It is not even three full years into this decade, but if there's any recurring trend, it's that plenty of teams were finally able to overcome years of mediocrity and make the playoffs. Whether it has been adjusting to COVID, a major acquisition, or a well timed winning streak, teams such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cleveland Browns, and Phoenix Suns finally managed to break long standing playoff droughts. The Seattle Mariners and Philadelphia Phillies also recently added their names to the list.
Here's why this pattern continues:
Surprisingly, the first cause has been the effects of the COVID pandemic. Although all teams were challenged with adapting to empty venues, COVID actually might've helped teams who were previously struggling.
Some teams who benefited from these unusual circumstances include the Cleveland Browns, who allowed more fans and only played three games in empty stadiums, unlike many of their opponents whose stadiums were empty all season. In another example, the Miami Marlins and San Diego Padres. were particularly fortunate to play in a shortened season. While some might see these seasons as fluky, it is fair to say that they benefitted from these unusual circumstances as both teams underachieved the following year.
Regardless of COVID, there were other teams who were already well-positioned to break their playoff droughts and were just one player away.
In 2019, the Buccaneers boosted a talented roster that was competitive, but missed the playoffs for the 12th straight year. However, their progress was enough to lure Tom Brady in free agency. The rest was history, as Brady won an seventh Super Bowl in a convincing 31-9 triumph. The following season saw them lose in Divisional Round but there's no question Brady has changed the culture in Tampa Bay.
The Phoenix Suns, with a young roster led by Devin Booker, went 8-0 in the NBA bubble but narrowly missed out on the play-in tournament. Despite this, they established a foundation and would soon trade for Chris Paul whose greatest ability is elevating his teammates. Since then, the Suns not only broke their 10 year drought, but have won more games than any other team, and made the 2021 Finals.
If there's one thing great teams have in common, it is the ability to embark on a winning stretch at the right time. This is also how some teams were finally able to get over the hump to make the playoffs. Just as they would slowly start to fall out of the playoff picture, they heated up at the perfect time.
The 2021 New York Knicks are a perfect fit for this category. While they had already showed significant improvement, it looked like their luck was starting to run out with just over a month left. What followed was a nine game winning streak, culminating into 16 wins in their last 20 games: good enough to clinch the fourth seed. Their first playoff series in eight years against the Hawks lasted only five games, but witnessing their game 2 win in person was an incredible experience for me.
Unlike the Knicks, this year's Seattle Mariners were looking to take the next step after falling short of the playoffs the previous season. They started slow but found their stride in July: the exact time baseball games become significant. Seattle won an amazing 14 consecutive games, which boosted them into the wild card picture, a position they would not relinquish. Last Friday, they finally put an end to their 21 year drought; the longest out of any American sports team at the time.
Every NFL season has seen some huge surprises, from injuries to unexpected turnarounds. Going into last year, no one thought the Cincinnati Bengals would narrowly miss out on a Super Bowl victory or that the Seattle Seahawks wouldn't come close to the playoffs. With this season getting closer by the day, here are my three hot takes for the AFC.
Note: This article is part two of a doubleheader that included AFC Predictions.
1. The Saints Will Have a Better Record Than the Buccaneers
Tom Brady has proved me wrong countless times before as a Jets fan. Last year, he had of the best seasons of his career, but after turning 45 years old, it's fair to wonder how many years he has left. I wouldn't be surprised if he experiences a decline similar to Peyton Manning's in his final season.
Meanwhile, the Saints quietly had a strong offseason despite the retirement of Sean Payton. The offense will get back Jameis Winston who went 5-2 before suffering a season ending injury. His weapons will include Alvin Kamara (if he's not suspended), a healthy Michael Thomas, rookie Chris Olave, and free agent signing Jarvis Landry. Defensively, the Saints added all pro safety Tyrann Mathieu to an already strong unit that includes Cameron Jordan and Marshon Lattimore. New Orleans won't be a powerhouse, but given that they finished 9-8 despite a number of injuries, a division title is not out of sight.
