Which Team Should Every NFL Contender Want to Avoid in the Playoffs?
The NFL playoff picture is starting to take shape, but the bracket is far from finalized.
The way those matchups line up will have a major impact on how the postseason will play out.
Contenders that seemed poised for a deep run could get eliminated during Wild Card Weekend if they run into a rival they can't seem to figure out. Underdogs facing long odds could get hot at the right time against a team they line up well against, launching an unexpected championship run from a fortunate seeding.
With that in mind, let's look at each of the eight teams on top of their respective divisions heading into Week 17 and highlight the one matchup they want to avoid come playoff time.
No. 4 AFC: Buffalo Bills (9-6)
Matchup to Avoid: New England Patriots
The Bills may have just retaken the lead in the AFC East race with a victory over the Patriots, but they shouldn't be in any hurry to square off with New England again this season.
Buffalo fans are keenly aware of how poorly their team has performed against Bill Belichick's squad since he took the job in 2000.
The Pats are 36-8 against the Bills in that span, having only lost two games in a single season once. That occurred last year when Buffalo swept a Cam Newton-led squad, their first sweep of the Patriots since 1999.
While New England couldn't complete its 16th sweep of Buffalo in the Belichick era this past weekend, the club has already proved it can beat this opponent.
The Patriots relentlessly attacked Buffalo's run defense when they met at Orchard Park in early December. In a game played in severely blustery conditions, New England piled up 222 yards and a score on a whopping 46 rushing attempts.
While rookie QB Mac Jones has been a revelation for New England, he only threw three passes in that Week 13 clash, showing the Pats could win without tasking their young signal-caller to shoulder a significant load during his first playoff run.
Considering Jones only went 14-of-32 passing for 145 yards and two interceptions on Sunday, expect the Pats to heavily feature the ground game given a third chance to face Buffalo this season.
With a high potential for poor throwing conditions regardless of where this game is held come January, New England should feel confident grinding out another victory over the Bills.
No. 3 AFC: Cincinnati Bengals (9-6)
Matchup to Avoid: Kansas City Chiefs
The Bengals have been one of the 2021 campaign's biggest surprises. At 9-6, the club is now in the driver's seat to win the AFC North and make its first playoff appearance since the 2015 season.
However, Cincinnati's postseason return could be short-lived if it runs into an experienced team capable of locking down opposing wideouts.
The Chiefs are a squad the Bengals will want to avoid come January, as they not only have a veteran-laden roster that is battle-tested from back-to-back Super Bowl runs, but also a passing defense that has been significantly improving.
Kansas City has limited opposing quarterbacks to just 220 yards per game over the last 10 matchups. Wide receivers have the third-worst success rate in football when facing this defense, too, which could severely limit the amount of offensive damage the Bengals are capable of.
Cincinnati has relied heavily on one of the league's better receiving corps, a group that includes first-year sensation Ja'Marr Chase in addition to Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd.
The three have combined for an eye-popping 202 receptions for 2,984 yards and 20 touchdowns on the season.
The Bengals are averaging 259.0 passing yards and 106.9 rushing yards per game. If they draw Kansas City in the playoffs, it will be tough for Cincinnati to remain balanced against this secondary.
While Joe Mixon is the league's No. 2 rusher heading into Week 17, he'll find it tough to get going if second-year QB Joe Burrow struggles in his first playoff appearance.
Burrow's inexperience won't help when he's tasked with outscoring a Chiefs squad that can explode at any time. The team ranks No. 4 in scoring with 28.1 points per game, and its 285.1 passing yards per game is the NFL's No. 2 mark in that category.
Kansas City memorably came back from a 24-point deficit during its 2020 Super Bowl run, a year that Patrick Mahomes became the only QB in history to lead three double-digit comebacks in the same postseason.
The Chiefs also shook off a 9-0 deficit in last year's AFC Championship game, ultimately beating the Bills by a 38-24 margin.
Although Kansas City hasn't looked as dominant as it has in years past, the team is still the one to beat in the conference. Don't expect these green Bengals to be the first AFC team to usurp the Chiefs since Tom Brady's Patriots did so in the 2019 playoffs.
No. 2 AFC: Tennessee Titans (10-5)
Matchup to Avoid: Buffalo Bills
The Titans may be getting Derrick Henry back for the playoffs, but they'll have to do more than just feed their superstar back to advance through the AFC.
Unfortunately, that won't come easy if they end up facing off against the Bills.
Buffalo boasts the NFL's top pass defense, allowing a meager 173.1 yards through the air on average while holding opponents to a league-best 11 passing touchdowns.
Even with star corner Tre'Davious White out for the year, the Bills have the personnel to contain A.J. Brown and Julio Jones. While the pair combined for 150 yards on 10 receptions against the Bills back in Week 6, they failed to find the end zone.
