Welcome to the NFL playoffs! If you’re a lucky fan, congratulations. Your team has delivered on the preseason hype, survived the exhausting 16-game regular-season, and made it to January for postseason football. If you’re a fan of the Patriots or Saints, you probably made reservations months ago. If you’re backing the Colts or Ravens, well, you probably had to cancel some January vacation plans at the last moment. I suspect you’re not upset.
The only bad thing about making the playoffs is that you’re probably going to come up short of the Super Bowl. In real life, only one team can win the Lombardi trophy. Today, at least in print form, I’m going to change that. This year, my playoff preview is actually a series of recaps detailing how each of the 12 playoff contenders won Super Bowl LIII.
These stories each take place in a multiverse, naturally, so what happens in the dimension of one story doesn’t necessarily occur in (or might even be at odds with) another. The goal is to give each scenario a plausible path and see what that tells us about the real-life postseason to come. Is there a run of opponents that might play to one particular team’s strength? Could an upset suddenly make one team’s slate much easier? Is there a wildly entertaining matchup lurking as a possibility in later rounds? Playing with this format gives us a fun way to run through some interesting outcomes, one of which may actually resemble reality by the time the Super Bowl rolls around in Atlanta.
Unless specified, I’ll be using DVOA to refer to a team’s rankings. At the end of each section, I’ll also try to find a Super Bowl winner (or loser) from the past with regular-season standardized score marks similar to the ones produced by each of our 12 playoff teams. You can read more about how standardized score works here. I’d also recommend checking out the wider range of comparables Jason Lisk built for the 12 playoff teams here. Jump to a team’s story below:
The crystal-ball path to a Super Bowl title: The Saints sent off Drew Brees on the perfect note. After being named NFL MVP for the first time on Saturday night, Brees added to his trophy cabinet by taking home the Super Bowl MVP award for the second time in a 31-17 victory over the Patriots. Surrounded by his family, Brees promptly announced his retirement on the podium during the postgame ceremony.
There might not be a quarterback in NFL history who aged finer than Brees, who never seemed to suffer the drop-off that hits even the best quarterbacks in their late 30s. After what was arguably the best regular season of his career, the 40-year-old quarterback delivered during a wild postseason. Outside of a three-interception effort against the Bears, Brees was brilliant.
The Purdue product saved his best game for last. Bill Belichick’s most famous defensive game plan was built around taking away a versatile receiving back in Marshall Faulk, and indeed, the Patriots spent Sunday taking away Alvin Kamara. Kamara finished with just 47 yards from scrimmage, although he added a late touchdown on a 2-yard plunge to wrap up things for the Saints.
Instead, Brees beat the Patriots by targeting the weaker points in their pass defense. New England’s limited pass rush never seemed to bother Brees, who picked on safety Patrick Chung with throws to Benjamin Watson. The former Patriots first-rounder, who announced in December that he would retire after the season, caught six passes for 61 yards and two touchdowns. Belichick attempted to stick Stephon Gilmore on Ted Ginn Jr. and double Michael Thomas with rookie corner J.C. Jackson and safety Devin McCourty, but Thomas racked up 81 yards in the first half alone before the Patriots switched Gilmore onto New Orleans’ star wideout.
The key stretch came early in the third quarter. After the Patriots scored on a 29-yard pass to James White to tie the score 14-14, Brees quickly drove the Saints down the field. The critical play came when Jason McCourty, in for Jackson, committed a 54-yard pass interference penalty in dragging down Ginn on a deep Brees pass attempt. Brees hit Watson for the latter’s second touchdown of the day two plays later, with the Saints taking a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
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Brees’ first Super Bowl run required a key interception late against an NFC North opponent, and this second run was no exception. In a brutal slugfest of an NFC Championship Game against the Bears, the Saints trailed 24-14 with six minutes to go in the fourth quarter. After the Saints’ run defense held on a third-and-1 and Cody Parkey missed a 51-yard field goal try, Brees launched back into action. He drove the Saints 59 yards in two minutes and hit Thomas for a touchdown to bring the Saints within three. On the ensuing drive, Matt Nagy called for a pass on third-and-2, only for Mitchell Trubisky to have his pass tipped at the line and picked off by Saints safety Marcus Williams.
The Saints worked their way into what looked to be comfortable field goal range, only for Sean Payton to go for more. On a play-action pass, Brees hit Keith Kirkwood on a fade for a 22-yard score, with Kirkwood taking advantage of backup Bears slot cornerback Sherrick McManis, in for the injured Bryce Callahan. The Bears took over down four points with 37 seconds to go, and after Trubisky scrambled for 22 yards on the first play from scrimmage, an interception by Marshon Lattimore sent the Saints into the Super Bowl. Brees did the rest from there.
Super Bowl comp: 1977 Cowboys. By standard score, the Saints rank relatively similar to a handful of Super Bowl losers, including the 1996 and 2011 Patriots. The closest champion requires us to go back more than 40 years, to a 1977 Cowboys team that ranked second in points per game, just ahead of these third-placed Saints. The defense wasn’t quite as impressive, but Harvey Martin & Co. allowed just 23 points over their three-game playoff run.
The crystal-ball path to a Super Bowl title: There isn’t much evidence that teams who struggle in December continue to lose their way in the postseason, and the run we just saw from the Rams doesn’t infringe on those findings. Although the 11-1 Rams lost two straight in December and missed out on the top seed in the NFC, Sean McVay’s team looked like the team that dominated during the fall en route to the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory since the 1999 season.
The key player, unsurprisingly, was Todd Gurley. The Rams’ offense collapsed after Gurley was banged up during their legendary Monday Night Football matchup with the Chiefs, ranking 24th in offensive win expectancy added. Gurley sat out the final two weeks of the regular season in an attempt to get healthy for the postseason, and the results were telling.
While the Bears shut down Jared Goff and the Rams in their regular-season encounter at Soldier Field, McVay’s response was to unleash a fresh Gurley on the Bears in Los Angeles. The former first-round pick carried the ball 17 times for 91 yards in the first half while taking a 41-yard screen pass to the house. Gurley finished the day with 28 carries for 137 yards and two scores, while the Rams were able to secure their 24-10 victory with an Aqib Talib pick-six of Mitchell Trubisky.
When the Cowboys upset the Saints for the second time this season, the Rams were blessed with a second home game and took advantage of the opportunity. The Cowboys scored 25 points per game at home this season but just 17.4 points per game on the road, where they struggled in the NFC Championship Game. Ezekiel Elliott broke a 48-yard run early in the game and set up the Cowboys with a 3-0 lead, but Dallas would not score again until the fourth quarter as Aaron Donald destroyed a Cowboys line missing an injured Zack Martin.
In the meantime, with the threat of Gurley occupying Dallas’ star linebackers, a Cowboys pass defense that falls from sixth in QBR allowed without play-action to 15th with play-fakes was picked apart by Goff. The former first overall pick threw for 294 yards and three scores in a 21-10 Rams victory.
