Ranking the NFL's Most Dangerous Potential Wild-Card Teams
This year's NFL playoff race is an intriguing one. Eight of the 12 playoff spots have been secured, but only three divisions—the AFC North, AFC West and NFC South—are settled. This means the pool of potential wild-card teams is vast.
We could see some truly dangerous teams in the wild-card slots.
Wild-card teams are often viewed as long shots. Since they were added in 1970, just 10 have advanced to the Super Bowl. Only six have lifted the Lombardi Trophy.
Could this year bring the NFL its seventh wild-card champion? Absolutely. Here, we'll rank the six potential wild-card teams most likely to get it done based on factors like talent, team health, coaching, experience and consistency.
AFC, NFC Playoff Picture
1. Baltimore Ravens*, 12-2
2. New England Patriots, 11-3
3. Kansas City Chiefs*, 10-4
4. Houston Texans, 9-5
5. Buffalo Bills, 10-4
6. Pittsburgh Steelers, 8-6
7. Tennessee Titans, 8-6
8. Cleveland Browns, 6-8
9. Oakland Raiders, 6-8
1. Seattle Seahawks, 11-3
2. Green Bay Packers, 11-3
3. New Orleans Saints*, 11-3
4. Dallas Cowboys, 7-7
5. San Francisco 49ers, 11-3
6. Minnesota Vikings, 10-4
7. Los Angeles Rams, 8-6
8. Philadelphia Eagles, 7-7
Either Dallas or Philadelphia will win the NFC East. Teams that have clinched their divisions are marked with an asterisk.
The Rest of the Field
Looking outside the top six potential wild-card teams, we have the Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns—both of whom would need a miracle to qualify for the postseason—the Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans, Pittsburgh Steelers and Los Angeles Rams.
Any of these teams could pose a threat in the postseason—if they're in, they have a chance. However, they each have significant issues that keep them out of the top six.
The Texans have already beaten both the Kansas City Chiefs and the New England Patriots. However, they also have a defense that ranks 28th overall and 28th against the pass. They're built to win a track meet, not a low-scoring defensive struggle in January.
Can Houston win a shootout three consecutive times on the road? It hasn't won three in a row all season.
The Titans have been a dangerous team since making the switch to Ryan Tannehill at quarterback, but they've largely beaten up on bad teams since then. Kansas City is the only team Tennessee has defeated that currently has a winning record. The Titans have the track record of a second-tier team.
The Rams are the defending NFC champion and, naturally, should be considered a dangerous team if they make it to the dance. However, they have been plagued by consistency issues on both sides of the ball all season and need a lot of help just to get a ticket.
For Los Angeles, the Super Bowl hangover is real.
Armed with a playoff-caliber defense—ranked tied for sixth in points allowed—the Steelers are the closest to making the top six. However, a lack of quarterback experience and offensive firepower—Pittsburgh ranks 30th in total offense—makes the Steelers a one-dimensional team.
Can the defense carry Pittsburgh for three straight road games? It's possible, but it's a tall order against a talented AFC field.
6. Minnesota Vikings
The 10-4 Minnesota Vikings could still win the NFC North, but they're currently locked into the sixth seed. They'll likely travel to face the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, Seattle Seahawks or San Francisco 49ers to open the postseason. They could also collapse and open the door for the Rams to seize the final playoff spot.
Minnesota should not be taken lightly, even on the road. The Vikings have an aggressive and opportunistic defense that has allowed just 18.5 points per game. They have also been getting tremendous play out of quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has thrown 25 touchdown passes and only five interceptions.
Their biggest issue—and the reason why they round out our list—is that they may not have star running back Dalvin Cook for the postseason, at least not at 100 percent.
Cook has been dealing with a shoulder injury and aggravated it in Week 15. The Vikings haven't determined his status for Monday's matchup with the Packers. However, they are leaning toward shutting him down for the rest of the regular season, according to ESPN's Courtney Cronin.
Cook has accounted for 1,654 yards of offense. If he cannot go or is less than 100 percent in the playoffs, Minnesota could suffer.
5. Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills have already claimed a playoff berth. If they're not able to unseat the Patriots in the AFC East, they'll be the conference's fifth seed and will likely open against either the Texans or the Titans. If so, Buffalo will have a good chance of moving on to the second round.
Though not as talented offensively as the 49ers, the Bills are built similarly. They have a strong running game (fifth in the NFL), a young up-and-coming quarterback in Josh Allen and the league's No. 2 scoring defense. This team can travel and win in January conditions.
