Playoff football is on the horizon and, not surprisingly, the Detroit Lions won’t be in the conversation. In the second half of the season, the NFC is a top-heavy conference, with teams like the Packers, Cardinals, Buccaneers, Cowboys, and Rams looking like legitimate threats come January. In comparison, the AFC seems to be wide-open as many of the current top seeds have either suffered shocking losses or have underperformed at this point.
This NFL season has proved that no win is guaranteed, and that anything can happen on any given game day. With this in mind, here are some takeaways and predictions for Super Bowl LVI and the highly-anticipated NFL playoffs.
It’s Tannehill’s Titans Now
Losing the league’s two-time rushing champion, Derrick Henry, was a major blow for Tennessee. Henry’s return remains in question due to his foot injury, and with a potential return to the playoffs on the horizon, he most likely will not be at 100%. The Tennessee offense was widely centered around Henry, and following the Titans 22-13 loss to the one-win Texans in Week 11, it is unlikely that the Titans will be able to make a significant push once playoffs arrive.
“No running back means more to their team than [Henry], and now that defenses no longer need to stack the box to slow him down, this puts even more pressure on Ryan Tannehill to carry the load, which I don’t think he can do,” said David Nelke, a Nutley resident and longtime-NFL fan.
Jekyll & Hyde
To say the Bills’ season has been a rollercoaster would be an understatement. Some weeks, they come out playing like the AFC Championship-winning Bills of last season, while other performances have been less flattering, like the one they put out against Jacksonville in Week 9, resulting in a 9-6 loss. Poor play on the gridiron, in addition to tempers running high, has the Bills spiraling towards the finish line. It is no longer a safe bet to ride the Bills to the Super Bowl, and while they will probably make the playoffs, attaching a Super Bowl trip to their name looks less and less likely.
“I don’t think they have it this year, but they do have time to right the ship,” said Matt Bua, a Lodi resident, and lifelong Bears fan.
Looks Like Belichick Doesn’t Need Brady
Bill Belichick is enjoying life right now as his new protege, Mac Jones, has turned the Patriots into a prominent contender, all the more impressive being that this is Jones’ rookie season. In addition to a stellar defense that has allowed just 16.9 points per game, the least in the NFL, the Patriots have proven they are back in business. The only aspect that could temporarily halt the Pats this season is Jones' inexperience, but in the coming years, New England will most likely re-emerge as the favorite to win it all.
“As much as it pains me to admit, what [Belichick] is doing this year with Mac Jones is eerily similar to what happened in 2001 when Tom Brady took over for Drew Bledsoe,” Nelke said.
David vs. Goliath
Following back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, the Chiefs have finally overcome the two-month offensive drought that the team struggled through. As long as Mahomes is quarterbacking the Chiefs, they will remain a powerhouse. The athleticism he brings to the field every game is unmatchable, and weapons like Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce make the Chiefs even scarier. If that was not enough, the defense has become elite and saved multiple games for the Chiefs this year, especially in their 13-7 Week 9 win against the Packers as well as their 19-9 Week 12 win against the Cowboys. In spite of this, the question of how long they can keep their Super Bowl streak running is a big one. The longest Super Bowl appearance streak is owned by the Bills, at a tally of four. Yes, the Chiefs will not make the big dance every year, but they look like the favorites to win the AFC based on how the playoff picture has played out.
“Super Bowl or bust -- that's the culture the Kansas City Chiefs have created over the last several seasons. Thanks to Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid, the Chiefs have emerged as the most successful team in the NFL," said Jeff Kerr, a writer for CBSSports.com.
Breakthrough in the Desert
The Cardinals have officially become a top-notch squad in the NFC, led by the elusive Kyler Murray and a defense that has allowed the fifth least points in the NFL through 17 weeks. The concern for this Cardinals team is whether they can hang with other star-studded teams as the playoffs roll around. Similarly to the Patriots, they lack experience at the playoff stage. Stud wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins' injury status remains up in the air, but a deep playoff run this year seems like a long shot.
“When the Cardinals play in the playoffs, Kyler Murray will not be ready for the atmosphere,” said a Fair Lawn High School freshman. “Even if they do make a run, they are not beating Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs.”
Let’s Get Ready to Rumble!
As Michael Buffer famously said, “Let’s get ready to rumble!” The Rams will look to do just that with quarterback Matthew Stafford at the helm. After his escape from Detroit, Stafford has become one of the NFL’s top QBs, complimenting an already-stacked roster including Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, and the new additions of Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr. Writing the Rams off is tough, but in a conference that poses many dominant threats, it is difficult to see them navigating a run all the way to the Super Bowl.
“Matt Stafford is going to have to prove himself in the playoffs before anyone can trust them against some of the other stacked teams in the NFC,” said Matt Bua.
Is this Rodgers’ Last Dance?
Throughout his illustrious career, Aaron Rodgers has been one of the best. His trophy case boasts three MVP awards, a Super Bowl victory, Super Bowl MVP, and nine Pro Bowls, in addition to being a two-time NFL passing touchdowns leader. With all that in mind, one is shocked to be reminded that Rodgers has not been to the Super Bowl since 2010. It has become evident that Rodgers’ Achilles heel has been the NFC Championship game, as he is 1-4 in those five games.
“For the past decade, there’s always been a next year,” said Bill Huber, a writer for Sports Illustrated Packer Central.
Over the course of his NFL career, Brady has constantly reminded the football universe not to doubt him, but due to recent losses of key players such as Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Leonard Fournette, as well as others, the chances of a rematch are less likely. Teams such as the Rams and Cowboys can pose a threat, but a Rodgers revenge game at Lambeau feels like the perfect story. Barring injury, a Green Bay team with Rodgers leading their high-powered offense, backed by a defense that has allowed the 6th least yards per game (323.6 yds), will claw their way to the Championship game en route to the Super Bowl.
“Rodgers is a stud. As a Bears fan, I pray that he leaves the Packers,” said Matt Bua. “They have a pretty well-balanced team and I think they’re the team to beat in the NFC if the road to the Bowl goes thru [through] Green Bay.”
The Game of Games
Coming out of the AFC to challenge the championship-thirsty Packers will be the Kansas City Chiefs, for the third straight year. This would be a match made in heaven for football fanatics, as it would arguably pit the two most powerful offenses in the league against each other. The AFC is wide open and even a dark-horse team like the Colts shockingly fell to the 2-14 Jaguars in the season finale. None of the teams within the playoff picture do not seem like they can outlast Kansas City in a 60 minute sprint, and while the Bills and Bengals took down the Chiefs this year, beating the Chiefs twice in one year is a tough task. Expect the Chiefs to role to their third straight Super Bowl and present the ultimate challenge to Aaron Rodgers.
"The Chiefs haven't been dominant all season, as we're used to. That's fine. They're dominant now, clsoing in on the top seed in the AFC and looking like another Super Bowl is in their future. It'll be hard to doubt Mahomes and the Chiefs ever again," said Frank Schwab, a writer for Yahoo! Sports.
In the end, this writer’s prediction is that Rodgers and the Packers will defeat the Chiefs in a nailbiter, 31-30, to capture the franchise’s 5th Super Bowl. Even with a victory, it would once again give rise to speculation about what’s next for Rodgers. Does he stay in Green Bay? Leave for a new team? Call it quits on an impeccable career?
“Whatever the case is, Rodgers does have that contract with the Packers through 2022 with a void year in 2023,” said Joe Rivera, a writer for Sporting News. “Maybe winning does cure everything --- or maybe it’s just a deodorant. The rest of the season will tell which.”
Header Credit: SportsLogos.Net
Thumbnail Credit: SportingFree