The Race For The NFL Wild Card Spots

The wild card race in the two conferences couldn’t be more different.  The NFC is loaded and has six teams vying for two spots, while the AFC only features four.  One of those teams is so good that they could make the Super Bowl, which only leaves one legitimate spot open.

We’ll start with the mess that is the NFC.

Chicago Bears

A year ago, the Bears seemed like they were a year away.  There were a lot of new faces.  There was a young quarterback.  But there was talent.

A year later, we’re kind of stuck in the same place.

The talent is there.  Despite Jordan Howard now being an Eagle, the Bears still have a solid running back committee in Tarik Cohen and rookie David Montgomery.  They still have a nice group of receivers, which added Riley Ridley in the draft.  And the defense, minus Adrian Amos and Bryce Callahan, has its core back.

Except for the mastermind behind it all.

Vic Fangio leaving for the Broncos job might be the biggest reason the Bears didn’t make Monday’s column.  Despite other concerns, the defense is the engine behind this team.

There’s a chance we see the regression the Vikings’ defense experienced last season from the Bears.  Minnesota didn’t even lose their coordinator; guys simply just didn’t play as well as they did the season before because the performance in 2017-18 was that good.  The Bears could be staring at a similar fate this season.

The losses of Amos and Callahan, despite not affecting the core of the team, also restricts the Bears’ ability to play in the nickel and dime.  Instead of throwing Callahan out there as a fifth defensive back, the Bears are looking at offseason signing Buster Skrine instead.  Ha Ha Clinton Dix also came over from Green Bay, essentially switching places with Amos.  He’s been good when healthy, but health is massive question mark.

The possible reduction in defensive production doesn’t bode well for Mitchell Trubisky.

Trubisky took important steps forward last season.  He showed that he isn’t going to be terrible; that he could be at least an average, competent starter in the NFL.

How much higher can he go though?  Despite all the praise, Trubisky only threw for 3,223 yards with 24 touchdowns last season.  He threw half as many interceptions as he did touchdowns, and averaged just 7.4 yards per attempt.  And that was with a very good weapons core around him.

It was Matt Nagy’s first season with Trubisky though.  Perhaps he can take him to another level.  The Bears are going to need it, because the defense may not be there like it was last year.  Trubisky will have to prove he’s capable of leading a team to the Super Bowl rather than having a defense carry him there this season to show Chicago that he’s truly their guy, and for me to give them contender status.

Dallas Cowboys

Ezekiel Elliott is back after signing an absolutely massive contract extension this morning with the Cowboys worth six years and $90 million.

Despite it being a massive overpay, it’s huge for Dallas, whose whole offense revolves around Zeke being one of the best running backs in the league.

Remember in 2017 when Zeke missed Weeks 9-16 due to his domestic violence situation?  In four of the six games Zeke didn’t play in, Dallas’ offense gained less than 300 yards total.  It was a disaster.

Zeke came back and produced, rushing for 200 yards in his final two games that season.  But the Cowboys finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs.

The Cowboys offense without Zeke was hard to get excited about.  Dak Prescott is average; maybe a tad better than that depending on the weapons around him (He’s not, and will never be, worth $40 million a year though.  Get out of here).  The Cowboys added Randall Cobb and Jason Witten this offseason to Amari Cooper, but  Cobb was injured last season and Witten was broadcasting Monday Night Football.

Zeke makes the Cowboys a potential playoff team.  Without him, they’d comfortably be on the outside looking in due to some issues with the defense,  despite its improvements and its 9th place finish in DVOA last season.   The secondary is relying on young guys like Xavier Woods (He was good last year) and Chidobe Awuzie (He was not) besides veterans like Byron Jones and Jeff Heath.

