For the second straight year, Week 17 closed out the NFL season with a bang. After an uninspiring slate of early games on Sunday, the Browns and Ravens met in a clash that ended with Baltimore’s defense thwarting Baker Mayfield on the game’s final drive to secure the AFC North title. Now, with the regular season over, it’s time to look ahead to the first round of the playoffs and answer the five biggest questions looming over wild-card weekend.
1. Is the Nick Foles magic real, and how far can it carry the Eagles?
Philadelphia’s charmed late-season existence continued on Sunday as the team’s 24-0 win over Washington, combined with the Bears’ victory against the Vikings, secured the defending champions the no. 6 seed in the NFC. Foles had to leave the game late because of a rib injury, but all indications are that he’ll be set to go against Chicago on Sunday afternoon. And for Eagles fans, that’s excellent news.
It’s tough to deny what Foles has accomplished in relief of Carson Wentz over the past two seasons. During last season’s NFC championship game against Minnesota, some of Foles’s throws made it seem like he’d been transported to a higher plane of consciousness. And his performance in the Super Bowl wasn’t any different. This season he’s repeated the feat. With Wentz out with a back injury, Foles has led the Eagles to three straight victories and an unlikely playoff berth. And though it would be tough to replicate the magic that he found during last season’s playoffs, there are a few elements in his favor: first, the roster looks largely the same as last year’s squad, and second, most of those players stood side by side with Foles and won a championship. They’ve seen it happen already, and that’s a powerful influence.
If the Eagles are going to knock off the Bears on the road as the weekend’s biggest underdog (the line opened at Bears minus-5.5), they’ll largely rely on the same stacked units—many of which are playing their best football of the season right now—that allowed Philadelphia to overcome its rash of injuries last year en route to the title. All-Pro tackles Jason Peters and Lane Johnson have both missed time with injuries this season, but each is back in the lineup and ready for the playoffs. Along with Jason Kelce (who’s enjoying another fantastic year as perhaps the league’s best center), Philly’s line is able to control games both on the ground and in pass protection—Washington’s front four was completely at their mercy on Sunday. The same goes for the other side of the ball. Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox was a force of nature in Week 17 (he tallied three sacks for a combined 20 yards lost), and even without injured defensive end Derek Barnett, the Eagles pass rush still has a deep, talented bench that can wreck games for opposing offenses.
Combine all that with Philadelphia’s top-notch coaching staff, and the Eagles get frightening in a hurry. Over the past few weeks, head coach Doug Pederson’s offensive staff has once again shown a remarkable ability to put Foles in advantageous spots. Last postseason, the Eagles relied heavily on play-action and RPOs to provide Foles with easy throws. Pederson has used plenty of play-action fakes this season, too, and he’s also mixing those throws with jet motion and other window dressing that’s made the Eagles passing game a pain to defend.
Looking at this weekend’s matchup against Chicago, the Eagles appear to be in a decent spot. Philly’s most significant weakness is its depleted and inexperienced secondary, and the Bears aren’t exactly built to torch teams down the field. But even against teams with more high-octane passing attacks, the Eagles’ formula makes them a factor in the NFC playoff race. There may be a shrine built to Foles in the Philly locker room, but it’s the surrounding elements of this Eagles team—many of the same ones that lifted them to a Super Bowl title a year ago—that could have them making noise in the playoffs yet again.
2. Just how dangerous are the Lamar Jackson–led Ravens?
Baltimore overcame a late-game scare against Mayfield and the suddenly feisty Browns on Sunday to win 26-24, and now the Ravens get the chance to see if their weird brand of offense can cause some problems for opposing defenses in the playoffs.
Jackson’s performance on Sunday featured everything the Ravens want to see come playoff time. On Baltimore’s first possession, he completed a long play-action throw to Mark Andrews over the middle of the field that went for 28 yards. On the team’s second drive, Jackson avoided a pair of rushers in the backfield before hitting the turbo button and shaking a safety in the open field for a 24-yard scramble. To cap off that drive, Jackson went untouched for a 25-yard scamper on a perfectly designed power read that was straight from an old-school option playbook. Along with a running game aided by the threat of Jackson keeping the ball, those three elements—play-action chunk throws in the middle of the field, off-schedule scrambles, and well-designed QB runs—will be the keys to Baltimore’s offense moving forward. Defending the Ravens is unlike defending any other offense in the league, and Baltimore has settled into a groove with its approach.
While the offense is intriguing with Jackson under center, what makes Baltimore truly worrisome for the rest of the AFC is its defense. Mayfield managed to move the ball through the air fairly well on Sunday (23-of-42 for 376 yards), but the Ravens still picked him off three times and limited the Browns on the ground all game long. Baltimore will face the Chargers on Sunday afternoon, and it’s been only two weeks since we watched the Ravens dismantle L.A.’s offense in prime time. The Chargers have stumbled a couple of times in recent weeks, but for most of the season, Philip Rivers and Co. have been one of the most efficient units in football.
Baltimore’s dominance in Week 16 shouldn’t be overlooked, both as it applies to next weekend’s game and the team’s possible path through the AFC. The Ravens defense has no defined weaknesses, and the unit presents one of the more complex challenges of any in the league. Coordinator Wink Martindale’s collection of coverages, combined with a talented group that runs them to perfection, will make the Ravens a handful for anyone. If they knock off the Chargers for the second time in less than a month, it’ll likely mean a divisional-round trip to Kansas City, where Baltimore pushed the Chiefs to the brink just three weeks ago. There’s no speculation necessary about the Ravens’ chances against their first two potential playoff opponents—we’ve seen what they can do. And they’ve been playing well enough to beat any team they come across.
