Most people talk about how October is one the greatest months to be a sports fan and it's hard to argue against them. You have the World Series as well as football season starting to take shape. Hockey season also opens and the start of the NBA season is imminent. Some may even say May is a great sports month given that the baseball season is in full swing (pun intended!), NBA and NHL playoffs start heating up, and several other sports like boxing, MMA, tennis, golf, and horse racing feature major events.
However, we beg to differ. January, to us, is an amazing month to be a sports fan since we get to see which 12 NFL playoff teams compete for the biggest sporting event of the year: the Super Bowl! So how do the current playoff field stack up against each other? In this column, we will rank all playoff teams so without further ado, here we go.
- New England Patriots
This one is easy. The Patriots rank very high for both offensive and defensive GE numbers. The Patriots can put up points (rank #3 in points scored), prevent teams from getting into the endzone (rank #1 in points allowed), and protect the football very well (rank #1 in turnovers allowed). In fact, the Patriots lead the NFL in point differential and that can be a very predictive stat. Usually teams that finish in the top 2 or 3 in point differential at the end of the regular season advance to the Super Bowl.
The Patriots also have home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs which definitely means something for this team. First off, Tom Brady is 15-3 lifetime at home during the postseason. Also, prior to this season, the Patriots have earned home field advantage five times in the Belichick/Brady era: 2003, 2007, 2010, 2011, and 2014. Only once during those seasons did the Patriots not advance to the Super Bowl (2010 they lost to the Jets).
Furthermore, we all know that the best way to beat the Patriots is to knock Tom Brady on his ass. That clearly happened last year in Denver and we saw it happen when the Patriots lost to the Ravens and Giants twice in the postseason. No team in the AFC playoff field, however, has an imposing pass rush. All six of the AFC playoff teams rank in the bottom half in the league in sack rate. For comparison purposes, the 2007 Giants and the 2015 Broncos were each #1 in sack rate and both dominated the Patriots at the line of scrimmage.
We feel very confident ranking the Patriots as the top team in this season's playoff field.
- Dallas Cowboys
This one is tough. One can argue that the Falcons belong at #2 with the best offense in football. One can also make a case for Kansas City that seems to have a knack for going on long winning streaks during the regular season. Green Bay and Pittsburgh are both entering the postseason on fire. However, the Cowboys have been extremely consistent all year and they own home field advantage in the NFC. They also have arguably the best offensive line in football, a ridiculously good running back, a mistake free quarterback, and a very talented core of wide receivers. Defensively the Cowboys have been decent.
If you look at how the Cowboys have won their games, one can say that the Cowboys win in versatile ways. They can outlast a team in a shootout like they did in Pittsburgh. They can also win in a grind it out type of game as they proved in Minnesota. The Cowboys are very good at hogging the clock, something which will be essential in beating a good offense like the Falcons or Packers. The only kryptonite we can see here for the Cowboys would be the New York Giants. Those games were close and we are willing to give the Cowboys a pass for the first meeting given that it was the first NFL start for Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. The 2nd meeting was in New York on Sunday Night. With more experience for the Cowboys backfield as well as playing at home, we don't see any team that can realistically keep the Cowboys from earning their first trip to the Super Bowl in over 20 years.
- Atlanta Falcons
We will start with a disclaimer: this team does not have a good defense. In fact, the Falcons' defense can be a severe liability like it was at home against San Diego earlier this season. Of course, the Falcons make up for this lackluster defense by having one of the best offenses the NFL has seen in a while. It's not the record breaking offense like the 2013 Broncos but it's a very talented and well rounded offense. First off, Matt Ryan is the NFL MVP. No question there. He finished with a very high QB rating, nearly topped 5,000 yards and 40 TDs, and didn't really have a bad game this season. The Falcons have two amazing running backs that can beat you in so many ways. One of the best and most imposing WRs is on this team and the other WRs are also very good. The tight ends are talented and the offensive line is solid. This offense is a well-oiled machine.
