The NFL playoffs are right around the corner and it’s definitely time to start envisioning certain playoff games in your head. It’s also definitely the time to start paying attention to what teams are heating up. If a team is hot in September, it doesn’t really make a big difference. If a team is hot in December, it’s a Super Bowl threat.
Which teams are hot right now? More pressing, with the NFL playoffs less than a month away, which teams are dangerous?
The NFL playoffs will feature 12 teams but here, we’re only going to focus on the 10 that need to be taken the most seriously.
10. Indianapolis Colts
Last Sunday, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport broke some very good news for anyone cheering for the Colts.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) December 6, 2015
Given that the Colts have lost their last two games by a combined score of 96-26, this is welcome news, indeed. The odds are long, but any hopes the Colts have relies on a healthy Andrew Luck.
Remember, Luck has won at least one playoff game in each of the last two years and has never lost a postseason game in Indianapolis. A division championship would mean hosting a game on Wild Card Weekend.
The rest of the AFC’s potential playoff teams have to be pulling for the Texans next weekend. While J.J. Watt and Jadaveon Clowney are no picnic, Brian Hoyer and T.J. Yates are much more desirable playoff opponents than a healthy Andrew Luck.
9. Cincinnati Bengals
The poor Bengals. With the Patriots beaten up and the Broncos unable to consistently score, the AFC looked to be shaping up pretty well for them heading into the weekend. Not even 24 hours later, things are a little different.
Before the game, this happened.
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) December 13, 2015
Shortly after the game got underway, we got this.
Unfortunately, the Bengals didn’t show much fight after that. The injury to Tyler Eifert made things worse, but losing Andy Dalton for the season makes things awful.
The Bengals will make the playoffs, probably with a division championship. But unless A.J. McCarron really is the next Tom Brady and they find a way to beat the Broncos in Week 16, Cincinnati will almost surely be forced to win three games to make the Super Bowl. Unlike the Colts and Andrew Luck, they don’t exactly have a great postseason history.
They’ve already done enough to make the playoffs so they have to be mentioned, but the Bengals aren’t a team that AFC opponents are dreading right now.
8. Kansas City Chiefs
This team once sat at 1-5 and was on track for a top-five draft pick. Things have changed, and they now sit as a more dangerous team than the Colts and Bengals. That’s good because chances are, the Chiefs will be seeing one of them in the first round.
Kansas City is now on a seven-game winning streak and have allowed only 84 points (average of 12 per game) in that stretch. In that same window, they’ve scored just over 29 per contest. The Chiefs are hot and play at Baltimore in Week 15 before coming home to finish against the Browns and Raiders. Yes, 11-5 is very much in the cards, and that would likely result in a first-round game against the Bengals, Colts, or possibly the Texans.
Alex Smith is not an overwhelming quarterback by any stretch, but he’s also not mistake prone. With Jeremy Maclin and Travis Kelce, he’s got weapons that can put points on the board. Not having Jamaal Charles is certainly bad, but what AFC team doesn’t have injuries right now? Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware have also been more than serviceable filling in for Charles.
They’ll likely have to win three road games, so the Chiefs’ path to Super Bowl 50 is not clear, but it’s not exactly filled with thumb tacks, either.
7. Green Bay Packers
The Packers’ chances at a deep playoff run depends as much on where the teams below them fall as it does anything else. The talent may be there, especially at the quarterback position, but when you’re too dependent on who you play, you’re just not that dangerous.
While they have an outside shot at the No. 2 seed and it’s possible that they’ll end up as a Wild Card team, the best bet is that Green Bay will be the No. 3 seed. If that means a home date against the Minnesota Vikings, it’s good news for the Pack. If it means hosting the now red-hot Seattle Seahawks, then things get a lot more murky.
As far as their playoff chances go, the biggest question for Green Bay is their running game. Eddie Lacy has now rushed for 100 yards in three of his last four games. On Sunday against the Cowboys, he looked virtually unstoppable.
But this season featured too many games where he couldn’t find the field or gain any traction when he did. Since they’re likely the No. 3 seed, Green Bay will have to win three games to get through the NFC playoffs. Are we really confident that he can do that against the Arizona Cardinals or Carolina Panthers on the road, let alone both?
