As the NFL playoffs get underway, it seems fairly clear that the top two seeds in the NFC, the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers, have the edge on the rest of their teams in the conference.
In the AFC, the New England Patriots responded well after an indifferent 2-2 start to the season and earned the No. 1 seed in the AFC. While they could get a strong push from second-seeded Denver Broncos, the Patriots are the clear favorite to reach the Super Bowl as the playoffs get underway.
The Seahawks earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC a year ago, and they rolled to their first Super Bowl championship when they overpowered the Broncos at MetLife Stadium. But the three previous Super Bowl winners all played during the Wild Card weekend.
Having a bye in the opening weekend of the playoffs no longer means that those teams will get their tickets punched to the Super Bowl. The Ravens won the Super Bowl following the 2012 season as the No. 4 seed in the AFC, the Giants won the championship following the 2011 season as the No. 4 seed in the NFC, while the Packers defeated the Steelers to win Super Bowl XLV as the No. 6 seed.
The favorites regularly get beaten in the NFL playoffs, and teams playing in the Wild-Card Weekend have regularly gone on to bring home the title.
In this piece, we take a look at the eight teams playing this weekend and assess their chances of hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy Feb. 1. We rank them in the likelihood that they could represent their conference in the Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh Steelers (3-seed) – The Steelers are not getting the respect they deserve at the start of the postseason. They have as much to offer on the offensive side as any of the teams in the tournament.
However, they have a big injury concern in running back Le’Veon Bell, who has a hyperextended knee and his status this week against the Ravens is in question. If he can play, it opens things up for Roethlisberger and the passing game.
Even if he can’t, Roethlisberger is capable of tearing up any defense because he can shake off the pass rush, buy time, and get the ball to Antonio Brown, who is almost certainly the best receiver in the NFL. Heath Miller is one of the game’s most dependable tight ends.
The Steelers defense is the X-factor. Tough and aggressive, the Steelers will punish opponents with big hits. However, Dick LeBeau’s defense lacks speed and that could prevent this team from making a long run.
The Steelers are solid on special teams, as Shaun Suisham (29-of-32) has become one of the most defendable placekickers in the game.
Indianapolis Colts (4-seed) – Andrew Luck is the best of the new generation of quarterbacks in the NFL. As he completes his third season, he continues to demonstrate his arm strength, accuracy, leadership ability, and talent at running with the football.
The Colts have perhaps the worst running game of all the teams in the postseason because Trent Richardson is a flat-out bust. Dan “Boom” Herron may be competent, but he is unproven. Wideout T.Y. Hilton is at the height of his powers and he can find the open spots and then accelerate after catching the ball, while Reggie Wayne still has something left even though he could retire after this postseason.
The Colts have perhaps the most inconsistent defense of all the playoff teams. They were at their best in a Week Seven 27-0 victory over the Bengals, but they also gave up six TD passes to Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers a week later.
The combination of PK Adam Vinatieri (31-of-32 FG attempts) and P Pat McAfee (46.7 ypp) is stellar, and the coverage teams are dependable.
Baltimore Ravens (6-seed) – Most observers would like to dismiss John Harbaugh’s team from championship consideration because they needed help in the final weekend of the season just to make the playoffs. If the Chargers had beaten the Chiefs in Week 17, the Ravens would not be preparing for the Steelers.
But the Ravens have more than a puncher’s chance. Joe Flacco already has a Super Bowl to his credit, and he has one of the best deep arms in the business. While he lacks consistency, Flacco can carry his team. Steve Smith Sr. and Torrey Smith are both hungry, big-play receivers who can turn a game around. Justin Forsett (1,266 yards, 5.4 yards per carry) is one of the game’s most underrated players.
The Ravens are a long way from a defensive juggernaut, but Elvis Dumervil (17.0 sacks) and Terrell Suggs (12.0 sacks) are capable of tormenting opposing quarterbacks. However, the Ravens had the 24th-ranked pass defense and they are vulnerable if Dumervil and Suggs are not getting to the quarterback.
The Ravens have the best special teams of any team in the postseason – only the Eagles were better – and they could gain a huge edge in this area. Not only is Jacoby Jones a top return man, the Ravens excel in coverage and are solid in all aspects of the kicking game.
Cincinnati Bengals (5-seed) – The Bengals have made the playoffs in four consecutive seasons, but Andy Dalton has yet to lead them to a victory in any of his three previous tries. Dalton tends to shrink in the big games, and he didn’t do himself any favors with his showing in the regular-season finale vs. the Steelers.
