NFL Playoffs: Rankings and Outlook

Now that it’s playoff time, the cream will rise to the top.  These are the top five ranked teams entering the playoffs, ranked in order of most likely to win the Super Bowl.  These rankings are not factoring in regular season records, but analyzing which teams have the best chance to win the Super Bowl based on path to the Super Bowl (potential opponents), weighted analytics based on late season performance, talent, team balance, injuries, observable strengths and weaknesses, and gut feeling.  For the sake of brevity, I have only included the top five teams in this article, while omitting teams that are very good, yet that have inherent flaws that will preclude them from advancing to the Super Bowl.

1. Arizona Cardinals:

This Cardinals team is frightening. Carson Palmer is playing the best football of his career, his receivers are uncoverable, and rookie phenom David Johnson harkens visions of Marshawn Lynch circa 2010.  They are loaded and ready to go.  Defensively, the Cardinals are a vicious juggernaut and will feed on any mistakes. While the loss of Tyrone Mathieu is significant, there is talent enough to overcome his loss.  The weakness of this team is that they can be scored on, and Carson Palmer can have those uh-oh moments that give you pause.  It’s also concerning that the Cardinals have the highest variance in performance statistically of any team in the playoffs (23.6% according to Football Outsider’s DVOA analysis).  Yet, when this team is on, they’re the most lethal team in football.  Bruce Arians is able to get this team playing it’s “A Game” when it matters most, and when he says the Cardinals are the “new sheriff in town,” he means he’s saving his bullets for the top guns, Carolina or Seattle, that he’ll need to vanquish to get to the Super Bowl.

David Johnson is going to profoundly impact the offense down the stretch, giving it an imposing dimension on the ground that is going to make this team unstoppable.  And with perhaps the easiest path to the Super Bowl of any NFC team, the odds are favorable.  The two other elite teams in the NFC, Carolina and Seattle, would face each other in the second round, which means the Cardinals would only have to face one of them.  Meanwhile, they’ll have it “easy” in the second round, facing a less formidable opponent at home in the second round (Green Bay, Minnesota, or Washington).  Given their odds and clearer path in the NFC, and the arsenal of elite and explosive weaponry this team is bringing to the coming wars in the playoffs, it’s easy to envision this team holding up the hardware in Santa Clara in February.

PREDICTION:  SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONS

2. Cincinnati Bengals:

This is my pick out of the AFC. “But, but Andy Dalton’s broken thumb…” Craziness?  Perhaps.  But looking at this team holistically, this is the most balanced, most talented team in the AFC going into the playoffs.  And the gauntlet in front of them to advance is not imposing.  This team potent on both sides of the ball, ranking tops in the AFC in Football Outsider’s Weighted DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) efficiency (weighted efficiency adjusts so that games earlier become gradually less important).  Also, the Bengals are the most consistently efficient team in the playoff field, with the lowest variance percentage (8.2%) of team performance.  That will bode well for them in an AFC field filled with teams that have struggled with consistency issues.  Healthy and playing at a high level, the Bengals defense is capable of dominating opponents and can carry this team on a Super Bowl run.   There may not be a defensive unit with more depth and talent on a position-by-by position basis in the league.

Offensively, Hue Jackson is has been orchestrating a symphony of efficiency all season.  Dalton went down, yet Jackson has been able to adapt to the strengths of this offense with A.J. McCarron at the helm.  It’s a more methodical, conservative offensive approach that is protecting McCarron from having to carry the offense, but the Bengals can run the ball very effectively with Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill, and McCarron has been successful getting the ball to their greatest playmaker A.J. Green.  A bonus will be having tight end Tyler Eifert back for the playoffs.  McCarron has been an effective caretaker of this offense, and they can advance in the playoffs with him.  If they manage to overcome the Steelers in the first round, they may have Dalton back for the subsequent round(s).

