5 NFL Teams Peaking at the Right Time as Playoffs Near

Alex KayContributor IDecember 27, 2022

5 NFL Teams Peaking at the Right Time as Playoffs Near

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    SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 24: Brock Purdy #13 of the San Francisco 49ers throws a pass against the Washington Commanders during the first half of the game at Levi's Stadium on December 24, 2022 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    The importance of timing for NFL playoff success cannot be understated.

    Teams that peak at the right time have a history of thriving in the postseason. Look no further than the 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers to see one of the more recent examples of this phenomena. They went into a Week 13 bye with a middling 7-5 record before going undefeated all of the way to a Super Bowl victory.

    The 2011 New York Giants may be the best example of how getting hot late in the year can result in a title.

    The team barely made the playoffs at 9-7 but managed to win three of its last four regular-season matchups to get into the field. The G-Men then ripped off four consecutive victories to secure a championship, becoming the only nine-win team to ever lift a Lombardi Trophy during the 16-game regular-season era.

    While powerhouse squads that have been a force all year will obviously be a factor in January, they could have their title hopes dashed by red-hot foes that finally figured things out.

    With that in mind, let's look at some teams that are now firing on all cylinders after hitting rough patches earlier in the year.

Carolina Panthers

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    CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - DECEMBER 24: Sam Darnold #14 of the Carolina Panthers looks on prior to the game against the Detroit Lions at Bank of America Stadium on December 24, 2022 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    The Carolina Panthers' path to relevance has been a winding one. After an abysmal 1-4 start under former head coach Matt Rhule, the team has managed to go .500 under interim Steve Wilks.

    Now 6-9 on the season, Carolina was able to become competitive despite a revolving door at the quarterback position. The franchise began the year with Baker Mayfield under center for five starts but benched him when he returned from his ankle injury and eventually cut him after he failed to impress when given another opportunity later in the season.

    A five-week stint with PJ Walker under center ended with the backup getting injured, giving Sam Darnold another opportunity in the QB1 role despite a trying first season with the club. His second chance has gone far better, with the 25-year-old leading the squad to a 3-1 record in his four starts.

    While Darnold isn't playing at a superstar level—he's completed only 61.4 percent of his passes for 759 yards and four touchdowns—he's avoided interceptions while doing a fine job of managing an offense chock-full of underrated and unheralded talent.

    The running game has made Darnold's job easy and is the main reason for Carolina's offensive success. Despite trading a superstar back in Christian McCaffrey midway through the campaign, the Panthers have only managed to improve on the ground.

    With Week 17 on the horizon, they are averaging a solid 131 rushing yards per game and have scored 16 rushing touchdowns. The team is coming off a franchise-record showing, with an eye-popping 320 rushing yards against the Detroit Lions. With the backfield tandem of D'Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard doing most of the damage, Carolina has rushed for at least 185 yards in three of the last four contests.

    The Panthers still need a few things to break their way in order to get into the playoffs—the most important being winning their Week 17 bout against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the current NFC South leaders at 7-8—but their surging rushing attack could help them make some real noise if they make the field.

Cincinnati Bengals

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    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 24: Joe Burrow #9 of the Cincinnati Bengals attempts a pass during the first quarter against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on December 24, 2022 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Nick Grace/Getty Images)
    Nick Grace/Getty Images

    The Cincinnati Bengals appeared to be the next victim of the dreaded Super Bowl hangover. They were able to shake it off, however, and could make a run back to the big game.

    They limped to a 2-3 record before Joe Burrow elevated his play to an MVP level. The third-year quarterback has been instrumental in the club's current seven-game winning streak and has put up some remarkable numbers over the last 10 contests.

    In that span, Burrow has completed 71.1 percent of his passes for 2,944 yards and 25 touchdowns against seven interceptions. He's also rushed 49 times for 162 yards and four scores.

    Compare that to his numbers from Weeks 1 through 5, when he completed a pedestrian 65 percent of his passes for 1,316 yards and nine touchdowns with five picks while rushing 23 times for 85 yards and a score.

    The Bengals have proved themselves against quality competition as well. They secured a statement win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 13, beating them for the third time in a calendar year, and followed that up with victories over potential playoff foes in the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in addition to a win over the Cleveland Browns.

    They still have some tough tasks ahead, including a Week 17 clash against the Buffalo Bills—an opponent it could face in the AFC Championship Game—and the season finale against the Baltimore Ravens, a bitter divisional rival that already beat them in Week 5.

    If Cincy gets through this stretch unscathed and arrives in the playoffs with nine consecutive wins under its belt, it's tough to see how anyone could topple this team.