Still, we can't get over the fact that tis defense tends to let teams back into games and that won't fly against a team like the Packers or Cowboys. We know Dan Quinn was the defensive coordinator for one of the best defenses in NFL history (2013 Seahawks) but he doesn't even have remotely the same kind of talent on this Falcons defense. Losing Desmond Trufant was a big blow. The Falcons have a nice linebacker in Vic Beasley who accumulated 15.5 sacks, good for #1 in the league. However, 8.5 of those sacks were against rookie QBs who tend to stand around in the pocket too long (Paxton Lynch, Carson Wentz, and Jared Goff). Beasley will be hard pressed to get the same kind of pressure on QBs who are mobile and can release the ball quickly like Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, and Dak Prescott. The Falcons may win a game in the postseason but we don't see them making it to the promised land just yet.
- Kansas City Chiefs
Having a week off and playing a game at home is huge. There is no denying that. Since the NFL adopted the current playoff format in 1990, 40 of the 52 teams to advance to the Super Bowl had a first round bye. Not once has the Super Bowl had two teams that did not have a first round bye during that time span. We bring this up now since Andy Reid and the Chiefs will know how to use the bye week well. It is well documented how good Andy Reid's record is after a bye week. During the postseason, he is 3-0 after having a bye week. During the regular season, Reid is an impressive 16-2 after a bye week. The two losses came in 2012 and 2013. 2012 was a tough year for Reid as his son passed away due to a heroin overdose and the Eagles were not a good team that year (they went 4-12 and Reid was fired at the end of that season). 2013 was a better year for Reid but the Chiefs played the Broncos in Denver after their bye week and the Broncos were on an absolute tear that season with their offense.
Apparently Reid is very good at getting his teams ready after a week of rest and this Chiefs team is ready to make some noise in the postseason. They may get a tough draw with the Steelers but there is a lot of talent on this roster to neutralize some of the things the Steelers do well. The problem is winning a game in Foxborough. If Alex Smith can pull that off, that will easily be the biggest win in his career (after that amazing playoff game in the 2011 season against the Saints). A healthy Justin Houston will go a long way since putting pressure on veteran QBs like Roethlisberger and Brady will be essential for the Chiefs to make its first trip to the Super Bowl since the Nixon administration.
- Green Bay Packers
There is no team hotter than this team right now. Sure, the Patriots and Steelers enter the postseason on 7 game winning streaks whereas the Packers winning streak is currently at 6 but neither the Patriots nor Steelers were 4-6 and had to run the table to make the postseason. Definitely Aaron Rodgers proclamation struck a nerve with his teammates and they clearly responded. This is a tale of two cities with this team and we don't think any of the top teams wants to see the Packers should they get past New York.
Now beating New York won't be easy. This is probably the worst draw for the Packers given the fact that Eli Manning has beaten the Packers at Lambeau twice in the postseason and the Giants pass rush is exactly what you need to put an end to the Packers' magical ride. Rodgers, however, is simply on fire with 18 TDs and 0 INTs during the 6 game winning streak and everyone on this team has stepped up his game. Rodgers is also a very mobile and intelligent QB with a quick release so he might be fine in the first playoff game. Plus there is no Jason Pierre-Paul.
In some ways, this Packers team looks awfully close to the 2010 team that won it all (they were both 10-6!). If the Packers get past the Giants, watch out!
- Pittsburgh Steelers
What's there not to love about this team. The Steelers have perhaps the best QB, RB, and WR combo the league has seen in a long time and finally all three are healthy for the postseason. That was definitely a smart move by Mike Tomlin to bench all of them last week against Cleveland (take that Terry Bradshaw!). There is plenty of talent elsewhere and the offensive line is playing at a high level.
