Ranking the NFL's Most Dangerous Potential 2021 Wild-Card Teams

Alex KayContributor IDecember 23, 2021

Ranking the NFL's Most Dangerous Potential 2021 Wild-Card Teams

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    Wild-card teams can be some of the most dangerous in the NFL playoffs.

    While these squads may not have been among the regular season's most dominant, they can get hot at the right time to make a Super Bowl run.

    Eleven wild-card teams have reached the big game since the 1975 Cowboys became the first to do so, with seven—including last year's Buccaneers—lifting the Lombardi Trophy.

    Several teams have the potential to join that exclusive group during the 2021 postseason.

    Factors such as how well a team is playing in recent weeks, the talent level of both sides of the ball—especially at quarterback—and the quality of opponents vanquished have all gone into these rankings.

    The five teams below are those that would either be a wild-card team if the current playoff picture held true, or those within striking distance that could close the gap over the final few weeks.

    Current division leaders were not considered.

5. Miami Dolphins (7-7)

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    While the Bills and Patriots have been trading blows atop the AFC East, the Miami Dolphins have come out of seemingly nowhere to get into wild-card contention.

    After an abysmal 1-7 start, Miami has won six in a row, a streak that only the Chiefs—winners of seven straight—can best right now.

    It's worth noting that the Dolphins have feasted on some weaker opponents. Five of those six victories came against the lowly Texans, Panthers, Giants and Jets (twice), but Miami did pick up a quality win over the potentially playoff-bound Ravens last month.

    The improving play of second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has been instrumental to Miami's turnaround. He's been a much more accurate passer in the back half of the campaign.

    Tagovailoa had only completed 65.6 percent of his passes for 1,040 yards and seven touchdowns against five interceptions in five games from Weeks 1 to 8. His completion rate has improved to 74.5 percent since, amassing 1,101 yards and seven scores against three interceptions in five appearances.

    The ground game has provided a boost during the winning streak too. The team ranks No. 7 over the last six weeks with seven rushing scores, a noticeable difference from the four rushing TDs scored up to Week 8.

    The defense has been smothering since Week 10 began, allowing 13.2 points per game and holding four of its last six opponents to 10 or fewer points.

    Miami's upcoming schedule will reveal whether this team is a pretender or contender. The 'Phins have tough clashes with the Saints, Titans and Patriots—a divisional rival they already toppled in the season opener—to close out the 2021 campaign.

4. San Francisco 49ers (8-6)

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    The San Francisco 49ers are quietly emerging as one of the NFC's toughest teams.

    After a rocky start in which the club only won three of its first eight games, San Francisco has taken five of its last six and is well positioned to make a playoff run.

    While the 49ers have long odds of winning the NFC West—they sit two games behind the division-leading Cardinals with three contests to play—they are looking like a great bet to make the postseason field.

    After an impressive 31-13 beatdown of the lowly Falcons last weekend, San Francisco holds the No. 6 seed in the NFC. At 8-6, the team has a bit of breathing room ahead of the 7-7 Vikings, Eagles and Saints and faces matchups with the Titans, Texans and Rams.

    The Niners shouldn't worry about traveling to start the playoffs. They rate among the best on the road, going 5-2 as a visitor this year. That mark ties them for the fourth-best road winning percentage.

    This squad plays the type of football that wins games in January, ranking No. 7 in rushing with a platoon of quality backs in Elijah Mitchell, Jeff Wilson Jr. and Trey Sermon. San Francisco also employs one of the league's most versatile weapons in wideout Deebo Samuel, who ranks first in receiving yards and second in rushing yards on the team.

    The Niners boast a defense that is becoming one of the league's more consistent units—especially against opposing aerial attacks—ranking No. 6 total yards allowed and No. 7 in passing yards allowed.

    It may not be the sleekest way to win, but San Francisco's strong run game and sturdy defense can get the job done come playoff time.

3. Buffalo Bills (8-6)

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    Joshua Bessex/Associated Press

    Although the Buffalo Bills are no longer the favorite to win their conference, AFC foes still won't want to face them in the playoffs.

    Buffalo hit a rough patch when it lost three out of four games from Weeks 11 to 14 but recently got back on track with a resounding victory over the Panthers on Sunday.

    The win brought the Bills up to the No. 7 seed—behind the 8-6 Colts and Chargers based on tiebreakers—while also giving the club hope of potentially passing the 9-5 Patriots at the top of the AFC East.

