NFL playoffs confidential: Anonymous intelligence on all 12 teams

To get a feel for what the playoff teams do well, ESPN’s NFL Nation reporters asked a number of players, coaches and team personnel for their anonymous thoughts on each contender. Here’s what they had to say:

NFC:

1. NO | 2. LAR | 3. CHI | 4. DAL | 5. SEA | 6. PHI

AFC:

1. KC | 2. NE | 3. HOU | 4. BAL | 5. LAC | 6. IND

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AFC

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First game: home vs. lowest remaining seed in divisional round (Jan. 12, 4:35 p.m. ET, NBC) | Tickets

Chances to make Super Bowl: 49.3 percent

Do the Chiefs have enough defense to make it to the Super Bowl?

“Yeah. They have a good pass rush. They can stop the run. By the time the playoffs come, especially if they get the bye, they’ll be OK.”

“It will really just depend on the teams that they have to face. They definitely have the talent, especially on the D-line, to definitely cause some trouble. You saw that against [the Rams]. But it really depends upon who they’re going to face.”

Will quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ lack of experience catch up to him in the playoffs?

“Hard to say because there’s been so many great ones that haven’t even got to the Super Bowl. For a second-year player and the way [the Chiefs are] playing, if they keep doing what they do, they should be fine.”

“Anything can happen, but I guess experience does help in the playoffs. But he’s a gunslinger. He’ll hold his own.”

“I wouldn’t say his lack of experience. I would say his wholesomeness of confidence will. In those big games, some of the things that he does, he makes some phenomenal plays. But at the same time, some of those risky plays and those throws that he makes, they’ll come back to bite him.”

Which player should be a bigger priority for opponents to stop in the playoffs: wide receiver Tyreek Hill or tight end Travis Kelce?

“I would say Tyreek because of his special-teams contribution.”

“Travis Kelce because Tyreek is going to get his plays regardless. Travis is their dink-and-dunk guy, so once you stop him and keep the cover on Tyreek, you should be able to stop him.”

“Tyreek Hill because that big play is really … the playoffs is all about momentum, and when you get that momentum swing in a playoff game, especially if you’re home, definitely you have to stop Tyreek Hill and the big play.”


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First game: home vs. second-lowest seed in divisional round (Jan. 13, 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS) | Tickets

Chances to make Super Bowl: 28.5 percent

How much of a matchup problem is tight end Rob Gronkowski, or have those days passed?

“He’s an older player now. But he’s dominant. When he turns it on and gets angry and mean, he’s a matchup problem. There’s not too many guys that are that big — even though he doesn’t kill you with speed — being able to push off, be physical, and the catch radius is just amazing. He’s probably one of the few tight ends in this league that I still respect as a blocker as well. He’ll drive you, throw you around. I’m not sleeping on him, and I would discourage anybody else from sleeping on him as well.”

How much slippage have you noticed with quarterback Tom Brady?

“He’s gotten hit a lot more. He’s not accustomed to that because he’s normally getting the ball out of his hands. Some of the things that are uncharacteristic of him he’s probably done a little more, as far as throwing the ball away or not being as accurate. But I’d also say his receivers, in a lot of cases, have probably dropped some balls. I think it’s more of a team thing right now, and they’re just not operating on that level of eliteness that you’re accustomed to seeing. There’s been a drop-off, numbers-wise. But he’s still putting the ball where it needs to be and on time. He can still spin the thing.”

Where would the Patriots’ offense be without running back James White?

“He’s dynamic. I think that’s why they were probably OK letting Dion Lewis go. Pretty much the same guy — can go out and run routes, can run the ball between the tackles, get outside, great in the screen game. So without him, it would probably be a lot more of a struggle because they are a running back offense first, and then come Edelman and Gronk as secondary looks.”


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First game: home vs. Indianapolis Colts in wild-card round (Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET, ESPN) | Tickets

Chances to make Super Bowl: 6.1 percent

Is quarterback Deshaun Watson the best mobile QB in the league?

“No, but this dude is fast. He extends plays, he’s confident, and he’s poised. The play extension, he’s always looking … he can run, but if his read isn’t there, he won’t always take off.”

“It’s kind of like Marcus [Mariota]. He’ll get out of the pocket and try to extend the play through the air. If he needs to run, he can.”

“He’s a physical player and hard to tackle. There will be three guys hanging on him, and he doesn’t think the journey is over.”

Is pass-rusher J.J. Watt playing at the level he was before his injury?

“Yes. He’s a freak athlete. He’s instinctive, he’s big, he’s long. He’s a very athletic player for being as big as he is. The thing that’s most impressive is the size coupled with the athleticism after the injury. Normally a player who is that athletic isn’t that big. He still poses a lot of problems with the length and athleticism.”

