Every NFL Playoff Team's Biggest Cause for Concern

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistJanuary 1, 2019

Every NFL Playoff Team's Biggest Cause for Concern

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL playoffs.  

    Fans got a lesson in this last year, when Marcus Mariota keyed a Tennessee Titans upset on the road in the fourth quarter over the Kansas City Chiefs and when the sixth-seeded Atlanta Falcons upset the third-seeded Los Angeles Rams in the Wild Card Round. 

    Of course, don't forget Philadelphia Eagles backup quarterback Nick Foles, who hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl LII. 

    Exploitation of weaknesses plays a big role in postseason upsets, and attacking the right weak point can create some of the most memorable moments, if not create a path for an unexpected champion. 

    This postseason, every single playoff team has a major cause for concern. This can range from an on-field weakness to something opponents always exploit. Leaguewide rankings, recent trends and overall performances in certain scenarios can play roles in these concerns. Injuries or a deficiency at a major position like quarterback could also fall under the spotlight. 

    Rest assured the following causes for concern are on opponents' radars as the playoffs get underway Saturday.  

         

Kansas City Chiefs

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Biggest Cause for Concern: The Defense 

    When it comes to the Kansas City Chiefs, it is best to paint in broad strokes. 

    One could say the run defense is the biggest concern. This season, the Bob Sutton-coordinated unit coughed up 132.1 yards per game (27th). One could also say the pass defense, as the unit allowed 273 yards per game (31st). Feel free to throw in the 26.3 points per contest allowed, good for 24th. 

    The Chiefs rank around teams like Tampa Bay, Oakland and Cincinnati in scoring defense, so one would think they aren't a No. 1 seed. But head coach Andy Reid and quarterback Patrick Mahomes—who has 5,097 passing yards and 50 touchdowns against 12 interceptions—have a way of masking the issue. 

    Except when they don't. 

    In Week 14, a strong Baltimore rushing attack gained 194 yards in a 27-24 Kansas City overtime win. The week after, the Chiefs allowed 119 yards and two scores on the ground in a loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. And a week after that, they allowed 210 rushing yards and two scores in a loss to the Seattle Seahawks. 

    Potent rushing teams like the Chargers—and even subpar ones at this point—could send the Chiefs home early. 

New England Patriots

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Biggest Cause for Concern: Rob Gronkowski

    The New England Patriots offense doesn't entirely hinge on Rob Gronkowski, but it sure is easier for opponents to slow it if he isn't effective. 

    And the tight end hasn't been too effective this season. In 13 games, he's caught just 47 passes for 682 yards and three scores. Compare that to, say, 2016, when he only played in eight games yet turned 25 catches into 540 yards and three scores. 

    Gronkowski, now 29 years old, has teammates like safety Duron Harmon coming to his defense, according to NFL Network's Michael Giardi: "I know he hasn't had the same stats, but when it comes time for it, he's going to be out there making plays for us."

    Yet Gronkowski hasn't caught more than two passes in a game over his past three appearances and had no receptions on three targets in a sloppy 24-12 Week 16 victory over a then-five-win Buffalo. Better opponents won't be as forgiving, which explains the Week 15 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The offense stumbled to 10 points, while he caught two of five targets for 21 yards. 

    While Tom Brady has slowed down in each of the past few Decembers before the playoffs, Gronkowski usually hasn't when healthy. If he can't catch fire for one more postseason, the Patriots might bow out early. 

Houston Texans

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Biggest Cause for Concern: The Offensive Line

    The Houston Texans, believe it or not, don't have a ton of concerns. 

    The team has 11 wins heading into the playoffs, and Deshaun Watson has completed 68.3 percent of his passes with 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions. The running game has averaged a ho-hum 4.3 yards per carry, but DeAndre Hopkins might be the best wideout in the league, even though it would be nice to have Will Fuller V on the field.

    Don't forget the defense, which has drummed up 43 sacks and allowed only 19.8 points per game (tied for fourth-fewest). 

