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NFL playoffs first look: What to like, dislike about 12 teams playing on Super Wild Card Weekend

The NFL's longest regular season ever is officially over. We know which 14 teams are worthy of a postseason appearance after 17 games, and there's little question that this year has been wildly unpredictable. Even the final week gave us a few surprises. The Colts played their way out of the playoffs, the Steelers somehow managed to play their way in and the Raiders survived an instant overtime classic with the Chargers on Sunday Night Football.

The top seed in the NFC, the Green Bay Packers (13-4), didn't know if their star quarterback would be playing for them as recently as six months ago. The top seed in the AFC, the Tennessee Titans (12-5), lost All-Pro running back Derrick Henry for half the season, played without star receivers A.J. Brown and Julio Jones for a combined 11 games, and have endured a litany of other injuries across their roster. Hell, half the teams in these playoffs watched the postseason one year ago. The obvious takeaway from all this craziness:

Anybody could end up winning this year's Super Bowl.

Even though "The First Read" has been dedicated to looking ahead all year, we're not going to peer too far down the road at this moment. Instead, we'll operate in baby steps. This week, the focus will be on how Super Wild Card Weekend will shake out -- how each team looks heading into it and who's going to survive to play the following weekend. So away we go ...


Kansas City Chiefs

What's to like: The Chiefs have the most balance of any team in the AFC heading into the playoffs. The offense has come back to life, with Patrick Mahomes playing more patiently in the pocket and being willing to drive the football down the field instead of relying too much on deep shots. The defense was a key factor in an eight-game win streak, with the pass rush dominating behind Pro Bowl tackle Chris Jones. The Chiefs also know how to win at this time of year. Aside from last year's Super Bowl, they've only lost one postseason game since Mahomes became the starter.

What's not to like: The Chiefs' defense has been declining. The Bengals exposed some flaws in that unit in Week 17 -- with Joe Burrow throwing for 446 yards and Ja'Marr Chase amassing 266 receiving yards -- and Drew Lock nearly led the Broncos to an upset in the regular-season finale. The Chiefs also played that Denver game with a hobbled Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce limping off with what was reported as a minor injury in the last minutes.

Bottom line: The Chiefs have never played in on Wild Card Weekend since Mahomes became the full-time starter, but it shouldn't matter. They throttled Pittsburgh a few weeks ago. They'll do it again on Sunday.

Buffalo Bills

What's to like: The Bills have quietly impressed over the past few weeks, going back to a loss to Tampa Bay. They trailed by 21 at halftime of that game, then rallied before losing in overtime. Buffalo has won four straight since that point. The obvious key is Pro Bowl quarterback Josh Allen. When he's hot, he looks like he can carry this team all the way to the Super Bowl. The Bills have given him more support on the ground of late -- they've had over 100 rushing yards in each game during that win streak, including 170 against the Jets on Sunday -- and the defense remains a top-three unit. Oh, the Bills also still remember the sting of losing in last year's AFC title game.

What's not to like: Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll can lean too much on Allen at times and ignore the run. That often works against lesser opponents, but Allen can get reckless when he tries to do too much. The defense had looked soft in losses to more physical teams -- like the Titans, Colts and Patriots -- but Buffalo changed that perception with a convincing win over New England in their rematch. The Bills also finished the year without Pro Bowl cornerback Tre'Davious White, who was lost to a season-ending knee injury.

Bottom line: The Bills have endured their ups and downs but they're rounding into form. They've already beaten the Patriots in a rematch. They'll take them again in Saturday night's game.

Cincinnati Bengals

What's to like: The Bengals have the best set of offensive skill players in the league. They've got Joe Burrow, Ja'Marr Chase, Joe Mixon and three other talented pass catchers in wide receivers Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins and tight end C.J. Uzomah. That's more than enough firepower to create issues for any opponent in this postseason. That win over the Chiefs in Week 17 also gave Cincinnati plenty of confidence at the right time. If the Bengals can earn a tough victory over the two-time defending AFC champs in January, they can beat anybody.

What's not to like: The offensive line has given up more sacks than any team in the playoffs (55). The Bengals have a habit of starting slowly, too, as they trailed Kansas City by 14 in the first half of that aforementioned win. Then there's the pass defense. If Pro Bowl defensive end Trey Hendrickson and his pals up front aren't pressuring the quarterback, the Bengals' secondary can be had. Cincinnati ranks 28th in the NFL in passing yards allowed.

Bottom line: The Bengals have the right mix of youth, talent and confidence. They're young enough to not be scared by the postseason, but inexperienced enough to make critical mistakes in big moments. It also helps that they'll see the Raiders on Super Wild Card Weekend. Cincy has too much firepower for the Las Vegas defense.

