From 'Nothing to Lose' to 'Must Win It All': Ranking NFL Teams' Playoff Pressure

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterDecember 31, 2014

From 'Nothing to Lose' to 'Must Win It All': Ranking NFL Teams' Playoff Pressure

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Twelve teams, four weeks and one trophy to decide which NFL team can call itself the best. It's funny, in a football way, that we spend the better part of four months working to narrow down a field of 32 teams to a solid dozen, who then spend the next four weeks trying to claim the season's—the country's—biggest sports trophy.

    With those aspirations come obvious expectations, but for each team in the NFL playoffs, those expectations manifest with wildly varying intensity in pressure. There is no way that Cam Newton's Panthers, for example, face the same playoff pressure as Peyton Manning's Broncos. Perhaps no one in recent history has after last year's Super Bowl defeat.

    Which teams, then, should be feeling the most pressure as the NFL playoffs begin, and which teams should merely enjoy the ride, see what comes and be happy to just get a week or two (or four) of far more meaningful football?

    Here is a list of the 12 teams that qualified for the playoffs, arranged in terms of overall pressure to win the Super Bowl, or at the absolute least, win a game or two along the way. They're ranked from the team facing the least pressure to the team facing the most. For good measure, we split the teams into four categories: Those teams playing with "House Money," those with "A Lot to Prove," those with "High Hopes, Higher Expectations" and those with "Too Much to Prove."

12. Carolina Panthers

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    Category: House Money

    "I'm looking at this truck and I'm like, 'someone is supposed to be dead.' I can't stop smiling because God has his hands on me. I'm on someone's fantasy league, and I think it's the man upstairs."

    There is no team in the NFL playoffs playing with more house money than the Carolina Panthers. They have seven wins. SEVEN. And they are hosting a playoff game. Their quarterback, in his own words, is supposed to be dead after a horrific car accident left him with two broken bones in his back just a few weeks ago.

    Carolina hasn't lost since. In fact, the accident came just a few days after the then three-win Panthers trounced the New Orleans Saints to notch win No. 4...in Week 14.

    This is a playoff team now. Carolina squeaked by Tampa Bay without Newton then beat the Browns with him before absolutely destroying the Atlanta Falcons in their own building to earn—yes earn—a spot in the playoffs.

    Does Carolina deserve a home game in the postseason with just seven wins, hosting a team that won 11 contests? Certainly not, but the rules are what they are in the NFL, and until they get changed—that will happen soon, especially if Carolina defeats Arizona this weekend—the rules are in the Panthers' favor. So too may be the scoreboard, as Carolina faces a virtually quarterback-less team in Arizona in the Wild Card Round.

    The Panthers may actually get to eight wins, but if they don't, they should honestly be happy just to be alive—in the postseason tournament, and for Newton, in general.

11. Baltimore Ravens

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    Category: House Money

    After a Week 16 loss to the Houston Texans, all hope was gone for the Baltimore Ravens. They needed a few things to bounce their way, namely San Diego losing to Kansas City and a win over the Connor Shaw-led Cleveland Browns. They got both and found a way into the playoffs as the sixth seed in a relatively top-heavy AFC bracket.

    Baltimore has 10 wins, but just two came over teams that made the playoffs, beating a then-beleaguered Carolina team after topping Pittsburgh in the second week of the season that should forever be known as "The Week of Rice" in the NFL. And that's where we really have to go with Baltimore this season, to look at its year in the context of one of the biggest scandals in NFL history.

    Ray Rice was supposed to be back in Week 3 to lead this team in rushing, and then a leaked video to TMZ changed everything about this year, not just for Baltimore, but for the entire NFL.

    Still, it was the Ravens who had to figure out what to do without Rice and find a way to survive with an enormous black cloud hanging over the franchise for the remainder of the season.

    Somehow John Harbaugh was able to keep his team together, and Justin Forsett took the ball and ran with it, quite literally, in Rice's absence. Forsett finished the regular season with 1,266 yards, fifth in the NFL in rushing despite six games with fewer than a dozen carries.

    If there is a team in the playoffs just happy to be there, given everything that went on this season, it should be Baltimore. Now, that's not to suggest it can't win a game against a division rival at Pittsburgh, but if it doesn't, it should still be considered a good season, given the context of what transpired in 2014.

