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The Super Bowl contenders are starting to reveal themselves to us as the playoffs are less than a month away now. This year, in the longest season ever that’s been headlined by injuries, an astronomical amount of COVID absences, and unpredictability week-to-week, there are no perfect teams. Each team has a clear-cut weakness. What will determine the champion will come down to who is healthiest and is able to overcome that weakness. 

Let’s pinpoint each contender’s weakness, and analyze if it’s a big enough problem to cause a team to reach their demise come January or February.

Green Bay Packers- Special Teams

There has only been ONE punt returned for a touchdown. It was allowed by the Packers. On the other side of the ball on special teams, Mason Crosby, who has long been Mr. Reliable kicking in an environment frequently impacted by weather, has seemed to have completely lost it. Last year he got off to a slow start and recovered towards the end of the year, but this season Crosby has only made 66.7% of his kicks. While the Packers finally have some defense to help out Aaron Rodgers and his offense, the special teams is a glaring weakness.

Will it be a downfall?

No way. Not this year. Aaron Rodgers won’t allow a game on the line to come down to whether or not Crosby can make a field goal after last season he wanted to stay on the field in the NFC Championship game on 4th down. 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers- Health and Depth

The Bucs lost Wide Receiver Chris Godwin to a torn ACL, Mike Evans has a hamstring issue likely to linger, Leonard Fournette is getting shut down for the rest of the regular season with his hamstring, and Lavonte David now has a foot sprain. This is a team that already has had Rob Gronkowski miss time and signed Le’Veon Bell recently, who reportedly was about to box one of the Paul brothers and thought his football career was over.

Will it be a downfall?

In the Bucs case, no. Tom Brady has been able to elevate his entire offense in New England without having skill players, which is where the Bucs are hobbled now. The offensive line is still strong, and where they once had a lack of depth due to injuries, the secondary, they’re all starting to finally get healthy and return on that side of the ball. Tom can throw the ball to anyone and continue to keep them a contender, however, the defense is the X-factor in staying healthy and keeping them afloat.

Dallas Cowboys- Offensive Momentum

If you would have told anyone that the Cowboys would be stronger on the defensive side of the ball than their offense at the start of the year, you would have thought something was terribly wrong. However, they have a top-5 defense carried by Micah Parsons being a freak of nature and Trevon Diggs intercepting every ball thrown to him and operating as a human venus fly trap. Unfortunately, the offense is headed in the opposite direction. Dak, Zeke, Amari, and Ceedee sounds great on paper, but they haven’t been able to carry their own weight; Dak continues to play conservatively by not using his legs and big body to make plays after recovering from injury, Zeke continues to limp across the field, and Amari and

Photo: Roger Steinman / Associated Press

Ceedee are either not on the field together at the same time or struggling to run open routes. 

Will it be a downfall?

If the play-calling doesn’t improve to provide the Cowboys with some life, it’s going to be the reason the Cowboys lose early in the postseason to another explosive offense like the Packers or the Rams. Reliance on defense can only take a team so far, and turnover luck simply isn’t sustainable. Trevon Diggs may lead the league in interceptions, but he also allows blown coverages when he isn’t fully locked down on his man. The Cowboys need to get Dak, Zeke, and the skill position players fully-healthy so that they can start making explosive plays again and provide some life, but it comes down to the play-calling that has been so conservative. You can’t beat postseason teams by playing it safe.

Los Angeles Rams- Run Game

The Rams have almost completely become reliant upon Matthew Stafford throwing bombs to Cooper Kupp. They have a top-10 offense as a whole that averages 381 yards per game, but they’re in the BOTTOM 10 in rushing offense. They don’t exactly have the bell cow running back to take all of the carries- Darrell Henderson and Sony Michel have split time together in the back, but Henderson averages 61 yards per game and Michel only 42.

Will it be a downfall?

The year that the Rams made the Super Bowl, while they didn’t have Matthew Stafford, who is a significant upgrade over Jared Goff since then, the key to their success was that they had prime Todd Gurley and CJ Anderson balancing it out. They have a lack of that balance right now, and it could come to haunt them when they face secondaries that will gameplan to lockdown Kupp. Luckily, they could potentially be getting Cam Akers back in a miraculous return- he was expected to have his “coming out” season this year before tearing his achilles in the offseason. He could be the X-factor for a Rams team that is finding their chemistry at the right time.

Arizona Cardinals- Peaking too early

After starting out the year with the best record in the NFL, the Cardinals have now lost five out of their last eight games. It also just doesn’t feel like they’re on the verge of recovering from this- they’ve since lost JJ Watt for the rest of the year, DeAndre Hopkins for the rest of the season, and Kyler Murray has been banged up, limiting what he’s capable of as the man that carries the team entirely. They’re also just making dumb mistakes that costs teams games: they have the fourth-most penalties and second-most missed field goals in the league. They’re playing bad football outside of the highlight-level plays Kyler is capable of making.

Will it be a downfall?

Good teams have a lot of talent, but great teams don’t play dumb football and prevent themselves from being their own worst enemy. That’s what the Cardinals are doing right now at the most important time of the year, and the momentum is swinging in the opposite direction.

