After 256 regular season match-ups we now have our 12 playoff contenders for Super Bowl LIV. Week 17 did not contain many upsets in terms of who was ‘in’ or ‘out’ but it did impact on the final seedings and which teams now need to go on the road to get to the Hard Rock Stadium, Miami. In the AFC the road to the big finale goes through Baltimore, in the NFC it is via San Francisco. Let’s take a look at the contenders and the wild card round of fixtures.
In the AFC the Baltimore Ravens and the Kansas City Chiefs are worthy #1 and #2 seeds, and they can now benefit from the bye week in order to rest, regroup and take advantage of the opportunity to watch seeds #3-#6 scrap it out this weekend. Both sides are an embodiment of new wave, exciting, offenses with several generational talents in terms of their skill and speed. I doubt an AFC Championship of Ravens vs Chiefs would disappoint.
The final standings in the AFC represent a changing of the guard. The New England Patriots have, rightly, been displaced and will now need to fight tooth and nail on the road to make their 10th Super Bowl appearance in the Brady/Belichick era. There is no doubt the Patriots have struggled this year, specifically on offense, and their 12-4 record is an achievement in of itself. In previous years Foxboro has been the graveyard of many an AFC contenders playoff hopes – not this year.
Although divisional winners, the Houston Texans, can be bracketed alongside the wildcard spots won by the Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans. All 3 could been seen as looking to upset the odds against the more established higher seeded teams. They have already achieved successful seasons in qualifying but how far could they go?
AFC Wildcard games
Buffalo Bills @ Houston Texans – interesting match-up, the Texans have more on offense but they go up against a Bills team stronger on defense. It doesn’t feel like a high scoring game and if they keep it low and close I think Buffalo will take this, Bills by 3
Tennessee Titans @ New England Patriots – the Patriots are on the ropes but now in the arena they thrive in, knock-out football. Do they have what it takes to stop Derrick Henry, Ryan Tannehill and AJ Brown. The Patriots will need their defense (again) to bail them out of this one. I don’t think Tennessee will find this straightforward but, in the end, Titans by 6
The New Orleans Saints must be wondering how on earth, with a 13-3 record, they are only #3 seed and not taking the week off. In the NFC the San Francisco 49ers, arguably as a result of one missed PI call, are the #1 seed and, somehow, the Green Bay Packers are the #2 seed. The 49ers have been impressive all season long, particularly (on offense) since the FA deadline signing of Emmanuel Sanders. The defense started the season super aggressive and although there has been a recent decline the 49ers are the team to beat. The Packers defense, upgraded during the 2019 off-season, has propelled Green Bay to several wins whereas the offense has often mis-fired for long periods of games which may hurt them in one-off playoff games.
The Saints are the best #3 seed in a long time whereas the final division winners, the Philadelphia Eagles, have slugged their way in great adversity to the #4 seed. This may serve them well through January. The Minnesota Vikings have limped through the final stages of the regular season , 4-4 in the last 8 weeks. After being in contention for the NFC North title they fell short to the Packers in week 16 and then sat a number of starters which resulted in a meaningless game against the Bears. This was in some ways an odd move – week 17 could have been a chance for a mis-firing offense to regain momentum, instead they go into a wildcard game in no kind of form, despite being one of the more well-rounded rosters headed to the playoffs.
The other NFC playoff teams could be dangerous, wounded animals. The Eagles 4-0 run to the NFC East title was completed in-spite of an injury list which seemed to grow by the minute. In week 17 versus the Giants there was a queue for the blue tent: that’s how bad it was. Carson Wentz, with no receivers to speak of, has managed to lead his offense to vital wins. They have the benefit of experience in the recent playoffs and both the O-line and D-line are well established. The Seahawks have also experienced multiple injuries as the season has progressed but they found ways to win games – 12 of their 16 games were decided by one score (10-2). But for that last play against the 49ers they could have been the division winners. With Russell Wilson at the helm they will always be in contention in a one-off game.
NFC Wildcard games
Minnesota Vikings @ New Orleans Saints – the Saints are purring whereas the Vikings are looking to putting the last few weeks behind them. The Vikings will have the Minneapolis Miracle in the back of their minds but I don’t expect them to be able to keep New Orleans close this time around, Saints by 9
Seattle Seahawks @ Philadelphia Eagles – this could be one ugly slug fest. In week 12 the Seahawks beat the Eagles in Philly by 17-9. Both teams are even more beat up now. Neither possess the talent to blow the other away here and it may come down to whatever Wentz and Wilson can conjure to get it done. I like the way Philadelphia have battled to this point so I’ll take the Eagles by 3
Same time next week!