2. Justin Jefferson Will Win Offensive Player of the Year
Although Offensive Player of the Year has only been handed out four times to three receivers (Jerry Rice won it twice), two of the last three seasons have seen receivers take home the award. It is true Michael Thomas and Cooper Kupp both needed historically great seasons to win the award, but Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings is no stranger to that. He set a rookie record for receiving yards and proceeded to improve his receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns the following year. His final numbers were 108 catches for 1,616 yards and 10 touchdowns. Additionally, Jefferson is only 23 years old and is entering the prime of his career. If he not only improves all of his numbers, but leads the league in two out three major receiving categories, Jefferson should be a heavy favorite to win Offensive Player of the Year.
3. Trey Lance Will Outperform Jalen Hurts
The Philadelphia Eagles and San Fransisco 49ers view Hurts and Lance, respectively, as the quarterbacks of the future, and rightfully so. Both teams are coming off playoff appearances, and will be competitive again, but I think Trey Lance is in for a better season than Hurts.
Jalen Hurts wasn't asked to do much in his first year as the Eagles' starter besides protecting the football and using his mobility. While his first taste of playoff football was an ugly defeat to the Buccaneers, the Eagles continued to surround him with more talent by trading for AJ Brown.
Out west, Trey Lance will be starting for the San Fransisco 49ers after watching them make the Championship game as a rookie. Lance was played sparingly as a backup, with his only start being against an awful Texans team. However, he's surrounded by a talented roster with playmakers in George Kittle and Deebo Samuel, as well as one of the best offensive lines in football. While Hurts also has a strong supporting cast, the biggest factor influencing my take comes from the head coaching.
Kyle Shanahan is considered one of today's best coaches for his ability to maximize his players' strengths in his schemes with the 49ers. In a league where many coaches build their offenses around the strengths of their quarterback, Shanahan will certainly look for ways to utilize Lance's rocket arm and mobility outside the pocket. Given that most quarterbacks from Matt Ryan to Robert Griffin III enjoyed career years under Shanahan, it's likely Lance will enjoy similar success.
Every NFL season has seen some huge surprises, from injuries to unexpected turnarounds. Going into last year, no one thought the Cincinnati Bengals would narrowly miss out on a Super Bowl victory or that the Seattle Seahawks wouldn't come close to the playoffs. With this season getting closer by the day, here are my three hot takes for the AFC.
Note: This article is part of a doubleheader that will also include NFC Predictions.
1. Von Miller will be the Final Piece Buffalo Needs
The Buffalo Bills have established themselves as contenders during the last two years. With plenty of talent on both sides of ball, the Bills have gone 34-15 in the last three years, winning the AFC East twice in that span. However, they have yet to reach the Super Bowl, with a heartbreaking overtime loss to the Chiefs leaving a bitter taste. In free agency, the Bills successfully agreed to a six year $120 million contract with defensive end Von Miller.
While Miller is 33 years old, he still has plenty left in the tank after logging four sacks during the playoffs, en route to his second Super Bowl championship. What made his performance last year even more impressive was that he missed all of 2020 with a torn ACL. The Bills have a talented defense, but their pass rush lacks a difference maker which proved costly in their recent playoff losses. Miller will probably not play out his entire contract in Buffalo, but his experience and productivity is exactly what the Bills need to get over the hump to finally win it all.
2. The Raiders Won't Make the Playoffs
Last year's Raiders surprisingly made the playoffs with a 10-7 record before losing a tight contest to the Bengals. They then proceeded to make big offseason moves, signing defensive end Chandler Jones and trading for all pro wide receiver Davante Adams. These moves will make the Raiders competitive again this year, but in a stacked conference, it still might not be enough.
In their four game winning streak that propelled them to the playoffs at the end of the year, they beat two teams with backup quarterbacks and another whose quarterback didn't practice that week. That's not mentioning their four overtime wins as well. Teams who won a large portion of close games usually take a step back the next year which is why I'm not sold on the Raiders despite high expectations. I think that they simply won't be as lucky this year.
