It's about that time of the year when teams start to think about the playoffs again. At this point in the season, true playoff contenders have emerged while teams that find themselves in the middle of their divisions see their chances at a playoff run diminishing quickly.
For those who aren't aware of the NFL playoff structure, a team has to win four games at the most through four different rounds: Wild Card, Divisional, Conference and Super Bowl. The winner of each division makes it into the playoffs while the top two teams of each conference gets a bye week and automatically makes it into the Divisional round. The teams with the next best record in each conference also gets a chance to play in the Wild Card round, even if they didn't have the best record in their division. Therefore, a total of 12 teams make it into the playoffs.
I'll be going through each conference and not only picking my favorites to make some runs in the playofs, but selecting which teams from each conference I think have the best chance of making it to the Super Bowl.
It's no surprise the Patriots are my favorite to win this division. They've owned the AFC East year in and year out because they're the only team that has a competent team. The Jets and Bills are complete lost causes (Fun fact: the Bills have started four different quarterbacks this year) and have yet to find consistency from an offensive standpoint.
After losing Malcolm Butler and Dammy Amendola, two integral parts of the Patriots success in years past, the Patriots have unsurprisingly been atop their division with one of the best records in football. The acquisition of Josh Gordon from the Cleveland Browns filled the hole made by Amendola and he's had a breakout season considering the struggles he's had in the past with just staying on the field.
The Dolphins, on the other hand, started out relatively strong with a three-game win streak before losing to the Patriots in Week 4. The Patriots most recently snapped a six-game winning streak by losing to the Titan, who have been very sneaky at acquiring wins this season.
The Chiefs have a way of finding breakout players. Last year, it was Kareem Hunt after a Spencer Ware injury. This year, it's Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes was probably the best kept secret in the entire NFL draft. Taken tenth overall by the Chiefs in 2017, he played one game in Week 16 and threw for 284 yards and one interception. Definitely nothing to write home about, until Mahomes opened up the 2018 season with 4 touchdowns and a 127 passer rating.
Since then, the Chiefs have set the NFL on fire. With Andy Reid at the helm, the sheer amount of offensive threats the Chiefs have is staggering. With Mahomes at quarterback, Tyreek Hill at wide receiver, Kareem Hunt at running back and Travis Kelce at tight end there isn't an aspect of the Chiefs offense that shouldn't terrify defenses.
The Chiefs could realistically find themselves with a first round bye alongside the Patriots if both teams continue on the paths they're currently on.
The AFC North will probably be the most competitive division coming down the stretch of the regular season. The Bengals, only one win behind, could realistically tie the division if they win the games I expect them to win. The Steelers have to play the Patriots, the Chargers and the Saints which are all formidable opponents.
However, that's not to discount the high-powered offense the Steelers have been able to construct. Wide receiver Antonio Brown and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have been connecting on a much more consistent basis as Brown has already surpassed his previous year's touchdown total. In addition, the resurgence of James Conner gives the Steelers new life in light of the entire Le'Veon Bell saga.
The Steelers have the tools to make a deep run into the playoffs with the potential to make it to a first round bye into the divisional round. They'll have to avoid dropping any winnable games, however, as the rest of their schedule is tough as-is.
The Chargers are probably one of the most under-the-radar teams in the entire NFL. Quarterback Phillip Rivers has quietly been having the best season of his career to throw for 36 touchdowns. Melvin Gordon, on the other hand, continues to dominate with a projected 1,000 yard season for the second straight year. He's spent a handful of games on the IR which has harmed his numbers, especially his touchdown count, but his ability to make plays is unmatched.
Having only lost to the Rams and the Chiefs, the Chargers have one of the best records in football yet have surprisingly not garnered the same media attention as teams of a similar caliber. They've barely escaped with a few wins, however, which has definitely separated them from a playoff contender as opposed to a wild card chaser.