Las Vegas Raiders

What's to like: There isn't a team in the league that's dealt with more adversity than the Raiders. Their head coach, Jon Gruden, resigned in October after reports detailed his use of racist, homophobic and misogynistic terms in emails dating back to 2010. Their best deep threat, Henry Ruggs III, was charged with DUI resulting in death and subsequently released at midseason. This team also was 6-7 on Dec. 12 after suffering a 48-9 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Despite all those problems, the Raiders soldiered on and continually told skeptics they weren't going to fall apart late in the year once again. This team has its share of flaws, but it's riding a four-game win streak. Las Vegas got the job done to advance to the postseason.

What's not to like: The Raiders' offense has been up and down all year, especially since the team released Ruggs. Las Vegas actually had scored just 80 points total in the five games prior to its win over the Chargers. The defense has been even more inconsistent. That bunch ranks 26th in the league in points allowed.


Bottom Line: Las Vegas been written off numerous times this season and it pulled off a win in an amazing finale against the Chargers. But that's where this story ends. The Bengals are the better team.

New England Patriots

What's to like: Patriots head coach Bill Belichick went on a massive shopping spree in the offseason and the defense was the major beneficiary of that approach. New England has the league's No. 2 scoring defense, and that unit has playmakers at every level. The success of the defense has been a major factor in the first-year prosperity of rookie quarterback Mac Jones. The Patriots haven't had to ask him to carry the team and he's responded by playing like a sage veteran throughout most of the season. There is no mystery to what Belichick wants to do: pound the football, avoid errors and let his defense dictate the outcome.

What's not to like: The shine around the Patriots definitely has evaporated in recent weeks. They had been on a seven-game winning streak until the Colts beat them while rushing for 226 yards. Then Buffalo exacted its revenge, with Josh Allen producing the kind of stat line you rarely see against a Belichick defense (314 passing yards, 64 rushing yards, three touchdowns and no turnovers). The Dolphins dealt the most recent blow, handing New England a 33-24 loss on Sunday. The Patriots have allowed 93 points in their last three defeats.

Bottom Line: New England is trending in the wrong direction. Aside from a 50-10 beatdown of Jacksonville in Week 17, there hasn't been much for the Patriots to smile about of late. They also have reached the point in the season where they'll need more from Jones. It doesn't look like he's ready to meet the challenge in the team's third meeting against Buffalo.

Pittsburgh Steelers

What's to like: The Steelers didn't give up. There have been countless times throughout the course of this season when they could've packed it in, and yet here they stand. Some of that is simple pride. But the Steelers do have some talent. Outside linebacker T.J. Watt just tied the league record for sacks in a season with 22.5. Najee Harris has enjoyed an impressive rookie campaign, with 1,200 rushing yards and 74 receptions. Then there's the karma factor. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is expected to call it a career after this season, so there should be ample inspiration for the team.

What's not to like: Where to start with this bunch? Roethlisberger has been a shadow of himself. The offensive line has been unreliable and the defense has disappeared too frequently. Pittsburgh actually has given up more points than it's scored this season. That tells you all you really need to know.

Bottom Line: The Steelers trailed 30-0 when they faced Kansas City in Week 16 and wound up losing by 26. It probably won't be that close this time.


Tampa Bay Buccaneers

What's to like: The Bucs have the greatest quarterback in NFL history in Tom Brady. He is leading a team that won the Super Bowl last season and still has several key components from that winning group. The offense and defense both rank in the top 10 in the league in scoring, and the Bucs have won seven of their last eight games. This team was built to repeat. This is the time of year it's been waiting for.

What's not to like: The supporting cast around Brady has changed significantly in the past few weeks. The Bucs lost wide receiver Chris Godwin to a season-ending knee injury. Running back Leonard Fournette, a huge factor in last year's championship run, is nursing a hamstring injury. Wide receiver Antonio Brown is gone after melting down during a win over the New York Jets. This offense will have to lean more on players Brady hasn't been forced to trust as much in big moments, while the defense has to regain the dominance it displayed in last year's postseason.

Bottom line: The Bucs have a few issues to deal with right now. Those problems won't keep them from advancing past Philadelphia in the wild-card round.

Dallas Cowboys

What's to like: That defense. The Cowboys lead the league in takeaways (34) and interceptions (26), and they have playmakers all over the field, including rookie linebacker Micah Parsons and second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs. That unit has allowed an average of just 18 points over the Cowboys' last six games, five of which ended in victory. If Dallas goes on a run, this is the side of the ball that will lead the way.

What's not to like: For a team that produced the league's best offense -- Dallas ranks first in scoring and total yards -- there sure are a lot of questions with this bunch. The running game isn't as productive as it once was, thanks to injuries to Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. Wide receiver Amari Cooper has produced an underwhelming season while another wideout, Michael Gallup, just went down with a season-ending knee injury. Quarterback Dak Prescott also hasn't regained the same consistency he displayed before sustaining a calf injury earlier this year. 

Bottom line: The Cowboys may have scored 50 points twice over the past month -- against Washington and Philadelphia -- but those efforts are misleading. The Football Team was imploding, while the Eagles approached the season finale like it was a preseason affair. That said, Dallas should be able to handle the 49ers in a wild-card game.

