The NFL regular season is over, but the hype is only beginning. Twenty clubs have been eliminated to create a twelve-team field. This field, known as the NFL playoffs, will be eleven huge games to decide the world champion. For those teams heading into the playoffs, I have noted what they must do to make a deep run into January. For every other team, I have said what their offseason plans must include. Let’s rank them one last time.
32 – Cleveland Browns (0-16) Last Week: 32
Offseason Priority: Draft, draft, and draft
The Browns will look to the 2018 draft this year considering their current state. Besides a handful of free agents (Terrelle Pryor), the Browns will not be very active during signing season. The dysfunction of the organization makes them a tough candidate for players looking for a new team. With five picks in the first two rounds, the Browns’ focus is on their scouting reports. Cleveland most certainly must take a quarterback in the 1st round.
31 – Houston Texans (4-12) LW: 31
Offseason Priority: Regroup and gain confidence
The Texans have the pieces in place to win the AFC South in 2018, and possibly more. 2018 will be about short-term memory for Houston, who will improve next season sans another tragic injury bug. Deshaun Watson developed quickly in 2018. The great thing about that is the possibility that Watson gets even better. If he does, Houston could go from the bottom of the barrel, to Super Bowl contenders.
30 – New York Giants (3-13) LW: 30
Offseason Priority: Fix defensive issues
The Giants offense clearly struggled this year, but they were without one of the best deep threats in the NFL in Odell Beckham Jr. With him back in 2018, we should expect an uptick in passing production. The bigger question to me is what happened to New York’s defense. Last year, the solid play from the Giants defense made them a Super Bowl contender going into the playoffs. This year, with similar personnel, that defense was ineffective.
29 – Indianapolis Colts (4-12) LW: 29
Offseason Priority: Andrew Luck’s health
The Colts have been carried by Luck before. Without much talent on either side of the ball, Luck presents the Colts with stability at the league’s most important position. Not only that, but he is arguably one of the best quarterback’s in the league. Questions once again will surround Luck’s phantom shoulder injury. Even if he does heal, will he have the same sort of production? It is the difference between completely rebuilding, and not, for Indianapolis.
28 – New York Jets (5-11) LW: 27
Offseason Priority: Find a quarterback
The Jets have more pieces than you’d think. The offensive line is still in shambles, but the running games is average, and the receiving corps has performed well. As for New York’s defense, it is easily one of the more underrated units in the NFL. With Jamal Adams at safety, the Jets have a young leader who will only improve. Now they need that type of leadership at quarterback. So, do the Jets test free agency? Or do they have their eyes set on a draft prospect? At the #6 pick, a top QB should be available.
27 – Denver Broncos (5-11) LW: 26
Offseason Priority: Find a quarterback
Come to think of it, the Broncos and Jets aren’t too much different. The difference is Denver may be more prepared to win now if they get their QB, but they have an older roster. Just like the Jets, Denver could look towards free agency to find a quarterback. Unlike the Jets, Denver does not have a lot of cap space. With a championship defense, I would not be surprised if John Elway uses the #5 pick in the NFL draft on Wyoming product, Josh Allen.
26 – Chicago Bears (5-11) LW: 24
Offseason Priority: Draft the best wide receiver
This is pretty simple. The Bears have a higher draft pick than any other team whose number one need is wide out. The Bears’ scouting department will be tasked with selecting the best receiver. Lucky for Chicago, this is a draft loaded with top receiver prospects. It will likely come down to either Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, or Courtland Sutton out of SMU. Ridley is following a couple of top wide outs out of Alabama in Julio Jones and Amari Cooper, but don’t sleep on Sutton.
25 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11) LW: 28
Offseason Priority: Reboot the running game
Tampa Bay’s win against the Saints shows that they have the talent to beat teams in the NFC South. The Buccaneers entered the season with a promising passing attack. Not once did the trio of Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, and OJ Howard look as dominant as I thought they would. This is because of a slight regression on the part of Jameis Winston, and a complete disappearance of the run game. Tampa needs to add a running back and multiple pieces on the offensive line.
