NFL Playoffs: Who Is The Ultimate Wildcard in 2020?
Updated: Jan 13
It has all come down to this. Week 17 of the 2020 NFL season has arrived, and for those teams who have ambitions of lifting the Lombardi Trophy on the 7th of February it is literally do or die.
By James Pike.
Everything that has happened before is in the past. It doesn’t matter that you slipped up against a team you should have beaten (we’re looking at you Cleveland!), it doesn’t matter that you have to win while also holding your breath waiting on the other results possibly going in your favour. It doesn’t matter that your entire season could go up in smoke in the blink of an eye. It simply does not matter anymore.
The only thing that matters now is winning and making the playoffs.
Now for some teams they still have the chance to secure the divisional title and give themselves a significant advantage in the first week of the postseason and beyond, but that’s not who we are looking at today. Today we are going to take a look at the teams who are still in the mix courtesy of the wildcard spots. The teams who will have to do things the hard way if they are to have a chance of making it to the Super Bowl.
The idea of wildcard teams has always been fascinating to me, besides being a great way to give fans more games at the most exciting time of the year, it also allows for potential Cinderella stories. One such example is last year’s Tennessee Titans: who went from the 6th seed to the AFC Championship game. Only being undone by the eventual World Champions.
Last year’s Titans were not the first team to find success from the 6th place seeding in the playoffs. Who can forget the 2010 Green Bay Packers, the last team to go from the 6th seed to Super Bowl champions. Aaron Rodgers led his team on a glorious run through the postseason in the winter of 2011, which saw the Cheeseheads vanquish their higher seeded opponents on their road to a Championship.
There is just something special about an underdog story in the NFL and everyone likes to get behind them. Uniting fan bases which have been feuding with each other throughout the season. It’s in our human nature to get behind a team fighting against the odds, furthermore it always adds that extra level of excitement especially when (like me) your team won’t be participating.
This year, there are plenty of teams which have the potential to cause an upset or two in the playoffs, but which team has the best chance? Which team’s glass slipper is a perfect fit, and which team is the ugly stepsister of the group? Let’s take a look at the teams currently occupying the Wildcard spots and break down which of those teams will be the team to watch in the postseason.
Honourable Mention: Washington Football Team, Dallas Cowboys or New York Giants
It would be completely irresponsible of me to talk about a team being the ultimate underdog in the playoffs without talking about the potential winners of the NFC East.
Despite being easily the worst division in all of football this year, the NFC East has easily one of the most exciting finishes to the season. With three teams still in the mix to make the playoffs, there is all to play for between Dallas, NY and Washington. Now technically speaking the team who comes out on top Sunday would be the fourth seed in the NFC going into the playoffs, however I think we can all agree whichever team will be representing the East will be the least favoured team to progress to the Super Bowl in the NFC. However; just how incredible would it be if one of these three teams were able to go on a deep postseason run?
In my opinion the Dallas Cowboys have probably the best chance at making an impact in the NFC side of the bracket. In recent weeks the Dallas defense has really started to step things up. Granted; they haven’t exactly beaten the best of competition, but to bounce back from being pretty much out of the running to having a chance at the playoffs is a testament to their mental toughness. This coming from a team who lost their star quarterback way back in week 5 of the season.
Washington has played some good football under Alex Smith since his comeback from his horror injury, and the Giants have surprised people at times this season, but ultimately, I do believe that the Cowboys do have the best chance to succeed in the postseason if they were to secure a place on Sunday. Their offense can be explosive with the likes of Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb. Andy Dalton might be the best quarterback in the division (with the exception of the stricken Dak Prescott) and they do have playmakers on the defensive side of the football (Demarcus Lawrence and Leighton Vander Esch) who could potentially have a huge impact on games.
The NFC East has certainly been the least when it comes to playing winning football this season, but when it comes to the playoffs, anything could happen. As unlikely as it would seem could we see a member of the East representing the NFC in the Super Bowl in February?
6. Chicago Bears
As unlikely as it would have seemed just a few short weeks ago, the Chicago Bears have stumbled their way into a wildcard spot in the NFC, in large part due to the play of Mitchell Trubisky. Since being reinstated as the starter in week 12, the fourth-year quarterback has been playing solid football for the Bears, especially in the past three weeks. In games against the Vikings, Texans and Jaguars respectively he has thrown six touchdown passes to just two interceptions. More importantly the offense has looked a whole lot better since his reinstatement.
