After 256 regular season games, it is time for the final 11 games to determine the NFL’s champion for the 2018 season.

The wild regular season wrapped up with Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts snagging the final spot over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday Night Football. The win that knocked out the Titans also officially eliminated the Pittsburgh Steelers, making it seven playoff teams from last year not returning. The Steelers and Titans were joined by the Minnesota Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and Buffalo Bills as teams watching from home instead of competing for Super Bowl 53. 

The playoffs will begin Saturday with the Houston Texans hosting the Colts. This is the fifth time the Texans have made the playoffs and it is the fifth time they will play in the Saturday afternoon opening playoff game.

The Texans and Colts enter as two of the bigger surprises in the AFC in 2018. Myself and others expected the Jaguars to repeat their success from last season and make it back. I even had them winning it all in my preseason predictions. Instead, the Texans rebounded from an 0-3 start to make the playoffs at 11-5. After injuries decimated the Texans in 2017, the 2018 team has put together a solid squad on both sides of the ball with J.J. Watt and Deshaun Watson both strong candidates for Comeback Player of the Year. Their opponent will be a familiar one with their division rival Indianapolis coming to Texas. The Colts also rebounded from a slow start to return to the playoffs thanks to their franchise star finally being healthy. The Colts were 1-5 midway through October. The team then went on a 9-1 stretch, including a 24-21 win at Houston to storm into the playoffs thanks to Andrew Luck having a great season back after injuries have limited the star in the previous three seasons. The Colts also found stability with their linemen on offense for once and rookie linebacker Darius Leonard led the league in tackles with 163, 19 more than the next closest. This is probably the most balanced the Colts have been with offensive and defensive production under Luck and one of the most balanced teams in the playoffs, which should be the difference maker for Indianapolis and will allow them to move on to the divisional round where they will meet the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Seattle Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys will bookend Saturday’s action as both teams returned to the playoffs after an absence in 2017. The Seahawks were expected to be rebuilding this year with the majority of the defense from the Super Bowl appearances in 2013 and 2014 now gone. It looked like the Seahawks were going to have a down year early on before ending the year 6-1 and establishing a strong running game for the first time in years. The Cowboys also started out slow sitting at 3-5 after a Week 9 loss to the Titans. The Cowboys won seven of their last eight, including an upset of the New Orleans Saints to snag the NFC East. The trade for wide receiver Amari Cooper and emergence of young stars on defense helped turn Dallas around in the second half of the year. The Cowboys defense should be able to shut down the running game of the Seahawks and the Cowboys will move on to the divisional round.

Sunday’s action kicks off with the Los Angeles Chargers and Baltimore Ravens facing off for the second time in three weeks. Like the Colts, the Chargers come in as one of the league’s most balanced teams. Quarterback Phillip Rivers has put together one of his best seasons with the Chargers and for once, it is looking like the team is actually living up to the preseason expectations with a 12-4 record and some consistency at kicker after the kicking woes kept them out of the playoffs in 2017. The Ravens, on the other hand, enter with an old-school smashmouth style of football since rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson took over in Week 11. The Ravens rushing attack and one of the league’s best defenses helped the team win six of the final seven, with the lone loss being an overtime loss at the Chiefs. The Ravens shut the Chargers down in Week 16 in a 21-10 victory but I don’t see that happening again in the playoffs. The Chargers get past the Ravens and move on to face the Patriots next week.

The first round wraps up with the Philadelphia Eagles traveling to the Chicago Bears. The defending Super Bowl champions snuck into the postseason after a midseason free fall thanks to the Minnesota Vikings continuing their trend of struggling against playoff teams in their loss to the Bears in Week 17. The Eagles are here thanks to Nick Foles playing as he did in the NFC Championship and Super Bowl from last season after Carson Wentz went down with another injury. Foles took over the starting job in a December win over the Rams like he did in 2017 and got the Eagles back to the postseason. Although injuries have plagued the Eagles all season, they are still a team that can easily go on another run. To make the run, they will have to go through one of the NFL’s biggest surprises in 2018, the Chicago Bears. After the team struggled under John Fox, the Bears hired Matt Nagy from the Chiefs. The team already had a solid young core on defense and a second-year quarterback that showed some flashes in his rookie season despite having one of the worst wide receiver groups in the league. The Bears brought in some solid free agents and then traded for Khalil Mack from the Oakland Raiders. The outside linebacker was the lone bright spot on a horrendous Raiders defense for his first four years and was one of the NFL’s best players. Mack was holding out of playing to try and receive a large contract but the Raiders and Mack could not come up with a solution so he was traded with two picks in the 2020 NFL Draft to the Bears in exchange for the Bears’ first-round picks in 2019 and 2020 plus a six-rounder in 2019 and third-round pick in 2020. Mack and the Bears defense turned into one of the leagues’ best. While the Bears offense was not taking the world by storm, they got the job done and the Bears’ play paired with the disappointments of the Vikings and Green Bay Packers helped Chicago steal the NFC North. It is another playoff game with intrigue as the Bears defense should be able to shut down Foles and the Eagles offense, but the playoffs are about who gets hot at the right time and the Eagles are one of those teams. The Eagles get the upset and get to travel to New Orleans for the next round. Due to the Eagles’ win, the Cowboys will then travel to Los Angeles to face the Rams.

In the next round, the Chiefs finally win a home playoff game again and the Chargers end the Patriots’ streak of conference championship game appearances while the Saints take care of the Eagles with ease and the Rams continue the struggles they had against the Bears and Eagles in the regular season and Dallas ends the Rams’ promising season.

In rematches of two of the best Thursday Night Football games of the season, the Saints find a way to not repeat the mistakes as last time against Dallas and advance to the franchise’s second Super Bowl appearance. The Chiefs also do not repeat the same mistakes as their Chargers loss at Arrowhead the month before and get back to the Super Bowl for the first time since Super Bowl 4. 

Prior to the big game, Patrick Mahomes will be named MVP over Brees.

The two quarterbacks who battled for the award all year will face off in a thriller. But the MVP curse will continue and the Chiefs will fall to the Saints in the Super Bowl giving Brees his second ring toward the end of one of the greatest careers in NFL history.

But I also said the Jaguars would beat the Vikings in the Super Bowl so I could still be wrong.

Luke Peterson is the sports editor for the Leavenworth Times. Contact him at lpeterson@leavenworthtimes.com.