The reason every NFL playoff team will lose
By Mike Tanier
There are no nigh-unbeatable 1972 Miami Dolphins or 2007 New England Patriots in this year’s NFL playoff field. Each team has at least one critical flaw. Opposing coaches have spent countless hours scouring game film and statistical breakdowns searching for those flaws. All you have to do is read the following capsules.
The Cardinals fumbled (“aborted,” in NFL parlance) 17 center-quarterback snaps this season. Per Football Outsiders research, that’s the highest figure in at least the past 12 years.
Football players master the snap early in their Pop Warner careers, so learning that a playoff team botches an average of one per game is almost as stunning as discovering that players also occasionally get lost on the way to the stadium.
The Bills finished third in the league in points scored and first in fewest points allowed, in part because they played what several analysts determined was the NFL’s easiest schedule. The Bills went 9-2 this season against opponents that failed to reach the postseason, outscoring them 318-144. The Bills went 2-4 against playoff-bound opponents, with a much more modest plus-10 score differential. The Bills are expected to face only playoff teams in the playoffs.
Joe Burrow endured a league-high 51 regular-season sacks. Poor blocking was partially to blame, but coach Zac Taylor’s game plans also appear to consist largely of: a) spreading the formation so the Bengals’ offensive line gets no help from tight ends or running backs; b) sending rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase as far downfield as possible; c) hoping Burrow survives long enough to throw the ball to him.
The Cowboys were penalized a league-high 127 times in the regular season. They were also the beneficiaries of a league-high 121 penalties. Cowboys games are nearly unwatchable because they are often decided not by great offensive or defensive plays, but by 20-yard gains negated by holding fouls or 35-yard pass interference penalties when a defender nudges a receiver while chasing an off-target throw. That is more a flaw of the NFL’s officiating culture than it is the Cowboys, but it certainly is critical.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers have the NFL’s worst special teams units. Opponents averaged a league-high 12.8 yards per punt return against the Packers and 25.7 yards per kickoff return (seventh in the NFL), while veteran kicker Mason Crosby missed eight field goals from inside the 50-yard line.
The kicking game is completely outside quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ sphere of influence, of course, a fact he will be sure to remind us of if the Packers lose a playoff game on a punt return touchdown or missed extra point.
Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City committed 25 turnovers, tied with the Tennessee Titans for the highest total among playoff teams. Also, nearly every turnover the team coughs up is a Rube Goldbergian series of improbable coincidences: The intended receiver slips before Patrick Mahomes delivers a side-armed pass, the ball ricochets off the receiver’s helmet and the antlers of a gazelle grazing along the sideline before landing in the hands of a defender, who bobbles the ball directly into the hands of a teammate, who nearly runs for a touchdown before being chased down by the gazelle or by the slightly faster Tyreek Hill.
Las Vegas Raiders
It’s difficult to determine how the Raiders reached the playoffs, let alone which of their many flaws is the most critical.
Los Angeles Rams
Matthew Stafford threw 17 interceptions this season, tied with Jacksonville Jaguars rookie Trevor Lawrence for the league lead. He threw five of those interceptions from inside the Rams’ 20-yard line. It’s as if every time Stafford sees that he needs to drive more than 80 yards for a touchdown, he flashes back to his 12 seasons of Detroit Lions purgatory and becomes overwhelmed with despair.
New England Patriots
The Patriots’ offense is more of a family SUV than a sports car, and while rookie quarterback Mac Jones keeps his hands at 10 and 2 o’clock and signals before every turn, he’s not quite ready for rush hour on the turnpike. Jones’ efficiency rating on passes of 15-plus yards downfield of 58.4 ranks 27th among starting quarterbacks, per Sports Info Solutions. Force the Patriots out of their running-and-defense game plan, and Jones looks more like another Zach Wilson than the next Tom Brady.
The Eagles are the league’s best rushing team, averaging an NFL-high 159.7 yards per game. Unfortunately, coach Nick Sirianni likes to express himself artistically at the goal line with lots of intricate passing concepts instead of just hammering the ball between the tackles. As a result, the Eagles scored touchdowns on only 69% of their regular-season goal-to-go opportunities. Only the Cardinals had a lower success rate among playoff teams, perhaps because their signature goal-to-go play is a botched snap.
Ben Roethlisberger, who is expected to retire at season’s end, now throws and runs like a great-uncle playing a pickup game at a backyard cookout after three IPAs and two helpings of potato salad, and the Steelers’ offense looks like archival footage of a 1928 Pottsville Maroons-Dayton Triangles game played in a vacant lot during a downpour.
San Francisco 49ers
Even when Jimmy Garoppolo is healthy, his passes that travel more than 10 yards in the air have the trajectory, accuracy and velocity of a paper clip flung from a rubber band. He is currently dealing with a finger injury on his throwing hand, so coach Kyle Shanahan must either stretch the limits of nano-screen passing technology or give more opportunities to speedy, strong-armed rookie backup Trey Lance. The smart money, unfortunately and inexplicably, is on the nano-screens.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tom Brady will be without top playmakers Chris Godwin (ACL tear) and Antonio Brown (check Instagram) in the playoffs. Injuries and absences did not appear to hamper the Buccaneers in their final games, but Brady could have beaten the New York Jets and Carolina Panthers simply by swaggering onto the field and posing heroically.
Running back Derrick Henry’s imminent return from surgery on his broken foot is a mixed blessing, because the Titans may expect him to again rush 30 times per game, scan tickets at the stadium entrance and sing a halftime duet with Walker Hayes. Fortunately for Henry, the Titans earned a first-round playoff bye, giving him another week to soak his feet in Epsom salts, fancy-like.