Detroit Lions

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    CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - DECEMBER 24: Jared Goff #16 of the Detroit Lions looks to pass against the Carolina Panthers during the first half of the game at Bank of America Stadium on December 24, 2022 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    The surging Detroit Lions tasted defeat in Week 16 for only the second time since Week 9. While the disheartening 37-23 loss hindered this upstart club's chances of making a playoff appearance, the Lions aren't out of the running yet.

    If they can get back to their winning ways over these next two weeks, they could complete one of the more unexpected turnarounds in the league. The squad seemed to be a non-factor after coming out of the gates with a 1-6 record, an unsurprising start given Detroit's rebuilding status and lack of franchise quarterback.

    That rebuild could be over sooner than most anticipated. While veteran signal-caller Jared Goff struggled in his first season with the franchise after coming over in an offseason trade, he's taken a leap in 2022 and inspired confidence from team brass.

    Goff has been doing a great job of pushing the ball downfield and orchestrating a high-flying passing attack. Since Week 9, he's tallied over 2,000 yards while completing 65.1 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns. Perhaps most importantly, he's avoiding turnovers and has just a single interception in the last eight games.

    The 28-year-old has done well enough that the Lions have already decided to roll with him next year regardless of how the team finishes this season. According to NFL insider Ian Rapoport, the organization does not consider the 2016 No. 1 overall pick to be a bridge option and plans to stick with him for the foreseeable future.

    While the Lions still have problems to address—notably on defense, as no team has given up more yardage or points this season—they are a fun, plucky squad that has rallied around head coach Dan Campbell and will be a tough out if they secure an improbable playoff berth.

Jacksonville Jaguars

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    EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 22: Trevor Lawrence #16 of the Jacksonville Jaguars scrambles against the New York Jets during the first half at MetLife Stadium on December 22, 2022 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
    Cooper Neill/Getty Images

    The Jacksonville Jaguars' transformation from the league's laughingstock to a serious contender has been a rapid one. Head coach Doug Pederson has brought stability to an organization that hit rock-bottom under Urban Meyer and is in striking distance of making the postseason in his first year with the club.

    The Jaguars have won three straight games and five of their last seven heading into Week 17. This stark turnaround could not only get them into the playoffs but also have them hosting a game as AFC South champions.

    After Jacksonville got off to a 2-6 start, few would have predicted the team would eventually battle back to a position where it could overtake the Tennessee Titans for the divisional crown.

    The Jags are now even with the Titans in the standings and hold a tiebreaking edge over their rivals because of their head-to-head Week 14 victory. These teams will meet again in Week 18, a game that could cement Jacksonville's status as AFC South champs and send the club to the playoffs for the first time since 2017.

    While Pederson has provided a steady hand on the sidelines, Trevor Lawrence has been the on-field catalyst. Last year's No. 1 overall pick has developed into a bona fide franchise quarterback while showing growth nearly every week.

    He has taken a noticeable leap forward over the last five games, completing 67.2 percent of his passes for 1,415 yards and 11 touchdowns with only a single interception. He's also punched in a pair of touchdowns on the ground.

    The Jaguars defense could use a bit more consistency—the unit held the New York Jets to just three points Thursday after allowing the Dallas Cowboys to put up 34 points in the prior week—but this team has shown it can get the job done in a variety of ways.

    Whether they are exploding on offense or bottling up their opponent defensively, the Jags have finally figured out how to win at the most opportune of times.

San Francisco 49ers

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    SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 24: Nick Bosa #97 of the San Francisco 49ers reacts after forcing a fumble during the fourth quarter in the game against the Washington Commanders at Levi's Stadium on December 24, 2022 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    The San Francisco 49ers had a rocky start but have since righted the ship.

    In a year in which they hoped to transition to Trey Lance as their starting quarterback, they were forced to go back to veteran Jimmy Garoppolo after the second-year signal-caller suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 2.

    Garoppolo struggled at times in his elevated role, losing three of his first five starts before helping guide the squad to four consecutive victories. He suffered a significant injury early in Week 13, however, forcing the Niners to turn to rookie Brock Purdy.

    Instead of collapsing with the final pick of the 2022 draft under center, San Francisco has rallied. The club is 4-0 in contests in which Purdy has played most of the quarterback snaps and continues to look like a team to be feared.

    The Niners haven't tasted defeat since Oct. 23, with the team holding the longest active winning streak in the league at eight games.

    The offense, which ranks in the top 10 in both yardage and points heading into Week 17, has exploded since getting late-October pickup Christian McCaffrey fully integrated, eclipsing the 33-point mark three times in the last four contests.

    The 49ers defense has also evolved into a cohesive, well-oiled unit. It hasn't given up more than 20 points since a Week 7 defeat to Kansas City.

    With Defensive Player of the Year candidate Nick Bosa leading the league in sacks (17.5), this group will be a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks to deal with in the postseason.