And so here we are 256 games later. We know who the 12 teams are in the 2019 NFL playoffs. We also know Super Bowl LIV will be held in Miami. What we don’t know is the inside scoop on what makes each playoff team so good from the people who know best.
So ESPN’s NFL Nation reporters asked a number of players, coaches and team personnel for their anonymous thoughts on each contender. ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) also provides such chances for every playoff-bound team to make the Super Bowl.
First game: vs. lowest remaining seed in divisional round (8:15 p.m. ET, Jan. 11, CBS) | Tickets
Chances to win Super Bowl: 35.5%
What’s more important: stopping quarterback Lamar Jackson as a runner or passer?
“That’s why he’s the MVP, because you can’t really pick. If you’re able to take him out of the run game, or if you get the ball out of his hands in the run game, they’ve still got good schematics and good running backs that can make you pay if you’re out of your gaps. But then he can throw the ball down the field and they utilize their tight ends very well, and they’re dangerous. It’s hard to stop him because even in the pass game, he’s still a runner. So it’s pick your poison.”
Given that Baltimore leads the NFL in blitzing, how can an offense take advantage of that?
“Going up-tempo can limit their ability to get certain calls in and make them shy away from blitzing as much, especially if you’re successful with it and moving it. Also, you’ve got to get the ball out quick toward to the perimeter of the blitz side, and make their secondary guys tackle in space, which they struggle to do.”
“It’s Mark Andrews, but it’s also just a combination of all the tight ends [Andrews, Nick Boyle, Hayden Hurst] just the way they use them. It’s a three-headed monster in terms of their run-blocking, pass-catching. You get so hyped up to play the run, and then it’s play-action pass. And Mark does a good job of catching the ball when it’s in his area. He’s got good speed, he runs good routes, and he obviously has a connection with Lamar.”
First game: vs. highest remaining seed in divisional round (3:05 p.m. ET, Jan. 12, CBS) | Tickets
Chances to win Super Bowl: 22.1%
Is the defense better equipped than last year to help the Chiefs get to the Super Bowl?
“They are if Frank Clark plays. He can’t be one sack, no sack, one sack, no sack, no sack in the playoffs. He’s got to be there for them. But [defensive coordinator Steve] Spagnuolo has made a difference, I think. Their numbers haven’t been great all the time, but he’s been better doing a little more in coverage using the safeties to bracket the better receivers they see and being a little more one-gap up front so the guys can play downhill.
“[Former defensive coordinator Bob] Sutton left his corners on their own a lot, and people made them pay if those guys just weren’t good enough to do it. Teams with a speed guy might be able to create some things because then [Spagnuolo] is going to have to leave one of those safeties deep.
“That run D is a problem, and anybody who isn’t trailing them by two touchdowns in the first quarter could pound away at them, I think. But your own defense has to keep you in it because they’re far different on defense when they don’t have the lead.”
In what way or ways is quarterback Patrick Mahomes a better player than in 2018?
“I don’t know if you can say the dude’s better. He threw for 50 [touchdowns] last year, but he’s way better at getting the ball to other guys. Tyreek Hill makes it all go because he’s the guy you’re scared can beat man [coverage], double teams, whatever, he just runs by it. He’s the fastest player in the league, maybe ever.
“But you look at Mahomes now, he’ll throw it to Demarcus Robinson or whoever. We saw one play before we played them, and he hits [wide receiver Byron] Pringle for a big first down. He’ll move it around, but if he sees you can’t check Travis Kelce or Tyreek, he’ll just keep putting it there over and over, too.
“The only thing we saw was when his ankle wasn’t right; people could play more man against him because he didn’t move around, extend plays; he stayed in the pocket and that worked for defenses in those games. But when he’s healthy, he extends plays better, and that makes man hard because you got to have somebody who can hang with Tyreek and Kelce, and not many defenses have that. Maybe nobody.
“Plus if you play a lot of man, [Chiefs coach Andy] Reid will just run all those slants, jets, and leave the middle of the field for him to run if he wants to. I think [Mahomes] is just better at all that, knowing where the holes are and reacting before the snap.”
Who is the Chiefs’ defender most vulnerable to attack from opposing offenses, regardless of scheme?
“We looked at that Packers game [a 31-24 Green Bay win Oct. 27 in which running back Aaron Jones had 159 yards and two touchdowns receiving], and you get their linebackers in coverage, you can make some plays, especially Anthony Hitchens and [No.] 56 [Ben Niemann].
