The NFL playoff field is set, and it’s shaping up to be one loaded with Super Bowl contenders. There are obvious favorites at the top, but the NFC is deep, while the Patriots have the red-hot Steelers standing between them and a trip to Houston in the AFC. Not every team has a legitimate shot at winning it all, though.
Here's a ranking, from worst (relatively speaking, of course), to first, in terms of chances to win a title.
Oh, what could have been for Miami. The Dolphins are one of the hottest teams in the league, but not having Ryan Tannehill healthy is a huge blow to their Super Bowl odds. It’s even more crushing considering the year they’ve had and the lack of success the Dolphins have had in recent years. There’s still hope, just not as much of it as there would be with a healthy Tannehill.
The Dolphins will need Jay Ajayi to put up 100 rushing yards per game to complement Matt Moore and the passing game. The Dolphins don’t have the firepower to get into shootouts with teams like the Steelers or Patriots, and their defense isn’t good enough to shut them down. There’s plenty of hope for this roster in 2017, though, which could be their year.
Can Tom Savage or Brock Osweiler actually lead Houston to a home game in the Super Bowl – and possibly a win? We’re about to find out, but all indications point toward no. The Texans’ defense is Super Bowl-worthy, but the offense is hardly that. In fact, it’s one of the worst in football. There are great pieces there, however, which is what makes their struggles so puzzling.
DeAndre Hopkins is a Pro Bowl receiver when getting decent quarterback play, and Lamar Miller has the makings of a guy who can rush for 1,200 yards every season if healthy. Again, it all comes down to the play of their quarterbacks, who don’t look like guys who can carry their team to the promised land. Savage suffered a concussion Sunday, and Osweiler has been ineffective all season.
The Lions were able to earn a playoff berth, but that doesn’t make them Super Bowl contenders. They’re still far too unbalanced offensively, and teams with great quarterbacks will pick the defense apart. They allowed the highest passer rating and completion percentage in the NFL this season, which should be concerning for Detroit.
Matthew Stafford is clearly the difference maker in all of this. If he can play the way he did in the middle of the season, carrying the Lions to comeback victories, they have a shot at making a deep run – albeit a slim chance. If he plays the way he has late in the year, the Lions aren’t going to go anywhere. They need him to perform like an MVP.
Oakland would have been much higher on this list had Derek Carr not broken his leg. As a result, they drop significantly with Matt McGloin (shoulder) or Connor Cook heading the offense. The Raiders do have enough firepower offensively to make the transition a bit easier, but it probably won’t be enough to win them a Super Bowl. McGloin has to rely on the run and get the ball into the hands of Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper if they want to have any chance.
It also doesn’t help that the defense has been poor all year. It’s susceptible to the pass, ranking toward the bottom in most relevant categories. At least they have Khalil Mack on the edge, who can change the game with his pass rushing prowess and ability to create turnovers.
New York Giants
New York has been dominant on defense this season, wreaking havoc up front against opposing offenses. Landon Collins and Janoris Jenkins have taken the secondary to new heights, which make teams weary of trying to move the ball through the air. Getting Jason Pierre-Paul back for the final stretch would be a boost, but it’s not something the Giants can count on. Even if he is out all season, they’re in good shape.
It’s on offense where the questions emerge. Eli Manning is having an atrocious year, making poor decisions – particularly late in games. He’s too reliant on his playmakers like Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard, which makes it difficult for New York to throw the ball consistently. There’s also no semblance of a running game, and of course that’s a huge issue. If the Giants win the Super Bowl, it’ll be the way Manning won his first: on the back of an elite defense.
Kansas City Chiefs
No team forced more turnovers this season than the Chiefs. The defense is relentless and plays with great physicality while boasting the best ball skills of any secondary. Eric Berry and Marcus Peters are ballhawks on the back end, which makes it difficult for any team to throw the ball against them – hence their 80.1 passer rating allowed entering Week 17. Having Justin Houston and their pass rushers healthy will be key, and should be in the cards going forward.
On offense, Alex Smith has to do what he does best: get the ball into the hands of his playmakers. Tyreek Hill has burst onto the scene as a real weapon, while Travis Kelce is the best tight end in the game with Gronk sidelined. As long as Smith doesn’t commit turnovers and the Chiefs have success running the ball, they can upset any team in their path.
