As I did once before, I’m going to rank the 2016 NFL Playoff participants based on my completely subjective analysis of the likelihood of their winning the Super Bowl. This isn’t a “power rankings” as it takes into account things like opponents, home field advantage, travel, and the like. For instance, I’d probably pick Seattle on a neutral field over Denver, but I think Denver has a better shot at winning the Super Bowl primarily because they only have to win two home games to get there while the Seahawks would need to win three games all at least 1000 miles away from the friendly confines of CenturyLink Field.
So, without further ado, here are my rankings (each with a brief or not-so-brief explanation)…
1.) Arizona Cardinals (likely path to the Super Bowl: bye; vs Packers; @Panthers) – This team is elite on both sides of the ball. They have multiple playmakers on offense and a shut-it-down defense. It took me a while to believe in them but they pass the eye test and are backed up by the advanced numbers. The loss of Honey Badger will hurt, but show me a team without significant injury concerns at this point in the season? Their season-ending drubbing at the hands of the Seahawks gives me brief pause, but it is hard to know how motivated they were for that game, knowing it was very unlikely to ultimately matter.
2.) Carolina Panthers (likely path to the Super Bowl: bye; vs Seahawks; vs Cardinals) – Another team that performed well offensively and defensively. While I don’t think they were historically good in the way their 14-0 start and 15-1 finish would suggest, I don’t think they are the paper tigers others have made them out to be. I give Arizona the slightest edge, because I’m not sure what offensive playmaker the Panthers can turn to with the game on the line besides Cam, and I’m not sure that’s enough.
3.) Denver Broncos (likely path to the Super Bowl: bye; vs Steelers; vs Patriots) – As iffy as their offense has been with the screwy QB situation, this team has a historically good defense and retains home field advantage throughout the playoffs. That and the Patriots’ injuries are the only reasons I slot them ahead of their rivals.
4.) New England Patriots (likely path to the Super Bowl: bye; vs Chiefs; @Broncos) – They started out looking arguably as good as the 2007 incarnation and then… the wheels just seemed to come off. They were competitive in all their losses but finished the season on a 1-4 skid. And they can’t blame it all on injuries. Hard to count them out, but I don’t think we can assume a walk to the title game. Plus, their road gets considerably tougher (and the Broncos’ easier) if Dalton returns and the Bengals regain their form.
5.) Seattle Seahawks (likely path to the Super Bowl: @Vikings; @Panthers; @Cardinals) – Despite some early season struggles, they might be the best team in the league. And the fact that they are ranked tops among the teams playing opening weekend — and as a six seed to boot — speaks to their strength. However, it is really hard to rank them much higher, given that they’ll likely have to knock off the top two teams on this list.
It seems worth pointing out that I think the winner of the Super Bowl is almost assuredly one of these five teams and that they are really only separated by the thinnest of margins. Ask me tomorrow and I might rank them differently. I see a pretty big drop off between #5 and #6 on this list.
6.) Pittsburgh Steelers (likely path to the Super Bowl: @Bengals; @Broncos; @Patriots) – They have one of the most dynamic offenses in the league, with super surprising sub DeAngelo Williams looking like one of the biggest offseason signings of the year. If Dalton is out, I make them the favorite on Saturday. At their best, they can go toe-to-toe with both Denver and New England, but I don’t think they are consistent enough to pull off four consecutive wins against elite competition.
7.) Kansas City Chiefs (likely path to the Super Bowl: @Texans; @Patriots; @Broncos) – Hard to argue with the 10 game winning streak they finished the season on. They are good on both sides of the ball. However, I think a lack of playmakers does them in. They’ll get past Houston, but no further.
8.) Cincinnati Bengals (likely path to the Super Bowl: vs Steelers; @Patriots; @Broncos) – They’d be higher on the list if Dalton was playing. I’d have them favored over the Steelers and probably giving little more than the home field advantage to the Pats and Broncos. This team was REALLY good on both sides of the ball. And while Dalton has had an up-and-down career, he’s played solid and steady this year which is what the team needed. Sadly, his injury likely means the Marvin Lewis playoff drought continues. But if the Bengals win this weekend and Dalton returns, they can be dangerous.
9.) Green Bay (likely path to the Super Bowl: @Washington; @Cardinals; @Panthers) – This team has been playing poorly for a while now. It is tempting to blame that on Jordy Nelson’s absence, but he was also gone during their 5-0 start so who knows. This is probably too high, but call me a believer in Aaron Rodgers. Of the also-rans, their odds to get hot and go on a run seem best.
10.) Washington (likely path to the Super Bowl: vs Packers; @Cardinals; @Panthers) – Hard to believe they’re good, but I think they are? Cousins has looked great all year under Gruden’s tutelage. But are they good? Maybe. But not good enough to hang with Seattle, Arizona, or Carolina.
11.) Houston Texans (likely path to the Super Bowl: vs Chiefs; @Patriots; @Broncos) – JJ Watt is a god but not enough. Even if they get past the Chiefs, they can’t hang with the AFC’s elite.
12.) Minnesota Vikings (likely path to the Super Bowl: vs Seahawks; @Cardinals; @Carolina) – Not the worst team in the league, but they have the toughest draw opening weekend and therefore are the least likely to advance. I just don’t see them getting past Seattle.
So there you have it… an infallible preview!
Ultimately, here are my projections for how the playoffs play out (which may not perfectly reflect the rankings here because reality doesn’t care about your (my?) rankings!)…
Chiefs over Texans
Steelers over Bengals
Steelers over Broncos
Patriots over Chiefs
Patriots over Steelers
Seahawks over Vikings
Packers over Redskins
Seahawks over Panthers
Cardinals over Packers
Seahawks over Cardinals
Seahawks over Patriots
Hey! A rematch with a slightly different outcome. That was easy!