• Matthew Whiley

NFL Playoffs Preview

Back in 2016, the original recipients of the All or Nothing treatment by Amazon were the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL. British sports fans – who, let’s face it, are the vast majority of people who read this blog – will probably know it better for its coverage of the likes of Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, but the series was - much like Bruce Springsteen, Hollywood films, and something called liquid cheese – born in the USA.

That fact does actually become apparent when you consider its name. ‘All or Nothing’ is not strictly true for football teams in the UK, who compete on multiple fronts, but it is most certainly the case over the pond. For the 32 NFL teams, it’s Super Bowl or bust, Lombardi or loss, trophy or try again.

And now we reach that stage of the season. We’ve already said goodbye to 18 of the league’s sides, leaving the remaining 14 to battle it out for the NFL’s ultimate – and indeed, only – prize.

Let’s meet the 14 for whom it really is now all or nothing.

Arizona Cardinals

In the playoffs for the first time since 2015, the Cardinals ended this season with an 11-6 record. They initially appeared on course for the NFC’s top seed spot and a free pass through the Wild Card round after reaching their Week 12 bye with a 9-2 record, but lost four of their last six to instead finish second in the NFC West.

Kliff Kingsbury has built a well-rounded team, ranking 8th in total offense and 11th in total defense across the NFL. In a pass-heavy offense, quarterback Kyler Murray threw for 3,787 yards and 24 touchdowns, while their defense was more adept at stopping the pass too, as cornerback Byron Murphy claimed four interceptions.

They will face the Los Angeles Rams in the Wild Card round.

Buffalo Bills

AFC East winners for the second season running and in the postseason for the fourth time in five years, the Bills also finished the regular season at 11-6. They struggled to put together a real unbeaten run, winning no more than four consecutive games at any point, but were ultimately able to ease to a Wild Card berth by Week 17.

The Bills’ backbone has been their defense, ranking top of the whole NFL in both overall and passing defense, but quarterback Josh Allen has also led an impressive offense which ranks fifth in the league. Wideout Stefon Diggs’ 1,225 receiving yards earned him a Pro Bowl berth, while safety Micah Hyde recorded five interceptions.

They will take on fellow AFC East side the New England Patriots for a spot in the Divisional Round.

Cincinnati Bengals

The resurgent Bengals have gone from having the first overall draft pick in 2020 to winning the AFC North this time out with a 10-7 record, sealing their first playoff berth, and winning season, since 2015. Much like the Bills, they too struggled to capitalise on periods of good form, but three wins from their last four sealed a playoff spot.

Zac Taylor’s Bengals are not quite among the league’s elite yet, with an acceptable offense covering for a below-average defense. However, quarterback Joe Burrow’s 4,611 passing yards place him sixth in the league’s signal callers, so much will depend on him if Cincinnati are to win their first playoff game in 31 years.

That Wild Card round game will see them face the Las Vegas Raiders.

Dallas Cowboys

The much-improved Cowboys finished with a 12-5 record, topping the NFC East, to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2018. A six-game-winning streak in the first half of the season underpinned that charge, and they backed it up with five wins in their last six to secure a Wild Card berth in Week 16.

After spending much of last season on the sidelines, the return of quarterback Dak Prescott, who led an NFL-best overall offense, was welcome. He threw for 4,449 yards, while running back Ezekiel Elliott racked up 1,002 on the ground. The defense was a little more rusty, but cornerback Trevon Diggs still recorded an NFL-best 11 interceptions.

Mike McCarthy’s third-seeded Cowboys will take on the San Francisco 49ers in the first round of the playoffs.

Green Bay Packers

The top-seeded Packers went 13-4 to ensure a third-straight year with an NFC North division title and a playoff appearance. Seven wins in a row early on surged them to the top of their division, and their playoff spot was secure with three weeks of the regular season to spare.

Matt LaFleur’s Packers are not outstanding in any one department, but they are very good in all departments, recording the ninth-best offense and the tenth-best defense in the league. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers once more enjoyed a stunning season, throwing for 4,115 yards and 37 touchdowns.

