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Thursday, May 28, 2020

Each NFL playoff contender’s biggest concern

Mitchell Trubisky

We’re slowly beginning to whittle down the list of NFL playoff contenders as teams begin to fade and fall out of the race. That still leaves us with plenty of potential entrants, though, some much more likely than others.

Even the best of these teams ave weak spots; there are, after all, no unbeatens in the NFL anymore. There’s going to be a lot of gameplanning for these weaknesses, and a lot of efforts to exploit them. Some of them will likely cost their teams a playoff game.

Here’s a look at the glaring flaw for each of the NFL’s major playoff contenders.

Los Angeles Rams (11-) — Run defense

For a team with such a talented defensive front, the Rams actually sit just below the average among run defenses this season. They’ve allowed about 118 yards per game this season, good for a modest 18th in the NFL. The worrisome performances are there; both Rashaad Penny and Chris Carson went for over 100 yards against them for the Seattle Seahawks this season, and it would probably be worse if teams could afford to run more against them. Even the team’s own players have highlighted their run defense as a weak spot.

New Orleans Saints (10-2) — Protecting Drew Brees

It only took Terron Armstead’s removal to demonstrate just how fragile the New Orleans offensive line can be. Drew Brees was limited against the Dallas Cowboys as a makeshift offensive line left him under a lot of pressure for much of the game. Armstead should be back by the playoffs, but Dallas demonstrated that a talented pass rush can get at Brees and disrupt the entire New Orleans offense. That’s a real danger in the playoffs.

Kansas City Chiefs (10-2) — Pass defense

The Kansas City run defense isn’t airtight, but it’s really rather remarkable to see a 10-2 team’s defense posting the worst set of passing numbers in the NFL. The Chiefs are permitting 295 yards per game through the air, a full 15 yards worse than the Cincinnati Bengals, who are second-worst. They have an incredible offense, but if they keep getting stuck in shootouts, it’s entirely possible that something very bad could happen to them in the playoffs.

New England Patriots (9-3) — Pass defense

From a pure numbers standpoint, the Patriots are very nearly a bottom-ten passing defense. A lot of those numbers were inflated in some early-season defeats where the team really struggled, and they have improved lately — see their excellent handling of the Minnesota Vikings’ passing attack on Sunday. However, there is a unit here to be taken advantage of by some of the league’s best passing attacks — attacks that New England will likely have to go through to win a Super Bowl.

Houston Texans (9-3) — Offensive line

The Houston offensive line isn’t elite and can really be overwhelmed by a solid pass rush. The Texans have fallen victim to 41 sacks this season, with only two teams surrendering more. Part of this is the fact that Deshaun Watson can run and extend plays, but the Texans are also vulnerable to a heavy, committed pass rush. The good news is they don’t share a conference with the Aaron Donald-led Rams, but it’s an issue that is going to come up at some point.

Los Angeles Chargers (9-3) — Kicker

Doesn’t this always seem to be their problem? The Chargers have settled on a kicker for now after releasing the struggling Caleb Sturgis and looking elsewhere. It’s led them to rookie Mike Badgley, who has only missed one field goal and extra point so far but remains an untested commodity on the biggest stage. Special teams has been a problem for the Chargers before. In the playoffs, one bad kicking game can end a season. This is a very good team with a defense that’s getting healthy at the right time. They just have to avoid a letdown here.

Chicago Bears (8-4) — Pass offense

Mitchell Trubisky should be healthy again soon enough, which will come as a big help to a Bears team that surprisingly lost to the New York Giants last time out. Defensively, they’re very sound, and they have quality offensive weapons. However, Trubisky is a second-year pro prone to bouts of inconsistency, and the Chicago passing offense is in the league’s bottom half in terms of yardage. If they fall behind and have to push for a comeback, it could be bad news for them.

