Each NFL playoff team's fatal flaw: 12 problems that can end a season

·NFL columnist

Two months ago, the NFL’s heavy hitters looked invincible. Before Cooper Kupp went down and Kareem Hunt went viral. Before Josh Gordon went sideways and the New Orleans Saints went to Dallas.

Now? Each of the NFL’s top four playoff seeds carry some kind of vulnerability into these playoffs, making this one of the most wide-open Super Bowl sprints in recent memory. From top to bottom, any franchise appears legitimately capable of pulling off a string of postseason upsets — a reality underscored by the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles standing as potentially the weakest team in this year’s playoff.

With that in mind, here’s a look at the potential fatal flaw for each team in the NFL postseason.

AFC

1. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Achilles: The back end of the defense (linebackers and secondary).

The league-leading 137 penalties on offense are a concern. That would easily be the most consistent problem all season if it weren’t for the fact that the defense can’t stop anyone consistently. At this point, opponents know that K.C.’s linebackers and defensive backs have significant issues holding up in prolonged coverage when pressure doesn’t get home. And they haven’t been consistent filling space in run support, either. There’s a chance safety Eric Berry makes all the difference in scheme discipline and this shores up after the postseason bye week. But Berry won’t be at his peak and is one man inside a back seven in need of playmakers to handle a pass-happy playoff field. In losses this season, opponents have had ample success spreading the Chiefs out and doing damage in intermediate space. While chunk plays (40+ yards) are always a concern, the backbreaker for Kansas City is the league-worst 65 pass plays of 20+ yards given up this season. If the Chiefs can’t solve that, it will bite them again in the postseason.

2. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Achilles: The pass rush.

New England has more than one pressing concern. The rushing defense has had issues. Tom Brady has gotten knocked around this season and Rob Gronkowski has yet to be consistent. Losing wideout Josh Gordon hurts and the offense can’t guarantee a run game when it absolutely has to have it. All of that said, this isn’t a playoff field that can be survived without hitting (or at least constantly pressuring) quarterbacks. There are two problem guys – the Los Angeles Chargers’ Philip Rivers and Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson – whose games thrive without pressure. Rivers will pick a team apart and Watson will create. Then there are two juggernauts: the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and Indianapolis Colts’ Andrew Luck – who could easily drop a 400-yard passing game on New England if they’re not hit consistently. The Patriots’ 30 sacks were tied for the second-fewest in the NFL this season, with only the flat-lining pass rush of the Oakland Raiders looking worse. That’s not going to cut it in this playoff field. Either Bill Belichick can scheme some pressure or one of these prolific passing offenses is going to thump the Patriots this postseason.

3. HOUSTON TEXANS

Achilles: The offensive line.

How Watson is still upright at this stage of the season is a miracle. The Texans allowed an NFL-worst 62 sacks, including 21 in the final four games of the season (which produced a sputtering 2-2 finish). More than one factor has contributed, including Watson holding the ball too long at times in hopes of creating bigger plays downfield. Still, the offensive line has looked overwhelmed for much of the season. Maybe the only upside in this respect is that the Patriots, Colts and Chargers all have mediocre (or worse) pass rushes. But the Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens? If the Texans advance and run into one of those defensive fronts, Watson is either going to be running for his life or getting hammered. A lot. And there’s little the Texans can do to change that dynamic now.

4. BALTIMORE RAVENS

Achilles: Lamar Jackson’s inexperience.

Jackson has been fantastic this season and will be a bear of a matchup when it comes to defenses drawing up a plan for him. But nothing exposes the still-developing flaws of a rookie quarterback more than the playoffs. Jackson will see post-snap adjustments that didn’t show up on film, the game will get even faster and passing windows will get tighter. None of this is a knock on Jackson, mind you. He’s a threat in his own right. But the amplified pressure of every game will matter. And there’s no way the Ravens advance without Jackson making some big time throws to win games. Given the assurance that he’s going to get hit a lot – especially if he faces the Chiefs or Texans – his endurance while running to extend drives or throwing accurately on a consistent basis is going to be challenged. It’s a lot to ask of Jackson at this early stage of his NFL development. The odds of that reality not catching up to the Ravens at some critical juncture is slim at best.

5. LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

Achilles: The offensive line.

Go back and look at the Chargers’ Week 16 loss to the Ravens and you’ll see the template to topple Philip Rivers and the passing game. It’s not just about sacking him. It’s about not allowing him to set up in a prototypical way. He can stand pressure. He can stand hits. What bothers Rivers the most is when he has to move left and right in the pocket rather than sliding up and down. That puts a lot of pressure on the guard-center-guard trio in the middle of the line, which can’t consistently get penetrated. Middle pressure destroys most NFL quarterbacks. It hurts Rivers more than most because he’d much rather stay inside the tackle box and step forward into throws than have to break the pocket and create or extend. When the Chargers have been at their best, Rivers has been comfortable inside his tackles and without pressure coming from inside gaps. That doesn’t mean the tackles can fail, of course. The best possible result is a total lack of pressure. But at the very least, if that pressure comes, it has to be from the edges, where Rivers is most accustomed to handling and evading it.

6. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

Achilles: The pass defense.

The Colts’ most-pressing problems are a little more nebulous than almost any other team in this playoff field. The 120 penalties this season have probably been one of the most consistent problems to plague this team. But that’s been a roller coaster, too, with some terrible games skewing the numbers at times. The pass rush is mediocre. The Colts can’t always run the football and T.Y. Hilton is banged up. But the concern from start to finish is the Colts’ pass rush and secondary occasionally failing to the point of yielding too much in one-off scenarios. That’s digging deep on a team that went 9-1 in the final 10 and never really had an overriding issue that always stuck out as a problem. That said, over the course of the season the Colts have had some oddball games on pass defense. Tom Brady and Deshaun Watson are one thing, but there were also three games where guys like the New York Jets’ Sam Darnold, Jacksonville Jaguars’ Blake Bortles and New York Giants’ Eli Manning have looked better than they probably were in 2018. Some of those efforts (like the Manning and Bortles games) were smoothed over by Colts wins. But it’s clear that when the pass rush isn’t making a mark, quarterbacks can thrive against the Colts. That’s scary considering this playoff field.

NFC

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper (19) pulls in a pass over New Orleans cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) during Dallas’ upset of the Saints in November. (AP)
Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper (19) pulls in a pass over New Orleans cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) during Dallas’ upset of the Saints in November. (AP)

1. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Achilles: The defensive secondary.

You really have to get nit-picky with the Saints, who don’t have many weaknesses. If they hadn’t secured home field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Achilles would have been weather or simply getting this team on the road, where it looks slightly more vulnerable than at home. But since that’s off the table, I’ll take a page from the Dallas Cowboys, who beat the Saints 13-10 on Nov. 29. While pressuring Brees into quick throws in tight coverage was a huge part of that win, the biggest takeaway by Dallas was that you can create some matchup problems with the New Orleans cornerbacks. The Saints were 29th in the NFL in passing yardage allowed, although part of that is the reality that opponents have to throw to stay in games. That can distort the stats a bit. That said, the Cowboys saw Marshon Lattimore will sometimes gamble and you can catch him on occasion. But the bigger liability is Eli Apple, who has issues with quicker players and can be taken advantage of in the right matchups. Depending on wins versus Lattimore might be a bit of a stretch, but Apple is definitely a player teams will try to exploit. It’s not exactly a massive weakness, but it’s what is available and speaks to how good the Saints have been this season.

2. LOS ANGELES RAMS

Achilles: The run defense.