The Super Bowl delivered a mouthwatering rematch between the Rams and Chiefs, but while the world expected another 100-plus point shootout, Gurley and McVay had other ideas. With his star back rested and healthy, McVay built his game plan around feeding Gurley and keeping MVP-elect Patrick Mahomes off the field. The Chiefs’ 32nd-ranked rush defense (by DVOA) was no match for Gurley, who finished the game with 29 carries for 174 yards and two touchdowns while throwing in 76 more yards as a receiver. A late Mahomes touchdown pass brought the Chiefs within three points at 37-34, but Gurley ran out the clock to launch celebrations in Atlanta and Los Angeles.
Super Bowl comp: 2009 Saints. The Rams are actually closest to a pair of Super Bowl losers in the 1988 Bengals and 1991 Bills. The closest team to win the title is an earlier edition of the likeliest opponents for the Rams in the NFC Championship Game, as those Saints combined one of the league’s best offenses with a slightly below-average defense. Both those Saints and this year’s Rams rank 20th in scoring defense.
The crystal-ball path to a Super Bowl title: The Bears became the second team in as many seasons to pull the ultimate worst-to-first maneuver. After the Eagles went from last in the NFC East in 2016 to Super Bowl champions one year later, Matt Nagy’s Bears followed in their footsteps by riding a dominant defense and the play of Super Bowl MVP Tarik Cohen to the franchise’s second Lombardi trophy.
After a relatively quiet postseason, Cohen was the difference-maker in Chicago’s 27-7 victory over the Chargers in Atlanta on Sunday night. The 5-foot-6 halfback took advantage of a Los Angeles team that ranked 31st in punt coverage and in receiving yards per game allowed to running backs. Echoing the kickoff return touchdown from Devin Hester that opened up Chicago’s previous Super Bowl trip, Cohen fielded the first punt of the game after a Chargers three-and-out and took it 79 yards to the house. In the second quarter, he added a second touchdown by bringing in a screen pass from Mitchell Trubisky and juking three Chargers as part of a 67-yard score.
Trubisky didn’t have much to do in the victory — he finished the day 14-of-22 for 198 yards and that lone touchdown pass — but Bears fans had to be delighted with his growth during the postseason. After quietly finishing the regular season with a 109.7 passer rating over his final three outings and throwing for two touchdowns in the 24-10 wild-card victory over the Eagles, Trubisky threw two interceptions in the first half against the Rams and had to be bailed out by a late Eddie Jackson interception of Jared Goff in a 16-10 victory.
Against the Saints, though, Trubisky held his own and beat MVP candidate Drew Brees in a 24-21 thriller. With the score tied after a touchdown pass to Josh Hill with 1:17 to go, Trubisky drove the Bears 54 yards in 74 seconds to set up a game-winning field goal attempt for embattled kicker Cody Parkey. After missing an extra point and a 38-yarder against the Rams in Los Angeles that would have sealed the game, Parkey responded by hitting a 39-yarder to send the Bears back to the Super Bowl.
It seemed like Parkey might be a potential weak spot if the Super Bowl matchup against the Chargers came down to a kick, but his services weren’t really needed in what ended up as a rout. Philip Rivers came into the game having thrown nine touchdown passes without an interception, but the Chargers’ offense wilted against the pressure of playing the league’s No. 1 defense by DVOA. After the Cohen punt return, Rivers took the ball back and immediately tried to challenge Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller on a fade to Tyrell Williams, only for Fuller to pick off the pass and hand the Bears a short field. Five plays later, a 13-yard Jordan Howard touchdown put the Bears up 14-0.
Rivers finished the game with four picks and a passer rating of just 44.1, with a third-quarter touchdown pass to Keenan Allen sparing the Chargers the indignity of a shutout. Vic Fangio’s defense finished the postseason with nine interceptions, the most recorded by any team in one playoff run since the Cardinals in 2008. With Fangio leaving to take over as coach of the Broncos after the game, his players echoed the famous image of Buddy Ryan more than 30 years earlier by carrying their defensive coordinator off of the field in his final game as a Bears coach.
Super Bowl comp: 1985 Bears. It doesn’t have to be especially complicated. That Bears defense was a cut above even this team — the 2018 Bears allowed 17.7 points per game, but if you use standardized score to translate the 1985 Bears into this era, they would have allowed 15.9 points per game — but they’re a dominant defense that forces a ton of takeaways. Quarterback Jim McMahon was in his fourth season with the Bears, but he was still relatively inexperienced as a pro. He finished that fourth campaign with 961 NFL pass attempts, not too far off from the 764 passes Trubisky has thrown as he enters the postseason.
The crystal-ball path to a Super Bowl title: How ’bout them Cowboys? It looked like Jerry Jones was about to fire Jason Garrett when the Cowboys were blown out by the Titans on Monday Night Football in Week 9 and fell to 3-5, but after Amari Cooper settled in as Dak Prescott‘s top receiver and Leighton Vander Esch was inserted into the starting lineup for injured Sean Lee, everything changed.
From Weeks 10-16, the Cowboys went 6-1. Their offense ranked second in win expectancy added, while their defense was eighth. The Cowboys then sat several of their stars for Week 17, and with a fresh Ezekiel Elliott and Zack Martin back in the fold for the playoffs, Dallas ran the table to a stunning Super Bowl victory.
While some of the NFC teams probably didn’t want to see the Chiefs come out of the AFC side of this year’s bracket, the Cowboys were a nightmare matchup for the league’s worst run defense. Bob Sutton’s defense had no answer for Elliott, who won Super Bowl MVP by carrying the ball 35 times for 205 yards, topping the previous Super Bowl rushing record by one yard. Prescott chipped in with 55 rushing yards of his own and made one big play in the passing game, hitting Cooper downfield on an 74-yard touchdown pass when the former Raiders wideout tossed down Orlando Scandrick and outran Daniel Sorensen to the end zone. Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith helped limit Travis Kelce to 27 yards, while Lee chipped in with a late-game strip of Damien Williams to seal a 24-14 victory.
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Dallas’ path to the Super Bowl wasn’t easy. Its linebackers and fifth-ranked rushing defense represented a rough matchup for Russell Wilson & Co., who struggled to move the ball in a 17-10 punt fest at AT&T Stadium. When Nick Foles‘ magic managed to propel the Eagles into an upset victory over the Bears in Chicago in the wild-card round, the Cowboys unexpectedly traveled to Los Angeles, where the Rams’ offensive struggles continued without the services of Cooper Kupp. With Randy Gregory tormenting a hobbled Andrew Whitworth for two sacks, the Cowboys kept Jared Goff from getting comfortable and rode their defense to a 20-13 victory.