They have finally been able to move the ball up and down the field which has allowed their outstanding defense the opportunity to get some well needed rest during those games. This is the recipe for Chicago’s success going forward. The offense has to be able to make plays to give them any kind of a chance in the postseason. If they are to have any hope of knocking off some of the big boys in January, they have to be able to put points on the board, and that is a whole lot more likely with Trubisky under center.
Another encouraging sign for Bears fans is the emergence of second year running back David Montgomery in recent weeks. During the final stretch, Montgomery’s play has improved dramatically which has helped add another dimension to Chicago’s offense. Being able to run the ball well is key to success when the temperature plummets in January, so seeing the former Iowa State star rip off 529 yards and six touchdowns for an average of 6.5 yards a carry must be delightful to Matt Nagy and the rest of the Bears coaching staff. Now we will see if he can continue his fine form this week against the Packers in a crucial week 17 showdown at Soldier Field.
If the Bears can run the ball well, and Trubisky can keep the passing game ticking over, then Chicago will be a tough out for virtually anyone in the Playoffs. However, the reason why I have them as the lowest ranked of the Wildcard teams is because I simply do not trust for that to happen. Trubisky has never been able to keep up this kind of consistency throughout his NFL Career so far and relying on him to make plays in big games is just too risky. It’s not that he isn’t capable as the talent has always been there. I just simply cannot trust his decision making.
Montgomery is also someone who I find hard to believe in when the going gets tough. Despite playing the best football of his young career in recent weeks, it hasn’t exactly been against the stiffest competition. Do you trust Monty enough to put the team on his back on the road in the Superdome if they face the second seed New Orleans Saints in the first round?
The Bears defense is legit, I think everyone can agree with that. However, there are just far too many question marks for this team to take them seriously as a threat when win or go home football starts. I do have my doubts as to whether or not Chicago will even make the playoffs, as you simply cannot look at their aforementioned clash with the Packers and confidently chalk in a W, but if they are able to sneak their way into the postseason do you want to pin your hopes on a quarterback who has been nothing if not inconsistent his entire career?
I don’t – and that is why I have the Bears as the lowest ranked team of the wildcards so far.
5. Los Angeles Rams
Just a few short days ago, the L.A. Rams were on top of the world. They held the top spot in the NFC West and were well on their way to securing a division title and were still in the running for a potential bye in the first round of the playoffs. How times have changed.
A humiliating defeat at the hands of the New York Jets was followed by a gut-wrenching loss to rival Seattle Seahawks in a game that handed Pete Carroll’s men the division title. This Rams team doesn’t seem to be able to get the job done when it matters the most. A couple of years ago when this team represented the NFC in the Super Bowl it was the same story, as they completely stalled against the Patriots in a defensive battle in the Mercedes Benz Stadium. Despite New England not being able to get anything going on the offensive side of the ball, L.A. were unable to capitalize which led to one of the most dull Super Bowls in recent memory.
It seems as though the same issues that plagued the Rams during that game are still lingering within their locker room today, despite new talent coming in since then. One position has remained the same however, and he is the biggest reason why I don’t trust L.A. going into the playoffs. Jared Goff.
The 26-year-old signal caller has been a rather polarizing player his entire career. There doesn’t seem to be much of a middle ground to his play, as oftentimes he is either a world beater or he beats his own team with his sloppy play. From week to week, you don’t know which Goff is going to show up, and ultimately, he is holding this team back in my opinion.
Their defense is as legit as they come, with playmakers at every level. This team arguably has two of the top five most dominant defensive players in the league on their roster. Jalen Ramsey can lock down basically any wide receiver in the league and has seemingly this season recaptured his All-Pro form from a couple of seasons ago. Then there is Aaron Donald: the single most disruptive defensive line player in the NFL. Those two players alone help make this defence a harrowing prospect to go up against for opposing teams.
They are also loaded with weapons on the offensive side of the ball as well. Their running back committee has been productive all season even with the lack of a standout performer in the group. Darrell Henderson proved to be the closest thing to a three down back this team has on the roster but is now a doubt for the playoffs as he is suffering with a high ankle sprain.
