This may not be the year to write a column like this.
But it also might be the best chance we have at projecting what could happen this postseason.
In a season where almost no team stood out and almost everyone sucked, trying to guess what happens in the playoff feels near pointless. So, to mitigate that randomness and variability a little, we’re going to try and attack this postseason based on heart, confidence and trust.
Below is a definitive guide to who seems like the most likely team to win the Super Bowl, starting with the team that’s been there the past two years.
- Kansas City Chiefs
The epitome of this season is the Chiefs’ clocking in at No. 1 on these rankings. The best team in the league entering these playoffs didn’t have some starry, magical season that it cruised right through. It didn’t have a real MVP candidate, or have anyone declaring how unstoppable they were. Kansas City was, at one point, just as down in the dumps as every other team on this list this year. They were perhaps more so than others, too.
That said, the Chiefs might have done what no other team has: pulled out of those doldrums, get themselves back in shape and mostly importantly – make everyone fear them again.
When Patrick Mahomes threw for 406 yards and promptly slaughtered the Raiders in Week 10, it was clear the Chiefs were back. The funk that had them a game behind .500 early in the year thanks to horrible turnover luck, a completely inadequate defense, pass catchers simply not getting open and Mahomes’ ultra aggression as a result was so clearly over, and a big win over Dallas the next week made sure of it.
Sure, the Bills overcame some midseason adversity, and even defeated Kansas City in Week 5, adding misery to the Chiefs’ plate. But Buffalo has arguably had worse losses since, and hasn’t gotten past Kansas City in the postseason before. If that Week 5 game was anything, it was the kick in the butt to the Chiefs, and was the one that has them ranked here now.
- Green Bay Packers
The Packers have turned into the Utah Jazz of the NFL.
Every regular season they win a ton of games, probably don’t get enough credit for it and then can never convert that success into postseason value.
It’s the only reason they’re not ranked No. 1.
Green Bay turned in a near flawless year. It had one real loss – dropping a contest to the Vikings 34-31 in Week 11. Their defense was surprisingly the best element of their team, finishing sixth in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA, while the offense placed around average at 15th. That didn’t stop quarterback Aaron Rodgers from turning in a MVP-worthy campaign – if not for all of the off-field antics (one sticks out in particular), he’d probably be in the running for an unanimous trophy, just because no one else fits the bill this year.
But until Green Bay at least makes the Super Bowl, it’s hard to put them over the Chiefs, who’ve been there the past two years and have taken home one Lombardi.
- Buffalo Bills
The Bills have it similar to the Packers. We kind of need to see it to believe it with them. While it could be counted for or against them, Buffalo doesn’t necessarily have the years of experience or disappointment under their belt that Green Bay does. Despite everyone having their flaws this year, nobody seemed to sink lower than the Bills, who at times watched Josh Allen morph back into the inaccurate version of himself while also being dealt one of the more embarrassing losses of the season.
The Bills redeemed that Week 13 loss to the Patriots in Nee England during Week 16 though, and they have a chance to do it again on Saturday. However, it won’t be that outcome that makes this postseason a success for Buffalo, it’ll be what lies ahead, and whether demons of the past don’t strike back.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This year’s Buccaneers are extremely reminiscent of last’s. At times, they’re unstoppable thanks to a powerful offense and a fearsome defense. Yet, times of mysterious offensive stagnation and questioning Tom Brady’s ability to still do it appear. Now, thanks to a lack of foresight by Tampa Bay’s front office and Chris Godwin’s ACL tear, the once vaunted Bucs offense is now down to just Mike Evans in the receiving core. That’s not ideal for Brady, who, despite having a firm MVP case, has still looked at times this year like a 44-year-old trying to play quarterback.
Maybe these concerns about the Bucs are overblown though. Despite the offensive’s occasional struggles, they did finish the season ranked No. 1 in offensive DVOA. Still, two of the three key pieces that made that happen no longer exist on the roster, and plenty of those off days throughout the year came when the team was at full strength.
Additionally, Tampa Bay doesn’t have the same defense backing it up as last year. Though they still finished ninth in defensive DVOA, the run defense is worse, and the secondary is a shell of itself due to multiple injuries. The defensive backfield has overcome those in 2021 – playing competently for the most part – but every little advantage and disadvantage can rear its head in the postseason.
The Bucs overcame a bad start in last year’s playoffs against Washington to win the Super Bowl. While they shouldn’t have much of a problem against the Eagles this week, it shouldn’t be shocking to see them going home the next weekend.
