It was a tumultuous 2020 season, to say the least, but the NFL was able to push through the raging COVID-19 pandemic and the ravages thereof to complete its 256-game regular season slate. Up next comes the playoffs, and there's no shortage of headlines for any and all of the participants as they ready for what each hopes will be a run to the Lombardi trophy and Super Bowl LV. From the dominance of Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers to the stunning improvement of Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills and lots in-between, there's a healthy mix of old blood plus newly-established superstars in the tournament, hinting at what could be one of the most intriguing postseasons in recent NFL history.
This is especially true when considering the league expanded the playoffs to include 14 teams this year, to help account for the challenges presented by COVID-19. And with that, the stage is set for the following 14 clubs, but they're not all created equal. It's quite the contrary, actually, and that's why things are about to get spicy in January.
Who's sitting at the head of the class? And who in the back of it has a chance of shaking the table?
Let's take a look.
1. Kansas City Chiefs (14-2)
Until further notice, this is the king of the castle.
Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs haven't slowed one iota since upending the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl, and are hot on the heels of a potential repeat that could see Mahomes land a second-consecutive SB MVP nod. Having secured the top seed in the AFC, they'll enjoy a bye week before having to square off with the winner of the Titans vs. Ravens, and they'll be well-rested by virtue of that bye and the fact key starters sat out the regular season finale. The only concern here will be potential rust, but then again, Mahomes has proven he's not necessarily human. He and Tyreek Hill lead an aerial assault that is nearly impossible to halt, and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire could potentially return to anchor the ground attack. All the defense has to do is match serve, and the Chiefs will be/remain the frontrunner to hoist the Lombardi in February.
2. Green Bay Packers (13-3)
What is a "Jordan Love"?
While Aaron Rodgers claims (read: pretends) the decision to draft Love isn't driving him to what's become an MVP-caliber season, the fact is he's arguably due to receive that NFL honor for the third time in his Hall of Fame career. Rodgers and wideout Davante Adams are on an absolute tear, and running back Aaron Jones provides an excellent balance to what they can do in the air. On the defensive side of the ball, the Smith Bros are as much of a terror as they've ever been, led by Za'Darius Smith and his 12.5 sacks on the season. Behind them stands safety Darnell Savage, Jr. (4 INTs) and Adrian Amos (2 INTs), a dynamic duo capable of grounding any potential aerial threat that comes their way. Sitting atop the NFC, the Packers are on a collision course with Kansas City.
3. New Orleans Saints (12-4)
Sean Payton has his team ready to do some damage in the postseason.
Drew Brees might not be 100 percent in regards to his ribs, but they're touching, as in he's starving to finally get back to Super Bowl glory. And after finishing with a 12-4 record despite lacking perennial All-Pro Michael Thomas for most of the season, they'll potentially see him return to the fold for the postseason, having already returned to practice in limited fashion. If Thomas gets back on the field, opposing defenses will find him well-rested and as prolific as he's ever been, which adds to the dominance of Alvin Kamara as a dual-threat running back. The biggest question for New Orleans is Kamara, however, it still undetermined if he'll be activated from the COVID/Reserve list in time for their battle with the Bears. At full strength, and with an opportunistic defense in tow, the Saints are a whole problem.
4. Buffalo Bills (13-3)
Well hello there, Buffalo.
Anyone still doubting the Bills and/or waiting for them to fall apart is having a tough time. This is a team that's seen Josh Allen take the next leap in his progression as a franchise NFL quarterback, and he can thank wideout Stefon Diggs for helping him achieve the heights he did in 2020. For while Allen has gotten it done with both his legs and his arms, when he's using the latter, it's often Diggs torching defenses on his way to the end zone. And teams can't solely key in on Diggs, either, with Cole Beasley being indefensible out of the slot, Gabriel Davis racking up receiving touchdowns, John Brown providing a speedy complement to it all while tight end Dawson Knox has also been known to have his fun. If the defense can clamp down on the offenses they're about to face, watch out, because the Bills are here and they're out for blood. So, why are they below the Saints? Postseason experience, or rather lack thereof, is why.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)
No worries Mr. Brady, you're still top-5 on this list.
