Every NFL Playoff Team's Biggest Cause for Concern

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJanuary 2, 2018

Every NFL Playoff Team's Biggest Cause for Concern

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The 2017 NFL regular season is over and the playoff field has been set. While the Cleveland Browns put together the ultimate imperfect season, nobody in football was close to perfect.  

    As a result, all 12 playoff teams face obstacles as January gets underway. 

    Here's a glance at every team's largest cause for concern in the 2018 playoffs. 

New England Patriots

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    Tom Brady faded down the stretch

    Could fatigue be a factor for the NFL's oldest position player? The 40-year-old New England Patriots quarterback posted a 111.7 passer rating during the first 12 weeks of the season but saw his rate-based numbers drop off significantly in December. 

    During the final five weeks of the year, Brady completed just 61.3 percent of his passes for 7.0 yards per attempt and put up six touchdowns to five interceptions and a passer rating of 81.6. 

    Brady could rebound, but it's worth noting that in his last full season he did the same thing. Back in 2015, Brady posted a 106.7 passer rating during the first 12 weeks of the year and an 90.5 rating in the final five weeks. And while he did perform well in a Divisional Round victory over the Kansas City Chiefs that year, he struggled in the AFC Championship Game loss to the Denver Broncos, finishing with a 56.4 rating. 

    For a team already trying to compensate for the absence of Dont'a Hightower and Julian Edelman, that's a potential problem. 

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    The defense gives up a lot of big plays

    The Pittsburgh Steelers have the ability to explode on offense, but their defense takes a lot of heavy fire as well. During the regular season, Pittsburgh surrendered 10 plays of 50 or more yards (tied for most in the NFL) and 16 plays of 40 or more yards (tied for second-most).

    Eleven of those 40-yard plays came in the second half of the season, including two against the lowly Browns in Week 17. They miss injured star linebacker Ryan Shazier, whose absence has unfortunately put more pressure on the rest of a talented but vulnerable unit. 

    The Steelers obviously have reason to be concerned about the health of wide receiver Antonio Brown, who is trying to battle back from a calf injury in time for their playoff opener on January 14. But he should be good to go, according to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, and their offense has remained effective the last couple of weeks without their superstar wideout.

    That being said, if Brown isn't 100 percent, the defense has less margin for error when it comes to giving up home runs.

Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Blake Bortles is their quarterback

    Yes, at times this season Bortles looked a lot stronger than in years past. And it helped that the Jacksonville Jaguars provided him with a 1,000-yard back in Leonard Fournette, who often kept opposing defenses honest. But the oft-maligned fourth-year quarterback closed out the regular season on an ugly note. 

    While the Jags were outscored 59-43 in back-to-back losses to finish the year, Bortles completed just 56.0 percent of his passes for 6.4 yards per attempt, two touchdowns to five interceptions and a passer rating of 58.6. 

    Teams simply can't win consistently in the playoffs without high-quality play under center, and there's a good chance the Jags fail to get that out of Bortles in his first postseason appearance. 

Buffalo Bills

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    LeSean McCoy isn't healthy

    Nobody's healthy this time of year, but Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy's injury could derail the team's playoff run before it leaves the station. 

    The league's fourth-leading rusher was carted off the field Sunday against the Miami Dolphins after hurting his ankle, putting his status in doubt for this Sunday's wild-card tilt with the Jaguars. 

    Per ESPN.com's Mike Rodak, Bills head coach Sean McDermott stated Monday that McCoy has a "chance" to play on Wild Card Weekend. But even if that happens, he'll be "gimpy and not 100 [percent]," according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.

    That could be an issue for a Bills team that is already considered a clear underdog against an opponent that possesses the top-rated defense in the AFC. 

    The only other running back on the roster who rushed for 100 or more yards in 2017 is Mike Tolbert, who averaged just 3.7 yards per carry on 66 attempts. 

Kansas City Chiefs

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    Their playoff track record

    The Kansas City Chiefs deserve credit for recovering from a midseason slump in which they lost six of seven games and averaged just 19.9 points. But they got back on track, finishing the year on a four-game winning streak—while averaging 28.0 points—to take the AFC West title. 

    While this Chiefs team looks and feels more dangerous than previous versions, the reality is they've struggled in the playoffs since head coach Andy Reid's tenure got underway in 2013. 

    In Indianapolis on Wild Card Weekend that season, the Chiefs blew a 38-10 second-half lead to the Colts after the offense went cold.

    Two years later they beat an embarrassing Houston Texans team 30-0 in the wild-card round; they then hung with the Patriots for four quarters before botching a potential game-tying drive in the final minutes of their divisional matchup.

    And last January, they once again tripped all over themselves while making costly game-management mistakes on an excruciatingly long fourth-quarter drive. They failed to tie the game on a two-point conversion attempt and never got the ball back in a divisional-round loss to the Steelers. 

Tennessee Titans

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    They're limping into the playoffs 

    The good news is the Tennessee Titans are in the playoffs for the first time since 2008. The bad news is they lost three of their last four regular-season games, scoring 15 or fewer points twice. 

    The young, inexperienced Titans were mired in a three-game losing streak before sneaking past the cold Jaguars with a 15-10 Week 17 victory to grab a wild-card spot. Aside from Derrick Henry's 66-yard catch-and-run touchdown, the offense was ineffective. Nine of their other 13 drives resulted in punts, while they settled for field goals on three and committed a turnover on the other. 