3. The Jets will have Two Rookie of the Year Winners
In the 55 year existence of the Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year award, only two teams had players from both sides win the award. However, I believe there's a strong chance my Jets will become the third team to accomplish this feat. While some of this prediction has to do with my fandom, plenty of other people applauded this year's Jets' draft.
Their notable selections are cornerback Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner, wide receiver Garrett Wilson, defensive end Jermaine Johnson, and running back Breece Hall. Gardner has a strong chance to win Defensive Rookie of the Year thanks to his tall, athletic frame, that allows him to excel in man coverage. He's also likely to make an immediate impact compared to many of the pass rushers selected. Offensively. Hall has a pretty good chance at winning the award. He'll have plenty of opportunities to succeed in a run-first offense and with only one quarterback taken in the first round, the award is wide open. As a franchise notorious for missing out on young talent in the draft, this kind of feat could hopefully change their reputation.
Every NFL season has seen a few players experience a breakout season shortly after their rookie year. Often, they have shown promise before eventually playing to their full potential the following season. Prime examples of last year's breakout stars include running back Jonathan Taylor and cornerback Trevon Diggs. With training camp underway, many players are ready to showcase their full potential after showing upside last season. Here are my four breakout candidates, not including quarterbacks:
1. Devonta Smith
Last season, Devonta Smith was one of the top rookie receivers for the Philadelphia Eagles, tallying over 900 yards and five touchdowns. While those numbers sound decent on paper, they are very impressive for a rookie receiver who was the only bright spot on one of the league's weakest receiving groups last season. Smith managed to turn short completions into long runs with his speed, and caught a ton of contested passes despite his small frame. With the acquisition of fellow receiver AJ Brown this offseason, Smith should see a lot more single coverage which will increase his production.
2. Patrick Surtain II
Patrick Surtain II of the Denver Broncos was certainly the most impressive defensive back to come out of last year's draft class, given that a large number of rookie cornerbacks started last season. He intercepted four passes and returned one of them for a touchdown, but that's not all. Surtain II also surrendered only 545 yards along while allowing a 61 passer rating. Some of his best games came against pass-happy offenses where he made guys like Tyreek Hill and Ja'Marr Chase non-factors. Although Micah Parsons' historic rookie season kept Surtain II from winning Defensive Rookie of the Year, he still has plenty of upside going forward.
3. Javonte Williams
Denver gets another nod on this list with running back Javonte Williams coming in at three. Although Williams was part of a running back committee with Melvin Gordon, he still managed to total 903 rushing yards and four touchdowns. He was almost impossible to bring down as 31% of Williams' rushing attempts saw him break tackles - 63 to be exact. Williams will likely be the starting running back for Denver. With Russell Wilson now in town, Williams will be in an even better position to excel, since defenses will devote less attention to him.
4. Amon-Ra St. Brown
As a fourth round pick for the Detroit Lions, Amon-Ra St. Brown went into last season with the least hype out of all the players mentioned on this list. He had a few solid games, but it wasn't until the final six weeks of the season when St. Brown began to showcase his potential. In that stretch, St. Brown had 474 yards and five touchdowns which included a game winner against the Vikings. St. Brown's increased usage makes him a heavy favorite to be Detroit's starting receiver going into this season.
5. Elijah Moore
With high upside as a second round receiver, Elijah Moore recorded over 500 yards. These stats are decent at best, but considering that Moore was either injured or barely targeted in the early portion of the season, his progress in his final six games has given Jets fans plenty of optimism. From weeks 8-13, Moore had 459 yards and five touchdowns. Even more impressive, Moore posted these numbers while playing without fellow rookie Zach Wilson who was injured for four of those games. With a bigger role and more young talent, it's very likely Moore's play will take a huge jump in year two.
Fans who generally like alternate uniforms were certainly happy when the NFL gave teams the green light to create an additional helmet, allowing teams to become creative in the process. This rule change has also prompted teams such as the Giants and Falcons to create alternate uniforms to go along with their new helmet designs. Many teams are currently having fun with this rule change and while it won't be a surprise if more teams join in, here's my ranking of all the new designs we have seen thus far.
1. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals alternate helmets and jerseys are one of the most anticipated color rush designs this upcoming season. Cincinnati already debuted new uniforms last season but these alternates are a perfect addition. With these all-white helmets and a young core that went all the way to the Super Bowl, everything about this team is new and fresh. As one of the more fun teams last year, fans will certainly enjoy Cincinnati's color rush design when they face the Dolphins in week four.
2. Atlanta Falcons
This might be controversial for Giant fans, but I'm a big fan of the Falcons' decision to bring back their classic red helmets. Their throwback jerseys also match up very well with their helmets. Although Atlanta will only be wearing their attire for one game, it's cool combination between old school and new school.
3. New York Giants
While the Giants technically brought back their helmets from the 80s and 90s for the 2016-18 seasons, this is a lot better. Not only did they bring back their classic helmets from the Lawrence Taylor and Bill Parcells era, but they also reintroduced their old time jerseys which were worn in the same era.
4. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers have always had solid uniforms with their teal jerseys standing out in particular. However, they've taken their attire to another level with these black helmet which perfectly complement their black uniforms. While their Thursday Night matchup against the Falcons is far from one of the most anticipated games, the black helmets and uniforms will be a bright spot.
5. Philadelphia Eagles
Like the Panthers, the Eagles' new dark helmets will be a great addition to their black uniforms. While fans are more excited to see their Kelly green uniforms in 2023, I look forward to seeing these helmets match up with the black uniforms.
6. Washington Commanders
Unlike most of these teams, I like how every element of the Commanders' new uniforms stick out. Their home, away, and alternate attire brings something different to the table whether it's the "W" in the center of the black helmets or the golden numbers on the away jerseys.
7. New York Jets
A white background also would've looked very good but I have no problem with the black background complementing their green logo and face mask. While watching the Jets can be challenging, they always seem to wear the right jersey combinations on game days which is why I look forward to seeing their new alternate helmets when they play the Patriots, Bears, and Jaguars at home. Hopefully they'll also win for a change.
8. Dallas Cowboys
With these new helmets, the Cowboys will pair them with their old alternate uniforms which they would wear on Thanksgiving in previous years. It isn't new, but it's one of the few things involving the Cowboys that I actually don't have a problem with.
9. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals' new helmets which consist of a black background is the cherry on top for their black color rush uniforms. While it's not good enough to be in the upper half, the matching color scheme of the helmets and uniforms keep this design in the top 10.
10. New Orleans Saints
I've always been a fan of the Saints' attire, with their white and gold jerseys (pictured above) standing out. Their new alternate helmets are solid but they would be a lot higher if they didn't have all those small fleur-de-lis forming a stripe.
11. Houston Texans
The Texans will be in for a rough go in 2022 but at least their first uniform/helmet change was a good one. They will pair their new "battle red" helmet with their alternate red uniforms. Personally, I think this is a cool combination as their red uniforms will look even better compared to the dark blue helmets.
12 New England Patriots
While many people like the Patriots' decision to bring back their throwback uniforms which were worn for three decades, I've never liked these uniforms. Some of that admittedly has to do with my Jets fandom, but the logo of the Patriot snapping a football is way too corny. The strips on the uniforms also make them look like Buffalo Bills' attire.
13. Chicago Bears
Chicago had the right idea of creating an alternate helmet to match up with one of their uniforms. The only problem is that orange isn't the right color to go about this idea. A different helmet background such as white would've looked a lot better.
14. San Fransisco 49ers
The 49ers made some minor changes to their uniforms by going back to three stripes along with a saloon font in the center. Bigger changes would make this ranking a lot higher however.
Before I start, I will state that the Jets were certainly not the only team to have a spectacular draft class. Other teams such as the Chiefs, Ravens, and Giants all deserve credit for their draft selections. And while it will be awhile until we can draw conclusions from this year's draft class, here's why I currently think the New York Jets' class is a game changer.
Whereas some teams might've filled two position needs with in the first round at best, the Jets managed to fill in three during the draft. Going into the draft, the biggest needs for the Jets were a cornerback, an edge rusher, and skill position, receiver or running back.
