It’s that time of year again. The fantasy season is over, and we are on the verge of yet another exciting NFL playoff. There is plenty to get pumped about as Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, and Ben Roethlisberger all battle to add another championship ring to their resumes. Oh, and the field also includes 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson, 2020 breakout star Josh Allen, Derrick Henry and his 2k rushing season, 2-time defensive player of the year Aaron Donald, Philip Rivers and his 63,000 career passing yards, the Cleveland Browns–in the playoffs for the first time in about 100 years–and my own Chicago Bears. Oh, and did I forget to mention the de facto NFC East champ….Washington? This field is mostly loaded, and we are in for an amazing finish to an up-and-down season that somehow made it through the pandemic mostly unscathed. Here is a look at the remaining teams:
- Kansas City Chiefs (14-2)
- Green Bay Packers (13-3)
- Buffalo Bills (13-3)
- New Orleans Saints (12-4)
- Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
- Seattle Seahawks (12-4)
- Tennessee Titans (11-5)
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)
- Baltimore Ravens (11-5)
- Cleveland Browns (11-5)
- Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
- Los Angeles Rams (10-6)
- Chicago Bears (8-8)
- Washington Football Team (7-9)
So, how do we break it down? Should we just pick the best records? Maybe the hottest teams or the best quarterbacks are the play? This preview attempts to use historical yardage, scoring differential, and playoff experience as a predictive measure to narrow our search for a champion down to a few teams. From there, my personal feelings from the year will bring us the rest of the way. Understand that this is not meant to be a perfect predictive tool, but rather a look at the flaws each team must manage as they head into the playoffs. How did this go last year? We learned some interesting things; Baltimore, for example, was ripe for an upset and then went down quickly to Tennessee. Their anemic passing attack was a big red flag. Green Bay wasn’t elite in any aspect in 2019 (they were good all-around, but not great) and our data showed an overrated team. What happened? They snuck past the Seahawks in their first playoff game before getting dominated by the San Francisco 49ers. Our goal, then, is as much to point out pretenders as it is to find favorites. We can help you identify the landmines in the field. So how does this field look?
Tier 5: Not in a Million Years
14. Chicago Bears (8-8)
Why isn’t Washington last? Well, the worst team in the field is mostly me nitpicking. What’s clear, though, is that there are two bottom dwellers: one wild card and one division winner. The Chicago Bears played through a forgettable season. After a surprising 5-1 start, they lost six in a row and fell to last place in the division. Chicago won their next three, reviving playoff hopes, and back-doored their way in after the Cardinals lost to the Rams. Still, the season ended with a decisive loss to the Packers when everything was on the line. The Bears have only beaten one team with a winning record this year, and they have yet to show elite ability in any phase of the game. The defense has looked average, Mitch Trubisky is still a sub-par QB (to put it nicely), and the running game is just finally starting to look competent. Oh, and the worst part? Chicago plays Green Bay next round if they somehow beat New Orleans. Aaron Rodgers has a career record of 21-5 against the Bears.
The Good: the eleventh ranked defense and the recent resurgence of the running game
The Bad: the twenty-sixth ranked offense and the lack of convincing wins
Blueprint: None. There is no Super Bowl champ from the past 20 years that really reminds of this Bears team.
The Pick: Bears lose to the Saints in the Wild Card Round
13. Washington Football Team (7-9)
Washington is the big winner of the “someone has to take the East” derby. Here’s a fun fact about the NFC East: they never had a winning record this year, and they are the first division to ever accomplish this in the history of the league. No team even stumbled into a quick 1-0 start. That’s nearly impossible. Well, the East could have done worse than Washington. The Washington Football Team was a bit of a mess this year. They had three quarterbacks who started at least four games apiece: Kyle Allen (1-3), Dwayne Haskins (1-5), and Alex Smith (5-1). Fortunately, Washington found Alex Smith and he has righted the ship. Smith isn’t going to win a Patrick Mahomes look-alike competition, but he knows how to manage a game. The strength of this team also isn’t the offense, but the stellar pass defense. The defensive line tallied 47 sacks, headlined by Montez Sweat and superstar rookie Chase Young. The defense only allowed 3393 total passing yards. That is elite territory right there. That’s why Washington ranks above Chicago: they have that one elite ability. They rank this low because of a terrible offense, a terrible record, and a terrible season-long point differential.
The Good: the elite pass defense
The Bad: everything else
Blueprint: 2003 Buccaneers; like Washington, the Buccaneers had an excellent defense and a subpar offense.
The Pick: Part of me wants to pick Washington to knock off Tampa Bay. The last two playoff teams with a losing record won a game, and I think there is something to the added motivation of hearing people say you suck all week. If Washington’s pass-rush brings their A-game on Saturday, I can see a game script where this one gets messy. Still, it’s Tom Brady. Washington loses its first game and tier 5 makes a quick exit.
Tier 4: Only if you are a Diehard Fan
12. Cleveland Browns (11-5)
I hesitated when placing Cleveland into a category. I thought about the bottom tier, but I don’t think that’s fair. Cleveland actually has a few things to hang their hat on this year. They have an excellent running attack headlined by Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. They also finished with a top-10 rushing defense to complement it. If Cleveland can get control of a game early, they actually have a path to winning. Sure, they aren’t great. They aren’t completely hapless though. So what’s the bad side? Cleveland has a bad passing attack that completely disappears at times. To be precise, Cleveland failed to hit 200 passing yards in seven different games. They also have a weak passing defense. They’ve given up almost 4,000 passing yards to opposing offenses, which is rare for previous Super Bowl champs. If Cleveland were to win it all, they would do so with the second-worst pass defense since 2000 and the worst point differential of any champ in the same span. They also face Pittsburgh–a team they have struggled to beat at full strength.
