You couldn’t have scripted a better finish to Week 17, could you? The NFC West and homefield advantage was decided by mere inches on a day where we saw perhaps one of the greatest all-time upsets of this Patriots dynasty that changed the landscape of the AFC. We saw a resilient, championship-tested team squeak out a division title, and we’re about to see perhaps the greatest No. 3 seed of all time on Sunday. As great as the regular season was, can the playoffs follow suit? Let’s dive into some games and storylines:
Patriots will actually have to earn a Super Bowl berth this year
For the first time in a decade, it will take the Patriots three wins if they want to return to the Super Bowl for the fourth straight year. Yes, they won on the road at Arrowhead last year, but only after they got a somewhat-undeserved home game against a Chargers team with a better record in the divisional round. New England looks vulnerable this year, and Tennessee comes in with some momentum. When last Mike Vrabel took on his former coach, the Titans walloped the Patriots, 34-10, in Nashville last year with Marcus Mariota. Now, Ryan Tannehill — he of 4 career wins against New England, more than any opposing QB this decade — gets a chance to prove he can play with the big boys. If there ever was a time for a Patriots upset, this is it. And yet, don’t you get the feeling that the Patriots may just flip a switch like they did last year? And how likely is it really that New England loses two straight home playoff games in this round (albeit 10 years apart)? Still, the Pats are 0-for-3 in the Brady/Belichick era in getting to the Super Bowl without a bye. Technically, the Patriots were 3-3 against teams with winning records this year, but that’s somewhat deceiving, too. They beat the 10-6 Bills twice, a Bills team that only beat one team with a winning record all year (Tennessee in Week 5). They also beat a severely undermanned, 9-7 Eagles team in mid-November, but went 0-3 against the other AFC division leaders.
The Saints are not your average No. 3 seed
You’ll read shortly how strongly I feel about the Saints, but it’s an understatement to say that this 13-3 New Orleans squad is vastly under-seeded. Their offense is peaking at the right time, which was not the case last year when they fell just short of the Super Bowl against the Rams. The defense is capable of picking up the slack at any point, just as it did when Drew Brees missed time early in the year. A highly winnable tilt with the Vikings kicks off a potential title run, followed by a trip to Lambeau Field to take on a relatively-inexperienced Packers club. The final piece would be a likely rematch with the 49ers, who edged the Saints, 48-46, in the Superdome in a game in which the Saints were quite undermanned defensively. No one should want to face this team in January, especially with the chip on their collective shoulders after being jobbed by the officials last year.
At least the AFC seeding is just
Even though New Orleans may have gotten a bit jipped in being a No. 3 seed, things shook out the way they were supposed to in the AFC. The Ravens and Chiefs are the top two teams in the conference, and it was poetic justice that New England was unable to back its way into a 10th straight bye with the help of a ridiculously soft schedule. The Chiefs are firing on all cylinders the last six games, while the Ravens have been doing that for twice as long since their 2-2 start. Never count out the Patriots, but it’d be pretty shocking if the Chiefs and Ravens didn’t clash in the AFC Championship Game. Remember, Lamar Jackson is 19-1 against the rest of the league, but 0-2 against the Chiefs.
Schedule shows that Goodell still continues to fix what isn’t broken
As if the NFL playoffs don’t eat up enough of our time, commissioner Roger Goodell has now moved the Sunday Divisional Round games back to 3 and 6:40, times usually reserved only for the championship games. For the second time (2015 as well), he put both AFC wild card games on Saturday and both NFC games on Sunday rather than staggering them the way they should be. This is probably all irrelevant anyway since a ludicrous, 17-game season with an extra playoff team seems to be inevitable.
The last time I did a pre-playoffs Super Bowl prediction back in 2016, I nailed it with the Patriots and Falcons, so I’m going to give it another go in 2019. I only see three legitimate Super Bowl contenders in the AFC, and I’m not even sure about New England. The NFC is a little more wide open, but it still comes down to quarterbacks for me, and I also truly think we’re due for a team playing on wild card weekend to make the Super Bowl (it hasn’t happened since the 2012 Ravens). That’s why I’m picking the Ravens and Saints to clash on Super Bowl Sunday in Miami, site of the Saints’ lone Super Bowl win 10 years ago.