With the fourth pick, the Jets addressed the cornerback position by selecting Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner. In his three years playing for Cincinnati, Gardner became the best defensive back in the nation. His length and athleticism helped him excel in man coverage where he never allowed a touchdown during his collegiate career. Against Jameson Williams, the best receiver Gardner has faced so far, he only allowed one catch for negative yards, proving he can match up against the best. Jet fans have waited for someone to finally fill in the shoes of Darrelle Revis and Gardner might be that guy.
Due to a trade with the Seattle Seahawks back in 2020, the Jets also had the 10th pick which was used to select wide receiver Garrett Wilson. Wilson joins a receiver group of Corey Davis, Elijah Moore, and Braxton Berrios that was solid but ravaged by injuries. As high ranked receiver with no injury concerns, Wilson's availability is something the Jets could use given the injuries to their skill positions. In addition, Wilson is known for his contested catches during his career at Ohio State. This could be essential for the Jets as they haven't had someone with that ability since Brandon Marshall.
With a quantity of picks that the Jets previously traded for in the later rounds, they managed to move up to the 26th pick where they selected edge rusher Jermaine Johnson II. After two quiet seasons at Georgia, Johnson experienced a breakout season for Florida State recording 12 sacks and 18 tackles for loss, both in the top 10 nationally. He will also have some motivation going into the season as he surprisingly fell in the draft despite being projected to go within the top 10. For the Jets, they will have a potentially formidable duo of outside rushers in Johnson and Carl Lawson.
By selecting Wilson, and later running back Breece Hall in the second round, the Jets have drafted three skill positions, not named Zach Wilson, in the first two rounds of this year and last year's draft (Elijah Moore is the other one). Add in last year's fourth round selection of running back Michael Carter, and this year's third selection of tight end Jeremy Ruckert, and the Jets have already done more for Zach Wilson in the draft than they've ever done for Sam Darnold. This philosophy resembles the Cincinnati Bengals' strategy of surrounding Joe Burrow with homegrown players in Tee Higgins and Ja'Marr Chase. They are currently fresh off a Super Bowl appearance and have a bright future ahead of them.
Perhaps the most important thing to come out of this draft class if that the Jets are really establishing a foundation through the draft. By building the majority of their roster through the draft, the coaching staff will have the chance to develop these players into valuable contributors given the Jets' system is the only one they're familiar with in the pros. When you also consider the upside of last year's draft with players such as Alijah Vera-Tucker, Moore, Carter, and hopefully Zach Wilson, the Jets could be ahead of schedule. Something that fans would give anything to witness.
It wasn't one the greatest Super Bowls of all time, but it was certainly a entertaining contest that was close until the final play from scrimmage. In the end, the Los Angeles Rams emerged as Super Bowl champions for the second time in franchise history, and the first time in L.A. Among the many notable storylines such as the amazing halftime show, the one I found most fascinating was how both teams managed to get to this point.
For the Rams, they've been going all in since 2018, albeit their first taste of playoff football came in 2017 thanks to the hiring of Sean McVay. He took over a talented but underachieving roster and won 11 games in his rookie season, clinched the NFC West, and was awarded Coach of the Year. The Rams would then spend the next offseason making a flurry of trades, free agent signings, and contract extensions. While not all of the players they acquired or extended (Todd Gurley, Marcus Peters, Brandin Cooks, etc.) remain on the team it set a blueprint for their approach toward reaching the promise land. None of their transactions were more integral to their championship than these following moves: extending Cooper Kupp for three years, Jalen Ramsey for $105 million, trading a second and third round pick for Von Miller, giving up Jared Goff and two first round picks for Matthew Stafford, and extending Aaron Donald for six years and $135 million. With the exception of Andrew Whitworth who always gets resigned at a cheap price, these players almost make up the entire core.