Their top seed status means they will not take part in the Wild Card round, instead receiving a bye straight through to the Divisional stage, in addition to home field advantage throughout the postseason.

Kansas City Chiefs

After something of a rocky start, the Chiefs found their groove to hit an eight-match winning streak and secure a seventh consecutive playoff appearance. They ended the regular season with a 12-5 record, emerging as AFC West division winners for the sixth year in a row.

Predictably, it was their red hot offensive output that got them there once more, as quarterback Patrick Mahomes threw for 4,839 yards in a third-ranked overall offense. Their defense is far more of a pressing concern, coming in at 27th in the league, but their ability to outscore just about anyone negates that particular concern.

Mahomes, Andy Reid, and co. will face the Pittsburgh Steelers for a Divisional Round place.

Las Vegas Raiders

In only their second season in Sin City, the Raiders returned a 10-6 record to mark their first winning season, and first playoff appearance, since 2016. Five defeats in six following their Week 8 bye looked set to potentially derail their postseason hopes, but four wins in a row at the end of the season was enough to seal a Wild Card berth.

Coach Rich Bisaccia took over in Week 6 and became the first interim head coach since 2012 to earn a playoff spot. The driving force of their success this season has been their sixth-ranked passing offense, led by quarterback Derek Carr, who threw for 4,084 yards. Their defense was more middling, but the pass rush was reasonably effective, as Yannick Ngakoue picked up ten sacks for the season.

They will travel to the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card round.

Los Angeles Rams

In the playoffs for the second season running, and fourth time in six years since returning to California, the Rams finished with a 12-5 record that saw them win the NFC West. They raced to 7-1 in the first half of the season, and although they suffered three losses in a row around their Week 11 bye, a playoff spot was safe by Week 16.

Long-time Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford landed in LA ahead of this season, and he led the side’s passing offense to be the fifth-best in the NFL with 4,886 yards, with wideout Cooper Kupp amassing 1,947 receiving yards of his own. On defense, the Rams’ real strength was against the run, ranking sixth in that regard, but Aaron Donald’s pass rush still remained a scary prospect, as the big defensive tackle came up with 12.5 sacks.

They will face off against NFC West rivals, the Arizona Cardinals, in the first round of the playoffs.

New England Patriots

A 10-7 record saw the Patriots back in the playoffs for the first time without Tom Brady since 1998, as they finished runners-up in the AFC East. They began disappointingly at 2-4, before a seven-game winning streak pushed them back into the conversation, and a Wild Card spot was secured in Week 17.

Bill Belichick emphasised defense to ensure the Pats’ return to the postseason, overseeing the NFL’s second-best passing defense, and fourth-best overall, as linebacker Matthew Judon recorded 12.5 sacks. The offense wasn’t quite as hot, but rookie quarterback Mac Jones still posted a respectable 3,801 passing yards and 22 touchdowns to contribute heavily to that crucial winning run.

In their first Wild Card game for 24 years, the Patriots will travel to AFC East rivals, the Buffalo Bills.

Philadelphia Eagles

After missing out last year, the Eagles are back in the playoffs for the fourth time in five years after finishing second in the NFC East with a 9-8 record. After losing five of their first seven, they gradually improved to win four in a row either side of their Week 14 bye, eventually securing a playoff spot with a week to spare.

Head coach Nick Sirianni’s rushing defense was ranked as the NFL’s best, but it largely carried the team’s passing defense, which was the league’s eighth-worst. The offense was far more well-rounded, ranking ninth in rushing, 11th in passing, and 10th overall, as young double-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts topped Philly’s passing (3,144) and rushing yards (784).

Their Wild Card round assignment is a trip to defending Super Bowl champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Head coach Mike Tomlin has never overseen a losing record at the Steelers, and that continued in his 15th season. They went 9-7-1 to finish second in the AFC North, securing their second consecutive playoff appearance. A crucial five-game unbeaten run, which included a tie with the Lions, either side of their Week 7 bye, pushed them into the plus column, where they just about remained until a postseason berth was safe in Week 18.

