NFL News & Analysis

NFL Playoff contenders - strengths and weaknesses

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 29: LeGarrette Blount #29 of the Philadelphia Eagles celebrates his touchdown with teamamte Carson Wentz #11 in the fourth quarter against the San Francisco 49ers on October 29, 2017 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

With the rest of the season focused on the push for the NFL playoffs, it’s time to look ahead to the strengths and weaknesses of the playoff contenders.

Last week we brought you projected win totals for every team over the remainder of the season using PFF’s analytics data to project how each team would fare given what we have seen from them so far and the schedule they have to face down the stretch. This week we will take that same (updated) data, and use it to project the playoff teams plus two ‘in the hunt’ teams for each conference.

Then we are going to look at the strength and weakness that could be key for these sides as they look to play January football and ultimately contend for a Super Bowl.

NFC

Projected record (12-4)

Strength: The Eagles have the best defensive front in football. They have seven defensive linemen to have played 250 or more snaps this season, and all of them have at least 15 total pressures, with Brandon Graham leading the team on 41. As a group, they can get after the quarterback and stop the run, and give the back end of this Eagles defense a fantastic platform.

Weakness: It’s not easy to find too many glaring concerns on this Eagles roster. Jason Peters going down at left tackle is an issue, with Halapoulivaati Vaitai already surrendering three more sacks than Peters had before he went down, but the biggest concern may be in coverage on defense, where the play of Patrick Robinson – currently PFF’s fourth-ranked cornerback – feels unsustainable. The good news is potential reinforcements on the horizon with Ronald Darby to offset any drop in play.

Projected record (11-5)

Strength: The Panthers have one of the best linebacker groups in the NFL, and arguably the best in coverage, which helps to paper over some cracks in the secondary. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis have the instincts and positional sense to tighten windows over the middle of the field and give defensive backs less ground to have to cover, with both players owning top-15 coverage grades among all linebackers.

Weakness: Weaponry. Trading away Kelvin Benjamin left this team with another group of sub-standard receivers, while Cam Newton has largely struggled this season and even ever-reliable Jonathan Stewart has been poor in 2017, coughing the ball up twice this past week against Atlanta. There is some talent there, and TE Greg Olsen returning will help, but this group is once again without receivers they can rely upon to go out and win matchups.

Projected record (11-5)

Strength: Balance. This team has seen big steps in development all over the roster. DT Aaron Donald obviously remains their best player, but the defensive front as a unit is not up to his level. The key to this side is that there is strong performances all over the field on both sides of the ball, buying them some contingency if a player or unit misfires in a key game.

Weakness: Jared Goff has taken a huge step forward in Year 2, and is coming off the back of a four-touchdown domination of the New York Giants, but overall he has been inconsistent in year two. His overall PFF grade sits at 76.3, good for 21st in the NFL, but it is built up of hot and cold performances. If the Rams catch one of those cold ones at a bad time in January, it will be tough sledding.

Projected record (10-6)

Strength: It’s obvious that defense has been carrying this team, with very few players getting game time who are not grading well. Harrison Smith has been the best safety in the game through the first half of the season, making PFF’s mid-season All-Pro team, while Linval Joseph has been a run stuffing force in the middle, racking up 24 defensive stops and a run stop percentage of 14.6, the best mark among defensive tackles.

Weakness: The Minnesota offensive line is immeasurably better than a season ago, but they are still an average at best unit, with the capacity to be dominated by a good defensive front, particularly in the run game. If that gets shut down, the Vikings have huge question marks at quarterback, where three guys are somehow in the mix on a team that has Super Bowl aspirations. There is talent in that room, but the only guy without injury question marks (Case Keenum) is the one with the most likelihood for collapse down the stretch.

WILD CARD

Projected record (10-6)

Strength: The Cowboys have one of the league’s best running attacks, with an offensive line that still has its core trio of LT Tyron Smith, C Travis Frederick and RG Zack Martin posting top-15 grades so far, and Ezekiel Elliott able to maximize that running room. Elliott’s looming suspension could throw this sideways down the stretch, but even without Elliott, Rod Smith and Alfred Morris this season have averaged 6.1 yards per carry after contact, breaking seven tackles as a pair from 24 carries.

