While the Patriots and Cowboys are the Super Bowl favorites and the Chiefs and Falcons aren’t too far behind, this still feels like the most wide-open playoff field in recent memory. Why? Because everybody’s beatable. From the top seeds to the wild-card teams that didn’t clinch a spot until the final weeks, every squad has a major flaw. All of these teams were able to paper over their weaknesses often enough across a 16-game season, but they all suffer from issues that are big enough to spell doom in a single-elimination tournament. So, let’s take a look at the Achilles’ heel of each playoff team.
No. 1 New England Patriots: Special Teams
It’s tough to poke holes in a 14–2 club, and while New England’s secondary still hasn’t really been tested, its biggest flaw has been its lackluster special teams play.
Cyrus Jones was an excellent return man in college, and he returned four punts for touchdowns for Alabama in 2014, but he’s struggled in his first year as a pro. He’s fumbled or muffed five punt returns this season, and he lost his job after muffing one against the Ravens in Week 14. While he’s slowly working his way back into Bill Belichick’s good graces — he got another shot at returning a punt in Week 16 — New England has been forced to risk key starters Julian Edelman and Patrick Chung as Jones’s replacement. It’s put the team in a tough spot: Go with Edelman and Chung for security but risk injury to important pieces on both sides of the ball (and lower the potential for a big play), or go back to Jones and embrace the turnover risk.
Meanwhile, the kicking game has been anything but automatic for New England. The normally robotic Stephen Gostkowski hit just 27 field goals this season, his lowest mark since 2010. He missed five out of 32 attempts (84.4 percent), his lowest conversion percentage in four seasons. And after not missing one since 2006, he also missed three point-after attempts for a conversion rate that puts him 17th leaguewide. Even worse: It brings back memories of New England’s 20–18 exit from AFC championship game against the Broncos last season, when a first-quarter Gostkowski extra-point miss ultimately forced the Patriots to attempt a two-point conversion, which failed, in the final minute of the game.
No. 2 Kansas City Chiefs: Run Defense
The Chiefs’ turnover-creating defense, which led the NFL with 33 takeaways, was the foundation for Kansas City’s run to a first-round bye, but all the big plays made up for a relatively soft run defense. The Chiefs finished the year surrendering 121.1 yards per game (26th in the NFL) and 4.4 yards per carry (tied for 20th), and they gave up 102 first downs via the ground (tied for 26th). While they finished the regular season with the seventh-ranked pass defense by Football Outsiders’ DVOA, the run defense ranked just 26th.
Without the injured Derrick Johnson quarterbacking the defense from his middle linebacker spot, the Chiefs have had to turn to younger, less-experienced players like Ramik Wilson and D.J. Alexander, two mid-round picks from 2015. As the defense’s two inside linebackers, the pair of second-years have to communicate pre-play adjustments and then, on run plays, quickly transition into their gap-filling responsibilities. Without Johnson, that process just hasn’t been as seamless as the Chiefs would like.
No. 3 Pittsburgh Steelers: Pass Rush
Pittsburgh’s pass rush came on strong during the second half to finish with 38.0 sacks on the season (tied for ninth in the NFL), but impressive sack totals don’t always suggest a sustainable ability to create pressure. The 38-year-old James Harrison is still getting time at outside linebacker, and along with Lawrence Timmons, he led the team with a measly five sacks. On the year, the Steelers ranked just 19th in sack rate when adjusted for down, distance, and opponent.
The big issue with the Pittsburgh pass rush is that it has to try so hard to get after the quarterback. The Steelers manufacture pressure with a heavy dose of blitzing, using linebackers and defensive backs to rush the quarterback and confuse opposing lines, because they just don’t have many guys who can beat their man and make a play. Bud Dupree, last year’s first-round pick who spent the first 10 weeks of the season on injured reserve nursing a core muscle injury, gives them some much-needed speed and explosiveness off the edge, as he’s notched four and a half sacks in four starts. But when the Steelers need a play late in the fourth quarter of a playoff game, it’s still unclear who’s gonna be able to provide the pressure.
