The NFL is built on parity and the balance of power shifts from year to year. Sure, some things are consistent — like the Patriots winning the AFC East and Aaron Rodgers throwing 30 touchdowns — but nothing is guaranteed. However, when it comes to playoff projections for 2016, there are a handful of teams in great position to make the postseason. In fact, their chances are so great that they’re virtually locks to advance past the regular season.
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The Steelers, like the Patriots, will be forced to overcome major suspensions this season. Le’Veon Bell will miss the first three games while Martavis Bryant is banned for the entire year, leaving the Steelers without two of their best playmakers. Fortunately, they still have Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger leading the offense until Bell returns. Few teams can match Pittsburgh’s explosiveness on offense, and that’s why the Steelers were one of the highest-scoring teams in the league last season. There are still questions on defense, especially in the secondary, but the offense will allow Pittsburgh to overcome its deficiencies. The Bengals are the Steelers’ only true threat in the AFC North, and they have issues of their own.
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The Seahawks have won at least 10 games in each of the four years that Russell Wilson has been the starter. They’ve also reached the postseason each year with him at the helm, too. The NFC West is a strong division, but the Seahawks have the firepower and the defense to topple the Cardinals. And even if they don’t finish first, they’ll certainly earn a wild card berth. Wilson has been one of the winningest quarterbacks since coming into the NFL and that will continue in 2016. He simply finds ways to win games regardless of who’s around him. There’s a reason they’re the second-biggest NFC favorite to win the Super Bowl behind the Packers.
2015 Getty ImagesStephen Brashear
The Panthers won 15 games last season and it likely will take a significant drop-off for them to miss the playoffs in 2016 — especially considering the unbalanced NFC South. The Panthers are far and away the best team in the division with the Falcons likely the second best. The defense has been downgraded this offseason following the departures of Josh Norman and Roman Harper, but the offense improved. Kelvin Benjamin is healthy again and immediately becomes the top target for Cam Newton (1). Greg Olsen remains one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the game while Ted Ginn Jr. and Corey Brown can help stretch the field in the passing game. The Panthers almost certainly will regress from their 15-1 record a year ago, but what team would be able to sustain that?
Getty ImagesKevin C. Cox
New England Patriots
The Patriots have made the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons. That trend isn’t going to change in 2016 despite Tom Brady’s four-game suspension. The AFC East is arguably the NFL's worst division with the Bills, Jets and Dolphins all dealing with serious issues. Brady’s ban won’t be enough to keep Rob Gronkowski (87) and the Patriots from winning the division for an eighth straight year and it certainly won’t stop them from making the postseason. Sure, there are injuries piling up already, but the defense is stacked from the front four through the secondary. No team has been more consistent in reaching the playoffs than the Patriots, which is why they’re a lock to make it yet again. Write it down in permanent marker.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers’ chances of making the playoffs were heightened by Teddy Bridgewater’s unfortunate and horrific knee injury. The Vikings will have a difficult time overcoming the loss of their quarterback, which all but locks up the NFC North for the Packers. There’s no chance the Lions or Bears compete for the division title. Aaron Rodgers is getting his favorite target back in Jordy Nelson and Eddie Lacy has slimmed down. That should make for an improved offense paired with an underrated defense, led by a young, emerging secondary. The Packers are one of the favorites in the NFC, and when you consider they’re in a fairly weak division made worse by Bridgewater’s injury, Green Bay undoubtedly will be in the postseason.