Well folks, we made it. Eighteen strenuous, but enjoyable weeks have come to a close, ushering in the dusting off of golf clubs for some and a four-week sprint to hardware for 14 of the NFL’s playoff-bound organizations. While each team has its own individual strengths that, in due time, could ultimately become unmasked as the heat of playoff fire annually separates the men from the boys, this piece is to highlight the negatives, the weaknesses, and where each team will need to improve most if they look to rid of past playoff demons and bring forth their Lombardi Trophy aspirations from fantasy to reality.
Las Vegas Raiders
After reeling off four straight wins to cap off their regular season, the Raiders, by way of an overtime field goal from Daniel Carlson against the Los Angeles Chargers, have wiggled their way into the postseason. Led by Derek Carr, let me first start off by tipping my hat to the job both he and interim head coach Rich Bisaccia have done in leading Vegas to just their second playoff appearance since 2002. In line to face the high-octane offense that is the Cincinnati Bengals and their onslaught of youth-infused talent, where the Raiders must show improvement is within their secondary, or the group that will be tasked with limiting the likes of Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd.
While a midseason departure from former first-rounder Damon Arnette forced the Raiders to reach into the back end of their roster for immediate help, the play of first-year man Nate Hobbs has been one of the more underappreciated stories in football this fall. A fifth-rounder out of Illinois, Hobbs’ workload increased from Week 2 onward, becoming a staple within Vegas’ secondary as their nickel corner. With veteran Casey Hayward and Brandon Facyson set to start opposite, the onus on the two corners to keep everything in front of them and remaining disciplined with their eyes while also not being afraid to take chances on making a play on the football will be key against the Bengals if they look to move forward into the divisional round.
A team that at points during the season looked to represent the cream of the crop in the AFC, the Bengals must find a mesh point of equilibrium to put their best foot forward entering the postseason. They can’t afford a lapse or multiple quarters of minimal production and it starts up front for the front five tasked with protecting Joe Burrow.
One of the shakiest units in football who allowed 55 sacks in 17 games—third-worst in football—with the edge tandem of Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue awaiting, they have to shore up their most obvious concern if they look to keep Burrow upright and remain competitive for 60 minutes. If they do, there is no ceiling for what Zac Taylor’s group can accomplish.
New England Patriots
Whether he’s ready for it or not, the playoffs have arrived for Mac Jones. While it’s nice to have the voice of Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels in your helmet, the Patriots must find a way to carve their footprint in the run game to keep the pressure off of Jones’ shoulders in the first few offensive series. The game kicks into another gear in playoff time, and if Belichick looks to add further regalia to his ever-growing armoire, New England has to run the football and run it well to move deeper into January.
While Stefon Diggs is by no means a lone wolf in the passing game, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll must get the surrounding cast of Cole Beasley, Dawson Knox, and, if healthy, Emmanuel Sanders involved in the aerial attack early and often. While it’s hard to not look past their first-round matchup with the Patriots as the ultimate goal for Buffalo is to lift the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl trophy when it’s all said and done, the onus will remain on Josh Allen to masthead the offense with efficiency and a well-balanced approach in using both his arm and legs to create opportunities for the offense. Belichick is known for taking away what teams do best, for Buffalo, the talent around Diggs will remain paramount.
Keep it simple on offense, if you’re Nick Sirianni. His trend of getting cute could come back to bite Philadelphia where it hurts if he fails to forget what got them here in the first place.
With one of the NFL’s premier front fives and football’s top ground game, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Additionally, allowing Jalen Hurts to slowly work his way into the football game will be key for Philadelphia. Quick hitters, screens, RPOs, designed QB runs, the Eagles are at their best when teams are forced to account for Hurts’ dual-threat ability.
In what will be Sirianni’s first-ever playoff appearance as head coach, the Eagles’ biggest weakness could be their bench boss and his unfamiliarity with the playoff realm. However, there’s nothing wrong with sticking with your guns… for better or worse.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Outside of Mike Evans, the Buccaneers are depleted of talent on the perimeter. While Evans is a nice option to have at WR1 and Rob Gronkowski will enjoy his fair share of targets as Brady’s red-zone jewel, if teams bracket or double Evans and the likes of Breshad Perriman, Scotty Miller, or Cyril Grayson fail to get open, we could see a very similar situation experienced by the Buccaneers earlier this year where the New Orleans Saints consistently created pressure, limited open space on the outside, and forced Brady to make throws with bodies in his face. The ability of the aforementioned wideouts to create throwing windows for Brady is the most important storyline for Tampa Bay heading into playoff action and their biggest frailty.
San Francisco 49ers
Limit the big play. While San Francisco has done a nice job the last month of the season limiting chances for teams to exploit an aging secondary outside of Emmanuel Moseley, their immediate outlook against the Dallas Cowboys and their knack for connecting on explosive plays could be the primary factor if San Francisco looks to leave AT&T Stadium with a win. An elite front four headlined by Nick Bosa will help get after the quarterback, but the 49ers’ secondary will have to limit chunk plays in the pass game to keep its offense within striking distance. I’m looking at you, Josh Norman.
While it hasn’t been publicized as much as it should, how the Cowboys deploy Ezekiel Elliott will remain a massive storyline heading into Sunday. A back who should have already taken a backseat to Tony Pollard, if offensive coordinator Kellen Moore opts to hand him the ball 15 or more times, it’s a major plus for the opposing defense. He simply doesn’t have the juice, and a workload anything more than minimal should invite questioning. Despite his flashy nickname and popular persona, Elliott is the anchor holding back the Cowboys' offense from blossoming even further.
As you know, success for a franchise ultimately kickstarts at the quarterback position. While head coach Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger have had the opportunity to share a relationship and annual success similar to that of Tom Brady-Bill Belichick and Peyton Manning-Tony Dungy—two legendary tandems of the game—a lack of anything aside from a few outlying games from Roethlisberger in the past month to show he has any last remnants of fumes in the tank remains a cause for major concern. For the Steelers, who are set for a rematch against the same Chiefs team that took them behind the barn for a 26-point old-fashioned whoopin', this is No. 7’s last ride. Enjoy it.
Kansas City Chiefs
Despite an obvious attempt to boost the front five, and as good as they’ve been in the regular season, the ability for Kansas City to keep Patrick Mahomes upright in the playoffs remains their biggest unknown. Like it's been for 17 games, if the Chiefs can keep No. 15 on his feet and operating within a clean pocket, it’ll be a long day for whoever the Chiefs face in the coming weeks.
At some point, the Cardinals are going to have to run the ball with consistency. You’d think with the quickness of Kyler Murray and Chase Edmonds, and the downhill thump provided by James Conner, that the ground game would become a focal point of their offensive game plan. but that’s just the pass-happy mindset shown at times from head coach Kliff Kingsbury, who I’ll get to at another time. Despite ending the season among the top 10 rushing teams in football, teams will look to take away Murray’s dual-threat ability and knack for the big play outside of structure. If they execute, the Cardinals have to find a way to move the football on the ground within the hashes.
Los Angeles Rams
We have yet to see Matthew Stafford appear in a playoff game beyond the wild-card round, and with a Super Bowl or bust mentality shown all year long from Sean McVay’s group, it’ll be up to their newfound QB1 to lead the way to glory. He’s by no means a weakness, but his, at times, reckless play over the last month has spotlighted a cause for concern as to how effective he will be when every throw is microscoped to the umpteenth degree under the lights of the postseason.
Although it’s the easy target to point blame at, if the Rams ultimately fail to live up to their lofty expectations, it will likely be due to the lack of execution from the quarterback spot.