    Then there is the offensive line. 

    In Week 17, the Jacksonville Jaguars sacked Watson on six occasions. He's been taken down 62 times this year, and when he hit the 60 mark, it was the most of any quarterback since 2006. 

    As fans know, it only takes one hit to take out a quarterback. If that happened in Houston, the team would have to shift to 35-year-old Brandon Weeden (6-19 as a starter). Obviously, this is the worst-case scenario, but teams with strong pass rushes, like Kansas City and Baltimore, could shutter the Houston offense, disrupting its timing and eventually breaking a defense that usually doesn't have to bend too far. 

Baltimore Ravens

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    Biggest Cause for Concern: Reliance on the Run

    Predictable, right? 

    First-round rookie Lamar Jackson has led the Baltimore Ravens to a 6-1 record over his last seven games, with the only blemish a 27-24 overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.

    So, what's the problem? Defenses can naturally adjust to Jackson as more film becomes available and coaches have time to scheme, but the other prominent issue is the heavy leaning into the running game itself. 

    Since Jackson took the starting job in Week 11, Baltimore's run-pass ratios have been as follows: 

    • 53-19
    • 43-25
    • 49-26
    • 40-26
    • 49-23
    • 35-22
    • 47-24

    In 16 appearances, Jackson has completed 58.2 percent of his passes and only thrown three more touchdowns (six) than interceptions (three), so it is clear what works—and what defenses have to do to win. 

    But potent offenses can even negate this strength, as seen in the loss to Kansas City and the two-point escape against Cleveland in Week 17 despite Baltimore's 296 rushing yards and 6.3 yards per carry. It'll take just one team figuring out how to stop the run or simply outlasting the Ravens in order to send them home.

Los Angeles Chargers

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Biggest Cause for Concern: Slow Starts

    Come-from-behind victories in the regular season are great—but there is a smaller margin for error in the postseason. 

    While the Chargers deserve some praise for comeback wins over teams such as the Steelers and the Chiefs, their slow starts are concerning. 

    Case in point: Week 16 against the Ravens. At home, the Chargers were behind 3-0 after one frame and 6-3 at halftime. That doesn't sound like much, but L.A. went on to lose 22-10. The team has been outscored 43-14 in the first frames of its past six games. 

    That's holding back the Chargers.

    Veteran quarterback Philip Rivers (32 touchdowns to 12 picks) is playing like an MVP. The top two rushers (Melvin Gordon III and Austin Ekeler) are averaging north of five yards per carry. The defense got 2016 Defensive Rookie of the Year Joey Bosa back from injury in Week 11, it has Melvin Ingram wreaking havoc, and Derwin James (13 passes defended) is already one of the league's best safeties. 

    The Chargers need to address whatever is causing their slow starts. The AFC is littered with teams that can control possession through the running game, so falling behind is something Rivers and Co. can't afford. 

Indianapolis Colts

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    Biggest Cause for Concern: Secondary

    The 2018 Indianapolis Colts are an amazing story. 

    Frank Reich is a Coach of the Year candidate. Andrew Luck is healthy and playing behind an offensive line that has rebounded, allowing the fewest sacks (18) of any team this season. Darius Leonard is a breakout rookie linebacker who's leading a defense that didn't allow a 100-yard rusher this year. 

    The Colts finished the season 10-6 and are only the third team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to start 1-5 and make the playoffs. 

    But cutting through the hype, the secondary continues to be a concern as the Colts head into the pass-happy playoffs. At best, the pass defense has been inconsistent since a Week 9 bye and has benefited from an easy schedule. Indianapolis has allowed a middling 238 yards per game through the air this season (16th).

