Monday January 4th, 2016

The NFL’s 50th Super Bowl champion will be crowned on Feb. 7 in Santa Clara, Calif. Will the playoffs unfold according to plan up to that point or, as is usually the case, are we in for a few surprises along the way?

The better question may be if anything even would qualify as a true surprise this year, given the parity (you may call it “mediocrity”) on display around the league. Records aside, there does not appear to huge gaps among the 12 playoff teams, at least in the wide open AFC.

BURKE: Previewing AFC wild-card games | FARRAR: NFC wild-card primer

How might it all go down? Which teams are the ones to beat? Our Playoff Power Rankings sets the stage for the postseason:

NFL Playoff Power Rankings
  • 1
    1Carolina Panthers
    last week: 2
    record: 15–1
    Despite the Panthers' 15–1 record, expect to see plenty of predictions tabbing other teams to claim the NFC (including mine, perhaps). But if you're still not convinced that Carolina's near-undefeated season was legit, a quick refresher course: Cam Newton probably is going to be the league MVP, Josh Norman is in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation and Luke Kuechly might be in that conversation as well if he hadn't missed three games. The offense, which should have RB Jonathan Stewart back by the divisional round, has finally caught up to the stout defense. Nothing will come easily against Carolina.

  • 2
    2Arizona Cardinals
    last week: 1
    record: 13–3
    One essentially meaningless dud by the Cardinals doesn’t offset the nine-game win streak that preceded it, does it? It shouldn’t, although the way Seattle ran roughshod over Arizona does open some new questions in the Cardinals’ post-Tyrann Mathieu world.
    This was the league's most balanced team for a huge chunk of the season, Week 17 be damned. And not that any team wants to lose in the playoffs, but Arizona will be extra motivated to get going having had its 2014 playoff hopes derailed by Carson Palmer’s knee injury.

  • 3
    3Seattle Seahawks
    last week: 7
    record: 10–6
    The Seahawks closed the season on a 6–1 run, complete with a win over Pittsburgh and blowout road victories over Minnesota and Arizona. They may not have the benefit of their raucous home crowd this playoff season, but, ya know, Russell Wilson and the entire defense still get to go with them to road games so they're a handful. A Week 16 loss to St. Louis stands out as a bit of a fluke contrasted against the rest of November, December and now January.

  • 4
    4Kansas City Chiefs
    last week: 3
    record: 11–5
    Kansas City ranks higher here than it does in the AFC playoff field, so we'll find out soon enough which system to trust. But at least heading into the wild-card round, the Chiefs have established themselves as a true Super Bowl threat, running off 10 in a row behind a playmaking defense and suddenly potent offense. Oh, and they are also planning to get back stud linebacker Justin Houston next week, following four games out of the lineup with a knee injury.

  • 5
    5New England Patriots
    last week: 4
    record: 12–4
    Danny Amendola suited up Sunday. Julian Edelman and Sebastian Vollmer are expected to be back in time for New England's first playoff game on Jan. 16. This may be a flawed (and banged-up) team, with questions on defense. It also is one with Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Rob Gronkowski against a relatively disheveled AFC field. Bet against the Patriots at your own peril.

  • 6
    6Denver Broncos
    last week: 5
    record: 12–4
    The Broncos may have taken the scenic route to get there, but they'll enter the playoffs as the No. 1 seed with Peyton Manning as their quarterback. Better yet, Denver carries with it the league's top-ranked defense and a run game that continues to find its footing. Only one team beat both New England and Cincinnati this season. This is it.

  • 7
    7Pittsburgh Steelers
    last week: 12
    record: 10–6
    So which Steelers team actually made it to the playoffs: The one hailed off back-to-back wins over Cincinnati and Denver as the Patriots' biggest threat? Or the lackluster club, headed by a struggling Ben Roethlisberger, that fell in Baltimore and needed three quarters to put away Cleveland? Bank on getting the former. The good news for a team that tends to play to its competition's level is that such an approach sets a high bar come the postseason.

  • 8
    8Cincinnati Bengals
    last week: 10
    record: 12–4
    The Cincinnati fans are well aware of its team's history—four straight years exiting in the wild-card round; the 10-year anniversary of Pittsburgh's playoff win over the Bengals, marred by Carson Palmer's injury. The mojo doesn't feel great.And yet, this arguably is the best Bengals club since the 1988 Super Bowl runner-up, at least when healthy. AJ McCarron is a step down from Regular-Season Andy Dalton right now, but what about Playoff Andy Dalton? That version has been wholly unreliable during Cincinnati's postseason losing streak.

  • 9
    9Washington Redskins
    last week: 9
    record: 9–7
    The NFC East champs come in having won four straight, posting 400-plus yards and at least 34 points in the past three. As a result, Kirk Cousins' "You Like That!" has turned into the Redskins' unofficial Pledge of Allegiance. The defense surrendered more points and more yards than any other playoff team, so the Cousins-led offense will have to keep it rolling for the dream to live on.

  • 10
    10Minnesota Vikings
    last week: 8
    record: 11–5
    Sunday night's win over Green Bay earned the Vikings the NFC North crown, a home playoff game ... and a matchup against a Seattle team that just rolled to a 31-point win in Minnesota a month ago. Adrian Peterson rushed for 18 yards in that ballgame. If he can't go for, oh let's say, seven times as many yards in Sunday's rematch, the Vikings are in huge trouble.

  • 11
    11Houston Texans
    last week: 11
    record: 9–7
    Defense wins championships? The Texans better pray that mantra holds true, because they're definitely not making a Cinderella run on their offense. They did close the year averaging 32 points in Weeks 16 and 17, but those wins came over Tennessee and Jacksonville—hardly playoff-worthy competition. Time for J.J. Watt to strap on his Superman cape.

  • 12
    12Green Bay Packers
    last week: 13
    record: 10–6
    The Packers' offense scored a combined 21 points, with six turnovers, over its final two games. Aaron Rodgers or not, that's just not a very unit right now (and quite frankly, Rodgers has been a noticeable part of the problem). Green Bay went 4-6 after its bye, stumbling out of the NFC North's top spot. Rodgers plus what is at least a competent defense offers a little hope, but a playoff hot streak—to borrow a soccer phrase—would be against the run of play.

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