Plenty of people will have plenty of predictions about which teams go deep into this year’s playoffs, so let me give you some advice: Don’t pay attention to them.
Listen to what I have to say.
At Pro Scouts, Inc., we have a system called Axiom 1 that’s been followed by 24 of the past 25 Super Bowl winners, and we’ve already crunched the numbers on this season’s playoffs. This is why I’m here: To tell you which teams are Super Bowl-ready and which are not.
Some favorites, like Kansas City, Buffalo, Philadelphia and San Francisco aren’t exactly surprises. But the L.A. Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars? You’ll find them there, too.
In essence, we break down each playoff participant into three categories: Team needs, elite players and the ratio of stars to liabilities (with age, injuries and declining productivity factors). As always, those evaluations are governed by PSI’s system of grading players where Blues (the best at each position) and Reds (productive starters) are the most desirable, and Purples (players who only match up with low Reds) and Oranges (productive backups) are not.
It’s a simple formula: The more Blues you have, the better your chances of success, and let me explain: During the season, you typically have seven or eight plays a game where elite players can make big plays. But in the postseason, that number is reduced to four or five per contest.
It’s when I like to say: The Blues play Bluer. Those with the most, almost always survive.
It’s a basic law, but it’s proven to be reliable. A year ago, Axiom 1 had the Bengals as one of two AFC teams that were Super Bowl-worthy heading into the playoffs. The Chiefs were the other, and no surprise; they’d been to the previous three conference championship games. But Cincinnati? Axiom 1 had the Bengals ranked ahead of Tennessee in a year where the Titans were the AFC’s top seed.
Result: The Bengals upset Tennessee in the divisional round, outlasted the Chiefs in the AFC Championship, and the rest you know.
It was the 19th season out of the past 20 that an NFL champion has come from an Axiom 1 grouping of favorites heading into the playoffs.
Now we have the Chargers and Jaguars as outliers that others might overlook. But I wouldn’t sell them short. Why? Because of what Axiom 1 tells us.
The Upper Tier
These are the teams that check all three boxes, which means those who are the most prepared. Now, full disclosure: I still worry about injuries and absences – such as what happens to the Eagles if Jalen Hurts isn’t the same, or how vulnerable Buffalo is in the wake of the Damar Hamlin situation. Here, then, are Axiom 1’s eight button-down favorites in this season’s playoffs:
Philadelphia Eagles (14-3, No. 1 seed)
We’re at the end of a marathon where I ask: Who still has gas in the tank? Who’s ascending, who’s not, and who is injury-free? I mention that because of Jalen Hurts. Is he going to be the same pre-shoulder injury player or not? That’s an absolutely huge question. He played Sunday and looked OK. But now he gets more weeks to rest. That’s big.
Remember: The Eagles are 14-1 with him; they’re 0-2 without. With Hurts at 90 percent or better – running and throwing – this is the best offense all-around in the NFC. I do worry a little bit about Lane Johnson at right tackle, but because it’s the playoffs I believe he’ll find a way to be there.
Defensively, when the Eagles are healthy there’s no better pass rush, and you don’t need me to tell you. Look at this year’s results: They have a league-leading 70 sacks, two shy of the league record. No one else is close.
Where I question them is the status of rover corner Avonte Maddox and strong safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson. Gardner-Johnson surprised me by playing Sunday after missing five games with a lacerated kidney, and looked good. Like Hurts, his return is important, if not crucial. If he and Maddox can play at, say, 85 percent or better, it’s a bonus.
San Francisco 49ers (13-4, No. 2 seed)
Another injury question, and it involves Deebo Samuel. He’s coming off knee and ankle injuries that sidelined him the past three games. But he, too, played Sunday, and that’s a positive sign. Let’s just say he’s 90 percent or better as a runner and receiver. Perfect. You add him to Christian McCaffrey, George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk, and presto! You have four guys who allow Brock Purdy (5-0 as a starter) to become a playoff-winning quarterback.
