NFL Playoff Sleepers
Four weeks are left on the season and that’s four weeks for these three sleeper teams to shine. Yes I’m giving the Ravens four games (up a game on Indianapolis for a wildcard spot) to win out. Yes I’m saying the Bears will finish strong despite Mitchell Trubisky’s recent setback. I’ll also make the bold claim that the Chargers will sneak up on the Chiefs in an upset in week 15, at Arrowhead stadium. There, I said it. I can’t explain exactly how, although that game will definitely go over its predicted score total. But these three teams are freight trains nobody wants to face come playoff time. Do they have a real shot at winning Super Bowl LIII? Not really. They do have the resume to make a case at inching close enough, conference title close, to where they could upset a favorite. Let’s make that case known.
The Bears have shown resolve since Trubisky’s shoulder injury. In his two starts, backup Chase Daniels has plugged in well to the offense. In their last match-up with a rolling Giants team, Chicago showed such resolve after being down 24-14 heading into the fourth quarter. It was Daniels who led a final drive comeback to force overtime. Even with the eventual loss in OT, Daniels’ perseverance, especially after practically giving a Giants defender a pick-six on his first drive is telling. It’s becoming clearer that Chicago is a committee team. Everyone has bought in and I think they will be fine with or without Trubisky. The only concern here is playoff experience. Besides that, the Bears offense has plenty of complementary pieces where anyone can breakout. Defensively, the Bears have a 100+ scoring margin against their foes through 12 games, a first since their 2006 championship runner-up season. This is due, in most part, to the constant pressure underneath via Khalil Mack and company, to the ball-hawking secondary provided by Eddie Jackson and Kyle Fuller. Above all, their best stat is time of possession–good for third in the league. With these considerations, they have the perfect recipe for keeping a Drew Brees or Jared Goff off the field. That’s if that playoff day arrives.
I’m impressed with how Lamar Jackson has fit right in with Baltimore’s offense. It’ll be interesting to see how he can coexist with Joe Flacco down the stretch and perhaps the playoffs. Baltimore’s run-pass-option scheme seems to be working out and defenses are scrambling hard to reach scrambling action Jackson. The Ravens also have a provable track record. They still have Flacco and Terrell Suggs, who were on that 2013 Super Bowl winning team, and also have Michael Crabtree, who played on the opposing super bowl squad in the 49ers. Lest we forget, whenever the Ravens had an elite defense, they too were a legit Super Bowl contender, and, they have studs everywhere. Baltimore is third in the league in forcing opponents to go three-and-out on a third of their drives (36 percent). The Ravens have always given playoff teams fits as well, whether they were away or at home. The Patriots are familiar with such fits. Week 14 could be a preview of a potential postseason match-up when the Ravens visit Kansas City. I don’t count on an upset, but maybe down the road.
The Chargers shined this past Sunday night like the lightning bolts they’ve been all season after winning big in steel city. Save for Phillip Rivers throwing the ball towards the ground instead of taking a knee to run the clock out in week 11, they’d have two losses, not three. Los Angeles would have been 10-2 and tied with the Chiefs for the lead in the AFC conference. If the Chiefs win out, LA would be looking at a fifth seed at best, while potentially being a road team throughout the playoffs. Contrarily, I’d consider them a monster fifth seed, and feel they would have no problem playing away every game. They’ve played impressively in tough environments such as Seattle and Pittsburgh, and LA’s lost just once playing away from their home field (won week 7 at a neutral site). Furthermore, Rivers has been playing with a chip on his shoulder his whole career. So has Keenan Allen, and so has Antonio Gates. Melvin Gordon’s been out here and there during the season which is their only problem. But I see him regaining health in time for a championship run. Finally, on the defensive and special teams, they have been up-ticking in the last four games. Derwin James and Joey Bosa are impact athletes on the defensive side of the ball. And for the past few weeks Desmond King has really turned it on as a return specialist.
The odds favor Chargers winning it all out of these 3. I would pick them slightly over the Bears even with Trubisky healthy, and even though Chicago’s likely guaranteed one home game if they win out over the trailing Minnesota Vikings. Los Angeles is charging and, Phillip Rivers has probably got the biggest chip on his shoulder to date. Not many predicted this team to be in the position they’re in and to play this impressively on all three phases of the game.