Week 15 of the NFL season means we are enlarging our iPhone screens on the playoff picture. We can squeeze out more teams from the fringes and focus on the core franchises at the center. But in one of the most wide-open seasons in memory who exactly are the teams that can take advantage of that right now?
Let’s countdown the 10 most potentially dangerous teams for the playoffs:
Honorable Mention: Lions. If Matthew Stafford hadn’t injured a finger on his throwing hand I’d have Detroit higher on this list. The quarterback has turned into a gutty leader and total gamer in his 8th season. He’s an MVP candidate, and has an uncanny knack this year for last-second heroics. The Lions have won 8 of their last 9 and the defense is overlooked. It’s held 7 straight opponents to 20 points or less. I don’t have much confidence in Jim Caldwell in January, but a healthy Stafford would make Detroit a tough out.
10) Buccaneers: Simply, Tampa Bay’s defense is going to keep them in just about every game. The Bucs have ridden their D to 7 wins in the last 9 weeks, and takeaways are a huge reason. Tampa’s created 23 turnovers in those 9 games, and it’s tied for the league-lead overall. Jameis Winston has helped elevate the expectations of the entire locker room, and he has a big play target in Mike Evans. Their front 7 can collapse a pocket and harass quarterbacks into awful days like Russell Wilson’s nightmare a few weeks ago. It’s too soon for the Bucs to win a Super Bowl, but you wouldn’t want to face them next month.
9) Seahawks: Seattle just doesn’t seem to be the team from previous years, but could find itself in the driver’s seat for the two-seed in the NFC with a Lions loss this weekend. The Seahawks roster is depleted by injuries like Earl Thomas and defections in free agency. Plus the Seahawks brass just hasn’t hit home runs the last three drafts. But it’s still extremely rare for any road team to win up in Seattle, and the team still has enough players that have played in two Super Bowls to lead it back there. Pete Carroll is one of the best coaches in the league. Any team with Wilson, Jimmy Graham, Richard Sherman, and Kam Chancellor will always have a say in the NFC playoffs.
8) Falcons: The explosiveness of the offense, combined with their first elite pass-rusher since John Abraham makes the Falcons an intriguing team next month. If Atlanta wins the NFC South, a home game on the fast track of the Georgia Dome would be a tough matchup for any opponent. Matt Ryan has taken his game to the next level this year, and the combo of Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu is a dangerous 1-2 punch. Devonte Freeman and Tevin Coleman give Atlanta a nice combo backfield, and Vic Beasley has become a one-man wrecking crew coming off the defensive edge. It’s not hard to imagine them giving fits to the Cowboys defense in the playoffs.
7) Giants: This ranking would’ve been much lower before last week’s win over the Cowboys. But New York’s defensive effort Sunday night was that impressive. Steve Spagnuolo’s gameplan was perfect in containing Dak Prescott. The defensive line, bolstered in the offseason by big ticket free agents Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison, quieted Zeke Elliott. And the Giants secondary completely shut down the passing lanes all night outside of Terrance Williams busted play for the touchdown. They have one of the best shutdown corners in the league (Janoris Jenkins) and perhaps the best safety (Landon Collins). New York’s offense is ugly right now. The Giants can’t pass protect nor run the ball. But one play to Odell Beckham can change everything. The Giants will likely not make it further than the divisional round, but that defense gives them a dangerous X-Factor that can flummox any offense in the NFC.
6) Cowboys: This may seem too low for a team that has had the best record all season, but Dallas is lucky it’s playing in the NFC. That conference has flawed teams all across the playoff picture, and the Cowboys are one of them. The Giants gave the rest of the league the road map on how to beat Dallas (although few squads have the talent to do it on defense). Dak has his rookie moments, and the Dallas pass rush is missing too much of the time. The secondary isn’t good enough to cover for long stretches, so a team with explosive passing attacks can hang chunk plays on them (think Green Bay, Atlanta, Detroit). The Bucs, Seahawks, and Giants defenses all have the ability to stifle the Cowboys offense. That means there isn’t anyone in the playoffs which will be a cakewalk for Dallas. I predict the Cowboys will not be the NFC rep for Super Bowl 51.
5) Chiefs: I love the way the Chiefs are built for the playoffs. Complete defense, stellar secondary, elite pass rush, and big play passing targets (Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce). They have a quarterback who was within an OT field goal of leading his team to the Super Bowl (’11 Niners), and a coach who has led his teams to 5 conference championship games. The Chiefs also have one of the fiercest homefields in all of football. So my brain says Kansas City is extremely dangerous in the playoffs. My heart says Andy Reid’s conservative play-calling, ham-handed clock management, and Alex Smith’s attachment to dink-and-dunking is going to haunt them. But a team that swept the Raiders and won in Denver has to be taken seriously.
4) Patriots: Of course New England is near the top of this list because they still have the savviest coach in the league, and a champion quarterback playing sublime football yet again. The Patriots don’t have Gronk, one of the greatest January targets in NFL history. Bill Belichick traded Jamie Collins, which has left somewhat of a void in the linebacking unit, especially in coverage. But the Patriots will never beat themselves, will do all the little things right, and make you play a near-perfect game to beat them. Can they be beaten? Yes. But in a season where there aren’t many (if any) great teams, who’s going to step up and do that?
3) Raiders: Oakland has a chance to take out any team in the playoffs because of sheer talent. Derek Carr is one of the best late-game quarterbacks in the league. Amari Cooper is one of the toughest receivers to cover. Khalil Mack is one of the most difficult pass rushers to block. The offensive line is one of the best in football. The Raiders have the goods. But inexperience worries me here, as well as an aversion to cold weather. The Raiders looked out of sorts in frigid Arrowhead, and unless they win home field the silver-and-black will be freezing blue in Foxboro, Kansas City, Pittsburgh or Denver. Oakland will beat whoever comes out of the AFC South, but beyond that? It may depend on where that game is played and whether Carr’s pinky injury keeps nagging him.
2) Packers: Green Bay’s season looked all but lost at 4-6 after dreadful performances against Washington, Indy and Tennessee. Since then? Three straight wins, including a beatdown of the Seahawks last weekend where everything went right. Plus, there are three winnable games in front of them. Who would want to face the NFC’s preseason Super Bowl favorite on a 6 game win streak? Especially having to go to Lambeau in the first round? It’s a huge if, but if Aaron Rodgers has clicked into “all-systems go” mode, how many of the NFC’s defenses can slow him down? The Packers defense is not great, and it may ultimately do them in. But creating some turnovers and short fields like last week plays perfectly into their offense’s quick-strike capability. If the Packers potential is what we saw versus Seattle, then they can beat anyone in the league.
1) Steelers: Pittsburgh always had the elite talent to win a Super Bowl, we just didn’t know if it would be healthy at the same time and if the team was interested in complete effort. The dog food performances against the Eagles and Dolphins this season made you wonder whether there was a feeling of entitlement lurking. Did the Steelers feel like they could roll into the stadium from a night on the town at 10a and just walk all over opponents? But any team with Big Ben, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell has the weapons to take down anyone in the playoffs. They have a coach who has been to two Super Bowls and won a Lombardi. One stop with 40 seconds left against Dallas would’ve changed the complexion of the season drastically, but the Steelers have rattled off four straight wins since then. In all of those matchups Pittsburgh dominated most of the game. The Steelers have a chance to finish on a 7 game win streak and get at least one home playoff game. Who wants to play them home or away in the playoffs? The answer: Nobody.
D.A. hosts 6-10 p.m. ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.