“They know that, so they try to keep you doing it too much, and if Clark and [Chris] Jones get it going up front, it’s harder to find it, but if you can keep the safeties out of there, you can get your running backs loose. Running backs and tight ends on the wheel, that’s a play that can work.”
First game: vs. Titans in wild-card round (8:15 p.m. ET, Saturday, CBS) | Tickets
What’s the best way to approach the Patriots’ defense: running the ball or passing?
“You want to try to run the ball. The problem is it’s hard to. In the passing game, it’s having an answer for their pressures. I mean, it’s hard, man — the ‘zero’ pressures. You want to try to maintain balance if you can, to stay ahead of the sticks. That’s the one thing that happens to a lot of teams against them; it’s hard to stay third-and-short.”
What makes Julian Edelman such a tough cover, and is he a Hall of Fame receiver?
“What makes him a tough cover is he has a great understanding of coverages, what routes are good versus certain coverages and how to beat those coverages. He can play the game in his mind a little bit, where he knows exactly how he should run the routes. Plus, he makes a lot of things look the same, so you’re not really sure which way he’s going a lot of times. He has a large library of option routes where he and Tom are on the same page. … Hall of Famer? I don’t even know his numbers. I don’t know. To be determined.”
How much of a decline are you seeing from Tom Brady?
“I don’t know if it’s a decline. I think it’s just he has different people around him with different skill sets. He’s lost a few guys this year. He’s trying to find the right chemistry, and they’re trying to find the right way to run their offense with the group they have. It takes an entire season. I mean, the same thing happened last year. They kind of switched up at the end and started doing all that two-back stuff leading into the playoffs. It worked toward the end. They went after it and they finished it.
On Brady’s low numbers: “I know, but I don’t think they’re throwing it like they had been in the past. There’s no Gronk. Josh Gordon was pretty good for them. I just think they have some different personnel and they’re trying to get some chemistry.”
First game: vs. Bills in wild-card round (4:35 p.m. ET, Saturday, ABC/ESPN) | Tickets
If J.J. Watt is less than 100%, who do you worry about most on the Texans’ defense?
“Linebacker [Zach Cunningham]. That dude can fly. He’s in on every play. He can cover. He can come down, he can hit. I’d probably say him. Don’t get hit by him. And if you’re running the ball, don’t run the ball by him. Just don’t let him take over a game.”
Where has quarterback Deshaun Watson improved the most in his third year?
“He’s just done such a great job it’s really hard just to pinpoint one thing. He always had the ability to extend plays and stuff like that. I always felt like he was pretty accurate. He probably has a better grasp of the offense. You’re seeing him making more checks and things like that. Not easy to fool. I guess the bland answer would say film room, but I don’t want to say that because it sounds like he didn’t watch film before. His overall understanding of the game [is better]. I still can’t just say film room. I feel bad saying that.”
Outside of wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who do you worry about stopping on the Texans’ offense?
“Carlos Hyde. Will Fuller is going to run nothing but streaks. Third down you know he’s going to Hops, so, yeah, Carlos. You’ve got to stop the run. You’ve got to make a picket wall, things like that, to take away his cutback lanes. And when you get him, you’ve got to wrap up and roll. He’s a thumper. He’s a big back that takes hits.”
First game: at Texans in wild-card round (4:35 p.m. ET, Saturday, ABC/ESPN) | Tickets
Do you think quarterback Josh Allen can help the Bills advance in the playoffs on passing ability alone?
“Allen has played better this year. He definitely has a big arm. When we played them, I remember knowing that we had to play the deep ball longer than most quarterbacks. The question for me with him is consistency. When he’s on, he can lead that team and he can carry the load offensively. If they get that version of him, I think Buffalo can win a playoff game. But when he’s off — especially with his accuracy — then they aren’t a very good team.”
Is Buffalo’s offense good enough to win games if its defense doesn’t play well?
“In previous years, it used to all be about their defense. Their defense has been cold for years. But now they are more balanced. Twenty-six [RB Devin Singletary] has helped their offense get more punch. They run a lot of hurry-up with him. With him, Allen and Frank Gore, their run game is tough. Defense is still the best part of their team, but offense can score enough points in the playoffs. It depends on who they get. I don’t think they can beat Baltimore or Kansas City.”
