With the divisional round of the NFL Playoffs set to kick off this Saturday, only eight teams remain in the hunt for the Lombardi trophy. It’s no surprise that each team is good (they are in the playoffs after all) and each team has a viable chance of playing in the biggest game of the season on Feb. 4. I’m going to breakdown for you why each of the remaining teams has a chance at winning the Super Bowl.
New England Patriots
- They have the experience. Since the Brady-Belichick era began in 2001, the Pats have since been to seven Super Bowls and won five. The Patriots have once again claimed the the #1 seed in the AFC and the road to Super Bowl LII will run through Foxboro. The Patriots have been to the last six AFC Championship games and in two weeks will likely be playing in the seventh thanks to the playoff experience in the locker room and on the sideline.
- You never know who the offensive star will be. Will Brady target Gronkowski 14 times? Or Cooks? Will Dion Lewis get 20 touches? Or maybe former Badger, James White? The thing with the Patriots is that they can easily adapt their game plan depending on the opponent. Before New England takes the field every week, you never know what kind of show their diversified offense will put on.
- They are mentally tough. The Pats are so good at ignoring the outside noise. With ESPN’s recent article about there being a power struggle within the organization, anyone with knowledge of the the Patriots knows that they will use this as motivation. This isn’t the first time the Patriots have been faced with adversity in the playoffs (see DeflateGate). But what happened last time this happened? Tom Brady and the Pats raised the Lombardi trophy.
- Their diverse backfield wreaks havoc for defenders. The Eagles have three beasts coming out of their backfield: LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement. With these three, the Eagles are not only able to ground and pound, but also catch passes out of the backfield. With this versatility, the Eagles are able to make up for the injury of star quarterback, Carson Wentz. Their offense has been rolling this year, thanks in part to the unstoppable trio.
- Despite injury to Wentz, the Eagles have seen success with Foles in the past. Wentz was the probable league MVP before he went down in early December with an ACL injury. Who is his replacement? Nick Foles. Foles was able to be an all star for the Eagles in 2013 when he threw 27 touchdowns compared to only 2 interceptions. Foles even threw seven touchdowns in one game during that season. The Eagles went to the postseason. Foles has proved in the past that he is fully capable of leading the Eagles to victory. He will just need to prove that again.
- They are able to put pressure on the QB and create turnovers. The Eagles are great at running the ball on offense, but they are even better at stopping the run on defense. Fletcher Cox leads the defensive line for the Eagles. They have allowed only 3.5 yards per rush all season. With such stout players up front, the Eagles are able to force their opponents to test their passing defense consisting of Ronald Darby and Malcolm Jenkins.
- The Killer B’s. No team is more complex on offense than the Pittsburgh Steelers. They have a versatile running back in Leaven Bell. They have two extremely athletic wide receivers with Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Not to mention their future Hall of Fame quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers are nearly impossible to defend because they have so many weapons in all phases of offense.
- Proved that they are capable of keeping up with the Patriots. The game of the year might go to the week 15 matchup between the Steelers and the Patriots. In years passed, the Pats have trounced all over the Steelers and annihilated their defense. But this years matchup proved that the Steelers are more than capable of keeping up with the reigning AFC champions. Pittsburgh led nearly that whole game and without the controversial no catch call at the end of the game, they likely would have won. The only difference is that now they will have to face New England in New England.
- Secondary playing well with the addition of Joe Haden. Joe Haden had a resurgence this year when he joined the Steelers. The cornerback had spent the entirety of his career with the Cleveland Browns. He was cut this past offseason and picked up by the Super Bowl contending Pittsburgh Steelers. The Secondary will need to continue to play lights out after the devastating injury of Ryan Shazier. Artie Burns and Joe Haden will need to play well for the Steelers to advance to the Super Bowl.
- They had the #1 total defense in the league, led by their secondary. If you plan on scoring against the Vikings defense, good luck! The Vikings give up a staggering 15.8 points per game, the lowest mark in the league. They have also picked off opponents 14 times and forced eight fumbles. Minnesota’s defense has been dominating all season long and is guaranteed to continue in the post season.
- Offense continues to play with a chip on their shoulder. Who would have thought that the Vikings offense would be able to be a contender without Adrian Peterson and either of their two starting quarterbacks (Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford)? Case Keenum emerged after the injury to Sam Bradford. He has been at the helm of the Vikings offense and has not received the recognition he deserves. But because he isn’t garnering any respect, Keenum has been playing like he has something to prove all season, which has only helped the Vikings offense.
- Extra motivation to make history. The Vikings are fighting to stay home. With the Super Bowl being played in their new stadium, Minnesota is looking to be the first team to host and play in the Super Bowl. This is all very possible with Minnesota having the second seed in the NFC. With the possibility to make history, that only creates more motivation for a team to win throughout the playoffs.