The Seahawks are losing players at the worst time. First Earl Thomas, now Tyler Lockett. Those are difference makers on each side of the ball, and their absences greatly hurt Seattle’s Super Bowl chances. It doesn’t completely kill their hopes, though. Seattle still has one of the best defenses in all of football, which makes it a contender by itself.
The offense will come down to how Russell Wilson plays. If he can take off the way he did at the end of last season, going on a streak with very few turnovers and a few touchdown passes per game, the Seahawks will be in good shape. He needs to play at an MVP level in order for Seattle to have a chance, especially with the lack of success Thomas Rawls and the running game have had since he returned. This postseason could be a defining one for Wilson if he can carry them to a Super Bowl win.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers seemed done when they were 4-6 with Aaron Rodgers looking like he was no longer a perennial MVP candidate. That was hardly the case as they’re now in the postseason and look like one of the most dangerous teams in football. Ty Montgomery has given Green Bay a boost at running back, providing it with much-needed balance. On the outside, Jordy Nelson is finally 100 percent and Davante Adams has stepped up as a great No. 2 option. The emergence of tight end Jared Cook and his athleticism in the middle of the field has made a huge difference, too.
The biggest questions come on defense. if the Packers can rush the quarterback and take pressure off of the secondary, they’ll be in good shape. The health of linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry will obviously be key, but they appear to be ready to roll.
The Falcons have flown somewhat under the radar this season despite having the league’s top-scoring offense. That’s because many view them as a team that relies on scoring 40 points per game, considering the defense isn’t Super Bowl-caliber. That’s just flat out wrong. The Falcons have to be taken seriously in the NFC. Matt Ryan is an MVP candidate, and receiver Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman are two of the best players at their respective positions.
As for that overlooked defense, Vic Beasley has quietly been the league’s best pass rusher in 2016. He leads the league with 15 1/2sacks and provides the Falcons with a dynamic edge rusher to get after the quarterback. Not having injured cornerback Desmond Trufant hurts, but don’t disregard how well Robert Alford has played in his place. For the Falcons, getting little attention might be the best thing, allowing them to come out of nowhere and catch everyone off guard.
When the Steelers were 4-5 and Ben Roethlisberger was battling a knee injury, many people were counting them out. Those people were foolish. The Steelers went on a long winning streak led by the resurgence of Le’Veon Bell. He’s brought a great deal of balance to the offense, which was previously pass-first. The defense, helped by rookies Sean Davis and Artie Burns, is also playing extremely well, proving it can hang with the more explosive teams in the postseason.
With the way that the AFC is top-heavy, the championship game is shaping up to be a meeting between the Patriots and Steelers. They have the best quarterbacks in the conference to go along with the top offenses. The Chiefs and their outstanding turnover-causing defense could slow the Steelers should they meet, but Pittsburgh is the hottest team in football right now.
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No one could have predicted that the Cowboys would have been one of the two teams to beat at the end of the regular season after Tony Romo went down, but here we are. Next to the Patriots, Dallas is the most balanced team in the NFL. They have a dominant running game led by Ezekiel Elliott, which is complemented by a quarterback who doesn’t make mistakes and a receiving corps that has the fewest drops in the league (seven).
Defensively, Dallas is No. 1 against the run. That’s both a testament to its ability to force teams to throw the ball by jumping out to leads and the play of Sean Lee. The Cowboys are legitimate Super Bowl contenders behind their pair of outstanding rookies. The only thing standing in Dallas’ way of a trip to Houston is the tough NFC, which boasts the Falcons, Seahawks, and Giants – who beat the Cowboys twice in the regular season.
New England Patriots
Entering the playoffs, the Patriots are the team to beat – shocking, I know. Every year they’re favorites to win it all, and there’s one reason for that: Tom Brady. No Rob Gronkowski, no true No. 1 receiver, no problem. Brady is the cog that keeps this Patriots machine going, and as long as he’s healthy, they’re the team favored to win it all.
What doesn’t get enough attention is their defense. New England is No. 1 in points allowed and has been quietly dominant on that side of the ball. The secondary has improved drastically since the start of the season. Between the defense and the balance offensively with LeGarrette Blount, New England is extremely dangerous. Not to mention, the AFC is weak with the Chiefs and Steelers posing the only real threats to the Pats.