With the regular season complete, national NFL writer Mark Maske provides his ranking of the league’s 12 playoff teams. As was the case entering Week 17, New England and Dallas maintain their tight grips on the top two positions as they hurtle toward a potential Super Bowl matchup. Who among the remaining 10 could spoil that meeting?
1. New England Patriots (14-2)
It’s all set up for them pretty much as they’d want. The Patriots are the AFC’s top seed for the sixth time. They’ve reached the Super Bowl on four of the previous five occasions. It will be extremely difficult for anyone to go to Foxborough, Mass., and win during the AFC playoffs, and the competition has been weakened considerably by QB issues. The Patriots will be minus injured TE Rob Gronkowski. But QB Tom Brady has plenty of options, including recently added WR Michael Floyd. The Patriots ranked first in the league in scoring defense during the regular season.
2. Dallas Cowboys (13-3)
Coach Jason Garrett seemed to navigate the final two games of the regular season well, after the Cowboys had clinched the NFC’s No. 1 seed, appearing to keep his frontline players sharp without suffering any major injuries. Rookie RB Ezekiel Elliott was withheld from the regular season finale but still led the league in rushing. Veteran QB Tony Romo played a series Sunday in Philadelphia and threw a TD pass, reinforcing the belief that he is ready if needed in relief of Dak Prescott during the postseason. The Cowboys’ biggest issue could be the soundness of standout left tackle Tyron Smith’s knee after he left the second-to-last regular season game and was inactive Sunday.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
Fear the Steelers. They enter the playoffs on a seven-game winning streak. All that midseason business about a lack of discipline and accountability, as QB Ben Roethlisberger put it following the memorable loss at home to the Cowboys, is a fading memory. The defense is not overpowering, perhaps. But the Steelers did manage to rank 12th in the league in total defense and 10th in scoring defense. That’s plenty good enough, given the way Pittsburgh can rev it up on offense with Roethlisberger, RB Le’Veon Bell and WR Antonio Brown.
4. Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)
The Chiefs have been underappreciated, as usual. But they certainly cannot be ignored now that they moved into the AFC’s No. 2 seed on the final day of the regular season. The big-play capabilities of rookie WR Tyreek Hill, both on offense and special teams, have given the Chiefs a dimension they haven’t had in previous postseasons. A Steelers-Chiefs matchup in Kansas City on the second weekend of the postseason would be interesting indeed.
5. Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
The Falcons ranked first in the league in scoring offense and second in total offense. They were fifth in rushing offense and third in passing offense. QB Matt Ryan is a legitimate MVP contender and was the NFL’s top-rated passer. So why don’t more people seem to consider the Falcons a viable Super Bowl threat in the NFC? It’s the defense. The Falcons ranked 27th in the NFL in scoring defense and 25th in total defense. They were 28th against the pass and 17th against the run. But LB Vic Beasley led the league with 15½ sacks and the defense contributed to the Falcons’ plus-11 turnover margin. If the defense can make just a few plays and force some turnovers, the Falcons could be dangerous.
6. Green Bay Packers (10-6)
QB Aaron Rodgers said when the Packers’ record dropped to 4-6 with an ugly November loss to the Redskins at FedEx Field he was optimistic that the team could get its problems fixed. He was right. Green Bay hasn’t lost since and captured the NFC North crown with Sunday night’s triumph over the Lions. Rodgers has been the primary reason, with 18 TD passes and zero interceptions over the last seven games. The Green Bay defense also has been better. Sunday’s meeting with the Giants could be the most competitive opening-round game league-wide. The winner advances to, in all likelihood, a second-round meeting with the Cowboys in Dallas.
7. New York Giants (11-5)
The offense is the main issue entering Sunday’s game at Green Bay. The Giants failed to reach 20 points in any of their final five regular season games. They need QB Eli Manning to recapture his postseason magic from the team’s improbable playoff runs to Super Bowl triumphs over the Patriots in the 2007 and 2011 seasons. The rebuilt defense has been very good and poses a major test for QB Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, even without injured pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul.
8. Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1)
It’s difficult to envision them keeping pace right now with the NFC’s best teams. The Seahawks never really played at a consistently high level all season. They alternated wins and losses in their final seven games. Clearly, the Seahawks are good enough that they should be able to deal with the slumping Lions at home Saturday night. But going on the road from there to win in Atlanta? Their last three road games of the regular season resulted in losses at Tampa and Green Bay and a narrow victory at San Francisco. The Seahawks will have to prove they are an honest-to-goodness Super Bowl contender.
9. Oakland Raiders (12-4)
A once-dreamy season turned nightmarish with the broken leg suffered by QB Derek Carr. And now Carr’s replacement, Matt McGloin, could be sidelined this weekend because of the shoulder injury he suffered Sunday. That would leave rookie Connor Cook in line to make the start. The Raiders also must fret about the status of Pro Bowl left tackle Donald Penn after he suffered a knee injury in the loss at Denver that helped to drop the Raiders from the second seed to fifth. Penn did return to that game, however. The Raiders will have to lean on their defense and running game if they’re going to win Saturday at Houston and advance to a second-round game that potentially would be at New England.
10. Miami Dolphins (10-6)
Can the Dolphins win Sunday in Pittsburgh? Of course they can. Any time you have a runner like Jay Ajayi, you have a chance. But realistically, it’s going to be tough for the Dolphins. Matt Moore probably will make another start at QB, with Ryan Tannehill seemingly a long shot to return from his knee injury so soon. The Dolphins send the league’s 29th-ranked defense on the field to deal with Pittsburgh’s powerful offense. Still, it has been a very successful season for the Dolphins under their first-year coach, Adam Gase, even if it ends this weekend.
11. Houston Texans (9-7)
Tom Savage or Brock Osweiler? Does it really matter which QB starts Saturday against the Raiders? The Texans seemingly had given up on Osweiler, at least for this season, when Coach Bill O’Brien benched the $72 million free agent acquisition in favor of Savage. But then Savage suffered a concussion during Sunday’s regular season finale and O’Brien had no choice but to go back to Osweiler. Now it could be Osweiler, who left the Broncos after being passed over in favor of Peyton Manning at QB for Denver’s postseason run to last season’s Super Bowl title, back in the starting lineup for the playoffs. Whichever QB plays, the Texans must hope he fares better than last season’s playoff starter, Brian Hoyer, did. Hoyer threw four interceptions in a first-round loss to the Chiefs.
12. Detroit Lions (9-7)
The Lions are reeling as the playoffs arrive, with three straight losses. They lost at home Sunday night to the Packers with the NFC North title at stake, and would have fallen out of the postseason entirely if the Redskins had not lost earlier in the day. The defense has been an issue, with the Cowboys and Packers totaling 73 points in the Lions’ last two games. QB Matthew Stafford once was a top league MVP contender but struggled down the stretch while playing with an injured middle finger on his throwing hand. The Lions rank 30th in the league in rushing offense but second-year RB Zach Zenner provided a bit of a lift over the last two games, running for 136 yards and three TDs.