFC is more competitive than in years past and the Patriots are not unstoppable.

Their defense was amongst the leagues worst in allowing yards this season. They were 29th in the league in yards per game allowing 366. However, they only allowed just over 18 points per game.

The experience is obviously there, both with players and coaches. Tom Brady has proved he can work magic. However, it doesn’t mean a thing if they score 35 points and allow 36. The defense needs to come through if the Patriots want a chance at back-to-back Super Bowl wins. The AFC is full of explosive offenses between the Steelers, Jaguars and Chiefs, who already beat the Patriots on opening night.

This team is very deep on the offensive side with their tandem running attack of Albany native Dion Lewis, James White and Mike Gillislee. Rob Gronkowski is a match up nightmare for any team and can single-handedly impact a game.

The Patriots are clear favorites to win the AFC however, the other five teams have more motivation than ever to de-crown the mighty Patriots.

NFC

6. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)

Last seasons NFC champions clinched their spot into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season. By the way, they are back with vengeance too after blowing a 28-3 lead in last years Super Bowl. However, it will be much more difficult to get back not being able to play at home this postseason.

Although they have looked inconsistent this season, the Falcons are still a deep and dangerous team. They have MVP Matt Ryan at the helm and arguably the best receiver in the league, Julio Jones, paired up with him. However, they have a tough task facing the young Rams who absolutely balled out on both sides of the ball this season.

The story of the game will be how well the Falcons can contain Todd Gurley. They allowed just over 104 rushing yards per game this season on four yards per carry.

Shutting down Gurley will allow the defense to back off the line of scrimmage and fall back into pass coverage without guessing. Don’t be surprised if the Falcons load the box early to stop Gurley and force Jared Goff to put the ball in the air in his first playoff game.

Again, it will be a tougher task to get back to the Super Bowl. However, the Falcons have all the weapons of offense and defense to spoil the playoffs in Los Angeles.

5. Carolina Panthers (11-5)

There’s just something about these Panthers…

Cam Newton is one of the best play-making quarterbacks in the league and will be facing division rival Saints on the road, who handed the Panthers two of their losses this year.

Besides you know what they say, it’s tough to beat a team three times. The Panthers get a chance at revenge as they have been playing good football since their week 11 bye.

Since then they have averaged 25 points per game however, have allowed just over 24 points per game. It will take a group effort to slow down the explosive Saints offense and beat Nola. Defense is key to a victory for the Panthers.

Just like with the Jaguars it isn’t necessarily about the numbers for the Panthers. Newton can go off at any time even without a ton of weapons at the receiver position. A balanced attack will keep the Saints defense guessing if they can go for plus yards on each play.

Look, the NFC is wide open. The Vikings and Eagles have lost dominance due to unfortunate injury. But that’s just the nature of football. If the Panthers get past the Saints I don’t think it matters which one of the two they play, they can very well be playing for the NFC title in a few weeks.

However, the key is “if” they can beat the Saints. They have the ability to. It’s a matter of what Panthers team will show up on Sunday.

4. New Orleans Saints (11-5)

The kings of the NFC south were unexpected to be called so this season. Alvin Kamara was a pleasant surprise to the Saints running game. Between him and Mark Ingram they became one of the deadliest one-two punches in the league.

Drew Brees is Drew Brees, Super Bowl winner and Super Bowl MVP. He can pick apart the Carolina defense if they don’t come ready. Just as the Panthers need to do, the Saints can beat the Panthers with a balanced attack.

All season long we have seen to duo at running back kill teams both on the ground and through the air. Ingram and Kamara need to find open space and that will pick apart the Panthers defense.

I believe the Saints should keep one or two defenders spying on Cam Newton to ensure he can’t escape the pocket. That’s when he is at his most dangerous. Contain the edges and have one linebacker spying at all times, this will put the game in the secondaries hands but they have proved they are capable of shutting down receivers all season.

