Lawrence: Tournament Ready

One of the NFL's most incredible streaks turns 30 this year – and it's one reason why the league is so popular

Amy Lawrence
December 27, 2019 - 9:35 am
Aaron Jones Packers

USA Today Images


One of the NFL's most incredible streaks turns 30 this year. Stretching back to 1990, every NFL postseason has featured at least four teams that didn't make the playoffs the year before. Last January, seven new teams battled for the right to compete in the Super Bowl; this winter, the league will land five different franchises in the tournament, though the bracket isn't complete yet.

The Packers, Vikings, and 49ers are all returning to the postseason from the NFC; while the Bills are locked in as the five seed in the AFC. By the time Sunday's action is finished, either the Raiders, Titans, or Steelers will earn the second AFC Wild Card. None of them reached the playoffs a year ago. The consistent annual turnover is a testament to the competitiveness of the league as well as the constant drive of its owners, front offices, coaches, and athletes. In the NFL, teams that don't find ways to grow and improve get left behind. Complacency equals irrelevance. Franchises that aren't moving forward are quickly passed by.

For the first time since 2016, Green Bay is the NFC North champion. Lambeau Field will soon host playoff football again. The obvious change for the Packers after winning just six games last year? Matt LaFleur is the first coach in Green Bay history to log double digit wins in his inaugural season and only the tenth rookie coach in league history with a dozen victories. On the field, two defenders stand out as major difference-makers. Linebacker Za'Darius Smith has racked up a career-high 13.5 sacks, while linebacker Preston Smith has a career high 12 sacks. The "Smith Brothers" are both free agent signees soaring to new heights in their first run with the Packers. Za'Darius was never a full-time starter in his four years with Baltimore, but he's making the most of his opportunity now. He also has personal bests in quarterback hits, total tackles, and tackles for loss. Preston hasn't missed a game since getting drafted in 2015; since joining the Pack, he has an interception and forced fumbled to his credit as well. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was retained from Mike McCarthy's staff, and he guides a unit that sits seventh in the NFL in takeaways (24) and ninth in points allowed per game (19.5).

A stingier defense is one factor in Green Bay's turnaround, but commitment to the run game is just as important. Aaron Jones leads the NFL with 16 rushing touchdowns, double his output from last season. In fact, he has more rushing TDs in 2019 than the entire team recorded in 2018! The Packers are tied for fifth in the league in that category, which underscores the new balance for an offense that relied too heavily on Aaron Rodgers in the past. Monday's division-clinching win over the Vikings was the third this season without a scoring pass from Rodgers. He ranks outside the top ten in most major passing stats, but his touchdown-to-interception ratio (24:3) is the best in the league. The Pack no longer need Rodgers to put up MVP numbers in order for them to win.

That same offensive balance is also critical for Minnesota in returning to the playoffs after a year away. Running back Dalvin Cook missed the Green Bay clash with a shoulder injury, but he's tied for third in the NFL with 13 rushing touchdowns and sits ninth with 1,135 yards. With Cook as the centerpiece and driving force of the offense, the Vikings average 130.6 yards on the ground, up more than 37 yards per game from last season! With less pressure on Kirk Cousins (and a dozen fewer sacks) behind a stout offensive line, the veteran is posting a career-high 107.4 passer rating, fourth best among starting QBs.

San Francisco finally has its starter in place after two seasons of searching and waiting for the right quarterback. With Jimmy Garoppolo playing a full season for the first time in his career, the added reps and experience are shining through in his performance and decision-making. Before this fall, he never started more than five games and didn't appear in more than six. His resiliency is evident in multiple fourth-quarter comebacks, including last weekend's win over the Rams. Despite getting picked off twice and sacked a half-dozen times, he led the Niners on back to back scoring drives to end the game. His teammates rave about his toughness and leadership as they've finally had the chance to see him in action week in and week out.

In the AFC, the Bills will make only their second trip to the postseason this century, and they seek their first playoff win since December 30th, 1995. Rather than an abrupt turnaround, slow and steady is the progress under head coach Sean McDermott. With Josh Allen making smarter choices and taking fewer unnecessary risks, the offense is carrying its weight. Last season, Buffalo ranked in the bottom three in the NFL in total yards, passing yards, points per game, and giveaways. This year, the Bills have cut their turnovers in half—from 32 down to 16—and Allen has seen dramatic improvements in every statistical category over his rookie year. While a fierce, physical, smashmouth defense remains the Buffalo calling card, the enhanced offense makes the team formidable. As McDermott builds his culture and the Bills gain confidence, postseason bids won't be so few and far between.

The final week of the regular season will determine the remaining two playoff teams, two division titles, and almost all of the seeds for January. With so much on the line, we fans can count on excitement, tension, and more than a few surprises. That's the beauty of the NFL and one reason for its ever-burgeoning popularity. In the span of a year, teams can rise from worst to first or they can plummet from division winner to the basement. The National Football League keeps us guessing from season to season, and we wouldn't have it any other way.

Happy New Year indeed!

A well-traveled veteran of sports radio and television, Amy is the passionate host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program, After Hours with Amy Lawrence, from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Listeners can tune in from Canada and overseas, thanks to SiriusXM, and the CBS Sports app. Amy has also handled basketball play-by-play and color duties for various radio and TV outlets over the past 15 years. Amy graduated from Messiah College with bachelor’s degrees in Communications & Accounting before earning her master’s in TV & Radio from Syracuse University. She is a native of Concord, NH.