There have been whispers about the NFL expanding to 16 teams in the playoffs. What if that was the case?
The NFL is rumored to be considering expanding the playoffs from 12 to 16 teams.
If the league had a 16-team playoff format this season, the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins would still be in contention. And while that probably sounds good to their respective fan bases, a 16-team playoff format would make the regular season less meaningless and it could potentially hurt the product on the field.
On the other hand, expanding to 16 teams would give fans something they want--more football.
Let's assume the league expands the postseason field. And from there, we'll project who would advance past the "Sweet 16" into the "Final Four," and who would ultimately win the Super Bowl in a March Madness-style playoff bracket.
No. 1) New England Patriots vs. No. 8) San Diego Chargers
There's no safer bet to earn a top playoff seed than the Patriots. New England has been the definition of consistency under head coach Bill Belichick.
And in case you've ever doubted Tom Brady, realize he's only lost 39 games in his entire career. He's in his 13th NFL season.
The San Diego Chargers, on the other hand, have defined "inconsistency" in recent years. Norv Turner is on his way out, and if the rumors of Andy Reid-to-San Diego are true, the Chargers could threaten for a playoff spot next year.
After all, if half the league is in the playoffs, a .500 record could be enough to put a team in the postseason.
Nobody would expect the Chargers to travel across the country and win this game. The Patriots are dominant at home, and it'd take a nearly flawless game from San Diego to unseat the top-seeded Patriots.
No. 2) Houston Texans vs. No. 7) Indianapolis Colts
Houston has it all. The Texans boast a stout run defense led by one of the league's best defensive players in J.J. Watt, and the offense may be the most balanced in the NFL. Playing in one of the weaker divisions in football, it's hard to see anyone but Houston winning the AFC South.
The second-best team in the AFC South, right now, is clearly the Indianapolis Colts. Although their record may not be as good next year, I think the Colts will be an improved football team in Andrew Luck's second season.
Houston against Indianapolis for the third time in one season would be a fun game to watch, right? I firmly believe Luck will be one of the best quarterbacks in football a few years down the road, and the Texans are assembled as well as any team in the NFL.
Houston is a better and deeper team overall, but this would figure to be a competitive game.
No. 3) Denver Broncos vs. No. 6) Cincinnati Bengals
The Denver Broncos made the playoffs in 2011 with a quarterback who couldn't throw the ball. Now with one of the best quarterbacks of all-time on their side, the Broncos are one of the most dangerous teams in the entire league.
Manning builds leads and allows the Denver defense to take over on the shoulders of pass-rushing phenom Von Miller.
Under an eight-team-per-conference format, the importance of earning a top seed would be astronomical. Because in the case of the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds, their opponents would obviously be much stronger teams than the opponents of the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. In this case, the Broncos would host the Cincinnati Bengals, another very dangerous team.
This matchup would be interesting. When he has time to throw, Manning is the best of the best.
But the Bengals boast one of the best pass rushes in the NFL and has a very talented secondary. One would expect the Broncos to win, but this could be a close game.
No. 4) Baltimore Ravens vs. No. 5) Pittsburgh Steelers
How many times have we seen this matchup in a meaningful scenario the past several years? Both Baltimore and Pittsburgh always boast strong defenses. And although the Steelers are an aging defense, there's no reason to think Dick LeBeau won't have his unit in order again next season.
Baltimore is an elite quarterback away from being perhaps the best team in the NFL. Sorry, Joe Flacco, you're still not elite. But still, the Ravens are a playoff team—especially if the league goes to a 16-team format.
If this was the first-round matchup, it's anyone's guess as to who would be the winner. It could come down to who is playing at home, or simply who is the hotter team. But it would be an intriguing matchup, for sure.
At the top of the bracket, first glance suggests there are three teams that could ultimately make it to the AFC Championship.
New England appears to be a safe bet to make it through the first round, setting up a second-round matchup with either the Baltimore Ravens or the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Both teams will likely boast strong defenses once again in 2013, but Tom Brady is the ultimate kryptonite to a stingy defense.
Regardless of who the Patriots play in the second round, it's hard to bet against Brady.
On the bottom of the bracket, there really only appear to be two teams that could make it to the AFC Championship.
Denver faces a tough first-round opponent in the Cincinnati Bengals, and Houston faces division-rival Indianapolis.
Regardless of what happens in round one, the Texans and Broncos appear, on paper, to be New England's opponent in the AFC Championship Game.
Because the Broncos have the edge at quarterback, I think Denver would beat the Texans.
Final Four (AFC Championship) - Denver at New England
Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady for the AFC Championship? I don't think anyone would complain about that matchup.
Although Bill Belichick always seems to have his defense playing at a championship-caliber level in the playoffs, I trust the Denver defense a lot more than the Patriots.
New England defeated the Broncos earlier this season, but Denver is playing much better late this season.
I think Manning upsets Brady on his home field under this scenario, and the Broncos move onto next year's Super Bowl in New York.
