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Why each NFL playoff team can win Super Bowl 54, and why it won’t

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There are 12 NFL teams that each need just a few wins to become Super Bowl champion. They have all inspired reasons to believe and have displayed flaws that could be exploited.

Ravens QB Lamar Jackson and 49ers DE Nick Bosa superimposed on a red background with blue, black, and white designs
It’s easy for Ravens and 49ers fans to be optimistic with Lamar Jackson and Nick Bosa leading the way

There are 12 NFL teams battling for a spot in Super Bowl 54, but only two can survive the bracket.

The Ravens and the 49ers — owners of the top seeds in their respective conferences — are the favorites to come out on top. Teams like the Bills, Eagles, Titans, and Vikings haven’t inspired as much faith.

But there are reasons each one of these teams can and can’t win the Super Bowl this season.

Here, SB Nation writers Morgan Moriarty and James Brady will be the eternal optimists who see the best in every playoff team, while Adam Stites will be the miserable critic who pokes holes in every team’s chances.

AFC

Baltimore Ravens

Why they can win it all: Lamar Jackson and the Ravens’ offense are unstoppable

No one has been able to figure out the Ravens’ offense. Even against the most stout defenses like the Patriots, 49ers, and Seahawks, Lamar Jackson’s still been able to make magic. He finished the year with an NFL-most 36 touchdown passes and 1,206 rushing yards, a record total for a quarterback. Of course, Jackson didn’t put up these numbers alone — his supporting cast is one of the best in the league.

Mark Ingram finished 2019 with 15 total touchdowns and averaged 5.0 yards per carry. Mark Andrews led all tight ends with 10 receiving touchdowns. But the Ravens’ invincibility starts with Jackson, who has lit the NFL on fire and will soon be crowned MVP.

Why they have no shot: The Ravens’ defense isn’t as good as it seems

Baltimore is No. 3 in points allowed and No. 4 in total yards allowed. While that sounds great, it’s a tad deceiving. First of all, the Ravens’ defense wasn’t on the field much thanks to Baltimore’s run-first offense that led the NFL in time of possession. And, second, few teams were able to stick to the run against the Ravens.

Granted, it was way back in Week 4, but the Browns showed the formula to beat the Ravens. They ran the ball 29 times for 193 yards and four rushing touchdowns. There are plenty of playoff teams capable of doing something similar.

Kansas City Chiefs

Why they can win it all: Patrick Mahomes is back to cooking defenses

Last season’s MVP led the Chiefs to another AFC West title this season, and he put up some impressive numbers, despite suffering a dislocated patella in October. Late in the year, he proved he can beat New England with a 24-16 win in Week 14. That’s encouraging, given the Chiefs were eliminated by the Patriots in the AFC Championship last year.

That win over New England was one of six straight victories to close out 2019.

Mahomes’ team gets a bye and homefield advantage in the Divisional Round. If Mahomes keeps playing at the level he has been, the Chiefs can absolutely go all the way.

Why they have no shot: The Chiefs still can’t stop the run

Kansas City gave up 225 rushing yards to the Titans and 203 to the Ravens when it faced those two dominant rushing attacks in 2019. The Chiefs are No. 29 in yards allowed per carry.

Mahomes is great, but even he wasn’t enough to make up for the Chiefs’ defense giving up 524 yards of total offense and 176 rushing yards to the Patriots in the playoffs last year. Why should we think this postseason will end any differently for Kansas City?

New England Patriots

Why they can win it all: Don’t count out Touchdown Tom

New England’s defense is first in points scored and yards allowed. That’s made up for a Patriots’ offense that has been subpar much of the year. The Patriots lack a run game, have problems along the offensive line, and the only consistent weapon Tom Brady has to throw to is Julian Edelman.

Even still, the Patriots have reached the Super Bowl four our of the last five years with Brady as their quarterback. He’s 6-3 as a starter in Super Bowls, so it’s pretty hard to bet against him in the postseason no matter what the team around him looks like.

Why they have no shot: Father Time comes for everyone

We all know about Brady’s postseason greatness. It can’t last forever, though. He’s 42 and finally starting to look it. Brady threw touchdowns on less than 4 percent of his passes for the first time in his career. His 6.6 yards per pass attempt were his lowest average since 2002. Brady was especially bad in the latter half of the season with a completion percentage of just 56.9 percent. His status as a playoff legend is unquestionable, but Brady’s time has passed.

Houston Texans

Why they can win it all: Deshaun Watson is due for a breakout performance in the playoffs

The only NFL playoff game Watson has played in was a loss to the Colts on Wild Card Weekend last year. But all season long, Watson has been playing the best football of his young career.

He completed over 70 percent of his passes in wins over the Chiefs, Patriots, and Titans — three of the five AFC teams in the playoffs. Watson’s play is the main reason the Texans earned another AFC South title. College football fans know you’d be foolish to think Watson isn’t able to step it up in a postseason game.