Dallas’ subsequent rematch against the Saints went a lot like the first matchup between the two teams, with Byron Jones helping to shut down Michael Thomas and the front four getting consistent pressure on Drew Brees. Prescott was 14-of-14 for 136 yards on throws to Cooper and Elliott in the regular-season version of this game, and while that’s virtually impossible to sustain, he found another way to move the ball in the conference title game.
Marshon Lattimore and the Saints’ defensive backs had some late-season consistency issues against the Steelers and Panthers, and they finished the year with 18 pass interference penalties for 290 yards, both of which comfortably led the league. (The second-placed Chiefs had 14 penalties for 215 yards.) Here, the Cowboys picked up three pass interference penalties for 84 yards, including a 49-yarder in the fourth quarter that inspires the league to finally pursue changes to the spot foul pass interference rule. The final call set up a game-winning field goal from Brett Maher, who hit a 29-yarder to prevail in a 24-21 thriller. Two weeks later, 24 points is enough for the Cowboys to win their first Super Bowl in 23 years.
Super Bowl comp: 2007 Giants. There aren’t really any similar teams to the Cowboys that made it to the Super Bowl if we use their full-season totals. We can treat the second-half Cowboys like a different team, but as they went 7-1 while outscoring their opponents by a total of just 12 points, even they don’t look like most Super Bowl winners. As a result, the closest team is actually one that trampled the Cowboys on their way to one of the most famous Super Bowl victories of all time. The 2007 Giants lost by double-digits twice to the Cowboys during the regular season, only to hold Tony Romo to a 50 percent completion percentage and cling to a 21-17 lead for the final 11 minutes of the game. You know what happened three weeks later.
The crystal-ball path to a Super Bowl title: In a season in which passing rose to new heights, the Seahawks’ unlikely run to a Super Bowl served as an old-school riposte. With Chris Carson leading the way, the Seahawks ran the ball on nearly 53 percent of their offensive plays in the regular season, the only team in the league to run the ball more than 48.4 percent of the time. Their formula might not have been the most modern, but the playoffs broke exactly the way the Seahawks might have hoped.
The Cowboys might not have been the soft run defense the Seahawks were dreaming of heading into the postseason, but they did deliver Seattle the worst of the 12 teams in the bracket by point differential, giving the Seahawks a chance to overwhelm an inferior opponent. Amari Cooper feasted for 126 yards and a touchdown against the Seahawks’ pass defense, but Bobby Wagner & Co. held Ezekiel Elliott to 57 yards from scrimmage. Facing a defense that ranks 27th in the league in passer rating allowed against play-action, Russell Wilson picked apart Dallas’ safeties for a 247-yard, three-touchdown day. Jason Garrett called for a field goal while down five points on fourth-and-short with 4:04 to go and hoped to get the ball back, but a run from Wilson sealed the last first down the Seahawks needed to pick up a 28-26 win.
From there, the Seahawks had all the breaks go their way. An upset win by the Eagles sent the Seahawks to Los Angeles to play a Rams team that struggled to deal with the Seattle running game and the play-action pass in two narrow victories this season. This time, without Cooper Kupp and with Todd Gurley playing at less than 100 percent, the Rams didn’t have the offensive firepower to score on 68 percent of their meaningful possessions — as they did during the regular season — and came up short. The Seahawks’ various backs ran for a combined 247 yards as the Seahawks prevailed 27-17.
The Seahawks wouldn’t have cherished a trip to New Orleans and its third-ranked run defense in the NFC Championship Game, but a second consecutive upset from the Eagles netted Seattle an unexpected home game in late January. In a driving rainstorm, Nick Foles slipped while scrambling and took a hit to his already-injured ribs, forcing him from the game and turning things over to third-string passer Nate Sudfeld. Sudfeld actually held his own and threw for 214 yards and two touchdowns, but an Eagles run defense prone to allowing big gains gave up four runs of 30-plus yards to Carson and third-stringer Rashaad Penny. The final run, a 57-yard score from Penny, sent the Seahawks to Atlanta with a 31-20 victory.
Again, while there are teams that would hate to face the Chiefs in these playoffs, the Seahawks had to be delighted to face the league’s worst run defense. Brian Schottenheimer’s offense ran for 210 yards and two touchdowns when Seattle beat the Chiefs in Week 16 and kept it up in February, with Penny taking the lead and racking up 137 yards from scrimmage. Carson filled in the gaps with some dirty work between the tackles, as the Seahawks became the first team since 1985 to have two different backs make it to 100 yards from scrimmage in one Super Bowl.
Patrick Mahomes has missed throws early in several nationally televised games this season, including what should have been an easy touchdown early in Week 16 against the Seahawks. Whether it’s nerves or sheer randomness, he missed a couple of early opportunities downfield here. The Seahawks can’t keep the Chiefs down forever — Tyreek Hill took a screen 77 yards to the house in the second quarter — but with a well-rested pass rush, Frank Clark and the defense get enough pressure on Mahomes to ruin the new MVP’s day. Amid a flood of references to playcalls in Super Bowls past, Carson punched the ball in from two yards out with four minutes to go in the fourth quarter to give the Seahawks their second upset Super Bowl win in the Russell Wilson era, as they topped the Chiefs by a score of 27-17.
Super Bowl comp: 1988 49ers. Seahawks fans might not enjoy the comparison between their team and the rivals who faced them in a series of brutal games earlier this decade during the Jim Harbaugh era, but the final 49ers team under Bill Walsh’s stewardship is the closest comparable for these Seahawks. That Niners team was considered a pass-happy attack in its day, but to put things in context, those 49ers ran the ball 49 percent of the time, which would be the second-highest run rate in football. Their defense also carried them through the postseason, allowing just 21 defensive points in wins over the Vikings, Bears and Bengals.
The crystal-ball path to a Super Bowl title: You’ve seen Nick Foles pull this off before, right? Foles played solid football in his 3-0 finish to the season, as he completed nearly 77 percent of his passes while averaging 8.5 yards per attempt, albeit with three interceptions in three contests. The big difference between last season and this season is that Foles had to win only two games in the NFC side of the bracket, both at home. This time, Foles had to win three games to make it to the Super Bowl, and as the sixth seed, the Eagles spent January away from Lincoln Financial Field.
As much as the Eagles needed to get the hot version of Foles, the difference-maker for Philadelphia during its playoff run was a sorely needed pass defense, which had been a problem for nearly two months. Over the last seven games of the regular season, the only passing game the Eagles held under 295 yards was Washington, with Jim Schwartz’s defense unsurprisingly shutting down Mark Sanchez and Josh Johnson in a pair of victories.
With a secondary marred by injuries, the Eagles had to rely on their pass rush to create opportunities for takeaways. The rush did that last year, helping to force three Vikings turnovers in the NFC Championship Game before Brandon Graham famously strip sacked Tom Brady to set up the game-sealing touchdown in the Super Bowl. The Eagles rotated their defensive linemen throughout the 2017 regular season before giving Fletcher Cox more time during the playoffs, and unsurprisingly, Cox and the rest of the Eagles’ pass rush were the stars of Philadelphia’s playoff run.