How does cornerback Tre’Davious White elevate the Bills’ pass defense?
“He’s real good, man. He gets clutch picks. His instincts are on point. He takes that defense to the next level because you can trust him to lock down his side. He’s sort of new in the best corner convo because he’s young, but he deserves to be there. I hope he or Stephon Gilmore get DPOY [Defensive Player of Year] because they deserve it.”
First game: at Patriots in wild-card round (8:15 p.m. ET, Saturday, CBS) | Tickets
“Tannehill is a better passer. Playing against Mariota, you know he’s not going to take shots down the field. He doesn’t want the ballgame in his hands. It’s like he’s scared to have it in his hands. With Tannehill, his mindset is different. He trusts himself to run the ball, and he’ll fling it. They run a lot of play-action passes off their running ability. Once the ball is in Tannehill’s hands, he can beat you with his feet, and he’s always a threat to throw it, whether he’s in the pocket or when he breaks outside the pocket. That’s what makes them so dangerous. We played them with Mariota, and in the first game they were so one-dimensional. We knew they were going to give the ball to Derrick Henry. We knew Mariota was not going to beat us over the top. That was easier to defend. That wasn’t the case in the second game when Tannehill started.”
What do the Titans do in the red zone that causes problems for defenses?
“One of the best parts of being a good red zone offense is being able to run the ball. The Titans have that luxury with Henry. The field shrinks. If you’re able to run it, it makes it a lot easier on the quarterback. And then when you get in there and you have to throw, Tannehill can throw in the tight window. The Titans are a good play-action team with Henry and Tannehill. They’re even more dangerous with their tight ends because Tannehill can make that throw in a tight window down the seam. Another key with Tannehill is he can also tuck it and run it, which means they basically have two running backs. It makes it harder because you have a couple more things to worry about.”
Who’s the one player you have to worry about on defense?
“Jurrell Casey [defensive lineman]. There’s only so much a scheme can do for a player like that. He’s going to make his plays. You do too much of the scheme like double- or chip-blocking and you’re going to leave other people too open with too many opportunities to make plays. They have a good front line, great linebackers and great secondary. But I think everything comes down to Casey. The games we contained him are the games we moved the ball and played well. Games he had his way with us are the games we didn’t move the ball. You have to take the head off the monster, and Casey is the head of that defense. He’s like LeBron [James]. LeBron will shoot the lights out one night, other nights LeBron can have 15 assists. Sometimes you can over scheme on Casey. They’ll make you pay whether you double-team Casey or you risk going one-on-one against him.”
First game: vs. lowest remaining seed in divisional round (4:35 p.m. ET, Jan. 11, NBC) | Tickets
Chances to win Super Bowl: 18.7%
Is quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo the weakest link on the 49ers?
“Is he the weakest link? I’m laughing. No, he’s not the weakest link.” Another player said, “The running game is really good, they got good running backs. Not that Garoppolo is bad, but that’s how good they are.”
“As a pass-rusher, he’s [Bosa] athletic, he’s long, he has good counter moves. But I don’t think their D-line is as good as everyone thinks they are.” Another player said, “I’m seeing him [Bosa] make a lot more huge plays and that sort of thing.”
How much of an impact does tight end George Kittle have on the game, and does he scare you more as a pass-catcher or a blocker?
“They wouldn’t have the record that they have now without him.” Another player said Kittle is a better blocker than receiver. “I think a lot of tight ends can catch the ball, but the fact that he can run block makes him a scary guy to go against.”
Is Richard Sherman still an elite cornerback or is he on a downward trajectory?
“He’s in the Pro Bowl, isn’t he?” But another player said Sherman making the Pro Bowl didn’t matter. “Maybe not elite, but he’s still a really good corner, but, you know, Father Time is undefeated.”
First game: vs. highest remaining seed in divisional round (Jan. 12, 6:40 p.m. ET, Fox) | Tickets
Has coach Matt LaFleur gotten more out of quarterback Aaron Rodgers than the previous regime?
“Listen, man, Aaron Rodgers is great with any coach. He was great with [Mike] McCarthy, and he’s great with the new guy. That’s Aaron Rodgers, man.”
But an NFC coach raved about the job LaFleur has done with Rodgers, especially given the circumstances.