10. Arizona Cardinals

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Category: House Money

    When the Arizona Cardinals were 9-1, they looked like a team that was destined for a Super Bowl in its own stadium. Six games later, they have to travel to Carolina and hope that their fourth-string-quarterback turned emergency playoff starter has enough in him to help Arizona advance beyond the first weekend.

    The Cardinals were winning games with their defense, even with Carson Palmer and/or Drew Stanton at the helm, but since Ryan Lindley has taken over, the offense hasn't looked anywhere near the same.

    To be honest, it didn't look great with Stanton, either. Since November 23, Arizona is 2-4 with a total of 73 points, for an average of 12.2 points per game, much of which came on defense and special teams.

    Bruce Arians will likely win another Coach of the Year award, but the second Palmer went down for the season, the chances of Arizona making a run to the Super Bowl were shot. At this point in the year, Arizona should be happy to just be in the tournament and hope for the best against a Carolina team still looking to secure a .500 record.

    A loss would be a huge disappointment for Arizona, but just being in the playoffs with all its injury issues feels a bit like a win.

9. Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Category: A Lot to Prove

    I almost put the Pittsburgh Steelers in the "House Money" category after Le'Veon Bell's knee injury in Week 17, but there's talk of his availability this week, which means that even if he doesn't suit up, a win over Baltimore would all but ensure his return next week in a potential game against Denver.

    Truly, did anyone expect Pittsburgh to win the AFC North this year? After back-to-back eight-win seasons, there were more questions about Mike Tomlin's job security and the aging defense than there were about the chances of Pittsburgh winning the division.

    Still, Pittsburgh hasn't won a playoff game since the 2010 season, losing in the Super Bowl that year to Green Bay after beating the Jets in the AFC title game. That's how long it's been for Tomlin's Steelers in the playoffs: the Jets were relevant!

    So Tomlin surely has a lot to prove, and so does Ben Roethlisberger, who has a chance to essentially reboot his playoff career after a few years out of the mix.

    On a broadcast of his Monday press conference, when asked if he had a championship team, Tomlin replied he had "an AFC North Championship" team, suggesting the Steelers have a long way to go before they can realistically be considered a top-tier squad in the NFL. He's right. They certainly have a lot to prove this postseason.

8. Detroit Lions

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    Category: A Lot to Prove

    The Detroit offense is too good to not advance in the playoffs this year.

    Wait, did I say offense? It's been the defense that has carried the Lions all year, after all. But yes, this offense is too good to lose in the first week of the playoffs.

    Granted, the Lions are on the road at Dallas by nature of losing to Green Bay, and right now everyone is freaking the heck out about Matthew Stafford's ability to play well in a big spot, which is precisely why Detroit is in this category, having a lot to prove.

    Think about this: The Lions won 11 games this year, just the second time Detroit has won double-digit games in the NFL...since 1995.

    The last time the Lions won more than 10 games, Wayne Fontes was in his third full year in Detroit, and Erik Kramer and Rodney Peete split the season at quarterback. (Oh, right, Barry Sanders had a pretty good year then, too.)

    One could (perhaps should) make the case the Lions' mere appearance in the playoffs means the rest is house money, but this team—Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, the running back duo and all the other weapons on offense with one of the top defenses in football—is too talented to be happy with just showing up. Stafford needs to come through, and so do the Lions, if this season is truly seen as a success.

7. Cincinnati Bengals

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    Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    Category: A Lot to Prove

    Speaking of a team, like the Lions, with a quarterback that needs to show people something, the Bengals' Andy Dalton was paid like an elite, pardon the expression, quarterback by Cincinnati, and he finally has his chance to prove he belongs in that conversation.

    Dalton has been as maligned as any other signal-caller in football this year, but he has a chance in a winnable game at Indianapolis to show that he can actually earn the right to be trusted.

    AJ Green's (concussion) availability will have a lot to do with how Cincinnati fares against the Colts, but it does have other offensive weapons, including a newfound thunder-and-lighting combination at running back with Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard and a defense that really only has to worry about one dimension in the Colts offense. It's a great dimension, but one nonetheless.

    A lot is riding on Dalton, but more than anything, it's Marvin Lewis who has the most to prove for the Bengals.