No. 1) Green Bay Packers vs. No. 8) Seattle Seahawks
When trying to project who will earn the No. 1 seed in a respective conference nearly a year before the season, it's wise to look at the quarterback position.
With Aaron Rodgers under center, the Packers are in better hands than any NFC team for the next several seasons.
Seattle has overachieved this season, but that defense will keep them competitive in the near future. If Russell Wilson can keep up his current level of play, the Seahawks will continue to threaten for a spot in the playoffs.
And if the league were to go to a 16-team setting, Seattle would no doubt be one of the eight teams from the NFC.
Looking at this matchup, one immediately thinks of the "Inaccurate Reception" on Monday Night Football this year. But looking past a criminal gaffe in officiating, the Seahawks give the Packers some matchup problems on the perimeter.
This would be an interesting game to watch and it could come down to the final possession. But playing at Lambeau, the Packers have the clear edge.
No. 2) San Francisco 49ers vs. No. 7) Dallas Cowboys
Much like the Packers, the San Francisco 49ers are clearly the best team in their division right now. Colin Kaepernick has a much higher ceiling than Alex Smith, which surely gives the rest of the NFC reason to worry. Oh yeah, and the 49ers boast the best defense in football. So, there's that.
The Cowboys have rallied this season to put themselves into position to earn a playoff berth. If the league expanded the field to 16 teams, Dallas certainly has the talent to crack the top eight in the NFC.
San Francisco versus Dallas would conjure up memories of the 1990s. This would be a great game to watch, and this really has the feel of a potential March Madness-style upset.
The 49ers would certainly be favored at home, but things could get interesting against the Cowboys in San Francisco.
No. 3) New York Giants vs. No. 6) Chicago Bears
Although they're struggling to make the playoffs this year, the Giants are without a doubt one of the best teams in the NFC.
And in all likelihood, Eli Manning and company will be in the postseason next year whether the league expands the playoffs or not.
Chicago has the talent to be in the playoffs, but the Bears have fallen flat in the stretch run of the 2012 season.
But with Julius Peppers, Israel Idonije, Shea McClellin and Henry Melton on the defensive line, this is a team that could slow down some of the better passing teams in the league.
This is another really close matchup that would depend entirely on which teams show up. Both the Giants and the Bears have been known to lay an egg, but when they're on, both teams look like they're among the best in football.
You'd have to lean towards the Giants at home, but you never know which team is going to show up.
No. 4) New Orleans Saints vs. No. 5) Atlanta Falcons
Without Sean Payton, the Saints are a completely different team. He's definitely one of the brightest offensive minds in football, and while Drew Brees is a great quarterback, Payton constructed the New Orleans offense to be what it is—one of the most explosive in the NFL.
Atlanta has the best record in football this season and appears headed for the top seed in the NFC.
But still, many people remain skeptical as to whether or not they're really an elite team. The Falcons are definitely a playoff-caliber team, but the Saints may be better at full strength.
A playoff matchup between these two teams would obviously be their third meeting of the season. March Madness always delivers competitive games in hostile environments.
And whether this game is played in Atlanta or New Orleans, this matchup would certainly live up to its billing.
More so than in the AFC, anyone in the top of the NFC bracket appears capable of advancing to the Super Bowl. Even the No. 8 seed Seattle Seahawks.
From top-to-bottom, the NFC is simply a deeper conference right now. And although the Packers are perhaps the most talented team in football, the Seahawks physical corners can slow down those Packers' wide receivers.
When push comes to shove, I'd expect the Packers to advance to the second round.
In the matchup between the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons, it could very well come down to who gets the last possession in a shootout. I still prefer Drew Brees in a must-win situation over Matt Ryan, so I'll say the Saints advance to the NFC semifinals to play the Packers.
Much like the top of the bracket, the bottom half of the NFC bracket is wide open.
In the San Francisco-Dallas game, the Cowboys appear to have the pieces in place for an upset. The 49ers would likely slow down Tony Romo and the Dallas passing attack, but the Cowboys have a complete offense when DeMarco Murray is in the fold.
This would be a nail-biter, but I'll give the edge to the 49ers playing at home.
The New York Giants versus the Chicago Bears would perhaps be the most intriguing matchup of any in the NFC. Both teams are extremely talented yet prone to lay an egg in important games.
Typically, playoff games come down to the quarterbacks. In that case, I'll take Eli Manning over Jay Cutler eight days a week.
Final Four (NFC Championship) - NY Giants at Green Bay
Eli Manning travels to Lambeau Field in the playoffs. Sound familiar? Well, it should.
Manning is 2-0 at Lambeau Field in the postseason, and the Giants certainly aren't fazed by the frigid Wisconsin winter. Perhaps the most obvious mismatch in favor of the Giants is their defensive line against a weak Packers' offensive line.
If the Packers and Giants were to meet in the playoffs again, it would be hard to pick against the Giants, given recent history. The Giants advance to the Super Bowl, and Eli Manning moves on to play his brother with a chance to win another Championship.