The Bears did a good job of neutralizing Cox in the wild-card round, just as they did with Aaron Donald earlier this season. Instead, the Eagles got pressure from the edges with their rotational pass-rushers and managed to keep Mitchell Trubisky in the pocket while holding the mobile second-year passer to 18 rushing yards. An opportunistic Eagles defense strip sacked Trubisky twice and recovered both fumbles, while Foles managed to protect the football without giving the ball away. A controversial roughing the passer penalty got the Eagles into field goal range, with Jake Elliott hitting a 48-yarder to win in a 9-7 slobberknocker.
Doug Pederson’s team then traveled to New Orleans, where they were 10.5-point underdogs to Drew Brees & Co. in the Superdome. Foles had enjoyed some unexpected success making plays downfield in the regular season after taking over for Wentz, and in a game where the Eagles needed to find an edge, they attacked the league’s worst pass defense on throws 16 or more yards downfield.
Nearly forgotten wideout Mike Wallace — who made his way back onto the active roster against the Bears — came out of nowhere with a two-catch, 123-yard game, including a 68-yard touchdown against P.J. Williams. Alshon Jeffery outmuscled Marshon Lattimore on a 41-yard fade route for a second-quarter score, while Golden Tate made his own presence felt with a series of third-down receptions against Eli Apple. Star left tackle Terron Armstead wasn’t able to start, with a banged-up Saints offensive line failing to protect Brees. The Saints quarterback was knocked down 11 times and threw an interception to Sidney Jones, whom the Saints targeted with their game plan earlier this year, in a 27-17 Eagles upset
Things kept up for the Eagles in a return trip to Los Angeles against the Rams. The Eagles had beaten Sean McVay’s team twice in Los Angeles in two tries, forcing a total of five turnovers across those two contests. While Foles struggled and threw three interceptions in a brutally inconsistent game, the Eagles coaxed four turnovers out of the Rams and Jared Goff, including two interceptions, a strip sack from Chris Long, and a muffed punt from return man JoJo Natson. The Eagles recovered the fumbled punt on Los Angeles’ 13-yard line and eventually scored on a fade to Jeffery, giving Foles a 20-14 lead. While Goff threatened with a late drive, Cox managed to tip a Goff screen pass into the hands of Kamu Grugier-Hill to send the Eagles into an unlikely Super Bowl.
There, they faced a Patriots team in search of revenge for last year’s stunning Eagles victory. No revenge was found. While the Patriots were able to move the ball on the Eagles with tempo last season, an aging offense didn’t have the speed to play at a fast pace or threaten Philly with field-stretching plays. A pass rush that didn’t get to Brady for most of Super Bowl LII hit him five times in the first half, as Cox forced Brady into a wobbly interception at the hands of Malcolm Jenkins. A retiring Rob Gronkowski finished his NFL career with a two-catch, 29-yard performance.
While Zach Ertz tormented the Patriots last season, the difference-maker for the Eagles in Super Bowl LIII was Darren Sproles. The diminutive halfback missed the 2017 postseason run and had been relatively quiet throughout January, but with the Patriots doubling Ertz and trusting Stephon Gilmore to take away Jeffery, Pederson’s staff responded with a heavy dose of its own retiring offensive weapon. Sproles gashed the Patriots for 114 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns in the first half.
Afterward, the Eagles turned to rookie tight end Dallas Goedert. There was something poetic about Philadelphia tormenting the Patriots with two-tight-end sets, but the Super Bowl served as the second-round pick’s coming-out party. The 6-foot-5 South Dakota State product was simply a mismatch for Patrick Chung and Kyle Van Noy, as Goedert brought in six passes for 78 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown. As a frustrated Brady seemed to ponder his future on the sideline, the Eagles ran out the clock against the league’s 19th-ranked run defense, with Wendell Smallwood running over Dont’a Hightower for the final first down. Unexpectedly — and perhaps inexplicably — Foles claimed his second Super Bowl MVP award in two years, with the Eagles prevailing in the rematch 27-20.
Super Bowl comp: 2003 Panthers. There isn’t really a comparable Super Bowl winner in the bunch for the Eagles by the numbers; the closest example would be the 2003 Panthers, who are a near-perfect match after accounting for era. The Panthers combined an above-average defense with slightly below-average offense and outscored their opponents by a total of 21 points, while this year’s Eagles mixed an above-average scoring defense with slightly below-average offense and outscored their opponents by 19 points. Those Panthers needed to win two games on the road with Jake Delhomme at quarterback against the top two seeds in the conference and managed to do so, topping Marc Bulger’s 12-4 Rams in St. Louis before an ugly 14-3 victory over, yes, the Eagles in Philadelphia.
The crystal-ball path to a Super Bowl title: The Chiefs finally made it back to the promised land. After going nearly 50 years without a Super Bowl — heck, after going 25 years without as much as a home playoff win — the Chiefs overcame years of hurt to top the Rams in a thrilling rematch of their regular-season classic. The 45-42 victory saw the two teams top 1,000 yards of total offense, with second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes marking his 20th professional start by becoming the seventh player in league history to win both regular-season and postseason MVP awards in the same campaign.
The happiest man celebrating on the field in Atlanta, though, had to be Chiefs coach Andy Reid. After years of playoff frustrations and disappointments, the 20-year veteran finally made it back to the Super Bowl and won the big one. Perhaps even more satisfying was how Reid won. Famed for his clock-management gaffes and curious playoff decision-making, Reid’s Chiefs pulled out their victory with a bit of aggression at just the right time.
With the Chiefs facing a fourth-and-3 with 2:29 to go on the Los Angeles 30-yard line, few would have faulted Reid for going conservative and attempting a 49-yard field goal to tie the score 42-42. When Reid used his second timeout to think about the move, Twitter blew up with Reid jokes, but the 60-year-old coach had the last laugh. Mahomes invited pressure from Aaron Donald and then threw a shovel pass to Travis Kelce into the exposed space behind the Defensive Player of the Year winner, giving the Chiefs a new set of downs.
Crucially, it also allowed Kansas City to hold on to the ball in lieu of handing it back to the Rams, who had gashed the Chiefs for more than 300 yards through the air and 197 yards on the ground. The Chiefs continued their drive and scored with 27 seconds left when Mahomes pushed the pile on a 1-yard sneak, giving Kansas City its 45-42 lead. There was a momentary gasp when Harrison Butker missed the ensuing extra point and kept the game within three points, but Jared Goff was strip sacked by Justin Houston on the second play of the ensuing drive to hand the Chiefs their second Super Bowl victory.
While Mahomes was the star on the biggest stage, the unit that carried Kansas City through the AFC bracket was actually its pass defense. Bob Sutton’s secondary was the target of significant criticism throughout the season as the Chiefs ran through shootout after shootout, but DVOA pegged it as the 12th-best pass defense in the league by the end of the season. The pass rush showed up during a memorable January.