Purdy can then play within himself and be what I call a game-playing quarterback. In other words, he can follow the game plan and not be Superman. It’s critical for Purdy to keep the 49ers close because they’re the only NFC team that can match Philadelphia in weapons.
Then you look at their defense, where they play fast, aggressively and downhill. Everyone knows about Nick Bosa, but they have a deep and underrated pass rush. If I have an issue, it’s with the secondary. Talanoa Hufanga is a big-play defender, but the 49ers aren’t fast on the back end, especially at safety, and they could be in trouble if the pass rush doesn’t get to the quarterback.
One other concern: Kicker Robbie Gould. The playoffs are where kickers become vital, and I don’t know if he’s a top kicker anymore. Remember the Raiders’ game in Week 17? It doesn’t go to overtime if Gould hits a 37-yard field goal.
But we’re splitting hairs here. The Eagles have weapons on offense, they’re a physical defense and they won their last 10.
Minnesota Vikings (13-4, No. 3 seed)
Two issues here: The offensive line and recent history. The Vikings lost one of their best linemen last week when right tackle Brian O’Neill bowed out with a partially torn Achilles. His loss cripples an already depleted offensive line where center Garrett Bradbury is still out with a back injury and backup Austin Schlottman is sidelined with an ankle injury.
That leaves a third-string center with three regular starters, one (rookie Ed Ingram) who has struggled at right guard, and that’s a problem because it can put quick pressure up the middle on Kirk Cousins in passing situations. Cousins is not that athletic or big and is prone to hurried throws, sacks and mistakes when pressure comes from inside.
The Vikings have a dynamic receiver in Justin Jefferson, whom I expect to excel in the playoffs. But if I’m defending them, I double him and let Adam Thielen, K.J. Osborn, T.J. Hockenson or Dalvin Cook try to beat me.
Defensively, Minnesota has given up a lot of points (427), more than any team but Chicago (463) and Arizona (449). The pass rush has been spotty, with 38 sacks, and the secondary isn’t good enough to cover if the rush doesn’t reach the quarterback.
Now, as far as recent history … the Vikings dropped two of their last five and three of the past eight. That makes me ask: Are they descending and just hanging on at this point? We’re about to find out.
Kansas City Chiefs (14-3, No. 1 seed)
We all know how elite Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce are, but the Chiefs have underrated weapons galore, including JuJu Smith-Schuster and Jerick McKinnon. Smith-Schuster is capable of putting up 100 yards on an opponent, and McKinnon is red-zone napalm. People talk about Kelce, but McKinnon has nine TD catches, including eight in the past six games. That’s a credit to this coaching staff, not only for being patient but for turning to him in crunch time. A lot of people wouldn’t do that.
The Chiefs are explosive, and everyone knows that. The No. 1 concern for me, however, is left tackle Orlando Brown blocking the speed rush. I don’t worry about the interior of the offensive line. It’s the best in the NFL. But if they’re going to have problems it’s with Brown blocking one-on-one vs. speed in pass protection.
Then, on defense, a simple question: Outside of Chris Jones, where’s the elite pass rusher? Does Frank Clark have anything left? I don’t know. I also wonder how the young corners hold up if the rush doesn’t get to the quarterback. Outside of L’Jarius Sneed, I just don’t know if the secondary is good enough to get to the ball.
One other thing: Like San Francisco, I’m not sure I trust their kicker. Harrison Butker once was one of the league’s most accurate specialists. Not anymore. He hit 75 percent of his field-goal tries, missed three of his last nine attempts, and is 7-of-12 from 40 yards and beyond. That said, Mahomes & Co. can cover a lot of warts. Nobody scores more.
Buffalo Bills (13-3, No. 2 seed)
My concern with the Bills has always been the run game. I just wonder if they can run the ball effectively when they must, or if they count on Josh Allen again to be their four-minute ball carrier. Devin Singletary runs hard, but he’s not big or fast. So I don’t know if they can close out games without putting everything on Allen’s shoulders.
