5 NFL Teams Peaking at the Right Time as Playoffs Near
In the NFL, momentum is a powerful force. It can help decide games, and it can provide teams with the confidence needed to storm into the postseason.
Thursday night's game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers was a prime example of the former, as late-game momentum propelled Kansas City to an opening-drive overtime touchdown. The 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the perfect example of the latter.
Last year, Tampa entered its Week 13 bye with a lackluster 7-5 record and less-than-favorable chances to make the playoffs. However, the Buccaneers found their groove coming out of the bye, rattled off four straight regular-season wins and went on to win the Super Bowl as a wild-card team.
Here, we'll examine five teams that, like last year's Bucs, are hitting their strides at the perfect time for a postseason surge. Naturally, these teams have won more often than not recently, but they have also improved specific aspects of their play.
We'll examine how these squads have strung together wins and why recent trends could position them for a Super Bowl run.
Teams are listed in alphabetical order.
The Dallas Cowboys have won three straight and four of their last six. While Dallas does not have the most impressive winning streak on this list, it's how Dallas has been winning that earns it an entry.
Dallas' defense has morphed from an inconsistent and turnover-dependent unit into one that is downright good—while still specializing in taking the ball away. Dallas allowed 25 or more points in five of its first 11 games but also survived by notching 19 turnovers in that stretch.
Dallas forced another four turnovers against the New York Giants and has 12 takeaways over the last three weeks.
The Cowboys have also allowed just 43 points combined in those three games.
A big part of this recent defensive surge has been the return of pass-rushers Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence. Gregory returned in Week 14 from a calf injury. Lawrence returned the previous week after a Week 1 foot injury (that required surgery) landed him on injured reserve.
With those two in the fold, interception machine Trevon Diggs on the back end and Defensive Rookie of the Year front-runner Micah Parsons manning the middle, Dallas' defense is a championship-caliber unit.
"We're the best defense for sure," Diggs said, per Art Garcia of Cowboy Maven.
The Cowboys offense, meanwhile, is loaded with playmakers like Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper and Dalton Schultz.
The offense, which came into Sunday ranked second in both yards and points, has been potent for most of the season. Now that the defense is catching up, the Cowboys have the feel of title contenders.
The Indianapolis Colts have won five of their last six games, and Saturday night's victory over the New England Patriots was their biggest of the season.
The Patriots rolled into Indianapolis as the hottest team in the AFC, if not the NFL. The Colts beat them in all three phases to walk away with a 10-point victory. Star running back Jonathan Taylor (170 rushing yards, 1 TD) was once again fantastic, but the win was a total team effort.
The Colts got key contributions from their defense (two interceptions) and special teams (a punt-block touchdown), while Taylor closed things out with a 67-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter. The only real negative was the performance of quarterback Carson Wentz, who finished 5-of-12 for 57 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
Considering the Patriots have an elite pass defense, and that Indianapolis didn't repeatedly try to attack it, this isn't a cause for concern.
"I have zero worries about the passing production today," head coach Frank Reich told reporters after the game. "We've proven that over four years that we can be dynamic in the pass game but what we need to prove, is we can win games like this. With great defense and running the football."
This year's Indianapolis squad has an aura similar to the 2019 and 2020 Tennessee Titans. Taylor is the offensive driving force much like Derrick Henry was for those teams. However, a strong defense has developed (eighth in points allowed) that complements the offensive game plan perfectly.
That defense surrendered 25 or more points in four of the first five games but has only done so once in the last five.
Indy's only loss since the start of November came against the defending-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was a mistake-filled five-turnover performance by the Colts and still only a one-score loss. If the Colts can avoid multiple mistakes, there isn't a team they cannot beat in the playoffs.
Kansas City Chiefs
Thursday's win was huge for the Chiefs for a couple of reasons. It gave Kansas City a relatively firm grip on the AFC West, and it was one of the more complete games the team has played this season.
In Kansas City's six-game winning streak heading into Thursday, defense largely carried the team. There were 41- and 48-point outbursts against the Las Vegas Raiders, but in the other five games, the Chiefs scored: 20, 13, 19 and 22 points. The defense allowed 17 or fewer points in all six games.