First, the Chiefs simply overwhelmed a Chargers offensive line that allowed five sacks in the last matchup between these two teams. That game essentially ended with the Chargers converting a two-pointer to prevail 29-28, but there was no drama in this one. Chris Jones strip sacked Rivers in the first quarter to hand the Chiefs a short field and a score, and just before halftime, Kendall Fuller deflected a Rivers pass to Eric Berry, who returned it deep into Chargers territory to set up a second touchdown off of a takeaway. A 72-yard run from Damien Williams in the fourth quarter sealed a 35-17 Chiefs victory.
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Then, after the Texans upset the Patriots in Foxborough, the Chiefs were left with a matchup against one of the most sack-friendly offenses in football. The Texans don’t have a great pass-blocking line, and for all of Deshaun Watson‘s brilliance, he holds on to the football longer than any NFL passer besides Russell Wilson and Josh Allen. The Chiefs didn’t reward Watson for his patience, sacking the former Clemson star seven times while taking a Watson fumble to the house. DeAndre Hopkins racked up 152 receiving yards, but a superior game plan and a better offensive line kept Mahomes afloat. The 2017 first-rounder, drafted two picks before Watson, was sacked only once in a 28-17 Chiefs victory.
It looked like the Chiefs would have a mouthwatering Super Bowl rematch with Reid’s former team, but the Eagles blew a five-point lead in the final minute of the NFC Championship Game when Goff found Robert Woods in the back of the end zone for an unlikely touchdown. Bettors pushed the pregame over/under all the way up to 68.5 points in Vegas before it settled at 66.5 at game time, but the two teams blew through that by the end of the third quarter.
The difference between the Super Bowl win and the regular-season loss was as old school as it gets: turnovers. In the Monday Night Football classic, the Chiefs turned over the ball five times, with the Rams producing two defensive touchdowns off those giveaways. In the Super Bowl, while Mahomes showed jitters with an early interception, the Chiefs held on to the ball the rest of the way while forcing two takeaways from Goff. The second handed the Chiefs their long-awaited prize.
Super Bowl comp: 2016 Falcons. I’m generally trying to find Super Bowl winners with these historical comparisons, but there just aren’t as many teams with this sort of offensive firepower who also had a pretty mediocre defense. The Chiefs finished with the 17th-best offense since the merger by standardized score, but just six of the previous 16 teams also posted negative defenses, and none of them won the Super Bowl. The Kyle Shanahan-era Falcons are the closest Super Bowl comp, and like the Chiefs in this scenario, a hotter-than-expected defense helped fuel their agonizingly close run toward the Lombardi trophy.
The crystal-ball path to a Super Bowl title: At some point, we need to stop prematurely counting out the Patriots. It looked like the Pats were limping to the finish line after losing to the Dolphins and Steelers in December, but a 38-3 blowout of the Jets in Week 17 hinted at what was to come. It wasn’t the same Patriots from years past, but as they always seem to do, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady managed to piece things together to win a sixth Super Bowl together.
Sure, you might argue that the Patriots had a relatively easy path to Atlanta, starting with the Texans in the divisional round. Belichick’s assistants have generally had success when they’ve faced Belichick in their first year away from Foxborough — Matt Patricia and Mike Vrabel both saw their teams comfortably beat the Pats this season — but Bill O’Brien still hasn’t figured out the Pats.
The former Penn State coach was 0-5 against his former employers heading into the game, with the Patriots outscoring the Texans 151-75 over those five games. Stephon Gilmore and Trey Flowers helped make the Texans 0-6. With Houston’s top-ranked rush defense holding down Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead, it took big plays from the defense to set up the Pats for scores.
Flowers racked up three sacks, including a strip sack that gave the Patriots a short field for one Brady touchdown pass. With the Texans essentially down to DeAndre Hopkins in the receiving game, Belichick assigned Gilmore and Devin McCourty to double the star wideout and won the battle. Hopkins caught five passes on 14 targets for 63 yards, and Gilmore intercepted a fade into the end zone during Houston’s lone red zone trip of the day.
A 20-9 victory pushed the Patriots into the AFC title game, where New England shut down rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson. The Ravens quarterback had been a running dynamo through the end of the regular season and into the postseason, but the Patriots held Baltimore’s starter to 47 yards rushing and forced him to throw the ball. Jackson went 12-of-21 for 115 yards and two interceptions as the Patriots locked up their trip to Atlanta with a 21-6 win.
With rumors swirling about the futures of Brady, Belichick and Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots probably weren’t thrilled to see the top seed come out of the NFC. The Patriots beat the Saints by 16 points in the Superdome early in the 2017 season, but Drew Brees & Co. went 24-6 in the regular season after that game. With the Saints blitzing through the Cowboys and Rams at home, the Patriots were underdogs in the Super Bowl for the first time since their famous upset of the Rams in Brady’s first title.
The Patriots were able to stay close against the Saints by virtue of an excellent game plan from offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who revealed one of the worst-kept secrets in football after the game by admitting he was about to take over as coach of the Packers. With the Saints enjoying a dominant run defense and Marshon Lattimore taking away wideouts on the outside, the Pats built their game plan around exploiting the Saints’ lesser cornerbacks in the slot with Julian Edelman, who finished with 107 receiving yards and two touchdowns. The Saints ranked 29th in DVOA on defending passes to running backs heading into the game, and James White came up with 11 catches for 91 yards and eight crucial first downs.
As was the case with his game plan all those years ago against the Rams in the Super Bowl, Belichick built his defense around hitting Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. He dared Brees to beat his defense by throwing to Ted Ginn Jr., and while the former Dolphins first-round pick drew a pass interference penalty against J.C. Jackson in the first half, both Ginn and Keith Kirkwood dropped would-be long completions from Brees. With the Patriots running slow, methodical drives, the Saints spent long stretches of time without seeing the ball.
The Saints finally seemed to click in the fourth quarter, when Brees marched them 74 yards in two minutes to take a 23-21 lead with 2:09 to go. After Gronkowski drew a 26-yard pass interference penalty, though, two White catches were enough to do the rest. Stephen Gostkowski followed in Adam Vinatieri‘s footsteps by hitting a 46-yard field goal as time expired to bring the Lombardi trophy back to Foxborough.
Super Bowl comparable: 2001 Patriots. Funny how that works, huh? The 2018 Patriots are 0.82 standard deviations over the mean on offense, while the 2001 Patriots were … 0.82 standard deviations over the mean on offense. DVOA takes more of a shine to this year’s offense, and I’d agree, but the 2001 Patriots were sixth in the league in points per game. This season’s defense is also a significant upgrade on the 2001 unit, which ranked 31st in DVOA.
The crystal-ball path to a Super Bowl title: Everyone knew that the Texans had a core of top-level talent as good as any team in football. The only issue was keeping all those stars healthy, but when Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney all made it to the postseason, Houston’s four homegrown heroes carried the Texans to the franchise’s first Super Bowl.
