The 2016 regular season is in the books, and Wild Card Weekend is upon us. Over the next few weeks, we’ll see teams battle it out to determine which franchises will represent the AFC and NFC in Super Bowl LI.
All of these teams have obvious strengths. The Patriots, well, they’re the Patriots. New England hasn’t missed the playoffs since 2008, and this season they’re extremely balanced on both sides of the ball.
The Cowboys and Falcons have dynamic offenses that can keep defenses on their heels. The Raiders’ offensive line is almost as good as the one in Dallas, and they’ve got ample talent on both sides of the ball.
The Seahawks, Texans and Chiefs all have aggressive, dominant defenses. The Steelers and Packers each got hot at the right time, carrying winning streaks of seven and six games, respectively, into the postseason. The Dolphins have Jay Ajayi, a running back who has rushed for 200-plus yards in not one, not two, but three games this season.
But each of these teams has a fatal flaw that could derail their postseason. (Teams are arranged by conference seeding).
The Cowboys offense can’t hang with a top pass defense
Dallas mowed through its schedule to a 13-3 record, but just couldn’t get past the New York Giants. The only other team to beat the Cowboys was the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 17, but Dallas played Mark Sanchez at quarterback for a majority of the game so that one doesn’t really count. But why were the Giants able to beat the Cowboys when no other team could? Well, it was one of the only good pass defenses Dallas faced all year.
Of the top 10 pass defenses ranked by opposing passer rating, only the Giants and Minnesota Vikings were on the Cowboys’ schedule in 2016. In two games against New York and one against Minnesota, Dak Prescott completed 54 of 100 passes for 531 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. That’s a paltry 67.5 passer rating, while Prescott’s rating against the rest of the schedule was 115.3.
Yes, the Cowboys can lean on Ezekiel Elliott when the team faces a tough secondary, but when Prescott struggled against the Giants and Vikings the offense couldn’t put up points. Prior to Week 17, Dallas was held under 24 points just three times and it was only New York and Minnesota that managed to pull it off. Having a balanced offense is a key for Dallas and that could be tough against NFC teams like the Giants or Seahawks.
The Falcons defense is not up to the challenge
Atlanta’s defense has been prone to giving up big plays this season and struggled with missed tackles, partly because Atlanta is starting a number of young, inexperienced players on defense. Facing off against a player with a vertical cut like Ezekiel Elliott or a quarterback with a propensity for making big plays like Aaron Rodgers does could spell disaster for Atlanta’s defense.
With the strength of the offense, the Falcons just need the defense to do enough, and they’ve been able to mask some of the weaknesses by pressuring opposing quarterbacks and forcing turnovers. With the strength of competition they’ll face in the postseason, though, it won’t be an easy road.
The Seahawks’ offensive line is a tire fire
Seattle’s starting left tackle, George Fant, literally hasn’t played football since the eighth grade. The right tackle position is a swinging door of failure between Garry Gilliam and Bradley Sowell. Germain Idefi struggled as a rookie at right guard. Justin Britt is the only acceptable member of this group, and he converted from guard to center just this year.
The Seahawks went frugal on their offensive line, and the results are as clear as day — they can’t win a Super Bowl with this group. Russell Wilson took 41 sacks, tied for second-most in the league. The running game is so bad that their leading rusher in the regular season is Christine Michael, who was cut before Thanksgiving. Seattle’s offense has been stuck in mud most of the year, and unless Wilson can carry the team on his back, it’s hard to see them making a serious run with so many problems in the trenches.
The Packers don’t have any cornerbacks left
Injury concerns have followed the Green Bay secondary for a long time in 2016, but came back again at the worst time possible. Makinton Dorleant was placed on injured reserve — joining cornerbacks Sam Shields and Demetri Goodson — and was replaced on the roster by receiver-turned-cornerback Herb Waters. The secondary is in bad enough shape that a former division rival even offered his services.
Quinten Rollins isn’t expected to return from a concussion suffered in Week 17 and Damarious Randall practiced on a limited basis Wednesday due to a knee injury, although he could be ready for the team’s first playoff game. That’s a lot of question marks for the Green Bay pass defense and could be especially problematic if the Packers run into a high-flying offense soon.
The Giants offense can’t get out of its own way
Eli Manning has a reputation as a quarterback who can turn it on in the playoffs and he better because he was kind of a turnover machine during the regular season. Only seven teams finished with more turnovers than the Giants and all of those teams finished with losing records. And all but four of those turnovers were on Manning.
He threw 16 interceptions — only Philip Rivers, Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick threw more — and he fumbled seven times. That’s a whole lot of giving the ball away for a New York offense that already isn’t great at moving the ball. The team finished the season No. 26 in points scored and No. 25 in total offense, but survived with the No. 2 scoring defense.
In New York’s five regular season losses, the team had a combined 11 turnovers and couldn’t make up for the mistakes. Not taking care of the football against dangerous teams like the Packers, Falcons or Cowboys could bury the Giants, no matter how well the defense plays.
The Lions’ flaw is that they’re not good at anything
That sounds harsh, but the Lions trailed in the fourth quarter in 15 of 16 games in 2016 and that’s not an accident. Somehow, Matthew Stafford kept dragging the team from the jaws of defeat to victories — pulling off an NFL-record eight fourth-quarterback comebacks. But in the last three games after Stafford dislocated the tip of the middle finger on his throwing hand, the Lions haven’t been able to get the job done — even if it was against playoff teams.