The Good: the excellent rushing attack and the strong rushing defense
The Bad: the terrible passing defense, the weak passing attack, and the horrendous point differential
Blueprint: 2014 Seahawks; like Seattle, Cleveland has an elite rushing attack and a sub-par rushing attack; The big difference is Cleveland’s below-average passing defense vs an elite Seattle pass D.
The Pick: The Browns first playoff appearance since 2002 results in yet another loss to the Steelers
11. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
The Pittsburgh Steelers started the season 11-0 and they were, at one point, thought of as the team to beat. Of course, everyone was bringing up the ’72 Miami Dolphins and if the streak would end. Well, the Steelers ended on a 1-4 skid including losses to Washington, Cincinnati, and Cleveland. The reward for Pittsburgh–who rested in their finale against Cleveland–is another game against the division rival. So how did Pittsburgh get to 11-0? They have an excellent pass defense and a strong run defense. Pittsburgh is a well-coached team and they rarely beat themselves. They are a franchise many wish they could be. The passing attack has also been solid at times. The Steelers boast three talented receivers in Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and Juju Smith-Schuster, and they won’t be getting shut out by anyone. That being said, the offense has struggled lately, averaging just over 19 points per game in Roethlisberger’s last three starts. Pittsburgh’s biggest weakness is their atrocious rushing attack. If they win it all, they would be the worst rushing attack since at least 2000 to do so. They would also be the worst-ranked offense to win it all in the same time span; they finished 25th. If this passing attack doesn’t heat back up, they will be an easy out.
The Good: the elite passing defense and the solid rushing defense
The Bad: the league’s worst rushing attack and an overall so-so offense
Blueprint: 2011 Packers; the 2011 Green Bay team–like these Steelers–had a strong pass attack, a weak run game, and an excellent defense. This offense isn’t quite as good, but the defense is better
The Pick: The Steelers just don’t lose to the Browns. I know they are struggling, but I just don’t see a loss here in the first round. Any other team would be tempting, but not Cleveland. That being said, I’ll be cheering wholeheartedly for the Browns.
10. Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
The Colts are a tricky one for me. This team doesn’t easily beat itself, and they are a hard-fought 11-5. Their losses were to Jacksonville in week 1, Cleveland, Baltimore, Tennessee, and Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, they boast wins over Chicago, Tennessee, and Green Bay. Indianapolis built their success on the back of an excellent rushing defense, holding opponents to under 1500 total yards this year. That’s an impressive mark. Their offense is solid, though unspectacular, and it’s built mostly on the rushing attack–which seems to be heating up at just the right time. Will it be enough? Well, here are the negatives: Indianapolis ranked 20th in pass defense. That’s honestly it. So why isn’t Indy higher? First, I don’t trust Philip Rivers. Given the history, Rivers always seems to make at least one big mistake in big games. I imagine he throws a back-breaker at some point, and the Colts don’t recover. Second, Indy has a bad combo of mediocre pass defense and pass offense considering they will likely face Buffalo, Kansas City, or both. It’s hard to imagine them winning either of those games unless their opponent self-destructs. Finally, the Colts offense just doesn’t have the star-power of typical contenders. Sure, Jonathan Taylor looks like a future superstar. That’s it though on offense. Philip Rivers has been solid this year, but he is far from a star player with only 24 touchdowns. The offense lacks an 800-yd receiver. There isn’t much to get excited about. Indianapolis draws a terrible matchup in the first round, and I think they are a quick out. Even if they sneak past Buffalo, they would have the Chiefs up next. That’s a brutal ask for any team. If they were in the NFC, they would likely be 1-2 tiers higher.
The Good: The rushing defense and an all-around solid offense.
The Bad: no star power on offense outside the RB position, and a below-average passing defense
Blueprint: 2005 Patriots; the 2005 Patriots were a better offense and pass defense, but Indy has the edge in run defense; overall, both teams rank similarly
The Pick: Indianapolis plays a tight first half, but ultimately watches Buffalo run away as they just can’t keep up.
9. Seattle Seahawks (12-4)
At the midway point of the season, I had Seattle penciled in as a Super Bowl team based on their amazing offense. That feels like a LONG time ago now. Russell Wilson and the Seahawks are the epitome of “a tale of two halves”. Here are Russell Wilson’s first half and second half stats.
|First eight games||211||297||71%||2541||28||8|
|Last eight games||173||261||66%||1671||12||5|
If we double the first half, we get one of the greatest seasons of all time. If we double the second half, we get Philip Rivers but with fewer yards. Seattle hasn’t beaten many good teams, so it’s probably fair to wonder what they have left in the tank. Seattle finished the season as an average offense: they ranked 16th in passing, 12th in rushing, and 17th in overall yards. They have an abysmal passing defense (31st), but a strong rushing defense (5th). It all adds up to a confusing picture. I would say to avoid; Seattle would be the worst pass defense and overall defense to win the Super Bowl in the last 20 years. That’s not a great omen. It’s also hard to imagine they magically re-find their groove. Still, if they get back on track then they could easily go on a run. That just seems like a big ‘if’ now.