24 – Green Bay Packers (7-9) LW: 22
Offseason Priority: Make some noise in free agency
I don’t care what position it is, Aaron Rodgers is getting annoyed by the fact that Green Bay hasn’t had success in past free agent seasons. Rodgers’ job is to be his best on the field, and he does that. The least the Packers’ front office can do is speculate on a few free agents. Last offseason, the Packers signed Martellus Bennet, and although it didn’t work out, it was a step in the right direction for this organization. The Packers have already signed Davante Adams, now they need to find some defensive pieces.
23 – Miami Dolphins (6-10) LW: 21
Offseason Priority: Find an identity
I talked about this in previous editions of the power rankings; Miami doesn’t have an identity right now. Jay Ajayi was their lone star player, but now he is gone, so what now? Miami is in an interesting position because they don’t have much to build off of, but with more talent than the average bad team, they aren’t about to rebuild. The Dolphins’ front office and coaching staff will choose what they want out of their players in the coming years.
22 – Oakland Raiders (6-10) LW: 20
Offseason Priority: Lower the expectations
Derek Carr and company crumbled under the pressure in 2018. The Raiders and many NFL analysts expected way too much from a team that has no defense. Oakland had a great record in one-score games in 2016; a big reason for their 12-4 record. After a six game drop off this year, the Raiders must realize that they don’t have the talent of a Super Bowl team just yet. With Jon Gruden hired, their will be a major culture change in Oakland. Jon Gruden is the type of person that can fix the Raiders’ psychology.
21 – Arizona Cardinals (8-8) LW: 23
Offseason Priority: Focus on the defense
Without a quarterback or coach after the retirements of both Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer, Arizona will certainly have to find replacements for both. The Cardinals have a pretty good defense bolstered by the likes of Tyrann Mathieu and Chandler Jones. Jones’ 17 sacks were good for best in the NFL. With this talent, the defense should be the Cardinals focus going forward. As for the offense, they will get back one of the best dual threat players in the NFL, David Johnson.
20 – Washington Redskins (7-9) LW: 18
Offseason Priority: Be patient
The Redskins have talent, and an average to above average coaching staff. Too often in the past, this team has blown everything up way too early. If the Redskins front office sticks with what they have, then they’re doing their job. Washington for the first time in a while seems to be banking their future on young talent, but these players need time to develop. If the Redskins can sign Kirk Cousins, then they can keep pace in the NFC with their youth.
19 – Cincinnati Bengals (7-9) LW: 25
Offseason Priority: Players must prepare
Each of the past two seasons, the Bengals have started off horribly, and it set the tone for the rest of their year. In today’s NFL, most teams aren’t that far off from being a playoff team. The Bengals are no exception. If the Bengals are ready to play football in the September of 2018, then they can have a big turnaround. You may think this falls on the coaches, but believe it or not, this is a player issue. Cincy has had character issues in the past, and that could be a factor here.
18 – Detroit Lions (9-7) LW: 17
Offseason Priority: Find another leader
This is not to say that Detroit doesn’t have veteran leadership scattered throughout their roster, but there is a clear difference between the type of leadership a Matthew Stafford brings compared to a Golden Tate. Tate is a good player, and possibly better than good, but Stafford is a generational talent. Detroit needs another player with that type of talent who can lead them into the playoffs. It could be at linebacker, safety, or perhaps even running back; the Lions need another player with an ‘it’ factor to push them over the top.
17 – Dallas Cowboys (9-7) LW: 16
Offseason Priority: Be disciplined
It wouldn’t be completely insane for me to state that the Cowboys offseason shenanigans destroyed their 2017 campaign. Jerry Jones needs to have some guidelines. The Cowboys before Jerry Jones were known for their discipline and confidence on the field. In those days of Roger Staubach and Ed ‘To Tall’ Jones the Cowboys were a consistent powerhouse. The modern-day Dallas teams have that talent, and the confidence, but they lack the discipline. It is going to take a culture change for this franchise to win championships.
