It’s been seven years since a team without a first-round bye in the NFL playoffs won a Super Bowl. The Ravens were the AFC’s no. 4 seed following the 2012 regular season, and they rode Joe Flacco’s ridiculous hot streak to a championship—and then handed him one of the most misguided contract extensions in recent memory. Since that time, though, only five teams without the bye have even made it to the conference championship game. But with the Titans, Vikings, and Seahawks all earning “upsets” this weekend (Seattle’s game against Philly was a toss-up before Carson Wentz went down with a concussion), it’s possible that this could finally be the year of the underdog in the playoffs.
There are plenty of reasons that no teams have replicated Baltimore’s 2012 run in the years since. For starters, teams that earn a bye are usually just … better. The discrepancy between the top two seeds in a conference and the rest of the field is typically apparent. Last year, the Patriots and Chiefs seemed destined to meet in the AFC championship game, and both the Rams and Saints were clearly a cut above the rest of the NFC. Then there’s the daunting challenge of winning three games en route to the Super Bowl—with at least two of them likely coming on the road. The 2017 Jaguars had a buzzsaw defense and serious championship potential, but a week after a grueling win over the Steelers at Heinz Field, they ran out of gas on the road against the Patriots. This may seem obvious, but the teams that make the playoffs are pretty good, and having to win 33 percent more games against that level of competition just isn’t easy.
So with those obstacles in mind, it’s worth taking a look at this year’s crop of underdogs and examining whether any could possibly reverse the trend. Let’s start with the no. 6 seed in the AFC: the Titans, who went on the road to Gillette Stadium and knocked off the Patriots by mimicking the playoff recipe that New England has perfected over the years. Tennessee entered the postseason with a scorching-hot offense that had found its groove with Ryan Tannehill at quarterback. The passing game hit a wall against a stout Patriots defense, but the Titans were able to grind out a win thanks to a monster outing from running back Derrick Henry. The 247-pound back finished with 34 carries for 182 yards and added another 22 on a screen pass late in the second quarter—Tennessee’s longest completion of the day. Now the Titans will travel to Baltimore this weekend, and their best shot at knocking off the Ravens—aside from containing Lamar Jackson—is to reignite the play-action passing game that carried them over the second half of the season.
Though Tennessee will need its passing game to beat Baltimore, Henry’s performance on Saturday was a reminder of what truly matters in the playoffs: having contingency plans. With New England slow-playing the run to contain the Titans’ play-action game, Tennessee’s offensive line was able to push the Patriots around and give Henry the opportunity to grind them into dust. The Titans made the playoffs on the strength of some thrilling shoot-outs down the stretch, but Saturday was proof that this team can also win ugly. It’s unlikely that 20 points will be enough to beat a Baltimore team that averaged 33.2 during the regular season, but the option to lean on Henry to create offense when necessary is a luxury. Tennessee also got some good news this weekend when standout linebacker Jayon Brown exited the locker room without a brace or sling on his injured shoulder. He plans to play next weekend, and the Titans defense will need all the help it can get against Lamar Jackson and Baltimore’s offense. Brown is an excellent coverage linebacker, and Tennessee will lean on both him and safety Kevin Byard as the Ravens try to exploit the middle of the field.
Coverage in that area is a strength for the no. 6 seed Vikings, and they consistently proved that in Sunday’s win over the Saints. Minnesota got the benefit of a questionable no-call on Kyle Rudolph’s game-winning touchdown in overtime, but the outcome was determined by more than one dicey decision by the refs. The Vikings went into the Superdome, faced down an excellent Saints team, and showed exactly why this group is so dangerous. Mike Zimmer is still one of the most creative defensive minds in the NFL; his game plan had Drew Brees spinning in a way we rarely see from the future Hall of Fame quarterback. The interception Brees threw late in the second quarter was an uncharacteristically terrible decision. Brees clearly thought that free safety Anthony Harris was going to bite on an underneath route by Michael Thomas; instead, Harris kept his position in the middle of the field and easily settled in under Ted Ginn’s deep route. The Saints’ offensive success is predicated on understanding how to manipulate individual defenders and the rules of a given defensive scheme, and that’s just not easy to do against Zimmer.
