The path to the Super Bowl...
The NFL season has been dramatic - they always are.
But, with the Demar Hamlin incident in the now-abandoned week seventeen clash between the Bills and Bengals, the drama went to a new and scary level.
Thankfully, the news is steadily improving on Hamlin’s health and the NFL family slowly moves on with playing the remaining regular season games.
With a week to go before we being the playoffs, I thought we’d have a look at the contenders to claim the Lombardi Trophy at State Farm Stadium in Arizona on Monday February 13.
Football fans, if your team is not on the list, they cannot win the ring… famous last words.
SUPER BOWL LVII CONTENDERS —
+ Josh Allen’s arm, Josh Allen’s legs and Josh Allen’s refusal to be beaten. There may be quarterbacks who throw the ball better and there may be quarterbacks who are better ball carriers but there are none who are the package that Allen is. Hopefully he’s shaken off some niggles and is primed to unleash throughout these playoffs.
Stefan Diggs is an elite receiver and has been for a while - I’ve just been slow to the party. Gabriel Davis exploded in the playoffs last season and is a deadly deep threat whilst Dawson Knox offers that intermediate receiving option.
This team’s defence is staunch, thanks largely to an impeccable linebacking unit.
The other intangible for this squad is that Orchard Park, western New York environment. We saw Miami hang tough with the Bills until a blizzard arrived and Allen and the locals exploded.
- The run game - or lack of - has been the impediment for this team across many big games. There’s been improvement and I feel rookie James Cook will eventually become a No. 1 back but for now this rushing attack still relies on Allen making things happen.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
+ Patrick Mahomes might be the most mercurial quarterback talent we’ve ever seen so we might start there. Losing Tyreek Hill has forced Mahomes to be even more accurate, versatile and able to make plays via various avenues. He’s the unbackable MVP favourite and is at the peak of his powers. He does also have the assistance of All-World TE Travis Kelce who is the fastest tight end to 10,000 receiving yards in history.
Andy Reid is the third jewel in the crown with the experienced but always creative head coach at the helm.
- With Tyreek Hill gone, some will say stop Kelce and you stop K.C. I think we’ve seen enough to suggest that’s bollocks but if you do have a defensive back or athletic LB who can contain Kelce then you give yourself a major chance at slowing down the Chiefs offence.
The defence has been steady but leaks are always at risk. They rank middle of the road or worse for passing yards, rushing yards and points conceded.
The run game is still unreliable. Clyde Edwards-Helaire has been injured and whilst Jerick McKinnon has been outstanding, most of his good work has been via the passing game.
+ The Bengals have a championship quarterback. He may not have won one in the NFL but he did in college and you’ve only had to watch the past two months of Bengals football to know Joe Burrow is a special commodity. The other special element to this squad is the group of receivers in the orange and black. Ja’Marr Chase has been borderline impossible to guard since game one whilst Tee Higgins could be a No. 1 WR on most other teams.
Tyler Boyd is an excellent inside receiver who makes tough catches on important downs.
The defence is opportunistic and well prepared by defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. Sam Hubbard’s status will be important coming off an injury.
- The Bengals rank 29th in rushing yardage. Much of that has been inconsistent offensive line play plus some injury niggles to Joe Mixon. We know Mixon is a quality back but the consistency on the ground has not been there as one of only seven teams averaging less than 100 yards per game.
The offensive line has improved significantly but playoff teams have ferocious pass rushing attacks and schemes and they’ll be tested. Remembering, the poor O line play perhaps cost Cincinnati a Super Bowl victory last season in LA.
+ For Fantasy Football owners the Tony Pollard/Ezekiel Elliott combo was more painful than powerful. Trying to decide who to start and who to bench - or whether to start both.
In the real world, this RB 1-2 punch has been dominant because of the versatility and variety that both bring to the table.
Pollard is explosive and can take a pass or run to the crib from anywhere. Pollard has a 57-yards rushing TD and a 68-yard receiving TD to his name this season.
Zeke has a dozen scores in 14 games this season and is a beast on the goal line and short yardage situations.
This defence can catch fire. Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs are two of the most watchable and effective young defensive players in the NFL.
- Some will vehemently disagree but the proof is in the pudding for me, the quarterback is of concern. When the game is on Dallas’ terms, Dak Prescott is a competent and sometimes deadly QB. When he forces things, he gives the ball away often.
The receiving group need to up the ante. CeeDee Lamb has had an excellent season and needs to transfer that play into the post-season whilst Mike Gallup and Dalton Schulz need to be reliable and viable for Dak.
+ We know the power run game is incredibly hard to defend. They’re a top five rushing attack for yardage and between QB Jalen Hurts and RB Miles Sanders have amassed almost 2,000 rush yards and 24 TD.
AJ Brown has emerged as a genuine No. 1 receiver and his big frame has made life easier for Hurts in the pocket.
The defence has been rock solid ranking #1 in the NFL for total yards allowed and passing yards allowed. Darius Slay is a lockdown corner and there’s playmaking all over the defensive front.
The other element this team is seemingly thriving on is the coaching. Nick Sirianni’s first press conference was a mess, but that counts for naught now as we’re seeing him lead this team to a 13-3 record.
- I’m worried about the QB… I know he’s been exceptional this season and was the deserving MVP favourite before a shoulder injury but Hurts’ performance in last season’s playoff clash with Tampa spooks me. He threw two picks and dropped the ball on the ground on another occasion.
Can he stand in the pocket, without any timeouts needing to drive the ball down the field to secure a FG for the win? Maybe he can and we all have opinions. I’m not sure he’s that type of QB and you need quarterbacks who can stand in there and make the plays… Burrow, Brady, Mahomes.
SAN FRANCISCO FORTY-NINERS
+ This defence is DOMINANT! It’s fierce and physical and feeling itself at the moment - and rightfully so. This unit is only giving up 16.5 points per game and just 78.8 rushing yards per contest.
The offensive scheme is incredible. Kyle Shanahan is bred in the purple when it comes to football and his offensive system has seen little-known backs and quarterbacks come in and be effective time and time again.
Health provided, George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Christian McCaffrey and Brandon Aiyuk present a mouth-watering set of offensive weapons for Shanahan and QB Brock Purdy.
- We are dealing with a 3rd string quarterback. That’s never ideal. And normally that would be terminal for teams but such is Shanahan’s system, this 3rd string QB might just be the man!
But, it’s got be something that scares Niners fans at times.
This squad has also struggled to remain healthy. CMC, Deebo and George K have all had their fair share of issues across the journey.
MY CONTENDERS RANKINGS