NEW YORK, N.Y.- With the NFL season winding down, the look ahead to the playoffs has already begun. As we enter into week 16, most of the playoff slots have been filled, with just the AFC South and second wild card up for grabs in the AFC while the NFC is mostly set outside of determining who will represent the NFC East.
So with not much debate about which teams will make the playoffs, let’s turn our attention towards just how many teams can legitimately contend for the Super Bowl. It’s one thing to make the playoffs, but it’s a whole other discussion if a team can contend with the best each conference has to offer and come out on top. With that said, I believe there are six teams, three in each conference, that have a case for winning the Super Bowl.
Ravens: Does anything else need to be said? Baltimore has been the most dynamic and exciting team in the NFL this season. Lamar Jackson has taken the league by storm, leading the way of the best scoring and rushing offense. But the Ravens aren’t just doing it with offense, as their defense is top-10 in scoring defense, passing yards allowed per game and rushing yards allowed per game. The Ravens are hot, riding a 10-game winning streak that includes wins over the Seahawks, Patriots, Texans, Rams, 49ers and Bills. Good luck to any AFC team that has to go into Baltimore this postseason.
Chiefs: Kansas City has flown under the radar during the second half of this season as Patrick Mahomes worked his way back from a dislocated kneecap. The offense of the Chiefs is unquestioned, but the continued concern is on the defensive end. They were unable to close out the Patriots in the AFC Championship game last year and didn’t improve much during the first half of this season. The last four games have been a different story though, as the Chiefs defense has allowed just 11.2 points per game. They also received some help this week, claiming veteran defensive end Terrell Suggs, who should bring a championship mindset to the unit. If the defense can carry this level of play they’ve shown the last four games into the playoffs, the Chiefs just might be able to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
Patriots: This pick is more out of respect for Bill Belichick and his ability to draw up defensive schemes to stop even the most potent offenses. The defense has led the way, owning the best scoring defense at just 12.9 points per game. Stephon Gilmore has been the best shutdown corner in 2019 and has thrown his name into Defensive Player of the Year consideration. The offense has struggled more than it ever has in the Belichick-Tom Brady era, yet is still doing enough to win games. This team isn’t dominating like it usually does, but would anyone be surprised if we saw New England representing the AFC in the Super Bowl for the fourth consecutive season?
49ers: San Francisco has shown the ability to win games in so many different ways that they will be the toughest out of any team once January hits. The 49ers can win shootouts (beat the Saints 48-46 in the Superdome), beat you by strictly running the ball (40 attempts for 275 yards vs. Browns, 38 times for 232 yards vs. Panthers) and win a defensive slugfest (9-0 shutout win over Redskins, held Packers to 198 total yards in 37-8 win). Having the capability of winning in various ways will make the NFC West leaders a matchup nightmare for any team they have to play. Not to mention the biggest question mark with this team, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, has shown the ability to step up in huge moments.
Seahawks: Seattle has been led by MVP candidate Russell Wilson, who’s taken his game to another level with the identity of the team switching from the defensive side to the offensive end. Backed behind the best offensive line they’ve had in Wilson’s career, the Seahawks have the third best rushing attack in the league, averaging just under 142 yards per game. This has allowed Wilson to pick apart defenses that load up the box to stop the run. Wilson has been extremely efficient, on track for the second best completion percentage and the least amount of interceptions thrown in his career. Seattle has been one of the best teams in the league at not beating themselves, committing just the fifth least defensive penalties, recovering the most fumbles, intercepting the third most passes and having the third best turnover differential at +13. Having an opportunistic defense that forces turnovers and an offense that rarely gives the ball away is a great recipe to come out of the NFC as the last team standing.
Saints: New Orleans may have had a better record at this point in the season last year than they do this season, but there’s no doubt the 2019 team is head and shoulders the better team. The biggest reason for this is Drew Brees, whose thumb injury that forced him to miss five plus games turned out actually to be a blessing in disguise. While the Saints offense limped to the finish line last year, they have been unstoppable this season, averaging 34.8 points per game since their loss to the Falcons back in week 10. Brees has looked rejuvenated despite Alvin Kamara still working his way back from injury. Brees’ early season break could be the main difference in getting the Saints over the hump and back into the Super Bowl.
Unfortunately for teams like the Packers, Vikings, and Texans, inconsistency and glaring holes are the biggest reasons why they were left off this list. There haven’t been many years where there are so many teams legitimately in the discussion of representing their conference in the Super Bowl like we have in the NFL’s 100th season. Any combination of the six teams listed above would create a memorable finish to the 2019 season, so sit back and enjoy the postseason.