My favorite time of the year is here, it is the NFL playoffs. This is the time of year where legacies are made and players define how they will be remembered years after they are retired. It is the time of year where 12 teams try to become the one team that hoists the Lombardi Trophy, but 11 fail to win the trophy and only one team is successful. It is a time of heartbreak for veterans that are trying for one last time to hoist a trophy and a time where young players become household names for the next decade.
This year, I am going to ask one question that each of the 12 teams is going to have to answer heading into the playoffs. The questions are asked in order of seeding in each conference, starting with the AFC.
- New England Patriots (13-3) Philadelphia Eagles (13-3)
- Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3) Minnesota Vikings (13-3)
- Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) Los Angeles Rams (11-5)
- Kansas City Chiefs (10-6) New Orleans Saints (11-5)
- Tennessee Titans (9-7) Carolina Panthers (11-5)
- Buffalo Bills (9-7) Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
1) Can the New England Patriots win the Super Bowl with a quarterback carrying them that turned 40-years old in August? At this point, if Brady plays bad in a playoff loss, it is probably more a product of him just having a bad game than it is being 40-years old. This is a guy that headed into Week 17 had 30 touchdown passes, 8 interceptions and a QB rating of 104.2. Against the New York Jets, he was just 18 for 37 with 190 yards passing, two touchdown passes, no picks and a QB rating of 82.0. That dropped his QB rating down to 102.8 for the season. That is a stellar season for any quarterback, for a 40-year old it is almost unheard of efficiency.
Here is the issue in New England. Defense has carried them to the Super Bowl title in the past with Brady playing clutch in the playoffs. When they won in 2001, they were sixth in points allowed and 24th in yards allowed. In 2003 they were first and seventh. In 2004, they were second and ninth. In 2014, they were eighth and 13th. Last year they were first and eighth.
It has been a mixed bag this year. They are fifth in points allowed and 29th in yards allowed. That bad yardage defense really has not been their recipe for success in the postseason in recent years. Brady has also declined as the season has progressed. In December, he is just 106 for 173 with 1,203 yards passing, six passing touchdowns, five picks and a QB rating of 81.6. He needs to pick it up in the playoffs if his defense is going to give up that many yards.
I think this defense is good enough to allow the Patriots to win a Super Bowl, provided Brady is playing like the quarterback before December instead of the one we have seen the last few weeks of the year. It is a huge break for them that they have a bye for him to rest up before the Divisional Round. They have a good defense, but not a great one. They definitely are not as good as last year. In 2016, they were 12th against the pass, third against the run, sixth in net yards per attempt allowed, eighth in yards per rush attempt allowed and eighth in QB rating allowed.
This year, they are 29th in pass yards allowed, 20th in rushing yards allowed, 20th in net yards per pass attempt allowed, 31st in rushing yards per attempt allowed and 16th in quarterback rating allowed. Every statistical area has declined in 2017 for them, which means that if they are going to win the Super Bowl, Brady and the offense are going to have to be at the top of their game. Seeing only one quarterback has ever won a playoff game at 40-years old (Minnesota Vikings QB Brett Favre 2009), it is going to be a difficult challenge for the Patriots to win their third Super Bowl in four years.
2) Can Pittsburgh Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell stay healthy for the NFL Playoffs? Bell is the most important player in their offense and it has been that way since 2014. When Bell has 100-yards rushing in a game, the Steelers are (15-3). Two of those losses were without QB Ben Roethlisberger and the other loss was a 27-24 loss to the New England Patriots this year.
He needs to be the featured weapon in their offense and he needs to see the ball at least 25 times per game on the ground. When he has 25 carries, they are (12-0). That is how they won last year in the postseason. They gave him the ball 29 times for 167 yards rushing against the Miami Dolphins in the Wild Card Round and 30 times for 170 yards against Kansas City in the Divisional Round.
The problem has been availability in their last game of the season since 2014. He missed the Wild Card Round against the Baltimore Ravens in 2014 and they lost 30-17 at home to the Baltimore Ravens. He missed the entire 2015 Playoffs and they won 18-16 at Cincinnati before losing 23-16 at the Denver Broncos. Last year, they needed him to come up big against New England, instead he was injured early in the game and they lost 36-17. He finished that game with just six carries for 20 yards.
