Exactly 32 teams began their journey to Super Bowl 50 about 17 weeks ago, enduring adversity and high expectations over the course of 16 games. Now that the regular season action has come to an end, most of those teams saw their season come to a frustrating conclusion. For 12 clubs though, the ride has really just begun — as they prepare to fight for the coveted Lombardi Trophy.
The 2015-16 NFL playoff field is finally set, with the top six teams in each conference set to square off with one another over the course of the next month. While each team is seeded within their respective conference, those rankings can be misleading, giving fans the wrong idea about who the best teams (at this moment) really are. With that, we’ve ranked every team, regardless of conference, to give you the “power rankings” for the postseason.
12. Houston Texans
Houston played well down the stretch, winning their final three games behind generally mediocre quarterbacks, Brandon Weeden and Brian Hoyer, to capture the AFC South. That division title gives them a home game in the wild-card round against the Kansas City Chiefs, a team that has won 10 straight ball games and could be the most dangerous team in the AFC playoff picture. That’s a tough draw for the Texans to begin their playoff run. Despite a strong defense that ranked third in the league in total yards allowed and the presence of J.J. Watt and DeAndre Hopkins, we think that the Texans (whose 9-7 record is tied for the worst among playoff teams) are the least likely team to win the Super Bowl out of all the playoff teams.
11. Washington Redskins
Ranking the Redskins so low seems harsh. They played some spectacular football in the month of December (winning their final four games) to capture the NFC East title. Kirk Cousins deserves recognition for the work he’s done at quarterback, as does head coach Jay Gruden. In reality though, Washington should have a tough time winning in the postseason. In their only two games against teams in the playoff field, the Redskins struggled (getting outscored by a combined score of 71-26 against the Patriots and the Panthers). That lack of experience against the best teams in the league makes us think Washington could be headed to an early exit when they host the Packers this weekend.
10. Green Bay Packers
Green Bay goes into the postseason stumbling as much (or more) than any team remaining. After beginning the season 6-0, the Packers went 4-6 over their final 10 games and seized the NFC North title to the rival Minnesota Vikings in the season finale. In many ways, this has been a down season for Aaron Rodgers and his offensive unit, as they have struggled to find consistency after suffering major injuries to players such as wide receiver Jordy Nelson. While everything is going against the Packers (seemingly) at this point, a road date with the Washington Redskins in the wild-card round could still see them salvage one playoff victory. However, picking Green Bay to do anything beyond that seems like a questionable decision.
9. Minnesota Vikings
After getting past the Packers on Sunday night, we ranked the Vikings above their more experienced rival heading into the postseason. Minnesota has had a nice season, posting an 11-5 record and securing a NFC North crown after multiple seasons without a postseason appearance. Second-year QB Teddy Bridgewater developed into a quality signal caller this season, and Adrian Peterson regained his form as well (winning yet another rushing title), giving the Vikings’ offense some hope. The defense is also capable of being a game-changing unit, with players like Harrison Smith and Everson Griffen. Despite all of this, a home game against possibly the best team in the NFC right now, the Seattle Seahawks, should see this young team bow out in the first round of the playoffs.
8. Cincinnati Bengals
At several points this season, the Cincinnati Bengals appeared to be one of the best, if not the best team in the NFL. Andy Dalton was playing the best football of his career, A.J. Green was excelling at receiver, and the defense was playing as good as any unit in the league. While many of these things are still going well for the 12-4 Bengals, Dalton’s health is a concern. If he can’t play against the Steelers this weekend, Cincinnati will have to rely on the young, inexperienced A.J. McCarron at QB once again. McCarron has been decent, but Dalton was an MVP-type player for the Bengals. Without him, they could be in danger of yet another one-and-done postseason appearance.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers needed a miracle to get into the postseason, and it happened in Week 17 when the Buffalo Bills took down the New York Jets. Now that Pittsburgh is in, they pose a serious threat to make a run at Super Bowl 50. Ben Roethlisberger and his dynamic core of play-making receivers led by Antonio Brown know how to score and are never out of a game, which makes this team impossible to rule out of contention. Of course, they have injuries to deal with (most recently, running back DeAngelo Williams) and will have to win three road games to make it to the Super Bowl, but that wouldn’t be anything new for Roethlisberger and the Steelers.
