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: Baltimore Ravens

The Season So Far

Baltimore began the season with a statement win against the Miami Dolphins, putting up 59 points against them. They followed it up with another win against the Arizona Cardinals, garnering them some attention as one of the league’s best Offenses. That was dampened, however, with back-to-back losses to the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns.

Since then, their Offense has been fully realised with Quarterback Lamar Jackson in charge. Critics doubting the Ravens’ ability to beat the top teams in the league were silenced as they beat the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots. The Defence has continued to improve since their two losses. The addition of Cornerback Marcus Peters gave them one of the better secondaries in the league. Sitting two games clear atop their division, the Ravens just need to avoid costly slip-ups from here on.

How They Could Win It All

The Ravens’ Defence is slowly coming together, and they’re getting better play out of the front 7 than at the start of the season. The secondary, despite losing Safety Tony Jefferson, has a dangerous CB pairing in Peters and Marlon Humphrey. The Defence can hold its own, and showed just what it was capable of against the Patriots. It doesn’t need to be elite, but by continuing to make enough stops, it will put the Offense in positions to win.

The greatest strength of the Ravens though is their Offense. Lamar Jackson spearheads the top rushing attack in the NFL, but has also proven himself as a capable passer. The Tight End group led by Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst, alongside rookie Wide Receiver Marquise Brown, are valuable weapons. Throw in a bevy of capable Running Backs such as Mark Ingram, and Baltimore are an Offense-first team in 2019. They can move the ball and score in a number of ways, with few teams able to keep up.

The Achilles’ Heel

If there’s one thing the Ravens wish they could improve, it would be their pass rush. They are currently ranked 29th in the league in sacks, ahead of only the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, and winless Cincinnati Bengals. While their secondary makes up for a lot of their weaknesses up front, if they can’t generate pressure more, it will likely be their undoing.

On the other hand, if a team figures out how to contain Jackson and force him to stay in the pocket, the Offense could struggle to put up points the way they have been. Keeping Defences guessing has allowed Baltimore’s rushing attack to be the best in the league. Removing the mystery element could allow opponents to stop Ingram and the other RBs too.

NFC: Green Bay Packers

The Season So Far

With just two losses on the season to date, the Packers are in a strong position to win their division, or at the very least be a wildcard team. Their two losses came against a Philadelphia Eagles team that had everything go right for them, and a Los Angeles Chargers team desperate for a win. The Packers have won on the back of both their Offense and Defence, and are still looking for greater consistency.

Despite having Aaron Rodgers at QB, the Green Bay passing attack hasn’t realised its potential yet. Yet the emergence of Aaron Jones at RB, whose role is starting to be clearer each week, has kept the ball moving. On Defence, the secondary is highly physical and among one of the league’s best, although the Packers have struggled to stop the run.

How They Could Win It All

When you have Rodgers at the helm, you will be in every contest, if not controlling it. As WR Davante Adams returns from injury, the Offense should be able to figure out the last few wrinkles. The true test will come in their next game against the San Francisco 49ers, but winning that will cement them as a favourite to make the Super Bowl. Closing out the season with more consistent performances on Offense will set them up for a nice playoff run.

Likewise, the Defence is not the liability it has been in recent years for the Packers, led by the Linebackers Preston and Za’Darius Smith. They have a sufficiently strong pass rush, and a secondary that can generate turnovers. Although they are soft against the run, getting in front early will force teams to throw the ball more, and they have the weapons to win games this way against anyone.

The Achilles’ Heel

The storyline and biggest question all season has been the Packers’ inability to shut down opposing Running Backs. They are averaging over 120 rushing yards allowed, placing them 25th in the league against the run. In their two losses, opposing RBs had over 150 yards rushing. If the Packers face any of the top 6 rushing Offenses in the playoffs – all of whom are currently holding a playoff spot – it could all be undone.

Moreover, if the Offense struggles to find a better rhythm in the passing game, it could find itself left behind in a shootout. There is a recipe for disaster brewing where these two weaknesses exacerbate the other. If teams can run the ball on the Packers, they can control the clock and limit Green Bay’s possessions. In turn, the Packers may then rely on scoring quickly, which usually means passing the ball. If this element of the Offense isn’t 100% right, and the Defence can’t get stops, Green Bay could be one and done in January.

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