There's a reason Tom Brady has six Super Bowl rings, and why the Patriots were in shambles this season without him, and it's mostly due to his never-say-die demeanor. And, to make matters worse for their opposition, he's equipped with a slew of offensive weapons that includes Antonio Brown -- who struggled initially but has come on strong as of late. That will come in handy if Mike Evans can't go against Washington in the first round, but the defense is getting a weapon back in the activation of Shaq Barrett from the COVID/Reserve list. As it stands, Evans is day-to-day, but the Buccaneers might not need him to defeat the winner of the lowly NFC East, although they have no plans to take Washington lightly, either. Brady is back in the postseason where he belongs, and that makes everyone outside of Central Florida nervous. And with Tampa hosting the Super Bowl, the Bucs would love that sort of home-field advantage.
6. Tennessee Titans (11-5)
I could stop there when establishing motive for ranking the Titans this high on the list, and higher than even the Steelers or Ravens, but the bottom line is until someone can stop the unstoppable force -- Tennessee can impose its will. Henry finished the season with more than 2,000 rushing yards and, quiet as it's kept, Ryan Tannehill isn't the game manager some label him as. The veteran quarterback can make every throw and use his legs to extend drives as well, making for a nice one-two punch in Nashville. It's an offense that averages 30.7 points per game (4th), so no worries there, but plenty of concern for Mike Vrabel's defense, seeing as they allow 27.4 points per contest. The name of the Titans game will be to control the clock with Henry, lessening the exposure of their defense and increasing the chances they'll finish what they started in 2019.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
Which Steelers team will show up in the playoffs?
The answer to that question will determine how far they go, if anywhere at all. It's wild to consider a few weeks ago they were considered one of, if not the, best overall team in the NFL -- when they sat at 11-0. Since then, they've tailspun to a three-game losing streak that nearly saw them give up ownership of the AFC North to the Browns, the very team they'll face in the first round after resting Ben Roethlisberger against them in the Week 17 loss. Roethlisberger hasn't played good football to close out the season, and the Steelers are hoping rest is all the medicine he needs, because if it isn't, he'll get a lot more of it soon enough. Count on the stellar Pittsburgh defense to play lights out in the playoffs, as they have all season, and they might have to save the day -- if their offense can't find top gear.
8. Baltimore Ravens (11-5)
Speaking of an offense finding top gear, the Ravens finally have.
The only reason Baltimore is one notch below Pittsburgh on this list is because they were swept by Mike Tomlin in the regular season series, helping to push the Steelers to the division crown. But after suffering a three-game losing streak and a COVID-19 outbreak, reigning league MVP Lamar Jackson has the offense firing on all cylinders and they're once again prolific as they enter the tournament. It's tough to know where their defense stands, however, considering the diminished points per game allowed in December was aided by playing teams like the Cowboys, Jaguars and Giants, but having struggled to stop teams like the Steelers, Titans and Chiefs. There are few, if any, questions on if Jackson and the offense are ready, but plenty on if the defense is.
9. Seattle Seahawks (12-4)
What a ride it's been for Seattle this year.
For the first half of the season, Russell Wilson was operating at an MVP level and it helped spawn the "Let Russ Cook" movement, but untimely giveaways cooled his cuisine noticeably, and put the Seahawks in a back alley division brawl with the Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals. Their losses were also attributable to what was once one of the worst defenses in the league, but is suddenly awakened and formed like Voltron to close out the regular season. With All-Pro safety Jamal Adams likely a go to start the tournament -- not that you could keep him out after spending years with the lowly New York Jets -- it stands to reason the unit will continue to build upon the momentum they've established. That will go a long way to helping Wilson, D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett operate in a pressure-free environment, and they'll need just that to rack up points and avoid backbreaking turnovers.
10. Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
Cutting it kind of close there eh, Indy?
