The Debrief: Wide-open field makes NFL playoffs ripe for insanity

Print

The top teams in the AFC should be thrilled with how Sunday's action played out. The Ravens and Chargers, two teams with the weaponry to surprise in a one-game season if everything broke right, were both knocked out of the tournament before it started. The Titans and Bills are in, giving two starving fanbases a taste of the playoffs that seems destined to be short-lived. Both nine-win teams have not shown anything in their season-long makeup to believe they could win three straight playoff games on the road to make the Super Bowl.

Then again, the playoffs are an entirely different season that once felt impossible to predict. There has been a recent run of Super Bowls featuring high-seeded teams, but it wasn't that long ago when a lower-seeded surprise emerged seemingly every year. (The 2007 Giants, '08 Cardinals, 2011 Giants and '12 Ravens come to mind.)

This postseason, with eight teams that weren't in last season's playoffs and a truly wide-open NFC, appears more ripe for insanity than any in the last five years. Let's take a quick look at the playoff field before the madness starts:

Team no one wants to face

The Rams have the most balanced team in the NFL, ranking in the top-six in Football Outsiders' efficiency metrics on offense, defense and special teams. Los Angeles caught a break Sunday when the Saints lost in Tampa, preserving the Rams' No. 3 seed and a greater chance to host the NFC Championship Game.

It could be argued that the Rams' opponent Saturday night, the sixth-seeded Falcons, would also qualify as the most dangerous lower seed in the playoffs. The Falcons' recipe in their victory Sunday over the Panthers showed Atlanta's potential, with a lightning-fast defense complementing a ball-control offense piloted by Matt Ryan. But the Falcons have made so many critical errors in key games this season that it's hard to believe this is their year.

The Rams are much more of the moment. A win in the Wild Card Round would send the Rams to Minnesota. While the Vikings throttled the Rams in the initial Case Keenum Revenge Game, it would be a great challenge for Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer to hold down Los Angeles' offense for a second time. No team playing on Wild Card Weekend is more likely to win the Super Bowl than the Rams.

Most likely to be one-and-done

By the time the Philadelphia Eagles next take the field, they will be three weeks removed from the last time their entire team played a competitive game. More than a month will have passed since Carson Wentz was hurt and six full weeks since the team's offense and defense both played well in the same game. All of that inaction and mediocre play is a recipe for a slow start in the Divisional Round, a grumbling home crowd and a situation that no one in Philadelphia relishes: Nick Foles needing to come from behind to win in the playoffs.

Sunday's shutout loss to Dallas only confirmed the worst fears of Eagles fans. Foles looked skittish again, throwing for only 39 yards (with an interception) on 11 attempts in the frigid cold. Philadelphia might be the rare No. 1 seed that is an underdog in its first playoff game, no matter which team it plays.

Biggest winner in seeding

Everything turned up Andy Reid on Sunday. First, the Kansas City Chiefs coach watched his hand-picked first-round quarterback Patrick Mahomes win a game on the road in Denver. Then the Chiefs drew a favorable wild-card matchup against a Titans team unlikely to take advantage of K.C.'s vulnerable secondary.

If seeds hold, the Chiefs should welcome a slated trip to Foxborough. The Pittsburgh Steelers have proven to be Kansas City's kryptonite over the last two years, controlling the line of scrimmage in three bruising victories over the Chiefs.

Andy Reid and friends should have a better chance at a road upset in New England, like the one the Chiefs pulled off back in Week 1. Kansas City's squad quietly has a better shot to make the Super Bowl than at any other time in the Andy Reid era because the top teams in the AFC have such clearly defined weaknesses.

Strange but true

1) James Harrison is set to play a significant role for a thin Patriots linebacker group, just weeks after joining the team. He played 28 snaps Sunday, finishing the game with two sacks on the Jets' final drive, flashing a power rush and impressive hustle. The Pats' talent-poor front seven could use help setting the edge in the running game and rushing the passer. Harrison could be the best they have.

2) Alex Smith, coming off the best season of his career, probably needs to win multiple games for any chance to keep his job next season. Some playoff wins could doubly help the Chiefs by raising his trade value.

3) Just weeks after Jerry Richardson put the team up for sale, the Panthers enter the playoffs using their outgoing and founding owner as a rallying cry for the team.

4) The Minnesota Vikings are the slight favorites in the NFC, with a great chance to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium, despite having backups at quarterback and running back. Case Keenum on the Super Bowl stage would be a deliriously delicious underdog story for the ages.

5) Titans coach Mike Mularkey could still wind up losing his job, especially if the Titans can't pull off an upset in Kansas City.

6) The Saints' loss on Sunday to Tampa Bay could have improved the team's chances of making the NFC Championship Game. The Saints will now host the Panthers in the Wild Card Round -- Carolina's a team New Orleans handled twice in the regular season. If seeds hold in the NFC, the Saints will then go to Philadelphia to face Nick Foles' Eagles. New Orleans didn't play its best football down the stretch, but this draw is favorable.

Storylines to watch

1) Patriots wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell returned to practice last week, providing hope he could suit up for the playoffs after missing the entire regular season. Mitchell, whose clutch fourth-quarter catches in Super Bowl LI helped the Pats lift the Lombardi Trophy, would add a dynamic weapon on the outside to the league's most efficient offense. New England has a lot of hanging injury situations, with Chris Hogan, Rex Burkhead, James White and Mike Gillislee all entering the playoffs with their availability in question.

2) Antonio Brown's recovery from his calf injury will be a huge story in the next two weeks. If he's able to recover fully, the injury might have strangely helped the Steelers. JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant stepped up huge in No. 84's absence, so the young receivers should enter the playoffs with a ton of confidence.

3) Just a few months ago, the Rams-Jaguars game in Jacksonville had the smallest home crowd the Jags had seen since 2009. Last Thursday, the team announced it was expanding the stadium's capacity ahead of Jacksonville's wild-card matchup by removing tarps on 3,501 seats. The additional inventory sold out in just six minutes. The Rams similarly expanded capacity at the Los Angeles Coliseum for their wild-card game against the Falcons.

The Jaguars haven't hosted a playoff game since 2000. The Rams haven't hosted a playoff game in Los Angeles since 1985. For two exciting young teams without great recent tradition, this is an incredible opportunity to create some lasting playoff memories.

4) Bills running back LeSean McCoy sprained his ankle in Buffalo's win over the Dolphins. He's the MVP of this Buffalo squad and would be especially important in this matchup against a Jaguars defense that can occasionally give up yards on the ground.

5) Bills-Jaguars is the Doug Marrone Revenge Game! Marrone infamously exercised an opt-out clause in his contract to leave the Bills after the 2014 season, something that Bills ownership and some players have not forgotten.

6) Blake Bortles threw five interceptions in the final two weeks of the season, both losses for the Jaguars. One more poor outing in the playoffs could have the Jaguars looking more aggressively for a quarterback in the offseason.

7) The Panthers' passing game is lacking weapons, which showed up again in the team's Week 17 loss to Atlanta. Cam Newton has only topped 200 yards passing once in his last six games. Meanwhile, the team's running game hasn't been reliable, with Newton leading the team in rushing. The Panthers managed to win 11 times due to a great record in one-score games, but they do not have an offensive formula for success.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

Print

Headlines

The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop