The 2018 NFL season was one of those years when all bets were off. Some of the teams we had pegged for playoff appearances and perhaps deep runs didn’t even make the postseason (looking at you, Minnesota and Atlanta). The Browns became one of the most exciting teams in football. Even the bottom feeders like the Raiders were able to give us moments of fun play and competence.
That could suggest we’re in for a more unpredictable postseason. The teams with No. 1 seeds, the Saints and Chiefs, are coming off heartbreaking playoff losses from a season ago. Meanwhile, the perpetual Super Bowl participants Patriots don’t feel like the unbeatable guard of the AFC like they have for the past one billion years. So maybe this is the perfect year for a lower-seeded team to go on a run.
Each team has one factor in its favor that could propel it to a win against any opponent this postseason. Each team also has one factor working against it that could kill its Super Bowl hopes immediately. As such, it’s hard to have full confidence in any team to win the Lombardi Trophy this season. But come the night of Feb. 3, one franchise will be showered with confetti in Atlanta, forever crowned as Super Bowl LIII champs.
We did our best to determine which teams in the NFL playoffs are most, and least, trustworthy of being the one to go all the way. So far, we’ve updated the list through the Divisional Round.
1. New England Patriots
The Patriots were originally pretty low on our list. They had looked as shaky as ever in an 11-5 season that exposed some real flaws in Bill Belichick’s team. Not only were those 11 wins the team’s fewest since 2009, but all five losses came against teams that failed to make the playoffs. Bad teams like the Jaguars and Lions were able to exploit New England’s weaknesses in comfortable wins — namely, attacking the Pats’ lack of receiving options and subpar rushing defense.
Counterpoint: it’s the Patriots, and they still have Belichick and Tom Brady. They also just ran all over the Chargers in a blowout win in the Divisional Round, which vaulted them to No. 1 on the list. And while Brady’s magic has run out in vital points in a couple big moments lately — against the Eagles in Super Bowl 52 and in Pittsburgh in Week 15 — he’s still Touchdown Tom. Never count out Touchdown Tom.
The Saints have been one of the best teams in the NFL this season, and we’ve seen two versions of them during their march to the No. 1 seed in the NFC. They started off the season by having an unbelievably explosive offense, averaging 37 points per game over the first 11 games.
Then New Orleans’ offense hit a bit of a rough patch. From Week 13 to 15, the Saints averaged 16.7 points per game, but they were still able to go 2-1 in that stretch. The defense took over and carried the team, holding opponents to just 12 points per game in the three-week span.
The last time the Saints were in the playoffs, they lost in crushing fashion: on the final play of their Divisional Round matchup with the Minnesota Vikings, famously known as the Minneapolis Miracle.
This time, the Saints rallied back from down 14-0 against the Eagles to win 20-14, holding off a potential comeback in the final minutes. Next up is the Rams in the NFC Championship.
Being able to stay at home in the Superdome should be extremely beneficial to their cause. In the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era, New Orleans has a 6-0 record at home in the playoffs. This season, Brees has completed nearly 77 percent of his passes and has thrown 25 of his 32 touchdowns in a dome.
The Saints have a top-three offense — they averaged 31.5 points per game — and have a defense that has the high-end talent to play well in spurts. That combined with their home-field advantage throughout the playoffs makes them one of the most trustworthy teams right now.
The Chiefs boasted the most explosive offense in the NFL this year and they likely have the league MVP in second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who threw an insane 50 touchdowns in his first year as a starter. Their offense is so overwhelming that they’ve been able to cover up for a poor defense most of the year.
Coming off their first-round bye, here’s how the Chiefs offense compared to their defense, according to Bill Connelly’s advanced statistics.
The defense at times has been their Achilles’ heel. They got mauled on the ground by the Seahawks late in the season, lost a Thursday night game at the last second to the Los Angeles Chargers, and even gave up 33 points to the Oakland Raiders on the road in Week 13.
Kansas City had another cross to bear this year. The team hadn’t won a home playoff game since 1994 — when Joe Montana led the Chiefs to a win against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That offense, though. It’s enough to make you believe that this year will be different for the Chiefs.
For their first playoff game, it was. Not only did Chiefs defense play its best game of the season — disrupting the Colts and holding them to just 13 points and zero third-down conversions — but the Chiefs won at Arrowhead for the first time in 25 years.
They’ll see if they can keep that momentum next week, when they host the AFC Championship Game.
The Rams looked like the best team in the NFL over the first half of the season. They had a couple hiccups over the final eight games, going 5-3, but that slump could be behind them. This is still an incredibly formidable team.
Their No. 2-ranked offense is an elite group, even with some of the slipups they had in the middle of the season. Jared Goff threw 32 touchdowns, while Todd Gurley scored 21 total touchdowns to help the Rams finish 13-3 on the year. Gurley’s been hurt and missed the final two games of the season, but that extra rest that killed your fantasy football team’s playoff run, along with the Rams’ bye through the Wild Card Round, means he was back to full strength when LA returned to the field.
The defense has been a bit inconsistent this year. Aaron Donald is likely going to win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award after tallying an eye-popping 20.5 sacks at the defensive tackle position, but the rest of the defense isn’t as reliable.
Luckily for the Rams, Donald is so good that his very presence is enough to trust the defense to come up with a few stops to help them advance in the playoffs.
Donald and the Rams defense did their job against the Cowboys — and the Rams’ running game did too. For the first time in 17 years, the Rams are in the NFC Championship game.