This team has a lot of questions coming into the playoffs. They have been on the wrong side of a one-sided rivalry with the New England Patriots and cannot seem to beat that team. They have WR Antonio Brown coming back from a calf injury and he may not be ready for the Divisional Round.
However, Bell is the key to their winning the Super Bowl. He needs to be a guy they can give the ball to at least 25 times for at least 125 yards and a touchdown every game of the playoffs and the offense must go through him. When they have a good running game and balance in the offense they are usually unbeatable. If he does not stay healthy, they have little chance to make a deep run in the NFL Playoffs.
3) Can the Jacksonville Jaguars elite defense win the AFC with QB Blake Bortles behind center? Jacksonville won their first AFC South Divisional Title since 1999 and they are making their first playoff appearance since the 2007 season. A big reason for that was their defense, a unit that ranked second in points scored and third in yards allowed heading into Week 17. I did not give much weight to anything that happened in Week 17, because they had already clinched the three seed, with not ability to move up or down in their seeding.
When their offense is good, it is really good and I do not think a lot of people realize that this offense was fifth in points scored and sixth in yards gained headed into Week 17. QB Blake Bortles had 3,529 yards passing, 21 passing touchdowns and 11 picks. His QB rating was 88.2 in those 15 games, which is not stellar, but is very serviceable with that defense.
They also run the ball well, no team had more rushing attempts (503) or rushing yards (2,179) heading into Week 17 than the Jaguars. This team has everything you could ask for on both sides of the ball and when they played their A game, it allowed the to beat the Baltimore Ravens 44-7, the Pittsburgh Steelers 30-9 and the Seattle Seahawks 30-24 in a game that they led 27-10 before Seattle started scoring rapid fire touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Nobody wants to play this defense in the playoffs, especially the pass defense. Quarterbacks only had a 67.5 QB rating against them and were sacked 52 times headed into their meaningless Week 17 game. The question is what happens in the fourth quarter of a tied game when Blake Bortles has the ball. Can they score points with him at quarterback? Will he lead the team to a win or turn the ball over in crippling fashion? He is a very unknown commodity that has never played a playoff game and never played on a team that played competitive football prior to this season.
At the end of the day, the Jaguars are going to be a tough out in the playoffs. The teams in front of them have quarterbacks that have won multiple Super Bowls and good rosters of their own, but nobody has a defense like Jacksonville. Bortles does not need to be great in the playoffs, but he has to protect the football and make plays when they need him. Time will tell if he is up to the task in January.
4) Can Andy Reid finally manage the game and situation in a way that allows the Chiefs to advance to the Super Bowl? It is hard to believe that a coach that is 11th in NFL history in regular season wins and will likely be in the Top-10 by next year could be considered a coaching liability, but just ask Eagles and Chiefs fans about his clock management in big spots.
Back In the 2004 Super Bowl, Reid’s Philadelphia Eagles were going against the New England Patriots down by 10 points in the fourth quarter. They had passes from QB Donovan McNabb that netted four, four, five and two yards. Not surprisingly two minutes left the clock and they ended up scoring after the two-minute warning and with two timeouts left. They failed to recover the onside kick and the Patriots won the game.
In the 2015 NFL Playoffs, they were down 27-13 in the fourth quarter at New England with 6:29 remaining. At one point in that drive, it took 1:34 to move the ball just one yard down the field. They ended up scoring with 1:18 left in the game, but they did not recover the onside kick, they failed to stop Brady from converting a first down and the rest was history.
Last year, they lost a game to the Pittsburgh Steelers 18-16, a game in which the Steelers had to settle for six field goals. A big reason for that loss was Reid burned his first two timeouts of the second half because the play clock ran out on him and the Chiefs did their classic seven-minute drive while trailing by eight points in the fourth quarter. When they failed to convert the two-point conversion, they had no time for another drive.
