NFL Playoffs Preview: Are Current Division Leaders Super Bowl Contenders or Pretenders?

Quinn Daley

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AFC East: New England Patriots — Contenders

As long as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are together in New England, the Patriots will be talked about in any Super Bowl conversation. After a rough start to the season, the Patriots have been on a roll. The Patriots have won six of their last seven games, and despite a disheartening 34-10 loss to Tennessee in Week 10, the Patriots have every reason to bounce back and should be a lock for the playoffs. Once they get to the playoffs, having a potentially healthy Gronk and plenty of playoff experience will make them a force to be reckoned with in the AFC.

AFC West: Kansas City Chiefs — Pretenders

Patrick Mahomes is having quite the year and plenty of help around him, and the Chiefs have a reliable defense. Unfortunately, I have an odd feeling the Chiefs are going to have a few hiccups come time for the playoffs. Mahomes has never played a playoff game, and Andy Reid has only won one playoff game in his six seasons with Kansas City. The Chiefs are exciting to watch, but their defense still concerns me. As of now, they’re taking care of business, however, and it’ll be interesting to see if their success in the regular season can translate into the playoffs. Getting to the AFC Championship should be achievable, but can they take the next step? 

AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers — Contenders

Pittsburgh has overcome early adversity this season, and they are putting together yet another stellar season. Ben Roethlisberger is on track to throw for over 4500 yards, and the Steelers have barely missed running back Le’Veon Bell. In Bell’s absence, sophomore tailback James Conner has been outstanding. The Pittsburgh defense is still formidable as always, and, oh yeah, they still have the best receiver in the NFL, Antonio Brown. Fans should forget their record and early season struggles because this team is rolling and should carry momentum into the playoffs looking for redemption from an unanticipated exit in last year’s playoffs.

AFC South: Houston Texans — Pretenders

It’s hard to not like Deshaun Watson. It’s also incredibly hard not to like Houston’s terrifying pass rush anchored by Jadeveon Clowney and JJ Watt. This team is surviving this season in a talent-loaded AFC South. The team continued to get better as well with the mid-season acquisition of Demaryius Thomas to bolster a talented wide receiver core that already featured DeAndre Hopkins. Unfortunately, Will Fuller V is on IR, and the team lacks a decent running attack, and teams like the Patriots, Steelers, and Kansas City will be tough to get through come playoff time. Expect an early round exit. 

NFC East: Washington Redskins — Pretenders

Alex Smith just suffered a gruesome leg injury and is out for the season. It’s extremely difficult for teams to achieve success without a competent quarterback. Backup quarterback Colt McCoy might not even be able to get the Redskins to the playoffs, let alone a Super Bowl.

NFC West: Los Angeles Rams — Maybe Contenders

Los Angeles is having a magical season. Excluding a loss in a shootout with New Orleans, the Rams have looked almost unbeatable this season. Todd Gurley and Jared Goff have lit up defenses all season, and the Los Angeles defensive front four consisting of Ndamukong Suh and the NFL’s best defensive lineman, Aaron Donald, is downright scary. Unfortunately, the Rams secondary has looked weak against strong passing offenses. If the Rams want to get past teams like New Orleans or even Chicago, they’re going to have to solve some issues defending the pass.

NFC North: Chicago Bears — Pretenders

Chicago is also having a magical season, but they might still be one season away from making definitive noise in the playoffs. They have all of the pieces in place for a bright future and Coach Matt Nagy is establishing a powerfully positive locker room atmosphere, but players like Mitchell Trubisky, Anthony Miller, and Roquan Smith should take another year to reach elite status. Once their young prospects develop, however, the NFL should watch out for the Bears. They will be a formidable powerhouse for years to come. This season, the Bears have had trouble putting their foot down in the second half against good teams, and this could be exposed by experienced teams in the playoffs.

NFC South: New Orleans Saints — Contenders

New Orleans is the unarguably the best team in the NFL. Drew Brees has been tearing defenses apart, and the Saints’ duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara are arguably the best running back tandem in the league. After a loss to Tampa Bay in Week 1, New Orleans has steamrolled through their schedule, defeating the Rams by 10 and blowing out the Philadelphia Eagles, the defending Super Bowl Champions. If New Orleans can continue to roll, nobody will be able to stop them come playoff time.