The Good: those first eight games and the run defense
The Bad: the last eight games, the pass defense, and the overall defense
Blueprint: 2002 Patriots; this Seattle team has an average overall offense mixed with a terrible pass defense and a strong run defense. No team is quite a match, but the 02 Patriots are closest
The Pick: a loss to the Rams in the first round.
Tier 3: Possibly–if Things Break the Right Way
8. Tennessee Titans (11-5)
Tennessee is an interesting team, and one I think people may lock onto as a playoff sleeper. They feature the league’s best running back in Derrick Henry, who just broke the 2,000-yard mark in a single season. He put up a monstrous year, and he deserves all the praise he receives. Tennessee has followed Henry to a second-ranked rushing attack and a second-ranked offense. Their passing game, while clearly an afterthought, isn’t terrible behind Ryan Tannehill. Still, they don’t want the game to rest on his shoulders. Where Tennessee struggles, then, is on defense. The Titans are 29th in passing yards allowed and 28th in total yards allowed. Those would be the worst respective ranks of any Super Bowl winner in the last 20 years. They have given up 4439 passing yards and 6372 total yards–also the worst marks in the last 20 years. It’s hard to overcome such a bad defense. Like Indianapolis, the Titans are bound for terrible matchups in Buffalo and Kansas City. For this to break the right way, Tennessee will be greatly dependent on the game script, even if it’s hard to imagine that one of the high-flying AFC offenses doesn’t put them in a hole at some point. When that happens, this run is likely over. At least they match up well against Baltimore.
The Good: the elite running back and the offense built around him
The Bad: the terrible passing defense and overall inability to stop opponents
Blueprint: 2012 Giants; unlike the Titans, the Giants could pass but not run. Here’s how they are similar: one dimensional offense bac ked by a below-average defense. No one-dimensional run offense has won the big game without a strong D to back it up.
The Pick: The Titans beat the Ravens in their first game before losing their next game against Kansas City.
7. Baltimore Ravens (11-5)
So if I think Tennessee beats Baltimore, why is Baltimore ranked higher? While I like the Titans to beat the Ravens in a close game, I think the Ravens have a more balanced team and a better chance to make a prolonged run if they win that first game. Baltimore has the league’s top rushing attack, so they can play the same ball-control game the Titans want to. They also boast a strong defense, ranking top-10 against both the pass and the run. Just like last year, Baltimore hopes to run, run, run through their opponents. Unfortunately, that’s all they know how to do on offense. Baltimore is the 32nd ranked passing attack, and they only threw for a measly 2739 yards. That would be the worst passing attack to win the Super Bowl in the last 20 years. Since 2009, no one has won the big game without at least 3300 passing yards during the season. That is a huge red flag and one that will likely sink the Ravens if they can’t get hot–or hold every opponent under 25. Still, they have good coaching, and they know how to scheme for their weapons. Like the Titans, they just can’t land in a big hole. Unlike the Titans, they have a strong defense to help avoid it. For this to break right for Baltimore, Lamar Jackson has to put the team on his back. He needs to re-establish a connection with Marquise Brown while remaining a terror on the ground. If that happens, I could see something crazy happening here.
The Good: The league-leading rushing attack and a defense that is strong across the board
The Bad: the putrid passing attack and the one-dimensional attack it creates
Blueprint: 2014 Seahawks, 2001 Ravens; like the current Ravens, the ’14 Seahawks and ’01 Ravens both struggled to pass and had strong all-around defenses. Just realize: neither was as bad at passing, and both were better at defense.
The Pick: Baltimore vs Tennessee seems like a coin flip, but I give the edge to Tennessee based on the result of their last two matchups, including one during this season.
Tier 2: Close, but…
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)
Tom Brady’s team is only sixth? Say it ain’t so! Let’s start with the good. Tampa Bay has a powerful passing attack, ranking second to only the Chiefs in total yards. They also boast the league’s best rushing defense. The things this team does well, they do extremely well. Unfortunately, the things they do poorly they do rather poorly. The Buccaneers are the 28th-ranked rushing offense and they would be the second-worst rushing attack in the last 20 years to win it all. Tampa Bay will be playing all of its games on the road, and it’s going to be tough not having a reliable rushing attack to lean on. At least they don’t have to deal with much crowd noise. The Bucs also have a so-so passing defense that won’t help matters. A matchup against Seattle or Green Bay could prove problematic. Still, the presence of Tom Brady is worth overlooking a weakness or two, right? We need to mention the X-factor, though: Mike Evans. Evans went down last week and had an MRI on his knee. He is week to week, and his status will have a huge impact on a potential run. He leads the team in targets, receptions, yards, and touchdowns. If Evans is done, Tampa Bay should be dropped a tier. If he is 100%, this spot feels about right. I’m ranking them as though Evans plays. Even with Tom Brady, I think this team has too much to overcome to be considered a favorite.
The Good: the passing attack, the rush defense, and that Tom Brady guy
The Bad: the rushing offense, the passing defense, and the uncertain status of Mike Evans
Blueprint: 2004 Patriots; the ’04 Patriots were definitely not as good at throwing the ball, but they were better at defending the pass. Everywhere else, these teams are comparable.
The Pick: Tampa Bay takes care of Washington before yet another loss to the New Orleans Saints. After the loss, Tom Brady says something vague about his future. The fans all know he’s definitely coming back again.
