The NFL playoff field is set as the regular season book has officially been shut. Only 12 teams remain, and though each of them technically has a chance to win it all, not all situations are created equal. The Cowboys, Falcons, Patriots and Chiefs all have first-round byes, giving them significant advantages to reach Houston. Four other teams will host playoff games on wild-card weekend, thus giving them an advantage, as well.
Just because a team won its division or clinched a first-round bye doesn’t mean it’s a lock to reach the Super Bowl, or even win a single playoff game. Each playoff path is different and some are more difficult than others.
To put into perspective which team has the most daunting path to Houston, we ranked them all – from near-impossible to borderline cake walk.
Getty ImagesGetty Images
Predicted path: Steelers, Patriots, Chiefs
The Dolphins snuck into the playoffs thanks to nine wins in their last 11 games, but they remain the least-likely team to win it all. They’ll have to face the red-hot Steelers in Round 1, the Patriots in Round 2 and probably the Chiefs in the conference championship – should they escape wild-card weekend, which they probably won’t. It was a terrific season for the Dolphins and gives them a great deal of hope going into 2017, especially with Ryan Tannehill healthy again.
Predicted path: Seahawks, Cowboys, Packers
A trip to Seattle, a date with the top-seeded Cowboys and a flight to either Atlanta or Green Bay? Yeah, no thanks. That’s the path the Lions face if they want to make it all the way to Houston. Of course, they probably won’t make it past the first round with the Seahawks hosting them, but it’s fun to think about.
Even if the Lions had beaten the Packers on Sunday night, they would have set up a date with the Giants, who just beat Detroit two weeks prior. The Lions aren’t likely to make any noise in the playoffs, and their daunting path is a big reason.
Predicted path: Texans, Patriots, Steelers
The Raiders lost more than a game on Sunday – they lost their first-round bye, which would have at least guaranteed they’d make it past wild-card weekend. Instead, they have to face the Texans in the first round, followed by meetings with the Patriots and Chiefs/Steelers. The Texans may not be entirely threatening, but that defense against a second- or third-string quarterback doesn’t bode well for the Raiders. Oakland may have gone from Super Bowl contender to first-round flops all due to Derek Carr’s crushing leg injury.
New York Giants
Predicted path: Packers, Cowboys, Falcons
If you isolate the Giants’ talent and simply look at their path to Houston, you could make the case that they have the most daunting potential schedule of opponents. It features the Packers, Cowboys and either Falcons or Seahawks (sorry, Lions fans), which does them no favors. And not to mention, exactly zero of those games will be at home.
However, considering the Giants are one of the better teams in the playoffs, I give them a better shot to make the Super Bowl than the previous three teams on this list. Their defense has the potential to shut down the Packers, while they’ve already proved they can beat the Cowboys – their likeliest second-round opponent.
Danny Wild-USA TODAY SportsDanny Wild
Predicted path: Raiders, Patriots, Steelers
The Texans are one of the worst teams in the playoffs, but fortunately for them, they’ll face a Raiders team that’s likely to start their third-string quarterback. At best, it’ll be Matt McGloin under center. The Texans should probably win that game, but they’ll get a rude awakening in the second round when they travel to Foxborough.
The Patriots are not going to be upset by Tom Savage or Brock Osweiler at home, thus signaling the end of Houston’s playoff run after just one week. While the Texans were fortunate to draw the Derek Carr-less Raiders in the first round, they won’t even sniff the Super Bowl with New England and either Pittsburgh or Kansas City standing in their path.
Green Bay Packers
Predicted path: Giants, Cowboys, Falcons
Playing the Giants in the first round isn’t the best situation for the Packers, but hosting a playoff game at Lambeau definitely is. The Packers are the hottest team in the game right now, but beating the Giants won’t be easy – especially with their daunting defense. That pass rush can wreak havoc on Aaron Rodgers and force him to get rid of the ball earlier than he’d like.
