It is a fact of life for nearly every team playing in a sport with a decent-sized end-of-year playoff: your reward for a good season and a job well done is almost certainly ending the season with a loss. There’s no Idaho Potato Bowl for professional football, so for 31 of 32 teams, your experience is either missing the playoffs or losing in the playoffs.
You also probably know why you’re going to lose a playoff game long before you actually do. There are no perfect teams, especially in the salary cap-laden NFL, and your fatal flaws have been on display for quite some time. You’re just hoping to become the one team that wins the lottery and lifts the Vince Lombardi Trophy despite them.
It makes sense, then, to look at each NFL playoff team’s primary weakness heading into the Wild Card Round.
We’ll use the SB Nation NFL data app for assistance. For 11 of 12 teams, these flaws will end up unavoidable and catastrophic.
The Kansas City Chiefs’ (12-4) defense is bad at almost everything
Some of the flaws on this list are pretty granular and specific. This one really isn’t.
Even in a year of offensive renaissance, Kansas City stood out. The Chiefs scored 565 points, 38 more than anyone else and the third-most of all time behind only 2013 Denver (606) and 2007 New England (589). They released running back Kareem Hunt and lost receiver Sammy Watkins to injury, but if they hadn’t, they might have caught at least New England.
Neither of those teams won the Super Bowl in their respective year, though, and both had significantly better defenses than these Chiefs do. The 2013 Broncos ranked 15th in Defensive DVOA, and the 2007 Pats ranked 11th. These Chiefs were 27th heading into Week 17. They have the most efficient offense but the fourth-least efficient defense, they are first in big plays created in open play and third-worst in big plays allowed in open play, et cetera.
If you make a mistake and fall into a third-and-long, Kansas City will absolutely capitalize: they are seventh in third-and-long success rate allowed and fifth in blitz downs sack rate. Chris Jones and Dee Ford combined for nearly 30 sacks this year. But for that to matter, you have to fall into third-and-long first. And considering Kansas City could end up facing Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, and either Drew Brees or Jared Goff in the playoffs, one of those guys will indeed potentially avoid those blitz downs altogether.
The New England Patriots (11-5) can’t knock you off-schedule (and can’t capitalize when they do)
There is an intriguing balance to this year’s playoff field — the teams that are best on offense are worst on defense, and vice versa. We could end up with a Super Bowl shootout (Chiefs/Patriots/Chargers vs. Saints/Rams), or we could end up with a defense-first slugfest (Ravens/Texans vs. Bears).
The Patriots are not as extreme as the Chiefs, in that their offense isn’t quite as good and their defense isn’t quite as bad. But like Kansas City, they struggle to force you into awkward downs and distances — and when they do, they don’t have the pass rush necessary to get them off the field. Ranking 30th in blitz downs sack rate means they might not be able to get enough pressure on the league’s best QBs; it could also mean they can’t take advantage of the biggest flaws of someone like Houston or Baltimore in the second round.
The Los Angeles Chargers (12-4) face more blitz downs than they force
With Philip Rivers behind center, the Los Angeles offense is as capable as anyone of digging out of holes. The main problem for the Chargers, however, has been that they sometimes have to dig out of more holes than their opponents. One could see how that could be problematic, especially on the road.
The NFL playoff structure has basically punished the Chargers for geography — they tied for the best record in the AFC, but since the other best team was in their division (and they lost the division tie-breaker), they’re the No. 5 seed and will probably have to win three road games to make the Super Bowl. One could see, then, how facing more third-and-longs than your opponent, in raucous road environments, could catch up to you.
Granted, this was still one of the league’s best road teams regardless, going 7-1 and winning at Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Seattle, among others. They are well-rounded and maybe as close to truly flawless as any team in the playoffs; they were, after all, second in DVOA and fourth in FPI heading into Week 17. But leverage matters, and Los Angeles doesn’t have a lot of it.
A good passing game can pick the Indianapolis Colts (10-6) apart
The Indy defense is good at a lot of things that usually matter. The Colts avoid huge gashes as well as anyone in the league (first in marginal explosiveness), and they have one of the best run defenses in the playoffs — ninth in rushing marginal efficiency, sixth in rushing marginal explosiveness, fifth in rushing DVOA.