5. Los Angeles Rams (10-6)
Going into this exercise, I did not expect to rank the Rams this highly. Well, here we are. Los Angles has completely transitioned from an offensive monster in 2018 to a defensive monster today. They rank first against the pass, third against the run, and first overall in yardage allowed. Considering the Rams schedule (Dallas before they lost Dak, Buffalo, Seattle twice, Arizona twice, Tampa Bay) that was no easy feat. The Rams engine is two-time DPOY Aaron Donald. Donald is a monster at the DT position, and he has lead the D-line to 53 sacks on the season–second only to Pittsburgh. He is also a front-runner for another DPOY award this year. Jalen Ramsey headlines a secondary that has allowed only 3051 passing yards. That’s an average of 190 per game. Those kinds of numbers are rare, and they are matched up to an offense that can blow up. Like with Tampa Bay, Los Angeles needs to get healthy. Here is who they might be missing this weekend on offense: Jared Goff, Cooper Kupp, and Darrell Henderson. That’s a heavy blow. As with Tampa Bay, though, we will judge this team as though they are healthy. What else is holding the Rams back? Well, there is the slumping offense. Despite solid full-season marks, the Rams only managed 18 points against the Cardinals, 9 points against Seattle, and 20 points in a loss to the Jets over their last three games. If they can’t score 20+, they will be going home quickly. If LA was perfectly healthy, I think they would be an excellent sleeper team. They have playoff experience, they have a coach who’s been to the big game, and they don’t have any glaring weaknesses–other than Jared Goff being the quarterback. Their defense is legit and we know this offense has shined before with mostly the same weapons. If this offense can get hot, watch out.
The Good: everything having to do with the defense
The Bad: the injury report and the slumping offense
Blueprint: 2016 Broncos; if the Rams win it, it will be similar to the Broncos. An elite defender (Von Miller vs Aaron Donald) gets hot and carries his team to the promised land. To be fair, this Rams team is definitely better on offense while probably slightly worse on defense.
The Pick: the Rams beat the Seahawks before falling to the Green Bay Packers.
Tier 1B: The Contenders
4. New Orleans Saints (12-4)
I was big on New Orleans last year, but they stumbled immediately in an overtime playoff loss to the Minnesota Vikings. This year feels like Drew Brees’ last shot before he rides off into the sunset, and I would love to see him grab one more ring. So how’s the team looking? New Orleans is one of probably five teams I see as not having a true weakness to worry about. They rank 19th in passing offense, 6th in rushing offense, and 12th on the season in total yards gained. That’s plenty considering the strength of the defense: 5th against the pass, 4th against the run, and 4th overall. Long gone are the high-flying Saints of the past, and here is a grittier team in their place. Drew Brees played in 12 games, holding down the position well in his old age. He posted a 9-3 record, completed 70% completion percentage, threw for 245 yards per game, and managed a 4:1 touchdown to interception ratio. There are much worse options available at the position than Brees. How about the rest of the offense?
Alvin Kamara is having an excellent year, despite once again missing the 1k rushing mark. He tallied 932 yards on 187 carries (5 ypc) as well as 16 rushing touchdowns. Kamara caught 83 balls for another 756 yards and 5 more touchdowns. He is the focal point of the offense, and it will go as far as he does. Let’s not forget Michael Thomas. Thomas was the top receiver in the league last year, but injuries slowed his 2020 campaign to a halt. He should be back for the wildcard game, and Thomas is an immediate difference-maker if healthy. Throw in veterans Emmanuel Sanders (726 yards and 5 touchdowns) and Jared Cook (504 yards and 7 touchdowns) and this team has the firepower to give opponents fits.
Looking at the defense, the biggest story has to be Trey Hendrickson. He had 6.4 total sacks through three seasons to begin his career before exploding for 13.5 in 2020. That puts him second in the league to only T.J. Watt. This Saints d-line averages roughly 3 sacks per game, and that pressure has helped create 18 interceptions to go along with 7 forced fumbles on the year. The secondary here is also one of the league’s best, and they play like it; the Saints give up just 217 yards per game through the air–fifth in the league. New Orleans is a smart team, and they are not going to go down easily in what could be Drew Brees’ last season. So what’s the weakness here? My top concern is at quarterback. Brees has had a hard time holding up to the NFL grind, and he’s missed nine games between these last two seasons. He’s nearly 42, and he’s lost some heat from his fastball. If the Saints can’t stretch the field, they are going to become predictable on offense. Predictable teams are easy to beat; as a Bears fan, I know this all too well. The quarterback that made the Saints what they are might be the reason they fall short this year. Perhaps they can figure out something between Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston
The Good: the defense and the offensive firepower
The Bad: the injuries and a diminishing QB
Blueprint: 2001 Ravens; This one is a surprisingly good fit. Like the Saints, the Ravens have a below-average pass attack and a strong run game. The Saints defense is more balance while the Ravens were built to stop the run.
The Pick: I imagine the Saints will take care of the Bears and then win a tight one against Tampa Bay. New Orleans has taken care of the Bucs twice now, and there is no Bill Belichick to out-smart Sean Payton. The Saints will keep advancing as long as they protect Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara keeps picking up chunks of yards at a time. If someone stops this run game or if someone can harass Brees, I think the clock will strike midnight. The defense can help by keeping opponents out of the 30s. Still, I think Green Bay will prove too much for this squad, and Drew Brees will retire after a close NFC Championship loss.