The Rams receiving corps is among one of the most talented in the league as well. The one, two punch of Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods was joined by the emerging Josh Reynolds in 2020 to form a three headed monster out wide. Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett are also incredibly talented tight ends who can provide Goff with reliable safety blankets when all the receivers are covered. All in all, the Los Angeles Rams have talent across the board, but their problems all come back to one thing: Goff’s inconsistent play.
Even though the 2020 season wasn’t a make-or-break kind of situation for the fifth-year quarterback, there will soon be rumblings among league circles as to whether or not he is the answer at the sport’s most important position if this team doesn't reach its Super Bowl potential again soon. That is why I can’t see the LA Rams causing any major upsets in the playoffs, if they even make it there, that is.
4. Miami Dolphins
This pains me, as the Miami Dolphins are arguably the most exciting team potentially making a run in the entire playoff series. They have been one of the absolute best teams to watch grow throughout the 2020 NFL season. Furthermore, seeing where this team was just a couple of seasons compared to now is a staggering improvement. However once again it is question marks at the quarterback position which sees this team as an outside hope to upset the odds in the playoffs.
Tua Tagovailoa has shown flashes of his immense potential during his debut campaign. His impressive performances against the likes of the Cardinals, Chargers and Chiefs showed off his impressive accuracy and decision making, which are extremely rare traits to have for a player in his first season. Despite question marks about whether or not he will succeed in the NFL hanging over his head before the season began, Tua has been able to silence many of his critics throughout his rookie season in the NFL. However, everything hasn’t been smooth sailing for the former Bama mega star.
In some games Tua hasn’t been able to get anything going on offense. Such as his debut against the aforementioned Rams or in his last outing against the Raiders. He also came out of the game on two of those occasions replaced by loveable rogue Ryan Fitzpatrick. Struggles at the quarterback position are the last thing that a team needs going into the postseason, and if Tua struggles to find his rhythm early in games then this team could struggle.
Thankfully for the Miami Dolphins they are blessed with one of the best defensive units in the league. They can be undone by a strong running game, as they have been in the bottom half of the league for much of the year at stopping the run. It is their elite ability at stopping the pass which has led to their success.
Xavien Howard has become one of the league premier shutdown corners, and Byron Jones on the opposing side of the field is no slouch either. They are in the top ten for sacks, with the likes of Kyle Van Noy and Emmanuel Ogbah leading the way in that department and they have allowed the second fewest touchdowns all season long.
Miami can stop other teams from getting into the endzone, which is crucial if they are able to succeed when knockout football begins next week, but if this team is to truly contend this season, their offense needs to be able to get the job done.
Luckily, they do have plenty of weapons they can rely on in the playoffs. Second year back Miles Gaskin has been a revelation out of the back field this season and has cemented himself as the team’s lead option. Devante Parker, Jakeem Grant and Albert Wilson provide plenty of options out wide, and Mike Gesicki continues to prove he is one of the absolute best pass-catching tight ends in all of football.
If this team can get the ball to its weapons, then they will be a threat in January, but that all comes back to the quarterback position and whether or not they can get the type of production necessary to advance through the playoff gauntlet. The reason I have the Fins ranked higher than both the Bears and Rams is because I trust Tua’s decision making more than Goff and Trubisky even at this very early stage in his career. I also know that if all else fails Miami can turn to Fitzmagic if things get rough.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is the ultimate wildcard player (which is kind of fitting for this article), as well as being one of the most popular players in the league Fitz is arguably one of the best when he is on his game. If he can get some momentum and chemistry with his receivers early, he can turn the tide of the game in the Dolphins favour in an instant. However, if he is having one of his trademark “off days” then he can cost this team their chance of winning in the span of just a couple drives. This is concerning for a team which is already so young and simply doesn’t have the playoff experience of others around them. It also makes Miami one of the most exciting teams to watch. Will they be able to overcome the odds, or will their season unravel around them?
3. Cleveland Browns
Surprise, surprise. Another team with a question mark at quarterback doesn't make it into the top two on our list. For many this list is quite interchangeable at this point, but I cannot put Cleveland ahead of the other two for one reason: Baker Mayfield.
The former number one overall pick is simply too inconsistent for me to put the Browns any further up this list. Granted, Mayfield has played well at times this season, but this is indicative of how his entire career has been so far up until this point. When he is hot, there are few teams in the league that can keep up with the Browns and their electric offense. When Baker is cold, then this team is a sitting duck capable of losing to anyone any given Sunday.
