Has there ever been a weaker playoff field in NFL history than this year’s AFC grouping? Maybe NFL history is stretching it, but certainly in Brady & Belichick history. If you thought the Patriots’ road to Houston was easy two weeks ago, it’s a downright cakewalk after Derek Carr’s season-ending injury.
But just because the AFC playoff field looks over before it started, it doesn’t mean this January will be devoid of entertaining football (on the NFC side, at least). Let’s take a closer look at the 12 “contenders” (I’ll use that term loosely) and I’ll offer up an early Super Bowl prediction before I get back to my weekly picking, which has seen my ATS record reach 37-15 (71.2% success rate).
AFC PLAYOFF FIELD
1 – New England Patriots (14-2)
It’d be shocking not to see Tom Terrific and the Pats in their seventh Super Bowl this century. Like I asked after the O.J. case to myself – if not him/them, then who could it be? New England boasts the league’s top scoring defense, a fact lost in the glow of Brady’s record-setting 28-to-2 TD-to-INT ratio. But, alas, who has New England really beaten this year? In the technical sense, they are 4-1 against playoff teams, but let’s take a closer look at that record. Two of those wins were against upstart Miami, including last week with Matt Moore at QB and basically nothing on the line for the Dolphins. One was against the 9-7 Texans, winners of football’s weakest division, although in fairness to the Patriots they had Jacoby Brissett at quarterback. And of course, they beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh — but with Landry Jones under center, in the one game Ben Roethlisberger happened to miss all year. New England’s divisional round opponent will be quarterbacked by either Moore, Brock Osweiler, Tom Savage, Matt McGloin, or Connor Cook. That’s basically a free pass to the AFC championship game, and an excellent chance to play in Super Bowl LI.
2 – Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)
If there’s one team that can stop this dreadful cycle in the AFC, it might be the Chiefs. 12 of the last 13 Super Bowls have featured one of just three AFC quarterbacks – Brady, Roethlisberger, and Peyton Manning. Can Alex Smith really take Kansas City to the promised land? In short, probably not, but the Chiefs have playmakers on both sides of the ball, and if nothing else a guaranteed home game in the divisional round. They will likely face the Steelers, who trounced them, 43-14, in Week 4. Kansas City is great at home, but to beat the Patriots in Foxborough, they will need to play a flawless game. That not only means no turnovers, but likely a defensive or special teams touchdown, and Smith generating big plays in the passing game. The Chiefs ended the regular season as the only team in the NFL to go 6-0 in divisional play, which is a pretty impressive feat considering that the AFC West might have been the strongest division in football this year.
3 – Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
Like the Green Bay Packers in the NFC, the Steelers gave the haters plenty of false hope. Pittsburgh was 4-5 at one point, but because they’re the Steelers and the AFC basically stinks, 11-5 was an achievable goal, and here they are facing a backup quarterback in the wild card round. Pittsburgh has lost its last two wild card games, including an embarrassing loss to Tim Tebow and the Broncos in 2011. They are just about a lock to beat the Dolphins in a revenge game for their Week 6 loss in Miami, meaning they get to go to Arrowhead Stadium after that. They destroyed the Chiefs in Week 4, so they won’t be fazed. Whether they can beat the Patriots remains to be seen, but history tells us that they won’t. Though Pittsburgh has won three AFC titles this century, they won all of them in large part because they were able to avoid the Patriots. One was in 2008, when Brady missed the entire season with a torn ACL. A Pittsburgh-New England AFC title game seems likely.
4 – Houston Texans (9-7)
The Texans have the league’s stingiest defense in terms of yards allowed, but does that make you any more confident in their ability to beat a team like New England or Kansas City? Not really, especially considering what Brock Osweiler and Tom Savage bring (or don’t bring) to the table. Houston lost 27-0 to the Brissett-led Patriots in Week 3, so why would it be any different this time around? Still, look for Houston to shut down the suddenly-anemic Raiders’ offense in the wild card round. After that, it’s just gravy for former Patriots coach Bill O’Brien and his troops, isn’t it?
5 – Oakland Raiders (12-4)
How unfair is all of this? I hate to use that phrase because neither sports nor life is fair, but after 14 long years, the Raiders are finally back in the playoffs, and many people felt that Derek Carr could lead Oakland all the way to the Super Bowl. Instead, this wild card game in Houston will most certainly be the Raiders’ only visit to NRG Stadium, and it’s really sad given the tremendous season Oakland had. But with either Matt McGloin or Connor Cook under center, this could be really ugly, even against the mediocre Texans.