The front seven is deep and full of strong linebackers and pass rushers though.  Sean Lee’s health is always a question, and an important one as Dallas’ defense tends to fall apart when he’s not on the field.  Still, the talent is there to help recoup from a possible Lee injury.  Jaylon Smith just got paid, and Leighton Vander-Esch should take another step forward.  Robert Quinn will form a physical pass-rushing duo with DeMarcus Lawrence when Quinn returns from his PED suspension.

Dallas getting Zeke back probably elevates them to at least nine wins.  They’ll have to run him into the ground because of the lack of explosiveness the offense has (What happens when teams double Cooper?  Can Dak make a deep throw to Cobb?), but that’s okay.  That’s what they’re paying him for, right?

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons were a hard drop from Super Bowl contenders column.  The talent is there for them.  It’s a roster that could win 12 games, bearing performance and injuries.

This year is the one Atlanta should have had last year.  Injuries to Devonta Freeman, Deion Jones and five other starters (Among them were both safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen) wrecked the 2018 campaign for the Falcons.  Their defense finished second-to-last in DVOA.  Both their run and pass defense were among the league’s bottom five.

The best case for the 2019-20 Falcons is what their offense could bring to the table. It has the chance to among the league’s most explosive.  Julio Jones, Mohammed Sanu and Calvin Ridley might be the best 1-2-3 receiving core around.  They have a great offensive line which should be back healthy.  Freeman did miss two games in 2017-18 before being hurt for practically all of last season, leading to some lower numbers and the Falcons don’t have a speedster in Tevin Coleman to partner Freeman’s ground and pound anymore, but second-year back Ito Smith could be featured more instead.

Atlanta’s front seven is nasty.  Jones, one of the most versatile players in football, is back.  Vic Beasley Jr. and Tak McKinley, along with Grady Jarrett and former Cowboy Jack Crawford inside, create a deep and menacing defensive line (Adrian Clayborn is back too after a stint in New England).  The Falcons can run exotic blitzes with their personnel.  Blitzing five, or even six, is possible when you have Jones and De’Vondre Campbell in the middle of the field (They’re two of the best coverage linebackers in the league).  With Jones surveying the middle, the Falcons can load the box with Beasley Jr. and Clayborn on the outside and McKinley, Jarrett and Crawford on the inside.  Good luck with that.

Of course, all of this is based on the Falcons being healthy.  That concern, coupled with a very competitive division that includes a Saints team looking for revenge from last season as well makes me put the Falcons here.  But they might be the first team out from the contenders ring.

Green Bay Packers

Like Atlanta, the Packers are another team where, if everything goes right, we could see them make a deep playoff push.

The Packers had a very unlike Packers offseason.  They hired a new coach and spent a ton of money.  They also completely revamped their offense.

These changes were needed, but their effect might not be as impactful as we thought.

Despite all the money being spend, none of it went into the offense.  Green Bay is betting on Matt LeFluer to turn things around with the same skill position players as last season, none of whom produced or Aaron Rodgers trusted.  LeFluer doesn’t necessarily have a dazzling background either when it comes to getting the most out of sub-par groups.  Sure, the oft-injured Marcus Mariota was the quarterback he had to work with in Tennessee, but the Titans’ weapons core, aside from Derrick Henry, always underwhelmed.

That could be blamed on the lack of talent, but the same issue exists in Green Bay.  Aside from Davante Adams, the picture is bleak.  Green Bay is looking at Marques-Valdez Scalding and Geromino Allison as their second and third receivers.  Jimmy Graham should be a more viable target, but he only caught 55 balls last season.

The running game isn’t much to be excited about either.  Though the ceiling on former Notre Dame running back Dexter Williams is high, Aaron Jones and Jamal Williams haven’t turned into reliable every down backs.  Feeding Dexter, a sixth-round pick in April’s draft, seems daunting given his inexperience.

The offensive line is very good though.  That is, when healthy.

That’s the key to the rest of this team.  Injuries certainly won’t be a plus for the offensive, but with the skill position group already as weak as it is, any injury that isn’t to Rodgers may not be as detrimental.