What is it about wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins that makes him hard to cover?

“He can really get off press and be physical when he wants to. Sometimes you have him covered, and he still catches the ball. He has great body control.

“This guy just catches the ball wherever the quarterback puts it. It can be with one hand, two hands. He has the toe drag. He can do it all.”


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First game: home vs. Los Angeles Chargers in wild-card round (Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS) | Tickets

Chances to make Super Bowl: 4.1 percent

Which quarterback gives the Ravens the best chance to win in the playoffs: Joe Flacco or Lamar Jackson?

“Usually I would say Flacco, but at this point, I’m going with Lamar just because they’ve been on a tear with him, and they’re running the ball well.”

“With Flacco, it’s all about the bomb over the top. One of the strongest arms in the NFL, I think. With Flacco, it’s run, run, run, then throw it to a fast guy. With Lamar Jackson, I haven’t seen as much of that, but they just run it.”

What makes linebacker Terrell Suggs so hard to stop?

“He has tremendous physical ability and a drive to continue to play through a long career since ’03. And I think the thing that he probably doesn’t get enough credit for … is how smart he is in understanding football and the opposition. I’ve watched him game after game after game … so I understand how he sees it. When he does things, it makes sense because he’s analyzed and studied the opponent.”

How important has coach John Harbaugh been to the Ravens’ success?

“John has done a really good job of keeping them pointed in the correct direction. … Flacco and John started the same year. Joe became the quarterback John’s first season there, and they’ve done a good job. John has done a great job to keep the defense as strong as it has been throughout. They’ve mixed and matched and plugged in new players, and obviously they’ve had one of the strongest kicking games in the NFL since John’s been there.”


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First game: at Baltimore Ravens in wild-card round (Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS) | Tickets

Chances to make Super Bowl: 8.5 percent

What’s the best way to get quarterback Philip Rivers off his game?

“The best way is pressure him in the middle of the field. Rivers doesn’t like to exit the pocket toward the sideline to make a play. He’s far more comfortable backing up to buy time or to avoid pressure or to climb the pocket and make the throw.”

“Sacks are no guarantee of results — he’s been sacked three or more times in just three games this year, but he has thrown for at least 313 yards in two of the games and was 28-of-29 passing in the other — but he’s a rhythm player, and defenses have to upset his rhythm.”

Is Derwin James already among the elite safeties in the NFL?

“He is, but it’s the old jack of all trades but master of none. You have to be careful with a player like that, but that said, the kid really does it all.”

“I’ve looked at him in five positions in that defense, so you have to be aware of where they’re putting him and why.”

What’s the best way to contain wide receiver Keenan Allen?

“Mike Williams gives them some size. Philip is always going to look at [tight end Antonio] Gates when he needs something on third-and-4, but Keenan is going to be the No. 1 guy if he’s healthy.”

“If your guy tries to put his hands on him and misses, you’re going to have a problem. Get your hands on him, but not every time, give him a little something different to think about, but if you do get physical, don’t miss.”

Is running back Melvin Gordon the most dangerous player on offense for the Chargers?

“All those teams that can throw it are going to be tougher if they can run at your nickel and dime looks, and with Gordon, they can run at your nickel and dime looks, your sub packages, it’s a lighter box, and if an offense can come right at you in that lighter box, it puts you in some tough spots.”

“[Like Allen], he has to be healthy. He’s not the same guy when he’s dinged.”


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First game: at Houston Texans in wild-card round (Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET, ESPN) | Tickets

Chances to make Super Bowl: 3.6 percent

Is quarterback Andrew Luck‘s game better since he came back from the shoulder injury?

“I like Andrew Luck before the injury. He’s still a great quarterback, but I kind of liked that reckless-abandon Andrew Luck, the one where he gets hit and there’s 1,000 people at his feet, and he’s still launching the ball. The O-line has done a great job this year, so I haven’t seen a lot of that, but to me, he’s still a great quarterback. Coming off what he had and been gone two years, he’s throwing the ball [well]. Not too many deep shots with T.Y. [Hilton], but they’re winning games, and I’m pretty sure T.Y. can take a little off of that to get the wins, especially with the year they had last year. I don’t think he fell off or anything like that. I just like the old Andrew Luck.”

Is Quenton Nelson the next great guard?