Why they have no shot: The Texans’ defense is awful

The only four teams that gave up more yards in 2019 than the Texans were the Cardinals, Lions, Dolphins, and Bengals — four of the worst teams in the NFL. The Houston defense was especially awful in December when it gave up an average of 434.6 yards per game.

Houston is 29th in passing yards allowed and 25th in rushing yards allowed. The Texans’ postseason hopes seem to rest on ]getting 30-year-old J.J. Watt back from an October pectoral injury. Even if it happens, would it be enough to drag the defense into good-enough territory? That’s a bit too optimistic.

Buffalo Bills

Why they can win it all: The Bills’ defense is good enough to carry the offense

Quarterback Josh Allen has come a long way, but Buffalo’s strength is still its defense. The Bills are fourth in the league against the pass, and 10th against the rush. More importantly, they allowed the second-fewest points in the regular season (259) behind only the Patriots (225).

Trent Murphy, Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde, and Tre’Davious White all have multiple forced fumbles, and White also has six interceptions. Defensive linemen Jordan Phillips and Shaq Lawson combined for 16 sacks and 26 tackles for loss. All that defensive talent is why Buffalo reached double-digit wins for the first time in 20 years.

Why they have no shot: Allen isn’t there yet

The NFL’s least accurate starting quarterback (at least in terms of completion percentage) in 2019 was Allen. While he’s made strides as a passer and is plenty capable of launching a deep ball, Allen’s still way behind the rest of the quarterbacks in the playoffs. His sloppy footwork leads to some inaccurate passes and avoidable sacks.

The Bills managed a 10-6 record thanks to solid defense, but lost all three times an opposing offense scored more than 21 points. There are too many great offenses in the postseason to expect the Buffalo defense to do all the work.

Tennessee Titans

Why they can win it all: Derrick Henry is a bulldozer

Henry finished 2019 as the NFL’s leading rusher. During the regular season, he racked up 1,540 yards on 303 carries with 16 touchdowns. While his early NFL career was plagued by inconsistency, he’s emerged as the strong, bruising back he was thought to be coming out of Alabama in 2016.

He missed the Titans’ Week 16 game against New Orleans with a hamstring injury, but he rushed for 211 yards and three touchdowns in Week 17. He’s doing just fine and is primed to truck through defenses in the playoffs.

Why they have no shot: Do we really trust Ryan Tannehill?

While Tannehill’s been a revelation for the Titans, his 9.6 yards per pass attempt and 117.5 passer rating aren’t exactly sustainable numbers. They’re mostly a consequence of the Titans being 31st in the NFL in pass attempts and Tannehill thriving off play-action.

So what happens if Henry gets bottled up? Tennessee was 2-6 when Henry was held under 90 rushing yards in 2019. And what if the Titans have to win a shootout against the likes of the Chiefs or Ravens? Tannehill’s season has been magical, but expecting it to end with a Lombardi Trophy is too much.

NFC

San Francisco 49ers

Why they can win it all: The 49ers make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks

The phrase “defense wins championships” may not carry as much weight as it used to, but the 49ers have a unit that can get it done. It ranks first in the NFL in passing defense, and it’s second in total yards allowed.

San Francisco’s opponents are also getting sacked 8.5 percent of the time they drop back to pass. That pass rush is led by Nick Bosa, the clear favorite to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year after notching nine sacks and 16 tackles for loss. The defense could also get the boost of linebacker Kwon Alexander making a return from injured reserve. When Alexander, Bosa, and Dee Ford are all on the field together, opposing quarterbacks posted a QBR of 3.0.

Why they have no shot: That defense is slowing down at the wrong time

San Francisco’s defense was the immovable object earlier in the season. It doesn’t quite have the same indomitable aura anymore, though. It allowed an average of 29.4 points per game over five games in December and gave up over 300 passing yards to both the Saints and Rams. The 49ers didn’t give up a single 300-yard passing performance in the first 13 weeks of the season.

The 49ers’ defense has slowed down significantly and that makes the team much less scary in January.

Green Bay Packers

Why they can win it all: The Packers are finally well-rounded

The Packers have played in some awful games this year, yet they’re sitting at 13-3, fielding a very complete roster. For once, all of the burden isn’t on Aaron Rodgers’ shoulders. They have a running game, led by Aaron Jones, that averages 112.2 yards per game. Davante Adams has been a great receiver, and Jones is pretty great in that area as well.

And on top of all that, they have a defense! They’re ninth in the league in points allowed and, more importantly, third in the league in turnover differential at plus-12, behind only the Patriots and Saints. Green Bay is much more than Rodgers now, and that makes them lethal.

