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6 NFL playoff games we want to see after a weird start to the 2018 season

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Browns vs. Patriots? Chiefs vs. Bengals? What’s on your playoff wish list?

New England Patriots v Cleveland Browns Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

We’re 79 games into the NFL’s 256-game season, or just over 30 percent of the way done. If the season ended here, the 2018 playoffs would include the Bengals, Dolphins, Bears, and Buccaneers. Three of last year’s conference championship participants — the Jaguars, Steelers, and Vikings — would be on the outside looking in. The defending champion Eagles would only be in after a win on Thursday Night Football in Week 6 helped them get to 3-3.

Suffice to say, this year’s regular season hasn’t gotten out to a predictable start. And while that’s probably not great news if you’re a fan of one of 2017’s postseason standouts, it is setting up the potential for some amazing new playoff showdowns. Right now, 18 of the league’s 32 teams have .500 records or better. All but six teams have at least two wins.

So with some wide open races, let’s break down our wish list of playoff games we want to see most. There’s only one caveat for this lineup of would-be January games: any team included has to have at least two wins heading into Week 6.

Cleveland Browns at New England Patriots

The Belichick Bowl would pit the two NFL franchises he’s spent more than a day coaching against each other in a true David and Goliath Wild Card (or Divisional Round) showdown. On one side you’d have the upstart Browns, fresh off a 1-31 stretch of futility, snapping a 16-year playoff drought behind a young roster filled with rising stars. Welcoming them to Foxborough would be the team that’s won 14 of the last 15 AFC East titles and played in three of the last four Super Bowls.

It’s a matchup Cleveland would be a double-digit underdog for, but the Browns could have a fighting chance. Baker Mayfield would put his swagger up against a defense that surrendered 376 passing yards and four touchdowns to Blake by-god Bortles earlier in the season. A growing defensive front would pressure Tom Brady behind potential Myles Garrett and a cadre of young bullies like Larry Ogunjobi, Emmanuel Ogbah, and Trevon Coley. Jamie Collins would get an opportunity for revenge after being traded away from a Patriots team that had no interest in handing him an expensive long-term contract.

Then you’d have New England, rounding into form with 12 games of the Rob Gronkowski-Josh Gordon-Julian Edelman experience under its belt. A 41-year-old Tom Brady would have the chance to pick apart a secondary where no starter is older than 26. Brian Flores’ defense would get the chance to stand tall against a rookie quarterback who has thrown three interceptions in three games. Gordon would get his chance at revenge against his old team.

The Browns would have a puncher’s chance, and a win could signify an expedited sunset on the Brady-Belichick era. Or it could be a repeat of New England’s typical Divisional Round performances, where the world inks “PATRIOTS” onto their playoff bracket at halftime. Either way, it’ll be fun. — Christian D’Andrea

Los Angeles Chargers at Tennessee Titans

There’s ALWAYS one Wild Card Weekend matchup that packs all the excitement of your average Thursday night game in the regular season. It’s the one that has people pointing at the ratings going “see! see! The NFL is in trouble.”

That’s what this game would be. And while the ratings might be nil for this one, if you don’t watch it, you might end up missing a good game.

It’s been five years since we last saw Philip Rivers in the playoffs, and the way things usually go for the Chargers, this might be our last chance. He’s been overshadowed in his home market by Jared Goff and in his own division by Patrick Mahomes. But did you know that Rivers has just one less touchdown (13) than Mahomes (14)? And like Mahomes, he’s only thrown two interceptions in five games this season. That’s an MVP pace, and nobody is even putting him in the conversation.

As for the Titans, well, you just don’t know what you’re going to get with this team. It could be the one that got a narrow win in a shootout with the Eagles, or maybe the one that lost 13-12 to the Buffalo Bills.

This game has as much potential for random weirdness as it does Philip Rivers reaction GIFs. —Ryan Van Bibber

Kansas City Chiefs at Cincinnati Bengals

The thing about playoff games is that somebody has to win. There are no ties. One team has to move on.

The Chiefs are 1-10 in playoff games over the last 15 years, and the Bengals are 0-7 in the last 28 years. They’re both having good years so far in 2018, and sit in the top spots in the AFC West and AFC North. But do you really trust either one of them to do damage in January?

