After one of the most exciting NFL seasons to date, week 17, the last week of the regular season provided us with non-stop, play-off dream making or dream crushing for far more than the eventual 12 teams whose seasons continue.
Of the teams that made it through to the playoffs in the NFC, half actually come from the same division, the NFC south, being the New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers and the Atlanta Falcons. The playoff teams in this division, where the only team that did not make the playoffs were Tampa Bay Buccaneers, all have at least 10 wins this season. It must be noted that three years prior to this impressive feat, the team with the most wins in the division had 7, losing 9 and having a negative win/loss ratio.
One of the first playoff games that will be played, during the wildcard round, will be between two of these teams, the Carolina Panthers and the New Orleans Saints. The teams have played each other twice this year already with Carolina losing by at least 10 points in each encounter. The Saints have home advantage after being crowned division champions, with an overall record of 11-5 and a divisional record of 4-2. Coming into this game the Saints will be feeling confident despite the recent week 17 loss to another division rival, the Buccaneers. Having one of the most promising, young and dominant defences in the league paired with one of the NFL’s premier offences, has fans in ‘the big easy’ chomping at the bit for playoff football and another Super Bowl in less than 10 years. Carolina will of course not roll over easily for one of their biggest rivals, and having been to the Super Bowl only two years ago, will attempt to get there once again led by former league MVP Cam Newton and former defensive rookie and player of the year Luke Kuechly. With the Panthers being ranked 3rd in rush defence, a key battle will be between the duo of former Heisman winner Mark Ingram and potential rookie of the year running back Alvin Kamara, against the Carolina front seven and its’ linebacker backbone of Kuechly, veteran Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson. With this being said however, the Saints’ pass attack is ranked equally to their rush, so we could see them taking to the skies and dismantling a less-able Panthers secondary. Carolina will look to continue their decent away form (5-3) and try to double the Saints home losses.
The other NFC South team in the 2017 playoffs are the Atlanta Falcons. After reaching the Super Bowl last year and famously blowing a 28-3 lead in the second half of the game, the Falcons are looking to atone for the wheels falling off in that game. With perennial All-pro and general cheat-code wide receiver Julio Jones on board receiving from one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks in Matt ‘Matty Ice’ Ryan through the air, and running back duo Tevon Coleman and Devonta Freeman on the ground, Atlanta will be confident that they can offensively get the job done. Coming into this game Atlanta’s defence is ranked in the top 10 for almost all four of the main categories mentioned earlier, but they will have to tighten up and hope their offence can score point after point with them facing the best scoring offence in the NFL, the Los Angeles Rams. A young team with the NFL’s youngest head coach and offensive guru Sean McVay, and arguably the league’s best running back in Todd Gurley who has over two thousand yards of total offence and nearly twenty touchdowns this year even after being rested in the last game of the season, the Rams are an offence almost impossible to stop. This game is looking like it will be a high-scoring offensive matchup, with big names making big plays all day, with little attention paid to the defences, this game may come down to who has the ball last.
The two teams with first-round byes in the NFC are the Minnesota Vikings and the Philadelphia Eagles. Both of these teams have lost the quarterback they started with this year. The Eagles are floundering after losing potential NFL MVP Carson Wentz to an ACL tear. Losing 6-0 to the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday while starting their third string quarterback, after backup Nick Foles threw for 19 of 38 against the Raiders the week before is not a good sign for things to come for the Eagles. This would be more worrying for the Eagles if they did not have the league’s 3rd ranked rush game in yards per game but with the pass taken away whoever they will be coming up against only have to really focus on one aspect of the other teams’ offence.
The Vikings have definitely played better since losing Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford to injury. Case Keenum, the journeyman quarterback who had stints as the starter at the aforementioned Rams and the Houston Texans, has appeared to have found his home in Minnesota, finding his receivers and not the opposition enough to give him the second highest QB rating in the NFL this year, and second only to the Eagles now injured Carson Wentz. Given the Vikings aggressive, 1st ranked defence allowing for the fewest points scored per game, anyone they come up against will have to be ready to hold onto the ball as tight as possible, and be happy with any points they get on the board.
Moving onto the AFC, the Tennessee Titans and the Kansas City Chiefs play on the first day of wildcard weekend. The Titans come into the playoffs as one of the teams with the worst records across both conferences, matched only by the Buffalo Bills who are ranked at 6 in the AFC playoff picture. Entering the post-season on the back of a win against the winners of their division, the Jaguars, the Titans will look to continue that winning streak through the work of big-back Heisman winner Derrick Henry, after starter Demarco Murray went down in the regular season. Although Tennessee is not ranked as highly on offence or defence unlike a lot of the teams in the playoffs this year, they will be going into Arrowhead Stadium, home of the AFC West winners, with confidence in themselves and their ability to grind games out and get the job done. Kansas City will be looking to obliterate their visitors this Saturday after winning their last 4 games of the regular season to take their record to 10-6. Despite having a particularly low-ranked defence for a playoff team, the Chiefs’ offence is what keeps them churning out the wins, led by star wide receiver and returner Tyreek Hill and stand-out rookie running back Kareem Hunt, the Chiefs offence is ranked 6th in points scored this year, and playing against a defence as porous as the Titans, this game could be a feast for the Chiefs, and a quick move on to the next round.
The final game of the Wildcard round will be between the Buffalo Bills and the Jacksonville Jaguars. After getting into the playoffs for the first time since 1999, the Bills will be raring to go and get their first taste of post-season action in almost twenty years. Overjoyed they might be, but coming up against the stout, sack-machine that is Calais Campbell and his 2nd ranked defence, will create far more problems than the Bills are potentially ready for. Furthering this, the Jaguars 1st ranked run offence will be facing the 29th ranked rush defence owned by the Bills. While the Jags are flying high and running the ball, star RB for the Buffalo Bills LeSean McCoy is questionable for the playoff game, after suffering an injury in the last game of the regular season, which is believed to be some sort of ankle sprain. With these factors brought in, it would be a surprise if the Bills Mafia get more than a quick foray into the playoffs after such a long wait.
The two last teams in this year’s playoffs are no new kids on the block like the Jaguars, or the Bills. The Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots have dominated the post-season for the last 10-15 years, and are showing no signs of stopping. Their brutal rivalry may come to a head in the AFC championship game, with new Patriot signee James Harrison facing off against his former team. Both teams come into the playoffs firing on all cylinders with the Patriots dismantling the Jets in Foxborough and the Steelers getting a win against the Browns while resting their starters in preparation for the post-season. While Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are churning through other teams as well as they have ever done, the Steelers are utilising their new-found talent in rookie Juju Smith-Schuster, who broke out for over 250 yards of total offence and two touchdowns in Pittsburgh’s most recent win. Hopefully we will get another chance to watch these two modern football powerhouses play each again this year, as they faced off against one another in week 15, with the Pats narrowly escaping with a win amid calls of dubious refereeing. Seeing these two play is always a sight for the neutrals and pulse-raising for the die-hards, with one of them going on to win the AFC, if not everything, most years.