    Two matchups with Tennessee meant mostly avoiding Marcus Mariota. Two against Jacksonville meant lining up against a soon-to-be benched Blake Bortles and backup Cody Kessler. But Bortles threw for 320 yards and two touchdowns in a three-point Colts victory in Week 10, while the Jags shut out Indy in Week 13. Miami's Ryan Tannehill threw two touchdowns in a three-point Colts win. And Eli Manning of the New York Giants threw for 309 yards and a score in a one-point Colts escape. 

    Now think about this defense against someone like Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady or Philip Rivers. Luck, T.Y. Hilton and Eric Ebron are superb with a good line up front, but a shootout could leave the Colts' biggest problem exposed. 

New Orleans Saints

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    Bill Feig/Associated Press

    Biggest Cause for Concern: Penalties 

    There aren't many holes to poke in the New Orleans Saints, arguably the most complete team in the NFL.

    Drew Brees threw 32 touchdowns against five interceptions in the regular season. His team's running game is strong (126.6 yards per game, good for sixth). Eight of his targets—led by wide receiver Michael Thomas (nine TDs)—have multiple touchdown catches. The defense has generated 49 sacks (tied for fifth) while only permitting 21.3 points per contest over 15 meaningful games. 

    The Saints have home-field advantage locked up, but the offense has been trending downward. The team only scored 10 points in a Week 13 loss to Dallas. A 28-14 win over Tampa Bay the following week wasn't impressive, nor was a 12-9 victory over Carolina. Things got better in a 31-28 defeat of Pittsburgh, but one thing stuck out: flags. 

    Against Tampa Bay, the Saints' six penalties cost them 51 yards. In Carolina, they lost 80 yards on nine penalties. During the win over the Steelers, they had nine more for 91 yards. 

    This may sound like a little thing. But if a seven-win team like Carolina that lost seven in a row can keep a game close after penalties disrupted Brees and the offense, the NFC's best will be able to do the same. 

Los Angeles Rams

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Biggest Cause for Concern: Jared Goff 

    Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff looked great in his final two outings before the postseason. 

    But shredding the three-win Arizona Cardinals and four-win San Francisco 49ers isn't much to write home about. 

    More concerning is Goff's previous three performances in December. The third-year signal-caller put up a 68.6 passer rating with one touchdown and an interception in a win over Detroit. He recorded a 19.1 rating while throwing four picks in a loss to Chicago and then had a 75.9 rating with one interception during a loss to Philadelphia. 

    That dip in play puts a damper on what was a superb label-shedding campaign for Goff, and it isn't a coincidence the Rams lost more games in December than they had the prior three months combined. Keep in mind this drop-off could put pressure on the defense. Notably, the Rams allowed 122.3 yards per game on the ground this season, ranked 23rd.

    Also, remember Todd Gurley, owner of 1,251 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns, was inactive in Weeks 16 and 17 while dealing with a knee injury. 

    If Goff has to carry the offensive burden in a playoff game and he isn't playing like he has over the final two games against mediocre opponents, the Rams could be looking at back-to-back postseason disappointments.

Chicago Bears

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Biggest Cause for Concern: Mitchell Trubisky

    Unfortunately for Mitchell Trubisky, he might be the most obvious weak point of all playoff teams. 

    Trubisky didn't have a sophomore slump by any means, but the ratio of his 24 touchdowns to 12 interceptions is exaggerated: He dropped six scores in one game on hapless Tampa Bay. Otherwise, he hasn't been able to stretch the field with deep passes or keep defenses guessing. 

    At this point, Trubisky's late-season performances travel a Goff-like trajectory. He cleaned up his play with three touchdowns and no picks combined in wins over Green Bay and San Francisco, though those victories against non-playoff teams were by seven or fewer points. 

    The two games prior were more concerning. While the Bears pulled off wins, Trubisky totaled two touchdowns and five interceptions against playoff-caliber Rams and Vikings teams in Weeks 11 and 14 (he missed the two games in between with a shoulder injury).

    In his final matchup with the Vikings in Week 17, Trubisky faltered in a 24-10 win that eliminated Minnesota from the playoff picture, throwing for just 163 yards and no scores. 