Health was the difference in a wild-card win over the Colts, who had key players such as Ryan Kelly and T.Y. Hilton playing through debilitating injuries. Hilton was forced from the game after making a 38-yard catch in the first quarter, and while Eric Ebron managed to approach 100 yards, the Colts weren’t able to sustain drives without their star wideout. The Texans forced two interceptions from Andrew Luck and got 140 receiving yards from Hopkins, who caught a touchdown on Houston’s drives just before and after halftime and added another later in a 27-17 win.
Hopkins was unsurprisingly the focal point of the Patriots’ defense when Bill O’Brien met former boss Bill Belichick in the divisional round. The Pats held Hopkins to less than 60 yards with double coverage on just about every snap, but Watson was able to make the Patriots pay elsewhere. A returning Keke Coutee was too much for Jason McCourty and J.C. Jackson to handle, as the rookie fourth-rounder caught eight passes for 91 yards and a touchdown. Little-used tight end Jordan Thomas added another TD with a boxout of Patrick Chung in the end zone, while the Texans kicked three field goals. Watt, Clowney and Whitney Mercilus combined to sack Brady four times, while the Patriots never managed to get Sony Michel going against the league’s best run defense. With Rob Gronkowski hobbled and limited to two catches, O’Brien finally overcame his winless streak against the Pats, with a 24-20 victory taking the Texans to the AFC Championship Game.
Thankfully for the Texans, a loss by the Chiefs set up Houston for a home game against the Ravens, who matched up horribly against O’Brien’s team. The Texans have held option runs to 3.3 yards per carry this season, the fourth-lowest rate in football, which didn’t bode well for Lamar Jackson. Indeed, the Ravens carried the ball 27 times for just 83 yards before eventually being forced to open up their passing game. Watson picked on second-year corner Marlon Humphrey, hitting Hopkins for two touchdowns before halftime. Tyrann Mathieu picked off Jackson twice in the second half to complete a 23-10 victory and send the Texans to Super Bowl LIII.
If there was any doubt that Hopkins is the best wide receiver in the league, the 26-year-old buried the disbelievers with a game for the ages against the Rams in Atlanta. While Marcus Peters came up with an interception on the game’s opening drive, it ended up serving as a brief respite for a difficult day. Facing a Rams team that allowed opposing No. 1 wideouts to average more receiving yards per game than all but two other teams, Hopkins became just the second wideout in Super Bowl history to rack up 200 or more receiving yards in a game, finishing with 201 yards and two scores. Nuk finished the postseason with seven receiving touchdowns, tying the postseason record set by Larry Fitzgerald in 2008.
In addition to boasting the league’s best run defense, Benardrick McKinney & Co. posted the league’s third-best DVOA on passes to running backs, so it was no surprise that they slowed down Todd Gurley. Brandin Cooks got over the top of the Houston defense for a 64-yard score, and Jared Goff finished the game with 340 passing yards, but the Texans managed to come up with stops in short yardage and coax the Rams into field goals. Hopkins’ second score put the Texans up 20-19 early in the fourth quarter, and while it seemed inevitable that the Rams would score, that drive never came. Ka’imi Fairbairn hit his third field goal of the game with four minutes to go to push the Texans up four, and when the ensuing Rams drive stalled out on the Houston 26-yard line after Watt drew a holding penalty, the Texans were unlikely champions.
Super Bowl comparable: 1981 49ers. Though the Texans are going to look better historically by point differential by virtue of playing an easy schedule, the 49ers also played a below-average slate and rode the league’s second-best scoring defense for most of the season. In the playoffs, though, the offense drove the Niners to a Super Bowl title, averaging more than 30 points per game. With three Hall of Famers on the roster, the 49ers also were blessed with stars at key positions in Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott and trade acquisition Fred Dean, who was that season’s equivalent of Khalil Mack. There was also the small matter of a famous catch against the Cowboys …
The crystal-ball path to a Super Bowl title: When the rest of the league zigged, the Ravens zagged their way to a world championship. Nobody expected them to make the postseason when they limped into their bye week at 4-5, but even after John Harbaugh suggested that the Ravens weren’t planning on making a change at quarterback, injury forced their hand and pushed Lamar Jackson into the lineup.
What happened next was magic. Jackson won six of the next seven games, with a Steelers collapse conspiring to give the Ravens the AFC North while saving Harbaugh’s job. The Ravens entered the postseason with just a 1.3 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl, per ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), but for a team that entered Week 11 with just a 3.1 percent shot of winning its division, long odds didn’t exactly faze them.
And while Baltimore might not be able to run Jackson 15 times per game over the rest of his career, a run-heavy approach served this version of the Ravens just fine. Jackson ran for only 39 yards in the late-December meeting between the Chargers and Ravens, but Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon combined for 120 yards on 22 carries. In the wild-card round rematch, the two sides flipped. The Chargers held Baltimore’s running backs to 3.2 yards per attempt, but Jackson turned his 18 carries into 117 yards, becoming the first quarterback to run for 100 or more yards in a playoff game since Colin Kaepernick did it against the Seahawks in January 2014.
The Ravens’ defense played its part in the 21-10 win over the Chargers by turning over Philip Rivers three times. Turnovers had been missing for most of the season for Baltimore’s stout defense, as a unit that generated 34 takeaways in 2017 posted just 11 through the first 14 games of the regular season. Don Martindale’s unit racked up six over the final two weeks and then kept things up in the postseason.
Baltimore was able to create some badly needed takeaways in its subsequent upset victory over the Chiefs in the divisional round. Patrick Mahomes threw for 377 yards the first time these two teams played, but it took the MVP candidate a whopping 53 attempts to get there. Mahomes again threw more than 50 times and hit 350 yards in this loss, but the Ravens forced an interception and strip sacked a scrambling Mahomes for a key late-game turnover. With Jackson and Edwards running all over the league’s worst rushing defense, the Ravens left Chiefs fans heartbroken with a 24-17 road victory.
Over his decade as a head coach, Harbaugh has seen heartbreak of his own in New England. The Ravens have two of the three playoff victories over the Patriots in Foxborough during the Brady-Belichick era, but Baltimore lost one AFC Championship Game when Lee Evans couldn’t hold onto a pass in the end zone and Billy Cundiff missed a game-tying 32-yard field goal, then went out in a 35-31 thriller in 2014 when the Patriots came back from a 28-14 third-quarter deficit with some controversial use of unbalanced lines and substitutions.
This time, though, the Patriots had no answer for Baltimore’s usage of unbalanced lines and its power running game. New England tried to force Jackson to throw the football in the same way it once shut down Tim Tebow in the postseason, but the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner went 10-of-17 for 144 yards with a long touchdown pass to John Brown. Superstar kicker Justin Tucker converted all four of his field goal tries, and a Patriots offense with an uncharacteristically high (for them) turnover rate coughed the ball up twice, with Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead both fumbling on Baltimore’s side of the field. A late Brady touchdown pass to Chris Hogan wasn’t enough, as the Ravens sealed a famous 19-15 victory to advance to Super Bowl LIII.
