NFL: Playoff Team Previews

As we head into the home stretch of the 2019 NFL season, the playoff teams are emerging. A handful of teams are well and truly done for the year. Another group are nearing the point of no return. Over the next several weeks, the playoff teams will be reviewed, with one from each conference each week.

AFC: New England Patriots

The Season So Far

Over Weeks 1-8 of the NFL season, the New England Patriots went undefeated. Then, in Week 9, they couldn’t handle business against the Baltimore Ravens. It all fell apart when the Offense struggled to move the ball, and the Patriots turned the ball over too many times. But in a weak division, all they have to do is hold off the Buffalo Bills. The Patriots are the best candidate in the AFC to be the first to lock up a playoff spot.

The Offense has been the problem for this team all year. It is something the Patriots are trying to work out, including the failed recruitment of Wide Receiver Antonio Brown. Until this week, it had been enough to beat mediocre and cellar-dwelling teams. The Defence has been among one of the best in the league, spearheaded by a dynamic secondary and Linebacker group. Without the success of the Defence, the Patriots would be trying to fight for the #1 seed, instead of being the current holder of it.

How They Could Win It All

If the Offense can sort itself out and be good, the Defence will win the game for this team. There are sufficient weapons on Offense for it to be capable of scoring enough points to win. As the team gets healthier on Offense, with Offensive Tackle Isaiah Wynn and WR N’Keal Harry returning from injury after the Week 10 bye, it should find its feet. As Quarterback Tom Brady’s protection improves, and he has more targets to hit, scoring 25+ points could be an insurmountable target come January.

Simultaneously, with the way the Defence is playing, not many teams will be able to run up a huge score. The Defensive Line struggled to close down the Ravens’ rushing attack, but it has done the job against most other opponents. If the Patriots can execute and avoid turnovers in another meeting with Baltimore, there isn’t anyone in the AFC that will trouble them greatly. The aerial assaults by the Kansas City Chiefs, or most NFC playoff candidates, will have a rough going against Cornerback Stephon Gilmore and company. With further adjustments and an altered gameplay in their arsenal, the Patriots have a clear path to the Super Bowl.

The Achilles’ Heel

Of course, New England’s Defence perhaps relies too heavily on its secondary. When their LBs had to be committed to defend the run, it left some gaps for the Ravens’ third and fourth options – especially the Tight Ends. Without generating pressure and containing a mobile QB such as Lamar Jackson, or Houston’s Deshaun Watson, the Patriots’ Defence becomes a little more exposed.

Yet the biggest flaw for the Patriots is their struggling run game. Running Back Sony Michel hasn’t been as effective as last season. A large portion of their yardage from the RBs has come from the likes of James White as a receiving option. Although the trade for WR Mohamed Sanu and the entry of rookie Harry will open up the passing game, the Patriots’ Offense isn’t as diverse as it has been in years past. Without a reliable rushing attack, it will allow Defences to target Brady, instead of keeping them honest.

NFC: New Orleans Saints

The Season So Far

Although not the top seed currently in the NFC, the Saints haven’t been at full strength since Week 2. When QB Drew Brees went down with a hand injury, the Saints were hoping they could tread water until he returned. Yet backup Teddy Bridgewater was more than a placeholder, and went 5-0 in Brees’ stead. RB Alvin Kamara went down with an injury a few weeks ago, but it made little difference. The Saints found different ways to win over the first half of the season, setting them up for the run home nicely.

Sitting 2 games clear in their division, New Orleans control their own destiny. They have both of their games against their nearest divisional rival the Carolina Panthers still to come. They could be the first NFC team to lock up a playoff spot if they continue winning and the Panthers stumble again.

How They Could Win It All

The Saints fell a game short of the Super Bowl in the 2018 postseason, and would feel robbed. They have an experienced group who knows how to handle pressure matchups. 2019 is set up better for them, as Brees will be rested heading into the run home, instead of having a weakened arm as he did in 2018.

New Orleans are also ready to adjust their approach to games and can handle players going down injured. They won a game through Special Teams, another on the back of their Defence, and now the Offense is ready to get going. With a dominant defensive front, and a creative Offense, the Saints can go toe to toe with anyone.

The Achilles’ Heel

What the Saints haven’t proven yet is that they can pile up the points against top teams. The Defence has had to keep them in games by limiting their opponents’ scoring. If the Offense can’t prove itself capable of handling its end of the deal, it could be a short run in January. The lack of high-calibre options at WR behind Michael Thomas could become an issue too if a lockdown CB can shut him out of a game.

Moreover, a lack of depth at other positions could undo everything for the Saints if an injury strikes the wrong spot. The OL and LB spots are thin, and could be exploited heavily if disaster strikes. Worse, if Thomas goes down, then opponents will have a much easier time shutting down the run and targeting Kamara.

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