There’s some temptation to be wary of quarterback Jared Goff, who had a mini meltdown against the Chicago Bears in week 14 —throwing four interceptions while looking extremely uncomfortable in the pocket. That’s certainly something to keep an eye on. The cornerbacks have also had some brutal moments this season. But the more consistent concern is the Rams run defense, which ranked 23rd in yardage allowed per game and dead last with the NFL’s worst yard-per-carry average (5.1). This matters. Because you have to control the Rams offense to win, and part of controlling that offense is by controlling the tempo. And there’s no better way to control tempo than by running against the Rams’ inside linebackers and that hard-charging defensive line. That performance against the run has been a huge disappointment to Los Angeles defensive coordinator Wade Phillips this season. And teams believe they wear down that defensive line by running at it.

3. CHICAGO BEARS

Achilles: Mitchell Trubisky’s experience.

The field goal kicking could very easily be No. 1 here. And frankly, Trubisky isn’t exactly an overwhelming concern. Much like the Saints and Rams, this is a pretty complete team that is very capable of rolling to a Super Bowl appearance. That said, Trubisky has been somewhat protected this season. The Bears don’t put him in a litany of situations where he has to take big risks down the field. That’s not Trubisky’s fault. It just hasn’t been necessary with a Chicago defense that has prevented the offense from having to carry the team consistently. This playoff field is going to be another matter — particularly once the Bears leave the confines of Soldier Field. Whether it’s the Saints or Rams or whatever AFC powerhouse advances to the Super Bowl, the Bears are going to run into one or several opponents that can challenge Trubisky to carry a game on offense. Can he do it on the playoff stage? Potentially. The Bears certainly have that confidence in him. But until he carries them in a playoff game — or even plays in the postseason for that matter — the lack of experience in the situation is a problem.

4. DALLAS COWBOYS

Achilles: The offense.

First thing’s first: this is a defense absolutely capable of playing on a Super Bowl level. From the coaching to the players — and most especially if defensive end Randy Gregory is giving the edge rush a little something extra. But on the flip side, the offense is still a little scary. Yes, things opened up a bit in a squeaker over the New York Giants in the season finale. And without running back Ezekiel Elliott, no less. But there is no denying that the offensive line has been maddeningly inconsistent this season and there’s little confidence that coordinator Scott Linehan is going to suddenly roll out a slew of wrinkles that he’s been hiding deep in his playbook. Teams will look at the 23-0 loss to the Colts late in the season and walk away knowing that if you take away Amari Cooper and simply limit the damage from Elliott, quarterback Dak Prescott will struggle to drive the offense down the field against good teams. And no, the Giants were not a good team in the finale. For all the excitement about Cooper and the emergence of Blake Jarwin, it’s still a scheme that flows through Elliott in the biggest moments. When that is taken away, it will be on Prescott and Linehan to prove Dallas can win a race differently.

5. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Achilles: The road disadvantage.

The Seahawks simply haven’t looked nearly as intimidating on the road this season when compared to home performances. That’s not a huge shock, considering Seattle has always had a monster advantage with one of the most daunting home environments in the NFL. But the 4-4 road record was propped up with three wins against bad teams (the Arizona Cardinals, Oakland Raiders and Detroit Lions). The Nov. 25 win at the Carolina Panthers was impressive, given it was two teams fighting to stay in postseason races. But the bottom line is, the Seahawks lost a late-season clunker against a bad San Francisco 49ers team, and fell flat against the Rams, Chargers and Bears in what turned out to be matchups against playoff teams. The Seahawks have seemingly played close games nearly every week this season and the late-season run has been impressive. Particularly the win over the Chiefs. But the road vs. home edge clearly matters for Seattle this year, and that’s why the No. 5 seed creates such a disadvantage.

6. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

Achilles: The injury report.

There’s a lot to love about the Eagles’ late-season run. Particularly the lightning in a bottle that quarterback Nick Foles appears to be capturing once again. But there’s just no denying the injury situation is far worse this postseason than it was last year (and last year wasn’t great, either). The defense has lost a lot, which matters in the postseason. Not to mention the fact that Philadelphia doesn’t have the home-field advantage it held last year. At some point, the depth chart will catch up to this team. Particularly in an NFC slate that should push the Eagles on defense even more than last year’s run.

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