3. Buffalo Bills (13-3)
Welcome to Contender-status Buffalo! The Bills haven’t won their division since 1995, so let’s just take a minute to say “at-a-boy!” Buffalo was a wild card team last year, and they had a 16-point lead against the Texans with two minutes left in the game. Things fell apart, and they lost in overtime with a final score of 22-19. Well, this isn’t last year’s Buffalo Bills. What’s changed? Josh Allen has seemingly taken the leap from bust to superstar. He has looked like a whole new player this year, and he should easily be considered one of the league’s top-5 quarterbacks. The Bills also traded for Stefon Diggs. Diggs failed to meet lofty expectations in Minnesota, but things have clicked here. Diggs finished with career highs in targets, receptions, yards, and catch percentage. Did I mention he led the league in three of those stats? Allen to Diggs has become one of the best connections in the league, and both players are just entering their primes. Diggs is complemented by veteran receivers John Brown (458 yards and 3 TD in 8 starts) and Cole Beasley (967 yards and 4TD). The Bills are one of three teams this year (the other two still to come) that I would expect to run the score up on almost anyone. They average better than 31 per game and they just hung 56 on the desperate 10-win Dolphins. The only weakness of the offense is a sub-par rushing attack. Devin Singletary and Zack Moss have failed to gain traction, and the result is a mostly one-dimensional attack. It’s not a disaster–thanks to 400 rushing yards from the QB–but it is a soft spot on an otherwise strong group.
How about the defense? Well, they force a lot of turnovers. Buffalo’s defensive line is solid with 38 sacks, but they won’t strike fear into anyone’s heart. Still, they do enough to support their explosive counterparts on offense. The linebacking core is headlined by Tremaine Edmunds, who was named a team captain last year and is heading to his second Pro Bowl this season. The secondary features Tre’Davious White–going to his second straight Pro Bowl–and the unit has picked off opposing teams 15 times. Add on 15 forced fumbles, and Buffalo has the juice to bury an opponent without even touching the ball. We never like counting on turnovers, but they are a nice complement to an already strong team. The Bills are the 13th ranked pass defense, 17th against the run, and 14th overall. That’s average, but good enough to support the offense.
So how do you beat Buffalo? Slow ’em down–somehow. Buffalo averages 33.7 points per game in their 13 wins and only 21 points per game in their three losses. Buffalo lost to Tennessee in week five by a score of 42-16 and to the Chiefs the next week with a score of 26-17. Their only other defeat was a 32-30 score against the Cardinals on a last-second Hail Mary play. They only failed to reach 25 points once in their last nine games. They scored 40+ in three of those outings, including against Seattle (12-4) and Miami (10-6). This team is a tough out, and they appear to be peaking at just the right time. So why not Buffalo? Let’s say this first: all of these top-3 teams are excellent. Each could easily be called the Super Bowl favorite and I wouldn’t bat an eye. So who do I doubt the Bills? The running backs aren’t terrible, but they have failed to inspire this season. I can’t imagine counting on them in crunch time. The defense, while not that bad, also isn’t that good. This team will need to score a lot as they give up almost 25 per game. I want to pick the Bills. The Bills are who I’ll be rooting for this year. I just don’t think they are ready to topple the king. The next team not only has a comparable offense, but they have the experience of getting there before. In a match as close as this, that’s enough to tip the scales.
The Good: that excellent passing attack and the battle-tested nature of this team against elite competition
The Bad: the rushing game and the non-elite defense
Blueprint: 2007 Colts; like Buffalo, the Colts had an excellent passing attack and a subpar rushing game. The difference is that the Colts were elite against the pass and terrible against the run while Buffalo has a more average, but balance, defense.
The Pick: Buffalo cruises to the AFC title game, and they give the Chiefs all they can handle–taking the lead with 2 minutes left in the game. Unfortunately, 2 minutes was too much to leave on the clock for Patrick Mahomes.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (14-2)
This team truly feels like a direct copy of last year’s Chiefs, and I think they have been mentally getting ready for the playoffs for at least a month now. Kansas City could have won five fewer games and still taken their division. That’s impressive coming off a year where they won it all. There was no Super Bowl hangover, and Mahomes would have been the MVP if not for someone on our last team. This might go down as the best offense in the history of the league, and the top three weapons are all in their prime. We already talked about Mahomes, who is on pace to be the greatest QB of all time. Travis Kelce just finished the best tight end season of all time, and he did it without the benefit of a 16th game. Oh, then there’s Tyreek Hill. Hill might be the fastest player in the league, and he is on the short-list of best receivers in the league. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a big three that was this good. It used to be the case that the best offenses struggled in the playoffs, and Kansas City had their fair share of miscues in last year’s games. They fell behind 24-0 to Houston. They fell behind 17-7 to the Tennessee Titans. They were down 20-10 with seven minutes left in the Super Bowl. Here’s the thing: they are powerful enough to undo any deficit. Houston, up 24-0 early in the second, was already losing 28-24 at halftime. Tennessee saw their 10-point lead obliterated in a 4-minutes span in the third quarter. San Francisco was the second-best defense last year and still couldn’t hold on with only a handful of minutes remaining in their game. The Chiefs will not be shaken, and no lead is safe. If they decide they are going to score, you simply lose. It’s amazing. Of all the games I’ve seen in my life, I’ve never seen an offensive explosion like that Chiefs-Texans game. It perfectly encapsulates what this team is.