Beyond smart defensive designs, the Vikings’ best players also came through on Sunday. Defensive end Everson Griffen was a force in the first half, often working on the interior against guard Andrus Peat. And Danielle Hunter gave All-Pro right tackle Ryan Ramczyk fits, notching the first sack that Ramczyk has allowed all season. On the offensive side of the ball, Adam Thielen announced his return in a big way. The Vikings star receiver had been quiet since Week 15, when he made his return from a hamstring injury, but he torched the Saints defense on Sunday. Thielen finished with seven catches for 129 yards, none of them more important than his 43-yard reception in overtime to set up the Vikings’ game-winning score. At its best this season, Minnesota’s offense has crushed opponents with its vertical play-action passing game and some pinpoint deep throws from Kirk Cousins. The Thielen play tapped into both. It’s been an up-and-down season for Cousins, but when this offense is rolling, the Vikings have one of the most efficient passing games in football. If Minnesota can rediscover some of that magic, this team could be a problem for the 49ers next week.
The Seahawks know a little something about doing just that. Seattle handed San Francisco one of its three losses this season, and even though Pete Carroll’s team is severely banged-up right now, Sunday’s win over the Eagles showed why the Seahawks still have a real shot in the NFC. Philly was also battling injuries in this game and got an especially tough break when Wentz took a borderline hit from Jadeveon Clowney in the first quarter and missed the rest of the game. But that doesn’t disqualify how great Russell Wilson was on Sunday. With Seattle’s running game stalled and the Eagles’ pass rush bearing down on him the entire game, Wilson was still able to throw for 325 yards on just 30 attempts while also adding 45 yards on the ground. This may sound like an oversimplification, but Seattle’s title hopes start and end with Wilson. The Eagles pressured Wilson on about half of his dropbacks, and it just didn’t matter. His ability to create big plays in unfriendly circumstances gives the Seahawks a chance in every game.
Wilson is also surrounded by a wide receiver corps that is ideally built to fit his skill set. Wilson has been one of the best deep-ball passers in the NFL for years. His 48.2 adjusted completion percentage on throws of 20-plus yards was tied for fifth in the NFL this season, and only Jameis Winston (1,351) gained more yards on those throws than Wilson (1,179). Rookie receiver DK Metcalf and efficiency king Tyler Lockett are a perfect duo to take advantage of Wilson’s deep-ball prowess. Wilson hit four throws of 20-plus air yards against the Eagles, including an absurd flip to Lockett in the second quarter and the game-sealing 53-yard bomb to Metcalf midway through the third. Underdog teams often need high-variance plays to stay in games, and no player left in the NFC field is better at creating those than Wilson. We may see the Seahawks go into Lambeau Field on Sunday and stun the Packers.
The Texans weren’t underdogs this weekend, but they likely will be the rest of the way. And their title chances also rest with their excellent, big-play quarterback. Houston has struggled to create consistent offense without wide receiver Will Fuller on the field this season, and with Fuller out nursing a lingering groin injury on Saturday, that unit sputtered over the first half against Buffalo. The Texans trailed 16-0 late in the third quarter, but over the final 17 minutes of regulation, Watson was magnificent. On the final drive of the third quarter, he ripped a rifle shot to DeAndre Hopkins on the right sideline, and on the following play, he took a designed QB keeper 20 yards for Houston’s first touchdown. On the ensuing two-point attempt, Watson kept it himself and dove into the pylon for the conversion. Watson’s stellar play extended to the fourth quarter, when a 41-yard completion to Hopkins up the left sideline set up Houston’s go-ahead touchdown, but even that play paled in comparison with Watson’s wizardry in overtime. I still have no idea how he managed to spin away from blitzing cornerback Siran Neal and linebacker Matt Milano, then dump the ball to running back Taiwan Jones for a 34-yard gain that set up Houston’s game-winning field goal.
Watson’s greatness is nothing new, but recent developments on the Texans defense could determine the team’s fate in the AFC. For most of the season, Houston’s banged-up group of cornerbacks was a significant concern, but that unit was fantastic against Buffalo on Saturday. Gareon Conley, who was acquired in an October trade with the Raiders, broke up three passes. That included a touchdown-saving tip in the second quarter. With J.J. Watt back in the fold to unlock Houston’s pass rush, a string of hot games from the secondary could be the key to a postseason run for the Texans.
Like the other teams that played on wild-card weekend, the path to a Super Bowl will be treacherous for the Texans—though they already beat Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, their divisional-round opponents, earlier this season. Among this group, it seems like Seattle may have the clearest road to a Super Bowl appearance. The Seahawks have obvious deficiencies and injury issues, but the Packers have struggled mightily on offense in recent weeks. And if Wilson can create some magic, it would likely mean a rubber match with the 49ers in the NFC championship game. San Francisco clearly has the superior roster at this point, but Seattle was 1 yard and one arguable pass-interference call from beating the Niners in Week 17 and claiming the NFC West title. The Seahawks may be flawed, but like the 2012 Ravens, it’s not out of the question that Seattle could ride a scorching QB to the Super Bowl.