A Ravens-Rams matchup presented a fascinating contrast of styles, and while Wade Phillips was supposed to find an answer to stop Jackson with two weeks of time to prep, the legendary defensive coach simply didn’t have the horses to slow down the former Louisville star. The league’s fifth-worst run defense was gashed throughout the day by the Ravens, who chewed up the clock and kept Sean McVay’s offense on the sideline. A veteran Ravens defense masterfully disguised its pressure packages and left Jared Goff guessing before and after the snap, producing two first-half takeaways before adding a third in the final six minutes of the game. The icing on the cake came in the third quarter, when Joe Flacco came on the field in the red zone and caught a pass from Jackson for a touchdown in the second consecutive Super Bowl with a Philly Special. Ravens 23, Rams 14.
Super Bowl comp: 2003 Patriots. New England wasn’t exactly running quarterback power with Brady during its second Super Bowl-winning campaign, but the Pats combined slightly above-average offensive play with an excellent defense. Like the Ravens, they weathered an early storm before getting hot as the season went on, but their rise came quicker. The Pats started 2-2 before rolling off 12 consecutive victories, followed by playoff victories over the Titans, Colts and Panthers. They got caught in a wild shootout with the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII, as the league’s top defense allowed Jake Delhomme to throw for 323 yards and three touchdowns before a bad kickoff and an Adam Vinatieri field goal sealed things for the Pats.
The crystal-ball path to a Super Bowl title: In a playoff bracket that seemed to lead toward one of several mouthwatering rematches or contests of historical significance, this year’s Super Bowl delivered a legendary edition of a rivalry seemingly forgotten: Brees vs. Rivers. The Chargers, of course, drafted Philip Rivers to replace Drew Brees in 2004 and then chose to let Brees leave while handing the starting job to Rivers after the 2005 campaign.
While the Chargers didn’t exactly regret picking Rivers, they’ve spent the ensuing 13 years watching Brees blossom into a Hall of Famer. The Purdue product won each of his first three rematches against the Chargers, but in the biggest game of Rivers’ career, the famously ornery quarterback delivered the game of his life in a 30-24 thriller.
The 37-year-old Rivers has few qualms about challenging any defensive back on the field in any down or distance, but he’s also not naive to finding a mismatch and exploiting it. While the obvious problem in this game seemed to be Keenan Allen against P.J. Williams & Co. in the slot, Rivers instead took on a Saints defense that ranked dead last in DVOA against deep passes this season by going deep against Eli Apple and Marshon Lattimore. Emerging 2017 first-rounder Mike Williams completed a breakout playoff run by outmuscling Lattimore on a go route and bringing in a 42-yard touchdown, while Apple committed two pass interference penalties for a total of 67 yards, one of which set up a 1-yard Melvin Gordon plunge.
On defense, the difference-maker was Chargers end Melvin Ingram. With Saints star left tackle Terron Armstead ruled out for the postseason after reaggravating his pectoral injury against the Bears in the NFC Championship Game, Ingram came into Atlanta matched up against backup tackle Jermon Bushrod. Bushrod played well and didn’t allow a sack in six regular-season starts, but with Joey Bosa battling Ryan Ramczyk to a draw, the Chargers needed their other star pass-rusher to thrive.
Damien Woody sees this Chargers team as Philip Rivers’ best chance to finally win a Super Bowl.
Frankly, the Chargers needed all the help they could get, as Brees was brilliant when unpressured. After finishing second in the MVP race the night before, a perhaps-chastened future Hall of Famer went 22-of-24 in the first half for 244 yards, getting the Saints out to a 21-13 lead. It was only after the break that Ingram came to life, racking up two of his three sacks, with one resulting in a Brees fumble. Austin Ekeler immediately turned the short field into a touchdown on a screen off of a fake jet sweep, giving the Chargers a 27-24 lead. Los Angeles added a fourth-quarter field goal and came up with a Derwin James interception to hold an unlikely comeback, as Rivers finished the day with 377 passing yards and three scores. A small phalanx of children followed the star quarterback around the field and squealed with delight at the news that they would all be going to Disneyland.
It wasn’t an easy run for the Chargers, who overcame halftime deficits in three of their four playoff games. After forcing three Lamar Jackson takeaways in a 20-10 road victory over the Ravens in the wild-card round, the Chargers struggled to stop Patrick Mahomes from marching up and down the field in their third matchup of the season against the Chiefs. Some well-timed red zone defense held the Chiefs to field goals and kept Los Angeles in the game with a 12-10 halftime score despite two first-half Rivers interceptions.
The game turned when the Chargers successfully followed in the Saints’ footsteps and executed an unexpected onside kick to start the second half. The ensuing drive produced a touchdown pass from Rivers to Gordon, giving the Chargers a 17-12 lead they wouldn’t relinquish. The two teams traded touchdowns by two of the four Williamses on their roster, but a Michael Badgley field goal put Los Angeles up 27-19 with 2:44 to go. The Chiefs failed to manage the clock on the ensuing drive, with Mahomes eventually forced to heave a de facto Hail Mary into the end zone on fourth-and-13, only for Casey Hayward to bat the pass away.
While the Chargers conquered one bugaboo by beating Reid’s Chiefs in Week 15, Anthony Lynn’s team felled a second foe by topping Tom Brady and the Patriots. Rivers was previously 0-7 against Brady, with his only win over New England coming when Brady was replaced by Matt Cassel during the 2008 season. Brady had knocked Rivers out of the postseason twice prior, and after comfortably dispatching the Texans, his Patriots came into the AFC Championship Game as 5.5-point favorites.
When Gordon went down with a hamstring injury in the first quarter, the Chargers seemed doomed to repeat a prior playoff defeat against New England, when LaDainian Tomlinson tried to battle through a knee injury and made it through only two carries of the 2008 AFC Championship Game. Instead, the Chargers managed to coax a legendary game out of Ekeler, who hit the Patriots for 98 yards as a runner, 74 yards as a receiver, and 48 yards on a touchdown pass to Mike Williams. Rivers threw an early interception before settling down and completing 14 straight passes at one point in the second half.
With Hayward covering Julian Edelman and James taking away Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots were left with a steady stream of throws to James White, only for White to fumble away one completion. Jahleel Addae took the ensuing recovery 47 yards to the house, giving the Chargers a 22-13 lead with nine minutes left. The Patriots fired back with a touchdown pass to Chris Hogan to come within 22-20, and when a seemingly game-sealing first down for the Chargers was called back for offensive pass interference on a pick, it seemed like the Patriots were destined to get the ball back and drive for a winning score. Rivers promptly fired off a dart to Allen to move the chains and push the Chargers into the Super Bowl. Fourteen days later, he was covered in confetti.