Green Bay invested heavily in defense this offseason.  They signed former Washington linebacker Preston Smith to a four-year, $52 million contract and former Ravens edge rusher Za’Darius Smith to a four-year, $66 million contract.  They got former Bear Adrian Amos to make a move north as well.

Za’Darius was a dire need for Green Bay.  Aside from Kenny Clark, who generates good pass rush for a defensive tackle but can’t do it all himself, Green Bay has zero quality ends.  Smith, who had 8.5 sacks last season, changes that.

Amos gives a very young and talented secondary a veteran presence, and can help provide a blanket compared to rookie Darnell Savage Jr., who’s more of an electric, ball-hawking player.

It wouldn’t be a stunner if the Packers defense ranked higher in DVOA than the offense.  They could be a top ten group in the league.

The offense, even with Rodgers, is the question.  The LeFluer hire wasn’t incredibly inspiring, especially considering the lack of talent at the skill positions.  While almost anyone’s scheme has to be better than what Mike McCarthy’s was, LeFluer didn’t show that he could take an average offense to the next level.  Then again, he didn’t have one of the best quarterbacks of all-time either.  This Packers season could really come down to Rodgers having to do it all yet again.

Carolina Panthers

If the Panthers were in another division, their ceiling for this season may be a lot higher.

The offensive side of the ball has long been the issue.  Whether it’s a terrible offensive line, a banged up Cam Newton or a lack of weapons, the Panthers’ inconsistency from season-to-season since their miraculous 15-1 Super Bowl run can be blamed on one or more of those causes.  Throughout it all, the defense has remained mostly the same.

Carolina added Chris Hogan in free agency, but the situation outside the hashes is still not great.  They’re going to need a big year from second-year wide-out DJ Moore, who gained just under 800 yards last season.  The same goes for Curtis Samuel, who enters his third season after an outstanding college career at Ohio State.

Samuel can get there.  A lot of people are high on him, and he showed his ability in school.  Carolina will need the young duo to really step up, because even though Newton has an above-average offensive line for once, Christian McCaffrey is someone who defenses might figure out this year.

It’s not that he’s not a good player.  Samuel and Moore’s performances this season directly affect McCaffrey’s.  The third-year running back is a target for defenses.  Since Carolina doesn’t have any real threats on the outside, they know that if McCaffrey is in the game, the ball is likely going to him. If that happens, it takes away the Panthers’ No. 1 threat offensively and puts Samuel and Moore in the spotlight.

Thankfully, while Newton is waiting for receivers to get open, he won’t have to get crushed anymore.  The Panthers invested in their line this offseason, signing Matt Paradis to a three-year, $27 million contract.  He, Trai Turner and Taylor Morton comfortably round out the right side of the line, but the left is a little more questionable.  Daryl Williams played three-quarters of a game last season after sustaining a knee injury in Week 1 and has rookie Greg Little starting down his back.  Greg Van Roten is a solid, durable player as well.

If the offense suffers from its lack of creativity and inability to move the ball, the Panthers should still be fine.  Their defense is top five in the league, and even in a loaded division, should be able to get them to at least 8-8.

How much farther the Panthers reach above that is dependent on those receivers taking a step forward.  If they can, it makes McCaffrey more dangerous, and Newton one of the best quarterbacks in the league.  In a division where explosive offenses are bound to ignite, the Panthers may find themselves sheltering from the fallout.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens were filled with promise until a purge of their defense this offseason left them without Eric Weddle, CJ Mosley, Terrell Suggs and Za’Darious Smith.

The missing pieces hurt.  While there’s still a lot of talent left, especially along the defensive line and in the secondary, it brings Baltimore’s defense down to a level where it may not be able to carry Lamar Jackson and the developing offense.

Jackson doesn’t have a lot of help.  His best, proven receiver is Willie Snead, who has had big years in the past but doesn’t necessarily fit the bill as a No. 1 option; the sixth-year wide-out gained only 651 yards last season.

