Ranking the Most Dangerous Wild-Card Teams Ahead of NFL Playoffs

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistDecember 19, 2020

Ranking the Most Dangerous Wild-Card Teams Ahead of NFL Playoffs

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    On the whole, it's rare that wild-card teams actually make it to the conference championship game, but the 2019 Tennessee Titans reminded fans last year that it's still a possibility.

    The Titans went just 9-7 in the regular season before running through the New England Patriots and conference favorite Baltimore Ravens on their way to the AFC Championship Game. A few key factors made their run possible.

    First, they ended the season playing their best football. After a 5-5 start, they went 4-2 over the final six weeks with a point differential of plus-65. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was also on a hot streak that saw him throw 12 touchdowns to two interceptions in December before he threw five more scores in the playoffs.

    Derrick Henry's historic run through the postseason also played a major role. He ran for 211 yards and three scores in the final week of the regular season to get them in the playoffs, then followed it up with 185 and 192 yards against the Patriots and Ravens, respectively.

    Defensively, Tennessee was able to get after the passer. The team generated 16 sacks over the final six weeks of the regular season and followed it up with six sacks in the postseason.

    In short, they had a hot offense, got big performances from their stars and had a defense that could generate pressure. As we look forward to the 2020 playoffs, let's look at who could be this year's Titans and give the division winners fits come playoff time.

    Teams considered for the list are those who are currently slotted in as wild-card contenders in the playoff picture, as well as those who are on the bubble. Current division leaders were not considered.

8. Arizona Cardinals

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    Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

    The Cardinals are clinging on to the final playoff spot in the NFC thanks to a 26-7 win over the New York Giants that snapped a three-game losing streak.

    The Cards are just 2-4 in their last six games but get matchups at home against the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers before closing out the season with the Los Angeles Rams.

    There are some things to like about this team. DeAndre Hopkins is an elite receiver who has helped Kyler Murray ascend in his second season. Murray is among the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the league right now with 712 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground.

    He is capable of taking over a game like he did in the Week 7 win over the Seattle Seahawks, when he connected on 34 of 48 passes for 360 yards and three touchdowns with one interception while chipping in 67 yards and another touchdown on the ground.

    Those performances haven't been the norm for Murray, though. To his credit, he only has one game with multiple interceptions this season, but he hasn't been able to dominate matchups recently. It doesn't help that he isn't getting much support from the run game either.

    The Cardinals averaged just 3.7 yards per carry in the win over the Giants, and running back Kenyan Drake hasn't gone for 100 yards on the ground since a Week 10 win over the Buffalo Bills.

    Murray is probably one more season away from being able to make noise in the postseason.

7. Minnesota Vikings

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    Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

    The Vikings are lurking outside of the NFC playoff picture right now and only have a 24 percent chance to make the postseason, according to the New York Times' playoff projection tool. However, those odds are boosted to just over 50 percent if they can win against the Chicago Bears in Week 15 and the Detroit Lions in Week 17.

    A litmus test at New Orleans awaits in Week 16. Even if the Vikings lose that one but win their last two NFC North matchups, it would put them at 7-3 over their final 10 games. They have overcome a 1-5 start to become a tough out over the second half of the season.

    Kirk Cousins leads all quarterbacks in completion percentage over expected (5.1 percent), per Next Gen Stats. So far in November and December, he's thrown for 16 touchdowns to two interceptions and over 1,800 yards.

    Running back Dalvin Cook has the ability to take over a game as well. There was a stretch when he was making a strong case for MVP this season, and he leads the league in yards from scrimmage.

    The Vikings' case starts falling apart when you look at the defense, though. The Minnesota pass rush was unable to get to Tom Brady in a 26-14 loss to the Bucs, and they've only registered two sacks in their last three games. Both came against Jacksonville, where stats should probably only count as half.

    The offense has enough firepower to be dangerous if it gets things going, but the defense isn't likely to put things together in time to stop the type of quarterbacks they will see in the playoffs—if they even get in.

6. Miami Dolphins

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    It's safe to say the Miami Dolphins' rebuild is ahead of schedule. The Dolphins made huge investments in the defense this offseason while drafting Tua Tagovailoa to become the franchise quarterback, and the results have been a quick turnaround as the current seventh seed in the AFC.

    The Dolphins defense is seventh in ESPN's efficiency metric, which gives them some credibility. Picking off Patrick Mahomes three times in their Week 14 matchup makes them downright unnerving.