Pulling off dramatic, come-from-behind wins against mostly bad teams was a good way to get to 9-7, but it’s not the best formula to win the Super Bowl. And unless something changes, the Lions could be a quick out in the postseason.
The Patriots may have to play the Giants again
The Patriots have the league’s best record and +180 odds to hoist another Lombardi Trophy, one potential roadblock lurks in the NFC bracket, ready to foil Brady’s plans once more. The New York Giants have won two Super Bowls since 2000, each coming at New England’s expense. Each time, the blueprint was the same; use a relentless pass rush to limit the Patriot offense and get a superhuman receiving effort to put the game away late.
In 2017, just like 2008 and 2012, the Giants are equipped to be Belichick’s kryptonite. Though New York’s sack percentage has dropped to 23rd in the league this fall, a pass rush featuring standouts like Olivier Vernon, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Landon Collins (19.5 sacks between them) is still strong enough to test New England’s offensive line.
Even scarier, the heroic, game-saving performances of David Tyree and Hakeem Nicks may be replaced by the other-worldly athleticism of All-Pro wideout Odell Beckham Jr.
But if there’s one team that has historically caused New England the most grief, it’s the one with the league’s 22nd-rated quarterback behind center and the defensive line that bullies Brady into stupid decisions.
The Chiefs’ pass rush disappeared when Justin Houston went down
The last time Kansas City recorded a sack was the second quarter of Week 15 when Dontari Poe brought down Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota. The last time Dee Ford — the team’s leader in sacks — recorded a sack was Week 10. It was the only sack of the game for the Chiefs, and the team finished with zero against the Broncos and Chargers to end the year.
The Chiefs’ sudden struggles to rush the passer coincide with swelling in Justin Houston’s knee that kept the star linebacker out of action in the last two weeks of the season.
Houston underwent surgery in February to repair a torn ACL and missed the first 10 weeks of the 2016 season, but returned in Week 11 and notched four sacks in his first three games back. While he’s expected to return for the playoffs, it could be a problem if the team’s chances at getting to opposing passers like Ben Roethlisberger or Tom Brady are pinned on a player who has only been on the field for five games in 2016.
The Steelers defense lacks consistency
The end of the Steelers vs. Ravens Christmas Day matchup is a perfect example. The Steelers allowed Joe Flacco to lead the Ravens on their biggest drive of the season and take the lead with less than two minutes in the game. Though there were many defensive miscues on the drive, the final play, which resulted in a Kyle Juszczyk touchdown, shows the Steelers’ biggest weakness. Juszczyk runs through the O-Line untouched and breaks a one-on-one tackle with Mike Mitchell to score. The missed tackle leads to a Ravens touchdown and puts all the pressure on Ben’s offense to score with 1:19 left.
The final drive of the Dallas game also exploited the Steelers tackling weakness. Ezekiel Elliott ran untouched through the defense and scored a touchdown with 9 seconds left. Ben did not have enough time for a comeback drive in that instance and the Steelers lost the game.
The Steelers defense, though often impressive, gives up far too many big plays for Steelers fans to feel confident heading into the postseason.
The Texans’ quarterback situation is a liability
Houston has the top defense in the league, but the offense leaves a lot to be desired, primarily because of the quarterback position. The team signed Brock Osweiler to a $72 million contract with $37 million guaranteed prior to the 2016 season, and that has absolutely not paid off for the Texans.
Osweiler got benched toward the end of the regular season in favor of Tom Savage, who then suffered a concussion. Now Osweiler is set to start against the Oakland Raiders in the Wild Card Round. Unless he elevates his play well beyond the 15 touchdown, 16 interception performance he turned in this season, it’ll be another one-and-done for Houston this postseason.
The Raiders were built around Derek Carr and now he’s gone
A few teams have concerns at quarterback entering the postseason, but no team suffered a more devastating loss than Oakland when Derek Carr went down. He wasn’t just the team’s best option at quarterback, he was the glue of a team that isn’t particularly good at anything without him.
The Raiders defense gave up more than 1,000 yards of offense in the first two weeks of the season before settling in, but the team still finished the year No. 26 in total defense. No team gave up more net yards per pass attempt in 2016 and only a handful of teams allowed more rushing yards per carry, but Oakland was always well-equipped to handle that because it had an top-flight, young passer who could win any shootout.
Now it’s Connor Cook at the helm, a rookie fourth-round pick who led the Raiders to just six points in Week 17. Granted, that was against the tough Denver Broncos defense, but things aren’t going to get easier in the playoffs.
The Dolphins haven’t beaten a good team in 2016
Miami rallied from a 1-4 start to a 10-6 finish this fall, but a look at the team’s resume shows the Dolphins are still looking for a signature win to prove their legitimacy. A Week 6 over the Steelers are their only win against a playoff opponent — or a team with more than seven wins.
A closer look at that 30-15 victory in Pittsburgh fails to inspire confidence. The Steelers were playing with a hobbled Ben Roethlisberger, who tore the meniscus in his knee early in the game and was ineffective (5.6 yards per pass) as a result. Miami got a huge performance from Jay Ajayi to buoy the offense, but the burly back has been anything but consistent in 2016; he’s had three games where he’s run for 200 yards or more but also eight where he’s been held to 60 or less.
The Dolphins’ return to the postseason was built on a soft schedule and wins over cupcakes like Cleveland, Buffalo, and the NFC West’s lesser teams. With Ryan Tannehill out for Sunday’s rematch in Pittsburgh, it seems unlikely they’ll be able to recapture the magic that led to an inspiring upset back in October.