When the Rams started to become a powerhouse, the Cincinnati Bengals were realizing that they would likely have to rebuild their roster. Their core which had helped them make the playoffs throughout the early 2010s was getting old and their best days were behind them. Pretty soon, they ushered in a new wave of offensive talent through the draft. Among these draft picks were Joe Burrow, Joe Mixon, Tee Higgins, Jamar Chase, and Tyler Boyd. In their first full season together, the Bengals had one of the most potent offenses in the league. They rebuilt the defense through many low profile free agent signings such as Trey Hendrickson and Von Bell who formed a devastating safety duo with Jessie Bates during the playoffs. Although no one in this core outside of Bell and Hendrickson had playoff experience, the entire team played as if they'd been there before, winning one tight game after another before ultimately meeting their match in the Super Bowl. There are still areas the Bengals need to address such as their pass protection, but their rebuild is well ahead of schedule.
As for a future matchup between these two teams, don't count out that possibility from happening. Both teams having young rosters who know what it takes to reach the big dance. The Rams have arguably the best coach not named Bill Belichick, the best cornerback Jalen Ramsey, the best QB-WR tandem, and one of the best defensive players this game has ever seen in Aaron Donald. They also might have an easier path with Tom Brady retiring and questions surrounding Aaron Rodgers' future in Green Bay.
The Bengals on the other hand play in a much tougher conference, but they already have a dangerous offense that looks destined to win championships in the future, and the leader of that offense is Joe Burrow. He cemented himself as a top 10 quarterback in his full season after missing the final six games from 2020 with a torn ACL. Burrow did injure that same knee during the Super Bowl but it won't require surgery and given that he was able to make a full recovery last offseason, the same should be expected.
For the first time in years, the New York Jets have seemed to hit on almost all of their draft picks. With their nine picks from last year's draft, fans have a reason to feel optimistic on most of their selections. Even for a skeptical fan such as myself, this is a draft class that offers plenty of hope.
For starters, all of the Jets' draft picks played a combined 69 games this year, which is the most playing time any of their rookie classes have played since 2006. Quarterback Zach Wilson, wide reciever Elijah Moore, and offensive lineman Alijah-Vera Tucker were the only rookies to start going into the season, but more players saw an increase in their roles as the year went on. Offensively running back Michael Carter was one of the team's most skilled offensive players, tallying 945 yards from scrimmaging while possessing a knack to break multiple tackles almost every time he got the ball. twitter.com/nfl/status/1439669558797762564
On defense, cornerback Brandin Echolos became a force late in the season recording five pass deflections and two picks with one going for a pick six, while the other came off Tom Brady. He and his fellow rookie cornerback Michael Carter II combined to deflect 14 passes. Along with the progression of Bryce Hall, the Jets should have a solid cornerback trio for years to come. twitter.com/NFL/status/1472669413832683525?s=20
As for Wilson, Moore, and Vera-Tucker, they all made the most of the playing time they received from the start of the season. Wilson overcame a rocky start to finish the season on a strong not with nine total touchdowns while only throwing two picks since he returned from his week seven injury. His signature game was a 297 yard, two touchdown performance against a Titans team that finished number one in the AFC. Moore's play also improved throughout the season, as 459 of his team leading 538 yards came in his final six games, along with five receiving touchdowns. While he missed the final five games, there's lots of optimism surrounding his potential. Vera-Tucker was arguably the most consistent rookie as he was solid in pass protection while sparking a running game that was coming into its own. https://twitter.com/NFL/status/1444749314526367745?s=20
Going into last year's offseason, the only players that were considered cornerstones for Jets were their stud defensive tackle Quinnen Williams and offensive lineman Mekhi Becton. Now they have a true foundation of promising rookies, to go with Williams and linebacker C.J. Mosley, who had a nice bounce back year. By the season's end their rookies scored 15 touchdowns, which is more than any other draft class in franchise history. They also led the team in passing yards, rushing yards, receiving yards, and interceptions.
There's every reason to believe that Jets will be flirting with a playoff berth next season even if they don't make it. Their draft class was a major storyline for the team going into the season and they performed at an exceptional level for the most part. It's why they beat division winners such as the Titans and Bengals, while nearly upsetting the Buccaneers. Although they only won four games, they enter the offseason with the fourth most cap space in the league along with four selections within the top 50 draft picks. If they have a solid offseason and their rookies take huge leaps in their sophomore years, Jet fans can finally sleep happily after football Sundays.
