Sorting the NFL playoff contenders, dark horses and pretenders

Jan 5, 2018, 5:32 PM
(AP photos)...
(AP photos)
(AP photos)

The AFC and NFC playoffs sit on opposite ends of the gambler’s continuum. The AFC looks like an easy bet; the NFC looks like a six-team crapshoot.

If the New England Patriots don’t host the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship on Jan. 21, we’ll happily eat crow in exchange for some playoff intrigue. If you’re asking us which NFC team will emerge to face the Patriots in the Super Bowl, however, we’ll stammer like a cornered cookie thief. Every one of the six teams can make a legitimate Super Bowl case.

We’ve divided the 12-team playoff field into three groups: contenders, dark horses and pretenders. As you’ll see, we are heavily swayed by quarterback play and pedigree in our breakdown. We’re sure you’ll have differing opinions on these categories, based on that nacho-stained jersey you’re wearing or cold-hard analysis.

That’s why we have a comments section.


AFC No. 1 seed New England Patriots (13-3): ESPN tells us the Patriots’ house is divided. There are cracks in the Kraft-Belichick-Brady foundation. News flash: This happens to lots of great teams. Go look at how much internal strife existed with the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. It won’t matter once play begins. The Patriots know how to win like no team the modern-era NFL has ever seen.

AFC No. 2 seed Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3): The Steelers have the pedigree, they have a week off to rest off for whichever mediocre team emerges from the wild card round and they have a better quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) than whichever team emerges. The standard is the standard.

NFC No. 2 seed Minnesota Vikings (13-3): We love the Case Keenum story. We love the idea that a team could play the Super Bowl in its home stadium — the ultimate home-field advantage. Not that it matters, but we even love the Vikings’ uniforms more than any NFL team. We just can’t escape the feeling that this will be the latest chapter in Minnesota’s tortuous postseason history. An agonizing NFC Championship loss sounds about right.

NFC No. 3 seed Los Angeles Rams (11-5): Arizona fans won’t like this line of thinking, but we want to see the Rams in the Super Bowl because the L.A market increases intrigue, L.A. went without a team for so long (there are actually real fans there) and the Rams are just so much fun to watch. It’s like the greatest show on turf has been revived.


NFC No. 1 seed Philadelphia Eagles (13-3): Speaking of tortuous postseason histories, it’s hard not to pity a fan base — even a Philadelphia fan base — after the loss of QB Carson Wentz. We had the Eagles as a Super Bowl shoo-in before he went down. Nick Foles has filled in admirably, but you don’t win Super Bowls with a backup.

NFC No. 4 seed New Orleans Saints (11-5): Too bad the Saints aren’t at home where they were 7-1 this season, winning their final seven. They were a pedestrian 4-4 on the road. Drew Brees has been remarkable this season. He enters the playoffs with the NFC’s best passer rating (103.9) and a gaudy completion percentage of 72 — the highest single-season completion percentage in NFL history. It’s the third time in his career that Brees has set that NFL mark.

NFC No. 5 seed Carolina Panthers (11-5): Coach Ron Rivera says it is unfair to pin Carolina’s playoff hopes entirely on QB Cam Newton, but, well, that’s the sort of thing that goes with the job. Newton went 0-2 against the Saints (his first-round opponent) this season. Newton didn’t have a great season throwing the ball, but he is so dangerous when he gets outside the pocket. He had 754 yards rushing (22nd in the NFL) and six rushing TDs.

NFC No. 6 seed Atlanta Falcons (10-6): The Falcons had an uneven season but they were the NFC’s best team last season and they have precious playoff experience that the Rams lack in their NFC Wild Card matchup. Not to rub salt in coach Dan Quinn’s wound, but clock management is an underappreciated technique. Redemption is a long shot for the Falcons, but reaching the big game out of the wide-open NFC wouldn’t shock us one bit.


AFC No. 3 seed Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6): We won’t say where we read a piece suggesting we should respect QB Blake Bortles. It didn’t convince us. Jacksonville went 1-3 against playoff teams (yes, they only played four) this season. Their only impressive win was a 30-9 win at Pittsburgh. We love the Jags’ D and run game. We don’t believe Bortles can win them games. In the playoffs, your QB must have that ability.

AFC No. 4 seed Kansas City Chiefs (10-6): What a weird season the Chiefs had. They won their first five games. They lost six of their next seven, and won their last four. At their best, the Chiefs are the one team in this group that can leap up a tier. QB Alex Smith finished the season with 16 TDs and no interceptions in his last eight games, but the Chiefs’ defensive flaws are a concern.

AFC No. 5 seed Tennessee Titans (9-7): The Titans are one of the best arguments against a 16-team playoff. QB Marcus Mariota had 13 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and a passer rating of 79.3, the lowest of any postseason starter. Thanks for participating, Tennessee. Nobody will remember you were here in two years.

AFC No. 6 seed Buffalo Bills (9-7): The Bills ended an 18-year playoff drought when Baltimore choked away a home game against Cincinnati in the final minute. The last time the Bills won a playoff game, however, was 1995. That drought will probably remain intact after an AFC Wild Card game at Jacksonville. Tyrod Taylor may be the worst QB in the playoffs. It’s a tough call between Taylor, Mariota and Bortles. By the way, Buffalo allowed 57 more points than it scored.

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Sorting the NFL playoff contenders, dark horses and pretenders