Welcome to Wild Card Weekend -- two days that, in theory, feature the eight biggest long shots of the postseason while the four favorites rest and recover after a grueling 17-week regular season.
But as recent history has demonstrated, the eight teams kicking off the NFL playoffs have a decent shot of reaching Houston on Feb. 5. Since the 1999 season, 10 of 34 Super Bowl teams made the title game without the coveted first-round bye. So it's definitely possible.
The eight teams playing this weekend?
- No. 3 seed Steelers (11-5), first in AFC North
- No. 4 seed Texans (9-7), first in AFC South
- No. 5 seed Raiders (12-4), second in AFC West
- No. 6 seed Dolphins (10-6), second in AFC East
- No. 3 seed Seahawks (10-5-1), first in NFC West
- No. 4 seed Packers (10-6), first in NFC North
- No. 5 seed Giants (11-5), second in NFC East
- No. 6 seed Lions (9-7), second in NFC North
You can view the playoff schedule here. For now, let's rank their chances to wind up in Super Bowl LI.
It's sad to be slotting the Raiders here. It's sad because the Raiders hadn't qualified for the postseason since 2002. It's sad because the Raiders, with their high-powered offense led by quarterback Derek Carr, actually had a chance to snag a first-round bye and home-field advantage. It's sad because the Raiders actually had a realistic shot to reach Super Bowl LI.
Without Carr, the Raiders are done. Sure, they could probably find a way to knock off the Texans on Saturday, but there's no way they're beating the Patriots, Chiefs or Steelers with Matt McGloin or Connor Cook. The Raiders scored six points against the Broncos in Week 17 with the McGloin-Cook combo. Their two quarterbacks combined to complete 62.5 percent of their passes, averaging 5.3 yards per attempt, and tossing a touchdown and an interception for a 73.8 passer rating. Carr's stat line this year? 63.8 completion percentage, 7 yards per attempt, 28 touchdowns, six picks and a 96.7 passer rating.
The Raiders' first playoff run in more than a decade ended before it even began.
Give coach Adam Gase a ton of credit. He turned a perpetually bad-to-mediocre franchise into a 10-win team in his first season.
Like the Raiders, the Dolphins' chances to journey deep into January are slim. Not that their odds were great in the first place -- the Dolphins were always going to be a minor threat come playoff time, but with Ryan Tannehill sidelined, they have little hope.
It might come as a shock, but Tannehill actually played like a good quarterback this season, despite not getting much help from his offensive line. Tannehill posted career highs in completion percentage (67.1), yards per attempt (7.7), touchdown percentage (4.9) and passer rating (93.5) -- that's called the Gase effect.
But Gase is only human. Even he can't turn Matt Moore into an above-average NFL quarterback. Sure Moore performed fine against the Jets and Bills, but the regular-season finale, a 35-14 loss to the Patriots, demonstrated why the Dolphins have no shot of beating top contenders without their top QB. They can't keep pace with top offenses.
Unless, of course, Tannehill finds a way to convince the medical staff and Gase to let him play less than a month after hurting his knee.
"I'm going to have to feel really good about this," Adam Gase on playing Ryan Tannehill.— Omar Kelly (@OmarKelly) January 2, 2017
The bad news: They get the Steelers right off the bat.
The Texans are once again a 9-7 playoff team. And it doesn't matter that they are not that good, or that they posted a minus-49 point differential.
Just ask Bill O'Brien.
Somebody give Bill O'Brien hardo of the year for this pic.twitter.com/lWQVunVT3i— Jack McGuire (@TailgateHeisman) December 25, 2016
Here's the thing about the Texans: They have a fantastic shot of reaching the divisional round because they drew the quarterback-less Raiders. They also boast one of the league's best defenses. The Texans finished the regular season ranked first in yards allowed.
But they have the same problem as the Raiders and Dolphins: No quarterback. It really doesn't matter that O'Brien has opted to start Brock Osweiler -- the very tall, very bad quarterback -- over Tom Savage.
Now, if you're a Texans fan and drinking the Kool-Aid that O'Brien is selling in the video above, you're probably thinking something like this: Sure, we don't have a quarterback, but the Broncos just proved that you don't need a quarterback to win a Super Bowl. You just need a top-level defense and we have that. Why can't we be the 2015 Broncos?
Here's the difference: This Texans defense isn't nearly as dominant as Denver's historically great defense. These Texans finished 11th in points allowed, seventh in DVOA, 24th in sacks and 26th in takeaways. It's a good, solid defense. It's not the kind of defense that can overcome a horrific offense to beat teams like the Patriots and Steelers.
But congrats on the division title -- again.