The Chiefs defense wasn't dominant against L.A.—it allowed 428 yards and 28 points—but it came through when it mattered most. The aggressive Chargers were only 2-of-5 on fourth-down attempts and turned the ball over twice.
On three occasions, Los Angeles was at or inside the Kansas City 5-yard line but failed to come away with points.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs finally found their offensive rhythm against a team other than the Raiders. As Bleacher Report's Brad Gagnon recently noted, Kansas City's Big Three of Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce were stars of the show.
Sure, Mahomes had a few off-target throws that marred his performance, but he still finished 31-of-47 for 410 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. Hill caught 12 passes for 148 yards and a score, while Kelce caught 10 for 191 and two touchdowns—including the game-winning walk-off score in overtime.
The Chiefs have now won seven games in a row. More importantly, they're presenting opponents with problems on both sides of the ball. The defense was a disaster early in the season, and the offense was maligned during the middle portion. Now, though, Kansas City is playing like a complete team and perhaps the best in the AFC.
The Miami Dolphins are outliers on this list because, at 7-7, there's a very real chance they can't sneak into the postseason. After outlasting the New York Jets on Sunday though, Miami has won six straight and righted the proverbial ship.
The Dolphins were just 1-6 nearing the midway point of the season and had lost six straight. However, the defense started to jell in Week 8—when it held the Buffalo Bills to 26 points—and the offense began to rebound the following week.
Coincidentally, Miami's offensive resurgence occurred after the trade deadline and after any talk of acquiring a new quarterback was shelved for the season. Since then, second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has largely played like a franchise signal-caller capable of matching the defense.
Tagovailoa had a down game against the Jets (two touchdowns, two interceptions, 75.5 rating), but he came into Week 15 with 12 touchdowns, six interceptions and a solid 96.1 rating.
The Dolphins defense, meanwhile, has been fantastic. The 24 points surrendered to New York represent the most Miami has given up in a game since facing the Bills on Halloween. Between Weeks 9 and 13—Miami was on a bye last week—the Dolphins didn't surrender more than 17 points to a single opponent.
"I think it's everybody buying in and setting that high standard, and everybody coming in and buying in and doing their job to the best of their ability," linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel said in early December, per Daniel Oyefusi of the Miami Herald. "Trusting that the guy behind you and the guy beside you that they are going to do their job."
Miami may have to win out and get help to make the playoffs—a tall task with the New Orleans Saints, Tennessee Titans and Patriots left on the schedule. If the Dolphins can get in, though, they are poised to be a tough out for any opponent.
San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers are in control of an NFC wild-card spot thanks to a surge that has seen them win five of their last six games. Like Miami, San Francisco started the season slowly (2-4) but has since rebounded in a big way.
At 8-6, the 49ers aren't out of the divisional race just yet but will most likely be on the road to open the postseason.
Even as a road team, San Francisco can be scary. The 49ers have figured out an offensive formula that involves using star wideout Deebo Samuel as a backfield weapon. It should be noted that the 49ers' only loss since November 7 came with Samuel sidelined by a groin injury.
Samuel, who has now rushed for a touchdown in five straight games, has helped make the 49ers offense difficult to defend. Having a true mismatch tight end in George Kittle and an emerging receiver in Brandon Aiyuk has certainly helped.
The defense, meanwhile, has started to develop an identity as a tough and opportunistic unit—one that had notched 11 takeaways in five games coming into Sunday.
With quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo operating as a steady game manager and occasional playmaker—he came into Sunday with a league-leading 12.6 yards per completion—the 49ers are suddenly a complete team.
In Sunday's 31-13 blowout, San Francisco absolutely rolled the Atlanta Falcons, a team that, at 6-7, was also right in the wild-card mix.
"Niners are going to upset one of these top NFC teams if they get into the playoffs. Physical everywhere. Even at WR with Deebo Samuel," Colin Cowherd of Fox Sports tweeted.
Teams would indeed be unwise to overlook the 49ers come playoff time.