It’s tough for anything to be perfect in 2020. The Steelers are 11-0, but if you saw them struggle to put away what amounted to the Ravens’ JV team on Wednesday, you can see that even they have flaws. The same is true for the other organizations at the head of the Super Bowl race. The defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs are 10-1 and the Saints are 9-2, but they both lost to a Raiders team that just got blown out by the 4-7 Falcons. On the right day and with the right matchup, just about any team in the NFL can beat anybody else.
Let’s try to identify the toughest matchup for each of the four top Super Bowl contenders in each conference and pick which team all eight might want to avoid in January. In doing so, I’m going to examine the weakness each of these near-playoff locks are going to carry with them into January. Teams can overcome those issues, as we saw with the Chiefs a year ago, but bad matchups helped lead to early playoff exits for teams such as the Ravens and Saints last January. All eight of these teams probably think they can beat anyone they face, but they would probably rather avoid at least one rival. Here are which teams and why:
Playoff kryptonite: the running game
It’s hard to pick too many holes in the Steelers’ résumé, but if there’s one thing that stands out, it’s the inefficiency of the Pittsburgh rushing attack. The Steelers rank 27th in the league in rush offense DVOA despite facing the easiest schedule of opposing defenses in football. James Conner & Co. have been below average in short-yardage situations, and Pittsburgh has only two runs for more than 30 yards all season, one of which was a 58-yard end around by Ray Ray McCloud.
Smartly, the Steelers have self-scouted and adjusted their offense as the season has progressed. Through Week 6, on early downs in neutral situations, they threw at the 17th-heaviest rate in the league. With Chase Claypool emerging and the running game struggling, they have shifted to a pass-first attack. From Week 7 on, they have been the second-most pass-happy team in those same situations. It’s great coaching to adjust and play to your strengths, but what if a great pass defense forces Pittsburgh to line up and run the ball?
Team to avoid: New Orleans Saints
The Steelers have the NFL’s best pass defense. (Thankfully, they can’t play themselves in January.) There’s a big drop-off from No. 1 to No. 2, but the Saints rank second, and they’re only getting better. Since their Week 6 bye, they are allowing opposing quarterbacks to post a QBR of just 38.2, which is slightly ahead of what even the Steelers have done over that same time frame. If New Orleans can slow down the Pittsburgh passing attack, the Steelers might be forced to try to move the ball on the ground.