No. 4 Houston Texans: Quarterback
Well, uh, duh.
This Houston offense is terrible, and it’s because the quarterbacks are terrible.
We all know who Brock Osweiler is at this point: a guy who posted 5.8 yards per attempt and a sub-60 percent completion rate, threw more interceptions (16) than touchdowns (15), and notched a 72.2 passer rating in 14 starts. Tom Savage, meanwhile, hasn’t proven to be a whole lot better. His 6.3 yards per attempt, 63 percent completion rate, and 80.9 passer rating all come out looking better than The Brockening, but Savage has yet to throw a touchdown in three appearances. While Savage might have a higher ceiling, a Week 17 concussion has put his status for the wild-card round up in the air. Except, it doesn’t really matter who starts on Saturday: The quarterback is going to be Houston’s weak link.
No. 5 Oakland Raiders: Quarterback
Had Derek Carr not broken his fibula on Christmas Eve, then we’d probably be talking about the Raiders’ 25th-ranked pass defense by DVOA. But here we are.
Backup Matt McGloin started a big Week 17 game against the Broncos … and completed six of 11 passes for 21 yards (1.9 yards per attempt) before leaving the game with a concussion. His backup, Connor Cook, completed 14 of 21 passes for 150 yards and a touchdown, but he also threw an interception and lost a fumble as the Raiders fell to the Broncos 24–6. The loss dropped Oakland to the 5-seed and dispelled any notions that the offense would be able to come anywhere near the explosive production it experienced under Carr.
No. 6 Miami Dolphins: Run Defense
I bet you thought you’d be reading about another backup quarterback here, didn’t you? But no! After Ryan Tannehill went down in Week 14, Matt Moore has acquitted himself relatively well.
Instead, Dolphins fans should be more concerned about Miami’s run defense. The Dolphins finished the season deadlocked with San Francisco for the worst yards per carry allowed (4.8) and surrendered 140.4 yards per game (30th). We know Ndamukong Suh and Co. can terrorize opposing passers, but on Sunday they’re also gonna have to find a way to buck the season-long trend and stop Le’Veon Bell, who just, you know, happens to be the best running back in the NFL. If they don’t, it won’t matter who’s playing quarterback because Miami’s trip to the playoffs is going to last for only a couple of hours.
No. 1 Dallas Cowboys: Pass Defense
The dominant run game keeps opposing offenses off the field for big swaths of time — the Cowboys defense saw the second-fewest minutes of field time in the league — but when it was out there, it was vulnerable through the air. Dallas surrendered 4,167 passing yards (26th in the league) and 25 pass touchdowns (tied for 17th) despite registering just 166 defensive series, the fourth fewest in the league. On the season, the Cowboys gave up a 94.1 rating to opposing quarterbacks (24th).
The play of cornerbacks Brandon Carr and rookie Anthony Brown is just about the only thing that Dallas fans have had to worry about this year, and with the Cowboys’ top corner, Morris Claiborne (yes, you read that right, he’s been very solid this season), still on the shelf with an avulsion fracture suffered in October, cornerback play remains Dallas’s major vulnerability against top-tier pass offenses.
No. 2 Atlanta Falcons: Pass Defense
Here’s what Atlanta is bad at: defending against the pass. Any pass at all.
Whether it’s matching up with receivers, tight ends, or running backs out of the backfield, the Falcons have struggled to cover. They’ve given up 4,267 pass yards (28th in the league), surrendered 31 touchdowns (28th), picked off just 12 passes (tied for 18th), and allowed a 92.5 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks (22nd). Losing top cornerback Desmond Trufant to a torn pectoral in late November hasn’t helped matters, but they were really bad even when he was on the field.
The fate of Atlanta’s postseason could come down to one question: Can the positives of its high-flying pass offense outweigh the negatives of its truly awful pass defense?