3. After a lackluster showing against Arizona, is Seattle still the most potent team in the wild-card field?
Sunday’s 27-24 nail-biting win over the Cardinals brought up some terrifying memories for Seahawks fans. Russell Wilson was sacked six times and hit eight times in all as Seattle’s old pass-protection issues returned for at least one week. The Cardinals pass defense is easily the team’s best unit, so it wasn’t a shock to see that group put up a fight. Arizona’s run defense, on the other hand, has been a disaster all season, and the Seahawks took advantage. Chris Carson and Mike Davis combined for 166 yards on 26 carries as Seattle’s running game gashed the Cardinals all afternoon.
This season, the Seahawks’ offensive formula has heavily relied on the run game, coupled with lots of play-action throws and deep-ball mastery from Wilson. We’ll likely see the same against Dallas this weekend — and for however long Seattle sticks around the playoffs.
The Seahawks aren’t in the same class as the NFL’s best teams. Their defense has been much better than anyone expected, considering all the injuries the team has suffered in the secondary, but Pete Carroll’s unit is still about league average. On offense, Seattle asks Wilson to make some of the toughest throws of any quarterback in the league, and the burden being placed on him doesn’t align with what we see from the NFL’s most efficient offenses. But still, when looking at the NFC playoff field, Seattle is the team that seems like it could sneakily do some damage. The way that Wilson has played all season makes the Seahawks an unwelcome sight for any other team in the conference. If they can knock off the Cowboys on Saturday night (and if the Bears can take care of the Eagles), it’ll mean a trip to New Orleans in the divisional round. At this point, it seems like Wilson and the Seahawks have as good a chance as anyone to shock the Saints in the Superdome.
4. Is the Colts’ surprising playoff berth just a feel-good story, or is Indy a real threat in the AFC?
It’s hard to separate what the Colts have accomplished this season from the building excitement about their future, but it really does seem like they have a chance to make some noise over the next couple of weeks. Andrew Luck and Co. will travel to Houston this weekend for the wild-card round, and it’s been only three weeks since the Colts beat the Texans 24-21 on the road.
The Colts’ excellence through the air this season — thanks to the schematic work of head coach Frank Reich and the triumphant return of Andrew Luck — has been exciting, but it’s the team’s work on the ground that’s been a welcome new development. After running all over the Cowboys two weeks ago (when Marlon Mack racked up 139 yards and two touchdowns), Indy’s backs piled up 141 more yards on 29 carries in the team’s 33-17 win over the Titans on Sunday.
The passing game will determine the Colts’ fate in the postseason, but their success on the ground points to what has made this Indy season so thrilling: It seems like every few weeks, this team improves in a new way. First, it was a stellar showing in pass protection by an offensive line that features two rookies. Then, it was a shocking run of competence by the young defense. Now, it’s a suddenly strong running game, one that managed to grind out yards on the ground on Sunday without starting center Ryan Kelly.
The Colts can hurt opposing defenses in a bunch of different ways, and they’ll have the chance to stun a team or two over the next month. If Indy does manage to beat the Texans, that will mean a trip to Kansas City for the divisional round. The Chiefs offense is different from anything this inexperienced Colts defense has seen all season, but Indy’s offensive line is strong enough to combat Kansas City’s fearsome pass rush, and its passing game can take advantage of the Chiefs on the back end. The Colts won’t be an easy out for anybody.
5. Which teams playing on wild-card weekend have the most realistic shot of reaching the Super Bowl?
The harsh reality is that every team playing this weekend has a long, difficult path to Atlanta. Unless some major upsets take place, all eight of these franchises are looking at two or more road games en route to the Super Bowl. Taking that into consideration, it’s easy to understand why no wild-card team has won a title in six years.
The Chargers probably have the most complete roster of any team playing in this round, purely in terms of talent. Anthony Lynn’s team doesn’t have many defined weaknesses, and despite his recent swoon, Philip Rivers has been one of the best quarterbacks in football this year. The Chargers’ main issue, like most of the other teams involved here, is that their route to the Super Bowl would require three wins on the road: at Baltimore, likely at Kansas City, and then likely at New England. Taken individually, the Chargers could win any of those games. But stringing those three wins together would be a monumental achievement.
Both no. 3 seeds have a case, especially since they’ll play home games this weekend. The Texans are an intriguing team in the AFC race, but they’d likely have to knock off both the Patriots and the Chiefs on the road to get to the Super Bowl. The Bears are a solid prospect in the NFC, as they have a defense that allows them to stick with any opponent, and they might be the healthiest squad in the entire wild-card field. Guard Kyle Long returned from injured reserve on Sunday, and Pro Bowl safety Eddie Jackson should be back for this weekend’s matchup with the Eagles. It’s easy to imagine Khalil Mack and the rest of the defense stifling Nick Foles, but even if the Bears do knock off Philadelphia, they’ll still probably face road tests against both the Rams and Saints. Betting on Mitchell Trubisky and an unsteady offense to pull off two straight wins away from Soldier Field is a tall order. The Bears’ best chance would involve Seattle somehow upsetting the Saints on the road in the divisional round, but even if Chicago does host the NFC championship game, the team would have to deal with a red-hot Seahawks squad that features one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL.
Wilson makes the Seahawks an alluring pick no matter who they’re playing against, and that’s why I’m leaning toward Seattle as the team with the best chance of making a surprising run in the NFC. In the AFC, it’s hard to ignore what the Ravens have done over the second half of the season — and how they’ve performed against the best teams in the conference over that stretch. Their style of offense and the best defense in the AFC give them a shot every single week.