NFL PLAYOFFS – THE CONTENDERS
By Gary Jordan
After five months of hard hitting, a slate of big name injuries that cost many teams a shot of the playoffs, and four London games, the field of 32 has been whittled down to just 12. The New England Patriots stunned the Atlanta Falcons to win the Super Bowl last February, and they are back in the playoffs to try and defend their crown. This year’s big game is being held in Minnesota, and the home town Vikings are also in the hunt to claim the Vince Lombardi trophy in the 52nd playing of football’s elite prize. Here is a run-down of this year’s contenders, with a hint of how they could fare over the next month.
13-3 EAST DIVISION WINNERS
Early in the season the reigning champions looked anything but that. Some sloppy play on defense and an offense that wasn’t firing on all cylinders. Write them off? No chance. We should all know better that a team coached by someone who will probably go down as the best, with a QB that will also hold that title, they will always be contenders. Especially as they compete in a division that for the last decade or so has not given them a consistent threat. Gaining home field advantage will always help at this time of year but even if they had not earned this you would still favor them to advance deep into the postseason. Favorites to win it all again, and with good reason. Until someone stops them they are the best in the business.
13-3 NORTH DIVISION WINNERS
Having lost the number one seed to the Patriots, in a game between the two in Week 15, the Steelers will have to go through Foxboro if they are to reach Minnesota. It was a game that was arguably the best of the season, and showed exactly why the two teams are the greatest in the Conference (if not the entire league). Like New England they have a Coach and QB tandem that have been through it all more than once and this will only be to their advantage. The bye week will serve them well – key components are banged up and need healing. You get then feeling they will only go as far as Big Ben or Antonio Brown will take them. Should get one more crack at the Patriots, in what will likely be another classic encounter.
10-6 SOUTH DIVISION WINNERS
Over the past couple of seasons, you got the sense that something good was brewing in Jacksonville. The pieces were starting to fall into place with high-end draft picks making their presence felt. This culminated in a season where they started slow (3-3) but went on a 7-1 run to win the division. Losing the last two games isn’t the best way to enter the postseason, though, and they won’t be happy with the way their defense was shredded by the 49ers in the penultimate game of the season. This is a team that relies heavily on their D. It will need to be at its best if they are to make a deep run through January. Sure, the offense can score points but when truly tested they seem to come up short. They play at home on Wild Card weekend and that should be enough to get them over the first hurdle, any more than that will be a huge bonus on what has already been a remarkable year.
10-6 WEST DIVISION WINNERS
5-0, averaging just under 33 points per game, and having despatched of the Patriots in Week One to the tune of 42-27 it looked like the Chiefs would sweep all before them. Once again though, those that had seen this kind of start before by the Chiefs, knew they can blow up at any moment. And so, it proved. Winning just one of their next seven games they were in danger of throwing it all away. The last month had them playing all their divisional rivals and they had their fate in their hands. They won all those games and another against Miami to secure their playoff spot. This is a team that will flatter to deceive. They have a home game to start but that will be no guarantee. You’d be very brave to suggest they will get past the opening game, and foolish to suggest anything beyond that.
9-7 WILD CARD
A tough run game and some steely D has helped the Titans into the playoffs, although they needed to snap a three-game losing streak on the final day of the season to book their place in the January tournament. After an indifferent start to the campaign they had a stellar midseason (6-1) to put themselves in a healthy position. But after an awful start to December they had to beat rivals Jacksonville on the final day. They did this by holding the Jags to 10 points, and behind the boot of veteran kicker Ryan Succop they put enough points on the board. Can the Titans make the most of their opportunity? They will need to play error free football in a hostile atmosphere to open, but if they can quiet the Arrowhead crowd they have a shot. Any progression past this will be a shock.
9-7 WILD CARD
The longest streak in all US pro sports of not competing in postseason action is over! The Bills needed to win their last game and hope that others would help them out. They did their part, a tense 22-16 win over Miami. Then in the locker rooms, the concourse, and bars around Buffalo everyone gathered and cheered when Tyler Boyd caught an Andy Dalton pass and raced through the Baltimore D to stun the Ravens and send the Bills into playoff ecstasy. Of course, they have had to play good football to be in the position they found themselves in and their season has been a steady one, not gaining huge headlines along the way. Will this under the radar approach see them upset the odds? Or will they just be happy to be there and be one=and-done?
13-3 EAST DIVISION WINNERS
Are the Eagles the best in the NFC? Right now, you’d have to say no. They are not playing the lights out football that marked them as favourites to win it all ten games into the season. That was when QB Carson Wentz was healthy and playing league MVP caliber football. When he went down in Week 14 with a torn ACL against the Rams the team started to lack the belief it had. Sure, the team still ended up with home field advantage, but the Eagles could be another number one seed that falls at the first hurdle. Other teams that are entering the playoffs have more momentum. It will be important how they regroup during their bye week or the Philly Super Bowl drought will continue.
13-3 NORTH DIVISION WINNERS
Last year we had the first overtime in Super Bowl history. This time around we could well see the first ‘home’ team in a Super Bowl. The Vikings have played smart football all year long and look the pick of the NFC pack. They have overcome injuries, but not missed a beat. In fact, the replacements have arguably made them a more rounded team as they play with no heavy expectations. With Green Bay falling away after they had injuries it was plain sailing in their division, but they kept pace with the Eagles in the race for number one seed. If they can keep the momentum after the bye week we could well see another piece of NFL history made.
11-5 WEST DIVISION WINNERS
Another surprise package this year has seen the rise of the Rams. A team that had shown flashes of what could be, put everything together this year. Fine play by QB Jared Goff, was aided by the excellent play of RB Todd Gurley. They were at one point in the season on par with their namesake Rams hailed as the “Greatest Show on Turf” as they scored so freely. Led by young coach Sean McVay, his enthusiastic approach has rubbed off onto his players and will start as slight favourites in their home wild card game. They will need to be a little cautious though as their opening opponents Atlanta will want to get back to the big dance.
11-5 SOUTH DIVISION WINNERS
The Saints lead the trio of teams heading into the playoffs from the NFC South. The race was close in the end, the standings proving that there isn’t much between the three, but over the course of the season New Orleans just about deserved to clinch the division title. They have many weapons that can score fast. This will be useful as they do tend to concede points as well. Veteran QB Drew Brees leads the attack and many see this as his last real chance of gaining another ring. Playing a close rival in the wild card has its pros and cons, home field should have its say though as the Superdome will be loud throughout. Could cause an upset and move onto the Championship game but a shot at the big one could prove one game too many.
11-5 WILD CARD
Carolina were carrying some serious momentum into the final game of the season, going 7-1 to put themselves in contention to win the division. Then Atlanta ended that run when they had a win-and-in situation. So, it’s with that loss they back in to the postseason, but they are a threat having gone all the way to the show recently. Playoff experience counts at this stage. QB Cam Newton seems reenergised and when on his game will be hard to beat. Out of the four wild card games their one at the Saints is perhaps the hardest to call. Should they get out of New Orleans with the win the Panthers will fancy their chances of running the table.
10-6 WILD CARD
After being ridiculed for the entire off season, and through most of the regular season after throwing away a 28-3 lead in last February’s Super Bowl, the Falcons have shown just enough to get into the playoffs again. Its been a hard ride, but one that has shown character, and considering what they’ve been through the last 11 months that could be something to cling to when they travel to Los Angeles trying to upset the Rams. As with Carolina, recent playoff exploits could prove crucial but with the weight still hanging heavy around their collective shoulders, those bad memories will play on them and cause their early exit.