In fact, one could argue Buffalo is a better overall team than the Patriots right now—an idea they could prove in Week 16.
There are two reasons, however, why Buffalo ranks behind New England. One is the lack of experience on the Bills roster. The Patriots are perennial contenders, while Buffalo is going to the postseason for just the second time this century.
The other issue is the lack of consistency shown by Allen. He has displayed a tremendous amount of growth but still makes the occasional head-scratching throw or decision. Allen has only tossed two interceptions in his last six games, but he's fumbled four times and completed fewer than 55 percent of his passes in three games—including in losses to the Ravens and the Cleveland Browns.
4. New England Patriots
Like the Packers, the Patriots are in control of their division. To lose the AFC East, they would need to lose out while the Buffalo Bills win out—and the Bills and Patriots face off in Week 16.
If the Patriots do stumble into a wild-card spot, it could be difficult for them to make a run. New England has struggled offensively, averaging just 349.9 yards, 18th in the NFL. They're unlikely to match points with playoff opponents like the Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs—the three teams New England has lost to.
New England would be far more dangerous at home and possibly coming off a bye than on the road. The Patriots have gone 21-1 in their last 22 games at Foxborough.
Still, writing off New England as a wild-card team would be unwise. The Patriots have a seasoned quarterback in Tom Brady, perhaps the league's all-time greatest coach in Bill Belichick and the NFL's No. 1 scoring defense (12.9 points per game allowed).
The Patriots will be able to travel in the postseason. Additionally, they'll be getting a second look at just about any team they face. The Tennessee Titans, should they claim the AFC South, would be the exception.
Facing the Patriots a second time—or the third, if it's Buffalo—is a daunting challenge for any team, even as the host.
3. Green Bay Packers
The Packers are in prime position to take home the NFC North and potentially earn a first-round bye. They would have to lose their remaining two games while the Vikings win out to fall into a wild-card slot.
Perhaps this is why the Packers feel slighted by the relative lack of attention they've received. But they also suffered blowout losses to the 49ers and the Los Angeles Chargers.
"I don't know that we have the full respect of the entire league at this point based on some of our performances where we got beat by a couple scores and kind of the reaction, I would assume, to those situations," quarterback Aaron Rodgers told reporters Sunday.
The aforementioned losses loom large, especially the 37-8 loss in San Francisco.
The Packers have a future Hall of Famer in Rodgers, an underrated running back in Aaron Jones, an opportunistic defense and an elite receiver in Davante Adams. The ingredients of a championship team are there, but the Packers are just a notch below San Francisco and Seattle.
2. San Francisco 49ers
If the Seahawks don't end up as the NFC's fifth seed, the 49ers will. San Francisco is in that slot despite sharing an 11-3 record with Seattle since the Seahawks won the first head-to-head matchup.
Like Seattle, San Francisco is not a team anyone will want to host during the playoffs. With a strong rushing attack (ranked second), the league's No. 2 overall defense (269 yards per game allowed) and the creative play-calling of coach Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco is a team built to win on the road in January.
One could argue San Francisco would be just as dangerous a wild-card team as Seattle. It's worth noting, though, that injuries have taken the teeth out of the 49ers defense just a bit in recent weeks.
Six defensive players—including starting cornerback Richard Sherman and edge-rusher Dee Ford—missed last week's game against the Atlanta Falcons, which turned into San Francisco's second loss in three weeks.
If the 49ers can get healthy before the start of the postseason, they're going to be a tough out for anyone. Just how tough? Consider that their three losses in 2019 have come on the last play of regulation or in overtime.
1. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks currently own the No. 1 seed in the NFC, but with the NFC West unsettled, they could wind up the No. 5 seed. If so, they would meet the NFC East champion—either the Dallas Cowboys or the Philadelphia Eagles—on the road in the opening round.
Playing on the road shouldn't be an issue for Seattle, which has gone 7-1 away from CenturyLink Field this season. In addition to being battle- and road-tested, the Seahawks benefit from having perhaps the most clutch quarterback in the league, Russell Wilson.
It's hard not to like Seattle's chances when Wilson has the ball in a close game late in the fourth quarter.
While the Seattle defense hasn't been great statistically—it ranks 27th overall—it has been tremendous at creating turnovers. The Seahawks have snagged 16 interceptions this season and are plus-13 in turnover differential.
Perhaps most importantly, the Seahawks have the confidence and cohesion needed to make a championship run from any playoff position.
"There's nothing that this team can't do, and I think it's about each other and it's about how we're going to go accomplish it together, so we're excited about the opportunity," Wilson told Lorenzo Reyes of USA Today early in December.