- Dallas Cowboys
The biggest detriment to the Cowboys’ postseason chances was Michael Gallup’s season-ending knee injury. Sure, it might seem odd that Dallas’ third-best wide receiver going down knocked them down a spot or two in these rankings. But Gallup was the icing on the cake for what was an unstoppable Cowboys offense – accounting for him, perhaps the best No. 3 receiver in the league, took just one more defender off of CeeDee Lamb or Amari Cooper.
Now, Dallas’ offense is just really good, and not quite great. Gallup made it a group that could have gotten hot, torched defenses all through the playoffs and remained borderline cataclysmic all the way to the Super Bowl. Now, it’s just a smidge worse, and with a shaky kicking situation, Mike McCarthy on deck to do something dumb and the cruel history of Dallas’ recent playoff appearances, things don’t bode quite as well for the Cowboys moving forward.
- Tennessee Titans
The Titans aren’t the “Nobody believes in us” team of these playoffs, but they are the “Don’t forget about us” team.
Tennessee came in much higher on these rankings than expected, despite being the No. 1 seed in the AFC, which grants it a bye in the Wild Card Round and allows them to have home-field till the Super Bowl. But its case – and potential path – make sense.
Derrick Henry actually isn’t the starting point for it, either. It’s what they did when the superstar running back was out instead.
Mike Vrabel may have the best case in the NFL for Coach of the Year this season. As soon as Henry went out, Tennessee’s offense cratered thanks to injuries at wide receiver and the removal of quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s safety net at running back.
It was clear the lessened effectiveness of the play action scheme due to Henry’s injury hurt Tannehill’s ability to make tough throws. Yet, Vrabel got the Titans to finish 12th in defensive DVOA, making up for ranks of 20th in the offensive and overall category.
While Tennessee has had some clunkers for losses this year, almost everyone else has as well, and now they’re getting Henry back. His presence could run the Titans right to the Super Bowl, and put Tannehill back in his old role of passing only when needed, with a sneaky play action attack at the base of it. If Henry shows no signs of rustiness from his foot injury, then watch out.
7/8. Los Angeles Rams
8/7. Arizona Cardinals
We’re grouping these two teams together because they couldn’t be more alike. All year, each has either looked equally unstoppable, been equally disappointing, tormented bettors, pushed the boundaries of what was possible on a football field for better or worse and subsequently dominated the other on the opponent’s home turf. The Rams and Cardinals are so perfectly matched that it makes it impossible to determine which has a better chance of making the Super Bowl, so we’re going to let Monday night’s matchup between the two determine that. How fitting.
The two get placed here because their ceilings are higher than any team below them, yet, the frustration each has caused fans and analysts throughout the year can’t put them above any team already listed. Consistency has been virtually nonexistent amongst everyone this season, but these teams have hit lows that no one ranked above them has. There’s a certain benchmark that has to be crossed to gain trust entering the postseason. Neither Arizona or Los Angeles has checked it yet.
9. Cincinnati Bengals
If one is trying to find the Cinderella candidate to make the Super Bowl this year, look no further. The Bengals fit the shoe perfectly.
The case? First, everyone believes they’re a year away. Joe Burrow is too young and doesn’t have the playoff experience yet. JaMarr Chase’s ability to break games will get shutdown in the postseason. The offensive line won’t hold up. They’re a below-average team according to DVOA.
Those are all fair points. It’s why they’re ranked ninth as opposed to seventh or eighth. Arizona and Los Angeles, despite their faults, are older, more experienced teams, even if the playoff reps are about equal between the three.
But the difference with the Bengals is that Burrow and Chase have already went toe-to-toe with many of the teams ranked ahead of them, and in some cases, came out on top. If not, then they kept right up, with a single possession being the difference.
The pressure is really on now. Whether Cincy can maintain their regular season success when that’s the case remains to be seen. But don’t be surprised if nothing changes. If anyone is going to remain calm under chaos, it’s Burrow.
10. New England Patriots
The Patriots are the Bengals without the higher ceiling. If there’s any game-breaking element to them, it comes from the sidelines and not on the field.
That shouldn’t be underestimated though. Bill Belichick concocting a defense to shut down the league’s most potent offenses isn’t a far-cry at all these playoffs, and New England hounding time of possession with its running game and key throws from Mac Jones could give them a Titans-like path to go deep this postseason.
