NFL Wild-Card Fear Factor: Which Teams Will Scare Contenders in the Playoffs?

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 6, 2019

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 01: Derrick Henry #22 of the Tennessee Titans runs for a touchdown in the third quarter of the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 1, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images)
Bobby Ellis/Getty Images

Either the 49ers or the Seahawks are going to be a terrifying wild-card team in a few weeks.

The 10-2 Niners have beaten several possible playoff teams (Packers, Steelers, Rams) and lost to two others on last-second field goals. They possess the best defensive front four in the league and enough skill-position playmakers to form a small orchestra.

Meanwhile, the 10-2 Seahawks have beaten the 49ers, Vikings, Rams and Steelers. They're 6-0 on the road and are helmed by Russell Wilson, an MVP candidate who has led them to an 8-5 record in past playoffs and Super Bowls.

Only one of these teams can win the NFC West. The other is likely to claim the top wild-card berth, which means they will get to work out their frustration on the Cowboys or (LOL) Eagles in the first round of the playoffs. 

Since either the 49ers or Seahawks will become this year's official Wild-Card Team No One Wants to Face, let's turn our attention to the other playoff hopefuls. Some have the capacity to do real damage in the postseason. Others will be lucky to just reach the playoffs if they can.

With the help of a deep dive into the tape and the Football Outsiders database, we'll help you decide which teams the Chiefs, Packers, Texans and NFC Eastlings want to face in the postseason, and which ones they hope to avoid.

(All rankings and splits come from the Football Outsiders DVOA database unless otherwise noted).

Buffalo Bills (9-3)

ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 28:  Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills rolls out to throw a pass in the second half of a game on Thanksgiving Day against the Dallas Cowboys at NRG Stadium on November 28, 2019 in Arlington, Texas.  The Bills defeated the Cowboy
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Playoff portfolio: The Bills have beaten the Titans and Cowboys but have lost to the Patriots, Eagles and Browns.

What they are good at:

  • The Bills excel at beating bad opponents. They have faced the NFL's easiest schedule so far, per Football Outsiders. Bills fans are tired of hearing about it, but that doesn't change the fact that they have faced a Charmin-soft schedule.
  • The Bills pass defense ranks fifth in the NFL. Thanks in large part to cornerback Tre'Davious White, they are especially good at taking away their opponents' top targets. They rank fifth in the league in stopping No. 1 receivers and fourth in stopping No. 2 receivers. 
  • Quarterback Josh Allen has developed into a somewhat capable pocket passer and dangerous runner. Or as Bills Mafia dons might say after six beers and a headfirst swan dive into a pingpong table: "He's like Cam Newton, only 7 trillion times better."

What they are bad at:

  • Despite their reputation for having a stout defense, the Bills have allowed 104.3 rushing yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry against weak opposition. Football Outsiders ranks them 22nd in the NFL in run defense.
  • Opposing kickers are only 9-of-17 on field goals (including an amazing 6-of-14 beyond 30 yards) and have missed four extra points. No, the Bills don't have some magical ability to intimidate opposing kickers. This is pure luck, and it played a part in wins over the Jets, Titans and Cowboys. Field-goal luck has a tendency to run out against better opponents.  

Wild-Card Fear Factor: Moderate.

The Bills are a .500-caliber team coasting to the playoffs on a schedule full of Jets, Dolphins, Bengals and Giants. On the other hand, their stingy pass defense and ball-control offense combine to keep scores low and games within reach of an Allen scramble, a clutch turnover or a missed field goal.

As the Cowboys learned on Thanksgiving, the Bills give sloppy opponents lots of opportunities to beat themselves. The Chiefs and Texans (their most likely playoff foes) are both prone to bouts of sloppiness.


Los Angeles Rams (7-5)

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 17: Defensive tackle Aaron Donald #99 of the Los Angeles Rams stops running back running back David Montgomery #32 of the Chicago Bears at the line of scrimmage age in the first half of the game at the Los Angeles Memorial Colis
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Playoff portfolio: The Rams beat the Saints early in the season. Drew Brees got injured in the first quarter of that game, and the transition to Teddy Bridgewater wasn't very smooth at first. The Rams have since lost to the Seahawks, 49ers, Steelers and Ravens.

