NFL Playoff Preview 2016: An Early Guide to This Year's Postseason
The playoffs are here as the 2015 NFL regular season came to a close Sunday night. We thought we had a good grasp on what the seeding and matchups would be, but several key contests went awry for playoff teams. We’ve got your updated early guide to this year’s postseason picture.
While the AFC is struggling with key injuries, the NFC has six teams that have shown Super Bowl potential. Headlined by the Carolina Panthers as the No. 1 overall seed, the NFC’s Wild Card Weekend should be filled with great matchups. The recent surge from Seattle and Washington mean we could see some upsets brewing.
As mentioned, the AFC’s outlook is filled with teams limping into the playoffs. Only Kansas City and Houston have been playing especially well down the stretch. The two wild-card teams, Pittsburgh and Kansas City, might be the best overall teams left.
Let’s jump in and map everything out for the 2016 playoffs. Leave your predictions for what will happen in the comments section below.
AFC Playoff Seeding
AFC No. 1 Seed: Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos slid into the top overall seed following their 27-20 victory against the San Diego Chargers in Week 17. This will keep them in Denver throughout the AFC playoffs and provides a bye week to rest. Most importantly, now they have time to figure out what to do at quarterback.
On one hand, Peyton Manning’s return to the field was encouraging. If he is 100 percent healthy, he has the higher upside to play well compared to Brock Osweiler. But Manning almost led the NFL in interceptions despite missing six games, so the risk in playing him is clear.
Denver must make a difficult decision in their week off. Do they go with Manning, who can provide a higher ceiling but lower floor? Or do they opt to play ball control with Osweiler at the helm?
AFC No. 2 Seed: New England Patriots
New England lost to the Miami Dolphins in Week 17, looking like a shell of its former self. Injuries and a conservative game plan held the Patriots back, and it’s fair to wonder whether they should have benched all of their healthy players instead of risking further damage. Their effort across the board was frightening.
One week off because of the bye should help Julian Edelman return, and perhaps he will be enough to spark this offense. The run-heavy approach with Steven Jackson may have helped him get back into the flow of the NFL game, but a terrible Dolphins defense easily stopped it. There are many reasons to be concerned with the Patriots right now.
AFC No. 3 Seed: Cincinnati Bengals
While the Bengals won a tight but entertaining game against Baltimore, they didn’t earn a first-round bye. Denver won, and Cincinnati is stuck playing on Wild Card Weekend, which they surely did not want. Without Andy Dalton at quarterback, it’ll be tough to advance.
Cincinnati gets home field for their playoff game with Pittsburgh. Head coach Marvin Lewis has a strong team, but they will likely be the underdog in their home stadium. He may have to wait another year to get his first playoff win.
AFC No. 4 Seed: Houston Texans
Houston avoided the crazy parlay scenario the Indianapolis Colts needed to win the AFC South, clinching the division themselves. Bill O’Brien and his team deserve major credit for bouncing back after key injuries and poor play plagued the team early in the year.
Houston would likely be the underdog in any matchup, but not a significant one. Wild Card Weekend gives Houston the crowd advantage, and not going to Kansas City is a major positive. If quarterback Brian Hoyer can return, Houston has a real chance of advancing.
AFC No. 5 Seed: Kansas City Chiefs
The title of hottest team in the AFC belongs to Kansas City. Led by a terrific defense, the Chiefs nearly won the AFC West while storming their way into the fifth seed. Everyone should fear the Chiefs right now.
Andy Reid and his staff have been masterful this season. They’ve survived losing their best offensive player and got their defense playing as well as anyone could have expected. That should pay off well in the wild-card round—and perhaps beyond.
AFC No. 6 Seed: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers got the help they needed to win the final wild-card spot when the New York Jets lost to Buffalo. Fortunately for Pittsburgh, their Week 16 loss to Baltimore ultimately didn’t matter. Now they enter the playoffs with arguably the best quarterback in the conference.
