The 2021 NFL Playoffs mark the league’s first postseason featuring seven playoff teams in each conference. In the AFC, the seventh spot was well-deserved, going to an 11-win Indianapolis Colts squad. In the NFC, however, there were two playoff teams, the Chicago Bears and the Washington Football Team, with eight or fewer wins.
The Bears had little hope for a deep playoff run.
The Bears had a string of success after benching Nick Foles for Mitch Trubisky, scoring 30 points in four of their next five games. Even if Trubisky is able to put together some magic in the first round—and with plenty of talent at the skill positions, it’s not out of the question—it was hard to imagine his play being consistent enough to get them past the divisional round.
Washington faced a similar challenge. Their pass rush may have been the best in football, but their offense had been abysmal. Terry McLaurin had been the lone bright spot in an offense that has seen three different starting quarterbacks in the past 12 weeks.
Tom Brady’s struggles when pressured prompted many to wonder if they had the potential to upset the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first round, but the Bucs’ strong defense was unlikely to allow Antonio Gibson to carry the team on the ground.
The same can be said of the Los Angeles Rams, who went on the road against the Seattle Seahawks in the first round. Yes, the Rams have an elite defense. Yes, they have depth at wide receiver, tight end, and running back. Yet, their season lies in the hands of John Wofford, a former private equity analyst just two years ago.
His first start came in Week 17 after Jared Goff fractured his thumb. The Rams won their game against the Cardinals, but not convincingly against an injured Kyler Murray. Even though Goff play, he wasn’t fresh, and he was unlikely to secure a win in the wildcard round.
Of the bottom-four seeds in the NFC, Tampa Bay seems to be the only one with a legitimate shot at making some noise in the playoffs. Brady’s play has been night-and-day all season. His 40 touchdowns and 12 interceptions is fantastic for anyone, let alone a 43-year-old, but his play in primetime games has led to concerns.
Still, the Bucs’ stout defense can keep them in the game even when Brady falters. They have the firepower to keep up with anybody, but in a top-heavy NFC, it will be tough for Tampa to make it any further than the conference championship game.
With that being said, the Bucs came out on top against Washington, 31-23.
Despite being only the 3-seed, the Seahawks might be the best team in the NFC right now.
The biggest concern for Seattle all season had been their historically-bad pass defense, but that same defense has transformed itself into one of the league’s best over the last several weeks. When that defense is making plays to prevent every game from turning into a shootout, it’s difficult to imagine any team from the NFC beating the Seahawks.
Nonetheless, they fell to the Rams, 30-20.
The Saints, on the other hand, may be the hardest team in the league to evaluate. Every year, they seem to be a contender; their defense improved this season and Alvin Kamara has shown himself to be arguably the most dangerous running back in the league.
Still, something about them just seems unthreatening.
Maybe it’s the locker room tensions dating back to the offseason. Maybe it’s the way that Drew Brees has looked just average for the first time in years. Maybe it’s just the fatigue of seeing them go into the playoffs as a Super Bowl favorite every year, just to be upset by an inferior team in the divisional round. Regardless of the reasoning, something about this 2-seed just doesn’t feel like a 2-seed.
Still they were able to handle the Bears, taking them down 21-9.
The top seed in the NFC and favorites to advance to the Super Bowl are the Green Bay Packers. Aaron Rodgers has put together a career year in 2020 following his lackluster 2019 campaign.
No quarterback ever has thrown 48 touchdowns and only five interceptions before Rodgers did so this year, making himself the odds-on favorite to win the MVP award. Their potent passing attack combined with one of the league’s best running backs in Aaron Jones makes them an offense to be reckoned with.
With their defense also firing on all cylinders, and Lambeau Field’s frozen tundra making them one of the only teams to have a true home-field advantage in the world of COVID-19, it was hard to see them not advancing to at least the conference championship game, which they did, holding off the Rams by a score of 32-18.
In the AFC, last Saturday’s playoff between the Bills and the Colts was the first time all season that the Colts have been underdogs.
