The Weakest Link on Every NFL Division Leader as Playoffs Near

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistDecember 29, 2021

The Weakest Link on Every NFL Division Leader as Playoffs Near

0 of 8

    Roger Steinman/Associated Press

    A contender is only as strong as its weakest link. 

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn't really have a weak link en route to the Lombardi Trophy last year. But the Los Angeles Rams went down 32-18 against the Green Bay Packers in the second round of the playoffs while quarterback Jared Goff struggled to 174 passing yards.

    When it comes to weakest links, it's all about how a team addresses them. The Rams dealt with the issue by obtaining Matthew Stafford via an offseason trade, so opponents will attempt to exploit a different area on this year's 11-win Rams. 

    Only one AFC team (the Kansas City Chiefs) has clinched a spot in the postseason. Ten squads in that conference sport at least eight wins, and 13 have at least seven. 

    With two games left in the regular season, these are the weakest links on the following division leaders. If they are not careful, it could affect their chances of contending for a Super Bowl. 

Kansas City Chiefs: Turnovers

1 of 8

    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    AFC West

    The AFC-leading Chiefs have an elite offense and a defense that only surrenders 20.4 points per game, a top-five mark, so this is nitpicking.

    But it's no secret that turnovers were a red flag for the team early in the season. Over a 3-4 start, Patrick Mahomes threw 18 touchdowns and nine interceptions. The latter number was the most he'd thrown in an entire season since his first year as a starter 

    But over the team's eight-game winning streak, Mahomes has only thrown four picks, and the team now has a plus-three differential (a top-10 mark). But that's well behind Buffalo's plus-10 mark or Green Bay's plus-16 differential. Kansas City's 25 turnovers are the most of any team heading to the playoffs. Only the New York Jets (4-11) and Jacksonville Jaguars (2-13) have more.

    A combination of luck and the Chiefs' schedule has also played a part. Since their Week 12 bye, the Chiefs have played three division opponents and no team better than one game above .500. In a 38-20 loss to the Buffalo Bills in an AFC title game rematch, the Bills forced four turnovers, so if an opponent capitalizes on that blueprint, it could spell early doom for the Chiefs. 

Tennessee Titans: Ryan Tannehill

2 of 8

    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    AFC South

    The Tennessee Titans' weakest link is Ryan Tannehill. 

    Since MVP contender Derrick Henry went down with an ankle injury in Week 8, Tannehill has thrown five touchdowns and seven interceptions and has a 4-3 record as a starter. On the season, he's thrown only 15 scores and a league-high 14 picks (also a career high). 

    Tannehill is second in sacks (45), tied for 22nd in yards per pass attempt (6.9, his lowest since 2014) and is 27th in passer rating (84.8). 

    The Titans lost to 7-7-1 Pittsburgh in Week 15, while they squeaked out a Week 16 win over the 8-7 San Francisco 49ers. 

    While Tennessee's struggles aren't all on Tannehill, he has struggled under pressure. If a team can create pressure, especially without blitzing as Pittsburgh did with T.J. Watt in Week 15, the Titans could make an early exit from the postseason if Henry (foot) isn't able to return.

Cincinnati Bengals: Offensive Line

3 of 8

    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    AFC North

    There's no sense in still slamming the Cincinnati Bengals for not taking offensive lineman Penei Sewell over wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase in the 2021 draft.

    Line problems or not, Chase has 1,163 yards and 10 scores. He has recorded 17 plays of 20-plus yards while averaging 17.1 yards per catch. Joe Burrow just threw for a franchise-record 525 yards in a 41-21 win over the Baltimore Ravens, clearing the way for the division title over the final two weeks. 

    But Burrow has taken a league-leading 47 sacks, and he's been pressured 134 times. That defenses have actually blitzed him fewer times in 15 games (115) than they did over his 10 appearances last year (138) is a testament to his skill under pressure. It's also an indictment of the line up front. 

    With right tackle Riley Reiff out injured, right guard a revolving door and both left guard and center inconsistent, it'll only take one playoff team with solid coverage across the board to get to Burrow.

    Cincinnati felt this during a 41-22 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 13. Burrow mustered one touchdown and two picks while suffering six sacks.     

Buffalo Bills: Close Games

4 of 8

    Stew Milne/Associated Press

    AFC East

    The Buffalo Bills were barely clinging to an AFC playoff seed entering Week 16 and took care of business against the New England Patriots on Sunday, giving themselves the AFC East tiebreaker if needed. 

    If only things had been so simple all season. 

