Every NFL Contender's Biggest Flaw Heading into the Playoffs

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistDecember 14, 2019

Every NFL Contender's Biggest Flaw Heading into the Playoffs

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    With three weeks left in the 2019 NFL season, the playoff picture is taking shape. Three teams—the Baltimore Ravens, New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs—have already punched their tickets to the postseason, and 12 have been eliminated from contention.

    While the league's best teams have distanced themselves from the rest of the pack, there isn't a perfect squad in the bunch. Every potential playoff team has at least one flaw that could be exploited in the postseason.

    Here, we'll examine the 15 teams with the most realistic chances of making the playoffs and the biggest weakness for each. They are listed in alphabetical order.

        

Baltimore Ravens: Run Defense

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    Ravens DT Chris Wormley
    Ravens DT Chris WormleyNick Wass/Associated Press

    The Ravens are about as close to a complete team as we have in the NFL this season, but they aren't unbeatable. If a team can exploit their subpar run defense, they could exit the postseason early.

    Baltimore ranks sixth in rushing yards allowed (96.1 per game), so this may not seem like a weakness. However, that ranking is skewed because most of their opponents have to play from behind. The Ravens have allowed 4.5 yards per carry, tied for 10th-most in the NFL.

    The San Francisco 49ers took advantage of that run defense in Week 13 and nearly came away with a huge road win. The last time the Ravens lost—way back in Week 4—it was largely because they couldn't contain Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb (165 rushing yards, three TDs).

    A successful opposing rushing attack can keep Lamar Jackson and Baltimore's offense off the field.

Buffalo Bills: Inconsistent Play at Quarterback

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    Bills QB Josh Allen
    Bills QB Josh AllenJohn Munson/Associated Press

    Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen has shown a lot of growth in his second pro season. His completion percentage (59.8) and passer rating (85.8) are both up from his rookie year, and he has started to look more comfortable passing from a clean pocket.

    He still brings high-end scrambling ability, but he hasn't been as quick to take off this season.

    The issue for Allen—and the biggest for the Bills—is that he continues to struggle with accuracy, especially under pressure, leading to a lack of consistency at the quarterback position.

    For example, he went 0-of-11 passing outside the pocket while under pressure against Baltimore in Week 14, according to ESPN's Marcel Louis-Jacques. He completed just 43.6 percent of his passes for the game. A week prior, he completed 79.2 percent of his passes in a nearly flawless performance against the Dallas Cowboys.

    Buffalo's chances of winning in the postseason could hinge on whether Allen has a good day or a bad one.

Dallas Cowboys: Coaching

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    Cowboys HC Jason Garrett
    Cowboys HC Jason GarrettCharles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    The Dallas Cowboys are largely the same team they were when they went 10-6 last season, at least on paper. However, they have struggled mightily against quality competition this year—they haven't beaten a team with a winning record—and the problem is head coach Jason Garrett.

    Barring a miracle Super Bowl run, this is likely the end of the line for Garrett in Dallas. He's been outcoached regularly on game days and has lost the confidence of owner Jerry Jones, which has derailed Dallas' season.

    "Right now, the Cowboys doesn't have an environment," former Cowboy Marcus Spears said on ESPN's Golic and Wingo. "They don't have a culture right now because the guy that's at the top is talking about the guy you supposed to listen to."

    The Cowboys seem to have no momentum, no confidence and no direction as they stumble toward the end of the regular season. They have the talent to beat anyone in the postseason, but it's hard to envision they'll go on any sort of run.

Green Bay Packers: Receiver Depth

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    Packers WR Davante Adams
    Packers WR Davante AdamsSteve Luciano/Associated Press

    While the Green Bay Packers defense has had its moments this season, it's been a middle-of-the-pack unit overall, ranking 13th in points allowed at 20.8 per game. That's usually OK because the Packers offense has been good enough to compensate.

    Here's the problem: Opponents are starting to figure out that they can contain Green Bay's offense by focusing on No. 1 wideout Davante Adams. In two of the team's three losses, opponents kept Adams under 50 receiving yards (the Philadelphia Eagles' rushing attack dominated Green Bay in the third loss), and the Packers were held below two touchdowns.

    Interestingly, Aaron Rodgers has struggled when Adams has been contained—he had just 104 passing yards in Week 12—but not when the receiver has been sidelined. He has passed for 1,255 yards with 10 touchdowns and one interception in four games without Adams.

    Rodgers and the Packers are capable of spreading the ball around, but they haven't regularly done so when Adams has been on the field. Against playoff-caliber defenses in the postseason, that could cost them.