What they are good at:

  • Aaron Donald (9.5 sacks, 17 tackles for a loss, 31 pass pressures) can still disrupt opposing offenses almost single-handedly.
  • When the Rams are leading, Jared Goff has a 10-to-2 touchdown-to-interception rate, averages 8.2 yards per attempt and has a passer rating of 101.7.

What they are bad at:

  • The Rams offense ranks 20th in rushing, 16th in passing and 16th in play-action passing. Those aren't bad rankings, but Sean McVay is supposed to be baffling the NFL with his youthful wizardry, not leading a star-studded offense straight to the middle of the pack. 
  • When the Rams are trailing, Goff has a 3-to-9 touchdown-to-interception rate, averages 7.0 yards per attempt and has a passer rating of 69.5.

Wild-Card Fear Factor: Low

The Rams are great at stomping on weak opponents like the Falcons and Cardinals. But each time they face playoff-caliber competition this season, they look a little worse. The only things scary about them in the playoffs are Donald and their Super Bowl pedigree, but opponents like the Seahawks, Packers and Saints won't be impressed by their pedigree. A brutal late-season slate (Seahawks, Cowboys, 49ers) will probably keep them out of the playoffs, anyway.


Minnesota Vikings (8-4)

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 17: Phillip Lindsay #30 of the Denver Broncos runs with the ball in the first quarter of the game against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium on November 17, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Playoff portfolio: Wins over the NFC East proletariat; losses to the Packers, Chiefs and Seahawks. The Vikings are only 3-4 on the road, which is a red flag for a wild-card team. 

What they are good at:

  • The Vikings offense ranks second between the 40-yard lines and first in the "front zone" (from the opponent's 40 to the 20). 
  • The Vikings offense also ranks second in 2nd-and-short situations and first in 3rd-and-short situations.
  • Danielle Hunter ranks second with 48.0 pass pressures. Everson Griffen ranks 20th with 31 pressures. The Vikings defense ranks eighth with pressures on 32.8 percent of pass plays. 

What they are bad at:

  • Like many veteran cornerbacks, Xavier Rhodes mysteriously turned into toaster crumbs soon after signing a huge contract. Fellow cornerback Trae Waynes is only marginally better.
  • No consistent No. 2 receiver has emerged with Adam Thielen sidelined by a hamstring injury. No, Laquon Treadwell catching one bomb because the Seahawks forgot to cover him doesn't count as a "consistent No. 2 receiver."
  • According to the dude sitting next to you in the bar, Kirk Cousins cannot win big games.

Wild-Card Fear Factor: Low-to-moderate.

The guy sitting next to you at the bar may have a point. Given favorable down-and-distance situations and good field position, the balanced Vikings offense takes the E-ZPass lane to the red zone, and their front seven can mask their deficiencies at cornerback. But given tougher foes or a crunch-time 4th-and-3 to execute, Cousins and the Vikings look like the same old Cousins and the Vikings. And Thielen's hamstring remains balky, so he may not return in time to jump-start the offense.


Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5)

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 01: Devlin Hodges #6 of the Pittsburgh Steelers drops back to pass in the second quarter during the game against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field on December 1, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Ima
Justin Berl/Getty Images

Playoff portfolio: Wins over a trio of fringe playoff candidates: the Rams, Colts and Browns. Losses to the Patriots (when Ben Roethlisberger and others were healthy), Seahawks, 49ers and Ravens.

What they are good at:

  • The Steelers defense ranks fourth against the run and fifth against the pass.
  • The Steelers offensive line has allowed only 19 sacks, tied for the third-lowest total leaguewide. That's remarkable for a unit which has spent most of the year blocking for a pair of inexperienced quarterbacks.
  • The Steelers are tied for second in turnover differential at plus-11. (The Patriots lead the league with a remarkable plus-18.) Their defense has forced a league-high 26 fumbles and has recovered 15.