New England Patriots- Having a Rookie Quarterback

The Patriots are back to looking like a complete team- the defense and special teams are absolutely dominant, allowing the fewest points in football, they have a balanced attack on offense with a strong run game led by Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris, and Mac Jones, while he hasn’t been the flashiest, has been a productive leader at quarterback from the very beginning and has made few mistakes. Bill Belichick has ingratiated him into the system with ease. However, what he has the opportunity to do is unprecedented: no rookie quarterback has ever played in a Super Bowl before. As Mac continues to learn the game, we all have been in “wait and see” mode to see if his inexperience finally catches up to him in big spots.

Will it be a downfall?

If Mac Jones’s rookie inexperience fails New England in the playoffs, it won’t be because of the pressure- he’s already won a National Title when he was in college at Alabama. It will be because his relatively weak skill position group gets outmatched and he hasn’t had the time to develop into the experienced playmaker that can outsmart defenses on his own. If anyone could lead a rookie quarterback to a Super Bowl, it’s Bill Belichick, but the odds are going to favor other teams that have seasoned veterans at the most important position in the game come playoff time.

Indianapolis Colts- Not Trusting Carson Wentz

Jonathon Taylor has been playing at an MVP-level at running back behind that dominant offensive line, but ultimately, the NFL is still a pass-first league if you want to win and compete offensively. Carson Wentz may not throw the MOST interceptions, but the ones he DOES throw are so egregious and created in a nightmare factory that you’re terrified of his “hero ball” play style where he tries to make magic out of nothing only to make the play even worse. He only threw five completions in their best win against New England, almost as if Frank Reich was hiding his potential mistakes against the New England defense.

Will it be a downfall?

The Colts are so well-equipped in every other facet of the game as they’ve currently won 8 out of their last 10 games that Wentz doesn’t have to be the hero as long as he’s not allowed to make mistakes; the defense and clock control through the ground can force the opposition to play a different style, which will be scary come playoff time. With Wentz, he had two sprained ankles earlier in the year, and since then, he’s actually been BETTER while playing through them- he learned not to force the magic that led to the back-breaking interceptions that would cost them games. Wentz is gradually earning the trust of the play caller and can manage the team to playoff success.

Tennessee Titans- Offensive Explosiveness

The Titans are the bullies of the NFL- they will push the opposition around as the underdog, surprising them with a powerhouse punch any time they’re the underdog with ground and pound football, defense, and clock management. They love being counted out and winning ugly, and they’re the 2nd seed in the AFC at 10-5 despite not having Derrick Henry, Julio Jones, or AJ Brown for a large part of the season. That can only go so far, though. The Titans, while they’re winning, don’t have the capability of making big plays without Henry or healthy skill position players. They’re dead last in big plays (passes >25 yards) in the league at only 14, and ever since Derrick Henry went down, they’ve not scored more than 28 points in a game.

Will it be a downfall?

This Titans team will possibly get Henry back for the postseason, but he’ll be a shell of himself as he continues to rehab. They’re not built to keep up with the explosive offenses they’ll potentially be facing like Kansas City, Buffalo, or even Cincinnati if it were to come down to a shootout. The compromised health makes them only capable of playing this specific style, which has been proven to be unsustainable in a league driven by offense.

Kansas City Chiefs- Skill Position Depth

The Chiefs’ offense is largely carried by Mahomes’s capability of throwing a bomb to Tyreek Hill when he gets into space and throwing to his security blanket, Travis Kelce, when he gets into trouble. Outside of that, the options get pretty bleak with hit-or-miss targets: Clyde Edwards-Helaire leads the team in rushing with only 517 yards on the ground, and the rest of the receiver group is a hot mess of Byron Pringle, Mecole Hardman, and Demarcus Robinson. The drop off goes from Hill and Kelce both having over 1,000 yards on the year to Hardman’s mere 537.

Will it be a downfall?

In their dominant 36-10 win over Pittsburgh without Travis Kelce and with Hill only having 19 yards, Mahomes proved he can make anyone look good. He still threw for 258 yards and 3 TD’s on one of the best defenses in football. The engine of the car is Mahomes getting time behind an offensive line. That’s enough to get Kansas City to potentially another Super Bowl.

Buffalo Bills- Offensive Balance

Josh Allen is fantastic! He’s got a rocket arm that can sling the ball all over the field and put up over 30 points on defenses like New England’s! But you know who the best rusher on the Bills is? Josh Allen. They have no desire to run the ball from their running backs- Devin Singletary is the leader with 44.8 yards per game on 146 attempts, but Josh Allen isn’t far behind him as the quarterback.

Will it be a downfall?

The Bills were close to reaching the Super Bowl with the same offensive setup last season, but it was because Josh Allen was putting up otherworldly numbers. Those numbers aren’t near as high this year, and they’ll be facing teams in the postseason like the Colts, Patriots, or the Titans that can run the ball and control the clock and force Allen to make plays. Ultimately, their offensive firepower is here to stay, and as long as Allen and the receiving core is healthy, they’ll be able to contend for a Super Bowl in the same way that Kansas City doesn’t have much of a run game either. However, instilling rushing and play action plays will make life so much easier on Josh Allen and could vault them back into being one of the favorites in the conference.

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