So how does this team fare in the rankings? The Chiefs are the #1 passing offense–fittingly–and the 16th best rushing offense. It’s fair to call the running back group a weakness, but it’s not much of one when the passing game is used so well to supplement it. Overall, this offense was still ranked first. On defense, they are capable. The pass D ranks 14th, the rush D is 21st, and overall they were 16th. Last year, for comparison, the Chiefs offense ranked 5th, 23rd, and 6th in the three categories, and their defense ranked 8th, 26th, and 17th. It’s safe to say this team was built to win in the exact same way. Assuming they don’t face all the monster early deficits, it could be a cakewalk. Okay, so how could the Chiefs possibly not be my pick? Well, there are a couple of bugaboos in the way. First, mega-offenses DO tend to struggle in the playoffs. Since 2000, 33 teams have put up 6400+ yards during the season (or 400 per game). One of them won the Super Bowl that year (the 2009 Saints) and one of them is this year’s Chiefs. Everyone else fell short. Since 2000, only one team has led the league in yards and won the Super Bowl that year: again the 2009 Saints. It’s hard to dominate in January as a mega-offense. It’s hard to stay hot when you have a two-week break before the Super Bowl. The second reason is emphasized by what we said about all the comebacks. Here’s another way to put it: the Chiefs playoff run could have easily gone the wrong way if not for a number of things going just the right way. When you count on regular comebacks, you’re bound to crash and burn at some point. Say the Texans didn’t completely collapse: maybe Houston wins that game. Say Jimmy Garoppolo doesn’t overthrow Emmanuel Sanders late in the Super Bowl on a wide-open would-be touchdown: the Niners probably come away winners and Mahomes is left saying ‘what if’. Here are the margins of the last seven games Patrick Mahomes played: +3, +3, +6, +6, +3, +4, and +2. Is it possible this team is just a little weaker than we think? Are they pressing their luck just a little too much?
Whatever happens, one thing is for sure: to beat the Chiefs, you need to be able to put up at least 30. Kansas City averaged 29.5 points per game this year, and they topped 30 points in 9 of the 15 games that the big 3 played in. They are the toughest out in the playoffs as they just never quit. No one can score as fast or as furiously, and they averaged 39 per game in last year’s postseason. Did I say 30? I may have meant 40. The team to beat Kansas City will be the one who can control the clock while frequently getting the ball in the end zone themselves. You have to be able to score, you need a decent running game, and you need a defense that can muster a couple of stops. Remember, you aren’t beating the reigning champ without at least 30 points. The only team that could be ranked ahead of the Chiefs needs an elite QB, a trusty target for him in crunch time, and a good enough supporting cast to make things difficult for the Chiefs. I think our favorite could be that team.
The Good: Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce: the best QB-WR-TE trio in the history of the league.
The Bad: the running game (and its injuries) and the mediocre defense
Blueprint: 2020 Chiefs, 2007 Colts; The Chiefs are mostly the same team as last year. Elite passing attack meets average rushing attack. This defense is a little better than last year while this rushing attack is a little worse.
The Pick: The Chiefs are too fast and furious for the Titans before sneaking past the Bills in a close one. Read on to find out what happens in the Super Bowl.
Tier 1A: The 2021 Super Bowl Pick
1. Green Bay Packers (13-3)
Before I started my analysis, part of me knew who I was picking. Let’s flashback to the 2020 offseason. The Packers have just lost the NFC Championship game to San Francisco with Aaron Rodgers throwing two picks in the losing effort. Green Bay was down 27-0 at halftime and 34-7 after the third quarter. Green Bay really made things look better in the box score thanks to some late points. Let’s be honest though: the Packers were dominated by the Niners. Fast-forward a couple of months, and experts are wondering what Rodgers still has left in the tank. Can he be the guy? Is he still elite? Do the Packers still want him, or are they ready to move on? Jump ahead to the 2020 draft, and Green Bay takes Jordan Love in the first round. Despite everyone in the world knowing the Packers needed another WR, and there being plenty of strong options on the board, Green Bay took a new QB. At least they took a wide receiver in the second round. Wait, they took AJ Dillon–a power back–despite already having Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams. The third round then definitely. Nope–some tight end named Josiah Deguara. Green Bay didn’t draft a receiver in the entire draft. As a Bears fan, I was hysterically laughing. How do you have Aaron Rodgers and draft some project quarterback instead of weapons for him?