There are many reasons to discount the Bengals as a legitimate Super Bowl contender.  Past history suggests it will be one-and-done for the Bengals yet again, as their 0-6 record in the postseason since 2005 under Marvin Lewis doesn’t inspire confidence, and their last playoff win was 25 years ago.  They’ve got to win at some point, right?  The table is set for them, a home playoff game against their bitter rival (Steelers) that is missing a key player on offense (DeAngelo Williams).  This is a team that really doesn’t have any weaknesses, has a lot of depth, and have elite talent at almost every position.  It’s just a matter of being able to shake the hex of not being able to win in the postseason.  If they can exorcise their demons and defeat the Steelers, their most bitter rival and a team that has owned them over the last decade, this is a team that can go on a roll, much like the Baltimore Ravens did in the playoffs three years ago.  It’s now or never for this Bengals team, with a mass defection of coaching and player talent looming in the offseason.  I believe if they knock out the Steelers, they’ll be brimming with confidence, surging forward through a lackluster AFC field to make their first Super Bowl appearance since Icky Woods was doing his shuffle in 1988.

PREDICTION:  AFC CHAMPIONS

3. Carolina Panthers:

What a magical season it has been for the Panthers. Cam Newton has been Superman and will win the league MVP running away.  No one predicted this for the Panthers at the start of the season, yet things seemed to break their way, and Cam Newton’s rise has been meteoric.  He’s become a truly elite player that can completely dominate a game.  Statistically, the Panthers are no fluke.  They are ranked 3rd in weighted DVOA team efficiency, ranking 5th on defense and 6th on offense.  They’ve dominated their schedule.  They flirted with an undefeated season, settling for a measly 15-1.  They’ve been balanced all year, knocking teams out with punishing defense, and Cam Newton has been nothing short of special.  The road to the Super Bowl goes through Charlotte, and it will surprise few if this team holds serve at home and takes the NFC bacon.

Despite all of these accolades, suspicions run high that their dominance has been a product of playing one of the least challenging schedules in the league.  Their schedule is the weakest in the NFL, as rated by the 2015 Schedule DVOA at -8.6% (the second weakest was the Washington Redksins at -5.0%; the New England Patriots were the only other playoff team with a negative 2015 Schedule DVOA at -4.1% by comparison).  Panthers opponents averaged a 7-9 record this season, and they beat up on the two worst divisions in football, the AFC South and the NFC East.  Their own division is putrid as well, with all division opponents hovering below .500.  In three games against the Saints (twice) and the Giants, the Panthers offense feasted on historically bad defenses.  However, offense is not the concern.

As remarkable as the Panthers have been defensively, they have struggled to put teams away.  They blew a 35-0 lead against the Giants in Week 15 and needed overtime to survive the furious rally by the Giants.  They also gave up a large 4th quarter lead to the Colts on Monday Night football earlier this season, and have had difficulty stopping teams with potent offenses.  Ironically, with home field advantage, the Panthers have conceivably the toughest draw to make it to the Super Bowl, with probably matchups versus Seattle in the 2nd round and Arizona in the NFC Championship (if they advance).

There are many reasons to believe that the Panthers will continue their magical run deep into the playoffs.  However, this will also be the first time this team has truly been tested all year.  Will the Panthers be able to continue their playoff domination versus the top offenses in the NFC?  Will Cam Newton stay Superman against the mighty pass rushes of playoff defenses, or will he turn back to Clark Kent and the Panthers make a quick exit from the postseason?  If the Panthers survive the NFC minefield, they will have earned their mettle and be the favorites to hoist the Lombardi.

PREDICTION: Lose NFC Championship to Arizona

4.  Seattle Seahawks:

The two-time defending NFC Champions are playing like the hungry beast that got them to two previous Super Bowls. It just took them longer this season to get going.  Once the strength of this team, the Seahawks’ running game is battling consistency issues with Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls out.  Now the offense runs through Russell Wilson and his recently found passing prowess, with a committee backfield as a complement.  After early season defensive lapses and a weekly habit of coughing up 4th quarter leads, the defense figured out how to finish.  However, this is a unit that has been torched by good offenses all season despite having the third ranked defense in weighted DVOA.

Statistically, based on Football Outsider’s metrics, the Seahawks are the best team in the NFL, ranking first overall in the NFL in weighted team efficiency and offensive efficiency.  This is a team that has found its groove, and would surprise no one if it ran the table en route to a second Super Bowl title in three years.  Russell Wilson seems to have a mojo that is carrying this team, and the offense has been totally in sync since Jimmy Graham left with a season ending injury.  Most importantly, the Seahawks’ offensive line play has improved, which was a major problem early in the season.  Despite the moment, there are reasons for concern, and these reasons may be poison pills to their playoff lives.  As mentioned before, the Seahawks’ have been lit up by upper echelon QBs all season.  Cam Newton, Carson Palmer, Ben Roethlisberger and Andy Dalton feasted on the Seahawks secondary, and more than likely they’ll be seeing these familiar faces again in the playoffs.  Also, the Seahawks have struggled mightily to defend tight ends.  Greg Olsen devoured them in Week 6, and Heath Miller had his lunch in a Week 12 shootout with the Steelers.