All one has to do to confirm this notion is look at this past week’s performance against the bottom feeding New York Jets. In fairness to the Browns, almost their entire receiving corps were side-lined due to COVID restrictions, but this is still no excuse for their woeful performance against a team who are actively trying to lose games. The Browns went from a potential division title showdown to a fight for playoff survival against the Steelers this week, and they only have themselves to blame.
Cleveland does have a lot going for them though. They have one of the best ground games in the entire league. Their two headed monster out of the backfield in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt has been their biggest strength all season long as they have been able to effectively move the ball against anyone during the 2020 season.
Chubb in particular has established himself as one of the best running backs in the league while Hunt is a fantastic change of pace they can turn to on third down. Jarvis Landry leads a receiver group which has been much improved (ironically) since Odell Beckham went down with a season ending injury. Austin Hooper is a reliable target for Mayfield who can make a crucial grab when his team needs it the most.
So, this team has firepower on the offensive side of the ball, however it is their defense which is truly their greatest asset. There hasn’t been anything inconsistent about the play of Myles Garrett this year, as he has developed into one of the most unstoppable defensive line players in all of football. Sophomore corner Denzel Ward is also establishing himself as a future lockdown corner who can sure up one side of the field for this defense. This team has taken huge strides forward this year mostly thanks to their dominant defense.
The recipe for success for this team is a simple one. Run the ball well, and play great defense, and if they can do that then they will give themselves a chance in any game during the postseason. At some point, however, they will find themselves in a position where Baker Mayfield has to put the team on his back and carry them down the field for a victory. I just don’t trust the third year quarterback enough to get the job down when the stakes are high. If Baker can figure it all out in the off season, then this team will be a force for years to come, but if he can’t then expect a lot of first round exits in the Cleveland Browns’ future.
2. Baltimore Ravens
At the start of the season, it would have been crazy for anyone to state that the Ravens would find themselves in a position where they had to win on the last game of the season to secure a wildcard spot. Baltimore had the league’s easiest record going off of strength of schedule from last season, and they had the league MVP coming off one of the craziest seasons in recent memory leading them. How times have changed.
The Ravens have been one of the league’s biggest disappointments in 2020, which is strange to say for a team who are on pace to win 11 games this year. However, before a single game was played there were some who believed that this team could genuinely go the entire season undefeated. In reality that was never going to happen, as this team does have some glaring weaknesses that others have been able to take advantage of.
For starters, we should have expected there to be a slight hangover from Lamar’s MVP campaign. It was unreasonable for us to expect the same kind of unprecedented dominance from a player in just his third season in the league. At times during the season Jackson has struggled to throw the ball on teams, and it has cost the Ravens dearly on more than one occasion.
Teams have been taking away the inside of the field, by stacking as many defenders as possible in Jackson’s favourite zone forcing the Ravens to sling it to the outside and for their wide receivers to make a play. Despite the talents of second year star Marquise (Hollywood) Brown, the Ravens’ biggest weakness on offense is their receiving corps, which ultimately has been their undoing on more than one occasion so far this season.
The Ravens have also been their own worst enemy throughout the 2020 campaign as well, as they have been hit harder than most by the coronavirus pandemic. At various points throughout the season, the entire Ravens locker room has been plagued by COVID, and it almost caused the league to forfeit a game on their behalf earlier in the season. Fundamentally something has gone wrong with the team's COVID protocols for them to have been hit so badly so far this season. Especially when you consider that there are teams in the league that have yet to report a single outbreak (touch wood) during the season.
All has not been bad for Baltimore however, as this team has still put themselves in a position to advance to the postseason once again. Despite their inconsistency as a whole this year; the Ravens are still extremely dangerous on their day.
Unsurprisingly they lead the league in rushing through their running back committee and Lamar. Baltimore has found a way to run the ball on practically everyone so far this year. They have done it against the Steelers and their vaunted defense. They put fellow wildcard hopefuls the Indianapolis Colts to the sword earlier in the season due in large part to this team’s ability to run the ball down the throat of the opposition. They do not care how good you are at stuffing the box, the Ravens game plan is built around their ability to run the ball.