Pittsburgh Steelers (7-4-1) — Turnovers

Turnover ratio has been a problem for the Steelers all year, but it’s really been exacerbated lately. The warning signs are everywhere, in fact. Only six teams have given the ball away more than Pittsburgh has in 2018, and none of them are playoff contenders. Their turnover differential is -8, which is the worst of any current playoff team. Ben Roethlisberger, with 13 interceptions in 12 games, has particularly been prone to this. These are the sort of mistakes he and his team can’t make in the playoffs.

Dallas Cowboys (7-5) — Road form

Can the Dallas Cowboys beat a quality team away from home? They’ve lost just once in Arlington this season, a surprising defeat to the Tennessee Titans. They’re just 2-4 on the road, however, and have spent a lot of the season looking like an entirely different team in that setting. The good news is they’ve won two straight on the road, including one at Philadelphia. The bad news is the other was against a Falcons team in freefall. At just 7-5, the Cowboys will almost certainly have to play on the road in the playoffs. Whether they can win there remains an open question.

Seattle Seahawks (7-5) — Beating the elite

The Seahawks appear to be the definition of a team that’s good enough to beat bad teams but not good enough to beat the really good ones. As it stands, the Seahawks are just 1-4 against teams that would be in the playoffs if they started today, and 6-1 against everyone else. That’s good enough to get them into the field, but losses against the Bears, Chargers, and twice to the Rams suggests that success is unlikely once they get there.

Baltimore Ravens (7-5) — Unsettled quarterback situation

It’s not often that you have a potential playoff team with a muddled quarterback situation, but that’s where the Ravens sit as they enter Week 14. Lamar Jackson hasn’t been lights-out, but he’s won all three of his starts and brought a different dynamic to the Baltimore offense. That doesn’t really settle the Joe Flacco situation. He’s set to come back from a hip injury and may not get his job back. The decision will have ramifications — the defense here is excellent, so much will come down to quarterback performance.

Minnesota Vikings (6-5-1) — One-dimensional offense

The Vikings have underachieved for a lot of reasons — their secondary, for instance, hasn’t been as good as it was advertised to be — but one major issue is how predictable and one-dimensional they’ve become on offense. Their leading rusher, Latavius Murray, only has 466 rushing yards. It’s not a coincidence that they’ve already lost once to the Bears, who are able to use their fearsome pass rush to get Kirk Cousins off his game, pressure him, and not have to worry about being victimized by the run.

Philadelphia Eagles (6-6) — Lack of run game

The Eagles have the same problem as the Vikings, except even more pronounced. Philadelphia’s leading rusher is Josh Adams, who has only 376 rushing yards on the season. Not coincidentally, when the Eagles rush for 100 yards as a team, they’re 6-1, with the lone defeat coming in overtime. When it’s fewer than that, they’re 0-5. Adams has been better in the last two games, both wins, and that has to remain the same if the Eagles want to get back in the playoffs.

Tennessee Titans (6-6) — Offensive inconsistency

It’s incredibly difficult to nail down the Titans, particularly on offense, which kind of sums up the biggest problem. This is a team that has beaten the Patriots and the Cowboys, becoming the only road team to win in Arlington this year. They’ve also lost to the Buffalo Bills and turned in abject performances against the Colts and Texans. Nobody knows which Titans team is going to turn up on a weekly basis, and that’s not a recipe for long-term success.

Carolina Panthers (6-6) — Cam Newton’s play

Newton is fresh off a four-interception game and was replaced on a Hail Mary attempt against Tampa Bay. He made clear that his shoulder is an issue. Carolina’s current four-game losing streak was preceded by three straight wins in which Newton was steady, efficient, and didn’t throw an interception. He’s been picked at least once in each of the four losses since, and was held below 300 yards in two of them. Newton’s inconsistent play is a big reason Carolina keeps falling just short, and may miss the playoffs after looking like a sure thing not long ago.

Apologies to fans of the 6-6 Broncos, Dolphins and Redskins for not considering your teams playoff contenders.

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