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2018 NFL playoffs preview – Schedule, bracket, team strengths and weaknesses, matchup possibilities


Well, it took all day Sunday, but the 2018 NFL playoff picture is finally crystal clear. Twelve teams look ahead to the postseason, beginning Saturday with wild-card weekend.

ESPN’s playoff primer breaks down each team’s chances and tells you everything you need to know about what your team must do to reach Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta. ESPN’s Football Power Index also provides Super Bowl chances for all 12 teams.

Click the links below to go to each team:

NFC:
1. NO | 2. LAR | 3. CHI
4. DAL | 5. SEA | 6. PHI

AFC:
1. KC | 2. NE | 3. HOU
4. BAL | 5. LAC | 6. IND

Playoff bracket

NFC

First game: home vs. lowest remaining seed in divisional round (Jan. 13 at 4:40 p.m. ET, Fox)

FPI Super Bowl chances: 30.5 percent

Reason for hope: The only other time the Saints have had home-field advantage in the playoffs was 2009, when they ultimately won Super Bowl XLIV. The Superdome is still one of the most formidable obstacles for opponents. Entering Week 17, no team had scored more points at home than the Saints, and only the Patriots had a higher point differential at home.

Reason for concern: The offense slowed considerably beginning in Week 13, even in context with a leaguewide backslide. The Saints scored an average of 20.25 offensive points per game in Weeks 13-16, No. 17 in the NFL. (Some key starters sat in Week 17, in which they scored 14 points against the Carolina Panthers.) From Weeks 1-12, they led the league with 36.6 offensive points per game.

X factor: Playoff games can turn on unexpected circumstances, and perhaps no NFL player is more capable of surprise than the Saints’ Taysom Hill. This season, he has both thrown and caught passes. He has carried the ball on running plays, returned kicks, blocked a punt and been involved in special-teams tackles. Did the Saints save anything for the postseason?


First game: home vs. second-lowest seed remaining in divisional round (Jan. 12 at 8:15 p.m. ET, Fox)

FPI Super Bowl chances: 16.8 percent

Reason for hope: The Rams have the kind of defensive personnel — most notably in the interior of their defensive line — that can dominate a playoff game. Behind defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the Rams have been a top-10 defense all season based on Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.

Reason for concern: Quarterback Jared Goff‘s performance dipped notably as the playoffs approached, especially as it relates to turnovers. During a recent five-game stretch, he threw six interceptions and fumbled seven times. A multiturnover game could scuttle the Rams on its own.

X factor: It might seem strange to slap this label on a player who scored 21 touchdowns this season, but tailback Todd Gurley was slowed late this season by a knee injury, and the Rams were a different team because of it. They’ll need a strong running game, especially considering Goff’s recent struggles, to make a deep playoff run. A runner-up: Punter Johnny Hekker led the NFL this season in percentage of punts down inside the 5-yard line. His touch is a big advantage in a field-position game.


First game: home vs. Philadelphia Eagles in wild-card round (Jan. 6 at 4:40 p.m. ET, NBC)

FPI Super Bowl chances: 2.5 percent

Reason for hope: If defense wins championships, the Bears are well on their way. They finished the season with the top-ranked defense in DVOA, and it wasn’t close. At the very least, the Bears should be able to keep playoff games low-scoring and in reach for their offense.

Reason for concern: Bears coach Matt Nagy has excelled in creating safe spaces for quarterback Mitchell Trubisky to make athletic plays. Trubisky finished the season ranked in the top five of QBR. But against a good defense, one that prioritizes keeping him in the pocket, can Trubisky make the passes necessary to win a playoff game?

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Doug Pederson says the Eagles’ playoff-clinching Week 17 win is the result of “a lot of hard work that just paid off,” but he does not have an update on Nick Foles.

X factor: Opposing defenses, and special teams, will need to track where Tarik Cohen is at all times. No player on the Bears’ roster, other than perhaps linebacker Khalil Mack, can more decisively change the course of a game. He has scored multiple touchdowns this season as a runner, receiver and kick returner.


First game: home vs. Seattle Seahawks in wild-card round (Saturday at 8:15 p.m. ET, Fox)

FPI Super Bowl chances: 1.2 percent

Reason for hope: As simple as it sounds, the Cowboys caught fire this season at about the same time they recommitted their offense around tailback Ezekiel Elliott. During a 6-1 run that cemented the NFC East title, Elliott led the NFL in touches (203) and yards from scrimmage (1,095). That’s not a bad formula for winning playoff games.