    Lewis has been the head coach in Cincinnati since 2003 and has just three losing seasons to five in which his Bengals registered double-digit wins. And yet neither Lewis nor his Bengals have ever made it to the second round of the playoffs.

    Repeat: Marvin Lewis has never won a playoff game. Prove something this year.

6. Indianapolis Colts

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Category: A Lot to Prove

    Quarterback wins are stupid. It's a false statistic people use to point out that one guy who plays one of 24 positions, albeit an important one, is better than another guy on another team who plays the same position on another team.

    There are a lot of factors that go in to winning a football game, and while in most cases the outcome has a lot to do with how the quarterback plays, it doesn't have everything to do with his performance.

    Except in Indianapolis.

    Andrew Luck isn't the whole team for the Colts, but with absolutely no run game to speak of and an offense that is solely predicated on his ability to outduel an opponent, it sure feels like Luck is the entire offense, if not the entire team.

    That's precisely why quarterback wins are stupid and also why Luck's wins in the playoffs matter so much this year.

    He only has one playoff win in his career, with two losses in the smallest sample size a player of his caliber could have after two full seasons. That said, his numbers haven't been great, with six touchdowns and eight interceptions in those three games—including three picks in a win last year over Kansas City and four in a loss to New England—and a completion percentage hovering just over 50 percent.

    Luck and the Colts need to show they aren't just waiting for Peyton Manning and Tom Brady to retire before they become a legitimate contender in the AFC. It shouldn't be enough to win 11 games and not get to the AFC title game—exactly what they've done the last two years, with 11 more wins this regular season.

    It's time for them to show they can win in the playoffs. It's time to show he can win. If there is one team with the most to prove, it might be Indy. If there is one quarterback, it has to be Luck.

5. Green Bay Packers

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    Category: High Hopes, Higher Expectations

    Remember when Aaron Rodgers told everyone to relax? That was fun.

    That was also after the Packers started 1-2 on the season with losses to Seattle and Detroit. Green Bay was able to avenge one of those losses—the Detroit win in Week 17 has allowed Rodgers and his team to relax for another week while on a playoff bye—but the first-week loss to Seattle can't have Packers fans feeling too relaxed if they want another trip to the Super Bowl.

    The Super Bowl does not go through Lambeau Field, thanks to that loss to Seattle, and more so to the late-season debacle at Buffalo. At home, the Packers were unstoppable, but on the road they were a rather pedestrian 4-4 with a loss at New Orleans that, given how the their season ended, looks much worse than losing at Buffalo.

    What could be even more concerning is the fact that Rodgers is really banged up, noticeably limping throughout the win over Detroit while nursing, if you can call it that, a bad calf. He then had his Achilles stomped on for good measure. 

    R-E-L-A-X? How can anyone with a block of cheese on their heads relax right now?

    It's odd how a few seemingly unconnected moments in a long season can mean everything for a team that will likely have to go through Seattle (or get a ton of help) to get to the Super Bowl. The Packers had several chances at home field, but now they'll need a lot of help to host the NFC title game this year.

    Relax??!? Packers fans can't do that until February, or at least until Seattle is out.

4. Seattle Seahawks

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Category: High Hopes, Higher Expectations

    By the nature of winning the Super Bowl last year, there has to be pressure on Seattle to repeat, but if anything, it's self-inflicted.

    Fun fact, unless you are a Seahawks fan: The last time a team won back-to-back Super Bowls was the New England Patriots after the 2003 and 2004 seasons. The last time an NFC team won the Super Bowl in consecutive seasons was Dallas back in the 1992 and 1993 seasons.

    The last time an NFC team won the Super Bowl and got back there was after the 1997 season when Green Bay lost to Denver the year after beating New England.

    That's a long time ago, so it's truly unlikely that Seattle will repeat as Super Bowl champions or even get back to the game. And yet, the Seahawks have to be the favorites in the NFC with home-field advantage and a defense that is finally playing to the same level it did in last year's Super Bowl.

    It's worth noting that the top seed in the NFC has gone to just five of the last 10 Super Bowls and has won the game just three times, including last year, since 1999.

