There are specific players, coaches, and concepts that come to define the NFL playoffs each year. Sometimes they’re obvious—like Matt Ryan and Tom Brady scorching through last year’s postseason—and other times less so. This year, the Ringer staff tried to predict which players, ideas, and themes will permeate through January and February and become what we remember about this postseason in the future. Here are our best (and most out there) guesses:
This Is the Tom Brady Midlife Playoffs
Katie Baker: Here’s how long it’s been since the Buffalo Bills made the playoffs—last time it happened, Tom Brady was a mostly unheralded college kid in Ann Arbor, Michigan. But time makes you bolder, children get older, and Brady’s gettin’ older, too: The face of the Patriots franchise and font of eternal youth is now 40 years old and has reacted to the milestone with an appropriate level of midlife flailing. When you’re already shacking up with a supermodel and perching on an Aston Martin, after all, the next step is to peddle “athlete recovery sleepwear” to all those poor fools still wearing jammies.
There have been moments over the past many seasons in which NFL observers wondered if maybe this is when Brady finally winds up over the hill; the answer so far has consistently been “LOL, nope.” But it’s come up this year, too: When Brady was sacked five times in Week 3, the ol’ question arose. When Bill Belichick banned Brady’s medical Svengali from the team plane, it felt like maybe the jig was up. And as former Brady deputy Jimmy Garoppolo started to thrive thousands of miles away, it led to worries that maybe the Patriots should have handled their quarterback succession plans a little bit differently.
But Brady isn’t someone who is succeeded like a mere mortal; Brady is a dude who succeeds. The Patriots may not have turned in their most fearsome of seasons in 2017, but given this year’s crop of playoff teams, it’s pretty easy to see the path unfolding before them, the carpet rolling out. And anyway, it doesn’t really matter whether the Patriots win or lose: In either scenario, Brady’s number of years on this earth will be the big factor this postseason, whether it’s used as an excuse or an exultation. The only question is whether the headlines will gripe about his signs of age or trumpet one more win for the ages.
This Is the Tavon Austin Playoffs
Riley McAtee: The Rams’ $42 million man has just 47 receiving yards this season, which may not seem very impressive for a wideout. But that is by design: This year, the Rams have used Austin mostly as a jet-sweep specialist, often deploying him in a decoy role to open holes for running back Todd Gurley. That strategy worked—Gurley had a terrific year, and Austin has been decent with the ball out of the backfield as well, putting up 270 rushing yards on 4.6 yards per carry. Those stats don’t jump off the page, but coach Sean McVay’s creative utilization of the speedster has been fundamental to the Rams’ offense as a whole.
And what if, this postseason, McVay designs a play for Austin that’s even more innovative and disruptive? What if he actually sends Austin down the field and then throws him the ball? Austin can match or exceed his regular-season receiving yardage with a single catch—how many receivers have that opportunity this postseason?
This Is the “Nick Foles Will Be Blamed for Being Nick Foles and Not Carson Wentz” Playoffs
John Gonzalez: All the evidence we have indicates that Nick Foles is Nick Foles and not Carson Wentz; that they are, in fact, two different people. One was an NFL MVP candidate before tearing his ACL on a stupid play against the stupid Rams in stupid December, and the other guy was essentially his towel boy until fate intervened.
Despite this, Foles will be blamed when the Eagles lose in the playoffs. And they will lose. Philadelphians are sure of it.
Not even a month ago, the Eagles looked like a serious Super Bowl contender. Now, even though they’re the top seed in the NFC, you have outlets predicting that Foles could “haunt” the Eagles in the playoffs, while others are openly wondering if the team should start Nate Sudfeld instead. Even coach Doug Pederson is setting Foles up to be the fall guy—in a recent press conference, he said Foles could get benched if the Birds are in “desperation mode.”
Foles should just beg for forgiveness now and get out in front of it.
This Is the Brock Osweiler Playoffs: Teams With Bad Quarterbacks Winning Playoff Games
Michael Baumann: The names of the quarterbacks playing in this year’s postseason aren’t that bad overall. But Matt Ryan and Cam Newton are reduced from their MVP seasons, and Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Drew Brees are prepping for Hall of Fame induction speeches where they can reminisce about playing against Red Grange. You don’t have to drill down too far before you’re staring at Tyrod Taylor, who’s a perfectly average NFL starter, but wasn’t so inspiring that the Bills weren’t tempted to bench him for this guy, who threw five picks in a half.
After that comes Alex Smith, whose name is synonymous with boring quarterback play, and the NFC’s top-seeded Eagles, quarterbacked by a guy whose nickname is “In a Losing Effort.” Case Keenum is going to start a home playoff game, as is Blake Bortles, who is literally Blake Bortles. The point is, some arm-punting statue is going to go 10-for-21 with three picks against a scary defense and win, because the arm-punting statue on the other team went 13-for-33 with three picks and a fumble. Possibly in the Super Bowl.
This Is the “Bring It Home” Playoffs
Danny Heifetz: No team in NFL history has ever played a Super Bowl at home, but three victories stand between the Minnesota Vikings and hoisting the Lombardi trophy in their own stadium. The Georgia Bulldogs are close to pulling off something similar, as they head to Atlanta to play in the College Football Playoff championship on Monday, and the trend could catch on.
Could the Vikings put together the cheesiest football movie of all time? The team’s entire offense is comprised of castoffs: Case Keenum broke every NCAA career passing record in existence but became an NFL punch line. Receiver Adam Thielen, a Minnesota native who went undrafted after attending college 90 minutes from the Vikings’ stadium, finished this year fifth in the league in receiving yards. The team’s starting running back tore his ACL in Week 4 and Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon have shared the load since. Players even went to Iceland to become actual Vikings before the start of the season. The Vikings have vowed to bring it home. And if they manage to defend the North, we’ll all remember it forever.
This Is the Group-Celebration Playoffs
Megan Schuster: You may remember the NFL’s announcement last spring that the league would once again permit group celebrations. Some billed the rule change as an attempt to put “the fun back in football” and others said the league was trying to “loosen up.” Either way it was exciting—we’d finally see our favorite teams show off their creative sides again and celebrate together. Little did we know just how much creativity we’d actually get.
The Steelers played hide-and-seek after a JuJu Smith-Schuster score; Julio Jones showed off his fencing skills; the Chiefs put together a potato sack race; the Eagles played baseball, went bowling, and showed off their dance moves; and the Vikings broke out a game of Duck, Duck, Gray Duck (and yes that’s the proper term—I’d like that on the record):
And those are just a sampling. Most of the teams up for Best Performance this year we will see again in the playoffs—and as the football stakes get higher, so do our expectations for group celebrations.