“I give a lot of credit to LaFleur. That’s a different dynamic than what a lot of first-year coaches have. You have a guy that’s seen every defense in the book, he’s made every throw in the book, so here you are now as a first-year head coach. That’s never easy. I think that’s a credit to Matt and his personal relationship. And to Aaron.”
Who do you have to stop first: running back Aaron Jones or wide receiver Davante Adams?
The consensus is Jones. One NFC defensive coach called Jones “one hell of a running back.” The coach continued: “He’s good when they hand the ball off to him, he’s good in space when they throw it to him, he’s a good protector. They have him split out a lot in empty formations. He becomes a matchup issue for you defensively, so you have to have guys that can cover on him. He runs routes like a receiver out there and catches balls like a receiver. He’s having a great year.”
“Those guys are beasts. I mean, I can’t say they’re the best players signed in free agency, but they have big sack numbers, both of them. You have to be aware of where they are at.”
One rival coach marveled at the size of the two Packers standout defenders.
“The size is such an issue,” the coach said. “They’re both like 6-4, 6-5, 280 pounds and they move them around and play them on different sides. That’s a challenge.”
First game: vs. Vikings in wild-card round (1:05 p.m. ET, Sunday, Fox) | Tickets
How does wide receiver Michael Thomas keep producing when teams know he’s the one receiver they have to stop?
“He’s an elite receiver. They’ve got a good offensive scheme over there with him and Drew Brees. Just changing up his location, whether it’s on the backside, at the 1 or just in the slot. … Of course, he has strong hands. That’s what makes him an elite receiver because of his catch radius and he’s going to go up and attack the football. He’s just crafty.”
Said another player: “You’ve got Alvin Kamara, Ted Ginn Jr., so they’ve got other receivers to take the pressure off him. But you know the ball is going to him. He’s just tough to stop, like Julio Jones, Mike Evans, any other receiver in our division.”
And don’t forget about Brees and his impact on Thomas.
“He works tremendously hard in the offseason. Seeing how he’s grown, it’s not really a surprise to me. What separates him is consistency. You look at his drop percentage, yardage, all of that. Very few guys you can see that in this league on a week-to-week basis. It’s one good game every three games. This game is consistency. That tandem in Brees and Thomas, it’s hard to stop. You can’t ignore the Brees factor. That’s a walking Hall of Famer. Having a quarterback like that and talent like that as a receiver, it’s always hard for defenses to catch up.”
Has the Saints’ defense come full circle from weakness to strength, and what makes them so good?
“Their personnel didn’t change much outside of adding some of their linebackers the last two years. But they’re a lot more consistent. Every time we play them, it’s a lot of work cut out for us on the line. It’s a solid group. High-motor guys. From the outside looking in, I do know they’re more consistent up front. There’s a lot of high-motor guys in Cam Jordan and guys like that.”
And they’ve taken advantage of their draft picks.
“Yeah, they drafted well. They drafted guys in the secondary the last few years that have been really good. They’ve got some linebackers they’ve picked up in free agency with A.J. Klein and Demario Davis. Kiko Alonso has been really good. And if you look up front, they drafted the guy [Marcus Davenport] from San Antonio and then Cameron Jordan. Cam is one of the more underappreciated guys in the league. They’ve got a really good team now, and that’s really helped them.”
What is Brees’ greatest weakness?
“I would say throwing the deep ball. He doesn’t do that much. Most teams, I see a film, when they have a receiver and he goes 9 right to the field, they’re going to sit on the route. You play a little more aggressive to the field. Of course, he can make every other throw so he really doesn’t have a weakness.”
Another player disagrees with Brees not being able to throw the deep ball.
“When he throws the deep ball, it’s money. He’s thrown a few deep balls on us the last few years, and the ball always hits exactly where it’s intended. People want to pick him apart for different reasons, but if he wants to throw the deep ball, he can still do it.”
First game: vs. Seahawks in wild-card round (4:40 p.m. ET, Sunday, NBC) | Tickets
Has quarterback Carson Wentz digressed after two season-ending injuries?
“No. I wouldn’t say that. Of course being away from the game can hurt a little bit, but he’s the toughest quarterback in the NFL. He’s like a linebacker playing quarterback, except he can actually play quarterback. He’s just a force. He plays the game to win. When you’re competing against him, you can tell. He’s not going to go down easily [on a sack]. He’s going to fight you. He’s going to break it. He likes to spin. He likes to duck. … I feel it’s a team sport. One year you can be rolling and have more help around you, the next year you could be down because of certain situations. But I feel his future is still bright, and he’s still an elite quarterback and has the chance to be one of the greats.”