This is the time of year where that Giants and Jets fans always dread while Chiefs and Packers fans couldn't be more excited. The NFL Playoffs. In what was the longest season in NFL history, the standings kept changing like fire crackers, and after a chaotic final week, the playoff picture is finally set.
#2 Chiefs over #7 Steelers
#3 Bills over #6 Patriots
#4 Bengals over #5 Raiders
#4 Bengals over #1 Titans
#3 Bills over #2 Chiefs
#3 Bills over #4 Bengals
#2 Buccaneers over #7 Eagles
#6 49ers over #3 Cowboys
#4 Rams over #5 Cardinals
#4 Rams over #2 Buccaneers
#1 Packers over #6 49ers
#2 Packers over #1 Buccaneers
#2 Packers over #3 Bills
It seems as if every NFL season, there's always that one team who looks like they're going to win it all. Regardless of whether they actually go the distance of not, this is the time where people start to hop on the bandwagon for one team in particular. But with new elements such as the 17 game schedule this season feels different. This year, there's not one dominant team nor will any team remain dominant and here's why.
To start off, we must mention the 17 game schedule as a key component. With one extra game added, there's no breathing room for a team atop of their conference like the Arizona Cardinals, or a division leader like the Baltimore Ravens. For other teams that might have emerged in the hunt, this is an opportunity for them to not only sneak into the playoff picture, but gain significant ground. Take the Indianapolis Colts for example. Their new signal-caller Carson Wentz missed most of training camp with an injury and the Colts sputtered to a 1-4 start. But now they've won five of their last six games and currently hold the top wild card spot in the AFC. In the NFC, the Philadelphia Eagles, San Fransisco 49ers, and Minnesota Vikings are gaining momentum at the right time. To say that we'll probably see two out of these three teams in the playoffs isn't a crazy prediction.
One key factor that will determine the playoff picture like any other year is injuries. Some teams such as the Ravens, Cardinals, and Packers have still managed to win despite injuries to key players. Other teams such as the Saints have been hit hard. They lost quarterback Jameis Winston for the season to a torn ACL. At the time of the diagnosis, they were 5-2 and had defeated the Buccaneers, but now they're on the outside looking in after losing four straight games. Another notable team worth mentioning is the Titans. With running back Derrick Henry bullying opponents, they slowly climbed to the top of the AFC. Even in their first game without him after a foot injury that will keep him out 6-10 weeks, they blew out the Rams. But now they face lots of questions after losing at home to the one-win Texans. Whether some teams are able to sustain their success going into the final weeks of the regular season will be interesting to see. It's worth wondering about the affect COVID could have on this year's playoff picture. If the Packers have to go down to Arizona for the championship game because they were behind by one game and lose, will Aaron Rodgers regret his decision to not get vaccinated? Had he got vaccinated, would he have been able to play against the Chiefs, a game the Packers lost without him? Maybe that one win would have given them the top seed.
Each week, there's one team that just had a statement victory and is on top of the world, only to get beat the next week. Just look at the AFC. The Chiefs looked like they're primed for another deep run defeating the Browns in a rematch of their divisional meeting to open the season. Then the Ravens seemed to snatch that momentum in a comeback victory that started a five game winning streak that temporarily put them atop the AFC. The Tennessee Titans currently hold the no. 1 seed but they fell back to earth after losing to the one-win Texans. In the NFC, the Cardinals have held on to the no. 1 seed thanks to their 7-0 start. It's the wild card spots which have made the playoff picture for that conference interesting. The Rams and Saints appeared to be locks for the top two spots but both teams have struggled as of late, opening the door to other teams like the 49ers and Eagles.
Whether this satisfies you as a fan or not, there's no dominant team this season. I was originally against the implementation of a 17 game schedule, but it has helped make this playoff race more interesting. Every week some team changes the outlook of the playoff picture and there's every reason to believe that this will continue until the season's over.