It’s no surprise, then, that Rodgers was only going off in the QB6-9 range in fantasy. How could anyone expect bigger things from a declining quarterback that had no new weapons? He was washed up and people were paying for what was–not for what still could be. I’ve watched a lot of Rodgers over the last 10 years, and one thing is clear: he loves the motivation of people doubting him. On draft day, he was left in the green run long after Alex Smith went #1 overall. That stuck with him. Then, he sat for three years behind a wishy-washy Brett Favre, hoping to get his chance. Once he finally did, Green Bay never looked back. Rodgers has averaged 268 passing yards per game over his career or 4,287 yards per season. For comparison, my Bears have never had a 4,000-yard passer in their history. Rodgers quickly entered the GOAT conversation on the back of his enormous talent. Sure, the career hasn’t worked out exactly as fans hoped. We envisioned more Super Bowls, ala Tom Brady. Still, Rodgers has crushed it. He is one of the most talented quarterbacks I have ever seen play the game. So how does this play into the 2021 playoffs? Everyone was doubting Rodgers this year. We laughed when he wasn’t given any new weapons. We laughed when his replacement was taken. We talked about if this was the end for him. So what happened? Rodgers did this:
- 372/526, 70.7% completion percentage, 4299 passing yards, 48 TD, 5 INT
- Twelve 3-TD games
- Seven 4-TD games
Aaron Rodgers is the odds-on favorite to win the MVP award at the end of a season where we all wondered if he was toast. His revenge season is almost complete–he just needs to go into Tampa Bay and win the big game to remind everyone just how good he is. Aaron Rodgers is like the Incredible Hulk: the angrier he gets, the more terrifyingly he eviscerates defense after defense. On the strength of Rodgers alone, I could put this team in the Super Bowl. We still need to talk about the rest of the team though. Davante Adams was a beast this season. He put up 115 receptions, 1374 yards, and 18 touchdowns. Oh, and he did that in 14 games. Adams is what we all dream of in a top wide receiver, and it’s fair to say he should be the first off the board at his position. Almost solely on the back of Rodgers and Adams, this was the ninth-best passing attack. Don’t get it wrong though. Green Bay put up 40+ points four times and 35+ points seven times. Green Bay has the firepower to keep up with the Chiefs. What Green Bay might lack in the passing game, they make up in the running game. Aaron Jones put up 1104 rushing yards (5.5 ypc) and 355 receiving yards. Backfield mate Jamaal Williams posted another 505 rushing yards and 236 receiving yards of his own. The rushing game is ranked eighth and the offense is fifth overall.
On the other side of the ball, Green Bay’s defense ranks seventh against the pass, thirteenth against the run, and ninth overall. The defense is headlined by standout sophomore corner Jaire Alexander, sophomore safety Darnell Savage, and linebacker Za’Darius Smith. Green Bay scores almost 32 per game while giving up only 23. This is a much better team than last year and they have the ‘angry Rodgers’ trump card. Expect Green Bay to destroy their first opponent and then to outscore the Saints. It’ll all come down to the Super Bowl and an elite QB matchup of Rodgers and Mahomes. You know where I go from there.
The Good: Elite quarterback, elite WR1, and a strong running game paired with an all-around solid defense
The Bad: There is little to be afraid of behind Davante Adams in that passing game.
Blueprint: 2017 Patriots; like the 2017 Patriots, this Packers team boasts an excellent offense with a balance between pass and rush. The Patriots had a better run defense but Green Bay has the better pass defense.
The Pick: The Packers and Chiefs trade points back and forth as we hit the ‘over’ early in the third quarter. The Packers kick a field goal to increase their lead to 10 with 9:30 to go in the fourth. The Chiefs, in response, take just two minutes to score the rebuttal thanks to a Travis Kelce touchdown. Up only three, Rodgers gets the ball back with just 7:25 left on the clock. He leads a slow, methodical touchdown drive that takes the clock down to 41 seconds, and even Patrick Mahomes is left helpless. Green Bay returns to the promised land.
Thank you for reading the QBList 2021 Super Bowl Predictions. This is one of my favorite articles of the year, and it’s a bittersweet reminder that–although the season is reaching its penultimate moment–it will just as quickly head back to hibernation. Thank you for reading this season, and here’s to hoping for an amazing finish to the 2020-21 season. For all you Jaguars and Jets fans, the draft will soon be here and you have elite QB prospects to take. For all you Texans fans: at least you have Deshaun Watson. And for all my fellow Bears fans: sorry. The end of our quarterback woes is not in sight.
Green Bay Packers vs. Buffalo Bills: I think the Green Bay Packers will represent the NFC because they are the only team in the NFC with a true home-field advantage this season. The Week 16 game against Tennessee shows just how impactful bad weather can be on teams that aren’t used to it and the NFC is full of teams that play in domes or warm weather, giving the Pack a huge advantage in January. On the AFC side, I think it ultimately comes down to Buffalo or Kansas City and I’m siding with Buffalo right now. Kansas City might be pulling a Golden State Warriors job in sleepwalking through the regular season before turning it on in the playoffs, but I think Buffalo is the only team in the AFC that can match up with them. Arrowhead Stadium isn’t as imposing without fans and I think Buffalo can escape with a narrow victory if that is what the AFC Championship Game comes to. Experience wins out in the Super Bowl, however, and I like the Packers to secure another title with a win over the Bills. Final score, Green Bay 31, Buffalo 21. (@FantasyFreakTN)
Buffalo Bills vs. Washington Football Team: This is what happens when the Bills make it to the SB. They lose to an NFCE team. Also, ALEX SMITH COMEBACK SZN BABYYYY (@MylesNelsonPL)
Buffalo Bills vs. Green Bay Packers: The Buffalo Bills are playing as well as any team heading into the playoffs. Late in the season, their defense has improved, all while continuing to roll out a formidable offense and one of the league’s best special teams units. Plus they are getting healthier at the right time. The Bills don’t seem phased by anyone and that is the mentality you need to go into Arrowhead and beat the Chiefs. The Chiefs have over-performed this season, relying on Pat Mahomes heroics and superstar receivers to secure the top seed. But looking closer KC is just 17th in special teams DVOA and even worse in defensive DVOA at 22nd. They are offensive heavy and that will catch up with them in the playoffs. In the NFC, New Orleans is the most complete but they are hamstrung by an aging QB that will struggle in bad weather. Likewise in Tampa Bay, a seemingly strong team has very clear weaknesses with a one-dimensional offense. Green Bay squeaks out of the NFC because of their home-field advantage and the league’s MVP. However, the fairy tale season comes to an end against the Bills. Green Bay is also a team that relies too heavily on the offense while struggling in the other two phases. Buffalo finally gets over their Super Bowl curse and takes home the title. (@dingwog)