Super Bowl comp: 1987 Washington. I don’t necessarily love this comparison, given that it involves midseason replacement players (like quarterback Ed Rubbert) and a Washington team that served as a perennial playoff contender under Joe Gibbs’ stewardship. In terms of on-field performance, though, the 11-4 Washington team that won the Super Bowl is the closest victor to this Chargers team. It spent most of the year with Jay Schroeder as its quarterback before turning things over to Doug Williams, who led the first offense in Super Bowl history to rack up 600 yards in a game. If the Chargers have to turn the reins over to backup Geno Smith, I’m not very confident the former Jets starter will be able to follow in Williams’ footsteps.
The crystal-ball path to a Super Bowl title: Fifteen months ago, Andrew Luck was spending his NFL season in the Netherlands while undergoing rehab for his ailing shoulder. It wasn’t clear whether he would be able to continue his NFL career, let alone whether the former first overall pick would be able to do so at a high level. Luck wasn’t able to collect his Comeback Player of the Year award at the NFL Honors ceremony on Saturday night, and naturally, you get the sense that he has never been so excited to miss out on an awards ceremony.
The following night, Luck claimed a much more exciting piece of hardware: Super Bowl LIII MVP. In a matchup between teams that were a combined 20-2 since the beginning of Week 10, the Cowboys had spent all week swearing to get revenge on a Colts team that shut them out 23-0 in Week 15. The good news is that the Cowboys were not shut out for a second time. The bad news is that they failed to reach the end zone in a 23-9 blowout.
For the second time in two months, Luck and the rest of the Colts revealed themselves to be a bad matchup for Dallas. Indy struggled during the regular season and then again in the postseason against teams with great tight ends, but Blake Jarwin caught two passes for 24 yards before fumbling away a red zone opportunity against Defensive Rookie of the Year snub Darius Leonard. Safety Malik Hooker, the first draft pick of this new regime under general manager Chris Ballard, forced an Ezekiel Elliott fumble just outside the red zone to end another Cowboys drive.
Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus surprised the Cowboys by going away the Tampa 2 looks that frustrated Dak Prescott in the shutout, mixing in the occasional man coverage near the red zone to force Prescott into holding the football. Prescott scrambled to the 3-yard line on the opening drive to set up a first-and-goal opportunity, but after a false start and three plays producing a total of four yards, Jason Garrett kicked a field goal to go up 3-0. It was the only lead the Cowboys held all game.
Luck responded by tormenting Dallas’ talented young linebackers with play-action. While Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are wildly athletic and gifted, the Cowboys were 27th in the league in passer rating allowed on play-fakes this season, and Frank Reich’s game plan made Dallas pay. Luck spent most of the first half working Eric Ebron and a variety of wideouts on dig routes behind the linebackers for chunks of yardage. With the Cowboys worried about T.Y. Hilton getting over the top, Luck was able to steadily march the Colts down the field for 10 first-half points.
While the score was still close at halftime, Indy’s 10-6 lead turned into 17-6 on the first possession of the third quarter. The Colts set up a Hilton double-move for most of the first half before finally launching it on a second-and-1 opportunity. The ensuing 66-yard touchdown gave the Colts a margin of victory they wouldn’t relinquish. Indy’s three-headed hydra of backs eventually wore down Dallas, with Adam Vinatieri kicking a pair of fourth-quarter field goals in his final NFL game. Luck finished with 267 yards passing and two touchdowns as Reich won his second title in two seasons.
As necessary for sixth seeds in the playoffs, Indy’s path to Atlanta was cleared by a series of road upsets. I once wrote about how amazing Luck’s record was in one-score games, and while Indy was 4-3 in those contests during the regular season, Luck pulled out some postseason magic in a series of narrow victories.
Indy battled the division-rival Texans to a 58-58 draw over a pair of regular-season contests, so it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise that their wild-card game went into overtime. Reich famously took some flak in Week 4 for choosing to go for it on a fourth-and-4 on his own side of the field in overtime against the Texans, only to fail and set up Houston’s offense with a game-winning field goal.
Indianapolis and Houston both started the season slow but finished strong as they face off on wild-card weekend.
It also shouldn’t have been a surprise that Reich went for it again, this time on fourth-and-3 at midfield on the first possession of the extra period. Luck converted on a rare designed run, echoing the read-option fourth-down keeper that helped launch Indy’s legendary comeback against the Chiefs in the 2013 postseason. Luck scrambled for 22 yards on the next play, and with the Texans pass rush gassed, he had forever to throw on the ensuing pass attempt before finding Chester Rogers in the end zone for a playoff winner at 27-21.
Luck’s rematch against those same Chiefs came in the next round, but the game played out entirely different. Reich’s offense called for a run-heavy attack to poke holes in a dismal Chiefs ground defense, and Marlon Mack approached 100 yards before halftime. Patrick Mahomes & Co. finished the game with just nine offensive possessions, and while they scored on five of those drives, Kansas City managed to punch only one of their red zone trips past the goal line.
When Mahomes finally broke through and hit Travis Kelce for a 4-yard score to go up 19-17 with five minutes to go, it seemed inevitable that the Colts would respond. Indeed, Luck converted four third downs and bled the clock to 18 seconds before Vinatieri kicked a 43-yarder to send Indy back east for a grudge match against their old fans in the AFC Championship Game. Ravens supporters still understandably have a sore spot for the former Baltimore Colts and were more delighted than a typical playoff victory when they beat the Colts in Luck’s first postseason game.
That win in the wild-card round set off an unlikely run to the Super Bowl, a feat that the Colts echoed by toppling their replacements in Charm City. Indy’s fourth-ranked run defense didn’t allow a quarterback to top 41 rushing yards in a game all season, and while Lamar Jackson is no typical rushing quarterback, Leonard and the defense were up to the task.
Indy produced fumbles on 6.5 percent of defensive possessions this season, the fifth-highest rate in the league, before forcing four Ravens fumbles in the AFC title game. Indy recovered three and took the last one 73 yards in the opposite direction, with veteran Mike Mitchell forcing a Jackson fumble and Kenny Moore returning it to pay dirt. With the Ravens ranking 22nd in DVOA against tight ends in the regular season, Luck was able to find Ebron for one touchdown and Mo Alie-Cox for another, sealing a 21-15 Colts victory. And after tiptoeing through the AFC bracket, Luck and the Colts stomped the Cowboys for the first title of an era that seemed like it might have been lost for good at this time last year.
Super Bowl comp: 2012 Ravens. Again, while Ravens fans might not love being compared to a modern Colts iteration, the same Flacco-led team that beat the Colts at home in the wild-card round was above average on both sides of the ball and slightly better on offense than defense. Those Ravens were 10th in scoring offense, and while the Colts are fifth, the ridiculous performances at the top of the leaderboard mean that Reich & Co. are closer to the Titans in 27th than than they are to the Chiefs in first place.