Oftentimes, the NFL playoffs come down to matchups and which team gets hot at the right time. Teams can control how well they’re playing when the postseason begins, but they can’t decide which opponent they get in a specific round. As a result, some of the best teams wind up with nightmare matchups, thus hurting their chances at a Super Bowl ring.
With the playoffs just a few weeks away, let’s take a look at which teams each contender would like to avoid. From the Patriots and the Steelers, to the Cowboys and the Giants.
Getty ImagesJim Rogash
Dallas Cowboys: New York Giants
There’s one team in the NFL that has beaten the Cowboys this season, and it’s the Giants. In turn, New York is by far the scariest team for Dallas’ Super Bowl hopes. The Giants have a near-perfect formula for stopping the Cowboys, and it’s all thanks to their defense.
Olivier Vernon has always given Tyron Smith fits, Damon Harrison plugs up running lanes for Ezekiel Elliott, and Janoris Jenkins sticks to Dez Bryant like glue on the outside. The combination of these three players – who unsurprisingly were signed to massive contracts in the offseason – is like kryptonite for Dak Prescott and the Cowboys.
It’s hard to imagine Dallas losing to New York three times in one year, but this is certainly a team the Cowboys would prefer to avoid in the playoffs. The Giants simply do everything well defensively that the Cowboys like to exploit offensively – and it’s the perfect counter to Dallas’ game.
New England Patriots: Kansas City Chiefs
Not many teams pose a significant threat to the Patriots in the AFC, but if someone is going to beat them, it most likely will be the Chiefs. Their defense is very similar to Denver’s, only Kansas City’s offense is marginally better than the Broncos’. The Chiefs can run the ball, they have an explosive weapon in Tyreek Hill, and Alex Smith is hitting on deep passes at an unusually high rate. The Chiefs nearly upset the Patriots in the playoffs last year, and there’s no reason to believe they couldn’t finish the job this time around if they meet.
As long as Justin Houston, Dee Ford and Tamba Hali are healthy, the Chiefs are going to get after Tom Brady. His biggest weakness is opponents getting pressure on him consistently with just four rushers, which the Chiefs can do. They also have the defensive backs to play physical on the outside and disrupt Brady’s timing. The Chiefs are a dangerous team despite Sunday’s disappointing loss.
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Seattle Seahawks: Dallas Cowboys
If the Seahawks and Cowboys – two of the NFC’s best teams – are going to meet in the playoffs, it’s almost certainly going to be in Dallas. That could easily be the difference between the Cowboys going to the Super Bowl and Seattle representing the NFC. That’s how big of a difference home-field advantage makes. The Cowboys are likely the only team that could force Seattle to play a road game, where the Seahawks are 2-4-1 (7-0 at home).
This, in addition to their picture-perfect game plan, makes the Cowboys the biggest threat to the Seahawks. Dallas loves to run the ball and avoid turnovers – two areas where the Seahawks thrive defensively. Dallas provided a blueprint two years ago when it beat the Seahawks on the road by running it down their throat and playing good defense. The Cowboys could do the same this postseason with Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott protecting the football.
Oakland Raiders: Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs swept the Raiders this season, winning their two games by an average of 12 points. So, why wouldn’t the Chiefs be the one team Oakland would like to avoid? Like the Patriots, the Raiders rely on throwing the ball all over the yard. They get good pass protection and a consistent-enough running game to balance the offense. The Chiefs can do everything to disrupt that plan.
Justin Houston and Dee Ford generate an inordinate amount of pressure on the edges, and Marcus Peters can take away either Michael Crabtree or Amari Cooper on a regular basis. He showed that in their most recent meeting and does so to most No. 1 receivers.
On offense, the Chiefs are just good enough to expose Oakland’s poor pass defense. They also have a solid running game led by Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West and a change-of-pace player in Tyreek Hill.
New York Giants: Green Bay Packers
The Packers are arguably the hottest team in football right now, and they’re a squad no one wants to play. The Giants should be especially afraid of Green Bay. The Packers, led by Aaron Rodgers, of course, have an outstanding passing attack. They can move the ball almost at will, and Ty Montgomery has given them a much-needed spark at running back.
