It’s gut-check time in the NFL; teams must win or go home in the postseason, with the ultimate prize on the line. This year, the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers caught fire down the stretch of the regular season, emerging as the proverbial teams that nobody wants to play. Meanwhile, the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots still loom large as teams with championship pedigrees that will fight until the final whistle.
Most other teams, however, have never earned this benefit of the doubt. Every year, they run up the score against soft regular-season schedules, only to get punched in the mouth and fall apart in front of hostile crowds. At some point, fans of several tortured fanbases all but come to expect botched assignments, ugly turnovers, and stupid penalties at the worst possible times.
Some examples: Several years ago, in 2006, Tony Romo fumbled a snap on a chip shot field goal in Seattle. The Houston Oilers were a mere footnote after giving up a 32-point lead to backup quarterback Frank Reich in Buffalo. This year, the following teams will likely choke in the playoffs; we ranked them from least to most likely to face defeat.
5. Oakland Raiders
The Oakland Raiders suddenly emerged as a serious championship contender after heading into the regular season as somewhat of a curiosity and sleeper team. The Raiders were 4-1 just prior to their Week 6 showdown against the Kansas City Chiefs. They built their identity upon a bruising ground game and playmaking defense. Still, the team was a work in progress, taking a 10-26 beat-down at home to the Chiefs.
From then on, Derek Carr assumed full command of this franchise and rattled off six straight wins as the starting quarterback. Certainly, Al Davis would have been proud of Carr, who went vertical for 513 yards and four touchdowns to take an overtime shootout on the road in Tampa Bay.
The 25-year-old was a top MVP candidate heading into the backstretch of the regular season, with Oakland at 10-2 and poised for another slugfest in Kansas City. Carr, however, went a miserable 17-for-41, and ate his second ugly loss to the Chiefs. Two weeks later, he took a shot behind the line of scrimmage, and broke his leg against the Indianapolis Colts.
Oakland now enters the playoffs with Matt McGloin and Connor Cook at quarterback. The Raiders, at 12-4, lost the tiebreaker for the AFC West crown to Kansas City. Now they pack their bags for Houston as a wild card. After grappling with challenges at quarterback, Houston has been up and down all season in its own right. The survivor of this Choke Bowl will then head out on the road to get smoked by either New England or Kansas City in the Divisional Playoffs.
4. Detroit Lions
Last summer, The Block and The Shot finally replaced The Drive and The Fumble in Cleveland sports lore. King James completed his epic journey and made good upon his promise to deliver a championship to Northeast Ohio after 52 long years. Several weeks later, the Cleveland Indians lost the World Series in seven games to a Chicago Cubs club that beat back the curse of the Billy Goat.
To add insult to injury, the Cleveland Browns somehow beat the Chargers in Week 16, going 1-15 and leaving the 2008 Detroit Lions by themselves. Two years ago, the Detroit Lions blew a 20-17 fourth quarter lead in Dallas in the wild-card round.
That playoff collapse included a botched pass interference call, one 10-yard punt, and blown assignments that had both Jason Witten and Terrence Williams roaming free through the secondary, before going up 24-17. On the next drive, DeMarcus Lawrence threw Matthew Stafford to the ground and came up with the football to close out this choke job out of Detroit.
This year, the Detroit Lions appear to be ahead of schedule, in terms of yet another late-season collapse and playoff meltdown. At one point, the Lions were 9-4 and appeared to be running away from the NFC North, before dropping three straight to the Giants, Cowboys, and Packers. Now Detroit must go on the road and head out 2,500 miles to the Pacific Northwest to stare down Russell Wilson and a raucous 12th Man crowd. This thing could get ugly really quick.
3. Houston Texans
Last year, the Houston Texans rolled the dice and signed Brock Osweiler to a four-year, $72 million contract. At that time, Osweiler was just coming off a Super Bowl 50 win with the Denver Broncos. Earlier that season, Osweiler filled in for a banged up Peyton Manning admirably, going 5-2 through seven games as the starter.
Meanwhile, the Texans faithful quickly grew impatient with the likes of Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, and Brandon Weeden squandering the efforts of a dominant defense. In the 2016 Playoffs, Brian Hoyer got the call for the Texans, only to throw four picks, take three sacks, and lose one fumble through a 0-30 butt whuppin’ from the Chiefs.
Osweiler, as he did in Denver, was supposed to ride a stout defense, limit his turnovers, and make smart throws on third downs to move the chains. Instead, he is haunted by the ghosts of Scott Mitchell and Matt Flynn as backup quarterbacks who lit it up in limited action and then got paid, only to self destruct when given the keys to the franchise.
