NFL Playoff Power Rankings: Panthers team to beat entering divisional round
Home-field advantage may not be dead, but it's not doing well.
All four road teams won this past weekend, marking the first time that has occurred in the NFL playoffs. A road sweep also has never happened in the divisional round, so perhaps the higher seeds can reestablish some normalcy on Saturday and Sunday. All four (Carolina, Arizona, Denver and New England) are expected to be favored.
The NFL's seeding system itself is to blame for the home-team stumble, of course. Were it not for division champs automatically earning the right to play on their own turf, both Kansas City and Green Bay would have hosted in Round 1, instead of traveling to Houston and Washington, respectively.
Beyond that, there's not much for the league to do, shy of sweeping changes—i.e. scrapping the divisions entirely or setting up the postseason as the NCAA does its playoff, with neutral-site action. Oooooh ... NFL bowl games, anyone? No? Good call.
What the first four playoff outcomes really did was reinforce a running theme throughout the 2015 season: parity bordering on mediocrity. Save for the likes of Carolina and Arizona, teams were jumbled across the board from September through the start of January, so a handful of road wins here and there should come as little surprise. In fact, not one of the wild-card weekend's results truly counted as an "upset," by Vegas's definition.
Will the top seeds flip the script in the divisional round? Until then, here's how the remaining eight stack up:
Can we just get this game going already? It feels like we've been waiting forever to see what the Cardinals can do on the big stage. Last year hardly counts because of Carson Palmer's absence—remember the Ryan Lindley debacle at Carolina in the 2014 wild-card round? The Cardinals' last win was by 30 over their next opponent, Green Bay. Their last game, period, was a 30-point loss to the Seahawks. Which version of themselves the Cardinals more closely resemble will go a long way toward determining their fate, but the Week 17 showing was an outlier in a brilliant regular season.
The Patriots would have loved to hang onto the AFC's No. 1 seed, but hanging onto a first-round bye arguably was even more important. While Bill Belichick probably could win a couple games with Tom Brady, 20 guys from the stands and Pat Patriot, his roster this weekend will be as healthy as it's been in months. Don't count out the defending champs based on their 2-4 closing stretch.
When the Broncos reached the Super Bowl two seasons back, it was with the NFL's top-rated offense and its 19th-ranked defense. The setup is very different this time around—Denver boasts a No. 1 defense and No. 16 offense. Three of the teams to test that defense most strenuously this season remain alive in the AFC bracket, so Peyton Manning probably will have to crank it up a notch at some point soon if the Broncos' playoff run is to be a long one.
Ever sit down on a roller coaster, reach the top, then look to your right and have this reaction: "What the hell is Landry Jones doing here?" Such was the Steelers' rocky ride in Cincinnati, which ended with a bizarre, dramatic victory. A limited Ben Roethlisberger helped save his team late, but can he heal in time for next weekend's trip to Denver? Even if he does, the Steelers will have their hands full. Without him, forget it.