    The pass defense is the reason metrics love the unit. The Dolphins are third in passer rating allowed as well as interception percentage. They aren't bad at generating pressure either, as they rank 11th in pressure percentage.

    Turnovers can play a key role in postseason upsets, and the Dolphins' stingy defense is capable of creating them. The offense, on the other hand, might not be ready to make a playoff run.

    Lynn Bowden's seven-catch, 82-yard performance against the defending champions was nice, but it's unsettling that the Dolphins will need to rely on a rookie like him in the playoffs, while the Chiefs, who they could see again, have a complement of offensive weapons that includes Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.

    Tagovailoa was forced to throw the ball 49 times to keep the Dolphins in the game, while DeAndre Washington led the team in rushing with 35 yards on 13 carries. Easy matchups against the Jets and Bengals only yielded 19 and 20 points for Miami.

    That doesn't inspire much confidence in the Dolphins to pull off an upset as the playoffs near.

5. Indianapolis Colts

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    Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    The Colts are one of two teams on this list who are 4-1 in their last five games. They're tied with the Titans at 9-4 in the AFC South, but Tennessee holds the tiebreaker by virtue of their 4-1 record in the division, while the Colts are 2-2.

    Indianapolis' recent success hasn't come against tomato cans, either. They've picked off the top-seeded Green Bay Packers, playoff hopeful Las Vegas Raiders and the division rival Titans. However, they have also lost to the Titans 45-26 in a game where they gave up 178 yards and three touchdowns to Derrick Henry.

    Philip Rivers is starting to catch fire. The veteran quarterback has thrown 10 touchdowns to two interceptions in his last five games while completing 68.3 percent of his passes. The run game is finally coming along, as rookie Jonathan Taylor has topped 90 yards rushing in his last three games.

    The defense didn't get to Derek Carr in the team's 44-27 blowout win over the Raiders, but it did register five sacks against the Texans the week prior. Overall, the unit is 12th in the league in efficiency.

    The Colts have forced turnovers too, which is always important in the playoffs. They have at least one interception in three of their last four games and picked off Carr twice.

    Indy finishes with the Texans, Steelers and Jaguars, so there's a strong chance it can get wins in two of their last three. Plus, Pittsburgh's recent play opens the door for an even better finish.

    The only reason to be hesitant about getting too high on the Colts is that Rivers is a bit of an unknown commodity at this point. He's only been to the postseason once since 2013 and is 5-6 in playoff games.

    When he's good, the Colts are good. He's completed 70.0 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns and three interceptions in the team's nine wins this season. In their four losses, he has three touchdowns and six interceptions and has completed 64.6 percent of his passes.

    The ground game is improving, but betting on the 39-year-old to lead a playoff run is risky business.

4. Cleveland Browns

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Up until recently, you could argue the Browns were simply a team that was beating inferior competition. But the last two weeks have shown they're a little bit more than that.

    First came the 41-35 win over the Tennessee Titans. The Browns got the best game of Baker Mayfield's career to this point and rode it to a 38-7 halftime lead. The defense ended up allowing the Titans to make a desperate last-ditch effort to get back in the game, but all in all, they held Derrick Henry to just 60 yards on the ground which is impressive given his success this season.

    However, the pass defense failed them in the second half. They gave up 389 yards to Ryan Tannehill and 182 yards on 11 catches to Corey Davis.

    The following week, the offense proved once again to be playoff-caliber, putting up 42 points on the Ravens. Unfortunately, the defense was once again at the helm of a collapse: Lamar Jackson and Co. put up 47 points, and the quarterback added 124 yards on the ground, spearheading a team total of 231.

    Getting cornerback Denzel Ward back into the lineup should help the defense, but it likely isn't enough to make the defense all that dangerous. But the pass rush is tough enough to cause problems if the Browns get an early lead. Myles Garrett has 10.5 sacks, and Olivier Vernon has come on lately, racking up seven of his own.

    The offense is among the best in the league right now, though. They're put up back-to-back 40-plus-point performances led by Mayfield, who has thrown for eight touchdowns to just one interception over the past five games and has been on fire since Odell Beckham Jr. went down with a knee injury in Week 7.

    That's not factoring in the best one-two punch at running back in the league. Both Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt could eclipse 1,000 yards rushing, giving the Browns one of the most balanced attacks in football. The defense could ultimately be a hindrance, but Cleveland can keep pace with anyone on the scoreboard.