There are other issues on the team. QB Alex Smith is hardly a great postseason quarterback. The Chiefs are (1-3) in the playoffs with him under center. Their defense is a mess this year, heading into their meaningless Week 17 game; they were 14th in points allowed and 28th in yards allowed.
Reid has enough regular season wins to be a Hall of Fame head coach and he has appeared in five conference championship games and one Super Bowl. He is hardly a liability when he is winning that much, but he also is among the worst clock managers among coaches that have won 100 games in the NFL. Bad clock management can be the difference between two evenly matched teams in a playoff game.
The Chiefs are good enough to compete in the AFC with their current roster, but Smith needs to play well, their defense needs to show up and Reid needs to put the team in position to win close games in the fourth quarter, something he has failed to do for the Chiefs in 2015 and 2016.
5) Will the Tennessee Titans offense show up on the road in the playoffs? This statistic will tell you everything you need to know about the Titans road struggles in the regular season. In home games this year, QB Marcus Mariota was 161 for 260 with 1,828 yards passing, eight touchdowns, four picks and a QB rating of 86.8. He also had 37 rushing attempts for 217 yards and two touchdowns. On the road, he was 120 for 193 with 1,405 yards passing, five passing touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a QB rating of 69.1. He also was not as effective of a runner, tallying 23 rushing attempts for 95 yards and three touchdowns.
It is not like he was a MVP quarterback at home, but he was at least serviceable. On the road, he had the same QB rating as San Francisco 49ers rookie QB C.J. Beathard, who tallied a 69.2 QB rating before being benched in favor of Jimmy Garoppolo. I do not care what offensive line, running game and defense a team has, the Super Bowl will not be in the cards if a quarterback averages a 69.1 QB rating in the playoffs.
The Titans have a lot of good pieces. Their run defense is among the best in the league, ranking fourth in rushing yards allowed, fourth in rushing yards per attempt and they allowed only five touchdowns, which was fewest in the league. They also have a nice offensive line and a good running game, headed by RB Derrick Henry.
The problem is they do not do much on the road. They won only three games on the road. One was a three point win over the winless Cleveland Browns, one was a four point win at Indianapolis, who just won four games and fired their head coach and the other was Jacksonville, who somehow they beat 37-16 back in Week 2.
The Titans were a team that I thought would become a playoff team this year and they lived up to that hype, but they were one of the least impressive playoff teams in the league this year. Pro Football Reference gives an Expected W-L for the year based on statistical performance and they give the Titans 7.4 wins to 8.6 losses. This team needs to show their offense can travel or they will be out of the playoffs in short order.
6) Will RB LeSean McCoy be healthy enough to contribute to the Buffalo Bills first playoff appearance since 1999? Unfortunately for the NFL, the tiebreaker system did not result in the best team making the NFL playoffs. Their was a log jam among the AFC teams fighting for the last spot, four teams that had a (9-7) record and two spots. The Titans and the Bills made it, the Ravens and the Chargers did not. It is strange to see the Bills in the playoffs when they lost to the Chargers 54-24 in Week 11, but the head-to-head result never factored into the final equation, because there were four teams tied at (9-7).
I think both the Ravens and Chargers would have had a better chance of pulling the upset in the playoffs. The Ravens were sitting at (4-5) and they were among the worst offenses in the NFL. They had not thrown the ball for more than 225 net yards in a single game until Week 9 and they had no featured running back or weapon they could rely upon on the offensive side of the ball. After the bye week, they won six of eight games with their two loss being at the Pittsburgh Steelers by a score of 39-38 and at home to Cincinnati 31-27. They started to pass the ball better and they scored at least 23 points in all seven games. RB Alex Collins became their featured back and QB Joe Flacco started to play better.
I think the AFC breathed a sigh of relief that the Ravens did not make the playoffs, because they would have been a tough out in the playoffs. Unfortunately their inconsistency in the first 10 games left them no margin for error at the end of the year and they did not play their best game when they needed to and Cincinnati embraced the role of spoiler and beat them in their building.
Los Angeles was much the same story. They started the season (0-4) thanks to field goal kicker disasters and almost dug themselves out of that mess, going (9-3) in their final 12 games. Unfortunately, they needed to win a game at Kansas City and failed to do so and the result was they would too miss the playoffs. That (0-4) start left them no margin for error and a bad Week 15 loss ended up costing them a playoff berth.
