5 NFL Teams Peaking at the Right Time as Playoffs Near
Momentum can mean a lot in the NFL. We see it when bad teams beat contenders, during fourth-quarter comebacks, and as teams enter the postseason. When a team gets hot, it can be difficult to stop.
Take the 2019 Kansas City Chiefs, for example. Despite being an imperfect team with a questionable run defense and a string of mid-season losses, Kansas City hit its stride late in the season. The Chiefs won their final six games in the regular season, mounted multiple comebacks in the playoffs and ultimately won Super Bowl LIV.
The Chiefs had an elite quarterback in Patrick Mahomes, but they weren't considered the best team in their own conference. That was the Baltimore Ravens, who coasted into the postseason with a 14-2 record and promptly lost in the divisional round. Kansas City had to claw its way to a first-round bye, barely outpacing the New England Patriots to do so.
While the races for this year's first-round byes—one in each conference under the new playoff format—aren't as tightly contested, several teams are battling for playoff positioning and hitting their stride in the process.
Here, we'll examine five potential playoff teams that appear to be peaking at just the right time to be dangerous in the 2020-21 postseason.
Green Bay Packers
We'll kick things off with the current top seed in the NFC, the Green Bay Packers. Like the Chiefs last season, the Packers have endured some mid-season injuries—players like Davante Adams and Aaron Jones have missed time—but they are now mostly healthy and hitting their stride late in the season.
Green Bay has won four in a row, is getting stellar play from quarterback Aaron Rodgers and has finally identified a reliable No. 2 receiving target in tight end Robert Tonyan.
"I think one of the things we've lacked in the past is a super-reliable tight end like how he is," Adams said, per Wes Hodkiewicz of the team's official website. "He has some of the best hands I've been around."
With Jones and Jamaal Williams leading the league's eighth-ranked rushing attack and Rodgers playing nearly flawless football, the Packers have one of the NFL's most potent offenses right now.
The Packers aren't perfectly defensively—and a late collapse to the Indianapolis Colts stands in the way of a seven-game winning streak—but they have allowed the eighth-fewest yards in the NFL. Most importantly, though, Green Bay is picking up momentum at the perfect time.
If the Packers can beat the Tennessee Titans in Week 16, they'll clinch a first-round bye. That will give them a chance to get even healthier and to ensure the NFC's road to the Super Bowl runs through Lambeau.
We turn from the NFC's top team to the Baltimore Ravens, who are currently sitting outside of the AFC playoff picture.
There's a chance that the 9-5 Ravens won't even make the postseason, but no one should want to face them if they do. Baltimore has ripped off three wins in a row, and we've seen the return of MVP-caliber Lamar Jackson during that stretch.
Earlier in the year, Jackson appeared to be leaning a bit too heavily on his passing ability—he had double-digit carries only once in his first six games. However, he has returned to being an elite dual-threat quarterback with double-digit carries in six of his last seven.
Jackson also appears to be getting back into a rhythm after missing Week 12 with COVID-19. He's racked up 253 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns since then. More importantly, the Ravens have gone 3-0.
"He's a world-class athlete. He's a generational talent. Not many ball-carriers run like him with the ball in his hand, his speed, his change of direction," Giants defensive back Logan Ryan said of Jackson, per Paul Schwartz of the New York Post. "You have to play really fundamentally sound."
With Jackson back in MVP form and the Ravens back to their winning ways, Baltimore could rush right into the postseason and all the way to Super Bowl LV.
One of Baltimore's recent wins came in a wild 47-42 shootout with the Cleveland Browns. While that loss hurt the Browns, it's also the only loss they've suffered over the past six games.
The play of quarterback Baker Mayfield is perhaps the most impressive part of Cleveland's recent run.
Mayfield struggled early in the season as he adapted to new head coach Kevin Stefanski's offense. However, he's been rolling over the past month with 10 touchdown passes and only one interception during that span.
"I thought Baker was outstanding tonight. He was dialed in," Stefanski told reporters after the quarterback went 27-of-32 for 297 yards and two touchdowns against the New York Giants in Week 15.
Cleveland is also in a healthier position after running back Nick Chubb missed a mid-season stretch and Denzel Ward sat for three of the past four games. Star pass-rusher Myles Garrett is also getting healthier after his bout with COVID-19, although he said his symptoms still linger.
The Browns will need some help to clinch a playoff spot in Week 16, but they can get to 11 wins with a victory over the New York Jets. If the Pittsburgh Steelers lose to the Colts on Sunday, it'll set up a Week 17 showdown with the AFC North title on the line.
If the Browns can somehow win their first division title in three decades, they'll carry as much momentum into the playoffs as any team in recent memory.
"Peaking" might not be the best way to describe the Chicago Bears, who are only on a two-game winning streak. However, Chicago—which won five of its first six games—has rebounded from a midseason slump and is getting improved play from recently reinstated starting quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.
Trubisky has thrown eight touchdowns and only three interceptions in his last four starts, while the Bears are getting a major boost from suddenly surging running back David Montgomery.
"I feel very comfortable right now," Trubisky told reporters. "I think we keep getting better each week as an offense, which is important. We're gaining confidence as a unit and right now, we're just executing at a high rate, which obviously helps consistency across the board."
Like the Ravens, the Bears are currently on the outside of the playoff picture. However, they have an opportunity to finish 9-7 and get into the postseason. They'll face the Jacksonville Jaguars this week and a Packers team that could be resting starters in Week 17.
If their offense continues playing as well as it has over the past few weeks, the Bears are going to be a tough out. They have the league's 10th-ranked scoring defense and could bring a balanced squad into the playoffs.
"Peaking" is the right word to describe the Buffalo Bills.
Buffalo has won four in a row and has looked like an unstoppable juggernaut over the past two weeks. Quarterback Josh Allen deserves credit for much of that surge, as he's been playing at an MVP level.
Allen has thrown for nine touchdowns, rushed for three scores and tossed only two interceptions during the winning streak. Numbers aside, he might be the most difficult quarterback to defend in the league right now.
"It's hard to even be impressed now," wideout Cole Beasley said, per Jourdon LaBarber of the team's official website. "It's more expected. He's been doing it all year now. He's been dropping some dimes, man."
With wideouts like Beasley and Stefon Diggs on the roster, the Bills have one of the best passing attacks in the league. However, they're also a balanced team that ranks 18th in rushing yards per attempt and 16th in both yards and points allowed.
Buffalo's defense has scored touchdowns in back-to-back games too.
The Bills have already secured the AFC East title, but they have a chance to carry even more momentum into the playoffs. Games with the division-rival New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins are looming, and Buffalo could have a chance to knock Miami out of the postseason in the finale.