American Football,

The play-off picture

SUPER BOWL WINNER


Green Bay Packers @ 7/2
Kansas City Chiefs @ 4/1
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ 15/2
Tennessee Titans @ 8/1
Buffalo Bills @ 8/1
LA Rams @ 10/1
view odds


Bigger doesn’t always equate to better and sceptics of the NFL’s now 18-game regular season and expanded playoffs – inevitably branded SUPER Wildcard Weekend – suggested that the first weekend of post season action would include too many one-sided affairs. But such is the pattern of this season – head scratching upsets underpinned by clusters of teams all playing at around the same (erratic, flawed) level – that the playoffs open with most teams in either conference having a legitimate shot at making the Super Bowl.

AFC

In the AFC, the most intriguing team remains the Cincinnati Bengals. Conventional wisdom suggests they’re too raw – a sophomore QB, who along with his Head Coach is facing his first playoffs, with first- and second-year receivers in similarly uncharted territory – but there’s a fearlessness about this Bengals team that’s not to be underestimated.

Joe Burrow has valid claims to be considered as on the Top 5 QB’s in the NFL this season, driving a balance offense that’s only real shortcoming is the line. He’s showing the same moxie that Patrick Mahomes displayed early on in his career and the Bengals offense is as intoxicating, with big play threats that can break open a game.

Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs are back, and despite the negativity and at times fractious passages of play earlier in the season, are once again a dangerous commodity. Their focus in the off season was to rebuild an offensive line that was blown apart in the Super Bowl last year, and that’s been a largely successful exercise, though an injury to tackle Lucas Niang can be exposed.

Mahomes need to get just enough from his supporting cast to underpin Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, and the Chiefs are evolving into a more patient, slower burning offense, a directional shift that will gain further edge if RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire stays fit and productive. The D is an issue, but that much improved as the season has progressed – so much so that it’s carried the offense at times.

If the Chiefs are somewhat re-invented then so too are the New England Patriots – albeit with an unreconstructed approach that’s a ball control, ground game heavy, leaving rookie QB Mac Jones to plug in as a competent and safe pair of hands, as opposed to a dynamic game winner.

They’ve found identity early on – when vocal critics were clamouring that this was the end of the Belichick era – and such folly has been exploited by the master. But he’ll know that the Pats realistic Super Bowl chances revolve around keeping games tight, attritional, letting him deliver masterstrokes in situational defense, because if Jones and co have to chase a game, they’re in trouble.

Former Belichick (playing) stalwart Mike Vrabel deserves to be Head Coach of the Year, leading his team to the number one seed, despite losing Derrick Henry, their star RB, midway through the season. Henry is back for the playoffs – and with both AJ Brown and Julio Jones returning in recent weeks – the Titans sit in that paradoxical spot of being highly regarded yet not taken as seriously as others as Super Bowl winners.

This may be that their defense doesn’t boast as many playmakers as others in the race, it may be that Ryan Tannehill is considered one of the weaker QB’s standing, but that’s to underestimate both and the Titans, with an extra week’s rest, and homefield advantage are very serious contenders.

The Las Vegas Raiders making the playoffs– and Derek Carr – has been one of the more heart-warming stories of the season. Facing all kinds of advertising, and in Carr’s case the usual criticism, they’ve confounded expectations and have a free hit in the Wildcard round, with very few expecting them to upset the Bengals. Carr, making his first playoff start, has the playmakers around him to make it interesting against Cincy, and as his brother David, a former NFL QB, said on NFL Network this week, never count out hungriest guy in the room.

The Steelers make up the numbers in the AFC, and whilst no-one will begrudge Big Ben Roethlisberger one last hurrah, Pittsburgh will be outmatched by the Chiefs in round one, especially if they go behind early, and have to deviate from their ground game to chase, which despite some remarkable comebacks this season, are not typically built to do.

NFC

The Green Bay Packers are the number one seeds in the NFC and rightly so: Aaron Rodgers, surely MVP for a second consecutive season, played the regular season like a video game set to beginner level and is now primed for the playoff step up to be advanced. Head Coach Matt Lafleur doesn’t get the credit he deserves, chiefly because of Rodgers’s presence, (think Phil Jackson at the Jordan led Bulls) and the Packers are perhaps the most balanced of all the teams left in either conference, and my favourites to win it all.

Tampa Bay may pose their biggest threat, but the reigning champs are banged up, and the loss of receivers Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown for altogether different reasons may be too big an ask to overcome, even with the GOAT pulling the strings. They have several key defensive players returning at a crucial time, including a rebooted secondary and if Lavonte David & Shaq Barrett stay near full fitness then they can match up well against any of the offenses in the tournament.

There are many that think this is the Dallas Cowboys year finally, ultimate success having eluded Jerry Jones since the heyday of the 1990’s and the triplets. Dak Prescott is one of the best QB’s in the NFL but rarely gets billed as such; he’s less demonstrably explosive than some of his contemporaries, not considered as poised a passer as others – but he’s been mostly exceptional this season.

Kellen Moore – a head coaching candidate – has multiple weapons at his disposal, and Dan Quinn, also in high demand, has built a defense that’s overperformed based on expectational, led by rookie sensation Micah Parsons, with playmaking ability aplenty. File under very dangerous.

They could fall at the first hurdle though as the San Francisco are an intriguing prospect, with many sharps jumping on the 49’ers bandwagon. A ferocious front, fit again secondary means defensively they stack up well, and they feature, in George Kittle and Deebo Samuel, two of the most dynamic playmakers in the NFL, who haven’t been on the field together that often due to injury, but roll into the playoffs fully fit. Jimmy Garoppolo, much like Carr, is underestimated. He’s not elite, but he’s good enough to win a Super Bowl.

The LA Rams boast an equally compelling defense, although they arrive in the playoffs with injury concerns in the secondary. That may not matter early on with their formidable front 7, led by Aaron Donald wreaking havoc, and whilst the offense hasn’t been quite the same since the injury to Robert Woods, Odell Beckham may be this year’s Playoff Lenny, lighting up at clutch moments. Cooper Kupp has been a revelation and the return to fitness of RB Cam Akers may be critical. The Rams have a punchers chance and will hope that Matthew Stafford has got his errant mistakes out of his system, during the turnover happy final weeks of the season.

Arizona, similarly, to LA, lost a crucial WR (Deandre Hopkins) but unlike the Rams haven’t displayed the same strength in depth in the receiving corp – though if vets AJ Green and Zac Ertz step up to their high level, then they become an altogether different proposition. They possess some exciting playmakers on defense, including Chandler Jones and Isiah Simmons, the latter a prototype of a next-gen player, who can line up in multiple positions equally comfortably.

Kyler Murray is the X-Factor, but his durability issues cloud his edge at this stage of proceedings. Arizona needs to show they can deliver against the very best at crunch time, but doubts remain.

Philly, like the Steelers in the AFC, appear to be the team making up the numbers, and are heavy underdogs in round one. Their defensive front gives them their edge, and the Bucs (their opponent in the Wildcard round) negate that threat with one of the best O-lines around. Jalen Hurts has earned more time to prove he belongs, and making the playoffs represents a successful season for a team unfancied at the start of the year.

Please play responsibly