    That came three weeks after a dud in a 12-7 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Henry was also the only Titan to score that day, and the offense scored just three total touchdowns in ensuing losses to the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams. 

    During the second half of what was supposed to be a breakout season, Mariota has thrown 10 interceptions to seven touchdown passes while posting a putrid 74.3 passer rating. 

    None of that will do on the road against the Chiefs—especially if veteran running back DeMarco Murray continues to be sidelined by a knee injury. 

Philadelphia Eagles

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    Carson Wentz is not their starting quarterback

    The second-year No. 2 overall pick was putting together an MVP-caliber season before he tore his ACL in Week 14, which makes the Philadelphia Eagles an especially vulnerable No. 1 seed. 

    Yes, interim starter Nick Foles is one of the best backup quarterbacks in the league. But he is playing for his third team in as many years for a reason. The 2012 third-round pick hasn't been able to recapture the magic which helped him make the Pro Bowl as the NFL's highest-rated passer in 2013. 

    In his first start in place of Wentz—a Week 15 victory over the New York Giants—Foles completed 24 of 38 passes for 237 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. But since then he's completed just 46.9 percent of his throws for 4.1 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 48.2. 

    Eagles fans hoping to see their beloved team win its first championship in more than half a century aren't likely inspired by a quarterback coming off back-to-back home stinkers. 

Minnesota Vikings

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    Case Keenum has never started a playoff game

    The 29-year-old journeyman made himself a lot of money with a breakout season in place of Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater. But a lot of mystery still surrounds Keenum, which has to be stressful for a Minnesota Vikings team looking to win its first Super Bowl in its home stadium. 

    Nobody knows what to expect from a guy who entered this season as a backup with 24 career touchdown passes and a rating of 78.4. And while he was hot up until Week 13, his numbers have cooled off and his sack rate has risen in recent weeks. 

    Does that mean opposing defenses have begun to get better feel for Keenum? It's possible. But the good news is he continues to limit his mistakes, and the league's top-rated defensive team might not need him to be a superhero. 

Los Angeles Rams

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    A lack of experience 

    Noticing a trend in the NFC? Like the Eagles and Vikings, the Rams will also have to lean on the fountain of youth this month. 

    Per Jimmy Kempski of PhillyVoice, Los Angeles entered the season as the NFC's youngest team. And a squad relying on quarterback Jared Goff (23), running back Todd Gurley (23), receivers Robert Woods (25), Cooper Kupp (24) and Sammy Watkins (24), and defensive tackle Aaron Donald (26) actually becomes even younger when you consider that the man calling the shots, Sean McVay (32), is the youngest head coach in NFL history. 

    Only six players on the active roster have playoff experience, so there's no telling how the Rams will react to the increased spotlight this weekend. 

Atlanta Falcons

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    28-3

    That, of course, is the lead the Atlanta Falcons held over the Patriots in Super Bowl LI before collapsing in historic fashion. Their coordinators from that game are gone, but the roster remains similar, and head coach Dan Quinn could have a tough time getting his team out of its own head in the coming weeks. 

    The Falcons haven't been quite right since that Super Bowl loss: The offense hasn't been as crisp under new coordinator Steve Sarkisian; they haven't hit the 25-point mark since November; and quarterback Matt Ryan came back to earth after winning MVP in what might have been an aberrational 2016 campaign. 

    Atlanta appears to be a team suffering from a deadly Super Bowl hangover, a team inevitably destined to go one-and-done in January. Fighting that expectation while maintaining focus won't be easy, especially as opposing fans continue to remind them what happened last February 5. 

New Orleans Saints

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    The defense still has its bad moments 

    It's probably a good sign that I'm forced to nitpick to find a cause for concern regarding the New Orleans Saints. They have a Super Bowl-winning head coach/quarterback pairing, the best running back duo in football, the top rookie class in the league, one of the strongest offensive lines in the game and a surprisingly staunch defense. 

    Still, that defensive unit surrendered a league-high 29.8 points per game in 2015 and then followed that up with a second-to-worst 28.4 in 2016. They finished the 2017 regular season No. 10, allowing 20.4 points, but that track record is scary—and it probably comes more into focus after they allowed 455 yards in a loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 17. 

    The Saints defense has a lot of high-quality cogs, including Pro Bowl pass-rusher Cameron Jordan and Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Marshon Lattimore. But they feasted on some soft offenses and backup quarterbacks earlier in the year, then struggled against the Rams, Bucs and Washington Redskins during the second half of the regular season. They also surrendered more 20-yard gains than any other playoff team.

    That could indicate they'll be vulnerable on that side of the ball against a familiar foe on Wild Card Weekend. 

Carolina Panthers

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    They're in an offensive rut

    The Carolina Panthers enter the playoffs having scored a touchdown on just two of their last 24 offensive drives. Cam Newton has a 73.1 passer rating in his last four games, and both his and the team's offensive numbers have declined for three consecutive weeks. 

    It's fair to wonder if Newton simply doesn't have enough support. Far from 100 percent healthy, tight end Greg Olsen caught just one of the nine passes thrown his way in the season finale. Kelvin Benjamin was traded at the deadline, and Devin Funchess probably isn't cut out to be a No. 1 receiver. And while running back Christian McCaffrey has become a go-to option for Newton, the rookie still has his limitations as a runner. 

    McCaffrey and veteran back Jonathan Stewart both averaged less than 3.8 yards per carry during the regular season, and that offensive line isn't very good. 

    Newton still has the ability to carry this team on his shoulders, but that's not something you'd like to count on.