16 – San Francisco 49ers (6-10) LW: 15
Offseason Priority: Ride the momentum
Finishing the season with five straight wins will make the 49ers a favorite pick for a new playoff team in 2018. Jimmy Garoppolo is undefeated as a starter, Carlos Hyde and Matt Breida are part of an improving backfield, and the receiving corps has young stars like Marquise Goodwin and George Kittle. With the return of Pierre Garçon, this offense should be in full throttle. As for the defensive front, the three headed moster of Arik Armistead, DeForest Buckner, and Solomon Thomas presents a problem for most offenses. The only thing that can hold the Niners back now, is cockiness. Looking at you Carlos Hyde.
15 – Seattle Seahawks (9-7) LW: 13
Offseason Priority: Change personnel, not identity
The Seahawks have fully informed the public that they will be making some major changes this offseason. This may mean a lot of players will be moving on, and it may mean some changes in coaching and the front office. Either way, the Seahawks have a lot of talent, and should continue their mentality of a good pass defense and an offense that runs through the talents of Russell Wilson. The Seahawks have an opportunity to change a lot of things, but sometimes the best thing to do is make small changes.
14 – Baltimore Ravens (9-7) LW: 9
Offseason Priority: Recognize Alex Collins as your future
Alex Collins proved during the final stretch for Baltimore that he can be a game changer in this league. With Joe Flacco aging, and the Ravens subpar receiving corps, Baltimore’s offense can run through the legs and vision of Collins. This may mean adding more depth to the offensive line, but more importantly, it means changing the offense. Even with Baltimore struggling in the pass game this year, they still kept a balanced play calling strategy. I’d like to see this offense become run-first type.
13 – Tennessee Titans (9-7) LW: 19
Playoff Strategy: Forget about December
The Titans entered December with an 8-4 record, and although they weren’t playing amazing football, they were winning close games. Tennessee will have the opportunity to become that team once again, as they travel to Arrowhead Stadium where they upset the Chiefs last year. The Titans have a few things that really matter in close contests. One, their kicker Ryan Succop is one of the best. Two, the run game can close out games when they lead. Tennessee is built to win ugly, and sometimes that works in cold weather.
12 – Buffalo Bills (9-7) LW: 14
Playoff Strategy: Shutdown offenses in the red zone
Besides nursing LeSean McCoy back to full health, the Bills can win games by forcing opponents to kick field goals. Buffalo has often won this year when it has done so; the Bills have a good kicking game that can win these battles. With a few explosive plays on either side of the ball, the Bills have a surprisingly good chance of pulling off an upset this week.
11 – Los Angeles Chargers (9-7) LW: 12
Offseason Priority: Plan for the future
The Chargers have one of the best rosters in terms of youth talent in the NFL. This is a sign of good things to come in Los Angeles, but first they must find a replacement for Philip Rivers. If the Chargers do this, they become prepared for the next decade. With strong units on both sides of the ball, the Chargers are in good shape. Tyrod Taylor or Baker Mayfield are possible names that could become the face of this franchise.
10 – Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) LW: 8
Playoff Strategy: Get Fournette going
The Jaguars looked unstoppable this year when their run game was dominant. Jacksonville has a championship defense: it forces turnovers and can rush the quarterback at an elite level, but it needs support from the offense. Blake Bortles has hurt the Jags more than helped them at times. He needs to minimize mistakes for Jacksonville to have any chance at a Super Bowl run, but we have seen this team score in bunches when its run game gets rolling.
9 – Atlanta Falcons (10-6) LW: 11
Playoff Strategy: Find the 2016 magic
The NFC champions are still alive in this race, and could become dangerous at any point. This team has the feel of those Giants’ teams that made Super Bowl runs in 2007 and 2011. Atlanta has experience, and they are coming off a huge win. Momentum has been the standard for Super Bowl teams in past NFL seasons, match that up with an improving defense, and a quarterback who has played well in recent postseasons, and you have a contender.
8 – Philadelphia Eagles (13-3) LW: 5
Playoff Strategy: Skill positions must step up
Nick Foles may be a huge down grade from Carson Wentz, but no one is pointing out the abysmal play by the Eagles’ receivers. Alshon Jeffery completely disappeared over the last two weeks of the NFL season, Torrey Smith hasn’t done much of anything since the halfway point, Nelson Agholor is up and down in terms of production, and the Eagles’ great running game has been uninspiring. Philly has a championship defense, but they need to score points to have any chance. All it takes is for one guy to step up; it could be anyone.