With Patrick Mahomes lighting up defenses and Andy Reid actually notching one playoff win in Kansas City, at least he won’t be coaching for his job. But for Marvin Lewis, an eighth consecutive postseason loss has to be his last, right?

At 0-7 he’s already the record holder for playoff appearances by a coach without a win. Now imagine the Bengals put together a good enough season to host a game against the Chiefs and they blow it again in front of a Cincinnati crowd. It’d be spectacular failure.

The alternative is that the Bengals get a playoff win for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union and celebrate with their home crowd. Either way, one team gets to defeat a narrative and we all get to point and laugh at the other. — Adam Stites

New Orleans Saints at Chicago Bears

As of now, the Saints are first in scoring and third in the NFL in total offense. The Bears, on the other hand, are ranked 24th in the league in yards per game. Defensively, though, the Bears rank second in the league, while New Orleans comes in at 18th overall on defense and 28th in points allowed. Those numbers may change by the time the playoffs come around, but the Saints certainly have a deadly offense and the Bears have a smothering defense, thanks to the addition of Khalil Mack.

These two teams aren’t set to play each other in the regular season, and that’s a shame, because it’s already the game I want to see more than any other. I could easily see these two battling it out in the NFC Championship, and I honestly have no idea who would win. Drew Brees just broke the NFL’s all-time passing yardage record, and is on pace to break the all-time touchdowns record. There’s no sign of him slowing down any time soon.

Chicago, though, is second in the league with a turnover differential of plus-six, with eight interceptions and three fumble recoveries in just four games. The Bears make big plays happen, even when Mitchell Trubisky and the offense aren’t putting up numbers. If any team can shake Brees and disrupt a well-functioning Sean Payton offense, it’s Vic Fangio, Mack, and the rest of the Bears defense, with a little assistance from the fans at Soldier Field. — James Brady

Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs

After winning their last two games, the Texans are back in the wide open AFC South race with a record of 2-3. They don’t have the prettiest style of play, but between Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, and J.J. Watt, the Texans have the top-end talent to be frisky against just about anyone.

Houston’s defense has been improving after some early struggles. Patrick Mahomes and Co. have been pretty much scoring at will, even when Mahomes has stretches of inconsistent play (i.e. their game against Jacksonville last week when he threw the first two picks of his career). Still, it would be a lot of fun to see if Watt and Jadeveon Clowney could single-handedly slow down one of the elite offenses in the NFL.

On the flip side, Houston’s offense can score on Kansas City as well. Watson is playing really good (also reckless) football and Hopkins, Will Fuller, and the emerging Keke Coutee are as strong as any wide receiver trio in the league. The scoreboard would be lighting up like slot machines in Vegas.

If you like tough, defensive football in January, then this might not be the game for you. If you want to see the future of the AFC trade blows in a high-stakes contest, this has to be a playoff matchup to root for. — Charles McDonald

Baltimore Ravens at Jacksonville Jaguars

NFL offenses are on a record pace to start this season. We saw more touchdowns and points scored through the first five weeks of 2018 than in any other season, while quarterbacks combined to throw for 8,000 yards in three different weeks. That has undeniably upped the fun factor this year.

But it also makes me feel a little bad for defenses. The league’s rules are already blatantly pro-offense and pro-quarterback especially. Defensive players are out here trying to make a living too.

So as counterprogramming to what will probably be the highest-scoring postseason ever, we need ONE game that gives the defense its moment in the sun. We need Blake Bortles to get his “Yakety Sax” on. We need Jalen Ramsey prepping for the game by slinging even more mud at Joe Flacco. We need camera shots that show cast members from The Wire and The Good Place in the stands. We need a final score comprised of nothing but field goals.

Will it be pretty? Nah. It probably won’t look all that different from last year’s playoff game between the Jaguars and Bills, which could’ve been Jaguars-Ravens if the Bills had lost one more game. But that’s OK. These are two of the top three defenses in the league right now. Let’s see one of them claw their way to the Divisional Round.

For one afternoon (no way they’re putting this in primetime lol) in January, we can throw it back to the days when defense was king. Offense can take a three-hour nap before getting back to letting it fly. — Sarah Hardy