The Steelers should take care of business against the Miami Dolphins but beating Kansas City and New England on the road won't be easy. If the Steelers want to win the title, however, they must earn it by winning in two of the toughest venues in the NFL. This Steelers team may not be your father's or grandfather's Steelers with the intimidating defense but Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are matchup nightmares for any of the defenses in the AFC playoff field. We all know that Reid and Belichick are masters at taking the best weapon away from the opposing team but if you take away Bell or Brown by committing an extra man to that player, the other player is going to make you pay. Health will be key for the Steelers and right now, health is on their side.
- Seattle Seahawks
There are a good number of flaws with this team. No Earl Thomas really stings. The offensive line for this team is trash and clearly has hindered the numbers of Russell Wilson and the running game. There have been numerous injuries elsewhere to playmakers such as Thomas Rawls, CJ Prosise, and Tyler Lockett. This team is quite far from Seattle's best.
Still, it is impressive how deep this team is at key positions. Alex Collins is a very talented running back and Paul Richardson is plenty capable of stepping up at wide receiver. Both were college stars and have fresh legs. The usual suspects such as Wilson, Doug Baldwin, and Jimmy Graham are still there and healthy. Likewise, on the other side of the ball you still have Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Michael Bennett, Bobby Wagner, and KJ Wright. Even though this team is not as strong as the 2013 and 2014 NFC Championship teams, it's not that far off.
Seattle starts the postseason at home and Century Link Field is still one of the toughest venues for road teams. Detroit is a very weak playoff team and they are hobbling into the postseason so Seattle should advance to its 5th straight divisional round game. That would mean Atlanta would be up next and the Falcons did play the Seahawks really tough in Seattle earlier in the season. Of course a playoff match against the Falcons would take place in the Georgia Dome which will most likely be the last NFL game in that stadium. The Falcons have an amazing offense and we have seen Seattle's D get burned by Green Bay just a month ago. Still, Atlanta has a soft defense so Seattle's offensive line issues may not get fully exposed and if Seattle is smart, they will unleash Alex Collins in that game instead of against Detroit.
Seattle is a former shell of itself and doesn't boast the talent that the Packers, Falcons, and Cowboys have but you can't count out a team that has dominated the NFC since Pete Carroll arrived in the Emerald City.
- New York Giants
Of all teams in the playoff field, it's safe to say that the Giants have the one of the best defenses and definitely have the best pass rush. There is no Jason Pierre-Paul for at least the wild card round and perhaps the divisional round but he could return for the conference championship should the Giants get that far. Also, the offense has been weak this year for the Giants but they have proven the naysayers wrong before by going all the way in 2007 and 2011 either as an 11-5 wild card team or a 9-7 division champion.
Speaking of the offense, the Giants issues with moving the football and scoring has been a head scratcher. Ben McAdoo was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach and OBJ is now in his 3rd year. What is eating Eli Manning is anyone's guess. There are times where he plays better than his brother Peyton and there are times when you wonder if Colin Kaepernick would be a better option.
If the Giants offense can wake up, they are very capable of wreaking havoc in the NFC and earning a potential 3rd Super Bowl match against the New England Patriots. They are, after all, the only team to legitimately beat the Dallas Cowboys and they did so twice by limiting them to 26 total points. Keep in mind that the Cowboys averaged over 28 points per game in their other 14 games so the Giants defense is for real. They just need the offense to come to life.
- Oakland Raiders
Too bad for this team. With Derek Carr healthy, they could be ranked as the #2 team in this column but losing an MVP calibre QB can make your team experience a nasty downward spiral. At least the Raiders are finally back in the postseason after a 14 year hiatus that began with an ass whooping in the Super Bowl against Jon Gruden and the Tampa Bay Bucs.