The Bills have a tough road. They do not have a quarterback like the Chargers and Ravens do and they rely on their defense and running game. RB LeSean McCoy has an ankle injury headed into the playoffs and my guess is that he either sits out the Wild Card round or plays and is ineffective. That will be 1,586 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns missing from their lineup. They are a long shot to make much of a run with him. Without him, they have little to no chance to advance in the playoffs. QB Tyrod Taylor is not good enough to put a team on his back and win three straight road playoff games.
Still, this was a big milestone for the Bills. They had the longest drought in the NFL for playoff appearances and they need to show the rest of the league and their fanbase that they are headed in the right direction. This should give them some momentum heading into 2018 and if they can catch fire at the right time, who knows how far they can go this year. They needed to change a losing culture and qualifying for the postseason was a step in the right direction.
1) Can the Philadelphia Eagles win with backup QB Nick Foles under center? The Eagles were the best team in the NFL when they were leading at the Los Angeles Rams. QB Carson Wentz had just thrown his fourth touchdown pass, he had set the Eagles franchise record for touchdown passes in a year and they were leading 31-28 heading into the fourth quarter.
Their entire season changed after that moment. Wentz went back to the locker room to be evaluated for a knee injury and it was found out that he tore his ACL. They still won the game in the fourth quarter and the results have been mixed since then. They beat the New York Giants and Foles had four touchdowns in that game. He regressed the following week, throwing for only 163 yards, one touchdown, one pick and a QB rating of 59.4 in a victory over the Oakland Raiders. They didn’t play several key players against the Dallas Cowboys and they lost 6-0 to close out the season.
Winning with a backup quarterback in the postseason is hard. There have been teams that have had the starter knocked out for a game and survived with a backup quarterback for part of the postseason. The New England Patriots did that at the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2001 season when Brady was hurt and they were able to make it to the Super Bowl behind the strong play of QB Drew Bledsoe. The New York Giants did so in 1990 with QB Jeff Hostetler filling in for QB Phil Simms for the entire postseason.
Who knows if the Eagles make history this year with Wentz, but there is no statistical analysis you can look at and say that will translate in the playoffs. Their statistical dominance over the NFL was with Wentz at quarterback. They will not have him, they are not the same team without him and who knows if they can stick around in the postseason with Foles behind center. It is their biggest question mark headed into the postseason.
2) Will QB Case Keenum continue his strong play in the NFC Playoffs? The Minnesota Vikings appear to have everything a team could want and they may not have to leave the State of Minnesota in the Playoffs. The Eagles may not make it to the NFC Championship Game, the Vikings are the second seed and if they win the NFC, they will be the first team in NFL history to participate in a Super Bowl where they are the host city. The closest this came to happening was in the 1984 season, when the San Francisco 49ers played the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX in Stanford Stadium about 35 miles south of San Francisco.
Headed into their Week 17 game against the Chicago Bears, the Vikings had the top yardage and scoring defense in the NFL. They were ranked second against the pass, second against the run and they had allowed a league-low 13 touchdown passes. Their QB rating differential was an impressive 99.0 for and 73.4 against or 25.6 rating points.
On offense, they have a very good running attack. They were eighth in rushing yards gained with 1,810 yards and eighth in rushing touchdowns scored (13). They improved on all those numbers with a 23-10 victory over the Chicago Bears. The only question mark they have is at quarterback.
Statistically, Keenum is not a bad quarterback this year. Heading into the Chicago game, he was (10-3) as the starting quarterback and was 304 for 452 with 3,358 yards passing, 21 passing touchdowns, seven picks and a QB rating of 98.1. He improved on those statistics on Sunday, finishing 21 of 29 with 189 yards passing, one passing touchdown, no picks and a QB rating of 101.1.