Nevertheless, I don’t worry about them putting up points. You watch some of Allen’s deep throws on Sunday against the Raiders, and I don’t know if there’s anyone better when he’s hot.
I do, however, worry about their pass rush without Von Miller, and I’ll be honest: It’s the pass rush that will tell their story in the playoffs.
Then, of course, there’s the Damar Hamlin situation. Losing him is a blow because it means they’re down to their third weak safety (Hamlin replaced Micah Hyde, who was hurt earlier this year). There’s not a coach out there who will look you in the face and not admit that’s a concern. Plus, I don’t know what emotional impact Hamlin’s loss has on his teammates.
The interesting thing with Buffalo is lately I’ve seen linebackers Tremaine Edmonds and Matt Milano doing double-dog blitzing, and maybe that continues. I think it should, especially with the emotional impact of the Hamlin story. I have the feeling that if the Bills are aggressive on defense – basically, don’t make the scheme overly complicated and come in with the attitude that “we’re all in and let’s go” – that they’ll be fine.
Cincinnati Bengals (12-4, No. 3 seed)
You know how people tell you the three most important factors in real estate are location, location, location? Well, the three most important factors with the Bengals are offensive line, offensive line, offensive line. Protection for Joe Burrow is critical.
No question, it’s been significantly better this season, one reason Cincinnati won 12 of its last 14 starts, but the loss of right tackle La’el Collins to a season-ending knee injury hurts. Burrow was sacked 41 times this season, or 10 fewer than the 2021 regular season. That doesn’t sound like much, but he’s been dropped only 28 times the past 15 games and 12 times the last eight. I mention that because Cincinnati is 2-3 this season when Burrow was sacked three or more times.
Burrow has a myriad of weapons in Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, Hayden Hurst and Joe Mixon, but I wonder what impact – and I’m talking about psychologically – the Hamlin incident has on Higgins.
The defense is smart and sound, and getting tackle D.J. Reader back in the middle was huge. He’s probably the best run-stopper in the NFL. Their front is better than people think, and so is the secondary.
This is a dangerous team. They have Burrow, momentum (they won their last eight) and the Chiefs’ number. They’re 3-0 against them the past two seasons.
Los Angeles Chargers (10-7, No. 5 seed)
If the Chargers weren’t in the playoffs, they’d be in line for a casting call for “Grey’s Anatomy.” They’ve had a litany of injuries that would sabotage most clubs: Joey Bosa, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Derwin James, Rashawn Slater, J.C. Jackson Austin Johnson, Corey Linsley, Trey Pipkins, Donald Parham … I think you get the idea. All have missed games, with Jackson – a high-profile free-agent – out for the season with a ruptured patellar tendon. Yet they won 11 games and now have most of that talent back.
We all know Justin Herbert can make any throw. But look what he has now: Allen and Williams are healthy, Joshua Palmer is an underrated receiver, Parham rejoins Gerald Everett at tight end, Austin Ekeler is a scoring machine. There are weapons everywhere, which is critical when you’re in a conference with the Chiefs and Buffalo. But that’s not all. Bosa’s return is huge because you can pair him with Khalil Mack on the edge and with James at safety to rattle quarterbacks.
Bottom line: There’s a lot of talent here when the Chargers are healthy, and they are now. They’re also a team that historically plays the Chiefs tough. They’re 2-4 vs. Kansas City the past two years, but look a little closer: Three of those losses were by three points each, and two were in overtime. Then there’s this: Over the last six games, they outscored Kansas City 167-159.
Jacksonville Jaguars (9-8, No. 4 seed)
Don’t underestimate these guys. They have a hot quarterback, momentum and a home playoff game. The Jaguars are peaking at the right time, winning seven of their last nine, and so is quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
Look at his play the past nine weeks. It’s as good as anyone out there: 15 TDs, two interceptions and a 70 percent completion rate. The key with him is twofold: The weapons the Jags accumulated in free agency – Christian Kirk, Zay Jones and Evan Engram – and the impact they’ve had on his development.
