One of the great things about sports is that while everyone has their opinions and predictions and proclamations, you never truly know what will happen over the course of a season. We needn’t look further for examples than the 2023 NFL Playoffs.
Yes, the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, and Philadelphia Eagles are all primed for championship runs, but the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams were miles adrift at 5-12. For the first time since 2016, the top seeds from the previous year failed to reach the postseason with the Green Bay Packers and Tennessee Titans sitting at home. Three of the five worst teams by win percentage in 2021 had winning records in 2022.
The prevailing theme out of Super Wild Card Weekend is improbability, which has manifested itself in different ways and made for such a fascinating season. Here are four teams and one player that stand out for their unlikely journeys into the playoffs.
Delight in Duval
There was not a more dysfunctional NFL franchise in 2021 than the Jacksonville Jaguars. Head coach Urban Meyer’s foray into the professional ranks was every bit as bad as it could’ve possibly been and somehow worse. In stepped Super Bowl-winning head coach Doug Pederson to right the ship, with general manager Trent Baalke spending $259.5 million in free agency on the likes of WR Christian Kirk, TE Evan Engram, OG Brandon Scherff, and LB Foyesade Oluokun. While the improvement in performance by quarterback Trevor Lawrence and the team as a whole was apparent, they were still 4-8 through 12 games and 2-6 in one-possession games.
But this is a marathon and not a sprint, and while the Jags ran the table, the Tennessee Titans fell off the table, and Jacksonville joined the 2008 Chargers as the only teams in NFL history to reach the postseason after a 4-8 start. They’re also just the ninth team to have the No. 1 overall pick in the previous draft and make the playoffs the following season. Jacksonville clinched the AFC South on a late fumble-return touchdown from defensive end Josh Allen, marking the first time since 2000 that a team completed a 4th quarter comeback win without achieving a first down. More improbabilities.
A Giant Turnaround
The 2021 Giants ended their miserable season by calling a quarterback sneak with their third-string QB on 3rd and 9 near their own end zone. It was a microcosm of the short-lived Joe Judge era at head coach, and a housecleaning was in order.
So far, so good for Big Blue’s new leadership under GM Joe Schoen and coach Brian Daboll. The Giants began with a 6-1 record, and even with a midseason slump, clinched their first postseason berth since 2016. The historically turnover-prone Daniel Jones only committed eight all season, was 7th in ESPN’s QBR rankings, and may have saved his Giants career. RB Saquon Barkley finished 4th in rushing yards and recaptured the form that made him the 2018 Offensive Rookie of the Year. Rookie pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux has shown flashes of what made him a star at Oregon. There is finally reason for justified optimism for this organization, which is seeking its first playoff win since the Super Bowl in 2012.
The Seahawks Write Back
Head coach Pete Carroll’s Seahawks were immediately written off by many after the bombshell decisions to trade franchise quarterback Russell Wilson to the Denver Broncos and release legendary linebacker Bobby Wagner this offseason. The anticipated drop-off in quarterback play was one of the primary reasons Seattle was projected to be one of the worst teams in the NFL. Geno Smith and Seattle wrote back with a surprising 6-3 start, only for a brutal 1-5 stretch. With their backs against the wall, they won their final two games and other results broke their way for a playoff appearance few outside of the organization believed was possible.
Smith topped the NFL in completion percentage (69.8%) and led all NFC quarterbacks in touchdown passes (30). He is the odds-on favorite for Comeback Player of the Year and is in line for a huge payday this offseason. Running back Kenneth Walker went over the 1,000-yard mark and has a chance to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. Offensive tackles Charles Cross and Abe Lucas have been standout performers as Day 1 starters. Rookie CB Tariq Woolen tied for the league lead with six interceptions, while fellow rookie defensive back Coby Bryant forced four fumbles and recorded two sacks. Turns out life in the cellar was only a temporary stay for Seattle and not a sign of things to come.
The Comeback (Vi)kings
On the surface, Minnesota reaching the playoffs or even winning the NFC North is not a surprise by itself. The manner in which they’ve achieved a 13-4 record under first-year head coach Kevin O’Connell is something we might never see again.
No team has won that many games in NFL history and finished with a negative point differential. Their only wins by more than eight points were against the Green Bay Packers on opening day and the Nathan Peterman/Tim Boyle-led Chicago Bears in the regular season finale. Their four losses were by a combined score of 139-50.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins led six 4th quarter/overtime comeback victories in his previous four seasons with the Vikings. This year, he finished with eight.
A franchise that has seen its fair share of heartbreak and unique ways to lose has compiled a generation’s worth of improbable ways to win: The double-doink field goal in London against the Saints, that Justin Jefferson catch against the Bills (pictured above), Josh Allen’s subsequent fumbled snap in his end zone, the largest comeback in NFL history against the Colts, and a 61-yard field goal against a Giants team they will rematch on Sunday.
Is Minnesota as good as their record says they are? Their point differential suggests no, and they’re an astounding 27th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings. With all due respect to Bill Parcells, this may test the limits of his famous quote.
The Most Relevant ‘Mr. Irrelevant’
The San Francisco 49ers were a popular preseason pick to reach the Super Bowl, and with their current form, it’s hard to dislike their chances. However, no one could have predicted they would lose QB Trey Lance to a broken ankle in Week 2, then his backup Jimmy Garoppolo to a foot injury in Week 12, and still win their final six games (as part of a 10-game winning streak) with seventh-round rookie quarterback Brock Purdy.
Taken with the final pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, aka ‘Mr. Irrelevant’, the Iowa State alum was always going to be the “break glass in case of emergency” option once it was confirmed that Garoppolo wouldn’t be traded and Lance would be the starter. The emergency was realized in December, and Purdy has been virtually unflappable. Since replacing Garoppolo, Purdy has completed 110/161 passes for 1308 yards, 13 touchdowns, and just 3 interceptions. The 49ers offense has scored at least 30 points in four of Purdy’s five starts.
Purdy certainly benefits from being in head coach and offensive playcaller Kyle Shanahan’s quarterback-friendly offensive scheme, not to mention elite skill position players like RB Christian McCaffrey, TE George Kittle, and WR Deebo Samuel, as well as the number 1 scoring defense in the NFL. But you still have to actually perform well, and you are unlikely to find too many rookie third-string quarterbacks with a 119 passer rating over their first five starts. Purdy is three wins away from becoming the first true rookie quarterback to reach the Super Bowl.