“I like him a lot. I told him after the first time [they played], ‘I’m going to like this for a long time’ going against him. He’s just a good offensive lineman on his way to being great. He reminds a lot of when [Brandon] Linder got here: good hands, strong, constantly keeps his feet moving. There’s a lot of strong offensive linemen that don’t really move their feet as much as [Nelson] does because they just let their strength do the talking, but he’s a real strong technician. … I saw him hit a couple people. He didn’t hit me like that, but yeah, he’s nasty.”

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NFC

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First game: home vs. lowest remaining seed in divisional round (Jan. 13, 4:40 p.m. ET, Fox) | Tickets

Chances to make Super Bowl: 49.7 percent

Who deserves most of the credit: quarterback Drew Brees or coach Sean Payton?

“It’s definitely Drew Brees. He throws into tight windows. He’s so quick and accurate. It’s crazy.”

“They’ve got an MVP candidate over there in Drew. He’s having a phenomenal season, probably the best season of his career.”

“It’s a combination. I don’t think you can point any one man out or anything like that. They’ve got a great one-two punch.”

Which Saints playmaker causes more problems: running back Alvin Kamara or wide receiver Michael Thomas?

“Alvin Kamara because he has so many different things that he does well. You never know what to expect. His versatility is really a problem. He can do everything — receive, rush — he can do it all.”

“One thing people don’t realize: Alvin, he’s a special-teamer, too. He’s got more to him. Like Antonio Brown, he’s got more to him. He can play in the backfield, slot, returner — he can do it all. He can run routes like a receiver. … He’s cold-blooded [laughs]. He’s cold-blooded. He’s dynamic. He’s one of the better running backs in the league, along with Todd [Gurley], Zeke [Elliott] and those guys. … You’ve gotta cage him up, for real. Cast a net, and just box him, and just close in on him.”

What is the best way to exploit the Saints’ defense?

“I would say that their corners, they ask a lot of [when they blitz]. And I know they made a trade for Eli Apple, and Marshon Lattimore had a good year last year, but if I was to kind of go after them, I would try to go after their cornerbacks. They put them on a lot of islands, one-on-one. I think they’re kind of vulnerable there.”


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First game: home vs. second-lowest seed remaining in divisional round (Jan. 12, 8:15 p.m. ET, Fox) | Tickets

Chances to make Super Bowl: 33.3 percent

Who scares you more: running back Todd Gurley or pass-rusher Aaron Donald?

The unanimous choice here was Donald, though not without plenty of praise for Gurley. The consensus was that Gurley can at least be slowed by stacking the box, while Donald can “split double-teams and destroy single blocks,” and the Rams “can move him around to find favorable matchups.” One player believes Donald is the best defensive tackle of this generation and said his ability to “wreck an entire offensive game plan” is something only a few players in league history have been able to do.

How do you attack the Rams’ defensive front (Donald, Ndamukong Suh and Michael Brockers)?

One player said, “keeping them off-balance and honest by establishing a run game and mixing in play-action” and “avoiding negative plays that lead to long yardage situations.”

Another player said, “Try to get them frustrated early,” and “keep your cool” because it can take them off their game and lead to costly penalties.

Which Rams receiver can do the most damage: Brandin Cooks or Robert Woods?

Responses here were more mixed, with a slight edge to Woods. Woods’ ability to “align and succeed outside the numbers and in the slot” makes him the Rams’ most versatile and dangerous pass-catcher because he can beat opponents in so many ways. Woods’ value has come to light even more with Cooper Kupp out because he has worked more from the slot, which is more of a “featured spot” in the offense. Cooks garnered praise for offering a “noticeable upgrade” over Sammy Watkins from a year ago and for his “home run ability,” but opponents fear Woods because he forces the defense to be “more aware of him at all times.”


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First game: home vs. Philadelphia Eagles in wild-card round (Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, NBC) | Tickets

Chances to make Super Bowl: 7.6 percent

How do you stop pass-rusher Khalil Mack?

“I don’t know if you can stop him. You try to slow him down, obviously, and I think it takes a lot of different people. Obviously, I think a lot of different teams, you can’t just leave it on one person. That’s a tough task for any offensive lineman in this league. Not to take anything away from any offensive linemen in the league, but his skill set, you can’t put it all on one person. You try to help his way as much as you can, whether it’s sliding to him with the guard helping or chipping him on the way out with a tight end or a back and trying to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands.”

Is quarterback Mitchell Trubisky more dangerous as a runner or a passer?

“I’d say a runner. He’s like a running back. When he pulled the ball down, it ain’t like he’s going for a second throw. And he’s going to run, and he can take hits. He’s a big enough running back and to have quarterbacks that can actually throw, and run like him and being in the offense he’s in, he’s very successful. I like him more as a runner.”

