NFL Playoff Picture 2023: Examining Latest Scenarios and Top Bracket-Busters

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBAFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 10, 2023

NFL Playoff Picture 2023: Examining Latest Scenarios and Top Bracket-Busters

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    LANDOVER, MD - JANUARY 08: Cowboys running back Tony Pollard (20) and quarterback Dak Prescott (4) congratulate wide receiver CeeDee Lamb (88) after his touchdown catch during the Dallas Cowboys versus Washington Commanders National Football League game at FedEx Field on January 8, 2023 in Landover, MD. (Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    The road map to Super Bowl LVII is laid out.

    The completion of the 2022 NFL regular season saw the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles capture their respective conference's No. 1 seed and the coveted first-round bye that comes along with it. It also set up a mesmerizing weekend of six wild-card matchups, kicking off Saturday afternoon and carrying through Monday night.

    After laying out the upcoming playoff slate, we'll spotlight a lower-seeded squad in each conference capable of embarking on a bracket-busting run.

Playoff Picture

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    SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 15: Brock Purdy #13 of the San Francisco 49ers calls a play at the line of scrimmage during the first quarter of a game against the Seattle Seahawks at Lumen Field on December 15, 2022 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Christopher Mast/Getty Images)
    Christopher Mast/Getty Images

    AFC Seeding

    1. Kansas City Chiefs (14-3, clinched AFC West)

    2. Buffalo Bills (13-3, clinched AFC East)

    3. Cincinnati Bengals (12-4, clinched AFC North)

    4. Jacksonville Jaguars (9-8, clinched AFC South)

    5. Los Angeles Chargers (10-6)

    6. Baltimore Ravens (10-7)

    7. Miami Dolphins (9-8)

    AFC Wild-Card Schedule

    1. Chiefs (bye)

    Saturday, Jan. 14

    (5) Chargers vs. (4) Jaguars: 8:15 p.m. ET, NBC

    Sunday, Jan. 15

    (7) Dolphins vs. (2) Bills: 1 p.m. ET, CBS

    (6) Ravens vs. (3) Bengals: 8:15 p.m. ET, NBC

    NFC Seeding

    1. Philadelphia Eagles (14-3, clinched NFC East)

    2. San Francisco 49ers (13-4, clinched NFC West)

    3. Minnesota Vikings (13-4, clinched NFC North)

    4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-9, clinched NFC South)

    5. Dallas Cowboys (12-5)

    6. New York Giants (9-7-1)

    7. Seattle Seahawks (9-8)

    NFC Wild-Card Schedule

    (1) Eagles (bye)

    Saturday, Jan. 14

    (7) Seahawks vs. (2) 49ers: 4:30 p.m. ET, Fox

    Sunday, Jan. 15

    (6) Giants vs. (3) Vikings: 4:30 p.m. ET, Fox

    Monday, Jan. 16

    (5) Cowboys vs. (4) Buccaneers: 8 p.m. ET, ESPN, ABC

AFC Bracket-Buster: Los Angeles Chargers

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    DENVER, CO - JANUARY 8: Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) passes in the first quarter during a game between the Los Angeles Chargers and the Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High on January 8, 2023 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Operating out of the AFC's No. 5 spot, the Chargers don't have an easy postseason path ahead. They just might, however, have the playmakers needed to overcome the odds and outperform their seeding.

    There aren't a lot of No. 5 seeds with weaponry like this.

    On offense, quarterback Justin Herbert can sling it. His 4,739 passing yards were the second-most in the NFL. They were also the second-most in his three seasons. He's an elite signal-caller with 94 touchdown passes over 49 games since being drafted as the No. 6 pick.

    It helps, of course, to be surrounded with the kind of difference-makers Herbert has at his disposal. Austin Ekeler ranks favorably among the league's most electric running backs. He was 18th overall with 915 rushing yards and joined Christian McCaffrey as the only running backs with at least 700 receiving yards. Out wide, Keenan Allen and a hopefully healthy Mike Williams can leave defensive backs looking foolish.

    The defense can be leaky, but their stars can make game-changing plays. A pass rush featuring both Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack sounds like a quarterback's worst nightmare come true, while safety Derwin James Jr. is a franchise talent who is seemingly everywhere at once.

    L.A. won five of its final seven games and opens against a young Jacksonville team making its first playoff appearance since 2017.

NFC Bracket-Buster: Dallas Cowboys

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    LANDOVER, MARYLAND - JANUARY 08: Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys looks to pass the ball during the second half against the Washington Commanders at FedExField on January 08, 2023 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Jess Rapfogel/Getty Images)
    Jess Rapfogel/Getty Images

    The Cowboys were one of seven teams with 12-plus wins this season. However, since they didn't win their division (the Eagles took the NFC East), they are the only member of that group that isn't a top-three seed.

    Dallas is instead operating out of the No. 5 spot, meaning it opens the postseason on the road (against the eight-win Buccaneers) and could be away from home for the duration of its playoff run.

    The Cowboys have enough talent to traverse even a tricky postseason path.

    Yes, they can be maddeningly inconsistent—see: whatever the heck happened in Washington on Sunday—but they were still dominant more often than not. Despite missing quarterback Dak Prescott for four games, the Cowboys were still one of just five teams with a plus-100 point differential (plus-125).

    This wasn't Prescott's best season, but he can make things happen with his arms and his legs. He also doesn't need to do too much, since Dallas has put three top-shelf playmakers around him.

    In the backfield, Tony Pollard and Ezekeil Elliott form the proverbial dynamic duo. If you prefer the thunder-and-lightning metaphor for running backs, Elliott's powerful style makes him the former, while Pollard's electricity makes him the latter. Meanwhile, receiver CeeDee Lamb is a tactician running routes and a magician with the ball in the air.

    On defense, Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence can spoil entire game plans with their pass rushing. When the opposing quarterback manages to stay upright, they still have to contend with playmaking defensive back Trevon Diggs, who has 17 interceptions over his first three NFL seasons.

    Dallas might have the league's widest gap between floor and ceiling, but its upside is nothing short of championship bliss.