Baltimore is hoping that first-round pick Marquise “Hollywood” Brown can become that guy.  One of my favorites in the Draft, he had the honor of having two Heisman Trophy winners as his quarterbacks during his two years at Oklahoma.  Brown is, and has been, ready to be the man.

Can Jackson get the ball to him?  He won’t have to throw a ton with offseason signing Mark Ingram, who will finally be used as a lead back in Baltimore, but when defenses start loading the box up to defend against Ingram and Jackson rushes, the Ravens are going to have to get big yardage elsewhere.  With Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst and Nick Boyle, Baltimore figures to use a ton of three tight end sets, but those are the opposite of the 10-personnel, air-raid-like packages we’re seeing teams adapt to now.

The Ravens don’t have a chance in shootouts, which means the defense is going to have to hold its own.  They did bring in Earl Thomas to replace Weddle, so they’re not downgrading there.  But guys like the oft-injured Pernell McPhee and second-year linebacker Chris Board are going to have to step up.

Baltimore won’t have a heavy slew of competition for an AFC Wild Card spot.  They should be able to get in.  How far they go comes down to how far along Jackson or this defense comes.

Seattle Seahawks

The best case for the Seahawks this season is that their front seven could be the best in football.

The Jadeveon Clowney trade made too much sense for Seattle.  One, it cost them practically nothing: a third round pick and two linebackers they didn’t need.  Two, it turned an already frightening group into an even scarier one.

Using their first round pick on Collier as opposed to someone like Kaleb McGrady or Jawaan Taylor might seem a bit redundant now, but Clowney on the edge rather than a rookie adds a whole other level to this defense.  With Collier as an every down rusher, you could contend that this line has two holes along with nose tackle Poona Ford.

Seattle’s offense drew some ire last year, and it was deserved.  Their conservative, heavy run scheme coupled with their inability to block and resistance to throwing the ball downfield killed them in their playoff loss to the Cowboys.

Brian Schottenheimer is still unfortunately in charge, but things could change this year for Seattle.  Russell Wilson has some receivers!  Tyler Lockett is one of the best downfield threats in the league.  Seattle drafted D.K. Metcalf late in the second round, way later than he should have gone.  They also have former Cardinal Jaron Brown as another downfield threat, though his impact could a bit limited.  Seattle also has Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny to use as out of the backfield threats; Penny gives Seattle some needed speed.

Wilson has three legitimate receivers either way.  And perhaps more importantly, a better offensive line.

It’s still not great.  The right side consisting of DJ Fluker and Germain Ifedi is troublesome, but Duane Brown is a hold-the-fort-down tackle and Mike Iupati has had his talent wrecked by injuries.

The Seahawks will make the playoffs.  That defense as a whole is a bit reminiscent of their Super Bowl-winning group, and the hope for diversity in the offense powered by Wilson is hard to bet against.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Baltimore wasn’t the only team in the AFC North to have a whole side of their team purged over the offseason.

Pittsburgh not only lost their two best offensive weapons, but lost perhaps the two best players in the league at those respective positions.  That’s not a scenario you want to toss an aging quarterback into.

Despite throwing for 5,129 yards (the most in the league) and 34 touchdowns last season, Rothlisberger also threw a league-leading 16 interceptions and posted a quarterback rating of 96.5,  15th in football.

The signs of decline were there.  Sure, LeVeon Bell’s absence didn’t help.  But Rothlisberger had one of the best weapons core and offensive lines duos in the league and didn’t make us feel necessarily good about him exiting the season.  Pittsburgh had an extremely hard time getting going early in games; they scored the 21st most first quarter points in the league in 2018-19, ridiculous for an offense as talented as they were.

The defense was fine at best; their front played well but the secondary got cooked, though the numbers suggest it wasn’t that bad (They finished 17th in pass defense DVOA).