While the Bengals have an excellent running game with Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard, No. 1 wide receiver A.J. Green has battled injuries all season and is unlikely to be at his best after suffering concussion symptoms last week.
The Bengals defense has been ordinary this year (22nd in yards allowed), even though the personnel is much better than that. The presence of Geno Atkins and Domata Peko in the middle of the defensive line should make it difficult to run the ball, but that has rarely been the case this season.
Special teams have been good as Adam Jones is courageous in the return game, but the Bengals make big mistakes when the game is on the line and they should be one-and-done in the playoffs once again.
Dallas Cowboys (3-seed) – It’s just been a spectacular year for the Cowboys as they exceeded all expectations thanks to an explosive offense and a gameplan that was designed to keep their undermanned defense off the field.
Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray are both legitimate MVP candidates after enjoying brilliant seasons. Romo threw for 3,705 yards with an eye-opening 34-9 TD-interception ratio, while Murray became the league’s best runner as he gained a team-record 1,845 yards. Wideout Dez Bryant can win the battle over any defensive back, while tight end Jason Witten almost never drops the ball.
The defense is vulnerable because the Cowboys lack big-play performers. They ranked 19th in yards allowed and 26th against the pass, and they lack the ability to put consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Defensive end Jeremy Mincey led Dallas with 6.0 sacks, and that’s simply not enough.
The Cowboys do a good job in all areas of special teams as PK Dan Bailey made 25-of-29 FG attempts, but their return game does not scare opponents.
Detroit Lions (6-seed) – The Lions had a chance to earn the No. 2 seed and win the NFC North title, but they could not defeat the Packers in the season finale.
If the Lions are going to find a way to beat the Cowboys on the road in the Wild Card game, quarterback Matthew Stafford must be able to take advantage of the vulnerable Cowboy pass defense. Stafford has arm strength and sees the field well, but accuracy can be an issue. He completed 60.3 percent of his passes and had a 22-12 TD-interception ratio, but he missed open receivers throughout the season.
The combination of Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate gives the Lions one of the best 1-2 punches at the WR position. Running back Joique Bell gets the most out of his limited talent, but Reggie Bush regularly disappoints.
The Lions had the second-best defense in the league, and that unit will have to be at its best if it is going to contain Murray and the Cowboys. Ndamukong Suh saw his suspension for stepping on Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers rescinded, and he needs to have a huge game stopping the run and pressuring Romo. Linebacker DeAndre Levy (team-high 151 tackles) is a true stud.
The Lions suffered blowouts on special teams all year, but PK Matt Prater (21-of-26) appears to have straightened out the kicking game.
Carolina Panthers (4-seed) – Okay, the jokes are easy to make as the Panthers survived the pitiful NFC South and earned a playoff spot for the second consecutive season even though they had a losing record.
The Panthers were a miserable 3-8-1 before they closed the season with four straight wins. Cam Newton did not have a stellar year – 58.5 completion percentage, 18-12 TD-interception ratio – but he looked good in the division-clinching win over the Falcons and he is a brilliant athlete.
Jonathan Stewart (809 yards, 4.6 ypc) gives the Panthers a damaging running game, but tight end Greg Olsen is their only proven receiver. Rookie Kelvin Benjamin is going to have to show improvement if the Panthers are going to have any chance of doing postseason damage.
The Panthers had the No. 2 defense in 2013, but that unit slipped to 10th this season. Defensive end Charles Johnson (8.5 sacks) has a monster bull rush, and he is capable of giving Carolina momentum if he can intimidate opposing quarterbacks.
The Panthers struggled throughout the season on special teams, but speedy rookie Philly Brown can be a gamebreaker. PK Graham Gano (29-of-35) does not inspire confidence.
Arizona Cardinals (5-seed) – The Cardinals were perhaps the top story in the league through the first 10 weeks of the season when they rolled to a 9-1 record. However, injuries to quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton have rendered this team into a nearly hopeless position as Ryan Lindley (562 yards, 48.4 completion percentage) starts under center.
Injuries have ruined the Cardinals from an offensive point of view, and their defense has become overworked and is not as effective as it was earlier in the season. Alex Okafor and Calais Campbell combined for 15.0 regular-season sacks.
The Cardinals have below-average special teams, although rookie PK Chandler Catanzaro made 29-of-33 FG attempts, including 2-of-3 from 50 yards and beyond.
Even though the Cardinals will be playing the Panthers, they are almost certainly one-and-done in the postseason.