6 – Miami Dolphins (10-6)
The Dolphins were another nice story derailed by a quarterback injury. At least Moore is a competent backup, but the Dolphins are at least a year or two away from being a serious threat in the postseason. The Dolphins’ playoff run figures to be a very short one given their 29th-ranked defense and Tannehill’s injury, so don’t get a big head about the fact that Miami actually beat Pittsburgh by 15 points back in October.
NFC PLAYOFF FIELD
1 – Dallas Cowboys (13-3)
Can Dak Prescott be the first rookie quarterback to lead his team to the Super Bowl? History, obviously, tells us no. Dallas’ high-powered offense is led by rookies Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott, but its fate will be determined by its defense, which ranked 14th in the NFL in yards allowed, but fifth in points allowed. My hunch is that it will come down to matchups for the Cowboys. A date with the Giants could be perilous, but the Boys likely match up well with the Packers and Seahawks, and possibly the Falcons. If Dallas can get through its first playoff game, it will gain a little more steam heading into the NFC championship game. But in a deep playoff field, even the Cowboys’ offense might have met its match in the…
2 – Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
The quietest No. 2 seed in history perhaps, the Falcons “secretly” scored 33.8 points per game, most in the NFL and more than a touchdown more than the heralded Cowboys’ offense. Matt Ryan is playing at an MVP level, but can he shed the albatross of a 1-4 career playoff record? While the AFC seems so obvious in terms of New England taking the crown, maybe Atlanta could be the nice counter-act the league needs to make the Super Bowl less — how should I put this? — hated by the general public for being another set of usual suspects. The Falcons figure to match up well with the big offensive teams, but could struggle with the likes of the Giants and, of course, the Patriots.
3 – Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1)
These are not your older brother’s Seahawks. Once a 6-2-1 powerhouse after beating the Patriots in Week 10, the Seahawks limped to the finish line, getting blown out by Green Bay, losing to Arizona, and barely squeaking past the 49ers in Week 17. Key injuries to safety Earl Thomas and wide receiver Tyler Lockett have taken their toll, and perhaps the aura of invincibility around Russell Wilson, Pete Carroll and the 12s may be fading. The Seahawks can probably get past the Lions, but don’t look capable of knocking off the big dogs on the road. Seattle has looked really bad at times away from CenturyLink Field.
4 – Green Bay Packers (10-6)
Like the Steelers, you thought maybe we’d get a postseason without the Packers when they were 4-6, but apparently they just flipped on a switch and changed their collective minds. Here comes Green Bay again, winners of six straight with a healthy Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson back to their old tricks. The Packers will have a tough draw with the Giants, who have beaten them two straight playoff meetings, and then possibly Dallas or Atlanta on the road. The Packers have lost to both the Cowboys and Falcons this year, but would not be fazed by facing them here in January.
5 – New York Giants (11-5)
The Giants’ defense is a force to be reckoned with, but before you start making any comparisons of this team to the 2007 and 2011 championship clubs, remember that Eli Manning had one of his worst career years statistically. If Manning can’t generate more offense and the Giants struggle to run the ball, their defense alone cannot carry them through. It will be a tough road for Big Blue, even though they are battled-tested. The road to Houston would likely take them through Green Bay, Dallas, and then Atlanta. In Houston, they would have to slay another dragon in either the Patriots or Steelers. The Giants are a good team and have a chance to make a run, but don’t count on this ending in another Lombardi Trophy.
6 – Detroit Lions (9-7)
Let’s forgive the Lions a little bit for their three-game losing streak. It’s not as if this team lost to the Jaguars, Browns, and 49ers. Rather, it’s been a tough run for the Lions in having to face the Giants, Cowboys, and Packers in successive weeks. The Seahawks are not quite at the level of those teams, but it might be asking too much for a beat-up Matthew Stafford to silence the 12s in Seattle. Even if the Lions pull off that upset, it likely wouldn’t go any farther than that for Detroit. But winning their first playoff game since 1991 would probably be a nice silver lining for long-suffering Lions fans.
Early, early Super Bowl prediction – Patriots vs. Falcons
The last time I picked these two teams before the playoffs started, they were knocked out after a bye week in the divisional round back in 2010. But while the AFC seems and likely will be obvious with the Patriots advancing, let’s mix it up a little and take dark horse in the NFC. Tom Brady vs. Matt Ryan would be an exciting battle of MVP finalists, and while it may not be as sexy as a Patriots-Cowboys or Patriots-Packers showdown, it would probably feature a lot of offense.