6. New England Patriots
New England is used to being at the top of these rankings, but despite a 12-4 record, the Patriots don’t appear to be in nearly the shape they were in for their Super Bowl-winning campaign a year ago. They lost four of the past six ballgames after a 10-0 start, including consecutive losses to end the season. Injuries run rampant on the Patriots’ offense, which throws off the rhythm of the unit and asks a lot out of the defense. Yet, you still can’t discount the Patriots as a top contender in the AFC. They have a first-round bye and Tom Brady — with four Super Bowl rings — leading the charge. We’ll see if Brady has another magical run in him with this battered team.
5. Kansas City Chiefs
No team is hotter than the Chiefs entering the postseason. They have won 10 straight games following a dreadful 1-5 start. As only the second team to qualify for the playoffs after such a terrible start in NFL history — and out of all the wild-card teams — they could have the best shot at making it to February. Alex Smith and the offense don’t turn the ball over often. Meanwhile, the defense is terrorizing with players like Derrick Johnson and Eric Berry. With a road date against Houston this weekend, Kansas City could be in line for their first postseason victory since 1994. If they manage that feat, there’s no telling how far they could take their unmatched momentum.
4. Seattle Seahawks
Here they are again. Seattle got off to a rough start this season, but once they got going, they never looked back (almost). Russell Wilson is playing the best football of his career — and maybe playing the quarterback position better than anyone right now — and their defense has returned to its dominant ways (just ask the Cardinals). That performance against Arizona — who many believe to be the best team in the game — is indicative of what the Seahawks are capable of. It will be tough to get through the top half of the NFC, but with a road date against Minnesota to begin their playoff run, no team is more ready for the challenge than the sixth-seeded Seahawks.
3. Denver Broncos
Despite the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC and home-field advantage, many doubt Denver’s status as a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Sure, that doubt has some credibility, seeing how the Broncos’ offensive woes have been difficult to witness at times. However, consider this: Brock Osweiler played pretty solid football in Peyton Manning’s absence and now Manning is back and ready for the playoff push (seemingly). Even if Manning couldn’t play, the Denver defense is a championship-caliber unit that proves it can win without much help from their offense. With home-field advantage and that defense (along with the rapidly improving play of C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman), we think the Broncos deserve to be the favorite in the AFC.
2. Arizona Cardinals
A humbling loss to a division rival to end the regular season could’ve been the best thing to happen to the Cardinals. Yes, you never want to get beat by 30 points, but Arizona was rolling going into that contest against Seattle and needed a reality check. Regardless, the Cardinals may very well be the best team in the NFL, thanks to the balance they have on their roster. After dealing with so much adversity in his career, Carson Palmer must be eager to win this postseason, so you know their offense will be explosive. The defense is loaded as well. Head coach Bruce Arians has become one of the best coaches in the league, and it could be his time for a Super Bowl. Nobody is lining up to take on this powerful team.
1. Carolina Panthers
When your 15-1 and have the likely MVP leading the way on your roster, you deserve to be the top-ranked team in the league heading into the playoffs. That’s the case for the Panthers, who have to be thinking “Super Bowl or bust” following their dominant regular season run. They’ve beaten the best (with victories over Seattle, Cincinnati, Green Bay, and others) and have shown their ability to withstand just about anything thrown their way.
Cam Newton may be their most valuable player, but several guys on the Panthers’ defense give the quarterback a run for his money in that category. It won’t be easy by any means — with the Cardinals and Seahawks looming — but we think Carolina has the best chance to win the Super Bowl entering the postseason.
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