This time of year, legions of analysts, players, and coaches will trot out the tired, familiar “defense wins championships” cliche. Old–school types will revel in defensive battles, where games are decided by limiting turnovers, controlling the clock, and winning the kicking game. For many years, it would be three yards and a cloud of dust for three downs, before calling out the special teams unit and angling the kick toward the coffin corner.
Honest fans and league executives, however, readily admit that offense sells tickets. The NFL now goes out of its way to protect quarterbacks and receivers; the league levies stiff fines and penalties on defensive holding and cheap shots behind the line of scrimmage and across the middle of the field. In recent years, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning took turns shattering Dan Marino’s passing records, which stood tall since the early ’80s.
For 2017, the most exciting teams in the playoffs will go over the top and break big plays to run up the score and put points on the board. On the other side of the football, expect defensive coordinators to roll the dice, dial up the blitz, and keep the pressure on through four quarters. The five following teams will make for must-watch television; you can’t count them out of any game. No lead is safe.
5. New England Patriots
The New England Patriots and San Antonio Spurs make things exciting for tacticians and coaches who preach about “playing the game the right way.” Armchair quarterbacks are always somewhat endearing; a rag-tag bunch who appear rather limited athletically, but still prevail through smart play, fundamentals, and grit. Winning, of course, is always exciting for a long-running Patriots dynasty that’s claimed four Super Bowl titles since 2002.
But wins come at a price, with fierce competition always gunning for the top spot, poaching away concepts and personnel, and targeting the Patriots as a measuring stick. At the same time, the critics and haters refuse to give New England its proper due; they harp on Deflategate with opposing fans catcalling the head coach, “Bill Beli-cheat.”
Brady sat out the first four games of the regular season for his role in Deflategate. As a result, he hasn’t been this fired up since 2008, when the Patriots went 16-0 through the regular season. That year, Brady aired out the football to the likes of Randy Moss and Wes Welker for a then-record 50 touchdowns. The Patriots, however, lost Super Bowl XLII to the New York Giants, Eli Manning, and an improbable helmet catch that came much to the delight of haters everywhere.
This year, Brady emerged as a dark horse MVP candidate, completing 67% of his passes for 3,554 yards and 28 touchdowns against only two interceptions. For the playoffs, expect Belichick to pull out all of the stops, with an assortment of wacky formations, special teams trickery, and exotic blitz packages. He will showcase another coaching clinic against the likes of Brock Osweiler, Alex Smith, and Matt McGloin out of the AFC.
4. Atlanta Falcons
The Atlanta Falcons quietly put together one of the more prolific offenses in the history of football. Matt Ryan made the leap this year, completing 70% of his passes for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns. He proved to be much more than a glorified game-manager, going over the top to lead the league in both quarterback rating and yards per attempt. In Week 15, Matty Ice went 17-for-23 for 286 yards and two touchdowns to dominate San Francisco — without Julio Jones.
Jones, of course, is a matchup nightmare at wide receiver. As a physical specimen, Jones stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 220 pounds. At this size, he is too big for diminutive cornerbacks to jam at the line of scrimmage. At the same time, Jones is one of the fastest men in the NFL; he’s already clocked at 4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash. This year, he hauled in 83 catches for 1,409 yards and 75 touchdowns. After missing two games of action, he still finished just 39 yards shy of T.Y. Hilton for the receiving yardage crown.
Jones, by himself, opens up running lanes for both Devonta Freeman and Tavin Coleman to go to work. To stay fresh, these backs will alternate series. They closed out the 2016–17 regular season with a combined 345 carries for 1,599 yards and 19 touchdowns. Freeman and Coleman also have great hands and rack up yardage out of the screen game and as outlet receivers on broken plays.
The Falcons will host at least one playoff game out of the NFC. Expect this team to win a shoot-out in the Divisional Playoffs behind their high-octane offense and bend-but-don’t break defense. From there, it remains to be seen whether or not Ryan can finally punch his ticket to the Super Bowl, after hosting the 2012 NFC Championship Game and coming up short to the San Francisco 49ers.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
So far, it’s tale of three seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers began the regular season as legitimate Super Bowl contenders and came out at 4-1, with their only loss — to Philadelphia — doubling as a coming-out party for Carson Wentz. Next, the Steelers dropped four straight games to bitter rival Baltimore and three more games to eventual playoff teams in Miami, New England, and Dallas. Pittsburgh suddenly found themselves at 4-5, seemingly one of the most disappointing teams of the 2016–17 season.