Another question mark is James Jones. Can he be a consistent No. 2 receiver on a Super Bowl team? Over the last eight games, the consistency has certainly not been there.
In Week 11, Jones caught six passes for 109 yards and a touchdown against the Vikings. In the other seven of the last eight combined, he’s caught 10 passes for 157 yards and one touchdown. That’s not consistent.
The three-game stretch through the NFC playoffs could very well feature Seattle, Arizona, and Carolina. If Aaron Rodgers is going to lead the team to another Super Bowl appearance, he’ll need some serious help from Eddie Lacy and James Jones. So far, they haven’t shown the consistency needed to beat three teams of that caliber.
6. Denver Broncos
Much like the Bengals, things have changed for the Broncos in a big way recently. The difference is that the light at the end of the Denver tunnel is brighter than Cincy’s.
From a negative perspective, the Broncos just can’t play that poorly at home against a team like the Raiders if they’re going to be a No. 1 seed. Yes, the Raiders are improving and are certainly frisky enough to beat pretty much anyone, but the Broncos are the better team. Managing only four field goals is not going to cut it.
They have a few bigger problems though, and their fans articulate what the problems are brilliantly.
The stats might look fine, but Demaryius Thomas has left a lot to be desired this year. Also, a guy with his physical tools simply needs to have more than three touchdowns at this point of the season. But the problems extend beyond Thomas.
So is trading for Vernon Davis instead of Joe Thomas still looking like a solid decision? #Broncos
— CaptainTouchback (@CaptTouchback) December 14, 2015
Similarly, a seven reception, 74 yard day looks pretty good for Vernon Davis. But when you’re wide open on a fourth down conversion, the ball simply needs to be caught. Vernon Davis couldn’t do that.
Vernon Davis might be done https://t.co/yKt818byje
— Bay Area Sports Guy (@BASportsGuy) December 14, 2015
But the biggest problem for the Broncos is their offensive line. Khalil Mack sacked Brock Osweiler five times on Sunday, and while Mack is a great player Denver’s inability to control him speaks to a bigger problem.
If there is any thought to playing Peyton Manning at any point this year, the offensive line can’t have a game like this. Manning, even at his very best, was not known for his mobility. Maybe his injuries are healed, but at 39 he’s not going to be 100 percent. If the Raiders can overpower the Denver offensive line, the AFC’s best will, too.
Because of their stellar defense and the threat of Manning coming back for one more dominant run, the Broncos are to be taken seriously. But right now, they’re a team with some big problems.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers
Does anyone in the AFC want anything to do with the Steelers? The AFC’s best have to be looking at Pittsburgh and trembling right now. Even the goalposts have to be concerned when Pittsburgh takes the field.
— Deadspin (@Deadspin) December 7, 2015
No quarterback/receiver tandem is better than Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. With Martavius Bryant, Markus Wheaton, and even Darrius Heyward-Bey spread out, opponents simply can’t just focus their game plan around Brown. If they do, they’ll be burned deep elsewhere.
With DeAngelo Williams and Heath Miller on the roster, teams can’t just play deep to prevent the home run ball, because they have the tools to move the ball at a steadier clip.
This is why the Steelers have scored 30 or more in each of the last five games. This is why they’ve won four of those games. To beat Pittsburgh, you have to do what Seattle did and score with them. There just aren’t many teams that are equipped to do that.
Also, I’m sure you know this if you’ve watched any NFL show over the last 24 hours, but this needs to be repeated. Right now, the Steelers are on the outside looking in. If the season ended today, they’d miss the playoffs and the Chiefs and Jets would be in. But, the season does not end today. If all three of those teams run the table, the Steelers would then earn a better conference record than the Jets and would thus pick up the No. 6 seed.
On Sunday, the Broncos come to town, but the Steelers finish with road games against the Ravens and Browns. The door is wide open for Pittsburgh to make a run.
4. Seattle Seahawks
The NFC’s version of the Steelers reside in Seattle. Actually, even though they’ll likely have to face a tougher playoff schedule, the Seahawks are a bit more dangerous than Pittsburgh.
First of all, the Seahawks are all but locked into a playoff spot. Them and the Vikings are both two games clear of the rest of the field for a wild card spot with three games left to play.
