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With Week 12 now officially in the books, the NFL playoff picture is beginning to shape up.
Teams like the New Orleans Saints, Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams continue to establish themselves as the best in the business, and any of them missing the postseason would come as a total shock. The rest of the field, though? Well, we’re not quite sure who those teams are.
In the weeks leading up to the playoffs, some potential playoff teams are going to prove to be overrated. We’re here to try to determine who those teams are.
First, though, we have to define what we’re considering overrated. We’re not separating contenders from pretenders here. Instead, we’re looking at teams whose records or reputations we believe are misleading in terms of championship potential. This means a team may be heading toward a playoff bye and still find itself on this list.
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The Carolina Panthers are still in the NFC playoff picture at 6-5, but they’re also fading. Starting with being blown out by the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night in Week 10, Carolina has lost three straight.
It’s hard not to consider Carolina a dangerous team because it boasts one of the most dynamic and dangerous quarterbacks in league history. Cam Newton can carry an offense by himself, and when he’s on, he plays at an MVP level.
In case you forgot, Newton won the MVP a few years ago and helped lead the Panthers to the Super Bowl.
With Newton and do-it-all back Christian McCaffrey on board, the Panthers field one of the best rushing attacks in the league—ranked third with an average of 138.4 yards per game. And if you’re playing outdoors in January, the run game is important.
Here’s the problem, though: This is a team that has struggled to find ways to finish. Close losses to the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks are far more concerning than the blowout loss in Pittsburgh.
“Football, winning football games, comes down to four, five, six plays,” head coach Ron Rivera said, per Jourdan Rodrigue of the Charlotte Observer. “And that’s exactly what got us. I’m not going to sit here and try to make any excuse other than the fact that those are things that we have to get corrected.”
If the Panthers can’t finish against the Lions, do we really expect them to do so against the New Orleans Saints, Los Angeles Rams or Chicago Bears in the postseason? We do not.
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It’s almost blasphemous to sit here and call the New England Patriots an overrated team. They’re coming off back-to-back Super Bowl appearances and have the greatest quarterback/head coach duo in the history of the NFL.
However, the harsh reality is that this is not one of the better Patriots teams we’ve seen in recent years. Yes, their offense can be dangerous when Rob Gronkowski is healthy and when rookie back Sony Michel gets going, but both defense and pass protection have been liabilities.
Brady has only been sacked 16 times, but that’s because he knows how to get rid of the ball, not because protection has been great. If you watch the game film, you’ll see him regularly under pressure and often throwing errant passes because he doesn’t have time. This isn’t something we often saw from Brady in years past.
While New England allows the 11th-fewest points per game (22.6), this is largely because the Patriots defense has been able to feast on the inconsistent AFC East. Let’s not forget that this is a team that was blown out—not just beaten—by the Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans this year.
Those Jaguars, by the way, just fired offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and benched Blake Bortles.
If the offense is off at all, the Patriots struggle, and it’s hard to see them navigating the postseason if forced to go on the road.
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Washington lost a lot of its luster when starting quarterback Alex Smith went down with a torn ACL. The team is still tied with the Dallas Cowboys atop the NFC East and must be respected as a potential playoff team, though.
The defense allows a mere 20.8 points per game, seventh-fewest in the NFL. The team still has a bruising running back in Adrian Peterson, and really, Colt McCoy is one of the better backups in the NFL with his 26 games of starting experience.
Expecting Washington to simply fold would be a big mistake, especially with three divisional games remaining on the schedule.
Can it really make noise in the postseason if it wins the NFC East, though? Our guess is no.
While the defense is good, it isn’t likely to shut down the offenses of teams like the Saints and the Los Angeles Rams. It’s also difficult to believe Peterson can hold up as an every-down back through January, and to trust McCoy to not make mistakes in critical moments after he threw three picks on Thanksgiving.
Washington can be the division champion. It has no chance of being a world champion.
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The Baltimore Ravens have won two games in a row with rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson under center. It appears Jackson may be staying there for the near future. According to head coach John Harbaugh, Joe Flacco saw a hip specialist on Monday.
Those last two wins have gotten Baltimore back in the playoff picture, and the Ravens offense is more dynamic with Jackson under center than with Flacco. Regardless of which quarterback Baltimore is relying on, though, we really should pump the brakes a bit on the Ravens hype.
Can the Ravens be dominant? Certainly. They have one of the top defenses in the NFL—it allows a league-low 18 points per game—and the ground game has come alive behind Jackson and running back Gus Edwards. We do have to recognize, though, that Jackson and Co. were going up against two of the worst defenses in the entire league.
The Cincinnati Bengals and Oakland Raiders got shredded by Jackson, Edwards and the running game, but they’ve also been shredded by just about everyone they’ve faced this season.
If Baltimore’s offense falters at all, there’s no guarantee that even a dominant Ravens defense will be enough to win a game against a quality playoff opponent. Let’s not forget that this Ravens team has been blown out by the Bengals and the Panthers this season, lost to the Steelers at home and failed to fend off rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns in a defensive struggle.
Can the Ravens really knock off a top-tier AFC opponent like the Kansas City Chiefs on the road? We’ll find out in two weeks when the two face off, but our guess is no.
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The Cowboys are walking tall after beating Washington on Thanksgiving and grabbing a piece of the NFC East lead. They should, if they can win the division after starting the season 3-5. On paper, Dallas also has the look of a dangerous playoff team.
The Cowboys have a terrific running back in Ezekiel Elliott, a field-stretching wide receiver in Amari Cooper and an aggressive defensive front seven. They’re built to be competitive in the winter elements. Let’s be clear, though: Dallas still has its share of issues.
For starters, Dak Prescott isn’t the kind of quarterback who is going to carry the team in the postseason by himself. He’s been better at pushing the ball downfield since Cooper arrived, but if teams can take away Cooper, Prescott is likely to revert to being a check-down machine who opposing defenses simply don’t respect.
Does anyone expect Prescott to outduel Drew Brees, Jared Goff or even Mitchell Trubisky in the postseason?
The offensive line has also been a bit of a question mark. Casual fans may still believe it’s one of the best in football, but that’s a reputation from 2016. It isn’t opening holes for Elliott the way it once did, and it’s left Prescott vulnerable to the pass rush; he’s already been sacked 38 times.
The line is also unhealthy and may be without Tyron Smith and Zack Martin on Thursday against the Saints. We’ll find out what kind of playoff team the Cowboys resemble against New Orleans. Our guess is an average one at best.