Hot Wild-Card Teams NFL Contenders Will Want to Avoid in 2021 Playoffs

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistJanuary 3, 2022

Hot Wild-Card Teams NFL Contenders Will Want to Avoid in 2021 Playoffs

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    The NFL playoffs are near, which means Super Bowl contenders look past wild-card teams at their own peril. 

    The postseason isn't always about who is the better team, but rather who is the hottest. Every year, there's at least one wild-card team that goes on a run. In 2021, it was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

    Tom Brady and Co. were 7-5 going into their Week 13 bye. They ended up rattling off four straight wins to finish out the season, getting the No. 5 seed in the NFC and going on to win the Super Bowl. 

    In fact, in the first year with the expanded playoff field, the wild-card teams went 4-2 on the opening weekend of the playoffs.

    Matchups can mean everything in the postseason. These teams might not have the best overall resumes, and each is currently taking a back seat in its division. However, they are far from easy outs.

Indianapolis Colts

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    The Indianapolis Colts might still be in a head-to-head AFC South battle with the Tennessee Titans, but either way, they aren't a team you want to see in the playoffs. 

    A 3-5 start to the season cast serious doubt on this team, but it has rallied to become one of the league's best in the latter half of the season. It isn't just the fact that the Colts have been winning; it's who they have wins against. 

    Since November, they have a 41-15 win over the Buffalo Bills, a 27-17 win over the New England Patriots and a 22-16 win over the Arizona Cardinals. That's three impressive victories against teams that are all considered threats to do some damage in the playoffs. 

    Even their only loss in that stretch was impressive. They dropped a 38-31 contest against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that the Bucs didn't secure until a Leonard Fournette touchdown with 20 seconds left. 

    Given Tampa Bay's injuries and the Colts' hot streak, there's a good case to be made that Indy would be the favorite in a rematch. 

    It's fair to wonder if the Colts have the quarterback to make a run. Carson Wentz has four career pass attempts in the postseason, so we don't know how he'll respond on the big stage. We do know the Colts have the ability to win without relying heavily on their passer, though. 

    Jonathan Taylor has been dominant. He leads the league in rushing and has helped the Colts win five games this season in which Wentz threw for fewer than 200 yards. 

    Indianapolis ranks sixth in ESPN's football power index defensive efficiency metric. A team that can run the ball and play great defense is one you don't want to see in the postseason.

Las Vegas Raiders

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    It was just three weeks ago that the Las Vegas Raiders suffered through a 1-5 stretch punctuated by a 48-9 drubbing at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs. 

    It would've been easy to chalk it up to another late-season swoon for the Silver and Black, but this team has shown that it isn't the typical Raiders. Instead, they've rallied with three straight wins to get right back into the playoff race. 

    The most impressive win in that stretch came against the Colts, who remain a dangerous wild-card team themselves. 

    After getting torched by the Chiefs, the defense has rebounded with some dominant performances. Against the Browns, it held Nick Chubb to 4.0 yards per carry and surrendered just 14 points. Then, it held Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon III to eight yards on 14 carries in a 17-13 win. 

    But the win over the Colts, who came into the game with a lot of momentum after back-to-back victories against the Patriots and Cardinals, is the crown jewel of their current streak. 

    It was a game that encapsulated Derek Carr's career. He threw two early interceptions but also engineered the game-winning drive that ended with a Daniel Carlson field goal as time expired. 

    That was Carr's 29th game-winning drive since entering the league in 2014. Carr has never taken a snap in the postseason. However, he's shown the ability to put together drives in the clutch, and the defense is good enough to potentially give him the opportunity to do it in the playoffs.

San Francisco 49ers

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    If it weren't for a Thursday Night Football loss to the Tennessee Titans, the San Francisco 49ers would be getting a lot more hype as a potential spoiler in the playoffs. 

    The 20-17 loss in prime time in which San Francisco squandered a 10-0 halftime capped a 5-2 stretch that began in mid-November with a decisive 31-10 over the division-rival Los Angeles Rams. If you're willing to look past a loss that came on a short week against a quality opponent in the Titans, you'll see a team that is finishing strong. 

    Kyle Shanahan's bunch has shaken off a 3-5 start to surge into the playoff race. In addition to the Rams, they also beat the Cincinnati Bengals during the latter half of the season. 

    Their ability to limit those high-octane offenses is a great example of why they could be dangerous in the playoffs. 

    The offense is seventh in efficiency, per ESPN's FPI metric. What makes that efficiency even more impressive is that they have done it without much help from the defense in the turnover department (26th in turnover percentage).

    The obvious hole for the Niners is Jimmy Garoppolo. He's not exactly going to strike fear in the heart of opposing defenses. But Deebo Samuel and George Kittle should. They are a unique duo in terms of how they can attack defenses. 

    The Niners could have a decision to make at quarterback anyway. Garoppolo is dealing with a thumb injury that kept him out of the lineup in Week 17's win over the Houston Texans. Rookie Trey Lance looked like he may be ready to start with 249 yards through the air, another 31 on the ground and two touchdowns. 

    Samuel is explosive on screens, jet sweeps and short routes that aren't hard for Jimmy G or Lance to throw, while Kittle creates conflict for defenses because of his size and ability to block in the run game paired with his skills as a receiver. 

    With both weapons in good health and a defense anchored by Nick Bosa and his elite pass-rushing, the Niners aren't a team you want to see in the NFC.

Philadelphia Eagles

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    A young team that doesn't know any better can be very dangerous come playoff time. 

    The Philadelphia Eagles weren't supposed to be contenders this year. They are the third-youngest team in the league, have a first-year head coach in Nick Sirianni and a quarterback in Jalen Hurts who still hasn't proved he's a franchise quarterback. 

    Early on, it looked like all of these factors would result in another lost season. Instead, Sirianni started leaning on his ground game, and the Eagles have been much better. 

    The Eagles have five games of more than 200 rushing yards. They're also well on their way to setting the franchise record for rushing yards in a season, and their streak of nine straight games of 130-plus rushing yards is the team's longest in 77 years.

    Much of that success on the ground can be attributed to Hurts' effectiveness as a runner, but the offense has continued to look good while he's been limited by an ankle injury. 

    What's really scary for opposing teams and anyone who may meet them in the playoffs is the defense. They are third in the league in yards allowed per play (5.0) and especially stingy against the run, allowing just 3.9 yards per carry. 

    The Eagles aren't likely to get a lot of respect come playoff time, but they seem to have the right mentality. 

    "You haven't seen the very best of us," Hurts said, per Dave Spadaro of the team's official site. "We're still waiting for that day when we put it all together and say that we've played our best. Until then, we're always striving for more. I think that's the definition of what we're trying to accomplish here."

    The overachieving Eagles will be excited to be in the playoffs, can run the ball and make it difficult for teams to run it against them. That's enough to play spoiler.