Reason for concern: Receiver Amari Cooper‘s production slowed after a 10-catch, 217-yard performance in Week 14. He scored five touchdowns in a three-game stretch but none in the Cowboys’ final three. As great as Elliott has been, the Cowboys need production from all of their playmakers to make a playoff run.

X factor: Rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch proved to be a tackling machine in the second half of the season, teaming with fellow linebacker Jaylon Smith to provide a new level of speed on this defense. Vander Esch’s versatility could help the Cowboys match up against the NFC’s top playmakers.


First game: at Dallas Cowboys in wild-card round (Saturday at 8:15 p.m. ET, Fox)

FPI Super Bowl chances: 1.9 percent

Reason for hope: The Seahawks aren’t likely to make it easy on opponents. They entered Week 17 with a chance to tie the NFL record for the lowest total of turnovers (10) over a full season in league history. (They committed one and finished the season with 11.) Meanwhile, their defense is among the league’s top 10 in takeaways (26).

Reason for concern: The offensive line, long a weak spot for this franchise, finished the season with multiple starters and backups nursing injuries, including right tackle Germain Ifedi (groin) and left guard J.R. Sweezy (ankle). Guard D.J. Fluker is also dealing with a hamstring injury. A banged-up offensive line, for a team that relies heavily on its running game, is a playoff warning sign.

X factor: Rookie Michael Dickson was leading the NFL in net punting when he was named to the Pro Bowl and can make a big impact on a field-position game. About 18 percent of his punts were downed inside the 10-yard line, the second-highest percentage in the league.


First game: at Chicago Bears in wild-card round (Jan. 6 at 4:40 p.m. ET, NBC)

FPI Super Bowl chances: 0.5 percent

Reason for hope: Nick Foles‘ magic appears real. He is 4-1 as the Eagles’ starting quarterback this season, accounting for nearly half of their victories despite making less than a third of their starts. The confidence he inspires in his teammates is clear, and his comfort level in coach Doug Pederson’s offense is obvious. We just first need to make sure he’s healthy enough to play in the wild-card game.

Reason for concern: The Eagles have had a hard time stopping good offenses in the second half of the season. Their DVOA since Week 11 has hovered in the bottom third of the league. They allowed 48 points to the Saints, 29 to the Cowboys (in an overtime loss) and 30 to the Texans. And the playoffs are full of good offenses.

X factor: Running back Darren Sproles has provided a big spark since his return from injury earlier this month. Pederson does a good job of picking the right spots for a player who turned 35 last summer. Opponents who track his movements pre-snap are still faced with a bigger challenge: actually tackling him.

AFC

First game: home vs. lowest remaining seed in divisional round (Jan. 12 at 4:35 p.m. ET, NBC)

FPI Super Bowl chances: 24.0 percent

Reason for hope: The Chiefs’ offense remained highly productive during a 2-3 stretch from Weeks 11-16. It averaged an NFL-high 34 points per game, better than the next-best team by 6 points, and led the league with an average of 25.2 first downs per game. Most NFL offenses slowed in December, but on a relative scale the Chiefs still have the league’s best.

Reason for concern: During that same stretch, the Chiefs’ defense allowed more points per game (35.6) than any team in the league. Opponents averaged a league-best 28.4 first downs per game and controlled the ball for an average of 32 minutes, 10 seconds per game, the fifth-most in the league. That’s a bad combination for making a playoff run, no matter how potent the offense.

X factor: Running back Damien Williams emerged as a viable emergency option for a team that needs versatility and explosiveness in the backfield to make its offense go. Williams seems an especially important option in anticipating January weather at Arrowhead Stadium.


First game: home vs. second-lowest seed in divisional round (Jan. 13 at 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS)

FPI Super Bowl chances: 12.8 percent

Reason for hope: Historically, the Patriots get it together for the playoffs — especially when they play at home. Their last home playoff loss came in 2013 (the 2012 season), and they’ve won their past nine postseason games at Gillette Stadium. Inasmuch as institutional confidence matters, the Patriots have it.

Reason for concern: The physical deterioration of tight end Rob Gronkowski has provided a symbol, real or exaggerated, for a team that might have passed its best days. Gronkowski has 12 touchdown receptions in 13 career playoff games and has so often been a postseason hero. But this December, he has looked like a player nearing retirement.