Secondly, the Seahawks’ running game is not going to be able to sustain this team offensively.  Christine Michael has rediscovered himself in his second chance with the Seahawks, but he’s not Beast Mode, nor is he dynamic and explosive like Thomas Rawls.  Perhaps most disturbing is Marshawn Lynch pulling himself from the Seahawks’ lineup this week for the wildcard matchup in frozen Minnesota after a full week of healthy practice.  This Percy Harvin-esque diva behavior is an unwelcome distraction with the playoffs getting underway.  The Seahawks realized peak efficiency on offense when Thomas Rawls was playing.

While still generating offensive efficiency, the offensive domination has waned.  It’s hard to make just how significant the Seahawks’ win at Arizona was in the season finale.  On one hand, it put everyone on notice, but this was a game that was largely meaningless for the Cardinals.  And just the week before, the Seahawks were dominated at home by the Rams in what was a meaningful game for them.  The loss to the Rams could be portentous on different levels.  It showed that the Seahawks offense can be dominated by defenses with strong pass rushes and line play, and it exposed the Seahawks’ offensive line issues.  If they continue to advance, the Seahawks will likely see three consecutive weeks of smothering, physically dominant defenses on the road in the NFC playoffs.

Offensively, it’s difficult to see the offense being able to carry this team sans Lynch or Rawls, and offensive line issues.  Without a running game that can control the game, it’s going to be more difficult for the defense to grind it out and take over the game, putting the fate of the teams playoff chances on the arm of Russell Wilson.  With road battles at Minnesota, at Carolina and at Arizona on the horizon, that is daunting.  As fantastic as he’s been this season, this team seems more likely to sputter out in the playoff trenches.

PREDICTION:  Lose in 2nd round to Carolina

New England: The defending Super Bowl champions tore through the first half of the season with a vengeance, raining down rage and furious anger from the tumultuous offseason on the heads of opponents. However, the attrition of the injury bug has taken its toll on the Patriots, losing key player after key player to multi-week or season ending injuries.  Even the great Tom Brady has looked mortal with the talent around him eroding away.  Bill Belichick has been masterful in finding ways to adjust to diminished personnel, mask deficiencies, and find different ways to win.  Soon enough, it became a grind just to finish games, and then the Patriots sputtered out with two division losses on the road to finish the season.

Tom Brady has taken a pounding behind a decimated offensive line that has struggled all season since left tackle Nate Solder was lost for the season.  He sprained his ankle on a nasty hit by Ndomokung Suh in the season finale in Miami.  There are reasons for optimism.  The Patriots have a BYE week to get healthy and sort out some of their depth issues, which is remarkable considering their injury issues.  Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Sebastian Vollmer, Dant’a Hightower, Chandler Jones, and Devin McCourty will all likely be ready to go.  The question is will the Patriots be able to just turn it on after so many players have missed several weeks with injuries?  This is a team that knows what it takes to win in the playoffs, and Tom Brady is still playing at his peak.  However, this team is still really banged up, and just how effective will each of these players be?

While the Patriots have been good all season, and shown flashes of dominance, this is not the same team that won the Super Bowl last season.  They don’t have that “shut down factor” that they had last season with Revis.  And while this may be the most balanced team in the league, and Tom Brady will always give this team a chance, the Patriots lack that lethal edged.  This is a team that is going to win in the playoffs by grinding on defense and precision and ball control on offense.  Keep the game close and hope Tom Terrific has a chance to win the game in the last two minutes.  It’s easy to see this team digging deep and doing it again because that’s the type of character this team has.  Should the Patriots advance, a potential return to Denver for the AFC Championship is less threatening than it was two years ago, as Denver has struggled to 12-4 behind an anemic Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler.  This is a team capable of winning every game or losing every game it plays going forward.  Reality is going to be a bitch and the Patriots are going to struggle to put it together in the playoffs against healthier, deeper teams.

PREDICTION:  Lose in the 2nd round  to Cincinnati

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