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:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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