The Steelers went on to rattle off seven consecutive victories against the weaker, back half of their schedule. This stretch included two games against the Cleveland Browns, which served more so as tuneups and a time to rest key starters. In Week 16, Pittsburgh finally took control over the AFC North by winning a 31-27 thriller at home against Baltimore. The game-winning drive took a little more than one minute, and Ben Roethlisberger capped it off by hitting Antonio Brown on a quick slant. For the go-ahead score, 185-pound Brown took on three Ravens, while extending the football just past the goal line.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are peaking at just the right time, suddenly emerging as the dreaded “team nobody wants to play” out of the AFC. Early on, their inconsistent play had to do with the fact that Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Brown were rarely on the field together through the first half of the regular season. First, Bell received a suspension through the first four games of the year on grounds of the league’s substance abuse protocol. Next, a banged-up Roethlisberger missed one important start against Miami.
Now, Pittsburgh Steelers will host a wild-card game against a Miami club that will lack Ryan Tannehill. The Terrible Towels will get put to good use, while Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh coaching staff will throw the kitchen sink at Matt Moore. From there, the AFC playoff motley crew of quarterbacks includes the likes of Osweiler, McGloin, and Smith. The stage is now set for a showdown in Foxborough between Big Ben and Brady — for all of the marbles.
2. Green Bay Packers
In 2014, Aaron Rodgers ordered the Packer faithful to relax after his team took two ugly losses to start the season at 1-2. From there, the team rolled to 12-4 and made it to the NFC Championship Game. Four years prior, in 2010, the Pack closed out the regular season at 10-6 and won three playoff games on the road before taking Super Bowl XLV. This year, the Packers actually fell to 4-6 after dropping four straight games and getting blown out at Washington.
At that point, the Cheeseheads called for both Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson’s heads, while numerous analysts openly wondered what was wrong with Rodgers, who clearly lost his mojo. Then, Rodgers came out and suggested that Green Bay would run the table. The Packers, of course, rattled off six straight wins.
First, the team stuck wide receiver Ty Montgomery at running back. Next, Rodgers reigned in a bit of his freelancing to play within the structure of the offense and grew even more comfortable with his receivers, especially Jordy Nelson. Montgomery improved by the week out of the backfield and did close out the season with 457 rushing yards. Rodgers, for his part, quietly led the league in touchdown passes with 40.
The Packers and Giants are now set to reenact their 2008 playoff classic at Lambeau. That year, Eli, Tom Coughlin, and the Giants survived the Frozen Tundra with a win, before shocking the world and the 18-1 Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. At that time, a young Rodgers wore a headset and carried a clipboard on the sideline, while the ol’ gunslinger took his shots downfield. These 2017 Playoffs will allow Rodgers to further cement his legacy as The Man in Green Bay and get out from beneath Brett Favre’s shadow.
1. Dallas Cowboys
Jerry Jones is a marketing genius if nothing else. America’s Team is now the most valuable sports franchise in the world, worth an estimated $4 billion. The ’90s Dallas cast of characters included the likes of Jimmy Johnson, Barry Switzer, Deion Sanders, Moose Johnston, and Larry Allen. Today, fans already compare Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and Dez Bryant against Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith, who won three Super Bowls in four years.
In the preseason, Tony Romo took a shot behind the line of scrimmage and blew out his back. The Cowboys handed the keys to the franchise to Prescott, a fourth-round draft pick and a total unknown at that time. Like a poised veteran, he immediately commanded respect out of the huddle, with his knowledge of the playbook and efficient management of the offense. For Prescott’s rookie year, completed 68% of his passes for 3,667 yards and 23 touchdowns against four interceptions. The 23-year-old is especially good at picking apart soft coverage underneath. As a last resort, he will take the ball down and in, take off, and pick up large chunks of yardage.
In Week 15, Prescott handed the football off to Elliott at the goal line. Elliott then bounced the play back off tackle, sprinted through the end zone untouched, and hurtled into a Salvation Army kettle to close out a 26-20 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The moment of the year featured two hotshot rookies going to work behind their man-eating offensive line.
Moving forward, the latest high drama out of Big D will mostly revolve around these young guns further establishing themselves within the NFL hierarchy. To add to the plot, we will have Jason Witten putting in work; Bryant jawing with defensive backs; and Romo carrying a clipboard. Are you ready for some playoff football?