Both the Steelers’ overall offense (23rd) and overall defense (24th) rank below the NFL average, and in fact their rushing defense was the league’s worst. However, there were plenty of individual accolades, with linebacker TJ Watt leading the league in sacks with 22.5, while veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 3,740 yards and running back Najee Harris recorded 1,200 rushing yards, placing him fourth in the entire NFL.

They face a trip to last season’s Super Bowl runners-up, the Kansas City Chiefs, in the Wild Card round.

San Francisco 49ers

The Niners returned to the playoffs two years after finishing runners-up in Super Bowl LIV, finishing with a 10-7 record in their 75th anniversary season. A tough start saw them drop to 2-4, but just two losses in nine in the second half of the season secured a postseason spot by a tiny margin, in overtime on the last game of the season.

Kyle Shanahan built an exceptionally well-rounded team, ranking seventh in overall offense and third in overall defense. In fact, in all categories – passing, rushing, and overall – on both sides of the ball, the only one the Niners didn’t rank in the NFL’s top 10 on was passing offense. Defensive end Nick Bosa put up 15.5 sacks to rank fourth in the league, while wide receiver Deebo Samuel collected 1,405 receiving yards to be fifth in that metric.

They will face the Dallas Cowboys in the Wild Card round.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Having recorded their best-ever record with 13-4, the Tom Brady – sorry, Tampa Bay – Buccaneers are still firmly in the hunt to defend their Super Bowl title. Their only rough patch came either side of their Week 9 bye, when they lost both games immediately adjacent to it, but they won seven of their last eight and a playoff place, along with the NFC South title, was safe by Week 16.

Legendary quarterback Brady set numerous NFL records throughout the season, the most notable of which was passing Drew Brees for the most career passing yards in the sport’s history. Naturally, that moment came at the home of his old employers, the New England Patriots, and the Bucs recorded the league’s best passing offense. Their defense wasn’t bad either, with their real strength being in stopping the run; they ranked third in that area.

Bruce Arians’ men will host the Philadelphia Eagles in their first postseason game since winning the Super Bowl.

Tennessee Titans

This season’s final playoff contenders are also one of the NFL’s most-fancied. The Titans finished 12-5 and secured the AFC top seed spot, with a six-match winning run in the middle of the season underpinning their success. The AFC South division title was safe in week 17, marking the first time in 60 years that they had secured consecutive divisional titles, back when they were known as the Houston Oilers.

Having lost 2020 offensive co-ordinator Arthur Smith, the Titans’ offense wasn’t quite as hot as last year, meaning their defense had to step up. Fortunately, it did, ranking 12th overall, as Harold Landry recorded 12 sacks, and it was the second-best rushing defense in the NFL. They were also effective on the ground when attacking themselves, as running back Derrick Henry amassed 937 yards as part of a top-five rushing offense.

After receiving a first-round bye, they will benefit from a week’s rest before entering the playoffs at the Divisional Round stage, and whomever they face, the road to the Super Bowl is guaranteed to be going through Nashville.

And now, we sit back, and enjoy the action. Over the next four weeks, 12 games will be played to decide who will advance to the NFL’s showpiece.

This year’s Super Bowl, the 56th staging of the big event, will take place in Los Angeles, marking the first time it has visited California for six years. The obvious question is, of course, who will be there to compete in it?

Buckle up. It’s definitely going to be a memorable ride.

As ever, I'm always open to comments, suggestions, queries, and feedback, so please do get in touch using the form at the bottom of the homepage or through my social channels. You can like my Facebook here, and you can also follow me on Twitter here. Connecting with me through social media brings the benefit of being among the first to know when I post something new!

I also have a YouTube channel, where I post videos relating to a whole variety of sporting topics. I kicked things off earlier this year with a series called The County Review, where a guest and I discuss all the goings-on across the county cricket circuit, and the good news is that another sporting series is now almost ready to join the ranks! You can view all that here.

Signing off,