Pittsburgh’s defense has shown glimpses of being Super Bowl-worthy. Facing off against AJ McCarron is the ideal matchup in the wild-card round.
NFC Playoff Seeding
NFC No. 1 Seed: Carolina Panthers
Carolina finished the regular season with a fantastic 15-1 record and the conference's top overall seed in the playoffs. Their ascension into this spot was as unexpected as any development in the NFL this year. Now they can enjoy a first-round bye and prepare for a difficult game in the second round.
The fascinating storyline for Carolina is whether they can continue to win when the competition ramps up. They benefited from one of the easiest schedules in the league, according to TeamRankings.com, playing the AFC South, NFC East and NFC South. Can they continue to win against the NFC’s finest?
NFC No. 2 Seed: Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals melted at home against Seattle, but they still have a bye week coming their way. Arizona was arguably the league's most impressive team until Week 17, and they remain a massive threat to win the Super Bowl.
The toughest matchup for Arizona is certainly Seattle. The beatdown they suffered doesn’t instill confidence in them if the two match up again at some point, but it’s also hard to beat the same team twice.
NFC No. 3 Seed: Minnesota Vikings
Proving that it is hard to beat the same team twice, the Vikings pulled out a tough win in Green Bay in Week 17, winning the NFC North division with an 11-5 record. They’ll host a dangerous Seahawks team in Minnesota this week.
Minnesota has the talent to win this game and go far in the playoffs. Their defense is stout enough to keep them in close games. Can their offense scrounge together enough to hang with the NFC’s finest?
NFC No. 4 Seed: Washington Redskins
Washington has been on a tear as the second half of their schedule was as soft as vanilla ice cream. But credit must go to head coach Jay Gruden, who stuck with Kirk Cousins and helped him develop into a quality player. The Redskins are playing as well as anyone could have imagined at this point in the season.
Washington will likely be the underdog in any NFC matchup, but they have home-field advantage. The difference in their play at home compared to the road is really interesting. They have the chance to surprise the nation and pull out a home playoff victory.
NFC No. 5 Seed: Green Bay Packers
Green Bay made a late push against the Vikings, but ultimately came up short. This cost them the division and home-field advantage in the wild-card round. However, it gives them an easier matchup than the third seed.
Green Bay is nowhere near the contender they showed to be early in the year. Injuries have sapped this team of that special gear, especially on offense. Had they stayed healthy, their defense has been good enough to win a Super Bowl for the first time in a long time.
NFC No. 6 Seed: Seattle Seahawks
Seattle’s blowout of the Cardinals was a loud statement to the rest of the conference. The two-time NFC champion is still omnipresent and will not go down easily. This is a team that should strike fear into every opponent.
The recipe for Seattle is similar to year’s past, except that Russell Wilson has developed into an elite playmaker. He’s always been excellent, but he and Doug Baldwin are playing at a higher level than ever before.
AFC Wild Card Matchups
Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals
While the Bengals won the AFC North and have the stronger overall roster, the timing of Andy Dalton’s thumb injury could cost them dearly. The Steelers lost Ben Roethlisberger to injury earlier this season but were able to survive enough to squeak into the playoffs. And it doesn’t matter now for this one game.
These teams split their two head-to-head games in the regular season. Pittsburgh has outscored Cincinnati by seven points between those two games, and their most recent victory was just four weeks ago.
Pittsburgh should be considered the favorite simply because of the difference at quarterback. While Roethlisberger has been inconsistent with his play, he offers a much more promising performance than AJ McCarron.
Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans
The two hottest teams in the conference will square off in Houston. Kansas City hasn’t allowed more than 17 points in over a month, and it hasn’t given up more than 22 since Week 4. If Houston wins this game, they need to have Brian Hoyer back under center and playing his best football of the season.
Houston’s defense is good, although not nearly as dominant as the Chiefs' unit. This looks like a defensive struggle where points will come at a premium. The best offensive playmaker on either team is Houston wideout DeAndre Hopkins, who demolished the Chiefs the last time these teams played (nine receptions, 98 yards, two TDs in Week 1).