With wide receiver DeSean Jackson out, which offensive weapon poses the biggest threat?
“Besides Carson, Miles Sanders. He’s pretty young, but you can tell. But it’s Zach Ertz. He’s an animal. Watching him play you can’t do anything but respect him. He’s nasty in the run game, and usually when guys try to play like that, they can’t go out and catch the ball. But he’s become a guy that can really do it all. So if I was to talk about anybody on their team to watch, it’s Ertz. I give him credit. He’s the man.”
Who is the one player on defense opposing offenses are targeting the most?
“Ronald Darby. Not disciplined. Poor tackler. Really [Jalen] Mills or Darby. Not [Malcolm] Jenkins. Rather get either of them in coverage. Jenkins is getting old, but he still got it. We got Darby a couple times. He’s the most targeted now. They’re [attacking] him now.”
First game: at Eagles in wild-card round (4:40 p.m. ET, Sunday, NBC) | Tickets
Who do you think is a better running quarterback: Russell Wilson or Lamar Jackson?
“Lamar is really elusive compared to Russell. Russell scrambles to throw, Lamar scrambles to run. That’s what, I feel like, makes Lamar a better running [quarterback] — I don’t think Russell actually wants to run, but if the opportunity presents itself, then he’ll run.”
Another player said Jackson can make you look ridiculous trying to tackle him.
“Lamar got wiggle. He’s elusive. He’ll make you look stupid in the open field. Russell uses the option whenever he needs it. If he feels pressured enough to run, he’ll do it, and if he sees the opportunity where it’s a quick first down, he’s going to take it. But, ultimately, he’s going to throw that thing first. Lamar takes his normal reads, and then I mean, he believes in his legs.”
Do you think Tyler Lockett is an elite receiver?
“Yes. I had to grow on him. I didn’t really like him at first as a receiver. But he just kept making plays, kept making big plays, kept getting past people. With his size, it surprised me, him being on the outside with big cornerbacks and still being able to run past them and still make plays.”
Another player said Lockett is great after the catch.
“His ability to separate and track the ball over his shoulder. He makes big plays, explosive, runs after the catch, knows how to get open when Russell Wilson scrambles, making himself a target for Russell when he is on the run.”
What makes Bobby Wagner as good as he is?
“His recognition of plays, his understanding where things are going — knowing how to cancel a gap, but also be able to play back in the other gaps. He is able to play both sides of the field, but also is great in the box. He uses his hands really well to get off blocks, then understands concepts. If you understand the game as well as he does, and have the physical gifts and traits that he does, it’s a great combination.”
First game: at Saints in wild-card round (1:05 p.m. ET, Sunday, Fox) | Tickets
“I’d say Cook. When you’re able to run the football the way they are running the football right now, I think it makes a big difference. It makes things a lot easier on the quarterback. Those defensive backs are starting to creep up a little more there. They are more run-conscious when those runs are popping out, so I would say, yeah, it’s a big deal.
“When you’re putting in a new offense or a new defense, it’s going to take time. Everyone was trying to hang the man [Cousins] out there after three or four games, but that’s hard to judge a guy on. So I think as [Cousins] got in his rhythm and started getting in the flow of how the coach is calling the plays, I think he’s playing better.”
Is Minnesota’s secondary the weak link in the defense?
“With the talent they have up front, I think you could say weaker. They are not bad by any means, but definitely they revolve around their front seven to get the job done. Or just put pressure on helping defensive backs. They are just getting to the quarterback and rushing throws, just not giving the quarterback time to throw the ball.”
Another player said they’re not the “Minnesota of old the last couple years.”
“Their front seven is really, really good. I think they are very strong through the middle, so I would say outside is where I guess they are having the most problems.”
“Everybody kind of has their preference on if they prefer on blocking a guy that’s longer or more of a power guy. They are both really complete players. But Hunter has a little more length to him and is really explosive. Everson Griffen is, too, but you get a little more power with him. So it’s more of a matchup thing. … If you had to put them, I think it’s 1A and 1B. I don’t know which one I would rather face. I don’t know, man. I would rather face neither of them. They are both tough.”