7 – Carolina Panthers (11-5) LW: 7
Playoff Strategy: Create big plays in the passing game
Besides a slightly worse defense, there aren’t many differences between this year’s Panthers, and the 2015 version that went to the Super Bowl. The one thing that does come to mind, however, is the big pass plays Cam Newton created. In 2015, the Panthers offense was run heavy, but when they threw the ball they connected on deep plays to Greg Olsen and Tedd Ginn Jr. With Olsen healthy, and Devin Funchess stepping up, Carolina has an opportunity to replicate that success.
6 – Kansas City Chiefs (10-6) LW: 10
Playoff Strategy: Run first mentality
During the Chiefs midseason slump, it was clear that Andy Reid was pass happy. With a return to a run first offense, the Chiefs were able to win their last four games. This makes Kansas City a dangerous team. Will the Chiefs replicate the version of themselves that won at New England earlier this year? Or has their scheme been found out? Either way, Kareem Hunt leads the league in rushing, and his bruising style opens up the field for big plays to Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Look for a lot of Kareem Hunt on Saturday.
5 – New Orleans Saints (11-5) LW: 6
Playoff Strategy: Score early and often
The Saints have gone by a clear game plan all season long of big plays early on, and turnovers with a solid ground game late. New Orleans has gotten used to leading early, but when they trail late they still have Drew Brees to bail them out. As the weather gets colder, a warm weather team like New Orleans will struggle to hold leads. The Saints’ players will wear out easier. This just means that New Orleans will have to create more big plays in the 1st quarter.
4 – Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3) LW: 4
Playoff Strategy: Antonio Brown
The Steelers are a very good team even without Brown, but before his injury Antonio Brown was dominating the NFL. It is important that he is healthy for their divisional round contest, because he should get a heavy dosage of targets. Brown’s ball skills, ability to run after the catch, and love of the game makes him one of the greatest receivers to walk the gridiron. Last year, he completely took over a game against the Dolphins in the first quarter of Wild Card Weekend. With that type of swagger in these playoffs, he can carry Pittsburgh to a seventh Super Bowl.
3 – Los Angeles Rams (11-5) LW: 3
Playoff Strategy: Continue to develop
The Rams are young. This is something you’ve probably heard about all season long. The reason why Los Angeles has been able to overcome such inexperience is their constant improvement. Sean McVay is the master developer. He turns young talent into dominant veterans faster than any coach I’ve seen before. With Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, and the defense playing their best ball, this team can win it all. If the development continues, there is no reason to count out these Rams.
2 – Minnesota Vikings (13-3) LW: 2
Playoff Strategy: Cast aside all previous failures
The Vikings have been haunted for years by past failures. Fran Tarkenton’s 0-4 record in Super Bowls, the Gary Anderson missed field goal in 1998, and Brett Favre’s pick in the 2009 NFC Championship Game all continue to be the image of this franchise. Mike Zimmer and company must toss it all aside, and realize that 2018 is not 1976, or 1998, or 2009. This seems like an easy thing to do, but trust me, this fan base has seen it happen over and over again, and the pressure is on. If the Vikings focus on what’s happening right now, they can win the Super Bowl.
1 – New England Patriots (13-3) LW: 1
Playoff Strategy: O-line must hold up
The only times we have seen Tom Brady fail in the postseason this decade were when the offensive line was majorly outplayed. The Jets’ and Ravens’ secondary took advantage of pressured throws in 2010 and 2012 respectively. The Giants and Broncos sacked Brady a bunch during wins against New England in 2011, 2013, and 2015. In 2014 and 2016, when the offensive line outplayed each front seven it faced, New England won the Super Bowl. Other than that, Brady and Belichick should continue to do what they do in every January, win.
Photo Credit: Charles Krupa/AP, Dec. 31st, 2017.
All Rights Reserved – Nick Merriam – 2018