The 2021 NFL playoffs are finally here. With the Raiders edging the Chargers in an overtime thriller to close Week 18, the entire 14-team playoff table is officially over. Now it’s time for the races, with a Lombardi Trophy at the finish.
But how do the play-off teams rank? The playoffs are a great time for unlikely upsets, and the underdogs should never be counted. (Just ask the Colts about the Jaguars.) But to celebrate the arrival of the playoffs, here’s how we would judge the 14 finalists based on the championship outlook:
Wild opponent: Chefs
This is exactly where they want to be: neglected. And they deserve credit for fighting – and winning – ugly. TJ Watt and the defense will keep them moving. But Ben Roethlisberger, for all his courage, is just not the captain of a steady attack, let alone explosive.
Wild opponent: Bengals
Give it to Derek Carr and Rich Bisaccia and the whole gang so you never quit. Their ugly but consistent resistance is reminiscent of the Steelers, except they can move the ball. The problem is, can they hold the defense? And win a shootout or two?
Wild opponent: Buccaneers
Who knows how Jalen Hurts will fare if asked to become a passer against an elite team? But he showed real improvement on the home stretch, and Nick Sirianni put him to good use as a cog in their ground game. If the “D” can make games, they will be fiery.
Wild opponent: Rams
Their talent – and the way they started 2021 – suggests they belong much higher. But Kyler Murray has had a few clunkers, and Kliff Kingsbury’s record is chock full of year-end crumbs. They are 1-4 with an erratic approach in their last five games.
Wild opponent: cowboys
They have a cap with Jimmy Garoppolo, but the veteran QB showed up in Week 18. More importantly, Kyle Shanahan has been here before, and if his ground game clicks they can control the ball en route to some. surprise victories.
Wild opponent: Invoices
Bill Belichick will surely find a way to put Mac Jones in a position to win, especially if the Patriots’ defense comes up, but the reality is they aren’t really built to survive more than one big mistake from rookie QB to this stage.
Wild opponent: 49ers
When they’re on, they’re about as balanced and explosive as anyone. But they’ve been beating the 1.) Washington and 2.) Eagles backups lately. Dak Prescott and his O line have to be in great shape if they are to make any noise.
Wild opponent: Cardinals
Matthew Stafford has chosen the worst times to make bad decisions for some time now, but Sean McVay still has a talented team on both sides of the ball. They don’t feel like a safe bet at a distance to go the distance, but they can play games.
Wild-c card opponent: Raiders
Neither Joe Burrow nor Zac Taylor have any playoff experience, and who knows if the latter can be trusted here? But in a sense, the pressure is off, then! Most importantly, Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase and Co. are far too explosive to count.
Wild opponent: Bye
They just don’t die, as Mike Vrabel would say. Ryan Tannehill will need to step up with a career moment for them to go the distance, but Derrick Henry is back, AJ Brown is back and their defense will be better after Week 18.
Wild opponent: Patriots
It’s about being warm at the right time, and they come in after having won four in a row. Better yet, they’ve actually found a ground game to complement Josh Allen, who will be determined to capitalize on his 2020 playoff run.
Wild opponent: Steelers
It’s been a patchy season for the defending AFC champions, and downright lousy at times. Yet they still beat everyone except the Conference Bills. Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes will score at will when they need them.
2. The buccaneers
Wild opponent: Eagles
The only reason they’re not at the top is because of the depth issues off and in the secondary. Their defense has at times proved vulnerable. But let’s face it: the mere presence of Tom Brady guarantees they’ll be serious repeat contenders.
Wild opponent: Bye
It’s simple: they have the MVP under the center. OK, so it’s more than that; While Aaron Rodgers isn’t officially claiming his second straight award, he’s the smoothest and most confident QB in the game right now, and while he and Matt LaFleur are yet to get past the NFC title game, their record is better than anyone’s during their time together.