Say the Packers do beat the Giants (as they did in Week 4), they’ll take on the Cowboys in a rematch of the 2014 NFC Divisional round. This time, though, the Cowboys would host the Packers at AT&T Stadium. Sure, Packers fans travel well, but Dallas lost just one game at home this season and playing in front of a home crowd should make rookie QB Dak Prescott more comfortable.
Copyright The Associated Press. All rights reserved.AP
Predicted path: Lions, Falcons, Cowboys
The Seahawks had to be pleased that the Packers beat the Lions on Sunday night, sending Matthew Stafford’s squad to Seattle for the first round of the playoffs. Had Detroit won, it’d be Aaron Rodgers and the Packers taking on the Seahawks, which could have easily been an upset in the making. Instead, Matthew Stafford and his gimpy finger will take on the Seahawks in inclement weather at CenturyLink Field.
Once the Seahawks take care of the Lions, they’ll travel to Atlanta, where Matt Ryan waits. Seattle beat the Falcons last time around, but that was largely thanks to a missed call by officials late in the game. The Falcons are a better team than they were then, which means Seattle could be in deep trouble.
Stacy RevereGetty Images
Predicted path: Dolphins, Chiefs, Patriots
The Steelers, despite their 11-5 record, didn’t earn themselves a first-round bye, but playing the Dolphins in Round 1 isn’t exactly a tall task. Granted, if Ryan Tannehill is back, beating the Dolphins becomes a bit more difficult, but I expect the Steelers to escape unscathed. The divisional round is when things get tough.
The Chiefs will be Pittsburgh’s first real test and the game will be played at Arrowhead. Beating the Chiefs on the road? Good luck … for most teams. The Steelers have what it takes to beat Kansas City at Arrowhead, and I think they will. That’ll set up a showdown between Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. Again, not ideal, but doable for Pittsburgh.
Kansas City Chiefs
Predicted path: Steelers, Patriots
The Chiefs bettered their Super Bowl chances by moving up to the second seed, but it didn’t make their path any less daunting. They still have to go through the two best teams in the AFC in the Steelers and Patriots if they want to reach Houston. The Steelers will be their first opponent after they manhandle the Dolphins. If Kansas City can beat Pittsburgh, which is far from a given, it’ll face the Patriots in the AFC Championship game.
Facing Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady – arguably two of the three best quarterbacks in the playoffs – isn’t ideal, but if the Chiefs want to win it all, they’ll have to beat the best. There’s no way around it.
Predicted path: Packers, Falcons
That’s right, the Cowboys have a tougher path than the Falcons despite being the No. 1 seed. They’re likely to face the Packers or Giants in the divisional round with Seattle handling Detroit. So that leaves them with a game against the team that beat them twice in the regular season or the hottest squad in football led by Aaron Rodgers. Pick your poison.
If they handle Green Bay or New York, the Cowboys will have to face either the Falcons or Seahawks, with the former being their likeliest matchup. Needless to say, the path to Houston is littered with hurdles for the NFC’s top seed.
Getty ImagesGetty Images
Predicted path: Seahawks, Cowboys
The Falcons clinched the No. 2 seed on Sunday, earning a first-round bye. Detroit’s loss to the Packers also almost assures Atlanta it’ll face the Seahawks in the divisional round with Seattle hosting the Lions. The Seahawks are a good team, but they’re not the threat they once were – especially without Earl Thomas and Tyler Lockett.
If the Falcons do beat the Seahawks, which I’d expect them to do at home, they’ll take on the Cowboys in a road game. That won’t be an easy test by any means, but Atlanta’s high-powered offense matches up well with Dallas’ secondary and bend-don’t-break defense.
New England Patriots
Predicted path: Raiders, Steelers
When Derek Carr went down with a broken leg, the Patriots’ Super Bowl chances went through the roof. As cynical as that sounds, it’s true. It narrowed the field of contenders in the AFC down to just three with the Steelers and Chiefs being the others. As a result, top-seeded New England has the easiest path to the Super Bowl.
The Steelers are most likely going to beat the Dolphins this weekend and will face the Chiefs in the second round. The winner of that game will be a test for the Patriots, but New England’s opening game against the Texans or Raiders will be almost like a second bye.