The journey to the Super Bowl in Santa Clara began in September, and only 12 teams remain. Who will hoist the Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 7?
SI.com's NFL staff peers into the crystal ball and makes their Super Bowl picks.
Note: When reading the brackets, please keep in mind that the highest remaining seed hosts the lowest remaining seed in the following round of the playoffs, and the brackets may not line up perfectly.
Their Week 17 egg-laying at home against Seattle aside, the Cardinals have been the most well-balanced and consistently efficient team in the NFL this season. Knocking off this year’s almost-perfect regular-season champion (Carolina) and last season’s Super Bowl champion (New England) in consecutive games will be a daunting task, but Arizona and its ultra-confident coach, Bruce Arians, will rise to that challenge. This is a Cardinals team capable of winning anywhere, against any opponent, and this team is ready for a good reign in Arizona.
If the Cardinals make it past the Panthers, which I'm not convinced they can do, and Julian Edelman is 100% healthy, this should be a great Super Bowl against two evenly matched teams. But in the final result, I think the loss of DB Tyrann Mathieu is the difference—the Cardinals really could have used him to vary the looks against Tom Brady and send quick pressure. Carson Palmer and Co. has the magic mix of a deep passing game and daring playcaller that could knock off the Patriots, but without Honey Badger in the game, the Patriots will get a few more stops and lock up back-to-back titles.
I can’t imagine that many folks filled out the AFC side of their bracket and felt confident about their picks. But with Denver’s concerns at quarterback no matter who plays, and with New England’s injury situation, I like Pittsburgh, one of the hottest teams in football, to advance—mainly because the Steelers have an offense that can score on anybody and a defense that is good enough to keep games close. I like the Cardinals to win not only the NFC but also the Super Bowl because they’re the most balanced team in football, and they can beat opponents in a million different ways. They’re also well positioned, because they wouldn’t have to face their rival Seahawks until the conference championship, and that game would be at home, and only after Seattle would have beaten Minnesota and Carolina on the road.
This is how wide open the playoffs could be: I nearly took the Chiefs over the Patriots ... but I also gave much consideration to Houston taking them down in the wild-card round. In the end, I went with the Patriots because they're still so adept at adjusting for their opponent. They also should be about as healthy on offense as they have been in awhile, too. As for the NFC, a Carolina-Arizona showdown would be sensational, but it's a lot to ask the Panthers to take down the Seahawks and Cardinals on back-to-back weekends.
Seattle and Kansas City are the NFL’s hottest teams right now, and as much as momentum has a funny way of shifting, I think this postseason sees the proverbial “teams you don’t want to face” winning out. Right now, I see them as the two most complete teams in all facets. Carolina could get undone by an uneven run game and inconsistent receivers, and the Patriots are losing the war of attrition. Seahawks vs. Chiefs in Super Bowl 50 is a great matchup in so many ways if it happens, but I know Seattle can’t possibly keep this offensive pace going through four road games.
The Chiefs will stop being the NFL’s most underappreciated team when they make it out of the wild-card round. Though ultimately Tom Brady, the conference’s best quarterback, will make sure his millet-laden diet wasn’t a waste when he leads the Patriots to another Super Bowl appearance. But this is the year for the soon-to-be Super Bowl champion Cardinals. They field the most complete roster and have the NFL’s best play-caller in Bruce Arians, with QB Carson Palmer having the best season of his career while managing to stay healthy.
Peter King mentioned earlier this week that it’s not out of the question for every road team to win the wild-card round. That being said, the Packers’ last three games and the Redskins’ last three games tell completely different stories. Something’s obviously not right with the Packers right now, and on the road, they won’t be able to stand up to the current momentum in Washington, led by Kirk Cousins. In the preseason, I had the Eagles (as the No. 1 seed) winning it all against the Patriots—obviously that didn’t pan out, but I still think the NFC’s No. 1 seed will defeat the Patriots in Santa Clara. Carolina’s MVP QB and underrated receivers will get revenge for their loss in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
I picked the Broncos to win it all in preseason and midseason predictions, so I'm going to stick with them as the AFC team that makes it (though I wouldn't be shocked if the Chiefs pull it off). But the best teams all reside in the NFC, and despite the Panthers’ incredible season and the Seahawks’ end-of-year surge, the Cardinals have an intimidating, versatile defense, a variety of weapons on offense and, in my opinion, the best coach in football right now in Bruce Arians. Those three things will win you a championship.
Last season’s NFC playoffs came down to a handful of plays and could have resulted in a few different conference champions. This year appears to be just as close with Seattle, Arizona and Carolina at the same level. All three teams feature great late-game QBs, and the conference title game will likely come down to whoever has the ball last. I'm giving Carolina the edge with homefield advantage. None of the AFC favorites are at full strength. When in doubt, it makes sense to err on the side of Tom Brady—although the offensive line is a concern.
The biggest question hanging over these playoffs: Which Patriots team will we see? For the first 10 weeks, they were the league's best team. For much of the last six, they didn't even look like a playoff team, mostly because of injuries. If the Patriots are healthy, they can repeat. But their depleted offensive line may have to battle the Kansas City and Denver defensive fronts, and those are tough matchups for an injured unit. So the Super Bowl pick here is Arizona, the league’s most complete team right now, over Denver, which has the league’s best defense.
Whoever’s still standing after the wild-card round in Cincinnati becomes the biggest obstacle in the Patriots’ road to Santa Clara. In the end, no one navigates January football quite like Brady and Belichick, but there will be no denying Cam Newton in February. The Panthers can play any type of game they have to, be it a shootout or a defensive slog, and the way the team and crowd build off of each other’s energy makes it hard to believe anybody’s going into Carolina and winning this year. Even if the Patriots have a few more healthy weapons at their disposal by Super Bowl Sunday, I'll still take the soon-to-be MVP and his unheralded arsenal. The solid second halves put together by Devin Funchess and Corey Brown helped round out a receiving corps that had been left for dead in the summer.