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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


By Cody Benjamin, PlaybookSports — The 2021 NFL playoffs are finally here. With the Raiders edging the Chargers in an overtime thriller to close Week 18, the entire 14-team postseason picture is officially complete. Now, it’s off to the races, with a Lombardi Trophy at the finish line.

But how do the playoff teams stack up? The postseason is as good a time as any for improbable upsets, and underdogs are never to be counted out. (Just ask the Colts about the Jaguars.) But in celebration of the postseason’s arrival, here’s how we’d judge the 14 finalists according to championship prospects:

14. Steelers

Record: 9-7-1

Wild-card opponent: Chiefs

This is right where they wanna be: overlooked. And they deserve credit for fighting — and winning — ugly. T.J. Watt and the defense will keep them swinging. But Ben Roethlisberger, for all his grit, just isn’t captaining a steady, let alone explosive, offense.

13. Raiders

Record: 10-7

Wild-card opponent: Bengals

Give it to Derek Carr and Rich Bisaccia and the whole gang for never quitting. Their ugly but steady resiliency is reminiscent of the Steelers, except they can move the ball. The problem is, can they hold up on defense? And win another shootout or two?

12. Eagles

Record: 9-8

Wild-card opponent: Buccaneers

Who knows how Jalen Hurts will fare if asked to step up as a passer against an elite team? But he’s shown real improvement down the stretch, and Nick Sirianni has deployed him wisely as the cog of their ground game. If the “D” can make plays, they’ll be feisty.

11. Cardinals

Record: 11-6

Wild-card opponent: Rams

Their talent — and the way they started 2021 — suggests they belong a lot higher. But Kyler Murray has had some clunkers, and Kliff Kingsbury’s track record is chock-full of late-year crumbles. They’re 1-4 with an erratic approach over their last five.

10. 49ers

Record: 10-7

Wild-card opponent: Cowboys

They have a ceiling with Jimmy Garoppolo, but the veteran QB showed up in Week 18. More importantly, Kyle Shanahan has been here before, and if his ground game is clicking, they can control the ball en route to some surprise wins.

9. Patriots

Record: 10-7

Wild-card opponent: Bills

Bill Belichick will surely find a way to put Mac Jones in a position to win, especially if the Patriots’ defense shows up, but the reality is they’re not really built to survive more than one big mistake from the rookie QB at this juncture.

8. Cowboys

Record: 12-5

Wild-card opponent: 49ers

When they’re on, they’re about as balanced and explosive as anyone. But they’ve beaten up on 1.) Washington and 2.) Eagles backups lately. Dak Prescott and their O-line need to be in tip-top form if they wanna make real noise.

7. Rams

Record: 12-5

Wild-card opponent: Cardinals

Matthew Stafford has picked the worst times to make bad decisions for a while now, but Sean McVay still boasts a talented roster on both sides of the ball. They don’t feel like a remotely safe bet to go the distance, but they can make plays.

6. Bengals

Record: 10-7

Wild-c Card opponent: Raiders

Neither Joe Burrow nor Zac Taylor has playoff experience, and who knows if the latter can be trusted here? But in one sense, the pressure is off, then! More importantly, Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase and Co. are way too explosive to count out.

5. Titans

Record: 12-5

Wild-card opponent: Bye

They just don’t die, as Mike Vrabel would say. Ryan Tannehill will need to step up with a career moment for them to go the distance, but Derrick Henry is returning, A.J. Brown is back, and their defense will be better after Week 18.

4. Bills

Record: 11-6

Wild-card opponent: Patriots

It’s all about getting hot at the right time, and they enter having won four straight. Better yet, they’ve actually found a ground game to complement Josh Allen, who will be determined to build off his 2020 playoff run.

3. Chiefs

Record: 12-5

Wild-card opponent: Steelers

It was an uneven season for the defending AFC champs, and downright ugly at times. Yet they still outscored everyone except for the Bills in the conference. Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes will score at will when they need to.

2. Buccaneers

Record: 13-4

Wild-card opponent: Eagles

The only reason they’re not up top is because of the depth concerns out wide and in the secondary. Their defense has occasionally proven vulnerable. But let’s just face reality: Tom Brady’s presence alone ensures they will be serious contenders to repeat.

1. Packers

Record: 13-4

Wild-card opponent: Bye

It’s simple: They have the MVP under center. OK, so it’s more than that; even if Aaron Rodgers doesn’t officially claim his second straight award, he’s the smoothest, most confident QB in the game right now, and while he and Matt LaFleur have yet to advance past the NFC title game, their track record is better than anyone’s during their time together.

Rankings originally appeared in PlaybookSports January 10

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One Response

  1. Good thumbnails on the playoff teams, thanks for sharing Cody. Looking forward to this weekend…

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