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Eleven Thoughts About the NFL Playoff Field After Week 17

The final week of the regular season did more than just set the wild-card matchups. It also offered insights into what could determine each team’s playoff fate. Here’s a breakdown of the key takeaways, from LeSean McCoy’s injury to JuJu Smith-Schuster’s continued emergence.

James Harrison, LeSean McCoy, and JuJu Smith-Schuster Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With the playoff field now in place, I decided to do something a little different with this edition of the Starting 11. On Monday, I analyzed which Week 17 developments could have the biggest ramifications beyond the wild-card round. In this file, as a way to look ahead to the postseason, I’m making one observation about every playoff team that at least kind of tried Sunday (sorry, Rams) and considering the impact it might have moving forward. Let’s get right into it.

1. LeSean McCoy’s ankle injury could be a cruel twist for the playoff-bound Bills. There’s so much to love about Buffalo making the postseason for the first time in 18 years. The footage of the Bills watching the Bengals’ game-winning touchdown against the Ravens was heartwarming, and veteran defensive tackle Kyle Williams’s reaction was perfect. Williams, had who scored his first career touchdown earlier Sunday, has played 12 seasons in Buffalo and made the Pro Bowl five times. This is his first trip to the playoffs. It was obvious how much that meant.

The Bills going beyond just that happy-to-be-here feeling was always going to be a tall order in a wild-card-round matchup at Jacksonville; if McCoy is forced to miss the game because of an ankle injury sustained in the third quarter of a 22–16 win in Miami, that task will grow even tougher. Buffalo’s offense is not a modicum of efficiency. The team ranks 26th in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA, down in the dregs with units led by backup or rookie quarterbacks — and this guy. The Bills’ best hope of finding success against the league’s top defense lies in McCoy and Tyrod Taylor conjuring unstructured plays. Their ability to create yardage seemingly out of nothing gives Buffalo its offensive upside. That upside will be lowered substantially if Marcus Murphy — who got the first carries of his three-year NFL career on Sunday — is forced to carry the load.

2. The Bills are heavy underdogs in Jacksonville, but they have a shot at pulling off the upset if Blake Bortles stays in his funk. A week after throwing three interceptions in a 44–33 loss to the 49ers, the Jaguars quarterback recorded two picks in Sunday’s 15–10 loss to Tennessee. While the second came on a desperation heave with less than a minute remaining in regulation, the first was inexplicable. Facing a third-and-9 early in the fourth quarter, Bortles tossed a ball off his back foot and down the left sideline, where it was easily hauled in by Titans safety Kevin Byard.

This was the sort of decision an NFL quarterback just can’t make — at any time, for any reason. For those who bought into the Bortles mirage in early December, when he combined for seven touchdowns and no interceptions in wins over the Colts, Seahawks, and Texans … well, I have some Florida swampland to sell you. The only reliable aspect to Bortles’s game is that it’s unreliable.

Jacksonville’s Super Bowl hopes were never going to rely on Bortles suddenly transforming into a star quarterback midway through his fourth season. They’ve always rested on the team catching the right version of him on a given day, and for the past two weeks that guy has been nowhere to be found. The worst part about Bortles’s outing against the Titans is that the interceptions were only part of what made it terrible. He completed just 15 of 34 passes, and nearly half of his 158 yards came via screen passes to Leonard Fournette. The Jags got nothing going through the air against a Tennessee group ranked 24th in passing defense DVOA.

The Jaguars’ climb to contender status was the most interesting element in the AFC this season. But the sneaking suspicion that their quarterback could doom their title hopes might turn out to be right.

3. Titans safety Kevin Byard could be a difference-maker in the playoffs. The 2016 third-round draft pick started only seven games as a rookie. This season was his first as a full-time starter, and he’s proved to be quite the find for Tennessee. By corralling two more picks Sunday, Byard finished with the 2017 campaign with a league-leading eight. Interception totals can occasionally be fluky, but Byard’s represents how consistently excellent he’s been in coverage.

The Titans’ performance in Week 17 is a good blueprint for how their defense can succeed in the playoffs. Their front four is packed with solid pass rushers, and they showed up against the Jags. Brian Orakpo had a sack to go with three quarterback hits, one of which led directly to Bortles’s first interception. Tennessee’s best chance of slowing Kansas City’s offense in the wild-card round is Orakpo getting the best of Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher and helping create a turnover or two.