This year, Osweiler has completed 59% of his passes for 2,957 yards and 15 touchdowns — against 16 interceptions. These are not the numbers befitting of a $72 million man. Offensively, these 2016–17 Texans ranked nearly dead last in every major statistical category. They are the most anemic unit to make the playoffs, by far. The offense hit rock bottom in Week 15, when Osweiler threw two interceptions against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars and was benched for Tom Savage, who started the final two games of the year.
To close out the regular season, Savage went five-for-eight for 25 yards before he took a shot in the second quarter and was ruled out of the game with a concussion. Osweiler then retook the field and threw for 253 yards and one touchdown in a 24-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans.
The Texans will host the Raiders in the wild-card round, in what now looks like the Choker Bowl featuring the likes of Osweiler, Savage, McGloin, and Cook at quarterback. This figures to be a war of attrition, where the victor will kick multiple field goals and score one defensive touchdown to overcome a sputtering offense and a blooper reel of turnovers. From there, the real football will begin in the Divisional Round, when shaky quarterback play is exposed.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
Last year, the Kansas City Chiefs ripped off 10 straight wins to close out the regular season. Next, the Chiefs went on the road to Houston and blew the doors off the Texans, 30-0. Kansas City, however, ran out of gas in the Divisional Playoffs, losing 20-27 to the Patriots in Foxboro.
For 2016–17, the Chiefs remain locked into their good, but not great role, which dates back to Marty Schottenheimer. Marty Ball relied upon running the football, limiting turnovers, and playing solid defense to win field position and the kicking game. In the playoffs, however, this conservative style always fell short against Denver and Buffalo teams that would often take their shots downfield, with John Elway and Jim Kelly pulling the trigger.
Now, Andy Reid has installed his own version of the West Coast offense in Kansas City. The all-too predictable play-calling features a series of draw plays and screen passes that often put the team into third and long situations. Third and long typically comes down to Alex Smith running for his life, before throwing a swing pass out in the flat that is quickly blown up.
Tight end Travis Kelce is now the most prolific offensive threat on the team, after hauling in 85 receptions for 1,125 yards through the latest regular season. For Alex Smith, the longest pass play of the year and of his career came on a tight end screen. The Kansas City Chiefs somehow managed to go 12-4 through the regular season, despite fielding an offense and defense that ranked a respective 20th and 24th, in terms of yardage.
For these playoffs, KC may win one game — if it draws the winner of the Houston versus Oakland backup quarterback bowl. Hosting Pittsburgh, however, would be a matchup nightmare for these Chiefs in the Divisional Round. At best, the end of the road will come in Foxborough, where Tom Brady and the Patriots will deliver another beat down to this solid, but limited roster. A 300-pound defensive tackle throwing a jump-pass at the goal line is a gimmick that just won’t work against Belichick.
1. Dallas Cowboys
Last month, Ezekiel Elliott went off tackle at the goal line, sprinted through the end zone, and jumped into a Salvation Army kettle, while Emmitt Smith slapped high fives in the press box. It was the moment of the year, with two league MVP candidates in Dak Prescott and Zeke Elliott on full display, going to work untouched behind their road grading offensive line. The 2016–17 Dallas Cowboys went 13-3 and restored America’s Team back to glory after several years of high drama that rarely translated into real success out on the field.
Elliott was all that and more, racking up 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns off 322 carries. For a running back, this was the best rookie season out of the position since Eric Dickerson. Meanwhile, Prescott was the model of efficiency at quarterback, completing 68% of his passes for 3,667 yards and 23 touchdowns against only four interceptions. Prescott, Elliott, and Dez Bryant are already compared directly against Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin. The ’90s triplets won three Super Bowls in five years in dominating fashion; each joined the Hall of Fame.
Still, many forgot the fact that Detroit blew these Cowboys out of the Divisional Round in 1991, closing out their first trip to the playoffs, 6-38. These Cowboys and their young guns face a tough road ahead out of the likes of the New York Giants, Green Bay Packers, and even the Atlanta Falcons out of the NFC. Atlanta has quietly put together one of the more explosive offenses in the history of football — at 34 points per game.
Before Atlanta, the Giants have already beaten the Cowboys twice, and would be a tough out in the Divisional Round. In 2007, Eli got hot, came into Dallas, and took the playoff win before marching on to the Super Bowl. For sports fans, much stranger things have happened over the past year than a young Dallas team falling apart in the postseason. Better luck next year.