    Luckily for the Bears, their elite defense—led by former Raider Khalil Mack—has made the situation borderline bulletproof. But it's concerning that other NFC contenders played them close near the end of the season while Trubisky struggled. 

Dallas Cowboys

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Biggest Cause for Concern: Road Performance 

    The Dallas Cowboys needed four touchdowns from quarterback Dak Prescott in Week 17 to squeak past the five-win New York Giants 36-35, and that says it all. 

    While the Cowboys were big winners in the Amari Cooper trade with Oakland, they were also fortunate to play in the NFC East, where the defending champion Eagles had an injured quarterback, the Giants' attempt at a win-now season was misguided from the jump and Washington remained Washington (and was decimated by injuries). 

    At times, the real measure of a playoff team is its performance away from home. The Cowboys had seven victories in Dallas. But they went 3-5 on the road, only winning against Philadelphia, Atlanta (now 7-9) and those Giants. The fact that they had losses to Carolina, Seattle, Houston, Washington and Indianapolis on the road—the majority of those playoff teams—is a big red flag. 

    So while the Cowboys will take a top-10 scoring defense (20.3 points allowed per game) and a solid (if not one-dimensional) passing attack into the playoffs, the road to the Super Bowl doesn't run through Dallas. 

Seattle Seahawks

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    John Froschauer/Associated Press

    Biggest Cause for Concern: Level of Competition

    The Seattle Seahawks are an awesome story. It seemed like a rebuild might be underway, but quarterback Russell Wilson and a rejuvenated defense instead rallied to secure a playoff bid in a deep conference. 

    Seattle didn't just ride a strong defense around superstar linebacker Bobby Wagner. It also made 43 sacks and 12 interceptions while only allowing 21.7 points per game even though the team lost safety Earl Thomas to injury in Week 4. 

    But when you look at the schedule, the Seahawks don't pass the eye test. These are the records of the teams they beat this year: 

    • 10-6
    • 3-13
    • 4-12
    • 6-10
    • 6-9
    • 7-9
    • 4-12
    • 8-7-1
    • 12-4
    • 3-13

    To make matters worse, Seattle lost to notable playoff contenders like Chicago and both Los Angeles teams, not to mention San Francisco in Week 15. They closed the season with a near-disaster against three-win Arizona before pulling off the 27-24 victory at home. 

    Make no mistake—Wilson has been a magician again behind an offensive line that has coughed up more than 50 sacks and has thrown 35 touchdowns to seven picks. The running game is productive (160 yards per game, first in the NFL), and the defense is strong. But easy portions of the schedule have padded the numbers, and that's something playoff football will shine a spotlight on immediately. 

Philadelphia Eagles

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    Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    Biggest Cause for Concern: Injuries Under Center

    As usual, the Philadelphia Eagles made it work. With a 24-0 win over Washington and Minnesota's loss, the Eagles slipped into the playoffs in Week 17. 

    While they seem like they could pull off more playoff magic, quarterback Nick Foles left Sunday's victory with a fourth-quarter chest injury. 

    Granted, ESPN's Adam Schefter cited a source who said the Eagles "think he's OK," but this is a re-aggravation of a setback he suffered the week prior. While Carson Wentz remains on the active roster, the playoff snaps would likely go to 2016 sixth-round pick Nate Sudfeld instead. 

    Foles has keyed Philadelphia's run to the playoffs and was especially hot over the last two outings, throwing six touchdowns and two interceptions. He's helped compensate for an up-and-down defense and the lack of a consistent running game. 

    That last point is perhaps the biggest one that could snowball in Philadelphia's face if Foles takes another weird hit and the offense goes to Sudfeld. Josh Adams is the leading rusher with 511 yards among a hodgepodge of names who haven't been much better. 

    In fact, the putrid running game would normally be the biggest point here if Foles weren't battling nagging issues. If he can't go, Chicago will bully the Eagles and end any Cinderella story early. 

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