Their offensive line, consistent defense, and rapidly-improving run game have allowed them to win games despite a lack of competent wide receivers. Yet, on the road against a Bills team that has looked more and more impressive as the season has gone on, they needed to be able to move the ball downfield if they want to keep up.
On the other side of the ball, Josh Allen has broken out as the clear new King of the East following Tom Brady’s departure in the offseason.
His MVP-caliber play has come as a surprise to even his most firm believers. The additions of Stefon Diggs and Zack Moss in the offseason have made the Buffalo Bills one of the AFC’s most potent offenses.
Even if a team can slow down Stefon Diggs, which hasn’t been done thus far, Josh Allen knows how to make plays with his legs. Allen appears to have learned how to minimize turnovers, making the Bills one of the only true threats to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC.
His chances to be that threat have increased after staving off the Colts to a 27-24 victory.
While the Bills are all of the walk with none of the talk, the Steelers are quite the opposite. After starting the season 11-0, Pittsburgh lost four of their last five games, including two to teams with losing records. They’re frauds, and their trash talk only fuels opposing teams’ desire to beat them.
The Cleveland Browns have been the exact opposite of the Steelers this year. While the Steelers looked worse and worse as the season went on, the Browns have looked better.
Despite Odell Beckham Jr.’s season-ending torn ACL, Baker Mayfield has looked like a better player and a better leader as the season progressed. Some of this can be chalked up to a young player progressing and maturing with age.
More of it can be attributed to the impressive play of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt on the ground. The pair has looked like an all-time great running back duo since Chubb’s return from his MCL injury. Both have been everything Cleveland could have hoped for, and Hunt’s role in the passing attack helps Mayfield maximize his team’s scoring ability while minimizing turnovers.
The Browns missed their head coach in the wildcard opener on the road against the Steelers, but still advanced to the divisional round, after finishing off the Steelers, 48-37.
Perhaps the most intriguing matchup of wildcard weekend was the Baltimore Ravens going against the Tennessee Titans.
The Ravens seemed to have everything to prove after being routed at home by the Titans last year. Lamar Jackson was the MVP, the Ravens were the top seed, but the game was never even competitive. The defense went from looking like one of the league’s best to one of the league’s worst, and Lamar Jackson went from looking like Michael Vick in 2004 to Michael Vick in 2012.
Still, the pressure to perform shouldn’t be all on Jackson. Jackson has improved his play, and it’s important to note that despite being an MVP, he’s only in his third NFL season. He still has plenty of time to improve and grow, don’t ring the alarm bells just yet if he doesn't go any further in the playoffs this year.
The Titans looked great on both sides of the ball for most of the season, and present one of the biggest challenges to Kansas City.
Derrick Henry is one of only eight players in the history of the NFL to surpass 2,000 rushing yards in a single season. He’s one of only two to surpass that milestone and score at least 15 rushing touchdowns. If the MVP wasn’t a quarterback’s award now, he would certainly be in the conversation for it.
Flying under the radar still was the Titans’ passing attack. Since becoming Tennessee’s starter last season, Ryan Tannehill has posted similar numbers to Patrick Mahomes II. With Jonnu Smith and Corey Davis emerging this season as reliable pass-catchers, the Titans had a shot at reaching the conference championship game this year.
But when it came down to it, Baltimore finished on top by a score of 20-13.
Still, it seems as though the winner of the Super Bowl is a forgone conclusion.
Patrick Mahomes is the consensus best quarterback alive. Travis Kelce is the consensus best active tight end since George Kittle was injured for most of this season. Tyreek Hill is widely considered to be one of the top-three wide receivers in the league, not to mention an abundance of other pass-catching talent and an inconsistent-yet-promising run game with rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Le’Veon Bell.
The Chief’s embarrassment of riches at offensive skill positions gives them no reason to do anything other than repeat as Super Bowl Champions. Mahomes should be expected to raise the Super Bowl MVP this season, and we all should expect to see him do so several more times before his half-billion-dollar contract expires in nine years.