The NFL playoffs are just over four weeks away and the top of the heap is beginning to separate itself from the rest of the pack. Super Bowl contenders are emerging, while pretenders are showing their true colors and falling back in the standings.
There are still 20 or so teams still vying for playoff spots, but only eight have a legitimate shot at winning the Super Bowl. You can probably predict who’s at the top, but those below the obvious candidates aren’t nearly as clear-cut.
Just missed: Giants, Colts, Packers, Lions
The Giants, Colts, Packers and Lions are all in the same boat. They’re good enough to make the playoffs, but winning three or four games in January and February is just too much for them to do. The Giants are wildly inconsistent on offense, the Colts are the beneficiaries of a terrible division, the Packers lack explosiveness and creativity, while the Lions are simply too reliant on late-game magic.
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I’m not exactly sure what to make of the Falcons, but it’s hard to not put them in the discussion as Super Bowl contenders. They have a high-octane offense with a truly dominant receiver and a dynamic running game. The defense has been hurt by the loss of Desmond Trufant and the pass rush is still a question mark, but as long as they continue to score 30-plus points a game, their opponents will feel pressured to do the same.
Winning the NFC South and playing a home game in Atlanta would do wonders for their Super Bowl hopes, but with the Buccaneers hot on their heels, that’s becoming increasingly difficult. Still, even as a road team, the Falcons are complete enough to hang with the top teams in the NFL.
The 2016 Broncos are eerily similar to the team that won it all last season, and that’s a compliment. They have questions at quarterback, the running game hasn’t been dominant and the defense is loaded with playmakers from front to back. Does that make them favorites to win it all again? Absolutely not, but they do have a chance at back-to-back titles. This will hinge mostly on the play of Trevor Siemian down the stretch.
If he performs the way he did against the Chiefs, their odds increase. If he struggles the way he did in New Orleans, the Broncos will be in some trouble. Obviously, the results of those games would seem to contradict that notion, but you can’t count on a PAT return for a TD to win a playoff game. Quarterbacks and stingy defenses win postseason games.
Like the Steelers, the Broncos will be fighting for their playoff lives in the coming weeks with a difficult schedule ahead of them. If they make the postseason, it’ll be because they beat a handful of great teams, further bolstering their Super Bowl odds.
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Don’t look now, but the Steelers have reemerged as a top team in the AFC. With Ben Roethlisberger healthy, Le’Veon Bell impacting games in several ways and Antonio Brown being, well, Antonio Brown, the Steelers are a handful for opposing defenses. That’s not why they’re playing better of late, though. The defense has really come into its own, partly thanks to the play of rookie safety Sean Davis. He’s added an athletic, ball-hawking element to the secondary, and it’s made a world of difference. Not to mention, Artie Burns has improved, too.
Unlike the teams above them on the list, the Steelers are nowhere near locks for the playoffs. They’re currently in a tie for first with the Ravens in the AFC North, but with the way Baltimore has struggled against good teams, I expect the Steelers to beat them out and win the division. If they do so, they’ll host a playoff game in the first round, which is a big difference over traveling on wild card weekend. Roethlisberger is a much better player at home, throwing 170 touchdowns to just 127 on the road in his career. Pittsburgh is a dark horse that isn’t getting nearly enough attention.
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The Raiders have the second-best record in the NFL, but they’re not the best team in their conference … or even the No. 2 team. While Oakland’s offense is as explosive and fun to watch as any in football, the defense is suspect to being exposed. The Bills did it, the Broncos did it and the Patriots could certainly make it happen, too. For that reason, they’re slightly behind the Patriots and Chiefs when it comes to Super Bowl favorites in the AFC.
That’s not to say the Raiders are a bad team. They’re still one of the best, but not one of the most complete. And when it comes to winning a championship, complete squads typically get it done. What’s a positive trend for Oakland is the sheer dominance of Khalil Mack. He’s solidified himself as a top-five defensive player in the NFL today, simply taking over games with his pass rush and turnover-forcing ways.