On the other side of the ball, Derrick Henry had only 51 yards on 28 carries against Jacksonville. That’s troubling, but it may speak mainly to the strides the Jags’ run defense has taken in the second half of the season. Henry will get plenty of work against a Chiefs unit ranked dead last in run defense DVOA.

4. The rise of rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is a fascinating wrinkle for the Steelers offense. Pittsburgh’s full stable of playmakers is poised to share the field in the playoffs for the first time in years, and I expect it to form the most dangerous offense in football. It’s not like the group has been far off in recent weeks. The Steelers ranked third in offensive DVOA entering Week 17, and they’ve piled up points since Ben Roethlisberger found his footing midway through the season.

Much of that was fairly predictable. What Smith-Schuster has added to this offense was not. When Pittsburgh drafted him at the end of the 2017 second round, the move felt equal parts luxury pick and long-term Martavis Bryant insurance. Bryant has one year left on his rookie deal; in the meantime, the idea was that Smith-Schuster could give the Steelers a slot option to complement Bryant and Antonio Brown on the outside.

Well, instead of providing the Steelers with a functional third option in the passing game, Smith-Schuster has given Pittsburgh another skill-position player capable of changing a game at any moment. He hauled in nine of 10 targets for 143 yards with a score in Sunday’s 28–24 win over the Browns, casually throwing in a 96-yard kickoff-return touchdown for good measure.

The most impressive element of Smith-Schuster’s game is the number of different ways that he can threaten a defense. Pittsburgh is content using him in the slot, where he has been ridiculous this season. Smith-Schuster’s 2.15 yards per route run out of the slot is the highest in football, according to Pro Football Focus, just ahead of Keenan Allen and Adam Thielen. That’s where the rookie will get most of his snaps once Brown returns from injury. With Brown sidelined, though, Smith-Schuster also did plenty of damage outside the numbers. Even at 6-foot-1, he’s a legitimate jump-ball threat. The team with the best offensive weapons in the league now has another.

5. So much for James Harrison being little more than a source of stolen info for the Patriots. The 39-year-old linebacker played 27 snaps in his debut game with New England, and he made an instant impact. He notched two sacks and a forced fumble in a 26–6 victory over the Jets. The second sack, which happened late in the fourth quarter, came late in a down after quarterback Bryce Petty was forced up in the pocket. Yet the first one involved a quick move around the edge to create pressure.

Harrison’s contributions are a sign of how desperate the Patriots were for help on the edge. One member of New England’s front four has more than five sacks on the season; Harrison recorded two in his first game. He’ll get every opportunity to see the field for the Pats in the playoffs, and if he can replicate his performance from Sunday, he could make a huge difference.

Cam Newton
Cam Newton
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

6. It may be time to worry about the Panthers’ passing game. Cam Newton turned in another brutal outing in Sunday’s 22–10 loss the Falcons, and those are fast becoming a trend. Newton went just 14-of-34 passing for 180 yards with three interceptions. It was the third time since Thanksgiving that he’s finished an outing with a completion percentage lower than 55 and a yards-per-attempt average of 6 or fewer.

The Panthers have been decimated by injuries to their receiving corps, but at this point their problems go beyond personnel. Greg Olsen caught one ball on nine targets in Atlanta. Devin Funchess managed two catches on six passes. Carolina’s struggles have as much to do with the degree of difficulty of this passing game as they do with the talent of the guys catching throws. The Panthers’ grip-it-and-rip-it style produces plenty of chunk plays when the balls are completed, but this unit rarely creates consistent, sustained offense through the air. On the days when Newton is off, that small margin for error can spell disaster.

Carolina has enough talent to scare anyone in the playoffs. Its front four can wreck a game in a hurry, and Newton is still the guy who was named 2015 MVP. But the Panthers’ passing woes could be their undoing against an excellent New Orleans pass defense in the wild-card round.