He’s gained confidence in the second half of the season, saw things quicker and got rid of the ball faster. Result: Suddenly everyone’s making plays on offense. If I have a concern, it’s the left side of the line where the Jags lost Cam Robinson and have to go with Walker Little. Keep your eyes on that.
On defense, their secondary may not be ready, but their front seven is impressive and can get to the quarterback.
I know, the Jaguars seem a reach, but so did the 2017 Jaguars, and they went to the AFC Championship Game. This team beat the Chargers, beat Dallas and had a lead on Philadelphia. As I said, don’t underestimate the Jags.
A Cut Below
These are teams – OK, team – that checked two of three boxes, so it’s in the conversation. But if you trust the board, and I do, it doesn’t make the cut above.
Dallas Cowboys (12-5, No. 5 seed)
Quick question: Give me someone other than CeeDee Lamb to make the big play when the Cowboys need it? Zeke Elliott? Tony Pollard? Dalton Schultz? Michael Gallup? Where’s the second weapon to back off opponents?
Then I have questions about the tackles. Can Tyron Smith hold up? How about Jason Peters? And what’s the situation with center Tyler Biadasz’s injured ankle? He missed Sunday’s game, and it’s huge if he’s out.
Now let’s move on to quarterback. Dak Prescott can be effective when all the boxes are checked: His receiver is open, his protection is good and he has time to make throws from Point A to Point B. But when they’re not, it’s not a smooth or quick transition – and that leads to errors, sacks, fumbles and interceptions. Rewind the videotape to Sunday’s game in Washington, and you’ll see what I mean.
Defensively, they don’t have another Blue pass rusher outside of Micah Parsons, and there’s no speed or range with the safeties. The interesting thing about Parsons: The first half of the year, the Cowboys had him playing linebacker in base, where he sometimes blitzed, and then moved him to end in nickel situations. Now, he only plays defensive end.
Injuries really hurt these guys on defense, particularly at cornerback where they lost starter Anthony Brown. That was a huge blow.
There are just too many question marks to move Dallas into the upper tier.
Outside Looking In
These are the teams that check just one of the three boxes, which means they’re in the picture, but barely.
Seattle Seahawks (9-8, No. 7 seed)
If you look at their top-eight needs entering this season, the Seahawks addressed all eight, and that’s big. The No. 1 correlation to winning is filling needs.
What’s interesting is halfback was one of their top wants, and you can see why. When rookie Kenneth Walker III doesn’t play, they don’t win. That’s how important that need is to them.
I will say this: Their offensive coordinator, Shane Waldron, deserves a lot of credit because he’s gotten Geno Smith to play well. But I’d acknowledge GM John Schneider, too. He had the most productive and deepest draft this year. His picks are playing, and they’re playing at a Red level. Furthermore, he hit at key positions, and they’re all productive.
My concern here is not so much with the offense, it’s with a defense that gives up too many yards and can’t stop the run. I also don’t know where the rush is coming from on third downs.
But I do know this: Do not underestimate Pete Carroll coaching young guys. He knows how to make them play with energy and how to make them play close to their max.
Miami Dolphins (9-8, No. 7 seed)
In Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, the Dolphins have the two fastest receivers in the NFL. But who’s going to get them the ball? Tua Tagovailoa has been sidelined since suffering his third concussion, and I don’t know what happens with him in the playoffs. If he doesn’t suit up, and I’d have to believe that’s possible, the Dolphins will have trouble making splash plays – as they did in their 11-6 win over the Jets on Sunday.
But that’s not all. The injuries to – and the inconsistent play of – the offensive line is alarming, especially at tackle where Terron Armstead is out of the lineup. That’s an issue no matter who plays quarterback, but especially if Tua starts. After what he’s been through, I don’t know how he could be comfortable back there in the pocket. If the quarterback can get protection, he has two weapons to make chunk plays. But there’s an alarming absence when Tua is out.