Jones in particular hasn't done much since he had 59 yards—his second-best game of the campaign—against the Bills. In the five games he's appeared in since, the veteran wideout has averaged a meager 2.2 receptions on 3.2 targets for 22.6 yards.
Buffalo is only conceding 169.2 passing yards per game over its last five games, proving the team can succeed without White in the lineup. Tampa Bay has been the only opponent in that span to eclipse the 163-yard mark and throw for more than a single TD against this unit.
While the Titans did beat the Bills in that October game, the victory heavily featured a healthy Derrick Henry. The bruising back totaled 156 yards and three scores on 22 touches in a narrow 34-31 win.
It remains to be seen if Henry can return at full strength and carry the offense. Considering the back's performance gave Tennessee the edge in the last showdown, the Titans would likely need another scintillating showing to come out ahead in the rematch.
When Buffalo has the ball, its offense could have a field day against Tennessee's suspect secondary.
The Titans were vulnerable against the pass two months ago and remain so now. The defense allowed Josh Allen to light it up for 353 yards and three touchdowns on 35-of-47 passing.
Allen isn't the only QB to put up big numbers on Tennessee this season, as the defense is giving up 246.5 yards per game through the air.
Buffalo has improved its rushing capabilities in recent weeks, too, averaging over 135 yards and a score on the ground over the last three games.
Expect a good battle, but Tennessee will have a difficult time getting past the tough and versatile Bills if they match up again in the postseason.
No. 1 AFC: Kansas City Chiefs (11-4)
Team to Avoid: Indianapolis Colts
The Chiefs are trending toward a first-round bye, which could help them avoid one of the teams no one in the AFC will want to face.
The Colts have become one of the hottest teams in football after winning three in a row and six of their last seven leading up to Week 17—a two-month stretch that has vaulted Indianapolis up from the league's basement into playoff contention.
Their only loss in that span came by a touchdown against the defending champion Buccaneers.
Jonathan Taylor's emergence as the game's best running back has helped the Colts become a team that can beat anyone in January. The 22-year-old pounds the rock unlike anyone else right now, leading the league with 1,626 yards and 17 touchdowns on 297 totes.
Kansas City has struggled against the run at times, allowing a mediocre 116.5 yards per game to opposing ball-carriers. The defense's 4.7 yards per carry against average is tied for third-most in the NFL.
The Colts as a whole play the type of football that is proven to get results in the postseason. They have an excellent turnover differential at plus-14—tied for the league's second-best mark.
Indianapolis has benefitted from the NFL's second-most opportunistic defense, forcing 31 turnovers this year.
Compare that to Kansas City, which is only plus-three in turnover differential and tied for third-most turnovers in the league with 25, and you have the recipe for an upset if this matchup comes to fruition.
No. 4 NFC: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-4)
Team to Avoid: New Orleans Saints
The Saints have become kryptonite for the Tom Brady-era Buccaneers.
While the future Hall of Famer did manage to lead Tampa to a victory over its NFC South rival in the 2021 playoffs, he's lost all four regular-season meetings against New Orleans since joining the team last year.
No coach has figured out how to best the Bucs better than Sean Payton, and his track record gives the Saints the best chance to knock the defending champs out of the postseason.
New Orleans proved as much when picking up a pair of nine-point wins over the Buccaneers this season.
The club first topped Tampa by a 36-27 margin in an offensive thriller on Halloween. The Saints overcame the loss of starting quarterback Jameis Winston in the contest, outscoring the high-flying Bucs offense with Trevor Siemian at the helm.
New Orleans' most recent win was arguably even more impressive. The team clamped down defensively, picking up a 9-0 victory in a must-win game that kept playoff hopes alive in the Big Easy.
The Saints became just the third team to shut out a Brady-led squad and the first to do so since 2006, ending the quarterback's 255-game streak of putting points on the board.
While the Saints aren't a lock to make the playoffs—they still have work to do after falling to 7-8 this week, putting them behind the 8-7 Eagles and 49ers for the final NFC wild-card spots—they are a legitimate threat to upset any team, so long as they remain relatively healthy.
Tampa fans should be hoping that the Panthers and Falcons can find a way to keep the Saints out of the picture over these next two weeks.
If New Orleans makes the field, the squad has the blueprint to stymie the Bucs offense and get just enough done offensively to pull a playoff upset over the reigning champs.
No. 3 NFC: Los Angeles Rams (11-4)
Team to Avoid: Green Bay Packers
While the Packers quarterback hasn't spent as much time decimating the Rams compared to the Bears, he has been just as unbeatable when facing L.A.