Los Angeles Rams

What's to like: The Rams have thrown everything possible into making a postseason run. They traded for quarterback Matthew Stafford in the offseason, linebacker Von Miller at the trade deadline and then signed wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. after Cleveland released him. However, this team isn't solely about the biggest names. Wide receiver Cooper Kupp produced a record-setting year while the running back position -- with the emergence of Sony Michel and the return of Cam Akers -- is as strong as it's been all season. This team also had been riding a five-game win streak before losing to San Francisco on Sunday.

What's not to like: The Rams tend to struggle when teams want to push them around. That's been a constant theme in some of their toughest losses, and the 49ers clearly have their number. The Rams blew a 17-point lead in their season-ending defeat to San Francisco, giving the 49ers a season sweep. Stafford also needs to find more consistency. He's had six games this season when he's committed at least two turnovers, and his interception sealed the Rams' fate in overtime on Sunday. By the way, that loss dropped the Rams from the No. 2 seed down to this slot.

Bottom line: Rams head coach Sean McVay said the story was still being written on his team when the Rams were mired in a three-game losing streak earlier this year. That narrative feels a lot better these days, even though Los Angeles backed into the NFC West title. The Rams split with Arizona this year, but L.A. is the safer bet these days.

Arizona Cardinals

What’s to like: Arizona has enjoyed its share of success this season, finishing with double-digit wins despite dealing with injuries to several star players. This team started the year with seven straight victories and then managed to take two of three games when quarterback Kyler Murray was sidelined with an ankle injury. The Cardinals also earned a huge win at Dallas in Week 16 that clinched a playoff spot and ended a three-game losing streak. As exciting as Arizona can be when it’s rolling on offense -- and Murray is one of the league’s most electric performers -- it’s that resilience that will determine how far they go in the postseason.

What’s not to like: The Cardinals produced a major dud in their season-ending loss to a Seattle team that had nothing to play for. The same run-defense issues that seemingly had been solved against Dallas reappeared against the Seahawks, as Rashaad Penny ran for 190 yards at 8.3 yards per rush. If the Cards can’t tackle more consistently, it’s going to be a rough road for them. The offense already hasn’t been as impressive with star receiver DeAndre Hopkins out with a knee injury. This team also has endured some mystifying losses, including blowouts to bottom-dwellers like Carolina and Detroit. The Cardinals looked like they were coming alive in that win over Dallas. They need to rediscover that magic in a hurry.

Bottom line: The Cardinals are easily the hardest team to decipher at this point in the season. They were the best team in the league at one point, and then they had the look of a team careening toward a meltdown. Their home loss to the floundering Seahawks doesn’t bode well, especially with a division title on the line. The Rams simply look more prepared for the postseason right now.

San Francisco 49ers

What’s to like:The 49ers were playing in the Super Bowl just two years ago. There are plenty of players from that team still on this roster, and they’re quite aware of what it takes to reach that ultimate stage. Some of those players -- like wide receiver Deebo Samuel and tight end George Kittle -- are at their best in high-pressure situations. Sunday’s win over the Rams was yet another example of that. The 49ers fell behind by 17 points and then rallied to victory in overtime.

What’s not to like: Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is dealing with an injured thumb on his throwing hand. That didn’t stop him from making some huge plays against the Rams, but it’s hard to see this team advancing if rookie Trey Lance is pressed into emergency duty. The 49ers also played their season finale without injured Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams (elbow), who needs to be healthy for this offense to be at its best. San Francisco deserves credit for willing themselves into the postseason after a slow start. But this isn’t a late-blooming juggernaut, either.

Bottom line: The 49ers have some qualities that could make them scary in a one-game scenario. The problem is the Cowboys have the kind of opportunistic defense that should fluster Garoppolo.

Philadelphia Eagles

What’s to like: No team runs the football better than the Eagles. They morphed into a ground-and-pound attack out of necessity -- they were 2-5 at one point -- and they’ve taken off ever since. Currently, the Eagles rank first in the league in rushing. They’ve also won seven of their last 10 games, with that season-ending loss to Dallas basically being a giveaway. The Eagles aren’t pretty by any stretch. However, they know who they are and how they have to play to win games. That means plenty at this time of year.

What’s not to like: Quarterback Jalen Hurts is battling an ankle injury. The Eagles didn’t need to risk him playing in that loss to Dallas, but they’ll need him as close to 100 percent as possible for the Super Wild Card Round. Hurts still has to answer a lot of questions about whether he’s this team’s long-term answer at quarterback. The reality is he’s their best short-term hope of navigating through the playoffs. If he’s still gimpy this week, Philadelphia’s fun ends in a hurry.

Bottom line: Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni did an impressive job of remaking this team on the fly. Too bad it won’t be enough to get Philly past the defending champion Bucs.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.

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