    Expect a shootout with whoever the Browns see in the playoffs.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Kevin Sabitus/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have fallen short of the lofty expectations set for them in the offseason. The marriage of head coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Tom Brady has been difficult to negotiate, and the defense hasn't been as consistent as they'd like.

    But let's be honest: There's still something scary about Brady with offensive weapons in the postseason. The 43-year-old has been to the playoffs 17 times in his career. He's been one-and-done in just three of those appearances. The latest was last year, when the Pats were unceremoniously beaten by the Titans.

    In that game, Brady targeted N'Keal Harry and Mohamed Sanu a combined five times, but they caught just three of those passes for 32 yards. Brady is throwing to Chris Godwin, Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski, which is quite the upgrade.

    While there's admittedly a disconnect between Arians' vertical passing attack and Brady's dwindling arm strength, the Bucs' ranking is due more to the fact that the defense gives them a chance to do what the Broncos did with a fading Peyton Manning.

    Todd Bowles' group is eighth in defensive efficiency and second only to the Steelers in pressure percentage, and they recently held the Chiefs to 24 points in a three-point loss. They also held the Dalvin Cook and Kirk Cousins-led Vikings offense to just 14 points in their Week 14 win.

    Given the Chiefs are in the running to be the top seed in the AFC and the Vikings offense is nothing to sneeze at, that's a sign the Bucs are as dangerous as anyone.

    When the biggest question is whether a quarterback who is 30-11 in the playoffs is going to be able to figure out how to put up enough points to be competitive, that's a pretty good indication you're a dangerous team.

2. Baltimore Ravens

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    Kirk Irwin/Associated Press

    Reports of the Ravens' death were greatly exaggerated. Quarterback Lamar Jackson is not playing at an MVP level this season, but he reminded everyone in Baltimore's Monday Night Football win over the Browns that he's still capable of leading his team to victory.

    The Ravens are in danger of not making the playoffs thanks to a five-game stretch of the season in which they went 1-4. Those losses came against the Steelers (twice), Patriots and Titans. Each was a one-score game, and the second Pittsburgh game was with Trace McSorley and Robert Griffin III playing quarterback while Jackson was out with COVID-19.

    The Ravens lead all teams that were considered for this list in point differential (90) on the season despite an 8-5 record. With the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants and Cincinnati Bengals making up the rest of the schedule, that record and point differential are only going to go up.

    Yes, the immediate reaction to Jackson in the playoffs is to point out his struggles from the past two postseasons, but he's still just 23 years old. The book on his playoff success is far from written, and his story shouldn't boil down to two games in his first two seasons.

    The Titans' improbable postseason run was built on a dynamic runner taking over games, big plays in the passing game and stout defense. The Ravens are a different animal, but they did run all over the Browns just a week after Henry was stifled by the Browns defense.

    There's a strong chance that if the Ravens ride into the playoffs on a five-game winning streak and at full confidence, they can exorcise their playoff demons. No one on this list is higher in ESPN's total efficiency than Baltimore, who comes in at sixth overall. That's higher than three division leaders.

    The Ravens are currently on the outside looking in, and teams in the AFC probably hope it stays that way.

1. Seattle Seahawks

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    The Seattle Seahawks are right behind the Ravens in overall efficiency this year, coming in at No. 7. The difference is that Russell Wilson has played like an MVP for stretches of the season, even if his performance has tapered off a bit.

    The Seahawks have shown the highest ceiling of anyone on the list. They started the year winning five straight before dropping an overtime game in Arizona and following that up with a win over San Francisco. Like the Ravens, they hit a slump, though. Back-to-back losses to the Buffalo Bills and Los Angeles Rams put them on a 1-3 skid after the bye week.

    The team is trending back up, though. Winners in three of their last four, the defense is finally doing its part to contribute, averaging 14.5 points allowed in the last four contests. Granted, one of those games came against the Jets, but this is a unit that was putrid for much of their early success.

    Wilson has cooled off a bit in recent games with just eight touchdowns to four interceptions in his last five appearances, but he's having the best season of his career statistically. He's already set a personal best in passing touchdowns with 36 on the season and three games left to play. Career highs in yards and passer rating are also on the table.

    Few quarterbacks can match his combination of proven playoff success and age right now. He's still in his prime at 32 years old, has a Super Bowl ring and a 9-6 record in the postseason. And he did that largely without a receiver as gifted as DK Metcalf at his disposal.

    If the defense continues to play as it has and Wilson gets dialed in, there isn't a team more likely to make a run at the Super Bowl from the current wild-card teams than the Seahawks.