NFL Playoff Preview!

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!

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21 thoughts on “NFL Playoff Preview!

  1. Green Bay won six in a row to start the season, not five. After the bye week, they had Denver, who demolished them, and that game convinced me that your predictions are wrong. Defense wins championships.

    So I predict Denver defeating Arizona in Super Bowl L, because Denver has the best defense in the whole league, and Arizona has the best defense in the NFC.

    As for my Packers, I’m rather doubtful they can get past even Washington — Kirk Cousins has been en fuego recently; the Questionable Trademarks have way, way more momentum than the team that cruised into the playoffs on the strength of a series of games it won early on in the season. Sad to say, but the evidence is in: even if The Best Quarterback On The Planet™ put the team on his back, he’s likely still going to be in a position similar to the Detroit game: it should never come down to having to do a Hail Mary pass like that in the first place, especially because that’s a low-odds play.

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    • That outcome would not surprise me. And it would delight me. But I worry if Denver has enough offense. When they struggle, they REALLY STRUGGLE.

      Everything you said about Green Bay is true. I’m bucking the numbers and what cold analysis would dictate because I just have a sense that they’re better than that. I’mprobably wrong, but I’d rather be wrong betting with Rodgers than against.

      But, as my predictions note, I think they make it a game and go out quietly in the second round.

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  2. Denver’s fate rests in the hands of the zebras. The Broncos lose the first game they play where the officials call defensive holding and illegal contact using “playoff” standards instead of “regular season” standards. If the opposing defense can disrupt the routes, the o-line’s not good enough to give either Manning or Osweiler enough time. The best defense in the world isn’t enough to overcome an offense that only goes +10 net points. Pete Carroll in Seattle has shown everyone the way — if you keep bumping for an extra couple of yards downfield and hold a bit early in the route on every play, the zebras will quit calling it.

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    • Yeah, the recipe is really clear when Manning’s under center: stack the box, play tight man to man. He can’t handle that truth.

      Personally, I think Kubiak is making a mistake by starting Manning since I don’t think he’s healthy/young enough to be successful for 12 good quarters. So not only will Brock quite likely end up the starter at some point, but if (when) he does he won’t have a “healthy” Manning backing him up or coming off the bench if (when) he’s underperforming.

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      • I think Osweiler is at this point simply a better quarterback — what Manning has is a clever brain and a fast read, but his physical abilities are no longer sufficient to do the tricks necessary to make real what he imagines in his head. The man is past his use-by date, which is sad because he’s been such a great face for the franchise and the NFL and a ton of fun to watch playing.

        Age catches up with everyone. Even Brett Favre. “Age” in NFL player terms has a cruelly low maximum: Manning is, after all, younger than me and I still feel young.

        Maybe Kubiak plans to use Manning for a series or two to test out the opposition, then put in Osweiler for a series or two to exploit what Manning has revealed, and go back and forth from there as necessary?

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        • I’d like to think Kubiak knows what most of us know: that Manning isn’t built right now to play 12 quarters against some of the best defenses (and coaches!) in the league. I’d love to think he’d platoon QBs situationally. That’d be awesome. (I’d like to think Manning is open to that possibility too.)

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      • If Manning is in they are going to work hard to hit him a few times to see if he shatters. He will have to take a few and burn the D before anybody believes he is really something like the QB he used to be. I’m not sure anybody really wants to see how poorly he could react to getting really slammed. Heck the D might be fine with a personal foul or two just to test him.

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        • Agreed. He’s just a sitting duck. (Think Bledsoe without the arm strength.) And they’ll be stacking the box anyway, so anytime he goes play action a couple few incredibly large men running at full speed will hit the A gap hoping to blow him up. Or they’ll come off the edge. Or just blitz. (I get depressed just thinking about it.)

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  3. Well, everything is still right in the universe. The Bengals managed to bungle their way to a loss; the steamrolling Chiefs cruise against the QBless Texans. I had both teams winning, but I’ve reversied on which team presents a bigger threat to the top two seeds: being a Broncos fan, I’m glad we don’t have to play Kansas City next week.

    New England will lose that game. The Broncos? The best we can hope for is lingering injuries to Big Ben. Or fresh ones early and often (he sliced us up last a few weeks ago).

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    • Fun times in the league office on Monday morning deciding how many and how big the fines are going to be. I’ll just say that the no-call hit on the receiver would have been targeting and expulsion in a college game, and should be in the NFL too. Ducking your head and leading with the crown of the helmet like that has to stop.

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      • Are you referring to the hit on Bernard that led to the fumble? If the game-ending hit was a penalty, I don’t know how that one wasn’t. I’m with the players on having no idea what defenders can and can’t do anymore. I’m on board with making the game safer, but they need to A) make sure they actually do that (e.g., many rules about QBs are about protecting money makers, not long term player health) and B) apply them consistently. Neither is the status quo. But what do we expect from an org led by Goodel?

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  4. Four for four! Wahoo! And all road teams! Though, technically, all favorites (I think GB opened as a dawg but closed as a favorite; regardless, no pick involved going out on a huge limb).

    I am much less confident in my Steelers pick on account of the injuries they’ve suffered. Picking fresh, I’d probably take Denver. And that makes me less confident in the Pats going to the Super Bowl, though I think they are still probably the pick out of the AFC.

    I’m not putting too much stock in Seattle’s near loss. Weird things happen in frigid temperatures. They remain the best team on paper by most statistical measures.

    Green Bay seemed to get some mojo back after a sluggish first half. You do have to wonder about their running game.

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      • Yes and no. The Steelers and Bengals were in the same division; the Bengals were a vastly superior team throughout the season and were done in by an injury to their starting QB and some questionable calls.

        The Vikings had a better record than the Seahawks and nearly played them to a draw.

        The 4/5 matchup in the AFC is the only one that felt glaringly mismatched; the AFC had at least one team (Jets) who were better (both record and in terms of overall team quality) than the Texans. I’m not sure if there was an AFC team who deserved a slot over Washington.

        I do think your broader point is correct and that the NFL will have to address playoff seeding in the near future. But I don’t think this past weekend’s games are particularly strong evidence for the case.

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        • I’m not sure the Bengals were vastly superior throughout the season… and the Steelers managed to get down to their third string quarterback (Vick, of all people), so they aren’t exactly without injuries either.

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