The question for the Vikings is whether this is a product of a fluky stretch of games or if he is the real deal. If you had told people that Keenum would be the starting quarterback on one of the best teams in the NFL, people would have laughed at that assertion. Keenum was just (9-15) as a starting quarterback headed into this year and he is currently on his third team in four seasons. There was nothing he showed in Houston or St. Louis / Los Angeles that made anyone think he could be a player that could lead a team to a Super Bowl.
The Vikings were the biggest beneficiaries of Wentz going down for the season, because the one thing Philadelphia had going for them that Minnesota did not was a franchise quarterback. Both teams are now trying to win with journeyman quarterbacks and that may open the door for the Vikings.
The big question for the Vikings is what is going to happen if they face a franchise quarterback in the NFC Playoffs. Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton, New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees and Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan are all proven commodities in the NFL. All have played in the Super Bowl and Brees has won the Lombardi Trophy. Keenum is going to have to play well against those teams or it could mean his Vikings going home early in the playoffs.
3) Will Todd Gurley have a historic postseason to lead the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl? If I had a vote, Gurley would be my choice for the MVP of the league this year. He probably would not have won the award if Wentz had stayed healthy, but Wentz went down with an ACL tear ending his incredible season. Patriots QB Tom Brady had a bad December and that opened the door for a running back for the first time since Minnesota Vikings RB Adrian Peterson.
In fact, no running back has won the award other than Peterson since Brady won the MVP award in 2007, snapping a two-year run by Seattle Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander (2005) and San Diego Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson (2006). Quarterback is the most important position in the NFL and they tend to dominate the MVP voting. Gurley was the most versatile running back in the league and the only one that was close to him was Pittsburgh Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell. Gurley was both a threat on the ground with 279 rushing attempts, 1,305 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns and through the air with 64 receptions for 788 yards and six more touchdowns. He was the leading rusher in the NFL when he sat in Week 17 and he was the Rams second leading receiver after 15 games.
The Rams have other pieces besides Gurley. QB Jared Goff had a great season with 3,804 yards passing, 28 touchdowns, seven picks and a QB rating of 100.5. Their defense was eighth in points allowed and 16th in yards gained. Gurley did not single handily help the Rams win 11 of their first 15 games. However, he was their most important piece and without him, they probably do not win more than six games.
When Gurley carried the ball at least 17 times, they were (9-0). When he carried the ball less than 17 times, they were (2-5). When he was targeted six or more times in the passing game, they were (8-0). When he was targeted less than six times, they were (3-4). The recipe is simple to beat Los Angeles, stop Gurley from touching the ball.
Denver Broncos RB Terrell Davis set the gold standard for the postseason in terms of running back production. In four playoff games, he tallied 112 rushing attempts for 581 yards and eight rushing touchdowns. He did not do much in the air, finishing that postseason with eight receptions for 38 yards. He was too busy dominating on the ground on the way to the Broncos first Super Bowl victory.
Gurley has been the center of this offense and nobody was able to stop him down the stretch. He had 591 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns in his final three games. If he plays like that in the postseason, the Rams could be unbeatable.
4) Can the New Orleans Saints running game continue to come up big in the playoffs? The reason the Saints have been reborn this year is a commitment to their running backs. Heading into Week 16, their backs had combined for 2,912 yards from scrimmage and 24 touchdowns. They padded those numbers in Week 17 with 89 yards and one touchdown.
To put into perspective how historic their backfield has been, there are only 10 running back tandems since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978 that have both topped 1,200 yards from scrimmage. The New Orleans Saints finished 206 yards behind the record of 3,207 yards set by Chicago Bears RB Walter Payton and RB Roland Harper back in 1978.
What is ironic about that list is that only one of the tandems won the Super Bowl, the 1984 San Francisco 49ers. They had Hall of Fame QB Joe Montana leading an offense that had RB Roger Craig and RB Wendell Tyler in the backfield. A big reason for that running back tandem being the only one to win a Super Bowl is most of the teams on this list did not have Montana behind center. When the Bears set the record, they had a team that was 28th in pass attempts and 26th in passing yards gained.
The Saints are not as good as that San Francisco team that went (15-1) and won their games by an average of 15.5 points per game. They do not have to be that good though, the 1984 49ers are one of the 10 best teams of the Super Bowl era and there are plenty of teams that have won Super Bowls that were not as good as the 1984 49ers.