This is a passing league, however. And while big-play prevention is still an obvious strength to lean on (as is an offense that avoids awkward downs and distances as well as anybody), the Colts were 31st in the league in allowing a 71 percent completion rate to opposing quarterbacks. Only Tampa Bay was worse.
If you can’t pass consistently, you probably can’t beat the Colts (or anyone else in the playoffs). In six games against the Cowboys, Bills, Jags, Washington, and Titans (twice), they allowed a paltry 7.8 points per game. Everybody else averaged 29.7 PPG, however. And even with its own offensive inconsistency, Houston scored 58 points in two contests against Indy. That’s probably bad.
The New Orleans Saints (13-3) turn your QB into Drew Brees.
New Orleans didn’t allow an Indy-level completion rate, but it was bad enough: 67 percent, seventh-worst in the league and third-worst among playoff teams. When Drew Brees is your quarterback and this offense is your offense, you’ve got plenty of leeway, but the Saints’ defense has given a lot of that leeway back at times.
Mind you, the Saints are brilliant against the run and ultra-efficient in the red zone. They won four games this season when their opponents created as many or more scoring opportunities (first downs inside the 40) as they did, so simply passing efficiently and creating chances isn’t necessarily enough.
But you’re going to have the chance to pass efficiently and avoid third-and-longs, and while the Saints’ first playoff opponent — either Dallas (which defeated N.O. in Week 13, albeit with just 13 points), Seattle, or Philadelphia — probably won’t be able to take advantage of that, their second and third probably can.
The Los Angeles Rams (13-3) keep letting opponents off the hook
Los Angeles has one of the most talented, and expensive, defensive lines the NFL has seen. Aaron Donald is the best defensive player in the league, Ndamukong Suh is Ndamukong Suh, Dante Fowler Jr. is a former top-three pick, etc. Plus, the secondary includes high-upside veterans like Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. And for that matter, the defensive coordinator is Wade Phillips!
Add all that up and you would seemingly have a defense that, once opponents are leveraged behind schedule, should absolutely terrorize. But that simply hasn’t been the case. Donald nearly broke the NFL’s single-season sacks record, but L.A. still ranks just 20th in blitz downs sack rate. Talib and Peters are healthy, but the Rams are only decent in terms of passing downs efficiency (14th), and when they get beat, they get gashed (29th in passing downs explosiveness).
This doesn’t make any sense, but after 16 games, you are what you are, and the Rams are a team that frequently let your QB off the hook. That’s probably not going to change now.
The Dallas Cowboys’ (10-6) offense can’t finish drives
Dallas might have the most underrated defense in the league. The Cowboys prevent big plays (fourth in marginal explosiveness), defend well in the red zone (eighth in points allowed per scoring opportunity), and force you to convert on third downs (fifth in percentage of first downs allowed before third down). That’s a good recipe.
It’d be an even better recipe if the offense was more helpful. But despite the presence of workhorse back Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys can’t run or score touchdowns, in the red zone. They were 28th in points per scoring opportunity and dead last in first-and-goal success rate. They force you to kick field goals, then waste the opportunity by kicking field goals themselves. They have been more exciting and have created more opportunities since their midseason trade for receiver Amari Cooper, but Coop hasn’t helped them convert chances into points at a higher rate.
The Philadelphia Eagles’ (9-7) defense can’t force opponents to deal with its strengths
Heading into Week 17, your defending Super Bowl champions were maybe the weakest team in the playoff field, ranking just 16th in FPI and 18th in DVOA. Thanks to a surprisingly weak NFC, they still got in, and good for them. Their stay probably won’t last very long.
While Philly’s offense has regressed from eighth to 16th in offensive DVOA this year, the defense has been the primary issue, falling from fifth to 21st in defensive DVOA. The Eagles are strong in the red zone (seventh in points allowed per scoring opportunity), and they punish impatient quarterbacks with decent big-play prevention through the air. But that only matters so much when you have the worst defense in the league on standard downs; Philly is 31st in standard downs success rate allowed in open play (which means that strong red zone D is constantly tested) and 32nd in standard downs explosiveness allowed.
That puts far too much pressure on a merely decent offense to keep up. “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion” and all that, but unless Nick Foles has a lot more playoff magic to unveil, the Eagles’ title defense won’t last too long.