    Even if Buffalo doesn't top New England, the club is still a strong contender to make a run from any of the conference's wild-card slots.

    The Bills have traveled decently in 2021, going 4-3 away from Orchard Park. They picked up impressive road wins against the Chiefs and Saints earlier in the season and have a chance to add another in Foxborough this weekend. 

    As with last year's surprise run to the AFC Championship Game, signal-caller Josh Allen has been the catalyst for this team's successes, as he has thrown for 3,734 yards and 31 touchdowns in 14 starts.

    Allen has added an edge to Buffalo's run game, too, which has dialed it up a notch recently. The QB contributed 109 yards and a touchdown in a collective 173-yard rushing effort against the defending champion Buccaneers in an overtime loss two weeks ago.

    Starting running back Devin Singletary shouldered the load against Carolina, putting up 86 yards and a score on 22 totes. If he can continue pounding the rock consistently, Buffalo will have a nicely balanced attack come playoff time. 

    Add in a defense that has allowed a meager 287.9 yards and 17.4 points per game—the league's best and second-best marks, respectively, this season—and the Bills look like a force.

2. Los Angeles Rams (10-4)

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Rams' decision to upgrade from Jared Goff to Matthew Stafford under center has been a resounding success. The quarterback has rejuvenated an offense that looks good enough to win it all.

    Los Angeles ranks No. 6 in total yardage, No. 5 in scoring and No. 4 in passing yardage. Stafford's built a strong rapport with receiver Cooper Kupp, who has broken out as a legitimate superstar following four years working as a quality possession receiver.

    Kupp leads the league in nearly every major receiving category, including receptions (122), receiving yards (1,625) and touchdown catches (14). His breakout year has helped L.A. win 10 of its first 14 games despite the defense's step back from last year's league-leading unit.

    Don't discount the Rams on that side of the ball, however, as the team still ranks in the top half of the league in scoring, passing, rushing and total defense. The pass-rushers and their 39 sacks shouldn't be underestimated either.

    Los Angeles could still take the NFC West from the Arizona Cardinals, but it shouldn't matter where this team starts a postseason run. The Rams have traveled extremely well this season, posting a 5-2 record as a visitor.

    The club outright won both games in which it was an underdog, toppling a pair of division leaders in the Buccaneers and Cardinals to accomplish the feat.

    If the Rams do get in as a wild-card entrant, there is a real chance they end up playing a home game deep in the postseason. L.A. could very well follow Tampa Bay as the second consecutive team to appear in a Super Bowl at its home venue.

1. Indianapolis Colts (8-6)

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    After the Indianapolis Colts' 1-4 start, few would have suspected they'd become one the most feared teams late in the 2021 season.

    This squad has forged a fearsome identity behind the sensational play of Jonathan Taylor, the second-year back who has the Colts ready for playoff success as a hard-nosed rushing team supported by a quality defense.

    Taylor overtook Derrick Henry as the NFL's best back after the Titans star suffered a Week 8 foot injury. The Wisconsin product is leading the league by a massive margin in rushing, with his 1,518 yards clocking in 424 yards ahead of his closest competitor.

    The 22-year-old has been almost unstoppable since Week 4's win over the Dolphins. He's rushed 228 times for 1,347 yards and all 17 of his league-leading touchdowns in that span. Not coincidentally, the Colts are 8-3 since his breakout began that week and have moved up to the AFC's No. 5 seed.

    While Indianapolis' season-long defensive numbers don't jump off the page, the team has been noticeably improving on that side of the ball. The Colts shut out the lowly Texans in Week 13 and then held the Patriots—who were No. 1 in the AFC coming into the game—to just 17 points in a key victory Saturday.

    Because of that big win over New England, Indy still has a realistic shot at overtaking the Titans in the AFC South.

    While the Colts do trail by a game with three left to play and don't own the head-to-head tiebreaker after getting swept by their divisional rival this season, Tennessee has lost three of its last four and could continue collapsing down the stretch.

    It shouldn't hinder the Colts much to start on the road in the Wild Card Round. Indianapolis is 4-2 away from Lucas Oil Stadium, with both losses coming during its awful start.

    As long as Indy's defense can stay hot, Taylor and the Colts offense can pound the rock all the way to the Super Bowl.


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