The counter is obvious. Jones is not only a rookie, but isn’t the type of quarterback that scares you with his arm and accuracy. That limits the heights New England’s offense can reach, and makes any possession without points a tough swallow. Additionally, the inexperience has reared its ugly head at times, including against teams ranked ahead of them on this list.
If we’ve learned anything, it’s to never, ever rule out the Patriots. Tenth feels like we’re giving them enough credit, while not trying to be too smart either.
11. Las Vegas Raiders
There’s a case that the Raiders are the team that is least deserving of being here, or at worst, have no business playing any more football this season.
Yet, it’s hard to rule them out completely.
That’s because Derek Carr can play like he did before the Raiders dealt with numerous off-the-field distractions or because he could play like he did for the most part after those occurred. There’s really no way of knowing what you’re going to get, which has been the Carr experience essentially until Jon Gruden and Henry Ruggs III entered the building. Now, they’re both gone, leaving Carr and the Raiders hanging, still searching for the next level of success.
Carr could get hot this postseason, and string together a couple of good games to ignite the Raiders offense. But almost all of it falls on his shoulders now — there isn’t exactly a great defense to back him up. Las Vegas and Carr have been resilient all year, as this postseason berth proves. But a run in January and February would be a story almost too good for Hollywood to script.
12. Philadelphia Eagles
One of the feel good stories of the year, the Eagles are simply happy to be here.
That’s okay and good for them.
They probably won’t get far, especially with Tampa Bay as their Wild Card opponent, but Philadelphia likely wasn’t expecting such success in its first year with Nick Sirianni and Jalen Hurts at the helm of their respective positions.
The Wild Card Round is a fantastic opportunity for the organization though. As good as Hurts has been, he certainly has some drawbacks that have come to light quite intrusively this season. Those getting illuminated, and likely sending the Eagles out of the playoffs, might be the best thing to happen for them, as Philly’s front office can then use its three first round picks in the 2022 Draft to re-tool the roster around Hurts. If the Eagles make a miracle run, then it forces the team into fourth gear in the offseason in terms of trying to build a contender.
Philly has already hit every objective it could have on this season. Nothing that happens from here on out is a disappointment.
13. San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco is a team that feels like it doesn’t quite belong here, much like the last team in these rankings (see below). But the 49ers have endured brutal quarterback and secondary play, an almost gimmick-like offensive scheme built around Deebo Samuel and losses to almost every quality team they’ve played to still finish at 6th in total DVOA. Despite some well deserved criticism, Kyle Shanahan does deserve credit for keeping this team afloat, and especially for sweeping the flawed-yet-frightening Rams in the regular season.
But San Francisco isn’t too scary in the postseason for all the reasons mentioned above. It’s going to take an epic slew of defensive performances to drag an either obviously injured Jimmy Garrapollo or a still very raw Trey Lance deep into the postseason. Despite a defense that somehow finished seventh in DVOA, opposing teams should be able to throw on the 49ers, and San Francisco as currently constructed isn’t exactly the type of team destined to perform well in shootouts.
14. Pittsburgh Steelers
It feels pretty miraculous that the Steelers are even here for a myriad of reasons. First, two teams could have easily tied on purpose with each other to make sure they both made the playoffs instead of one of them. Second, they almost ended up doing so, until the Chargers reneged on the Raiders, breaking the truce between the two in the prisoner’s dilemma and forced Las Vegas to do what they didn’t want or mean to do and boot the Chargers out of the playoffs.
(Brandon Staley’s decision to call timeout is another column in its entirety that’s not getting addressed here, but in short, let’s just say it didn’t seem too smart, then or now. Bring on any of the counterpoints you want – that opinion won’t change).
And third, the Steelers just aren’t very good. They’re ranked 24th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, have a quarterback on his last legs who’s in a stage of his career that is even later than the one Peyton Manning was in when the Broncos won the Super Bowl in 2016, and don’t have a defense good enough to drag the putrid offense along (DVOA has the defense ranked 14th and the offense ranked 25th – a defense capable of getting Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl likely needs to be No. 1 or No. 2, and/or a historic one, a la Denver in Manning’s last year).
The case would likely be a defensive hot streak and Najee Harris running rampant, giving Pittsburgh a massive edge in time of possession and effectively suffocating offenses with good defense and limited opportunity. But the Steelers have to go up against the team atop these rankings in the Wild Card Round, making an appearance next weekend unlikely.