7. Don’t expect the Saints’ defensive problems from Week 17 to be more than a blip. Even the best units have off days, and that was the case for New Orleans in Sunday’s 31–24 loss to the Buccaneers. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore looked like a rookie for one of the first times all season in blowing coverage on a long reception to wide receiver Adam Humphries. Fellow cornerback Ken Crawley, who’s been a revelation for the Saints all season, struggled to slow down deep threat Chris Godwin. A trio of Jameis Winston interceptions (two caught by rookie safety Marcus Williams) kept the game close, but Tampa Bay racked up 345 passing yards against a unit that ranked eighth in pass defense DVOA coming into the game.

With teams like the Rams and Vikings lurking in the NFC playoff field, any drop-off from the New Orleans pass defense would be costly. Still, Week 17’s uncharacteristic performance feels more like an aberration than the start of a lasting decline.

8. The Vikings defense is somehow getting better, and that could spell trouble for the rest of the NFC. With all the focus on the unlikely success of Case Keenum and the offense this season, it’s been easy to forget just how dominant Minnesota’s defense can be. Bears running back Jordan Howard came into Week 17 averaging more than 4 yards per carry. He managed 9 yards on nine carries in a 23–10 loss.

The Vikings lead the league in scoring defense (15.8 points allowed per game) and rank first in weighted DVOA, which takes into account how a team is performing at the end of the season. Minnesota has gotten hot at just the right time, and part of its late-season run stems from how healthy this team is right now. Every key piece of the Vikings defense is ready to go for the playoffs, and that extends to the backups. You’d be hard pressed to find many guys on the two-deep who have missed even one game.

Defensive end Everson Griffen sat out against Washington in Week 10 with a foot injury. Mackensie Alexander, the team’s fourth cornerback, missed games against the Ravens and Bengals. And sub-package pass rusher Brian Robison missed a win over the Rams in Week 11 with a back injury. That’s it. That’s the list. The Vikings are as complete a unit as the NFL has, and their health makes them all the more dangerous in January.

Deion Jones
Deion Jones
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

9. Second-year linebacker Deion Jones has turned into the best player on Atlanta’s defense. There are some guys who jump off the screen every time I watch them. Jones has quickly become one of them. The 23-year-old was all over the field in Week 17, collecting 10 tackles while looking great in coverage on Greg Olsen. He was central to the Falcons’ win over the Panthers, and his impact could loom large in the weeks to come.

There are a handful of linebackers around the league whose coverage skills allow them to transcend the typical value of their position. (Namely Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner.) Jones, a 2016 second-round pick, has joined that group. His ability to chew up space in the middle of the field will play a prominent role in determining how far the Falcons can advance.

10. It’s hard to believe the Eagles are now a team that needs to eke out low-scoring slugfests, but here we are. With the no. 1 NFC seed wrapped up and nothing left to play for in Week 17, Philadelphia’s staff pulled quarterback Nick Foles after the first quarter of Sunday’s matchup with the Cowboys. That was plenty of time to make Eagles’ fans feel awful about their playoff chances. Foles finished 4-of-11 passing, and he made a head-scratching interception on a downfield throw to Alshon Jeffery. Most of Philly’s offensive starters played less than half of their usual snaps in a 6–0 loss to Dallas, but I think we’re past the point where the Eagles faithful should reach for the panic button. They should be mashing it.

Philadelphia’s best chance in the postseason will come if its defense pitches a near-shutout like it did against the Cowboys. Even with stars Fletcher Cox and Malcolm Jenkins barely seeing the field Sunday, the Eagles defense dominated. This isn’t an ideal recipe for a team that topped 30 points in nine games this season and rode the regular brilliance of Carson Wentz. Still, there are worse plans for a team to fall back on.

11. Most of the Chiefs’ starters rested against the Broncos, but Sunday’s game offered an intriguing glimpse at Patrick Mahomes II. The rookie quarterback who was taken 10th overall in the 2017 draft made his first career start in a 27–24 win, and he looked a lot like many analysts expected. At times, he seemed to have no use for the pocket, his accuracy lagged, and his tendency to revert to a backyard style of play was clear. There was no denying that Mahomes is thrilling to watch, though, and his arm was consistently something to behold.

When the Chiefs decide to move on from Alex Smith, they’ll move to a passer with a startling array of raw tools at his disposal. But at this point, there’s no doubt that Smith is the quarterback who gives Kansas City its best chance to reach the Super Bowl.