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.
How might it all go down? Which teams are the ones to beat? Our Playoff Power Rankings sets the stage for the postseason:
1. Carolina Panthers
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. Arizona Cardinals
• Complete schedule of NFL wild-card games
3. Seattle Seahawks
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. Kansas City Chiefs
• BANKS: Week 17 Snaps: Fitzpatrick throws away Jets' playoff shot
5. New England Patriots
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. Denver Broncos
• FARRAR: Time for Broncos to pick: Manning or Osweiler?
7. Pittsburgh Steelers
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. Cincinnati Bengals
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9. Washington Redskins
• BURKE: Cousins leading red-hot Redskins into playoffs
10. Minnesota Vikings
• FARRAR: Run game, defense lead Vikings to NFC North crown in win vs. Packers
11. Houston Texans
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. Green Bay Packers
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.