    All nine of Buffalo's wins have been by double digits. Every game the Bills have played within a touchdown this year has been a loss, including a 33-27 overtime defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    The quality of opposition is all over the place too. The Bills lost to playoff hopefuls like New England and Tennessee but went down 9-6 at the hands of Jacksonville (now 2-13). 

    With a player like Josh Allen under center, the Bills are always a threat to get hot at the right time. But if the team isn't blowing out the opposition, it's understandable if fans chew on their nails until the final buzzer.

Los Angeles Rams: Cornerbacks

5 of 8

    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    NFC West

    It might seem hard to poke a hole in the Los Angeles Rams with Stafford in town and win-now moves like the trade for Von Miller. 

    But opposing offenses have managed to do just that. 

    Jalen Ramsey remains one of the NFL's best cornerbacks, but opponents can just go at other members of the secondary. The defense lets up an average of 242.2 passing yards per game, a bottom-11 number, and has now coughed up five 300-yard passers—after allowing one such performance last season. Starting corner Darious Williams has earned a 61.0 Pro Football Focus grade, placing him just inside the "backup" range.

    Most recently, it was Kirk Cousins of the sub-.500 Minnesota Vikings. The Rams still won, 30-23, but Cousins cruising to 315 yards and a score on 8.3 yards per attempt is a bad sign. Back in Week 12, Aaron Rodgers, while battling a toe injury, threw for 307 yards and two scores in a 36-28 Green Bay win. The week before that, San Francisco's Jimmy Garoppolo threw two scores on 9.6 yards per attempt in a 31-10 win. 

    In a stacked NFC littered with elite passers, the Rams have a non-Ramsey problem. 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Injuries

6 of 8

    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    NFC South

    It might seem like a bit of a cop-out to list sheer attendance as a weakness, but we haven't exactly seen a superteam like Brady's Buccaneers before, either. 

    During a Week 16 win over Carolina, the Buccaneers missed wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, running back Leonard Fournette, defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. and linebackers Lavonte David and Jason Pierre-Paul.

    Granted, that was a win, but a five-win Carolina that juggled Cam Newton and Sam Darnold under center isn't the type of opposition the Buccaneers will see in the postseason. And the attendance woes have coincided with needing overtime to beat Buffalo in Week 14 and getting shutout in 9-0 fashion by 7-8 New Orleans in Week 15. 

    During the win over Carolina, the defense also lost elite pass-rusher Shaquil Barrett to an MCL sprain. He could return for the playoffs, but losing a 10-sack, 39-pressure defender is never a good thing. 

    Just 3-2 in a bad NFC South, Tampa Bay already looked vulnerable in the stacked NFC. Missing key players will give opponents obvious weak points to attack come playoff time. 

Green Bay Packers: Special Teams

7 of 8

    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    NFC North

    Here's a new one: The Green Bay Packers are having notable problems on special teams. 

    It's easy to mostly point at Mason Crosby. The 37-year-old veteran has missed a stunning nine field goals this year, his most in a season since 2012. That includes four misses in the 30-39-yard range. The team's 70 percent rate is the second-worst mark in the league. 

    But not all of the blame is on Crosby. Chicago secured a 97-yard punt return for a touchdown in a Week 14 in a 45-30 Green Bay win that had no business being that close. 

    In the following two weeks, Green Bay escaped the Cleveland Browns and Ravens by a combined three points. When Green Bay flails on punt returns, has lapses in kick coverage and Crosby misses field goals, Aaron Rodgers can only overcome so much. 

Dallas Cowboys: Offensive Inconsistency

8 of 8

    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    NFC East

    It might sound a little weird to point out an offensive issue for the Dallas Cowboys right after their 56-14 thumping of Washington in Week 16. 

    But if we consider that the WFT was battling COVID-19 issues, things don't look so hot for the Cowboys. 

    Dak Prescott might now have 29 touchdowns and 10 interceptions this year while completing 68.7 percent of his passes. But 20 of those scores and five of the picks occurred over the first eight games. Over his next five, he had five touchdowns and five interceptions. 

    Defensive adjustments are the likely culprit. Opposing teams are more than happy to drop guys deep and let Prescott pick apart the middle of the field. That helped lead to a loss against the Las Vegas Raiders (8-7), a 10-point escape against the New Orleans Saints (7-8), a seven-point win over a healthier Washington club and a 21-6 win over the New York Giants (4-11). 

    Those teams don't exactly top the NFL in terms of a challenge. An opportunistic defense and a solid ground game have helped mask the inconsistency of the passing game, but that will only get a team so far in the postseason.