No. 3 Seattle Seahawks: Offensive Line
The Seahawks are the embodiment of "you get what you pay for." Seattle has a league-low $6.26 million of its cap dedicated to the offensive line. For comparison: The next-cheapest team, the Giants, more than double Seattle’s O-line investment, while the Raiders, who have the most expensive line, pay a full $30 million more for one of the best groups in the league.
This season, Seattle’s normally dominant run game ranked 26th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards (a measure of offensive line efficiency in the run game), 25th in total yards (1,591), 25th in yards per carry (3.9), and tied for 16th in touchdowns (13). In pass protection, the Seahawks surrendered 42 sacks, which was sixth worst in the league.
In the past, the Seahawks have been able to weather bad offensive lines, thanks to a healthy Russell Wilson Houdini-ing out of bad situations and Marshawn Lynch registering on the Richter scale. But this season’s team has neither: Wilson has been slowed with knee and ankle injuries, and the retired Lynch has been replaced by the underwhelming duo of Christine Michael, who is now a Packer, and Thomas Rawls, who is averaging 3.2 yards per carry. With such terrible blocking up front, Seattle’s offense finished the season ranked 17th. Last season? They were first.
No. 4 Green Bay Packers: Cornerback Depth
In 2016, the Packers gave up 32 passing touchdowns (tied for 29th) and surrendered a league-worst 8.1 yards per pass attempt. Their pass defense is, in other words, bad — but it’s not due to a lack of talent or a couple of injuries. It’s because their cornerback group has been so hurt, they’ve had to dig into the third and fourth string. Second-year pros LaDarius Gunter and Quinten Rollins have played a ton of snaps in place of injured first-teamers Sam Shields (concussion), Damarious Randall (groin), and Demetri Goodson (knee). With Rollins’s status up in the air for next weekend after a Week 17 neck injury, the Packers might have to dig even deeper down the depth chart against the Giants.
No. 5 New York Giants: One-Trick-Pony Offense
The Giants finished 21st in passing DVOA, 17th in pass yards (3,879), 24th in yards per attempt (6.7), and 26th in yards per completion (10.7) — all despite featuring one of the most explosive, game-changing weapons in the game. Outside of Odell Beckham Jr., who finished with 101 receptions for 1,367 yards and 10 touchdowns, there isn’t anyone to fear on this offense.
The Giants run game finished 29th in yards, and, for huge portions of the season, it felt like the offense’s only hope for scoring against a good defense was if Beckham took a quick slant and ran it 70 yards for a touchdown. New York’s offense was too predictable, not explosive enough (Eli Manning’s 6.7 yards per attempt was his lowest mark since 2007), and too turnover prone (Manning threw 16 picks and lost four fumbles). It’s not easy (see: Beckham’s stats) but if a team can scheme to take Beckham out of a game, it’s hard to see this offense scoring more than 10 or 14 points.
No. 6 Detroit Lions: The Pass Rush
The NFC’s playoff field features some bad pass defenses, but the Lions take the cake. Detroit gave up 33 passing touchdowns (second worst in the league, better than just the Browns) and allowed a league-worst 72.7 completion rate and an NFL-worst 106.5 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks.
Of course, you’ll see that the above entry reads "pass rush," and that’s because the lack of a pass rush is what makes it so easy to pass against Detroit. The Lions registered just 26 sacks all year — tied for second worst in the league — and finished 25th in adjusted sack rate. Their top pass rusher, Ziggy Ansah, was coming off a 14.5-sack performance in 2015, but he grabbed just two sacks in 13 starts this season. It’s plays like Aaron Rodgers’s touchdown strike to Geronimo Allison on Sunday, where he scrambled around for what felt like hours before finding his receiver in the back of the end zone, that have plagued Detroit’s pass defense all year. The Lions just haven’t been able to get enough pressure on the passer and, unless Ansah suddenly reverts to his 2015 form over the next few weeks, they won’t be around for long.