Between 2008 and 2013, the New York Giants, Green Bay Packers, and Baltimore Ravens each muddled through relatively up-and-down regular seasons, before sneaking into the playoffs with a wild-card berth and somehow peaking at just the right time en route to an improbable Super Bowl run. Alternatively, the Indianapolis Colts, Cincinnati Bengals, and Denver Broncos are all franchises that must ultimately win the Big One in order to shake the “choker” label; they’ve ripped through successive regular seasons, only to self-destruct in the playoffs.
This offseason will likely further expose the inherent flaws in today’s playoff format, with division winners automatically hosting first-round home games, irrespective of records. As such, the hottest teams in the league — Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Seattle — will each open the playoffs on the road, with Vegas lines all betting on the wild-card road teams as the clear favorites. Going forward, it may not be a question of if the following four teams will choke, but how exactly they will fall apart in the playoffs and break the hearts of their respective fan bases.
4. Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos appear to be reinventing themselves on the fly. The Broncos, remember, were in the Super Bowl, as recently as 2013, after racking up 13 wins through the regular season. That year, Peyton Manning torched defenses for 5,477 yards and a record 55 touchdown passes to the likes of Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, and Julius Thomas. Last season, Manning was back at it again, completing 66% of his passes for 4,727 yards and 39 touchdowns and going 12-4.
Still, Manning and the Broncos lost at home to Andrew Luck and the Colts in the 2015 Divisional Playoff Round. In response, the Denver Broncos parted ways with head coach John Fox and brought in former backup quarterback, Gary Kubiak, who pledged to strengthen the team defense and running game in order to relieve his aging quarterback. This formula had mixed results this season, with Manning going for nine TDs and 17 INTs while compiling a 7-2 record as the starting quarterback.
Enter Brock Osweiler, who was apparently the quarterback of the future, with Manning being sidelined to battle a series of nagging injuries and an HGG accusation. For his part, Osweiler went 5-2, while managing the game and playing off a stingy defense. Still, Kubiak went on to reinsert Manning into the lineup in Week 17, before he led the Broncos to the go-ahead score over the San Diego Chargers. Gary Kubiak appears to be shuffling the deck at quarterback — at the worst possible time.
From here, Denver will have one bye week to bring Manning up to speed and get him in sync with his receivers. The white-hot Steelers, however, loom large as a matchup nightmare for the Broncos in the Divisional Playoff. Expect a visibly frazzled Manning to take brutal shots behind the line of scrimmage, cough the ball up, toss floating picks into double coverage, and take another cold-weather postseason loss at home.
3. Washington Redskins
In late October, Kirk Cousins barged through his team tunnel and shouted, “You like that?” — after going 33-for-40 for 317 yards and three touchdowns to headline a 24-point comeback win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. From there, Cousins went on to light up the competition, throwing for 2,429 yards and 20 touchdowns against only three picks over the next nine games.
The Redskins, behind Cousins, did win their last four games to close out the season at 9-7. This mark was good enough to win the much-maligned NFC East, where both Chip Kelly and Tom Coughlin have already been shown the door. Outside of the NFC East, Washington squared off against only two other playoff-worthy opponents all year. New England and Carolina dominated the Redskins by a combined 71-26 score, after showing them multiple looks to stack the box at the line of scrimmage, while providing safety help over the top to corral speedster, DeSean Jackson.
Washington will host Green Bay to kick off wild-card weekend. The Packers, of course, went 6-0 to open the regular season, and they are always a dangerous team that can score with Aaron Rodgers under center. Expect the battle-tested Rodgers to keep the pressure on the Washington Redskins early and often, until this young team folds up and quits, before shopping around the mercurial Robert Griffin III to the highest bidder.
2. Cincinnati Bengals
Pittsburgh offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert is already relishing the idea of matching up against the Cincinnati Bengals in the playoffs, “where they choke.” Gilbert took to Twitter to call out his hated AFC North division rivals after winning an especially physical 33-20 bloodbath in Cincinnati. The Bengals are 0-6 in the playoffs under head coach Marvin Lewis, after many first-round letdowns.
Cincinnati did appear to be leaving its “Bungles” reputation in the past this year, evolving into a serious championship contender. They raced to an 8-0 record to open the regular season, with a more aggressive Andy Dalton taking his shots downfield. In all, the Red Rifle completed 66% of his passes for 3,250 yards and 25 touchdowns against only seven touchdowns — after being dismissed as a mere game manager through earlier parts of his career.
Dalton, however, fractured his thumb in a Week 14 loss to the Steelers and is now out for the remainder of the season. In his place, former Alabama signal caller A.J. McCarron has held serve, by completing 66% of his passes and winning two games in his own right. Still, if the Bengals find themselves in a shootout against Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and the high octane Steelers, young McCarron may start pressing late and turning the ball over. Pittsburgh is the team that nobody wants to play.
1. Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers are the most surprising team in all of sports, let alone the game of football. Last season, the Panthers went 7-8-1 and somehow managed to win the NFC South. For this, Carolina hosted a playoff game against Arizona, which they won before heading off to Seattle and getting blown out of the building 31-17 in the Divisional Playoffs.
This offseason, leading wide out Kelvin Benjamin injured his knee right before shocking footage was released of Cam Newton brawling with his teammates at practice. By midseason, however, Newton had established himself as the league MVP, with Carolina threatening to go undefeated. The team suffered its first and only loss in Week 16 to the Atlanta Falcons and did close out the season as the top-rated offense in football, putting up 32 points per game.
The Carolina Panthers appear to be on a collision course against the Seattle Seahawks at home in the Divisional Playoffs. The Seahawks are coming off an impressive 36-6 road win in Arizona, with Russell Wilson suddenly catching fire for 1,906 passing yards and 24 touchdowns over the course of his last seven games. Wilson, of course, filled in last season in Super Bowl XLIX, where he threw an interception at the goal line to Malcolm Butler and the Patriots. Certainly, Wilson and the Seahawks will be out for payback during another march toward the Lombardi Trophy.
Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.