We know the order of the NFL teams as they head into the postseason. The Eagles secured a bye and homefield advantage in the NFC before the final week of the season. They are the No. 1 team in the NFC. But are they the best team right now, having lost Carson Wentz in the midst of their clinch session? It's hard to argue they are.
What would happen if the NFL operated in college football style and there was a committee that took the teams who made the postseason and reseeded them without concerns over division titles or conference affiliation. Ranked 1-12 based on each team's chances to win the Super Bowl. (If this did happen, the 49ers would be UCF, the team on the outside looking in who just won't stop talking about how no one wants to play them.)
There's not enough time to cobble together a committee, so I'm gonna do the dirty work instead. We're not going to rank Philly No. 3 just because they're in the playoffs with a No. 1 next to their name. I've.
And, look, this was tough. There are a clump of NFC teams who are very dangerous, as well as a pair of AFC teams you don't want to play, even if they're banged up. Let's give it our best shot.
Ignore all the rhetoric about resetting the bracket and lobbing everyone into the pot, because the Patriots are still the top team to beat and the most likely team to win the Super Bowl regardless of the setup. Why? The Patriots have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. It's that simple. Brady will be the MVP when the dust settles this year, and even though he hasn't played at the same level he achieved earlier in the year (from Week 2 through Week 11 he completed 73 percent of his passes and threw 22 touchdowns and just two interceptions). Belichick is such a massive coaching advantage over anyone else in the field, and Brady is so consistent and so clutch that it would be nearly impossible to take anyone over New England, even in a situation where they had to play three games on a neutral field. The Pats would be favored against any other team in the field.
I went back and forth between a couple different teams for No. 2 overall, but ultimately settled on the Saints here for one simple reason: Drew Brees. If we're doing to trust Brady enough to overcome the issues the Patriots deal with, shouldn't Brees get some credit too? And it's not like he's all alone in terms of getting the Saints motor running. The combo of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram posted a historical season in 2017.
The ability of the Saints to win in multiple ways is what really differentiates them. Their running backs are even complementary, a lethal combination who can beat you by grinding out yards between the tackles and also explode in the passing game. Kamara and Ingram don't have a tell when they line up, they can move around and they are so difficult to defend. The Saints offensive line might be the real differentiator here. They are one of the best in the NFL, can dominate in the run game and protect Brees in the pass game, and neutralize the biggest strength for multiple NFC contenders. The defense is not your big brother's Saints defense, with New Orleans getting an All-Pro season from Cameron Jordan and outstanding years from rookies Marcus Williams and Marshon Lattimore. At the end of the day, this is a team that can win without Brees having to go nuclear. If he does, watch out below.
This is a tough one for me because I could easily put the Vikings in the No. 2 spot. Their defense is smothering and snuffed out some opponents over the last few weeks. The Bengals, Packers and Bears are not a murderers' row, however, and the last time they played a difficult opponent, the Panthers hung 31 on them (credit to the Vikings: it was their third straight road game against a difficult NFC opponent and they nearly stormed back to win). You could make the argument Minnesota might be favored over New Orleans on a neutral field. Their defense is loaded at every level -- Everson Griffen/Danielle Hunter can annihilate quarterbacks off the edge, Anthony Barr is a Swiss Army Knife, Xavier Rhodes took a leap into the elite corner group this year and Harrison Smith remains underrated as one of the best safeties in the game.
Offensively, Case Keenum deserves a ton of credit for this season, as does Latavius Murray and an improved offensive line. Stefon Diggs/Adam Thielen/Kyle Rudolph don't get the credit they deserve. I don't think the offense is going to sputter -- not sure I trust Keenum against Belichick, though. And while the Vikings have a win over the Rams, I would give a slight edge to the Saints if I'm picking between these NFC teams. Minnesota-New Orleans would be a superb NFC Championship Game.
4. Los Angeles Rams
I really wanted to put the Rams at No. 2 as well. I did it for like an hour and it just didn't feel right. You know why? The lack of experience. This is, by far, the least experienced roster in the playoffs, and by a substantial amount.
Tom Brady has more playoff WINS (25) than the Rams have playoff starts on their entire roster. That's a huge red flag.
But blindly assuming a team isn't capable of executing on the big stage because they lack experience is silly. Yes, the Rams have the toughest test of any wild card favorite this weekend with the Falcons. No, that does not matter for these purposes. They have the runner-up in the MVP race with Todd Gurley, who has been sensational this season and is running well inside/outside and has amplified his pass-catching abilities. Jared Goff is an excellent triggerman for Sean McVay's system, and Aaron Donald is terrifying if you do not have a decent offensive line. McVay is young, but he has called plays in the playoffs before. Is there a defensive coordinator you trust more on this stage than Wade Phillips? The Rams have a ton of balance and can win in different ways. They are explosive on both sides of the ball. But we also saw against Minnesota, a team that already beat the Rams in the regular season, you can bottle up Gurley and if you do, you can limit what the Rams do offensively. If you don't have the horses to stop Gurley, though, you're in big trouble.
Everything with Pittsburgh hinges on Antonio Brown for me. They are still loaded without Brown, but losing the best receiver in football is a major problem. The defense has also slipped significantly since the loss of Ryan Shazier. Ben Roethlisberger, as former Steelers coach and current NFL on CBS analyst Bill Cowher told me on the Pick Six Podcast, appears to have taken the baton from the defense to try and finish things off for this team. Le'Veon Bell is unstoppable when the Steelers are blocking well, and JuJu Schuster-Smith is looming as a massive addition with the Brown injury. Martavis Bryant isn't consistent but he is dangerous. The Steelers would jump up to No. 2 if I knew for a fact that Brown -- who tore a calf muscle against the Patriots back in Week 15 -- was definitely going to play the Steelers would slide up a few slots here. But we don't know that Brown will play, or that Brown will be effective. And remember, this is not a situation where the Steelers get a bye and get to to play a questionable team in the second round of the AFC playoffs. Would you definitely take the Steelers over any team above them without Brown on the field? I don't think I would.
