Last year, heading into Week 17, Atlanta was the team to beat in the NFC, having already clinched home field advantage with their 13-2 (at the time) record. Washington was the hottest team in the conference and Green Bay was considered very live for the title, with Aaron Rodgers just one year removed from his Super Bowl ring.
In the AFC, the playoffs were expected to be an eventual battle between the Patriots and Broncos, with the other four teams (Baltimore, Cincinnati, Houston and Indy) largely considered to be fodder for the elites; non-factors.
What happened? A San Francisco-Baltimore Super Bowl, won by the Ravens; their third straight postseason win as an underdog. Let’s not forget Baltimore entered the playoffs in the midst of a late season 1-4 SU and ATS skid; a team nobody expected to make noise in January and February.
You get my point. The real money to be made betting the NFL postseason is fading the supposedly “elite” teams that are, in fact, vulnerable. And boy, this year looks like the poster child for that strategy, because each and every supposedly “elite” team is flawed in at least one or two areas.
Any playoff team that gets hot at the right time – now – and gets a lucky bounce or two in their favor (remember how Baltimore beat Denver last year) is capable of winning a Super Bowl title.
In fact, my column punches holes in all seven of the teams that have already clinched their spots, explaining how and why they are vulnerable to getting upset once the playoffs roll around. For my personal futures wagers, I’m only looking at “longshots”.
Seattle: We’ve seen the Seahawks offense get shut down repeatedly. Remember their Monday Night Football game at St Louis or their home loss to Arizona this past weekend; games where the Seahawks simply couldn’t move the football!
Seattle’s offensive line has been riddled with injuries. When Marshawn Lynch can’t find room to run and Russell Wilson doesn’t have time to throw, this offense defines the word “pedestrian.”
The Seahawks secondary has been riddled with suspensions. Their run defense has been gashed by the likes of St Louis, Tampa Bay, Tennessee and San Francisco. And with their home loss to Arizona last Sunday, all of a sudden, Seattle’s vaunted home field advantage has a crack in it too.
Carolina: The extent of WR Steve Smith’s injury was not known at press time. Carolina’s passing game wasn’t good with Smith in the lineup. If he’s hurt in any serious way, a mediocre passing attack becomes subpar.
The Panthers have also been mediocre (at best) running the football; currently ranked No.24 in the NFL in offensive yards per game. Cam Newton is tied for the league lead in red zone interceptions, and he didn’t convert a single third down try against New Orleans in their division clinching win.
All four of Ron Rivera’s signature wins this year (the Saints, 49ers, Dolphins and Patriots) have come in coin-flip type games where the Panthers made the plays/got the calls/got lucky late; something that doesn’t translate particularly well when it comes to the playoffs.
New England: Have you looked at the Pats injury report lately? The fact that New England is even in this discussion is a testament to the remarkable ability of the Belichick/Brady duo.
We’ve seen the Pats lose at home in the playoffs three times in the last four years; no longer an elite home field in January. Without Gronk, the passing game is counting on the likes of Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson and Julian Edelman to make big plays in January; an “iffy” proposition at best, especially when we consider how poor Brady’s protection has been.
The defense is without Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Jered Mayo, leaving them vulnerable against any solid running game they’ll face.
Denver: Where should I start? How about Peyton Manning’s miserable track record winning cold weather games in January. Or the Broncos leaky defense that could be without Von Miller, very bad news for a stop unit that has been torched repeatedly, allowing 27+ four times in their last five contests.
Wes Welker is out too. Let’s not forget before Manning set the single season passing TD record against lowly Houston, the Broncos were locked in a tight three point game in the fourth quarter against a bottom feeder playing out the string, having scored only a single TD. The offense got shut down for extended stretches against the Chargers.
Cincinnati: Andy Dalton is still the same QB who looked pretty miserable in first round playoff losses in each of the last two seasons. All five of the Bengals losses this year have come on the highway, and the offense was the culprit in every one of those defeats.
Cincy will have to win away from home in the playoffs this year as well. Other than AJ Green, there’s not much for opposing defenses to fear, especially with leading rusher BenJarvus Green-Ellis averaging only 3.3 yards per carry. And it’s certainly not like Marvin Lewis has a “bet-on” track record in January.
Indianapolis: Andrew Luck is a superstar already, but Indy’s offensive line has struggled to protect him. Without Reggie Wayne, Luck’s receiving corps is mediocre at best. This subpar OL can’t open holes for Trent Richardson or Donald Brown.
Despite playing well in each of the last two weeks, the Colts defense is certainly not an elite unit, particularly for offenses that can game plan to stop Robert Mathis’ pass rush.
On a good day, the Colts have proven capable of beating San Fran, Seattle and Denver, but Indy has really struggled to string together “good days” for more than a couple of weeks in a row, a “must do” to reach the Super Bowl. And the Colts propensity for slow starts is a disaster waiting to happen in January.
Kansas City: My season wins best bet was the Chiefs OVER 7.5 victories (largely based on their remarkably weak schedule), and I supported them repeatedly over the first half of the season as they were going 9-0. And I’ve been making money fading the Chiefs during their 2-4 slide; a team that was never anything close to elite.
Andy Reid is a chronic playoff underachiever. Alex Smith cost the 49ers a trip to the Super Bowl with his dismal play in the NFC Championship Game against the Giants two years ago; nowhere near “elite QB” status. This offense settles for field goals in the red zone.
The defense that sparked the team for the first two months of the season has now allowed 28 ppg in their six games since the bye; KC has been unable to feast on the steady diet of backup QB’s that prompted their first half success. They look much more like a “one and done” type playoff team than a serious contender.
Ted Sevransky is one of the nation’s premier sports handicappers and analysts. Follow Teddy on Twitter @teddy_covers or visit his page at experts.covers.com. Contact Ted Sevransky at [email protected]