NFL Playoff Bracket 2016: AFC, NFC Picture and Super Bowl Predictions

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistJanuary 4, 2016

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) celebrates a touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)
Mike McCarn/Associated Press

With the final week of the 2015 regular season over, the NFL playoff field is finally set.

The last bit of intrigue hinged on the result of the Minnesota Vikings' NFC North title-decider with the Green Bay Packers. Minnesota won and thus took home the No. 3 seed, with Green Bay getting bumped down to No. 5:

Here's a look at the early favorites to represent their respective conferences in Super Bowl 50.

AFC Playoff Picture

Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

A few weeks ago, the New England Patriots were head and shoulders above the rest of the competition in the AFC. Now they're entering the playoffs having lost four of their last six games. According to ESPN's Michele Steele, it's the first time New England has finished a regular season on such a poor run since head coach Bill Belichick took over.

By itself, the Patriots' 2-4 record isn't a major cause for concern. New England lost to the Buffalo Bills in Week 17 last year before winning the Super Bowl. In a 2012 article for Grantland, Bill Barnwell debunked the idea a poor finish to the regular season diminishes a team's Super Bowl chances.

Injuries are a far bigger issue for the Patriots. It's almost easier to count their players who haven't gotten hurt rather than the ones who either missed time or were forced to play hurt.

Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz noted New England will soon get reinforcements:

Aaron Schatz 🏈 @FO_ASchatz

Patriots looked awful today. Will also probably have Edelman, Vollmer, Jones, and Hightower back for next game in two weeks.

Being healthy enough to play isn't the same as being healthy enough to contribute in a valuable way. Julian Edelman, Sebastian Vollmer and Chandler Jones may be available for New England in the team's next game, but that doesn't guarantee the Patriots return to where they were after their 10-0 start.

To a certain extent, the same applies to the Cincinnati Bengals, who are still without Andy Dalton.

"I'm thinking as soon as I can get back, I'll be back," said Dalton, per Jim Owczarski of the Cincinnati Enquirer. "Whatever week that is, whatever time that is. I’m hoping it’s sooner than later. I’ll find out more on Monday."

AJ McCarron or a banged-up Dalton are the Bengals' two best options for the postseason, and Cincinnati fans know all too well how much a poor performance from a quarterback can harm a team's chances of advancing in the playoffs.

McCarron is too much of a wild card, while history has proven that even when healthy, Dalton saves his worst football for the most important games of the year.

The Denver Broncos know the Bengals' pain. Brock Osweiler has started their last seven games, and his performances have varied between encouraging and downright ugly. Denver's fans voiced their frustration with Osweiler and the rest of the offense at halftime of the team's Week 17 matchup with the San Diego Chargers, per Troy Renck of the Denver Post:

Troy Renck @TroyRenck

Osweiler and offense hear first boos from crowd after three-and-out drive.. #Broncos lead 7-6. Have almost as many TOs (4) as points.

If Osweiler doesn't start, then the team is hinging its hopes on an aging, turnover-prone Peyton Manning.

A dominant defense is what separates the Broncos from the Patriots and Bengals. Entering Sunday, Denver ranked first in total defense and fourth in points allowed. Football Outsiders also placed the Broncos first in defensive DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average). Their pass rush could rattle an inexperienced McCarron or exploit a New England offensive line ravaged by injury.

Denver has its flaws, but it is also the strongest overall team in the AFC at the moment.

AFC Champion: Denver Broncos

NFC Playoff Picture

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

The NFC is a two-horse race between the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers.

The Panthers already have one win over the reigning conference champions, but that victory came at a point in the season during which Seattle had yet to fully hit its peak. If anything, the game is a demarcation point in the Seahawks' season. After losing to Carolina, they reeled off eight wins in 10 games.

CBS Sports' Tom Fornelli argued Seattle is looking the stronger of the two teams right now:

It would be fitting if Seattle and Carolina opposed one another this postseason. The Panthers are essentially the team the Seahawks were before they won their first conference title in 2013. Neither boasted a flashy offense yet regularly moved the ball down the field thanks to a mobile quarterback and steady running game. They both also relied heavily on one of the league's best defenses.

Carolina's defense isn't quite as dominant as Seattle's was, but Cam Newton is a much better quarterback than the 2013 version of Russell Wilson. Newton struggled somewhat against the Seahawks in their earlier matchup this year, racking up 269 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.

Newton is having an MVP-caliber season and is the kind of singular talent who can lift the Panthers to a title.

Fans of other teams should root for the Seahawks if only for the chance they play the Super Bowl on the San Francisco 49ers' home field. SB Nation's Ryan Nanni is already envisioning the scenario:

Ryan Nanni @celebrityhottub

me thinking about the seahawks playing in a niners-hosted super bowl https://t.co/yjiO7eLmeN

Should the Panthers and Seahawks meet in the postseason, though, they would play in Charlotte, North Carolina, after Carolina secured the NFC's top seed. The Seahawks haven't been a demonstrably worse team on the road in 2015, posting the exact same 5-3 home and away split. Still, any team would prefer getting them away from CenturyLink Field.

The Packers, Vikings, Arizona Cardinals or Washington Redskins could pull off a dream run to the Super Bowl. The Cardinals were throttled by the Seahawks on Sunday, though, and the other three all have significant issues to address between now and the Wild Card Round.

Any team other than the Panthers or Seahawks representing the NFC would be a surprise, and Carolina's head-to-head win over Seattle, combined with home field, gives it the edge.

NFC Champion: Carolina Panthers


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