X factor: Cordarrelle Patterson is one of the few Patriots skill players with a legitimate chance to score any time he touches the ball. He is their best chance for getting quick scores, whether on offense or as a returner, and for keeping defenses off balance. This, of course, assumes a knee injury Patterson suffered in Week 16 does not hamper his explosiveness.


First game: home vs. Indianapolis Colts in wild-card round (Saturday at 4:35 p.m. ET, ESPN)

FPI Super Bowl chances: 2.0 percent

Reason for hope: The Texans are battle-tested for the kind of games that often take place in the postseason, playing in 11 one-score games, second-most in the NFL. They’ve had mixed success, having won six and lost five, but the four-quarter intensity of close games is a pretty decent regular-season replica of what happens often in the postseason.

Reason for concern: Deshaun Watson is entering the playoffs with more wear and tear than most quarterbacks endure. He has been sacked 62 times this season, fifth-most in NFL history. Watson is to blame for some of those sacks; he has held the ball longer before his average pass than all qualified quarterbacks except the Bills’ Josh Allen. It’s a trend to consider as the hardest-hitting portion of the football season arrives.

X factor: Running back Lamar Miller (ankle) is expected to be fully ready for the playoffs, and the Texans need him at his best. His 97-yard run in Week 12, four years after another 97-yard run when he was a member of the Miami Dolphins, is the type of play that forces opposing defenses to respect his explosive playmaking ability.


First game: home vs. Los Angeles Chargers in wild-card round (Jan. 6 at 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS)

FPI Super Bowl chances: 2.0 percent

Reason for hope: The Ravens’ defense has been lights-out during the team’s second-half tear, ranked No. 2 below only the Bears in DVOA since Week 11. Offenses carried the regular-season storyline, as they often do in the NFL, but strong defense and special teams are a valued — and rare — commodity in the playoffs.

Reason for concern: The history of rookie quarterbacks starting NFL playoff games is mixed. Since 2000, there have been 21 playoff games started by rookie quarterbacks. Their teams were 9-12 in those games. History isn’t necessarily on Lamar Jackson‘s side, but the Ravens’ offense is fortunate to be supported by the defense and special teams.

X factor: The Ravens have arguably the best pair of specialists in the league: place-kicker Justin Tucker and punter Sam Koch. Tucker missed four of his 35 attempts this season, but two were from beyond 50 yards. Koch, meanwhile, saw 8.6 percent of his punts downed inside the 5-yard line — third-highest in the NFL. Field position and squeezing every point possible from every possession are important factors in the postseason.


First game: at Baltimore Ravens in wild-card round (Jan. 6 at 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS)

FPI Super Bowl chances: 4.2 percent

Reason for hope: The Chargers have supplemented their usual array of talent with the kind of toughness and clutch kicking that can fuel a long playoff run. They’ve won in Seattle, Pittsburgh and Kansas City — three of the NFL’s most difficult places to play. And new kicker Mike Badgley hasn’t missed a field goal attempt inside of 50 yards.

Reason for concern: The Chargers have repeatedly started slowly during the second half of the season, ranking in the bottom third of the league in first-quarter scoring since the start of Week 9. It hasn’t necessarily hurt them so far, but it is by definition more difficult to claw back from an early deficit in a playoff game.

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Matt Nagy never thought to rest his players after he found out the Rams were up big, saying he wanted to win the game.

X factor: Receiver Mike Williams isn’t Philip Rivers‘ favorite target (that honor belongs to Keenan Allen), but he has been the most productive from a scoring perspective. Williams has nine touchdowns among just 38 receptions. He has also scored another on a jet sweep. If the Chargers need a touchdown to win a playoff game, opposing defenses would be wise to focus on Williams.


First game: at Houston Texans in wild-card round (Saturday at 4:35 p.m. ET, ESPN)

FPI Super Bowl chances: 1.8 percent

Reason for hope: Perhaps the single biggest factor in making a playoff run is quality of quarterback play. Andrew Luck is back to being one of the NFL’s best this season. Since Week 7, when the Colts began their turnaround from a 1-5 start, Luck’s QBR is second to only Drew Brees‘ among all qualified quarterbacks.

Reason for concern: Receiver T.Y. Hilton struggled to get past an ankle injury during the final month of the season. His production hasn’t decreased, but can he keep that up while nursing the ankle through limited practice during the week?

X factor: All of the national discussion about Luck has overshadowed the incredible work of the Colts’ defense over the same period. Led by rookie linebacker Darius Leonard, the Colts have ranked in the top 10 in both defensive QBR and rush yards per carry. It is not easy to move the ball against this team.





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