Their defense has also been great once again in 2020. They are in the top half of the league in sacks once again, with the addition of Yannick Ngakoue providing this team with more weapons on the defensive line. Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphries are possibly the best corner tandem in the league, and rookie linebacker Patrick Queen has fit in nicely alongside star Matthew Judon at the second level. This team can shut down running games, while relying on their secondary to get turnovers and providing them with extra possessions which this offense needs to be successful.
Just a couple weeks ago the Ravens were limping their way towards the playoffs, however a light schedule of games in the run-in has seen them find their feet once more. More importantly: Lamar Jackson seems to be heating up at the perfect time, as his recent play has been fantastic. He is making plays both on the ground and through the air during this hot stretch and an in-form Jackson is bad news for any team that draws the Ravens in the postseason.
If Lamar’s streak of excellent performances can continue, and the defense can find ways to stop opposition in their tracks then Baltimore will be an incredibly tough out for anyone in the playoffs.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
If you thought that any other team was going to be occupying the top spot on this list other than the one led by a first ballot hall of fame quarterback, then you truly haven’t been paying attention these past 20 years. Tom Brady and the Bucs will represent the toughest challenge to the team unfortunate enough to win the NFC East, and this means that they are our obvious choice as the ultimate wildcard.
But don’t be fooled: this team has its fair share of question marks going into the postseason. One of those is the play of Brady which is crazy to think about considering his GOAT status. However, it hasn’t been plain sailing for the six-time Super Bowl champion.
We all know Brady is a master at moving the ball down the field and positioning his receivers in the perfect spot to make a play on the ball, but throughout the 2020 season he has struggled to make big plays down the field. This is to be expected from a 42-year-old who is no longer the spring chicken he once was, but when you have a player the likes of Mike Evans out wide, it seriously hinders his impact on games.
Evans thrives as this team’s big play wide receiver, and Brady’s inability to throw the ball deep has hampered Evans’ production in his seventh season in the league. With just one game to go, his streak of consecutive 1,000-yard seasons is at risk of coming to an end, and this is due in large part to Brady’s lack of a consistent deep ball.
In previous years Evans didn’t have to worry about being able to make plays down the field as risk taking Jameis Winston was partial to a deep ball, but TB12’s more cautious approach has meant Evans has had to adapt and find new ways to be productive. He is now the team’s premier red zone threat, as he is often Tom's first option when the team is down by the goal line.
Chris Godwin has also been hampered this season as well. Injuries have slowed down last year’s breakout star, but he is having to share those underneath targets he feasted on last season with another first ballot Hall of Famer in the returning Rob Gronkowski. Godwin has had a down year, but expect him to play a key role for this team during the playoffs as Brady is a master at exploiting teams over the middle.
The Bucs were able to further bolster their offense when they added controversial veteran Antonio Brown once his suspension was up after week 8. All this has led to Tampa on paper having one of the most terrifying offenses in the entire league. However, it isn’t just their offense which is a scary prospect to face.
Their run defence is by far the stingiest in the entire league, as they make it almost impossible to move the ball on the ground on them. Devin White is having an All-Pro level sophomore season as he has well and truly established himself as one of the league’s best defenders, although could miss the wildcard round due to being placed on the COVID list on Friday.
Lavonte David, Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul provide the supporting cast for one of the best linebacking corps in the league. Impressive rookie Antione Winfield Jr has also shored up the secondary which has helped this team force 15 interceptions, tied for fifth best in the NFL this season. Todd Bowles has transformed this defense into an absolute force to be reckoned with, and they can absolutely keep this squad in any ball game when knockout football begins.
There have been some incredibly head scratching losses for this team this season. A week 5 loss to the Bears raised a few eyebrows, as did their humiliating home defeat to rivals the New Orleans Saints in week 9. Defeats like this during the regular season do not bode well for a team with Super Bowl aspirations, but if watching football for the last 20 years has taught me anything, it’s that you should absolutely never write off Tom Brady during the playoffs.
How many times have we seen Brady mercilessly pick apart opponents and lead his team to the promised land? More than any other player in the history of the sport; and doubting his ability to once again find that extra gear when the playoffs begin is the biggest mistake any team could make. That is why, I believe that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the ultimate wildcard in this year’s playoffs. Underestimate the GOAT at your own peril.