What they are bad at:

  • Keeping skill-position players healthy.

Wild-Card Fear Factor: Very low.

This has been a relatively charmed season in Pittsburgh, but early-season losses to the Patriots and Seahawks proved the Steelers were mere middleweights even when they were close to full strength. Devlin Hodges will have six starts under his belt when the playoffs arrive, providing just enough film for opponents to expose all of his weaknesses and nip DuckyMania in the bud.

Despite their great defense and overall resilience, the Steelers may be the team AFC opponents most want to face in the postseason.


Tennessee Titans (7-5)

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

Playoff portfolio: The Titans beat the Chiefs. Otherwise, their resume is a mixed bag against also-rans: a split with the Colts, a win over the Browns, a loss to the Bills.

What they are good at:

  • From the Sentences We Never Thought We Would Write Dept.: Ryan Tannehill leads the NFL in yards per passing attempt (9.1) and passer rating (113.9). 
  • Derrick Henry leads the league in carries (319), rushing yards (1,725) and rushing touchdowns (18) over the last 16 games, per ESPN's Field Yates. He has rushed for 559 yards, six touchdowns and 6.9 yards per carry in his last four games, as Tannehill's emergence has prevented opponents from lining up 11 players and the defensive coordinator in the box.
  • The Titans run defense ranks fourth.

What they are bad at:

  • Ryan Succop, back from injury after the Titans rode the unhappy kicker carousel for most of the season, is currently 1-of-4 on field goals, including 0-of-3 from beyond 40 yards.
  • The Titans defense ranks 27th at stopping short passes. Missed tackles are a big part of the problem, as defenders like Rashaan Evans, Kenny Vaccaro and Adoree' Jackson have a habit of either going for the big swing and a miss or (in Jackson's case) just the miss. 

Wild-Card Fear Factor: Moderate-to-high.

No team quietly goes 9-7 quite like the Titans, who have done so three straight years under two head coaches. But this season feels different because Tannehill has flushed out the clogged arteries of the offense and tapped some of the potential of a roster loaded with former top prospects. 

Tannehill spent six seasons looking like weak-tea Kirk Cousins, and there's a good chance the league is catching up to him as you read this. A pair of meetings with the Texans and a visit from the Saints in the next month will determine whether the Titans are true wild-card contenders (or, possibly, the AFC South champions). If they are still standing after that gauntlet, the Titans will be ready for anything.

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 21:  Head Coach Frank Reich talks with Jacoby Brissett #7 of the Indianapolis Colts during a game against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium on November 21, 2019 in Houston, Texas.  The Texans defeated the Colts 20-17. (Photo by Wesl
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images


Other teams worth mentioning

Indianapolis Colts (6-6, 11.1 percent chance of reaching the playoffs, per Football Outsiders). The Colts are the decaf Steelers: offseason strangeness, no-name backups at every position, fine play in the trenches and a can-do spirit. The Colts have beaten both the Texans and Chiefs, and there's a chance that Frank Reich can turn Jacoby Brissett into Playoff Nick Foles. But four losses in the last five games have the Colts trending in the wrong direction. Fear Factor: Low-to-moderate.


Oakland Raiders (6-6, 10.7 percent chance of reaching the playoffs). They've lost their last two games by a combined score of 74-12, and one of the opponents was the Jets. If the Raiders make the playoffs, the Patriots will somehow end up hosting them. Fear Factor: Abysmally low.


Cleveland Browns (5-7, 4.7 percent chance of reaching the playoffs). If the Browns climb into the playoffs, they'll thump themselves on the chest so hard that half the roster will end up with hand injuries and bruised sternums. Fear Factor: Low. 


Chicago Bears (7-6, 3.6 percent chance of reaching the playoffs entering Thursday night). If the Bears survive a Packers-Chiefs-Vikings remaining December schedule and reach the playoffs, it means that either Khalil Mack found all of the Infinity Stones or Kirk Cousins turned into a creature made of pure narrative and emanated a powerful choking wave across the NFC. Either way, yes, be very afraid. Fear Factor: Moderate-to-high if this somehow happens.


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.