Houston Texans: Pass Defense

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    Texans S Tashaun Gipson
    Texans S Tashaun GipsonDavid J. Phillip/Associated Press

    The Houston Texans have been one of this season's most confusing teams. At times, they've appeared to be the clear-cut favorite in the AFC South. At others, they've looked like a middling team lucky to have a shot at a wild-card berth. They've dominated teams like the New England Patriots and been destroyed by the likes of the Denver Broncos.

    The reason for Houston's inconsistency? Its pass defense. The Texans rank just 27th against the pass (265.8 yards per game allowed) and have repeatedly given up big plays. They have surrendered 48 pass plays of at least 20 yards, tied for ninth-most in the NFL.

    Houston is doomed almost any time the offense cannot race on the scoreboard.

    This could be a fatal flaw if the Texans are able to get into the postseason, and it could potentially keep them from getting there. Houston is tied with the Tennessee Titans at the top of the division with two head-to-head matchups remaining.

Kansas City Chiefs: Run Defense

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    Chiefs LB Anthony Hitchens
    Chiefs LB Anthony HitchensPaul Sancya/Associated Press

    The Kansas City Chiefs have improved their pass defense this season, due in large part to an aggressive pass rush and some budding talent in the secondary, like cornerback Charvarius Ward. However, run defense remains a problem, one that could sink them in the playoffs.

    The Chiefs have allowed 137.7 rushing yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry. Only the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars have allowed more yards per run play.

    Many of the AFC's playoff contenders—like the Ravens and Bills—utilize a run-first offense. Their offensive strengths will match up well with Kansas City's defensive weakness.

    As well, when teams run the ball consistently, they are able to keep Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense off the field. This is how the Titans and the Indianapolis Colts beat Kansas City despite being outmatched offensively.

Los Angeles Rams: Offensive Consistency

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    Rams QB Jared Goff
    Rams QB Jared GoffKyusung Gong/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Rams need help to get into the playoffs. They find themselves at this point mostly because of an offense that has struggled for much of the season.

    The Rams have put together some good offensive outings, especially over the last two weeks, but they've been woefully inconsistent. Los Angeles has topped 30 points four times and scored fewer than 10 twice.

    Quarterback Jared Goff has borne much of the criticism. However, a sagging running game and constant shuffling along the offensive line have also played roles in L.A.'s inconsistency.

    These issues won't simply go away. If the Rams can sneak into the postseason, they have the talent to go head-to-head with anyone. However, that is dependent on whether the offense can avoid having an off night.

Minnesota Vikings: Pass Defense

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    Vikings CB Xavier Rhodes
    Vikings CB Xavier RhodesCharles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Vikings hold one of the NFC's two wild-card spots, and they still have a chance to win the NFC North. However, they'll have to beat the Packers in Week 16, and their pass defense could be a major obstacle.

    Minnesota's pass defense isn't terrible—it ranks 16th, allowing 236.6 yards per game—but it has been a liability. Their Week 9 loss to the Chiefs and backup quarterback Matt Moore stands out as a prime example.

    Big plays have been a particular problem for the Vikings, who have given up 43 passes of at least 20 yards.

    "We're in coverage; we're just not finishing," cornerback Xavier Rhodes told reporters. "We're not picking the ball off … we miss the ball in the air, and the receiver ends up catching it."

    If Minnesota hopes to claim the division and go on a postseason run, it will need to tighten up its pass defense.

New England Patriots: The Lack of an Explosive Passing Attack

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    Patriots QB Tom Brady
    Patriots QB Tom BradyElise Amendola/Associated Press

    The Patriots still have a grasp on the No. 2 seed in the AFC, but they are in danger of relinquishing it over the final three weeks. They've lost two games in a row and have lost to the conference's other three division leaders.

    New England's biggest problem is a passing offense that lacks any semblance of an explosive element. It has few reliable targets outside of Julian Edelman and running back James White, and as the Chiefs proved in Week 14, doubling Edelman is an effective way to limit quarterback Tom Brady.

    Opposing defenses will likely employ this tactic moving forward, as Brady isn't likely to make teams pay with the deep ball. New England lacks an elite downfield receiver, and the offensive line has struggled to maintain a clean pocket.

    The end result is an underwhelming offense that hasn't topped 23 points since Week 8. In a conference loaded with explosive offenses, this isn't likely to be good enough.

New Orleans Saints: The Lack of a No. 2 Receiver

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    Saints WR Michael Thomas
    Saints WR Michael ThomasJohn Amis/Associated Press

    The Saints continue to have one of the top offenses in the NFL—26.5 points per game—and perhaps the best receiver in Michael Thomas. The problem with New Orleans' offense is that there isn't a reliable No. 2 receiver on the roster.

    Thomas has 1,424 receiving yards with three games left to play. Ted Ginn Jr. is the next-most prolific Saints wideout with 398 yards.

