It’s now a 12-team race for the right to put sweaty, sticky fingerprints all over the Lombardi Trophy in a month. This NFL playoff field is one of the most unique in recent history. Eight new teams broke into the postseason from last year, including all but one in the NFC (Atlanta). Buffalo broke an 18-year drought because Andy Dalton of all quarterbacks came through in the clutch. Jesse James’ controversial no-catch resulted in a swing for home field in the AFC. The NFC’s top-seed is being led by a backup signal-caller. Case Keenum has championship aspirations on his homefield. Yeah, it’s a wacky time. So what are each team’s odds at having confetti rain down upon them in Minneapolis? Here we go.
12) Bills: Sorry #BillsMafia, but the longest odds are with you guys. Even though there’s a pinch of pixie dust that’s swept through Western New York, and a dose of good karma from all of those donations to Dalton’s charity, this team just doesn’t have the talent to win four games in the playoffs. There’s no cooler story than Buffalo finally breaking the jinx, and rewarding some of the best fans in the league. Buffalo might even pull a Wild Card upset. But ultimately the Bills (in a supposed rebuild year) just don’t have the horses or the experience to win it all.
11) Titans: Tennessee’s chances are not much stronger than the Bills, but Marcus Mariota is a better quarterback than Tyrod Taylor and Mike Mularkey has five seasons of head coaching experience compared to Sean McDermott’s one. The Titans likely don’t have enough firepower to beat the Chiefs, but even if Alex Smith lays an egg, Tennessee will be an easy mark in the divisional round.
10) Falcons: Atlanta was the NFC’s top dog last year, had a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl, and has the best downfield weapon in the playoffs (Julio Jones). But the regular season proved just how off-kilter the Falcons have been since the all-time championship choke. Why has Jones caught only three touchdowns? What’s the deal with Matt Ryan looking so skittish? How did this team need the final week of the season just to slip in? The talent is there to win a championship, but it’s too hard to envision this team putting it all together for four weeks. The Super Bowl hangover is real.
9) Jaguars: Jacksonville gets the slight edge over the Falcons because of their ferocious pass rush, which could cause major headaches for opposing quarterbacks. It’s still a year or two too early to truly consider the Jags a Super Bowl contender – this is the first year this group has even made the postseason – but there’s things to like about JAX in JAN. Heavy running attack, solid coaching, steady quarterback play, aggressive defense, leadership (Calais Campbell) and the Tom Coughlin touch. The Jags should get out of the Wild Card round, but the run likely ends there.
8) Chiefs: Jacksonville is likely to give the top two seeds a better game than Kansas City, but I’m giving the Chiefs the edge because of their playoff experience and how they played early in the season. It feels like ancient history, but after the first month of the season KC looked like the best team in football. Alex Smith was throwing aggressively downfield, the offense had too many weapons to cover, and they had gone to Foxboro making the Pats D look foolish. That’s a long time ago, but we know they have it in them, buried deep. KC wins its Wild Card game, but will get thrashed in the divisional round. It’s Captain Checkdown’s last ride in KC.
7) Eagles: The NFC’s #1 seed has five teams ahead of it with better chances to win the whole thing. Had Carson Wentz stayed healthy, Philly would’ve been much higher on this list. But I have a difficult (read: impossible) time believing Nick Foles is going to win three playoff games. In his three starts, Nicky 6 played only non-playoff teams, so it’s difficult to gauge where he’s at in this offense. It’s a shame because Eagles fans deserve a Super Bowl after years of misery, but the NFC playoffs are just too deep and too tough.
6) Panthers: Carolina has all the elements you look for in a potential champion. Playoff experience, MVP-caliber quarterback, stingy defense. The problem will be winning three games on the road in a difficult NFC playoffs starting with a division rival in the Big Easy. But the Panthers can beat anyone in the NFC playoffs, and 11-5 shows how solid they are. Will the Jerry Richardson scandal cause any distraction in the locker room? Maybe, but guess who isn’t scared of going to Philly in the divisional round? The Panthers.
5) Saints: New Orleans has the best recipe in the playoffs. Powerful running game, terrific defense, shutdown corner, a coach who has won a title, and a quarterback headed to Canton. No other team has all of those parts. The problem is a tough Wild Card matchup against the Panthers, a team that knows them well. The Superdome advantage should help them get a win over Carolina, and I’d pick the Saints in a matchup against the Eagles. This is the most balanced team Drew Brees has ever had.
4) Rams: No team has had a more dramatic identity shift than L.A. Jared Goff looks like a franchise quarterback, Todd Gurley is an MVP candidate, the Rams are one of the best teams in football. Their offense gets the love, but their defense brings heavy hitters on the pass rush. They’re confident, aggressive, and get a home game Wild Card weekend. I’m picking the Rams to defeat the Falcons, and then square off against the Vikings in the de facto NFC title game. I’ve been saying for a month on my show, the winner of L.A./Minnesota will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
3) Steelers: Pittsburgh has all the pieces to win the Super Bowl. The problem will be a trip to Foxboro in the AFC Title Game. If Antonio Brown returns effectively, the Steelers have the most explosive offense in the playoffs (including the Rams). The loss of Ryan Shazier hurts, but Pittsburgh has seemed to gain some internal strength through their comrade’s awful injury. Pittsburgh will get a physical, difficult test from the Jags, but ultimately will prevail. Mentally, however, do the Steelers believe they can win at New England? The Pats have the upper hand, and it would take the Steelers best game to win at Gillette. But if the Steelers do that, they clearly have enough to win their 7th franchise Super Bowl.
2) Vikings: A potential Rams/Vikings matchup in the playoffs would conjure up old memories of classic clashes of the ’70s NFC postseason. Except this edition would take place in controlled conditions instead of the frozen mud of Bloomington. Minnesota has the historic possibility of playing all three playoff games at home. The Vikings will host divisional round weekend, and their gleaming new building will house the Super Bowl. If the Eagles get picked off in the divisional round (which is a distinct possibility) the Vikings would host the NFC title game. Case Keenum, as I’ve written, is one of the best stories the NFL has developed in years. And he’s not just game-managing. He’s making throws, leading the offense, and complementing one of the most complete defenses in football.
1) Patriots: Four months ago, I picked the Patriots to win the Super Bowl. My feeling hasn’t changed. Despite the report there is building friction between Belichick and Brady, once again New England has a clear path to the Lombardi. The overturn in Pittsburgh gifted the Pats a bye and homefield advantage. Had New England been forced to go on the road for the AFC Title Game (the Pats haven’t won a road playoff game in more than a decade) or (gasp!) had to play Wild Card weekend, I would have slid the Pats down this list. I don’t believe New England is good enough this year to have won three playoff games in the AFC, two of them being on the road. Brady has shown some signs of aging, and the defense was alarmingly toothless for the first six weeks of the season. The division once again provided absolutely no resistance, but the Pats should waltz through to Minneapolis. At that point, it’s winner-take-all and unless Eli Manning is standing on the other sideline, the Pats tend to win all of those.
D.A. hosts 9am-12 pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.