The Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are set to square off in Super Bowl LV, with Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady each looking to make history on opposite ends of the age spectrum. It would've been hard to script a more dramatic matchup, to be honest. The reigning champions against the perpetual champion in Brady? Tampa Bay fighting to prove that you can virtually buy your way into championship contention, what with its 2020 overhaul? This is going to be one heck of a battle for the Lombardi.
But what about all the teams left in their wake? Who, among the 12 fallen postseason contenders, is best suited for an appearance in the next Super Bowl, in 2022? Here's a way-too-early rundown of this season's playoff losers, ranked by their chances of rebounding and cracking the next Super Sunday:
12. Chicago Bears
You can always count on tough defense here, but Chuck Pagano is out as defensive coordinator, and more importantly, their quarterback situation remains awash in mediocrity. With Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace back, the roster assembly and in-game management might not be any better. Unless they sell the farm to get Deshaun Watson, this team feels a ways off.
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Is Ben Roethlisberger coming back? If he does, there's serious reason to be concerned about him going into an age-39 season. If he doesn't, the Steelers are either going to be betting on Mason Rudolph (yikes), the newly added Dwayne Haskins, or going out of character to make a splashy addition. James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster and others could easily depart. And Mike Tomlin's playoff record since 2010 is not great.
10. Los Angeles Rams
Jared Goff isn't inspiring a whole lot of confidence right now, but it's hard to ignore the other pieces here. Between Cam Akers and Robert Woods -- and a defense that'll now be coached by Raheem Morris -- L.A. has the foundation of a contender. It's just that darn QB spot. The best Sean McVay might be able to do, barring a blockbuster trade of Goff, is mid-tier veteran competition.
They're certainly not getting there with Alex Smith or Kyle Allen at QB. But let's say they scratch their annual itch for a bold veteran addition under center. All of a sudden, they'd be worth talking about. Couple a decent QB (Matthew Stafford?) or, dare we say, a great one (Deshaun Watson?!) with their young weapons and Ron Rivera's defense, and you've got a rock-solid squad.
It feels a little premature to say the Titans have peaked with their Ryan Tannehill-Derrick Henry battery, but the concern with them has always been whether or not they're capable of truly opening things up downfield when the time calls for it. Mike Vrabel will always have this team ready to fight, and even one more splashy weapon on offense would go a long way. But can they finish against elite teams?
This is wholly dependent on Aaron Rodgers' return, which is not to be taken for granted, no matter how many Green Bay media members insist otherwise. Even in the event No. 12 is back, it sure feels like the Packers are due for a transition. It's hard to make two straight NFC title games, let alone three. And now Aaron Jones may be headed out, with other questions on the offense.
Yes, yes, we know Drew Brees is set to retire. It's very possible the Saints could turn to Jameis Winston or some other boom-or-bust option at QB and crater. But this is Sean Payton we're talking about. He's known forever that 2020 was likely Brees' swan song. You don't believe he has a plan? The bigger issue is that New Orleans has been the Steelers of the NFC in terms of playoff letdowns.
Their disappointing postseason flame-out is cause for concern, and boy, did Russell Wilson just tease us all the way through 2020. But let's not kid ourselves: As long as Wilson is under center and Pete Carroll is on the sidelines, Seattle will be in the NFC mix. A healthier Jamal Adams might be huge for their defense in 2021. Ditto for a renewed commitment to a run-first attack, believe it or not.
Now we're getting spicy. Maybe we're buying a little too much into the Kevin Stefanski hype, but the way they closed 2020, we don't think so. Baker Mayfield looks right at home as the point guard of a killer rush-first offense, which could/should be more explosive if Odell Beckham Jr. returns and/or another weapon arrives. The "D" should be healthier. They have the looks of a feisty contender.
Pretty bold to put them in the top three with only Jacob Eason under contract at QB, no? Well, that's because we're banking on Chris Ballard finding Frank Reich his best QB since Andrew Luck. He has no other choice. The Colts are built to win now, with promising playmakers and a stout defense. Bring in Matthew Stafford or Carson Wentz or, heck, move up for Trey Lance, and you're in the mix.
We can gripe all we want about Greg Roman's insistence on making Lamar Jackson the centerpiece of a ground game rather than a bona fide passer. Those gripes are justified. But if the Ravens smartly refocus in 2021, building around Jackson's strengths but also beefing up his ability to throw downfield with better protection and targets, there's no reason they can't make a run for it all.
This feels like a bit of a cop-out considering they just came within one win of making the big game. But it's hard not to love what Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs are doing. Sean McDermott's defense will also always be opportunistic enough to make a run. You could argue Buffalo peaked in 2020, but this felt an awful lot like a warm up to us. Get Allen even more comfortable, and they'll go far.