The Saints resemble that team in that they have a future Hall of Fame QB Drew Brees who had previously won a Super Bowl. Brees has been stellar, in his first 15 games, he was 364 for 506 with a completion percentage of 71.9 percent, 4,089 yards passing, 22 passing touchdowns, eight picks and a QB rating of 103.6. He has been asked to throw the ball only 33 times per game and watch his running backs dominate the opposition.
In games where the Saints run the ball for more than 130 yards, they are a perfect (8-0). In games where they run the ball for less than 130 yards, they are (3-5) and four of those losses saw them tally less than 100 yards rushing. Take away Ingram and Kamara and an opponent has a reasonable chance of winning the game. If the Saints are going to shine in the postseason, they must stick with the recipe of running the ball successfully.
5) Can the Carolina Panthers find a passing game in the NFC Playoffs? Panthers QB Cam Newton is a former MVP of the NFL and it was only a couple years ago in the 2015 season when he had 3,837 yards passing, 35 passing touchdowns and a QB rating of 99.4. He also ran the ball 132 times for 636 yards and 10 more touchdowns.
He just has not been that quarterback the last two years. Last year, he had only 3,509 yards passing and a QB rating of 75.8. He has slightly rebounded this year with 3,302 yards passing and 22 passing touchdowns, but his QB rating is just 80.7. The problem this year has been consistency. He has five games where he has topped the 100.00 QB rating mark and eight games where he has not been able to top the 70.00 mark. They have actually gone (4-4) in those games, although the wins were against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2), Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets. Other than the Vikings, that is not very good competition.
This team has to be better passing the football in the postseason. There is not going to be a Jets team or Buccaneers team to squeak by with a bad Newton performance and while they did beat the Minnesota Vikings with him playing bad, they are not going to thread that needle four times in the playoffs. That was evident in the season finale when he was just 14 for 34 with 180 yards passing, one passing touchdown, three picks and a QB rating of 31.5. Had the Panthers won that game, they would have won the NFC South, instead they are a Wild Card traveling to New Orleans.
Newton is one of the toughest quarterbacks to evaluate in terms of QB rating, because he has eight games where he topped 50 yards rushing and the reason they won that game against Minnesota was he had a 62-yard run late in the fourth quarter that put the Panthers in position to score the winning touchdown. You cannot just look at QB rating with Newton; he changes the game with his legs more than any player in the NFL and those plays do not show up in the rating.
Newton does not need to be Peyton Manning in the playoffs, a surgeon passer that beat teams with freakish efficiency. He has to be competent though at moving the ball through the air. The Panthers will have to beat some good quarterbacks in the NFC and the Panthers need Newton to play like the 2015 MVP and not the inconsistent quarterback that has been playing in Carolina the last two years. If the Newton that played in Week 17 shows up in New Orleans, it will be a short postseason.
6) Can the Atlanta Falcons offense find it’s legs in the postseason? I was wrong about this team. I thought they would collapse in the final two weeks of the season and that the Dallas Cowboys or Seattle Seahawks would make it into the playoffs. Instead, their defense showed up and made Newton play his worst game of the season and they won the game 22-10 to make the playoffs. This team did not back into the dance, they dominated a very good Carolina team.
Here is the problem. This offense has been a disaster this year. There was no way they were going to duplicate their historic 2016 season, but they have been a below average offense with above average talent. Despite having the reigning MVP, QB Matt Ryan, WR Julio Jones, RB Devonta Freeman and RB Tevin Coleman, this team is 15th in points scored and 8th in yards gained.
They did not just regress; they fell off a cliff. Last year they scored 540 points and gained 6,653 yards. They were third in passing yards, second in passing touchdowns, first in net yards per passing attempt, fifth in rushing yards, fifth in rushing yards per attempt and third in rushing touchdowns. Compare that to this year, where they are eighth in passing yards, 20th in passing touchdowns, third in net yards per attempt, 13th in rushing yards, eighth in rushing yards per attempt and 15th in rushing touchdowns.
