By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)
With the Christmas season over now and the brace of a New Year feeling real now, the calendar flips to January, which is playoff month in the NFL.
This year’s postseason edition comes after the league’s 100th season expects to be quite the show. As a state of competition, parity is something that every professional league strives for — get as many cities and fanbases to care because their team can still be a winner.
The NFL pioneered league-wide parity and it lives off it just about every season. Add to that the tantalizing one game series variable that defines each pro football championship season: no matter the odds David only has to out-do Goliath once to advance to the next round. Looking at all 12 teams in the 2019-20 playoff field, there are quite a few obvious “Davids” but no clear “Goliaths.” No clear and obvious top team emerges.
Possibilities arise for a few contenders who could be on the verge of playing their best football, all the way to them hoisting the Lombardi trophy in early February. As I list here in these playoff power rankings, I believe the regular season did a pretty good job in setting apart who has the best chances of that conclusion and who doesn’t.
1-5: “Odds on favorites” — Roll out the red carpet for these A-list teams because these are the best bets to win it all. Having on of the top two seeds from either conference have significantly improved odds of getting to the Super Bowl.
The No. 1 seeds for the AFC and NFC are the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers, who I conveniently have at Nos. 1 and 2 in my rankings — they only have to worry about winning from the comfort of their own homes. As for the No. 2 seeds in the AFC and NFC, the Chiefs and Packers, they still get to res for one week before hosting a playoff game at their respective frozen tundras.
One No. 3-seed team makes this group and that is the Saints, who’s season was good enough to earn a top-two seed and had maybe the most impressive win of the season in beating the Niners in the “game of the year“ earlier this season.
Looking at all five of these teams they have balance and talent across the board to get things done over the next six weeks. Only four teams make the conference finals and it will take a great effort from any of the lower eight seeds to make room for themselves with these guys on top.
6-8: “Hiding in the weeds” — Three teams make up the hiding in the weeds group, meaning they’re not quite favorites, but dangerous nonetheless.
All three of these teams — the Seahawks, Texans and Patriots — feature-Super Bowl caliber quarterbacks and Super Bowl winners in the case of Seattle and New England. There’s enough talent scattered through these teams for them to beat anyone any given day, but all these teams have significant holes that will be tough to over come. In the case of the Seahawks, their offensive line is an issue and their defense isn’t consistently elite.
Quarterback Russell Wilson is terrific and has carried this squad to the brink of another NFC West title. With protection and the Seahawks effectively running the ball then, Wilson can dominate games. The Seahawks defense needs to be complimentary at the least but at times they are as tough as anyone. The Texans and quarterback Deshaun Watson are a dangerous team who can light up the scoreboard, especially when Watson is on fire. Questions linger about the Texans defense but perhaps the return of defensive lineman J.J. Watt can push them over the top.
Finally, the Patriots are trending downward and barely made this secondary group of contenders.
It has been a rough second half of the season for the Pats. Defense and special teams are the strength of the team with little to no offense to speak of. It will be fun to see if the great quarterback Tom Brady can find a way to muster up enough greatness on offense to put the Pats in a position to win it all.
9-12: “Remaining Four” — At first glance these last four teams seem to stand a step behind the higher seeds. But upon further review, there are chances for these teams to pull off a “cinderella” story of sorts, starting with potential big wins during wild card weekend.
All season long the Bills, Titans and Eagles have gotten next to no love this year due to certain inconsistencies or deficiencies they show, but all three have come up big at times and simply won enough to get them to extend their seasons.
The Bills have been steady not stellar but their defense and run game should travel which makes them a tough out for anyone. Same could be said of the Titans, with the league rushing leader Derrick Henry. After quarterback Ryan Tannehill took over as the starter for Tennessee this Titans squad has shown his physicality and talent at a new level and has even allowed itself to be a trendy upset pick against the Patriots in Foxborough on Saturday night.
All the heart and guts the Eagles showed through 2019 was impressive but their injuries seem to be too much for them to really compete against the best. Still this is a team that shows up under the lights and it’ll have a comparable situation to its big win over the Chicago Bears last January in visiting the Seahawks this Sunday afternoon. Last, but definitely not least, are the Vikings because they are the most dangerous “first four” team.
This Vikings squad not only has a defense and a run game that should travel, but it has lots of dangerous weapons. Everything is set up for the Vikes to go on a run as long but they have to be able to believe QB Kirk Cousins, who is can lead them to the promise land.
With an 0-1 playoff record and his overall spotty regular season legacy behind him, Cousins isn’t inspiring much faith from commentators ranging from online writers to his own opponents this week. If Cousins can rally his guys for an upset win at New Orleans, not only would he shut up a lot of haters, he could be setting up Minny for an unprecedented playoff run.
Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears and professional football for WARR