Defensively, I would’ve thought the addition of Bradley Chubb would’ve kicked their pass rush up a notch, but for some reason it hasn’t. Exhibit A: Miami didn’t sack Joe Flacco once on Sunday. Repeat: Joe Flacco.
The secondary is a little suspect, and it looks like Xavien Howard is running out of gas. It’s funny, at mid-season, people wanted to put Mike McDaniel in the Hall of Fame. Then the Dolphins hit a five-game skid, stopped only by beating the Jets in a game where nobody scored a touchdown. It just looks like the Dolphins have hit the wall.
Now we get to those that check no boxes, and I think you know what that means: When you’re looking for the most likely one-and-done candidates, this is where the roll call begins.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-9, No. 4 seed)
Everyone wants to pile on Tom Brady, but the problems start with the offensive line – especially the middle of it. The Bucs lost center Ryan Jensen to a knee injury, guard Alex Cappa to free agency and guard Ali Marpet to retirement. That’s three-fifth of last year’s starting lineup, and it’s had an enormous impact on Brady.
Ask any great quarterback, what’s the No. 1 thing he most dislikes, and he’ll tell you it’s quick pressure up the middle. That’s happening with Brady, and it’s not good. Does he still have the eyes to see what’s in front of him? Yes. Does he still have the quick release and accuracy to deliver the ball? Yes, but only if it’s inside the numbers.
Where you’re seeing a drop are deep passes outside the numbers. That’s where he’s become human. For 20-plus years he was unbelievable, but now he’s gone from Blue to Purple or Orange. Brady needs that get-open-now guy, especially without a running game. With Gronk, he always had a tight end he could rely on to beat one-on-one coverage, but not anymore.
Defensively, without Shaq Barrett, my question is: Who’s going to step up to pressure the pocket? They still have Vita Vea, but who’s next? The same goes for a secondary that’s kind of beaten up. The Bucs’ defense has taken a bigger descent the last two years than the offense. So you can’t lay this season all on Tom Brady. There’s just not the same energy or feel that’s been there the last two seasons.
New York Giants (9-7-1, No. 6 seed)
They came out of the gate fast, but I don’t see them getting past Minnesota. I know, Saquon Barkley has played his ass off. But I don’t think Daniel Jones is the quarterback to take you to the next level. Plus, there isn’t a Blue wide receiver here, and that will come back to bite them.
Jones is a one-read quarterback who needs protection, and his release is a little longer than it should be. You know how you see guys who get hot and you go, “Uh-oh,” where, all of a sudden, they go on a Blue streak where they’re throwing darts? I’ve almost never seen that with him. In fact, I’ve seen the opposite. I just don’t see the Blue plays. I see the scheme creating them, but I don’t see him making them with his arm.
I agree, he’s had some good runs, but where’s that “wow” with his arm or with his passes? I just don’t know that he’s got Blue ability throwing the ball. He’s proven you can win with him, but he’s seldom shown you can win because of him.
Baltimore Ravens (10-7, No. 6 seed)
The Ravens always seem to start fast, but then what? They limp to the finish line.
The past two years we’ve seen Lamar Jackson in street clothes in December, and that’s not how you get ready for the playoffs. Even if he’s ready to go, you have to wonder: Will he be 100 percent and able to run as he did the first half of the season?
And when he has to pass, who’s his big-play receiver? Rashod Bateman? He’s out for the season. Mark Andrews? OK. But where’s the explosive weapon? I don’t see it, and Cincinnati didn’t, either, on Sunday. At one point, wide receivers were targeted nine times with passes – and no completions.
Baltimore’s offense is built on getting a lead, then powering up to keep it. It’s not an offense built to come back on opponents after getting down by one or two touchdowns, even if Jackson is OK.
Injuries decimate this team year after year, and this season was no exception. Their corners are hurt, and where’s that top pass rusher? I can’t name one that scares you.