The most notable decline has been the scoring offense. Last year, they scored 540 points, which was tied for the seventh most in a NFL season. They had 11 games where they had 30-plus points (third most in a season) and five 40-plus-point games (second most in a season).
This year, they scored only 353 points, which is down 11.68 points per game from last season. They did not have a single game where they scored 40 points and they scored 30 or more points only four times. Two of those games were in the first three weeks of the season.
On the positive side, they dropped from an 11-win team to a 10-win team despite that steep offensive decline. The reason for that was in 2016, they were 27th in points scored and 25th in yards allowed. This year, they are eighth in points allowed and ninth in yards allowed. That improved defense has helped offset the steep offensive decline. The Falcons will be a dangerous team in the postseason if they can find their red zone offense. Last year, they scored touchdowns on 64.56 percent of their red zone drives, which was eighth in the NFL. This year, they scored a touchdown on only 50.00 percent of their red zone drives, which was 23rd.
If they keep leaving points on the field, they will bow out much earlier than the Super Bowl. They were (10-0) in games where they scored 20 or more points and (0-6) when they failed to reach 20 points. The offense does not need to be the 2016 version for them to win in the playoffs, but they need to be much better than they were in the regular season.
Prediction: This is an impossible year to pick a Super Bowl, because there is really no dominant team. I think the closest one to being a dominant team was the Philadelphia Eagles, who were winning their games by an average of 14.6 points per game before Wentz was injured. They are currently in the Top-7 in points scored, points allowed, yards gained and yards allowed and with a 14.6-point differential; they would have been the favorite to win the Super Bowl. Without Wentz, I think it is more likely they come up short.
You really could just pick two teams out of a hat and have as much luck as trying to analyze these teams. However, I prefer to look at stats and matchups, so I will give it a shot. In the NFC, I like the New Orleans Saints. They will have to play on the road, but I think the combination of a Hall of Fame quarterback, a historic running back duo and a quality defense will serve them well on the road. They are (11-3) after a (0-2) start to the season and I think how they play travels well.
They had a bad loss to Tampa Bay to close the season, but I do not think that will carry over to the playoffs. Philadelphia and Minnesota do not have the quarterback play they have and the Rams have not been in the playoffs since 2004. The Saints played the Rams competitively in Los Angeles and I think they could easily win a rematch with them. I think their running game and future Hall of Fame quarterback will shine in the playoffs and carry them to the Super Bowl in the NFC.
In the AFC, I really think it is going to be Pittsburgh at New England in the Championship Game and the only real team that has a chance to crash the party is the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars are not very consistent. They played at the Cleveland Browns and were only ahead 12-7 in that game before scoring a meaningless touchdown on a botched Stanford Band play. Then they lost to the Arizona Cardinals on the road. They came back home and dominated the Indianapolis Colts 30-10, Seattle Seahawks 30-24 and the Houston Texans 45-7.
They looked ready to close the season on a tear and then they went to San Francisco and lost to the 49ers by a score 44-33. This is a team that beat the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers by a combined score of 74-16, but in between those games lost to the New York Jets 23-20. If that is not the definition of inconsistency, I do not know what is.
I want to buy into that Jacksonville D and they could dominate the playoffs, but I think the more likely scenario is QB Blake Bortles lets them down in a big spot and Pittsburgh advances to play New England. Given that New England has owned Pittsburgh over the years and beat them in Pittsburgh, I would give the nod to the New England Patriots.
In the Super Bowl, I like the Saints in a rematch against the New England Patriots. They played back in Week 2 by a score of 36-20, but that was before the Saints running game was playing like it has been at the end of the year. They threw the ball 45 times in that game and rushed the ball only 17 times for 81 yards. They also gave up 555 yards in that game, a week after giving up 470 yards to the Minnesota Vikings.
Their defense has given up only 311.4 yards since those two losses to open the season and I think they would show much better in the rematch. The Patriots are only 16th against fantasy running backs and I think their defense would have a much tougher time in a game where New Orleans was running the ball at a high level. I like the Saints to win the Super Bowl for the second time under Brees and head coach Sean Payton. Winner: New Orleans 37 vs. New England 30