It’s hard to beat a team twice, and the Chiefs won in Week 1 of the season in their head-to-head matchup. History should repeat itself, and the Chiefs will win a close game.
NFC Wild Card Matchups
Seattle Seahawks at Minnesota Vikings
The Seahawks have been the best team in the NFC over the last two months thanks to an offensive explosion. They’ve scored fewer than 29 points just one time since November 1, which is not the norm for this team in consecutive Super Bowl runs. Can Minnesota score like that?
The alternative is for Minnesota to play like the St. Louis Rams that challenged Seattle. While St. Louis oddly has the Seahawks’ blueprint figured out, the Vikings have a better roster with similar strengths. Minnesota must get their powerful run game established early and hope the pass rush is able to finish pressures.
The Seahawks should continue to win and steal this game. A final score of 20-16 would fit the nature of a physical, defense-first matchup. That would set up a fun matchup in Carolina for the second round.
Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins
Right now, the Washington Redskins are the better team between these two. The Packers limped into the playoffs, and are led by their defense. That sounds insane, but Aaron Rodgers doesn’t have the surrounding parts needed to consistently score points.
Washington’s defense could be the cure for Rodgers, as they’ve allowed more than 20 points in four consecutive games. This defense was also shredded by teams like the Jets, Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Can Green Bay do the same?
This game is a tough one to predict. That said, the Redskins will win at home, 24-21. Washington would then travel to Arizona.
- DeAngelo Williams of the Steelers left the stadium in a walking boot after Week 17's win, per Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. His status was not updated after the game, and his availability will not be known until later in the week.
- Houston left tackle Duane Brown will undergo surgery on a torn right quad, according to ESPN.com's Tania Ganguli. This is a huge loss for Houston, even though Brown hasn’t been the elite tackle he once was.
- Houston also saw Nate Washington injure his hip in Week 17. His status is unknown, but a multiweek injury would potentially leave the Texans without Washington and Cecil Shorts.
- Chiefs receiver Jeremy Maclin injured his hip in Week 17 on a hard fall, but returned to the game in the fourth quarter.
- Mitch Morse, the stud starting center for Kansas City, suffered a concussion against Oakland. He could miss the Wild Card Game.
- Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane had a solid outing in Week 17, but left the game with a rib injury. Seattle needs his depth for a deep run, so his status is a must-watch.
- Washington's Kyshoen Jarrett and Dashaun Phillips each suffered injuries in Week 17. Jarrett left with a concussion and Phillips a neck injury. Their availability for next week is unknown.
- Adrian Peterson’s lower back flared up against Green Bay. He re-entered the game and promptly fumbled. Minnesota absolutely needs him 100 percent this week.
Odds and Ends
- The Kansas City Chiefs set a franchise record for consecutive wins Sunday. They enter the playoffs with a 10-game winning streak, per the team's official Twitter account.
- Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals set a franchise record for catches in a season with 109, according to the team's official Twitter account. The future Hall of Famer has been terrific despite being 32 years old.
- Russell Wilson broke the Seahawks’ franchise record for single-season passing yards and touchdowns, per ESPN.com's Sheil Kapadia. He has been incredible this year, clearly moving into the elite echelon of quarterbacks.
- Wilson also became the first quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards, 30 touchdowns and run for 500 yards in one season, as noted by SportsCenter.
- The Seahawks rushing defense finished first in yards per game, allowing 81.5, according to Brian Nemhauser of HawkBlogger.com. The 1,304 yards allowed matches their 2014 total, which was a franchise low.
- Kirk Cousins broke the Redskins’ single-season passing yards record with 4,135 yards, per the team's official Twitter account.
- Antonio Brown has 265 combined catches in the last two years, which is 13 more than the previous record of 252 by Indianapolis' Marvin Harrison, per Jayson Braddock of ESPN Radio. He had the fourth-most receiving yards in league history, with 1,834, as noted by NFL on ESPN.
All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.