The past tells us once a team is in the AFC or NFC tournament, what happened in the regular season is meaningless. Now it’s about getting hot and navigating matchups with a higher degree of difficulty to win the three or four games necessary to win it all.
It’s time to throw out the records, avoid being married to the seeds, consider the betting odds and then rank the dozen newest playoff entrants based on their chances to walk off the field winners in Miami on Feb. 2.
1. Baltimore Ravens
(AFC No. 1)
The Ravens have won 12 consecutive games to finish a franchise-best 14-2, also a game better than the top three NFC teams. They have strong +210 odds (according to BetOnline.ag) to win Super Bowl 54.
That’s justified. When Lamar Jackson plays, their offense has been unstoppable. The defense has been rolling, especially on the back end, since the trade for Marcus Peters. It’s hard to find any weakness on this mighty team. These playoffs are the Ravens vs. the field.
2. San Francisco 49ers
(NFC No. 1)
The 49ers have been battle-tested both at home and on the road going into the playoffs. They barely lost to the Ravens, edged the Saints and rolled the Packers. Their offense is hard to defend with Jimmy Garoppolo having his full complement of weapons, and a strong defense at every level should be healthier starting in the divisional round.
It would be no surprise if there’s a Week 13 and Super Bowl 47 rematch between the Ravens and 49ers as the seeds correctly suggest.
3. Kansas City Chiefs
(AFC No. 2)
Patrick Mahomes’ offense is getting revved up at the right time, with more big plays downfield and a bigger boost from the backfield. The defense has gotten situationally tougher against running backs to build on its dominance against quarterbacks and wide receivers.
This is a better version of last year’s 12-4 Kansas City team because of that defense and more experience for Mahomes.
4. New Orleans Saints
(NFC No. 3)
The Saints won’t have home-field advantage all the way in the Superdome to make amends for the bad call that went against them in last year’s NFC championship game. But they have proved to be more complete this season with enhanced defense and special teams and more capacity to win outdoors on the road because of that and their running game.
Drew Brees and Sean Payton can push their teams to overcome the heartbreaking ends to the past two playoffs, turning that disappointment into more focused motivation.
5. Green Bay Packers
(NFC No. 2)
The Packers are a hard 13-3 team to figure out. They win sometimes with mostly offense, sometimes with mostly defense. Sometimes it’s about Aaron Rodgers’ passing; most of the times it’s about Aaron Jones’ running.
Although some of their players have solid playoff experience, led by Rodgers, this is a different style of team under Matt LaFleur that can have a wide array out of outcomes from game to game. The Packers have the feel of either an early exit or an extend run through Miami, with nothing in between.
6. Seattle Seahawks
(NFC No. 5)
The Seahawks have lost some luster with two straight tough defeats and some key injuries mounting. But like Brees and Payton and Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll form a QB-coach combination that has won it all together before, giving the Seahawks a high floor as a dangerous playoff team.
There are some real questions about their offensive line, depleted running game and a defense that still has numerous holes that can derail any real opportunity in a hurry. But where there’s a Wilson, there’s always a way.
7. New England Patriots
(AFC No. 3)
The Patriots seemingly have been written off for the playoffs, and once again, everyone is ready to go with the lazy narrative that this is the end of their dynasty. But those rumblings existed in last year’s playoffs, too, all the way through their dispatching of the high-scoring Rams in Super Bowl 53.
Until the clock runs out and they’re eliminated, you can’t count them out. With that said, their offensive limitations and defensive struggles against better teams aren’t an appealing combination in survive-and-advance mode. One shouldn’t be surprised, however, if they suddenly make the right adjustments again to outwit tougher competition.
8. Buffalo Bills
(AFC No. 5)
The Bills have a fearless young quarterback in Josh Allen who picks good spots to run. They have a fine offensive line, a talented rookie back and savvy top wide receivers. They have a good pass-rushing defense and can cover well, too, led by shutdown corner Tre’Davious White. They also can toggle well between physical and finesse football.
The Bills could be doomed against a strong running team, but they have the makeup to beat anyone. Inexperience is their biggest concern.
9. Minnesota Vikings
(NFC No. 6)
The Vikings beat only one playoff team (the Eagles) all season, so they probably will be overmatched quickly. At least they have a good foundational defense with their front seven, an effective power running game with a healthy Dalvin Cook.
The big questions are about Kirk Cousins rediscovering his career-best efficiency and the downfield pass defense holding up in the playoffs. The Saints are bad matchup for them in the wild-card round.
10. Tennessee Titans
(AFC No. 6)
Forget the Titans? You can’t when they have the NFL’s rushing champion in Derrick Henry, a breakout wide receiver in rookie A.J. Brown and a savior QB in Ryan Tannehill.
They have the groove offensively to make noise, but their defense has too many issues to expect a long run just based on those offensive triplets.
11. Philadelphia Eagles
(NFC No. 4)
The Eagles literally limped into the playoffs, but they did it with playoff-level mental and physical toughness. Carson Wentz gets to experience the playoffs for the first time, and let’s hope many of his teammates believe he can make a Nick Foles-like run, too, given most of them have the experience of winning Super Bowl 52 with Doug Pederson.
They are a good running team with a good run defense, but the passing game remains compressed, and the pass defense has issues, two elements that won’t help in higher-scoring games against actual good teams not in the NFC East.
12. Houston Texans
(AFC No. 4)
The Texans are the weakest team in the playoffs. They are highly dependent on Deshaun Watson offensively with an inconsistent running game and limited receiving pop behind DeAndre Hopkins, especially if Will Fuller remains sidelined. Their defense is pretty bad, too.
They should be losing at home again in the wild-card round as division champs, this time to the Bills.