#1 Kansas City Chiefs
Strength: Passing Offense / Coaching
The Chiefs have the best passing offense in the league led by 2nd year QB Patrick Mahomes who had a MVP caliber season, but is more likely to see Offensive Player of the Year with 50+ TDs. Teams struggled all season to stop all purpose WR Tyreek Hill and physical TE Travis Kelce who remains one of the most productive TE’s in the league. Head Coach Andy Reid and his staff have done a great job keeping the young QB composed and turning this team into a high-powered scoring machine. Reid went with the method of speed kills that worked in Philly as teams had to decide whether to stop Hill or WR Sammy Watkins; not forgetting about Kelce cutting across the middle. The offensive balance was the biggest strength on this team until RB Kareem Hunt’s unfortunate incident, but RB Damien Williams has held up well; however, the playoffs are a different beast.
The Chiefs defense has been below average to horrible the majority of this season while the offense paved the way. The defense continues to be led by their veterans: star pass rusher Justin Houston, S Eric Berry, who always finds a way to comeback, 3rd year player Chris Jones, who has a dominant season, and pass rusher Dee Ford has finally put it altogether; maybe even more consistent than Houston at this point. Luckily, Berry has returned right before the playoffs, but outside of the pass rush the team has played extremely poor run defense and the CB position lacks in talent and depth. The team made changes week 17 against the Raiders that they hope they can use going into the playoffs, but with this pass rush and Berry lurking no one wants to play them with a lead.
#2 New England Patriots
Strength: Experience / Run Game
Just like every year, the Patriots have to be considered a threat as they have the experience of playing in multiple Super Bowls led by QB Tom Brady and HC Bill Belichick who have had legendary careers. The ability of The Hoodie to make adjustments at any given time and his preparation skills alone, especially when given extra time, are unmatched. The been there, done that mentality of the Patriots veterans and coaching staff gives them an advantage over teams that can’t shake the hype of the experience.
Although many people like to credit Brady as the key to ball movement, for years now it has been the multiple back running game that has been the strength to the team. This year the team relied more on veteran James White who had a solid season with his dual threat skills really on display leading the team in receptions, along with the remarkable play of rookie RB Sony Michel. Michel has been a spark plug when healthy who can use his dual threat abilities to make a play at any given point; he has been a solid replacement for the speedy Dion Lewis. If teams can’t stop the dual-threat running game, expect Brady to seal the deal as usual.
Weakness: Pass rush
The Patriots always have a solid defense that can get the job done against the pass and the run led by veterans: safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung along with LB Dont’a Hightower, but after years of allowing LBs to walk, the team lacks a pure pass rush or pass rusher. Free agent DE Adrian Clayborn didn’t have the impact, as expected, after producing in Atlanta, but the lack of pass rush should be a concern. Outside of DEs Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise, no one else is consistently getting pressure, similar to last season; however, they always find a way to make a play.
#3 Houston Texans
Strength: Balance / Stars
The Texans are a balanced team led by HC Bill O’Brien and a list of star names in QB Deshaun Watson, WRs DeAndre Hopkins and Demaryius Thomas (recently acquired, but injured), pass rusher J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, and S Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu, as well as, other playmakers mostly on the defensive side of the ball. These players are not only star names, but they lead the way for the team’s success and leadership. Watson to Hopkins has been a very solid connection, as Hopkins is one of the top WRs in the league and overlooked. Watt and Clowney control the defensive side of the ball taking up double teams, as a problem against both the pass and the run with Watt still one of the best at getting to the QB. Mathieu has been a solid addition on a one year prove-it deal and has helped a problem spot at Safety that has lasted for a few seasons. The running game of Lamar Miller has been consistent when Watson is healthy allowing Miller to show his dual threat abilities and speed, as well.
Weakness: Pass Defense / Injuries
Despite the addition of Mathieu, the Texans still struggle against the pass ranking near the worst in the league with a plethora of injuries to the CB group making the #2 CB spot a rotating door throughout the season and exposing a strong lack of depth even leading to the safety spot. Along with the injuries in the secondary, the team just loss Demaryius Thomas who was supposed to cover for WR Will Fuller who is injured, and the next in line rookie Keke Coutee is also recovering; not to mention #1 WR Hopkins is on the report weekly. The O-line has been banged up, as well, leading to a lot of sacks for Watson. Injuries are part of the game, but the Texans can’t seem to catch a break.