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Los Angeles Rams: Things change in the playoffs. Blood pressures rise and mistakes are made. Yes, Buffalo and Green Bay are the hot teams heading into the postseason, but they are unproven and their defenses are rather mediocre. Lambeau Field is as tough of a place to win as they come, but a good team that plays solid defense and can run the ball effectively should have a good chance to go in and beat them. As long as Jared Goff is able to effectively play through injury and get past Seattle in Round 1, I can see them upsetting Rodgers and the Packers in the Divisional Round. After that, the NFC is truly full of question marks and an experienced defense-oriented team has a chance to make a run, so why not the Rams? On the AFC side, there are four teams in my opinion that are capable of representing the conference in the Super Bowl: Kansas City (duh), Buffalo, Baltimore, and Indianapolis. Indy’s defense and running game have rounded into form in recent weeks, a recipe for success in the postseason, but their offense has been stalling in the 2nd half and Philip Rivers is bound to throw a devastating late-game interception that will eliminate them from contention. Baltimore’s defense is good but not great, but the offense is too one dimensional and lacks a true downfield big-play threat. They would likely struggle in a shootout against either Buffalo or Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh doesn’t make the list because they peaked too early and can’t run the ball, as well as numerous injuries on defense and the offensive line that will end up coming back to bite them. That leaves Kansas City and Buffalo. Both teams have MVP candidates at QB and struggles in the running game, as well as defenses that should be better than they are. But I’ll give the edge to the home team with championship experience. In the Super Bowl, anything can happen, and both the Chiefs and Rams have been there in the past two years, so the core of each team knows what it’s like to compete on the biggest stage. San Francisco nearly pulled off a victory over Kansas City last year by running the ball and controlling the clock, but Jimmy Garoppolo wasn’t quite good enough to step up when it mattered and win them the game. Jared Goff is no Patrick Mahomes, but he’s better than Jimmy G and he should be able to make a few more plays to extend drives and keep their offense on the field. It will be close, but give me the Rams with the upset. (@FelixTheDog23)
Buffalo Bills vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bills have a phenomenal offensive game and an above-average defense (12th in defensive DVOA). I think they’re strong enough to beat any other AFC team and Sean McDermott is capable of finding a way to disrupt the Chiefs’ rhythm enough to pull off the upset. The Bucs, in the meantime, have an incredible defense, a wealth of experience under center and on the sidelines, and are finally starting to gel as an offensive unit. They have enough talent that a shutdown corner or two won’t cut out their entire offense. The Packers haven’t fully convinced me, nor have the Saints, so I think a wide-open and fairly competitive NFC playoff bracket could help the Bucs. They get a cake matchup with the WFT in round 1 that should help build their confidence if they need it. (@MrAdster99)
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: If there is any team that is going to give the Chiefs a run for their money, it’s Buffalo. I really wanted to choose them, even as a Jets fan. However, I believe experience and overall offensive personnel will prevail for KC and they’ll come out of the AFC. On the other side, how storybook would it be for the Brady and the Bucs to make it? Tampa Bay put a beatdown on the Packers in October and were close to a comeback against the Chiefs in November. If the two face off again in the SB 55, I do think the Chiefs win it again though. (@cavaM_)
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Green Bay Packers: With the Packers being the hottest team in the NFC right now on both offense and even defensively, the home field advantage they will get in Lambeau will make it very tough to beat. I believe that most of the other teams in the NFC have some flaws that will be brought out during the postseason. As for the AFC, can you really bet against Mahomes and the Chiefs? The experience they have from their Super Bowl run last year will make them tough to beat, as the postseason will bring out the best in Mahomes with some defensive woes from the other AFC playoff teams. (@callen_elslager)
Baltimore Ravens vs. New Orleans Saints: Two of the “nearly” teams in the last few years finally get to battle out a Super Bowl and it is a tale of two defenses. The Ravens sneak past a Titans team they have struggled against recently, then shock the Chiefs and Bills thanks to a 3-headed monster of a run game with Jackson, Dobbins and Gus the Bus on the way to an unlikely Super Bowl berth. The Saints execute a perfect concoction of Drew Brees and Taysom Hill to win against the Bears and Seahawks before shocking the Packers in Lambeau thanks to a relentless defense that pressures Rodgers all day, and scores multiple defensive touchdowns. Taysom Hill and Lamar Jackson slug it out on the ground in the Super Bowl, before Sean Payton works his magic and Drew Brees finds Jared Cook downfield with a speculative hurl and a last-minute Will Lutz field goal sees the Saints triumph. That would be fun! (@benjaminhaller1)
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Green Bay Packers: I know picking the favorites is boring, but these QBs are on another level and this has been my pick all year. Remember last year when Mahomes used his legs whenever he needed a big play? You know he will go back to that in the playoffs, and he can make any throw on the field. Chiefs over the Packers in a classic Super Bowl. (@ErikSmithQBL)
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Green Bay Packers: Look. I shouldn’t be here. I’m not the person you should be trusting for football advice of any kind. And despite all of that, even I know how this is going to play out. Like, what are we even doing here? (@PitcherList)
Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter)