NFL playoffs are nearly here

Chiefs and Packers hold the top seeds with three weeks left in the regular season

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Photo courtesy of ESPN

The 2020 NFL season has seen lots of top notch performers, with many players fighting for the elusive Most Valuable Player award. (From left to right): TJ Watt, Derrick Henry, and Russell Wilson.

Pranav Sannaasi, Staff Writer

Amidst a global pandemic, the National Football League rolls on. And while it has been difficult, they have managed to nearly finish the season and make it to the playoffs.

New to this year, seven teams now make the playoffs in each conference. There will be the four division winners, and three wild card teams. The top seed in each conference gets a bye, and the other six teams play in Wild Card Weekend Jan. 9-10.In a year where home field advantage means little, let’s see which teams are truly the elite of the bunch, and who will punch a ticket to Super Bowl LV in Tampa Bay on Feb. 7.

Potential playoffs teams are organized by conference and current seeding.

AFC

No. 1 seed Kansas City Chiefs (12-1)

Like we expected, the Chiefs offense has been incredible. Over the last few weeks, Tyreek Hill has been getting peppered with targets and has been heartbreaking for my fantasy teams. The defense, however, hasn’t been too great, especially the run defense. The thing with having an amazing passing offense though is that if you get ahead early, the other team needs to win a shootout, which is very hard for someone to do since the Chiefs have been solid against the pass. The only way to beat the Chiefs is to stop their high-octane offense, which again is harder than getting a new PS5 console. 

No. 2 Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2)

The Steelers have done an amazing job which is reflected by their record. Their defense has continued to play at a high level and with Big Ben back, the offense has been playing well, except for their non-existent run game. Rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool has been one of the best rookies so far this season. Adding him to the rest of the receiver corps has certainly helped their success as well. But after winning their first 11 games, the Steelers have lost two straight and did struggle in a game they should’ve won against Washington. That should be a cause for concern. But the real problem is the lack of a run game. Come playoff time, the Steelers won’t be playing teams that will let them get away with poor play like the Cowboys and Ravens did. 

No. 3 Buffalo Bills (10-3)

Another year, another massive jump from Josh Allen. This year he also had a top receiver in Stefon Diggs. This team doesn’t run a lot and when they do, Devin Singletary has been inconsistent. Their defense hasn’t been too good though, which is surprising because all the rankings had them up top. Coach Sean McDermott has pulled out some trickery from his playbook this season, but that adds more to the entertainment. In a season where Bills mafia hasn’t been allowed to attend the games, the team has done quite well. They are in a similar spot to where they were last year, but this time they will hope to finish better than a first round exit.

No. 4 Tennessee Titans (9-4)

The Titans made a statement last year, reaching the AFC Championship game  and have followed that up with another fantastic run. Derrick Henry has blazed through almost every defense and Ryan Tannehill has been the perfect game manager. Wide receivers AJ Brown and Corey Davis have also stepped up and helped in the Titans quest for their first Lombardi Trophy. Their defense is an issue for the Titans, but so far it’s done enough to see them through. 

No. 5 Cleveland Browns (9-4)

The Browns have actually done well. Despite losing Odell Beckham Jr. to injury, the Browns have carried on without their top wideout, which is impressive especially considering three years ago they went 0-16. Behind the amazing running backs in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, as well as the amazing receiving of Jarvis Landry, their offense has been successful despite underwhelming play from Baker Mayfield. The run defense has been very good, but the pass defense has let them down. Overall the Browns have surpassed all expectations and could be a factor in the postseason for the first time in nearly 20 years.

No. 6 Indianapolis Colts (9-4)

Punter Rigoberto Sanchez has thankfully had a successful surgery on a cancerous tumor, but there is no word on when he will return. He and the special teams for the Colts have been very good to go along with the elite defense. Having said that, the offense has been hard to figure out because of quarterback Phillip Rivers. He started out playing very poorly and cost the teams games, but recently it seems like he’s figured it out. Same thing with rookie running back Jonathan Taylor, whose play was very disappointing but has improved recently.

No. 7 Miami Dolphins (8-5)

Coach Brian Flores has done an outstanding job with the Dolphins defense and special teams, which have been among the best in the league. The offense, however, leaves a lot to be desired. The quarterbacks in particular haven’t been great. At the start of the season, Ryan Fitzpatrick was doing enough to get them to a 3-3 record, but after the bye Flores made the decision to play rookie Tua Tagovailoa, who has had good games but for the most part has been carried to victory by the defense. Miami’s 2019 seventh round pick Myles Gaskin has been a surprise performer for them at running back and his return in week 13 is a massive boost going forward. 

No. 8 Baltimore Ravens (8-5)

Still in the playoff hunt are the Ravens, who were supposed to go dominate everyone and battle the Chiefs for the AFC throne this year. Instead, teams have stopped Lamar Jackson and Baltimore has had a disappointing season and is the one team that has been hit hardest by COVID-19. The Ravens had to postpone their Thanksgiving night game against the Steelers for nearly a week with more than 20 players testing positive. But a win over the Browns on Monday night seems to have them going in the right direction.

