Super Bowl Contender Breakdown
The playoff picture is beginning to shake out. Only a couple of teams have clinched, but at this point, teams are pretty much who we think they are. At this point, there are six clear contenders for the title.
As always, the Patriots top that list, and will continue to top the list until Bill Belichick and/or Tom Brady retire. However, their opponent tonight might also have a real shot at reaching the Super Bowl.
The Ravens are 7-5 and locked in a battle for their division, but have played better the last few weeks. The defense has been returning to form, and the offense has improved since Marc Trestman’s firing, and last week against the Dolphins, Joe Flacco flashed the potential that got him a Super Bowl ring. A poor showing tonight drops them from contender status, but even a close loss would prove they’re in the hunt.
The Oakland Raiders, meanwhile, did have a poor showing on Thursday that calls their status into question. Falling out of the division lead and potentially having to play on the road and in the cold hurts their chances, but they’re still the second most complete team in the AFC, possibly even the most complete team with Rob Gronkowski out. From a tough defense and a powerful running game to MVP candidate Derek Carr playing for comebacks (when his finger is healthy), it’s difficult to find a weakness on Oakland’s roster, even with the loss.
Oakland’s loss to the Chiefs catapulted Kansas City into the spotlight, but they have quietly been good for a while. Their only read downside is that with Jamaal Charles out for now and no real receiving threats besides Travis Kelce, the offense could be shut down by a strong defense like on Thursday (KC’s offense only scored 14 points, relying on Tyreek Hill’s return TD to seal the win). They’ve still got a winning formula, and could make a run if Alex Smith finally plays to his potential.
In the NFC, there’s a lot of teams battling for position, but few contenders. The Seahawks defense looked vulnerable this week after losing Earl Thomas for the year, Sam Bradford has looked like his usual mediocre self with the Vikings, and the Lions have almost entirely won via comeback this year (a pattern that is unsustainable). Meanwhile, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers almost give their teams contender status, but their teams have serious flaws on defense.
There’s really only two major contenders in the NFC, both from the East.
The Cowboys may have looked weak on offense in the ugly loss last night, but similar to the Raiders, they’re the only complete team in the NFC. It was one bad game, and likely not a sign of things to come.
The Giants have a defense that ranks poorly, but recently returned to full health for the first time since Week 2. When healthy, New York’s defense has completely shut down high powered offenses. Their offense, on the other hand, has been anemic at best, but can’t be counted out- we’ve seen Eli Manning go on hot streaks before, and he could do it again.
Those six contenders- the Patriots, Ravens, Raiders, Chiefs, Cowboys, and Giants- still have plenty of time to position themselves for home field advantage. As unpredictable as the NFL is, we’ll have no way of knowing how it all shakes out until it actually does.
The one thing we can be sure of? This season will have a wild finish.