    While New Orleans does have other pass-catchers it can rely on, like tight end Jared Cook and running back Alvin Kamara, Thomas is the only high-end threat on the outside. This could prove to be a major problem in the postseason if teams figure out how to limit him—or, even worse, he suffers an injury that takes him off the field.

Philadelphia Eagles: A Lack of Wide Receiver Talent

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    Eagles WR Nelson Agholor
    Eagles WR Nelson AgholorBrynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Saints fans should feel glad that their offense's biggest problem is having just one great receiver. The Philadelphia Eagles are struggling to even field a serviceable receiving corps. With DeSean Jackson and now Alshon Jeffery on injured reserve, Philadelphia is extremely thin at the position.

    The team's top two receivers are now Nelson Agholor and rookie J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, though it's worth noting that tight end Zach Ertz essentially plays the role of a No. 1 wideout. Agholor is also dealing with a knee injury and may miss Week 15.

    Opposing defenses can focus on stopping Ertz without worrying about getting burned on the perimeter. This could be problematic against teams that also have a strong run defense, like New Orleans.

Pittsburgh Steelers: A Lack of Experience at Quarterback

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    Steelers QB Devlin Hodges
    Steelers QB Devlin HodgesRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers have managed to survive without star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger thanks in no small part to their fifth-ranked defense. The Pittsburgh offense hasn't been nearly as productive as in past years—other injuries have also played a role—but it is at least getting consistent play out of rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges.

    Hodges has passed for 682 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions. The Steelers are 3-0 in games he has started.

    Head coach Mike Tomlin deserves a lot of credit for putting Hodges and the Steelers in position to make the postseason. His coaching experience will prove invaluable if Pittsburgh is able to get there. Unfortunately, Tomlin's experience won't transfer to his quarterback.

    Regardless of whether Pittsburgh stays with Hodges or turns back to Mason Rudolph, the Steelers would have to start an inexperienced quarterback in the postseason.

    This isn't necessarily a fatal flaw, but it's tough to imagine Hodges or Rudolph can outduel the likes of Brady and Mahomes in a high-pressure playoff game.

San Francisco 49ers: Mounting Injuries

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    49ers CB Richard Sherman
    49ers CB Richard ShermanBrett Duke/Associated Press

    Often, the healthiest teams make the most noise in the postseason. This fact could end up costing the 49ers, who are dealing with a slew of injuries heading into the final three weeks of the season.

    San Francisco recently placed starting center Weston Richburg and tight end Garret Celek on injured reserve. Defensive end Dee Ford is dealing with a hamstring injury, as is star cornerback Richard Sherman.

    Sherman is hopeful he can return to the field before the end of the season.

    "I could play in this game if we had to have it," he told reporters ahead of the team's Week 15 matchup with the Atlanta Falcons.

    The 49ers have relied heavily on their defense and running game, but injuries to the likes of Richburg and Sherman could force them to take a different approach in the playoffs.

    San Francisco was fortunate to win a shootout against the Saints in Week 14, and there's no guarantee it can win consistently in that manner in the postseason.

Seattle Seahawks: Pass Defense

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    Seahawks CB Shaquill Griffin
    Seahawks CB Shaquill GriffinMatt Rourke/Associated Press

    The Seahawks have lived on the edge in most weeks this season, winning or losing 10 games by a touchdown or less. They've survived more close calls than not thanks to a strong running game and the superb play of quarterback Russell Wilson. However, there's a reason why Seattle has played close games so often.

    The pass defense is a liability.

    The Seahawks rank 29th against the pass, allowing 271.2 yards per game. Poor pass defense has cost them games against the Rams and the Saints and has nearly led to losses against the likes of the Cincinnati Bengals.

    It's hard not to like Seattle's chances in a close postseason game as long as Wilson is healthy. However, with the secondary's struggles, the Seahawks run the risk of letting a game become one-sided early.

Tennessee Titans: Pass Defense

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    Titans CB Malcolm Butler
    Titans CB Malcolm ButlerJames Kenney/Associated Press

    While the Titans' pass defense hasn't been as much of a liability as Seattle's, it's still Tennessee's biggest weakness—especially since Ryan Tannehill has stabilized the quarterback position.

    Tennessee ranks 25th in pass defense and has allowed 259.9 yards per game and 20 touchdowns. Aside from games against the Chiefs and Falcons, the Titans haven't been tested by upper-echelon quarterbacks either.

    The secondary will get a notable challenge this week against Deshaun Watson and the Texans. This should provide a good idea of what they may be able to accomplish in the postseason. If their defense can hold against Watson, DeAndre Hopkins and Co., the ability to run (128.2 yards per game) and defend the run (101.6 yards per game allowed) will give the Titans a great chance to take over the AFC South.