NFL Playoff Picture 2022: Examining Latest Scenarios and Top Bracket Busters

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 11, 2022

NFL Playoff Picture 2022: Examining Latest Scenarios and Top Bracket Busters

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    While the highest seeds in the NFL playoffs are granted the easiest paths to the Super Bowl, that guarantees nothing.

    This is, after all, the league where on any given Sunday—or Saturday or, this year, Monday—any postseason participant can knock off another.

    Every year, there are potential bracket busters lurking among the lower seeds, and we're here to identify one from each conference after laying out the playoff picture ahead of Wild Card Weekend.

Playoff Picture

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    AFC

    No. 1 Tennessee Titans: Bye

    No. 7 Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 2 Kansas City Chiefs

    No. 6 New England Patriots at No. Buffalo Bills

    No. 5 Las Vegas Raiders at No. 4 Cincinnati Bengals

                        

    NFC

    No. 1 Green Bay Packers: Bye

    No. 7 Philadelphia Eagles at No. 2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    No. 6 San Francisco 49ers at No. 3 Dallas Cowboys

    No. 5 Arizona Cardinals at No. 4 Los Angeles Rams

AFC Bracket Buster: New England Patriots

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    New England might lack the name recognition of its championship best—minus decorated coach Bill Belichick, of course—but this team looks ferocious on paper.

    Forget the fact this is the conference's No. 6 seed, because if Week 18 had played out differently, it could have climbed as high as No. 1. Any other available metric paints this team as elite. Its plus-159 scoring differential was third-best in the entire league. It ranked second in weighted DVOA, per Football Outsiders.

    Yes, the Patriots have rookie Mac Jones under center, and no, and they aren't loaded with pass-catching playmakers. But the defense is as stingy as they come (fourth in yards against per game) and has playmakers rushing the passer (Matthew Judon, tied for seventh in sacks) and defending on the outside (J.C. Jackson, second in interceptions). The ground game is top-notch (eighth-most rushing yards per game).

    The formula of great coaching, plus a reliable rushing attack, plus a sound, opportunistic defense has equated to championship runs in the past, and New England could use it to blow up the AFC bracket.

NFC Bracket Buster: San Francisco 49ers

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    Perhaps left for dead after a 2-4 start, the 49ers made just enough plays down the stretch to recover and ultimately secured their spot with a come-from-behind, overtime win over the Rams.

    The offense doesn't create a lot of fireworks, but head coach Kyle Shanahan is more than comfortable controlling the clock with expertly crafted running plays and well timed passes. Do-it-all receiver Deebo Samuel was the league's fifth-leading pass-catcher (1,405 yards) and the team's second-leading rusher (365 yards and eight scores), and he even threw a critical touchdown pass in the finale.

    Tight end George Kittle remains one of the best in the business, and while the Niners sometime lean heavily on him as a blocker, he's a potent option in the passing game. Brandon Aiyuk finished the season strong, and rookie running back Elijah Mitchell was surprisingly rock-solid all season. There are playmakers in this attack if Jimmy Garoppolo can get them the football.

    The 49ers prefer to follow the lead of their defense and rushing attack, but if Garoppolo can make things happen as a passer, this club can go on a run.

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