Two big factors hold the Chiefs back. One, there's Andy Reid's history in playoff games when it comes to managing the clock late in playoff games. And two, the struggles of the Chiefs during the middle of the season. They were 5-0 at one point and completely cratered. Credit Reid for rejiggering things on the fly and handing the keys to the offense to Matt Nagy; when the offensive coordinator took over last in the season, Kansas City's offense flourished again. Alex Smith started taking shots down the field and Kareem Hunt was the focal point again. Maybe part of the struggles were Hunt hitting a rookie wall. They need him to be the explosive, every down back he was to start the season. If they do that, they can hang with anyone. There are questions about the run defense, but between Justin Houston and Marcus Peters, that side of the ball still has playmakers.
If you replace Blake Bortles with, say, Alex Smith, where does this team rank? The defense is incredible, by far and away the best in the NFL in terms of yards per drive and points per drive allowed. There are just too many questions on the offensive side of the ball for me to rank them any higher than this, especially after the last two weeks. I get that they won the AFC South before playing the 49ers, but Jimmy Garoppolo hung some digits on them. And I get that they weren't playing for anything against the Titans in Week 17, but they were down 15-10 and couldn't mount a comeback. You can't trust them to storm back against anyone with offensive firepower. Bortles played really well for a stretch in December, but it looks like he's come back to earth the last few weeks and that is a concern. Backing them against the Bills during Wild-Card Weekend is one thing; backing them to beat up on any of the other teams on this list is a dangerous proposition.
8. Atlanta Falcons
There isn't a team with more tantalizing, unfulfilled upside in this bracket than the Falcons. They have the reigning MVP in Matt Ryan, a superstar wideout in Julio Jones, a dynamic running back in Devonta Freeman and a defensive unit full of young players who can wreck havoc on opponents at different levels. And yet, despite that, it's hard to trust the Falcons. Pete Prisco picked them to make the NFC Championship Game during our latest Pick Six Podcast and that's on the table. But it's also possible to see the Falcons get overwhelmed by a Rams team during the first weekend of the playoffs and get sent home to try and reboot things for another playoff run under Dan Quinn next year. When the Falcons are operating at maximum efficiency, they are cooking with gas. But too often this season, we've seen them get bogged down on both sides of the ball and fall short of the expectations everyone set following last year's Super Bowl run.
9. Carolina Panthers
Speaking of untrustworthy offenses, how can you believe in the Panthers after the last two weeks? Cam Newton and Co. looked completely lethargic against the Buccaneers, at home on Christmas Eve, with a playoff berth on the line. They would clinch against Tampa Bay thanks to a last-second touchdown from Cam, but it was an uninspiring effort. In Week 17, they had a shot to win the division by showing up to play against the Falcons and laid an egg. Cam was picked three times and never looked comfortable. They couldn't convert first downs, they can't run the ball and they lack explosive plays. Defensively the Panthers can take over a game thanks to Kawaan Short on the interior and Luke Kuechly in the middle. I'm concerned about how the defense has looked against a team like the Saints twice this postseason -- they did a great job coming out angry against the Vikings and then a week later against the Packers in Aaron Rodgers' return to football, but they have been very inconsistent. Carolina only ranks 12th in yards per drive allowed and 13th in points per drive allowed. They have the upside to win the Super Bowl, and the downside to lose by double digits this weekend.
10. Philadelphia Eagles
This is a slap in the face to Doug Pederson's squad, ranked No. 1 in the NFC by seed. But the Eagles lost Carson Wentz and the results from Nick Foles down the stretch have not been encouraging. He played well in his first game replacing Wentz, throwing for four touchdowns against the Giants, but was not impressive against the Raiders in Week 16 or the Cowboys in Week 17, when the Eagles failed to score a point. Perhaps also concerning? The Eagles defense, which did not look stout the final three weeks of the season. Holding the Cowboys to just six points was nice, but this was not the same unit that dominated throughout the regular season. It's entirely possible the defensive line reverts back to its previous form and Jay Ajayi/LeGarrette Blount turn into a winter weather duo of destruction in the rushing attack. The Eagles just have to hold serve against two teams at home in order to make the Super Bowl. But in this conference-less situation, the Eagles would not have that advantage.
11. Tennessee Titans
Tennessee has no business being in the postseason. They could be the worst team in the bracket and just don't have the upside you need from a team to make a run through a thick group of playoff teams. Marcus Mariota can be a future star, but it's hard to imagine it under the current regime. I love Derrick Henry -- drafted him in every single fantasy league this year, dang it -- and think he could have a good first game against the Chiefs, but it's not that difficult to bottle up the Titans offense. Do that, get ahead on them and you can force their offense to become one dimensional in a way they don't want to be. The defense has actually been playing a lot better over the last few weeks -- they haven't given up more than 30 points since their blowout loss to the Steelers in Week 11. Maybe they have more upside than I think, but I could see 10 other teams strangleholding the Titans in a first round matchup.
12. Buffalo Bills
The Bills are the best STORY in the playoffs, but not the best team. In fact, with LeSean McCoy nursing an injured ankle, it would be hard to imagine the Bills getting out of the first round. It's awesome that Andy Dalton threw a miracle touchdown pass and is now generating over $250,000 in donations from Bills fans who are throwing $17 increments his way. But it's also not a team that feels like a sustainable playoff contender because of the limitations on offense. They are well coached and will be emotionally fueled for whoever they play (in this case Jacksonville) but the Bills are probably out in the first round regardless.