- That defense has been punishing opponents all season. I can’t say that I have been more impressed by a unit than I have been by the Jaguars defense. They didn’t allow Tyrod Taylor and the Bills to get comfortable at all last weekend. The Bills were unable to get anything started on Sunday. The Jaguars added defensive lineman, Calais Campbell, and cornerback AJ Bouye during free agency. Former first round draft pick, Jalen Ramsey, has finally burst onto the scene and been punishing passers who dare throw his way all year.
- They already won big on the road in Pittsburgh. What happened last time these two teams faced off? Big Ben threw five interceptions including two pick-6’s, was sacked two times, and only allowed nine points. Roethlisberger was contemplating retirement after his lousy game at home against the young but aggressive Jaguar defense. The Jags proved that they weren’t to be messed with after winning the statement game of the year. With a win like that under their belt’s already, the Jaguars should be ready for whatever Big Ben throws to them.
- They proved they can win without much at the quarterback position. Do you know how many passing yards Blake Bortles had last week? 87! He only threw for 87 yards (and rushed for 88). But even without much offense, the Jaguars were still able to come away with a win and take down the Bills. I can’t stress enough how dominant this defense is and how capable they are of carrying the team. It resembles the 2015 Denver Broncos. They always say that defense wins championships…
New Orleans Saints
- Two monsters control their backfield. For the first time in years, the Saints offense doesn’t solely depend on Drew Brees. Coming out of the backfield they have two efficient running backs with former Heisman winner Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara. They are without a doubt the best rushing duo in the league because of their ability to breakthrough tackles and also catch passes. Kamara is more than likely going to take home the honor of Offensive Rookie of the Year. Ingram has been the only consistent piece of the Saints rushing attack since he got to New Orleans. With Brees getting some offensive help, the Saints offense is on fire.
- They finally have a defense to compliment Drew Brees. If you need a quarterback to put up big numbers, Drew Brees is your guy. He has been forced to put up big stats for years because his teams were always incapable of having a defense. But this year the Saints found him some help. The scrappy defense they put together is part of the reason the Saints found themselves in the playoffs. Marshon Lattimore is a candidate for the Defensive Rookie of the Year and is a huge part of the Saints now present defense.
- Offensive line gives Brees time to connect with deep threats. Speaking of more help for Brees, his offensive line has protected him well all season long. As an aging quarterback, the less you are on the ground the better, and Brees has stayed upright a majority of the season. With more protection, comes more time to connect with deep receivers. On the Saints offense, they have a speedy receiver in Michael Thomas and NFL veteran Ted Ginn Jr. Brees and the Saints have all the pieces needed to make a playoff run.
- The Titans defensive line is no joke. They are tough upfront. The Titans have allowed the fewest rushing touchdowns all year, the fourth fewest rushing yards per game, and fourth fewest yards per carry. This defensive line forces opponents to throw the ball. And who is in their secondary? Kevin Byard. Byard has the most interceptions in the league with eight. The Titans have playmakers all over their defense and have been able to control games all season long. If they can continue that, they could have success.
- Marcus Mariota proved he can do it all. Marietta was incredibly impressive on Saturday. He threw a touchdown. He caught a touchdown. And he threw the game winning block. The Titans should look to rally around their young quarterback. Marietta played his heart out and left everything on the field in order to help his team advance, and he will need to continue to do so if he hopes to lead his team to a Super Bowl victory.
- They already won on the road in the postseason. There aren’t many harder stadiums to play in than Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. The Titans walked away with a narrow victory last Saturday and will look to do the same in another difficult stadium for road teams to win in: Gillette. But the Patriots already have lost two games at home this season to the Chiefs and the Panthers. The Titans will need to use that momentum in order to go deeper in the playoffs.
- They continued their late season burst in LA last weekend. The Falcons have been the definition of inconsistent since their Super Bowl meltdown last year. But it seems that they have finally found their groove. Matt Ryan has been on fire lately, connecting with Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu. The Falcons seemed to click against the Panthers in their regular season finale (a game they needed to win to make the playoffs) and continued rolling in their victory against the Rams last weekend in the divisional round. In order for continued success, the Falcons offense must all be on the same page.
- They have offensive stars everywhere. Speaking of that offense, they have some of the best athletes on that side of the ball. Julio Jones is arguably the best receiver in the NFL, complimented by Mohamed Sanu. Reigning MVP, Matt Ryan,is dishing out the ball and in the backfield, they have a two headed monster with Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman. They claimed the sixth seed in the NFC, so the road back to the Super Bowl is difficult. But with all of this athleticism on one team it’s hard to imagine the Falcons not having success.
- Consistency on special teams. Their offense has been sluggish, but their special teams has stepped up. As a friendly reminder, I would just like everyone to remember that kickers are people too! And Matt Bryant deserves some recognition. Bryant has made nine out of nine field goals in the Falcons last two wins. In last weeks win against the Rams, they recovered a muffed punt off the hands of Pharaoh Cooper and limited him to just 7 return yards on 4 snaps. The offense is clicking and now special teams is rolling.
Be sure to watch the divisional round this weekend, to see which of these teams are still left standing and have a shot at Super Bowl LII.