This team, just like the other two from the NFC south, are capable of making a deep run into the playoffs if they execute all around.

3. Los Angeles Rams (11-5)

What a season. What a team. The Rams have brought glorified football back to the city of Angles. For the first time since 2004, when they were in St.Louis, the Rams are back in the playoffs facing the same team that eliminated them that season.

They have the number one offense in the league behind Todd Gurley and second year quarterback Jared Goff. Cooper Kupp was their jewel of the draft, finding him in the third round. He quickly become the teams number one receiver raking in over 800 yards this season.

This team is for real. However, the Falcons have all the experience and will be playing with a bigger purpose than any other team in the playoffs. The Rams can’t take them lightly by any means. They have to put aside Matt Ryan’s awful road record in the playoffs and pretend it means nothing.

They need to pressure Matt Ryan, giving him too much time to find his weapons is never a good thing. He has shown time and time again he will make you pay for giving him too much time. Bring the heat and force mistakes.

On offense let Gurley run the show. Whether he is running or coming out on screen passes he can create as long as the ball is in his hands.

Experience doesn’t mean everything but it means something. If there is one inexperienced team that can make a run in the playoffs it is the Rams.

2. Minnesota Vikings (13-3)

It is rare to see anyone besides the Packers win the NFC north as they have five division titles in the last six years. However, the Vikings took advantage of almost a full season without Aaron Rodgers running the north and made the most of it.

Defense is the story for the Vikings. All season long they were the leagues best defense. They allowed 16 points per game and 276 yards. I’m no rocket scientist but that’s pretty darn good.

With injuries to multiple quarterbacks and rookie running back Dalvin Cook, the offense still found ways to get the job done.

Case Keenum is displaying the record-setting talent he displayed while playing his college ball at Houston. The offense finished 10th in the league scoring just under 24 points per game. Adam Thielen burst onto the scene this season becoming the first 1,000 yard receiver for Vikings in quite some time. Stefon Diggs complements Thielen very well as he too is capable of working the same magic Thielen does.

The Vikings need to stick to what they did well in the regular season to make a run in the playoffs and have a chance to become the first team in history to play the Super Bowl at their home stadium. It’s obvious what they did well throughout the season, shut down every offense they played.

They will need to wait to see who they play next weekend, of course. If it is the Panthers they need to take a close look at the film from week 14 where they were defeated by them 31-24. Even if it is the Saints or Rams the Vikings have a very good chance of being one and done if the defense can’t stop either explosive offense.

But you know what they say, offense wins games, defense wins championships.

1. Philadelphia Eagles (13-3)

Fly Eagles fly!

An unfortunate and heartbreaking injury to Carson Wentz, who was a front-runner to win MVP this season, has most media and fans skeptical of how far the Eagles can go. I’ll say this: their defense is legit and Nick Foles could be a starting quarterback on most teams around the league.

With that, the Eagles are still capable of making a run to the Super Bowl.

However, as previously mentioned the NFC is tough and wide open. The Eagles will need to be borderline perfect if they want to make a run, but that is very possible.

Their offense, mainly under Wentz, scored just under 29 points per game and finished the season plus 11 in turnover ratio. Ball protection will be even more vital for the birds to soar further in the playoffs, regardless of who they face next weekend.

Their defense allowed just over 18 points per game this season and held opponents to 32 percent on third down, which is tied for second best in the league. They also were up near the top of the league forcing 19 interceptions during the season.

Their defense will need to be their best offense. The more opportunities Foles is given means the more chances they have to put up points and not allow their opponents to do the same.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Eagles respond to adversity as the top seed in the NFC.

 

All stats courtesy of http://www.nfl.com/stats/categorystats?archive=false&conference=null&role=OPP&offensiveStatisticCategory=null&defensiveStatisticCategory=INTERCEPTIONS&season=2017&seasonType=REG&tabSeq=2&qualified=false&Submit=Go

 

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