Since taking over as the starter in 2008, Rodgers has won six of seven matchups against this foe, including each game played at Lambeau Field.
Green Bay's most recent victory over L.A. came just last month. Despite dealing with a toe injury, Rodgers still dissected the Rams defense for 307 yards and two scores on 28-of-45 passing. The signal-caller was only sacked once and scored a rushing touchdown despite having his mobility limited.
Star wideout Davante Adams won the head-to-head matchup with cornerback Jalen Ramsey, torching L.A.'s defense for 104 yards on eight receptions.
Green Bay's defense also stepped up in the contest, becoming just the fifth team—and the only one since Week 10—to hold MVP candidate Cooper Kupp to fewer than 100 receiving yards.
With Green Bay sitting at 12-3, it's looking like the road to the Super Bowl will once again go through Titletown.
Barring an unexpectedly poor finish to the Packers' season, the Rams will be forced to visit a hostile stadium they haven't won at since 2006 to claim the NFC title.
The Packers ended Los Angeles' season at Lambeau last year, besting the Rams by a 32-18 margin in the divisional round. It would be reasonable to expect a similar outcome given Rodgers' history and Green Bay's recent statement win over this foe.
No. 2 NFC: Dallas Cowboys (11-4)
Matchup to Avoid: Los Angeles Rams
The resurgent Cowboys have already locked up the NFC East crown. Depending on how the bracket shakes out, their return to the playoffs could end the same way their last trip did: a loss to the Rams.
Dallas hasn't had much luck against Los Angeles in recent years, losing three of the last four matchups since the 2017 season.
Jared Goff was L.A.'s quarterback in each of those matchups, but he's since been replaced by Matthew Stafford, who has added more teeth to the Rams offensive attack.
Even if Dallas' opportunistic defense—which ranks first in takeaways but 19th in yards allowed—can stymie an L.A. offense that is No. 6 in both scoring and passing, the team will still need to find a way to put up points on a great defense.
While the Cowboys lead the NFL in scoring with 30.5 points per game, the Rams have been excellent at getting after the opposing quarterback.
Los Angeles is up to 42 sacks on the season, just two shy of the NFL's top mark.
This defense may not be as statistically impressive as last year's league-leading unit, but it still features elite players like Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald who are hungry for a Super Bowl after coming up just short in recent years.
The Cowboys offensive line—which has conceded 31 sacks on the campaign—has fared well in the trenches, allowing pressure on only 17.8 percent of dropbacks. That rate could go up against the Rams, however, as their front is capable of making offenses one-dimensional.
In addition to the large number of QB takedowns, L.A. allows less than 100.0 yards per game to opposing rushers. If Dallas running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard aren't finding room to run and can't free up the passing game, it could be a long day for QB Dak Prescott.
Given L.A.'s talent on defense and an offense that has taken a leap since last seeing the Cowboys, it's going to be a tall task for the NFC East champs to slip by these Rams in the playoffs.
No. 1 NFC: Green Bay Packers (12-3)
Team to Avoid: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Packers are coming off back-to-back NFC Championship Games but haven't been able to break through and reach the Super Bowl in over a decade. They came close last year but had their hopes dashed by the Buccaneers.
Green Bay could suffer a similar fate in the 2022 playoffs, as Tampa appears to be one of the few opponents this club simply can't figure out.
The Packers had two chances to top the Bucs last year and squandered both. Aaron Rodgers was sacked nine times in those two starts, including getting taken down on five occasions in their playoff matchup.
Unfortunately for Rodgers, Tampa's pass rush appears just as dangerous as it was last year. The Bucs are tied for the league lead with 44 sacks on the season and generate the fifth-highest pressure rate at 28.4 percent. That puts this season's defense on a similar level as last year's unit that recorded 48 sacks on a 27.5 percent pressure rate.
Green Bay isn't as well equipped to handle the rush this year either.
The Packers have already given up more sacks (29) than they did all of last year (21). The loss of Corey Linsley in free agency—the All-Pro center whom PFF graded at an impressive 89.9 in 2020—hurts, especially with replacement Lucas Patrick only earning a middling 54.6 grade from the site this year.
The Bucs' pair of victories last season moved Tom Brady's teams to 3-1 all-time over Rodgers-led squads, with Brady's only loss coming back in 2014 with the Patriots.
Even with a potential playoff meeting likely to happen at Lambeau Field again, the Packers don't have a major advantage of facing a warm-weather quarterback playing in unfamiliar conditions.
Brady spent two decades winning meaningful January games for New England and is well accustomed to succeeding in cold temperatures.
The Bucs, who returned nearly every free agent from last year's championship squad, should be brimming with confidence from their win at the venue last year and will have little trouble running it back, given the chance.
Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.