But after the Saints and Chiefs escaped with close wins and the Rams suffered a frustrating road loss to the Bears on Sunday, it’s clear that some of the NFL’s top challengers have a chance to unseat the league’s big three in the playoffs (and for practical purposes, let’s make it a big four with the Patriots, who are still a Super Bowl contender even after Sunday’s stunning loss in the Miami Miracle).
The formula for beating one of these teams involves keeping the game close, running the ball effectively and having a defense that in addition to being able to slow opponents down, can help win the turnover battle.
Here are five teams outside the league’s elite contenders who could make a surprise Super Bowl run:
In Sunday night’s 15-6 home victory, the Bears became the first team to completely slow down McVay’s highly sophisticated offense. The Rams ran 61 plays and gained only 214 yards in a statement win for Chicago.
Clearly, it helped that the temperature at Soldier Field was 29 degrees, as cold weather is a challenge for motion offenses such as the Rams’. But even more important was Chicago finding success running the ball, earning 194 yards on 35 carries. That allowed the Bears to win the time of possession battle — 37 minutes to 23 — and make life easier for quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, who was 16 of 30 for 110 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. In another game, those mistakes might have proven too much to overcome, but the Bears’ defense picked off Rams quarterback Jared Goff four times.
Chicago is in prime position to win the NFC North, but it proved it has the formula to challenge the Rams and maybe even the Saints in a divisional round matchup if the Bears win in the wild-card round — they just won’t have the advantage of playing at home in the cold weather for either game.
Sunday’s 24-21 loss to the Indianapolis Colts illustrated what happens for the Texans if forced to deviate from their winning formula. They had put together a nine-game winning streak by effectively running the ball and limiting quarterback Deshaun Watson to around 25 pass attempts per game.
It’s not that putting the ball in Watson’s hands is a bad idea — but having him drop back 35-plus times a game behind Houston’s makeshift offensive line is. And when the Texans fall behind, as they did against the Colts, they get into trouble. Watson had 38 pass attempts in the loss and took seven hits in addition to five sacks.
There’s also the matter of Houston having a defense ideally suited to keeping leads, with the edge-rushing duo of J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. If Houston can get ahead, it has the chance to close out almost any team — but mounting a comeback, given the issues up front on offense, is a challenge.
Seattle might not be the best of the five teams listed here, but it could be the most dangerous to the elite three. In Russell Wilson, the Seahawks have a veteran, Super Bowl-winning quarterback with 22 come-from-behind wins in the fourth quarter or overtime during his career. His teams are never out of it, whereas the other teams on this list start QBs with three or fewer years of experience.
Seattle still needs to follow a formula to hang with the league’s top teams, and that starts with running the ball. The Seahawks lead the league in rushing at 149 yards per game entering Monday night’s matchup with Minnesota, and rank second in turnover differential at plus-11.
Even though Amari Cooper leads the league in receiving yards since Week 9 with 642, the Cowboys are another team that needs to manage a game in which they don’t get down by two scores. In Sunday’s 29-23 overtime win, the Eagles were the perfect opponent — they are the worst-scoring team in the first quarter.
Quarterback Dak Prescott held his own in a battle against Carson Wentz, throwing for 455 yards and three touchdowns (all to Cooper) against two interceptions.
Dallas has gone from being a team likely to miss the playoffs to a near-lock to win the NFC East. As it showed on Nov. 29 in a 13-10 win over the Saints, it also has the formula — with a strong running game and dynamic defense — to take down one of the NFC’s top teams.
The question of whether the Ravens can sustain a playoff run with a rookie quarterback who is more dangerous as a runner than passer was answered in Baltimore’s near-upset of Kansas City on Sunday, and the coaching adjustment should save John Harbaugh’s job.
Despite the limitations on offense, the Ravens have a strategy that has worked. They rushed for 198 yards, and Jackson only had to throw 24 passes, completing 13 for 147 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. They led 24-17 with a little over 4 minutes left, and only an incredible 11-play, 75-yard drive led by Patrick Mahomes forced overtime.
Still, there is more learning to be done for how to make this Jackson-led offense work. Harbaugh shouldn’t have tried to go for a game-winning field goal drive in the final 53 seconds. As well as Jackson has done in his four starts, his completion percentage has been in the 50s the past three weeks. Asking him to drive 40 or so yards almost turned into a disaster when Justin Houston got a strip-sack with 38 seconds left, but a missed field goal by the Chiefs forced overtime, where Mahomes led a field-goal drive to pull out the victory.
The Ravens aren’t out of it in either the race for the final wild-card spot or in the AFC North, as the division-leading Steelers fell to the Raiders ahead of a challenging closing stretch. If Baltimore makes the postseason, it could pose some problems. Just look at what it did to frustrate Mahomes during Sunday’s game, employing some cover-zero blitzes.
— One interesting name to follow in connection with the Green Bay Packers job is Josh McDaniels. According to people with knowledge of the situation, the Patriots’ offensive coordinator is considered a strong possibility to be the team’s next head coach.
His decision to accept and then back out of the Indianapolis Colts’ job last year will scare some owners, but McDaniels would be a great fit in Green Bay in that he would provide Aaron Rodgers with one of the best play-callers in the game.
— Former Packers Coach Mike McCarthy was classy about his exit. After being fired Dec. 2, he doubled back during the week and met with coaches and players and took out a newspaper ad thanking the fans. McCarthy is expected to be in the mix for several jobs, and the Cleveland Browns would be a natural fit because he has worked with General Manager John Dorsey. Reports have surfaced that he might sit out next season unless he finds the right job.
— Michigan Coach John Harbaugh said publicly that he’s not leaving the school. According to people with knowledge of his thinking, we should take him at his word. Urban Meyer’s decision to retire as the Ohio State head coach opened the door for Harbaugh to end his personal four-game losing streak against the Buckeyes. That means something to him. It’s not out of the question for him to look at the NFL in 2020.
— Harbaugh’s decision is good news for Miami Dolphins Coach Adam Gase. Team owner Stephen Ross is a big Michigan supporter and would certainly consider Harbaugh for the Dolphins job. But the Miami Miracle win over the Patriots helped Gase’s job security.
— Ron Rivera’s future got even cloudier with the Carolina Panthers’ 26-20 loss to the Cleveland Browns. He fired two defensive assistants last week and took over the play-calling on defense, but that didn’t stop the team’s skid., which has reached five games. Up next are two games against the Saints, sandwiched around a home game versus Atlanta.
— Mark Sanchez did his best Nathan Peterman impression in the Washington Redskins’ 40-16 loss to the New York Giants. He completed six of 14 passes for 38 yards and two interceptions and was sacked five times. Josh Johnson will be next week’s starter at Jacksonville. The loss might have moved Coach Jay Gruden onto the hot seat, especially if their four-game losing streak grows.