The Colts have been a team to be reckoned with for a good bit of the 2020 season but, when it mattered most, they nearly wet the bed. Coughing up a double-digit lead to the Steelers in Week 16 not only gave Pittsburgh the AFC North, but it almost eliminated the Colts from the playoffs -- despite their impressive record. In the end, Philip Rivers led the troops to a mandatory victory over the same dismal Jaguars team they lost to in the season opener, and all that matters is they're in the postseason now. A usually elite defense coached by Matt Eberflus is expected to be ready for all comers, but the offense can't afford to be inconsistent going forward. The Colts need to show they have the killer instinct to finish an opponent when they have the chance, because they'll get sent home if they can't and run up against a quarterback and/or defense that can.
11. Los Angeles Rams (10-6)
Will the real L.A. Rams please stand up?
It's January and Sean McVay has his team in the playoffs yet again, which isn't much of a surprise. What is a head-scratcher, however, is their waffling to finish the year. In one moment, the Rams can be viewed as the team most likely to flip the table in the NFC this postseason but, in another moment, they could be a complete afterthought to some others on this list. When you're in the race for your division crown, you can't become the first win of the season for the tanking Jets, for example -- a loss made worse by the subsequent one in Week 16 at the hands of the Seahawks. That said, they've proven they can beat Seattle, and Jared Goff, and concerns on if he'll be able to play well coming off of thumb surgery (if he plays at all)., and they've got them. The Rams are duplicitous though, so they'll either stun the Seahawks or be the victims of their own ineptitude, with all eyes on the availability of
12. Cleveland Browns (11-5)
Why the cosmos hate the Browns is anyone's guess.
A few days ago, I would've ranked the Browns much higher on this list, but that was then and this is now. Entering their first playoff game since 2002, they've lost their second-best pass rusher for the season, with Olivier Vernon having ruptured his Achilles in the regular season finale against the Steelers. And as they ready to double back and take on Pittsburgh for a third time, they'll have to do so in the midst of COVID-19 issues that will not only see them absent Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio, but also head coach Kevin Stefanski. These are massive losses for the Browns at any stretch of the year, but even more so when there's no tomorrow. Don't go writing the Browns off just yet, because they've earned at least that much respect, but Stefanski not being around to call plays headlines a week for Cleveland that puts them in a really, really bad spot as they try and prepare for their fully-loaded rival.
13. Chicago Bears (8-8)
Who would'a thunk it?
Well, to be honest, I would've and did -- considering Nick Foles earlier this season, something most saw coming from a mile away, he'd return following injury to Foles and remain starter to close out the year. During that stretch, Trubisky played some of the best football of his career, and while he wasn't a world-beater, he cut down on a good bit of his mistakes to help the Bears stay viable enough to withstand a loss at the hands of the Packers in Week 17 and still make the playoffs. Where things go from here is anyone's guess, but Trubisky and head coach Matt Nagy get a chance to exorcise some recent postseason demons, although that will be a daunting task with the Saints looking to dismantle them this weekend.. What I didn't predict though, was the recent play of Mitch Trubisky. After being benched for
14. Washington Football Team (7-9)
Anything can happen in the playoffs.
That's the mantra Washington is sticking to this week and potentially beyond, as winners of the laughable NFC East. To their credit, they played good football when Alex Smith was fully healthy and enjoying throws to Terry McLaurin while Antonio Gibson balanced it all out, and while first-overall pick Chase Young led a dominant defensive line. The problem is Smith isn't 100 percent, but rather far from it, as he continues to nurse a calf injury that sidelined him in two games this past December -- Washington losing both games en route to and elevating Taylor Heinicke as backup. It appears Smith is touch-and-go for now, after battling through to win the NFC East in Week 17 against a Philadelphia Eagles team that did all it could to lose the contest. Don't count on Tom Brady doing the same this weekend, or any team in the tournament. Washington will have to earn their way to the Super Bowl in historic fashion, and with a hobbled QB1.