Some have written off the Raiders but our rankings won't let us do that. The Texans are a weak playoff team that won a very weak division. Had Mariota not got injured or had the Colts invested in an offensive line to protect Andrew Luck, the Texans would not be in the postseason. The Raiders would be wise to dial up the pressure against Brock Osweiler and to commit to the run game early and often. Connor Cook is very capable of managing the offense. He was spectacular at Michigan State, a team that consistently competed for a national title while Cook was the starting QB. We don't expect Cook to win games with his arm but we feel he can avoid turnovers and lean on the running game while Khalil Mack and company try to make life difficult for Osweiler. The Texans may have a solid defense but without JJ Watt the offensive line for the Raiders (probably the best O-line after Dallas) should be able to create running lanes for their three-headed running attack and keep Cook upright.
The issue is what the Raiders will do in the next round if they get there. A trip to Foxborough would be fun and conjure up memories of the Tuck Rule game 15 years ago. Or perhaps the Raiders would get a 3rd meeting against the Chiefs. Regardless, the next opponent for the Raiders after Houston would be significantly more challenging and it would take a miracle for the Raiders to expect a return trip to Houston for Super Bowl LI. This is a team on the rise and with a healthy Derek Carr, this team has now opened a nice 4 - 5 year window of contending for a title.
- Houston Texans
We are now getting to the bottom of the barrel here. The GE model does not like the Texans or the #6 seeds. Houston ranks #22 in terms of total GE number and is in the bottom 4 for offense. The defense is top 10 but that was against weak competition in the AFC South. The Texans get a decent draw with the Raiders who are missing their starting QB. If they can win their wild card game, good luck to them in the next round. Brock Osweiler is perhaps one of the most overpaid QBs of all time (one can make a case that Colin Kaepernick deserves that dubious distinction) and the Texans are forced to go with him this week after Tom Savage suffered a concussion. If Savage can come back, that may help some but it won't be enough to realistically play a Super Bowl in their home stadium.
Maybe next year will be better with a healthy JJ Watt and a new QB if the Texans decide to cut Osweiler.
- Miami Dolphins
We love seeing teams end playoff droughts and give their fans something to hope for in January. The last time the Dolphins made the postseason was 2008 and prior to that Dan Marino was two years removed from retirement (2001). It's not that the Dolphins have been awful the last 15 years. In fact, they have had several seasons in which they wet 7-9 or 8-8. Essentially, the Dolphins have been the epitome of mediocrity in the NFL but not anymore with a new head coach and a very nice offensive line. Some have even called the starting offensive linemen "unicorns" given how rare it has been that all five of them are healthy. When that was the case this season, Jay Ajayi had two straight 200 yard rushing games and that was against good competition.
Unfortunately, center Mike Pouncey won't be playing in this game and his absence was definitely felt with Ajayi's numbers dropping off. The Dolphins offense still has been OK with Matt Moore at QB but a game in Pittsburgh against a very healthy and well rested offense doesn't bode well for the Fins. The GE model hasn't been a fan of the Dolphins with a ranking of 26th for total GE number. Adam Gase has done a commendable job and deserves Head Coach of the Year recognition but it's just not their year right now.
- Detroit Lions
Talk about a team limping into the postseason. At one point, the Lions were 9-4 and were poised to gain a first round bye. Now they barely sneak into the postseason, thanks to the Giants beating the Redskins last week. They also have to play in a very daunting stadium and on Saturday night (kick off time will feel like 8:15 PM for the Lions).
The Lions have several deficiencies but they hid them well this year. There is no run game (they rank 3rd to last in rushing yards per game) and there is no pass rush (they rank dead last in QB rating allowed). What's even more eye opening is that the Lions allow opposing QBs to complete 72.7% of their passes! WOW. Matt Stafford has done a commendable job of completing short pass plays to sustain drives so that way the lack of a true running game keeps defenses honest. It also has kept the Lions defense fresh at times. However, the Lions have been exposed in their last three games by three NFC playoff teams. How do they expect to do anything in the postseason if they have recently been outscored 90-51 by the teams they could see next if they happen to pull off an upset in Seattle?! The Lions are lucky to be in the postseason and their season should be coming to a close very soon.