“We were more aware, but f—, you’ve seen the game. He threw for 345, 350. It was kind of odd. That first time playing him, the majority of film he’s primarily a runner. If he can’t get his first, second read, he’s going to take off, and when he can’t see that, he turns into a running back. But we played him, 350 yards, he didn’t look like a so-called running back. He’s good as a runner, also as a passer, but I like him as a runner.”

Who scares you the most in Chicago’s offense?

“You ever see [Tarik] Cohen get on the edge? He ain’t the Human Cheetah yet, but he’s a speedster. It’s how they use him. That’s what makes a lot of players like him more dangerous. Like [Darren] Sproles, we’re not only going to use him at running back. We’re going to use him at multiple spots where we know his ability can work. That’s the same thing Chicago uses with Cohen. They’re going to put him in different spots to use him in different ways. That’s what makes him more dangerous. And he can use his speed. Size [Cohen is 5-foot-6, 181 pounds] don’t mean nothing, but his speed makes up for a lot of his size.”


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First game: home vs. Seattle Seahawks in wild-card round (Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, Fox) | Tickets

Chances to make Super Bowl: 3.6 percent

Is Ezekiel Elliott the best all-purpose RB in the game?

“He’s No. 1 in the league in rushing yards. He’s deadly every time he touches the ball out of the backfield. He’s an every-down back, but I’d probably say [Todd] Gurley. He’s more dynamic as a receiver. [Alvin] Kamara is definitely up there, too.”

Who’s more important: quarterback Dak Prescott or running back Ezekiel Elliott?

“Oh, definitely Zeke. But the reason they’ve been able to have that success is both Zeke and Dak, and they added Amari Cooper. It has changed their offense and given them more balance.”

Was Amari Cooper the best trade acquisition this season?

“Oh, absolutely. It changed the trajectory of the Cowboys. It changed how their offense looked. It allowed their defense to play even better. Now they’re scoring and moving the ball. That definitely was the move of the year in the league.”

Is edge rusher DeMarcus Lawrence in the same category as J.J. Watt?

“His skill, talent and ability are just as good as Watt’s. He’s really good. He has great hands, length and ability to bend and get under guys. He has power. He just plays so darn hard. That is what sets them apart.”


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First game: at Dallas Cowboys in wild-card round (Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, Fox) | Tickets

Chances to make Super Bowl: 3.8 percent

How is Seattle’s defense different without safety Earl Thomas and cornerback Richard Sherman?

The biggest difference one veteran said was the Seahawks’ lack of range, both on the field and intellectually. “Those guys are transcendent players, Hall of Famers. Of course, you’re going to see the difference without them in there.”

How does 2018 Russell Wilson compare to previous versions?

“I feel like he wants to pass now. He’ll run, but I think he’s looking to pass. I think he’s developed into more of a well-rounded quarterback. He’s definitely an elite quarterback. He has all those playmaking tools, but now I think you’re seeing him become a better passer, and that’s where the majority of his improvement has come.”

Is Tyler Lockett becoming one of the best young wide receivers in the game?

Lockett is a “very good receiver” one veteran player said, but one of the best young receivers in the NFL? The question made him smile. “I guess, yeah.” But the player also said that when he thinks about top-tier, elite receivers, he thinks of guys bigger than Lockett such as Julio Jones and A.J. Green, so it’s hard for him to wrap his head around a guy Lockett’s size — 5-foot-10, 182 pounds — being “great.” “More so, on the way, I think,” the veteran said.


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First game: at Chicago Bears in wild-card round (Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, NBC) | Tickets

Chances to make Super Bowl: 1.9 percent

Whom do you consider the biggest headache on this offense?

“[Zach] Ertz. Just because they throw the ball to him so much [116 receptions, 1,163 yards, eight TDs], short routes. Alshon [Jeffrey] is a big-time weapon, too, but I feel like they’re always looking for Ertz. He’s a big dude. He’s faster than linebackers, bigger than safeties. You get a tight end like that, flex him out, the quarterback always feels he has a mismatch no matter what. That’s why he gets the ball so much.”

After defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who is the Eagles’ most disruptive player?

“Malcolm Jenkins. Because he can do so many things, you can play him in the box, he can cover tight ends, and you can play him in the slot. And he’s a seasoned guy that knows everything. He definitely disrupts a lot of schemes more so than anything. You look at [Brandon Graham] and [Michael Bennett]. [Graham] is a pass-rushing force off the edge, and [Bennett] is always disruptive. He knows how to get in the gaps and press the pocket. He does it all. He’s like a Swiss army knife when talking about D-linemen. Malcolm would be second behind Cox, but those two guys would be good anywhere they go.”

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