Weakness: As good as that offensive line has been, their new starters at LG (Jonathan Cooper) and RT (La’el Collins) have each had games in which they were exposed badly, particularly in pass protection. Those players have the ability to torpedo a game plan if they run into the right opponent and aren’t given any help.

Projected record (9-7)

Strength: Russell Wilson is able to perform at an incredibly high level in the face of some of the most intense pressure in the NFL. He will occasionally have an off-day like this past week against Washington, but given he faces pressure on 42.0 percent of his dropbacks, he has more than earned that leeway, and when he is on, he is peerless. Wilson currently has the second-best overall grade of all quarterbacks at 86.0.

Weakness: Their offensive line continues to be one of the worst in the league, though they made a significant move to upgrade with trading for LT Duane Brown. As a unit, they have allowed 125 total pressures, worse than all but one other offensive line this season (Houston), but Brown at least allows them to upgrade on Rees Odhiambo, whose PFF grade of 27.5 was the lowest mark in the league.

IN THE HUNT

Projected record (9-7)

Strength: This offense may be struggling compared with this time a year ago, but they are still loaded with explosive weapons that can make big plays at any time. Julio Jones is second in the league in yards per route run at 2.94, while Devonta Freeman has just moved to the top of the PFF running back grades with a mark of 90.8 over the season.

Weakness: QB Matt Ryan has been playing at his lowest level for several years now, and has been at the heart of this downturn in production. His overall PFF grade of 84.5 is eight points lower than a season ago, and the lowest figure he has posted since 2013. He isn’t playing badly right now, but they need him to be playing better if they are to be legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

Projected record (9-7)

Strength: The defense has suddenly found help for Cameron Jordan, who has still been fantastic as their top talisman up front. Jordan has 38 total pressures, but players like Sheldon Rankins (24), Alex Okafor (22) and even rookie Trey Hendrickson (12) have chipped in bringing pressure. Marshon Lattimore at cornerback though has been a monster upgrade and allowed this defense to really contend against the pass.

Weakness: The run game has been productive, but their backs are doing a lot of work by themselves, gaining 594 of 982 rushing yards (60.5 percent) after contact. The offensive line has been a solid pass blocking unit but have struggled far more run blocking, and that could cause problems down the stretch.

 

AFC

Projected record (12-4)

Strength: Tom Brady remains the best quarterback in football and it’s even more evident now Aaron Rodgers has been lost to injury. His overall PFF grade is 92.7, which is almost seven points higher than the next-best passer. Brady looks to be only getting better despite reaching the age when quarterbacks used to enter the Hall of Fame, not continue pushing their case to be a lock.

Weakness: The Patriots defense has been a problem this season. Between a string of busted coverages, injuries, and the inability to generate much pressure on opposing quarterbacks, they have been scrambling to hold up their end of the bargain. As a unit they have also missed 54 tackles, which isn’t helping.

Projected record (11-5)

Strength: The offense was supposed to be unstoppable for the Steelers this season, but in reality it’s been the defense where all the good grading is. With the exception of a lack of edge pressure, the Steelers defense has impressive grades across the board, and the edge pressure could improve once they officially deploy James Harrison down the stretch and team him with the one outside linebacker that is grading well in T.J. Watt.

Weakness: Antonio Brown has been the best receiver in football this season, leading the league in both PFF grade (92.1) and yards per route run (2.98), but outside of him they haven’t had the production that they should have on paper. JuJu Smith-Schuster has had impressive games, but struggled in others, and Martavis Bryant hasn’t been nearly the weapon he was in the past. The Steelers need that secondary threat for the games where a team successfully takes away Brown.

Projected record (11-5)

Strength: Alex Smith this season has been like a different quarterback, aggressively taking shots down the field and attacking favorable matchups in a way he hasn’t in the past. He hasn’t become the league’s most aggressive quarterback, but he has moved away from being its most conservative. With Kareem Hunt in the backfield and Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce to throw to, as long as that continues the Chiefs have a dangerous offense that can score on big plays at any time.

Weakness: Defense has been an issue for Kansas City, in particular against the run. There are occasional big plays, but across the board the team is struggling to play sound gap defense and bottle up running backs. Their linebackers in particularly have struggled to plug the gaps consistently, and even Derrick Johnson now has 10 missed tackles on the season.