The injury to Thomas Rawls would appear to be a problem, as it makes Seattle more one-dimensional and reliant on Russell Wilson. At a certain time, that might have been a problem, but that time is not right now.
.@DangeRussWilson Last 4 Weeks:
— NFL (@NFL) December 13, 2015
The Seahawks are hotter than anyone right now and know how to win in the playoffs. Also, unlike Pittsburgh, they have a defense that can win a game if Wilson falters at all.
Here’s the question, though. Can Seattle win three times on the road? If they land the No. 5 seed, they’ll get a huge break with the NFC East’s champion in Round 1. Barring some big injuries, the Seahawks would be heavily favored against any of those teams. But if they have to beat both the Cards and Panthers, things look more difficult.
Still, the talent is there and this team is peaking at the right now.
3. New England Patriots
Starting with the bad news, the Patriots are still far from a healthy team. Julian Edelman will likely be back at the start of the playoffs, but who knows how sharp he’ll be? Who’s running the ball for the Patriots from week to week, and who’s blocking for Tom Brady? Mind you, that’s just on the offensive side of the ball, the defense isn’t what you’d call healthy either.
The good news is that the rest of the AFC is also a mess right now. How good are the Broncos? How good are the Bengals? Could Ben Roethlisberger go on the road to beat Tom Brady for the first time in his career?
With Rob Gronkowski back in action, the Patriots are the one AFC team that can score with the Steelers, especially at home. I’d call 24 points a pretty average effort for Pittsburgh right now but if they hit that, I don’t know that Denver or Cincinnati could beat them. The Patriots can.
Seeing Gronkowski on Sunday, I’m sure Patriots fans everywhere breathed a big sigh of relief. Gronk not only played but played well and didn’t look to be bothered by his knee injury.
The win, coupled with the losses by Denver and Cincinnati means that if the Pats can beat the Titans at home, then the Jets and Dolphins on the road, the AFC playoffs will go through New England. Nobody wants to see Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in a home playoff game.
The Pats haven’t peaked yet, but they’re rounding into form at the right time.
2. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals are good. There’s just no other way to spin this.
I’d love to be a fly on the wall of a defensive meeting room when they’re trying to figure out how to stop Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, and Michael Floyd. Worst of all for opposing teams is that Carson Palmer can get the ball to all three of them.
I’d also love to see how teams game plan for a defense that includes Deone Bucannon, Tyrann Mathieu, Patrick Peterson, Kevin Minter and Co. This Cardinals team is remarkably complete, incredibly well-coached and has the makeup to beat any team in the NFL. If they were an AFC team, the Cards would have a clear road towards Super Bowl 50.
In a normal year, a team like Arizona would be No. 1 on this list. But, the Cardinals are not an AFC team, and this is just not a normal year, and there are two reasons why.
One, the running game is a question. With a healthy Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington, this wouldn’t be such an issue, but they’re not healthy.
Two, you can’t be more dangerous than a team who hasn’t lost a game.
1. Carolina Panthers
When the best coaches come across the best teams in the NFL playoffs, they’re main plan is to take away what their opponent likes to do best.
So, an opponent of the Minnesota Vikings would do well to set up a plan that takes Adrian Peterson away to make Teddy Bridgewater beat them. Someone preparing for a game against the Patriots would probably be best to try to take Rob Gronkowski away from Tom Brady. Well, what exactly do you take away from the Panthers?
If you take Greg Olsen away, Cam Newton can stretch the field with Ted Ginn Jr, lean on Jonathan Stewart, or run himself. Oh, and he’s pretty accurate, too.
Cam Newton is very good. pic.twitter.com/8OvVr2uf9x
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) December 13, 2015
Even if the offense does have a bad game, the Luke Kuechly and Josh Norman-led defense is also excellent and could carry the team.
They’ve recovered 12 fumbles, tied with the Broncos and Redskins for most in the league. They’ve intercepted 21 passes, and no other team has more than 18. They’ve recorded 44 sacks, second only to Denver. They’re tied in second place with the Seahawks in yards allowed and tied for fourth with the Chiefs in points allowed.
This team has too many ways to beat you, which is why they’re 13-0 and have won 17 straight regular season games. No team in the NFL is better, and with the NFL playoffs right around the corner, no team is more dangerous.