In order for the Raiders to win it all, they’ll need to shore up the defense – which will be helped by the return of Mario Edwards Jr. – and knock the Chiefs off on Thursday night. In doing so, they’ll have the inside track to an AFC West title and a first-round bye. If not, they could be forced to travel on wild card weekend.
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Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs above the Raiders, Steelers and Broncos? Yep, they’re that good. Kansas City is the Patriots’ biggest threat in the AFC with its physical style of defense, solid running game and lack of mistakes on offense. They played the Patriots tough in the playoffs last season and nearly upset them. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see that happen this year. The biggest thing preventing the Chiefs from making a deep run in the playoffs is Andy Reid, the ever-underperforming head coach when it comes to the postseason.
The Chiefs, like the Cowboys, are built for cold-weather football, and they’ll prove that on Thursday night against the Raiders. They run the ball well, complete short passes to their backs and tight ends and play a hard-nosed style of defense. Justin Houston, Dee Ford and Tamba Hali can get after quarterbacks while Marcus Peters always matches up well with opposing No. 1 receivers. As a whole, the Chiefs are certainly Super Bowl contenders.
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The Seahawks came away looking dominant against the Panthers, moving the ball with ease on offense and shutting down Cam Newton on defense. In doing so, they also lost Earl Thomas for the year, which is a huge blow. You could make the argument that he’s the Seahawks’ most important defensive player, and is the team’s best starter next to Russell Wilson. Without him flying around the secondary making jarring hits and key interceptions, the defense looks significantly different.
That won’t prevent them from winning the Super Bowl though. Behind the Cowboys, the Seahawks are the second-best team in the NFC, and it’s not even close. While they’ve been inconsistent on offense, their defense is one of the best in football. It’s exactly how they won the Super Bowl in 2014.
Clinching a first-round bye and a home playoff game in the divisional round will be huge, and it would allow them to host a second game in Seattle should the Cowboys somehow lose before the NFC championship game. Russell Wilson plays some of his best football late in the year and in the playoffs, and this season will be no different – especially if the Seahawks are playing at home.
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New England Patriots
No Gronk, no problem? No Gronk, minor problem. No one is underselling Rob Gronkowski’s impact on the game, but this isn’t like the Giants losing Odell Beckham Jr., or the Falcons losing Julio Jones. I say that because the Patriots are one of the rare teams that can move the ball with a cast of unheralded players, unlike the Giants and Falcons who rely heavily on their top targets. Much like the way the Cowboys got past Dez Bryant’s injury, the Patriots will get by without Gronk.
They remain the heavy favorite in the AFC with teams like the Chiefs, Raiders and Broncos all having one fairly obvious weakness. The Patriots certainly need to improve on defense – particularly in their pass rush – but they don’t have a hole that teams can easily exploit. Should they lock up home-field advantage in the AFC, their path to Houston would become even easier. With a few more wins against a relatively weak schedule, that’ll happen.
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For months, the Cowboys have established themselves as the best team in the NFL. The Patriots still have better Super Bowl odds in Vegas, but Dallas is the team to beat with Rob Gronkowski out of the picture. The Cowboys have injuries and issues of their own – Morris Claiborne, the lack of a pass rush, questionable pass defense – but they’re also the most complete team in the league.
Everything seems to be working in Dallas’ favor right now, too. Jason Pierre-Paul is out for the year, Earl Thomas is as well for the Seahawks and the Patriots will be forced to make a run at a ring without Gronk. Do these things directly impact the Cowboys? Not necessarily, but they certainly could down the stretch, should Dallas play Seattle in the NFC title game and New England in the Super Bowl.
The Cowboys don’t turn the ball over, they’re incredibly consistent on offense and the defense is playing well enough to allow the offense to carry the load. Not to mention, they’re built for cold-weather games in January, given their 300-pound road-graders up front and Ezekiel Elliott’s running style.