Projected record (10-6)

Strength: Jacksonville’s defense has become one of the best in the game, and is generating a huge volume of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They have 158 total pressures so far this season as a unit, averaging almost 20 total pressures per game, and on the back end they have the league’s best cornerback tandem in A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey to take advantage of all that heat.

Weakness: Quarterback is the obvious Achilles heel of this roster. They have tried to take as much responsibility and expectation as possible off Blake Bortles, but at some point he is going to have to be trusted to put the ball in the air and make things happen, and all too often those things are bad. He has seven turnover worthy plays so far this season, and no games in which he has put the ball in the air more than 40 times.

WILD CARD

Projected record (9-7)

Strength: Buffalo’s defense has been a huge surprise this season and the biggest upgrade on a year ago has been a secondary that is thriving in their new defensive scheme. Rookie CB Tre’Davious White has been excellent, allowing just 50 percent of the passes thrown his way to be caught, but the safety tandem of Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde have both been impressive, each appearing on PFF’s team of the week at points in the season.

Weakness: The Bills have a major need at wide receiver, which is why they added Kelvin Benjamin in a trade with Carolina, but Benjamin represents an odd pairing with QB Tyrod Taylor. Benjamin’s strength is winning contested catches with little separation, while Tyrod Taylor is very reluctant to put the ball in harm’s way and doesn’t throw many risky passes. That tension could render that move a disappointment.

Projected record (9-7)

Strength: Tennessee’s ground game is a punishing thing to try and stop for opposing defenses. With DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry they have a pair of workhorse backs that can carry the ball all day and grind out yardage, and that pair have combined to rack up 505 rushing yards after contact this season. Add in Marcus Mariota’s threat to take off and you have a very potent rushing attack.

Weakness: This team has been relying on turnovers so far this season, with Kevin Byard at safety the recipient of most of the bouncing balls, hauling in six picks so far, but they can be attacked in coverage. Rookie CB Adoree’ Jackson has allowed three scores and a passer rating of 90.7 when targeted, and Logan Ryan has matched his three touchdowns, but allowed a rating of 109.0.

IN THE HUNT

Projected record (7-9)

Strength: Baltimore’s defense is always the strength of the team, and that’s no different in 2017. In particular, Jimmy Smith and the secondary have excelled. Smith has the best mark in the NFL in terms of passer rating surrendered when targeted at 27.5, while Brandon Carr ranks 21st with 67.8.

Weakness: Quarterback Joe Flacco hasn’t just slipped from whatever ‘elite’ conversation he was ever in, but in 2017 he is PFF’s 31st-graded QB, three spots below Mike Glennon, who was benched. Flacco has struggled badly, and hasn’t been helped by a lack of receiving weapons. Currently the passer rating when targeting Breshad Perriman is 6.9, more than thirty points lower than just throwing the ball at the floor.

Projected record (7-9)

Strength: Miami’s defense is a low-key solid unit, even if it has been exposed at times this season. Ndamukong Suh has the league’s second-best interior defender grade (91.2), trailing only Aaron Donald, while Cameron Wake remains an ageless pressure machine, racking up 35 total pressures from 187 rushes.

Weakness: A Jay Cutler-led offense always had questions on paper, but he isn’t helped by having a weak offensive line in front of him, and the fact that the team traded away by far their best offensive player in Jay Ajayi to the Eagles before the trade deadline. This team now has to rely on big plays from their offense because they can’t be reliably efficient down to down.

You've got the first pick with your finances. Western Southern Financial Group.
Sponsor

NFL Featured Tools

  • Live picks, grades and reaction to the 2022 NFL Draft.

  • PFF's Big Board for the 2023 NFL Draft offers three-year player grades, combine measurables, position rankings, and in-depth player analysis for all of the top draft prospects.

    Available with

    Edge
  • 250+ three-page scouting profiles - advanced stats, 3-year grades, player comps, combine data and Senior Bowl grades - for the 2022 draft class.

    Available with

    Edge
  • PFF's exclusive metrics provide matchup previews, position rankings, grades, and snap counts.

    Available with

    Edge
  • Our exclusive database, featuring the most in-depth collection of NFL player performance data.

    Available with

    Elite
Pro Subscriptions

Unlock NFL Player Grades, Fantasy & NFL Draft

$9.99 / mo
$39.99 / yr

Unlock Premium Stats, PFF Greenline & DFS

$34.99 / mo
$199.99 / yr