The Lions are a bad football team in disguise. Their disguise -- an exciting team with a knack for fourth-quarter comebacks -- worked for the first 14 weeks. Matthew Stafford even broke Peyton Manning's record for the most fourth-quarter comebacks in a single season. But the opposition finally saw though the disguise in Weeks 15-17.
After starting 9-4, the Lions lost their final three, limping into January as a wild-card team. All three losses came against playoff teams and all came after Stafford suffered a finger injury on his throwing hand.
- The Lions are 27th in DVOA -- one spot behind the Jaguars.
- They were outscored by 12 points. By comparison, the 5-11 Chargers were outscored by 13 points.
- They went 0-5 against eventual playoff teams.
- In three starts after the injury, Stafford has thrown two touchdowns and three interceptions and posted a 76.8 passer rating.
The Lions are not a good team. They're a team that got lucky over the course of the season. If it hasn't already, at some point that luck will run out. They won't last long in the playoffs unless Stafford finds his pre-injury playing level.
If those obstacles aren't enough, their path to the Super Bowl goes through Seattle and Dallas.
It's weird -- maybe foolish -- to put the Seahawks this low. After all, they'll host at least one playoff game and it is nearly impossible for visiting teams to win postseason games in Seattle. They also get the deeply flawed Lions in the first round.
But these are not the Seahawks we're accustomed to seeing. It's not the same dominant defense -- not with Earl Thomas sidelined. Since the quarterback of the defense lost his season in early December, Seattle has allowed 24.5 points per game.
Thus, the Seahawks stumbled into the postseason. After starting 7-2-1, they finished 3-3. They gave up 30-plus points twice in their final four games. Beforehand, they hadn't allowed 30 points in a game all season. They nearly lost to the 49ers on Sunday.
The offense also has slipped, averaging only 22.1 points. They can't run the ball, averaging 3.9 yards per rush, which puts a ton of pressure on Russell Wilson and a porous offensive line that allowed the sixth-most sacks (42) this season.
I'm not writing off the Seahawks, because they're still the Seahawks, but they're not the favorite we're used to seeing. To go far in the postseason, they'll need Wilson to turn into the MVP-caliber player he was in the second half of last season.
The Giants are doing that thing again -- when they head into the postseason as one of the hottest teams in the NFL with an effective defense and a quarterback capable of morphing into a completely different version once the playoffs arrive -- and it should terrify the entire NFL, and specifically, the New England Patriots.
They've won nine of their past 11 games. They're the only team that beat the Cowboys at full strength and they did it twice. Janoris Jenkins is expected to be ready for the Packers on Sunday, At some point, Jason Pierre-Paul should be back to bolster the pass rush.
And Odell Beckham Jr. survived his trip to South Beach.
The Giants' chances will come down to Manning, who has been inconsistent and not great overall (86.0 passer rating). But that's actually what makes the Giants so scary -- the fact that they've won 11 without Manning being at his best.
And as the Patriots know too well, Manning is capable of turning into a different quarterback once the postseason begins. In the 2007 playoffs, he threw six touchdown passes and was intercepted once as the Giants won the championship. In the 2011 playoffs, Manning threw nine TDs and one pick en route to another title. Both times, the Giants beat the Pats in the Super Bowl, and Manning was the Super Bowl MVP.
Eli doubting, surging defense, road games at Green Bay and Dallas? Have we seen this before?— Michael Salfino (@MichaelSalfino) January 2, 2017
Yes we have.
The Packers have the unfortunate task of trying to stop the Giants. But if anyone is going to stop the Giants before they take down the Patriots, it's the Packers. The reason why I had to say the Giants were one of the hottest teams and not the hottest team in the NFL is because the Packers won six straight games to capture the NFC North.
Aaron Rodgers is back.
In the past six games, the Packers are averaging 30.83 points. They beat the Seahawks by 28 points, the first time Seattle lost by more than 10 points since 2011. Rodgers has thrown 18 touchdowns and has not been intercepted in his past seven games.
This is looking awfully familiar to 2010, when the Packers got hot, found their way into the playoffs and won the Super Bowl. Thankfully for the rest of the NFC, the Packers or Giants will be eliminated Sunday.
Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger threw 29 touchdowns and was intercepted only 13 times for a respectable 95.4 passer rating. The defense is allowing 20.4 points per game -- the 10th-lowest figure. And with apologies to the Packers, the Steelers might actually be the NFL's hottest team, considering they've won seven straight, though No. 7 was a Week 17 victory over the Browns when many starters rested.
Their path to the Super Bowl is the easiest of the any team this weekend. They get the Tannehill-less Dolphins and then the Chiefs at Arrowhead, which means they avoid the Patriots until the AFC title game.
The Steelers are the only team in the AFC with a realistic shot at ending the Patriots' season.