    And yet, it's Seattle. I hate to sound all "Seattle can only beat itself" at this point, but maybe it's true, certainly until it gets to the Super Bowl. Still, with a victory just last year, there shouldn't be all that much outside pressure to get back to the game or win another title. At least not this year.

3. Dallas Cowboys

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Category: High Hopes, Higher Expectations

    Tony Romo.

    OK, take a deep breath, Cowboys fans. It's OK. Truly, he's got a lot of help this year, including a defense that's been playing out of its mind and the best running back and maybe the best wide receiver in football.

    Calm down.

    Or don't, because it's the Cowboys in the playoffs in December and whoooboy there's a lot of pressure on Romo to deliver.

    Romo has been in the playoffs just three times in his career and has one win in four games, with moderate numbers in each of those contests. We all remember the muffed hold in Seattle or the crushing loss in Minnesota, no matter how long ago it was for Cowboys fans.

    Will we see a repeat?

    Since then? The Cowboys have gone 6-10, 8-8, 8-8, 8-8 and now, finally, they have a 12-win season and a chance to prove everyone wrong. This team has already exceeded everyone's expectations, but was the year it had too good to be happy with a quick playoff exit? Can Romo survive another loss in the playoffs without a serious run? More importantly, perhaps, is can Cowboys fans survive it?

    Even if Dallas manages to beat Detroit, it would have to go on the road to Green Bay then likely go up to Seattle, where it won earlier in the year. Do you think anyone is going to go into Seattle and win twice in one season?

    Dallas has a very small shot at the Super Bowl, despite finishing with the same record as the Packers and Seahawks and beating Seattle in the regular season. Tiebreakers didn't break their way, which took a potential bye and home field out of the equation, giving the Cowboys one helluva road to Arizona.

    Expectations are high but probably out of reach. In some ways they are playing with house money. In other ways...Tony Romo.

2. New England Patriots

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Category: High Hopes, Higher Expectations

    Remember when people talked about the Patriots' dynasty and how it ended this year with a terrible loss to Kansas City?

    That was wrong, and not because New England ended the regular season tied for the best record in the AFC and with home field throughout the playoffs. It was wrong because the Patriots' dynasty ended 10 years ago, when they last won a Super Bowl.

    New England has an AFC East dynasty, sure, but the Pats and Tom Brady and Bill Belichick haven't won a title since the 2004 season, losing two Super Bowls in the last seven years. The Patriots are great, but they need to win another Super Bowl to finish up this run of dominance and add to their lore in NFL history.

    They are in many ways the Spurs of the NFL, only the aging Spurs did what New England hopes to do this year: win another title before it gets too late.

    Is it already too late for New England? It's the top seed in the AFC, so it's hard to suggest it doesn't have the best shot to get to the Super Bowl, if not win it. That said, there is enormous pressure on Brady and Belichick to win another title before they both retire. This may be their best chance, if not yet their last.

1. Denver Broncos

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    John Froschauer/Associated Press

    Category: Too Much Pressure

    Or "Too Big to Fail." There has perhaps never been more pressure on an NFL team to get back to the Super Bowl than Denver after last year's absolute debacle in New Jersey at the hands of the Seahawks.

    Peyton Manning had another great season, and Denver developed a run game almost by accident with C.J. Anderson emerging as the third option this year, certainly the most dynamic and dependable back Denver has had in a while.

    Where Denver got markedly better this season is on defense, with a revamped squad reset to not only compete for the AFC crown but keep pace with the more physical NFC teams like Seattle, if it gets back to the Super Bowl.

    And that's a big if at this point. Manning has looked mortal over the last month of the season, and while there has been better balance on offense with Anderson, one has to wonder if teams have started to figure out the 38-year-old Manning in his old age.

    Maybe it's not that at all. Maybe he's injured, and Denver is playing coy with his full effectiveness. Healthy or not, Denver will most likely have to go on the road this year to win at New England, something Manning has never done in his career in the playoffs.

    The other issue for Manning, like with Brady, is wondering how long his body will hold up after the rigors of an NFL regular season. How many more years does he have at this level? How long can Denver fans expect Manning to be around? How many more runs at a Super Bowl does he have left?

    Some think this could be his best shot. It's safe to wonder, after the last month, if it may be his last. That pressure might be too much to overcome. Or Denver just might be too big to fail.