I want to have a biased take because I'm from St. Louis, but this team has all the pieces to make a deep run for the Super Bowl. Starting behind center with third-year quarterback Jared Goff who's only had three games below a 100 passer-rating, the Rams have seemingly an endless amount of offensive options. Despite the ACL injury to wide receiver Cooper Kupp, the Rams still have MVP candidate Todd Gurley, Robert Woods and Brandon Cooks.
On the defensive end, the Rams have been one of the most dominant in the league despite missing Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib.Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh have lead the Rams pass-rushing attack combining for 16 sacks on the year thus far.
The only thing stopping the Rams is injury and their secondary. Every single game they've played against a similar, high-octane offense (i.e. Packers, Saints and Vikings) has been nothing short of a shootout so it's no surprise their only loss on the season came from the Saints in a 35-45 offensive showcase. Fun fact: the over/under in the Rams game against the Chiefs is one of the highest in recent NFL regular season history at 64.
Full disclaimer: I was a Mitchell Trubisky hater all the way through his rookie year. To start, I was very doubtful that his 11 games played at North Carolina was a strong enough sample size to determine that he was worthy of a first-round pick. I'm also not a fan of having a rookie quarterback immediately take the reigns on the offense. As we've seen with Patrick Mahomes, there's something to say about letting a rookie quarterback sit back and observe for at least a year.
However, Trubisky and the Bears have proved me wrong in every sense. I knew something was on the rise once they finessed the Oakland Raiders into trading one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL Khalil Mack who has done wonders for the Bears with seven sacks in the seven games he's played. Head Coach Matt Nagy and new Offensive Coordinator Mark Helfrich have changed the Bears offense from stagnant to a true competitor for the NFC North.
A victim of the great quarterback roulette of the 2018 offseason, the Minnesota Vikings have found a way to continue to compete in the NFC with offensive weapons such as Kirk Cousins, Stefon Diggs, and Adam Thielen who has had a historic year thus far with multiple 100-yard games under his belt. In addition, when he's been able to remain healthy and on the field, Dalvin Cook has continued to be a true offensive force.
Minnesota's defense, highlighted by star cornerback Xavier Rhodes, allow the fifth fewest yards per game in the NFL only to be outranked by Chicago, Jacksonville, Baltimore and Buffalo. As with a lot of teams in the NFL, injuries continues to stand in the way of success as the star players mentioned above. Do I think this team could make a deep playoff run? Potentially, but I think there are much more powerful teams that they'd had to beat in order to get there. It might just take another miracle.
This is another truly dangerous team. Having given the Rams their only loss at the time of writing, their only loss came from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a 48-40 game in which Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for over 400 yards and four touchdowns. But that's where the Saints truly lack: their defense. They rely so heavily on the offense that a majority of their games have been so high scoring. The Saints are tied for 23rd in yards per game and have allowed roughly 25 points per game.
The Saints offense, however, has been nothing short of phenomenal. They rank fifth overall in yards per game and first in points per game. Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram have formed the most explosive running back duo in the entire NFL and Michael Thomas has put up big game after big game at wide receiver. In addition, Drew Brees has continued to show no signs of slowing down, throwing 21 touchdowns and one interception through Week 10.
I understand that it's ridiculous to pit the two highly favorited teams to win the Super Bowl against each other because statistically that's supposed to happen. Nothing in football ever happens as it should but it's impossible to ignore the sheer dominance these two teams have shown in their conferences. The two things in my mind that separates the Rams from the Saints are their defensive prowess and the number of options the Rams have at wide receiver. Another matchup between these two teams and I think it goes the Rams way.
As for the Chiefs, I think it's finally their year to prove their worth in the playoffs and capitalize on a productive season. As I mentioned earlier, Kareem Hunt and Patrick Mahomes finally give Andy Reid the options he needs to meet his playbook's potential. As for the Patriots, I think this is an off year for them. They shipped out one of their star wide receivers in Danny Amendola, can't seem to keep Gronkowski on the field and the clock is always ticking for Tom Brady.
In the instance of a Rams and Chiefs matchup in the Super Bowl, I'm putting my faith in the Los Angeles Rams to come away as the Super Bowl 53 champions.