While their offensive line isn’t necessarily as good as Dallas’, it can more than hold its own in pass protection against New York’s front. The Packers also have enough weapons on the outside to allow Rodgers to spread the ball around, thus minimizing the impact Janoris Jenkins has on the game. You could also make the case that Green Bay’s defense is better than Dallas’, which gave Eli Manning and the Giants trouble.
Kansas City Chiefs: Pittsburgh Steelers
If there’s one thing the Chiefs sometimes struggle to do, it’s keep pace with high-flying offenses – particularly ones that can control the ball offensively. The Steelers boast a rare combination of explosiveness and consistency on the ground with Antonio Brown providing big plays over the top and Le’Veon Bell running the ball with a great deal of success.
Those two are arguably the team’s most important players, and that includes Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers would be able to move the ball on offense with a balanced attack, keeping the Chiefs on their heels. Not many offenses have the ability to do that against KC, which makes Pittsburgh a scary team – especially for the Chiefs.
Atlanta Falcons: Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks were fortunate to escape their first game against the Falcons with a win. Richard Sherman was somehow not called for pass interference, which would have set up Atlanta for a potential game-winning field goal. The Seahawks played well enough to win, however – and they would likely do the same if these two were to cross paths again.
Seattle is one of the few teams in the NFL with a true shutdown cornerback. Richard Sherman can more than hold his own against Julio Jones in coverage, which not many defensive backs can do. And while the Falcons are good even when Jones doesn’t play at all, he’s by far their best offensive weapon.
The Falcons also don’t have a dominant defense that can shut down Seattle’s inconsistent offense. The Seahawks would be able to move the ball and put up enough points to overcome Atlanta’s high-octane attack. It’s not always pretty, but the Seahawks do have some explosiveness to go along with their physical defense.
Pittsburgh Steelers: New England Patriots
Tom Brady owns the Steelers – there’s just no way around it. He has a 9-2 record against Pittsburgh, has thrown 26 touchdown passes and just three interceptions agains them and has six straight starts with a passer rating above 100. All of those numbers include the postseason, which should be very concerning for the Steelers. What’s more worrisome is how balanced this Patriots offense is.
LeGarrette Blount has quietly been one of the best running backs in the league this year, and his physical running style allows the Patriots to not only set the tone for the game but control the time of possession better than in years past.
This would allow the Patriots to limit the number of possessions for the Steelers, which is a big factor in slowing Ben Roethlisberger and Co. And when Brady has the ball, you know what he can do. Not shockingly, he’s become comfortable without Rob Gronkowski and has enough weapons to move the ball through the air.
Green Bay Packers: Dallas Cowboys
The Packers entered their Week 6 game against the Cowboys with the NFL's top-ranked run defense. That obviously didn’t mean much because Ezekiel Elliott had a career-day with 157 rushing yards. Green Bay's run defense is still good, but Elliott is a different animal. He was a huge reason the Cowboys dominated the Packers in that game, leading them to a 30-16 victory. If they were to meet again, I’d fully expect Elliott to have a huge game once again.
That doesn’t mean the Packers are a bad team. They’re one of the best at the moment, actually. The Cowboys just have a formula for beating them. They can run the ball, control time of possession, take the ball out of Aaron Rodgers’ hands and limit the number of drives the Packers get.
Detroit Lions: Seattle Seahawks
The Lions are as one-dimensional as any team in the NFL. They can’t run the ball, and though the defense has played well of late it’s far from a dominant unit. That doesn’t bode well for Detroit, which has made a living on late-game heroics from Matthew Stafford. Coming back against the stingy Seahawks would be near-impossible – even for the NFL's comeback king.
The Seahawks’ secondary is outstanding, possibly the best in the league. The Lions love to throw the ball, and if they can’t they’re in trouble. Against the Seahawks, they’d struggle, which would cause major problems. Seattle would be able to key on the pass and almost ignore the run, especially with its stout defensive line. Linebackers would be able to drop into coverage without biting on play-action, taking away routes over the middle.
The Seahawks would control this game on both sides of the ball, and this matchup could get ugly.