#4 Baltimore Ravens
Strength: Run Game / Physical Play
The Ravens have been playing like a new team after switching to rookie QB Lamar Jackson which has energized the team on both sides and the fan base. Jackson has led the Ravens with an almost college like spread/read-option offense that teams haven’t been able to stop. This style has led to a physical style of downhill play and north-south running by Jackson, rookie RB Gus Edwards who has been consistent enough to steal the starting job, and the power running of Kenneth Dixon who seems to have finally found his fit. The defense has followed suite from the offense by turning up their physical play led by veteran pass rusher Terrell Suggs. The defense has turned around their above average play to a level they are more accustomed to with Jackson keeping them fresh and off the field. No defense wants to lineup to tackle these guys in cold weather.
Weakness: Passing Offense
Despite how good the offense has been under Lamar Jackson, the team has lacked a true passing offense, but teams continue to be fooled by the option and there is no way to predict which receiving target is due to be the go to guy. However, in the playoffs with smaller margins for error, teams can focus in on the offense while loading the box and the throws that Jackson continue to risk without setting his feet on the move could cause huge turnovers. Any rookie mistakes by Jackson could lead to a game where he may need to read the blitz and win with his arm and that’s not winning football.
#5 Los Angeles Chargers
Strength: Rivers / Balance
The Chargers most known staple has been QB Philip Rivers and despite the accolades, everyone knows that he wants a championship. Rivers is an ultimate competitor and will do whatever he can to help the team. Similar to last season, but even more improved in Rivers favor is that the team is balanced with his passing game, a solid run game (with depth), and most importantly the defensive side of the ball. Rookie S Derwin James has given the Chargers a playmaker and enforcer in the secondary behind CB Casey Hayward to balance to pass rush of stars Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. The O-line has also stayed healthy and giving Rivers a nice wall of protection for the season. The Chargers are a balanced group with talent on both sides of the ball.
The Chargers are always plagued by inconsistency when the spotlight is on, but luckily this season they flew under the radar and quietly became a sleeper team until late in the season, but inconsistent play started to kick in. The Chargers can’t afford to let up on their run defense as they did later in the season and Rivers can’t afford to put this team in the hole taking risks. They need Joey Bosa to be as consistent as he was last season wreaking havoc on defense. This team is built for a strong run, but the inconsistent play once the spotlight is on them should be a concern that hopefully HC Anthony Lynn can reverse.
#6 Indianapolis Colts
The Colts are finally looking like the team that everyone expected with a healthy Andrew Luck and a great job by 1st year HC Frank Reich to get creative with the offense, after helping Nick Foles to a magical SB run last season. The offensive line is finally fixed mostly around the addition of 1st round pick G Quenton Nelson who seems to be a staple for the O-line for years to come and he has really had an impact on the running game and offense in general. The addition of TE Eric Ebron has been the best addition, as he has provided Luck with a huge go-to and redzone target to rely on underneath with reliable veteran WR T.Y. Hilton over the top. The run game has finally gained traction led by 2nd year RB Marlon Mack who has taken a big step forward and the help of rookies Jordan Wilkins and pass-catching Nyheim Hines. The balance this unit has and the ability to switch out dual threat RBs, while playing out of a two TE set makes them dangerous.
Colts new DC Matt Eberflus has done a great job with little to work with on a Colts defense that has very little depth and talent and even allowed players to walk who have produced. The team worked magic with 2nd round LB Darius Leonard, who has a solid rookie season, DE Margus Hunt who has finally put things together entering the league with great size and limited football experience with the Bengals, DE Jabaal Sheard, an extremely underrated veteran pass rusher, and talented 2nd year S Malik Hooker. However, none of these guys maybe outside of Hooker are household names and showing up against the best in the playoffs these guys will need their A-game. Biggest question for the Colts is can the no name defense continue to produce? However, players have been developing and the system works, but we will see what they are made of.