Sports | Analysis
January 2, 2018 at 7:00 AM
Each week, national NFL writer Mark Maske ranks the league’s 32 teams but with the regular season now finished, the focus shifts to playoff participants. The Patriots, owners of home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, lead the list, while the Vikings, aiming to become the first team to play a Super Bowl in its own stadium, top the NFC group. And the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose quarterback and top runner are in the midst of a three-week break, round out the top three.
1. New England Patriots (13-3) | AFC No. 1 seed
They took care of business Sunday against the Jets, securing the AFC’s top seed, and now they have a bye week to rest and prepare to host a conference semifinal at home. The road to the Super Bowl in the AFC goes through Foxborough, Mass., and it looks like the Patriots are headed to an eighth Super Bowl appearance with Bill Belichick as their coach and Tom Brady as their QB.
2. Minnesota Vikings (13-3) |NFC No. 2 seed
The Vikings are the NFC’s second seed but given the vulnerability of the Carson Wentz-less Eagles, they enter the postseason as the conference’s likely Super Bowl favorite. They were 7-1 at U.S. Bank Stadium during the regular season and they will attempt to become the first team to play a Super Bowl at home. The defense is very good and QB Case Keenum amazed all season.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3) | AFC No. 2 seed
The Steelers took the risk of resting QB Ben Roethlisberger, RB Le’Veon Bell and other key starters Sunday, and still beat the winless Browns. That will wind up a relatively long time off before they must flip the switch back on for an AFC semifinal. The ability of WR Antonio Brown to come back from his calf injury and play at his usual level presents a major postseason key.
4. Los Angeles Rams (11-5) |NFC No. 3 seed
They were one of the feel-good stories of the season. Sean McVay, the youngest head coach in modern NFL history, immediately turned Jared Goff into a franchise QB, RB Todd Gurley into an MVP candidate and the Rams into winners. They also have a defensive player of the year candidate in DT Aaron Donald. There’s no telling how the Rams will handle the bright postseason spotlight. But this team is plenty talented enough to be a factor in these NFC playoffs, as long as McVay makes sure the Rams are not satisfied merely to have gotten there.
5. New Orleans Saints (11-5) | NFC No. 4 seed
Sunday’s loss in Tampa was stunning, although the Saints still ended up with the NFC South title thanks to Carolina’s defeat. They would be well served to remain balanced on offense during the postseason and stay committed to the running game to complement QB Drew Brees. The temptation for Coach Sean Payton undoubtedly will be to turn the offense over to Brees as they attempt to get back to a Super Bowl together. But the Saints were greatly improved this season because they could run the ball and play defense, and they must maintain that formula even with the stakes raised.
6. Philadelphia Eagles (13-3) | NFC No. 1 seed
Is it possible for the Eagles to regroup following the season-ending knee injury suffered by QB Carson Wentz and still reach the Super Bowl? Yes — fill-in QB Nick Foles is capable of playing well. The Eagles were the league’s best and most balanced team for most of the season and they have home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. But does it seem likely that the Eagles will reach the Super Bowl without Wentz? No. They haven’t been anything close to the same team since his injury. They were shut out Sunday by the Cowboys in the regular season finale, and Foles failed to inspire much confidence in his abbreviated outing against Dallas.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) | AFC No. 3 seed
Their ability to run the football and rush the passer make the Jaguars a viable threat to the Steelers if they can get past the Bills this weekend. The biggest issue, of course, is which version of Blake Bortles will show up for the postseason. He resembled a franchise QB at times this season, but reverted to his mistake-prone ways on too many other occasions.
8. Atlanta Falcons (10-6) | NFC No. 6 seed
The defending NFC champs enter the postseason on a high note after beating the Panthers on Sunday to punch their wild-card ticket. It was a fairly disappointing season for QB Matt Ryan after his MVP performance in 2016, and the Atlanta offense was not the same without departed coordinator Kyle Shanahan. But the presence of Ryan, WR Julio Jones and RB Devonta Freeman make the Falcons a dangerous opponent for the Rams thanks to their postseason experience.
9. Carolina Panthers (11-5) | NFC No. 5 seed
The offense was unproductive Sunday in Atlanta, as QB Cam Newton was off target in a 14-for-34, three-interception performance. That won’t be nearly good enough against the Saints, who will demand the Panthers put forth a decent scoring performance to keep pace. TE Greg Olsen and RB Christian McCaffrey must be major factors. The defense is good enough. It’s all about whether Newton and the offense will come around.
10. Kansas City Chiefs (10-6) | AFC No. 4 seed
A 5-0 start gave way to a 1-6 downward spiral, which gave way to a 4-0 finish. Which version of the Chiefs will be on display during the postseason? It’s impossible to know. Even so, it’s difficult to envision them losing at home to the upstart Titans. A victory this weekend might send the Chiefs back to New England, where they won the NFL’s season-opening game in stunning fashion to quickly end any notion of the Patriots chasing a 19-0 season.
11. Tennessee Titans (9-7) | AFC No. 5 seed
Third-year QB Marcus Mariota makes his first appearance in the NFL playoffs. The Titans head to Kansas City after beating the Jaguars on Sunday to end a three-game losing skid and salvage a wild-card spot. Their once-promising season had been unraveling, and it would be a fairly significant surprise if they’re able to win a playoff game on the road.
12. Buffalo Bills (9-7) | AFC No. 6 seed
Once the Bills get finished thanking the Bengals and reveling in the franchise’s first playoff appearance since the 1999 season, they actually must play a game Sunday in Jacksonville. Their chances of pulling an upset are greatly diminished by the ankle injury that threatens to sideline or limit RB LeSean McCoy.
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