If the secondary improves, this could be a nasty group that bails out an underwhelming offense at times.  It’d be nice to see them be a little more athletic up front, but that’s made up for with their dynamic linebackers, which now includes former Michigan stud Devin Bush.

Bush has made waves in camp and it’s no surprise.  The versatile linebacker can play anywhere.  Pittsburgh using him instead of the positionless (Not a compliment) Mark Barron could benefit them, especially in pass defense, where Bush is a very capable defender.

The secondary has the potential to be better.  Joe Haden just got paid, and Terrell Edmunds is a stud.  The issue is the other half.  Steven Nelson got a hefty contract considering he was a major part of a bad defense last season (Their rush defense was very bad, but the secondary didn’t help things).  Sean Davis was better last season than the previous year, but a 69.8 PFF grade still doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.

With the Steelers, you’re betting on a lot to go right. You’re betting on Rothlisberger  to stay healthy and still be a top ten quarterback. You’re betting on them not to feel the loss of Antonio Brown too much. You’re betting on the secondary improving.  You’re betting against the heart attack you have every week when you bet their over in the first half.  They shouldn’t be terrible, but I’ll keep my money.

Denver Broncos

Considering a Joe Flacco-led team for the playoffs seems absolutely insane.

But the Broncos might be talented enough to keep him afloat and contend for a playoff spot.

There’s really two things working against them: their insanely competitive division and Flacco.

Denver has the infrastructure to support the former Ravens quarterback.  They have a dominant defensive line with Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, with Shelby Harris and Derek Wolfe on the inside.  Their linebackers are a bit worrisome, but the run defense should be taken care of for the most part with their line.

They brought over Bryce Callahan from Chicago.  But he wasn’t the only person that made that move.

Vic Fangio’s arrival can’t be understated.  He has the ability to turn this defense into a monster like the one we saw with the Bears last season.  If the defense puts up a performance like that, Flacco can suck as much as he wants to.

That’s assuming he’s not a disaster.  He shouldn’t totally be one.  Phillip Lindsay is a workhorse back who can do a variety of things out of the backfield, while Royce Freeman is a fantastic second back.

Flacco has wide-outs too.  Though Emmanuel Snaders tore his achilles last season and is still working his way back from that, Courtland Sutton emerged big-time last year, and DaeSean Hamilton is another downfield receiver that Flacco can hopefully get the ball to.  The offensive line is a complete group, so it’s going to be almost entirely up to the new 34-year-old quarterback.

The AFC is pretty wide open for the Wild Card.  Fangio should be able to get the defense alone to eight wins.  From there, they’ll go as far as Flacco will take them.

Indianapolis Colts

I wrote extensively about the Colts after Andrew Luck’s shocking retirement a week and a half ago, so most of my thoughts on the team are already out.

One big thing changed though, and that was Jacoby Brissett’s lucrative extension.

Despite it likely being the right thing to do, the Colts can’t just give up on this season two weeks before it starts.  That’s a decision that has to happen before free agency and the draft.

So pumping confidence into Brissett before this season and having him down for at least the next year incase he flourishes makes sense.  If Brissett knocks everyone’s socks off this season, the Colts don’t have to pay him $25 million-plus until after the 2020-21 season.  It’ll give them more than a one-year sample size of Brissett, and let them decide they whether they want him or Trevor Lawrence as their future.

With Brissett locked in and a tank not forthcoming, the Colts can likely hang around .500.  The defense isn’t in position to carry Brissett to the playoffs yet, but if he’s better than we think, then they could make a case.

Projecting Brissett to be good enough to squeeze Indy into the playoffs is hard to do.  We’ve seen basically one full season of Brissett starts, and the numbers are less than great: 3,500 yards, 14 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 59.1% completion rate.  But we also haven’t seen him working with this much surrounding talent.

The shock of Luck’s retirement might still be fresh and in Indy’s mind, and though making the playoffs would be a great comeback story, the freshness of the decision and the inexperience that it leaves behind might be too much to overcome.