Why they have no shot: Rodgers has been looking real sketchy lately

There are only two times in the last four NFL seasons when Rodgers completed less than half his passes. Both of those games happened in December 2019. He had a 76.8 passer rating over his last four games of the season and consistently struggled to put passes on the hands of Packers receivers.

The Packers finished the year 18th in total offense and 18th in total defense. It’s not a team that can afford to have Rodgers suddenly transform into a mediocre quarterback. For some reason, that’s who he’s been as of late.

New Orleans Saints

Why they can win it all: Drew Brees started playing unreal football late in the year

The Saints are third in the league in points scored, trailing only the Ravens and 49ers. Brees’ completion percentage of 74.3 is several points better than his career number of 67.6. He finished this season with the highest quarterback rating of his career.

About half of his passes were to Michael Thomas, who set the NFL record for single-season receptions (149) and led the league in receiving yardage by more than 300 yards with 1,725. Even the best defenses can only occasionally slow those two down, and only a couple offenses can keep pace.

Why they have no shot: The Saints always get eliminated in devastating fashion

C’mon now, we already know how the story ends for the Saints. The only mystery is what horrible stroke of misfortune is going to eliminate them this time. This is the team that gave up a 61-yard touchdown as time expired in a playoff game two years ago. And when they’re not shooting themselves in the foot, the refs do it for them.

Marshawn Lynch running through a whole defense in a run called Beast Quake? That was against the Saints. Alex Smith hitting Vernon Davis for a game winner now known as The Catch III? Yep, the Saints. The football gods always find a way to doom New Orleans.

Philadelphia Eagles

Why they can win it all: Super Bowl experience can’t be replicated

Yes, the 9-7 Eagles barely made it into the postseason by winning the NFC East. But let’s not forget that coach Doug Pederson led this team to a Super Bowl victory just two years ago. Remember too that he did it with a backup quarterback in Nick Foles. Philly has dealt with a slew of injuries this season on both sides of the ball, and their record certainly reflects that. But don’t count out the Eagles to surprise some teams this postseason.

Why they have no shot: This ain’t the NFC East anymore

The Eagles are in the playoffs because they won four straight to barely sneak ahead of the Cowboys in December. But those four wins were all against members of the NFC East, the worst division of 2019. Prior to that streak, the Eagles lost back-to-back games against the Patriots and Seahawks followed by an embarrassing loss to the Dolphins. That’s the version of the extremely banged up and Foles-less Eagles you should expect to see in January.

Seattle Seahawks

Why they can win it all: The Seahawks are battle tested

Sure, it would be easier to be confident in the Seahawks if they blew out all of their opponents, but there’s something about their ceaseless ability to win close games that is flat-out unnerving. They can beat absolutely anybody in the NFL on any given day, and it’s so much easier to bet on Russell Wilson than against him.

It’s a team with ample playoff experience, having made it there in six of the past seven seasons. That includes a Super Bowl win in February 2014 and a Super Bowl appearance the following year, all with Wilson under center. They are extremely prepared for the big stage.

Why they have no shot: Not every nail biter will go their way

The Seahawks played 12 games decided by a one-score margin in 2019 and won 10 of them. While that bodes well for their chances in tight postseason games, it’s also a bad sign that Seattle can’t just win a game without fumbling it into an ultra dramatic mess. Take a Week 10 overtime win over the 49ers, for example.

Seattle’s 21-10 fourth-quarter lead disappeared when offensive lineman Germain Ifedi pulled a ball from Russell Wilson’s arms and promptly fumbled it. Seahawks defenders dropped several Jimmy Garoppolo passes that should’ve been interceptions. Wilson threw a red zone interception in overtime that should’ve won the 49ers the game. Those kind of mistakes can’t happen in the postseason.

Minnesota Vikings

Why they can win it all: Dalvin Cook had the last two weeks off

Cook missed the Vikings’ last two games against the Packers and Bears, as head coach Mike Zimmer chose to let him recover from shoulder and chest injuries. Before he started to get banged up, the third-year running back was having a breakout season in 2019. Halfway through the season he was leading the NFL in rushing yards.

His play declined when injuries took a toll (he hasn’t had a game with at least 100 rushing yards since Week 7). But the time off means the Vikings’ offense should have the ability to rely on his explosive playmaking ability again. That’ll take the pressure off Kirk Cousins to score points.

Why they have no shot: Kirk Cousins never wins the big games

In his career, Cousins is 0-9 on Monday Night Football, 2-5 on Thursday Night Football, and 0-2 in the postseason. When the lights shine brightest, Cousins has a history of falling on his face. The main reason the return of Cook is important for the Vikings is because it means they can avoid trusting the quarterback they gave a fully guaranteed $84 million contract.

But this is the NFL. You can’t hide a quarterback deficiency for long in the playoffs — or at all.