No. 9 Las Vegas Raiders (7-6)

The first season in Vegas hasn’t been great for the Raiders. It started out promising but now they’ve shown inconsistency by losing two of their last three games,including a 43-6 blowout to the lowly Falcons. And they should be 6-7, but the Jets did Jets things like blitzing quarterback Derek Carr to lose on a 46-yard TD to Henry Rugss III with five seconds to play.

NFC

No. 1 Green Bay Packers (10-3)

Aaron Rodgers recently threw his 400th touchdown pass and did it quickly. He is currently second in the MVP race behind Patrick Mahomes, but not by a lot. Davante Adams has been an outstanding No. 1 receiving option and has brought his name into the best receiver in the league conversation. Running back Aaron Jones has followed up his breakout year last season by running a bit more efficiently, but he hasn’t found the end zone as often. As good as the offense is, the same can’t be said for the Packers perfectly average defense. 

No. 2 New Orleans Saints (10-3)

This was the first team to seal a playoff berth. Their defense has performed to the point where teams can’t move the ball on them. The issue is their offense. It’s good but not explosive like the Chiefs. Another thing is whether they can balance Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas in the receiving game. Taysom Hill has stepped in for the injured quarterback Drew Brees and impressed while adding another dimension to the offense with his running. 

No. 3 LA Rams (9-4)

The Rams have an elite defensive unit that is at the core of their success. The main man is Aaron

Donald, who is one of five players with 10 sacks as of week 13. But the offense, particularly quarterback Jared Goff, is very volatile and unreliable. The thing with NFL playoffs is that teams need to play consistently, which is something the Rams haven’t displayed. Even if the defense can play well, the Rams still need the offense to win the games. When they go against a good defense like Tampa Bay, they are going to have problems. 

No. 4 Washington Football Team (6-7)

At the start of the season, Washington was made fun of for the new team name as the Football Team experienced a culture change. The expectations were very low. But they surpassed these expectations and are in a race for the division title with the Giants. Alex Smith has come back from his life-threatening injury to lead the team and is one of the better stories of the season. Smith has helped, but not as much as the pass defense.

No. 5 Seattle Seahawks (9-4)

This season, the narrative has changed for the Seahawks. At the start of the season it was about letting quarterback Russel Wilson do his thing and carry the team with his MVP play. This was needed because the defense couldn’t stop anybody. Then the running backs got injured and Wilson somehow got possessed by Jameis Winston and started doing Winston things like throwing his perfect balls to opposing defenses. Meanwhile, the Seahawks traded for defensive lineman Carlos Dunlap and began pressuring opposing teams’ quarterbacks, which turned things around for the defense. Unfortunately, the only thing unlimited these days about Russel “Mr. Unlimited” Wilson is how many turnovers he commits.

No. 6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5)

Tom Brady is not a deep ball guy. Bruce Arians hasn’t changed his scheme for Brady, which means Brady is forced to play in a style he’s not used to. But Brady isn’t washed up. Arians is running a similar system to the one that put Winston at 30 picks last season, so Brady only throwing 11 doesn’t seem too bad. The Bucs offense has still been bad and the running backs haven’t been utilized much. The defense hasn’t lived up to what we heard in the offseason when the media pinned their failures on Winston. Overall, they don’t look like the 16-0 team they were hyped up to be. They are much much worse, but probably good enough to make the playoffs in a pretty weak NFC. 

No. 7 Arizona Cardinals  (7-6)

Kyler Murray did make a jump and wideout DeAndre Hopkins did help out, but losing linebacker Chandler Jones early was a problem. Linebacker Isaiah Simmons also took a while to make an impact. The team’s performance doesn’t depend on one of the guys playing poorly though. It’s the Cardinals’ inability to play consistently every week. This is another team that even if they make the playoffs, they haven’t shown an ability to play consistently and that won’t cut it in the playoffs. They did get out of rebuild mode though. 

No. 8 Minnesota Vikings (6-7)

Rookie wide receiver Justin Jefferson has replaced Diggs and boy has he done a good job. Running back Dalvin Cook also stepped up his play and at times has made me regret trading for Derrick Henry over him in fantasy football. That should tell you all you need to know about how consistently well he’s played the last few weeks. The Vikings as a whole stepped up after an abysmal start and the push they’ve made the last few weeks makes a playoff berth well deserved. But they’re still on the outside looking in.

No. 9 New York Giants (5-8)

When the Giants lost Saquon Barkley I thought that the playoff hopes were gone, but then the NFC Least showed us why it was the worst in the league. Then the Giants started winning: first Washington, then Philly, then Cincinnati. Then they beat Seattle with Colt McCoy under center. At this point the truth can’t be denied any longer, Joe Judge has gotten the young G-men to live up to their promise. The Giants are back and they are here to stay. They just need to overtake a hot Washington team.

Super Bowl Prediction: Led by a resurgent defense and stable play from Philip Rivers, the Colts will shock everyone, running through the AFC and knocking off the Chiefs as the team representing the AFC in the Super Bowl.

In the NFC, a healthy Drew Brees will return and the Saints will roll through the NFC, finally getting back to the big game after playoff heartbreaks the past three years.

Ultimately, the Colts defense will overwhelm the Saints’ offense, and Rivers will do just enough to not lose the game for them. The Colts will win, getting revenge for their loss to the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV.

Final score prediction: Indianapolis Colts: 17, New Orleans Saints: 14