After 17 gruelling weeks the NFL regular season is done and dusted. Now only 12 teams remain in the quest to make it to Levis Stadium in Santa Clara and claim the Vince Lombardi trophy. For those of you unfamiliar with how the NFL playoff system works, here goes
• The NFL is made up of two conferences, the AFC and the NFC. Each conference has 4 divisions. The winners of each division qualify for the playoffs making up 8 of the 12 teams
• From the non divisional winners, the teams with the two next best records in both the AFC and NFC also gain a wildcard to the playoffs making up the final 4 teams
• The teams are then seeded 1-6 in both conferences. The best record in the conference will be the number one seed down to the last wildcard team being the number 6 seed.
• The top two seeds in each conference get a bye week while the remaining four teams square off against each other with the winners advancing to play the top two seeds in the conference semi finals.
• The team with the higher seeding will always have home advantage in the playoffs. The highest seed remaining will also always play the lowest seed remaining. (e.g. 1st plays 4th, 2nd plays 3rd)
• The winner of the AFC then plays the winner of the NFC in the Superbowl at a predetermined stadium. This year it is the San Francisco 49ers Levis Stadium.
Simple huh! And that’s without getting into the all together more complicated tie-breaker systems!
With Wildcard weekend kicking off this weekend it’s time to take a look at the seedings in each conference, best odds and the strengths and weaknesses of the contenders.
1. Denver Broncos (12-4) Best priced: 13/2
There’s no doubt as to why this Broncos team claimed the number one seeding within the AFC. They led the league in defence for the first time in the team’s history. Best in the league against the pass, a very close second against the rush and also tops in sacks. This defence will give them a chance to win any game. Offensively things haven’t been as fluid though as their offensive line hasn’t been able to make holes for the running backs or protect the passer. With the immobile Peyton Manning back at QB this could cause them serious problems. To succeed this unit is going to have to step up and allow them to create some threat of a running game while allowing Manning some time to get the ball down the field to his receivers.
2. New England Patriots (12-4) Best priced: 9/2
After a blistering start to the season the Patriots were slowed down by a barrage of injuries. They still managed to find ways to keep their win column moving upwards before dropping their final two games to allow the Broncos to pip them to the number one seeding in the AFC. Write them off at your peril though. Head coach Bill Belichick and QB Tom Brady have done this all before with various supporting casts and know exactly what it takes to win a Superbowl. Brady also seems to being getting one of his favourite targets, Julian Edelman back at just the right time. As with the Broncos, the offensive line will have to step and protect him as he took some big hits over the last couple of weeks leading to a high ankle sprain week 17 versus the Dolphins.
3. Cincinnati Bengals (12-4) Best priced: 28/1
The Bengals head into the playoffs for a 5th straight season and arguably have a more talented roster than ever before. Their defence conceded the fewest points in team history while offensively they have a diverse attack with AJ Green, Tyler Eifert and Jeremy Hill. This team temperament for postseason games is always going to be questioned though. (They last won in the playoffs in 1991!) They won’t be helped by the fact that they are facing divisional rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team who has had their number in recent years. With starting QB Andy Dalton still sidelined, rookie AJ McCarron makes just his 5th NFL start.
4. Houston Texans (9-7) Best priced: 66/1
The Texans postseason appearance has largely come about from strong defensive play. Star man once again was J.J. Watt leading the team with 13.5 sacks. On offence DeAndre Hopkins emerged into one of the league’s top threats scoring 11 TDs. Houston’s chances will likely fall on the shoulders of these two big playmakers. However they benefited greatly from playing in a very poor AFC south division where they just pipped an Indianapolis Colts team with major quarterback issues. A postseason run seems unlikely.
5. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) Best priced: 18/1
No team has more momentum behind them than the Kansas City chiefs. After starting the season 1-5 they have gone on an amazing 10 game winning streak. They are another team that have done it on the back of a great defence which over that 10 game streak gave up only an average of 13 points per game. They also create a lot of turnovers while rarely coughing the ball up themselves. Their schedule especially late in the season was soft and their offence while steady has been unspectacular. Should somebody manage to put a score against them I would question their ability to keep up but if they can keep this amazing run going they could be a live outsider.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6) Best priced: 14/1
A few weeks ago I advised readers on here to snap up some nice prices on the Steelers for the Superbowl before they had sewn up their playoff place. I was almost left with egg on my face as an inexplicable week 16 loss at the Ravens left them on the outside looking in. The Jets slip in last weekend allowed them to sneak back into the playoff places and now they are in to a best priced 14/1. Their pass offence despite the struggles of the last couple of weeks is still the most explosive in the league but this week they will be threadbare at running back with Leveon Bell done for the season and this game coming too soon for DeAngelo Williams. The defence while posting decent numbers of interceptions and sacks is still struggling to slow down teams and is rated 30th against the pass.
1. Carolina Panthers (15-1) Best priced: 4/1
Where to start? Carolina almost pulled off the perfect season led by QB Cam Newton who put up a career high year throwing for 35TDs and running for 10 more. Greg Olsen at tight end is posting monstrous numbers and is worthy of consideration alongside Rob Gronkowski as the best TE in the league. With a bye secured lead running back, Jonathon Stewart should be back by the time Carolina plays their first playoff matchup. The Defence has been fantastic giving up third fewest point in the league and they will have home advantage until the Superbowl should they go that far. If there was an Achilles heel to this team it may be that the injuries are starting to pile up and cornerback Charles Tillman was lost for the season last weekend. The defence has had some big scores posted against it in the last three weeks so maybe teams are finally figuring out the Panthers?
2. Arizona Cardinals (13-3) Best priced: 9/2
The league highest powered offence is led by Carson Palmer who tied his career best with 32 passing TDs this season to 9 interceptions. His pinpoint accuracy and the depth and array of different receiving options that he has will be tough to defend for even the best of defences. At running back rookie David Johnson is a genuine dual threat running back and has 13TDs in the regular season. The defence are no slouches either ranking 7th in the NFL and with a real penchant for returning turnovers for scores. Like many team this time of the year though injuries are starting to mount and last week’s 36-6 blowout loss to Seattle was worrying.
3. Minnesota Vikings (11-5) Best Priced: 40/1
In an era where success in the NFL is normally dependent on a strong passing attack, the Vikings are a genuine old school run first team. It’s easy to see why when they boost Adrian Peterson in their ranks. “All Day” lead the NFL for running backs in the regular season for the third time in his career and will be the focal point of this Vikings offence in the playoffs. Their defence has been strong all year and gets a number of personnel back to fitness at the right time. The question will be if teams manage to shut down Peterson or the Vikings fall a few scores behind will Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater have the arm and the receiver to keep up. A road to the Superbowl which will see them cross paths with the Seahawks and then potentially the Cardinals and the Panthers should they advance seems like a tall order.
4. Washington Redskins (9-7) Best priced: 50/1
Quarterback Kirk Cousins is playing the best football of his career especially down the stretch throwing for 23TDs and 3 interceptions in his last 10 games. They also get the benefit of playing at home wildcard weekend where they have been much stronger this season while squaring off against an out of sync Green Bay Packers team. However this team is another who benefited from playing in an abysmal division this season. Let’s not forgot they have not won a game all year against another team with a winning record. Their lack of any consistent running game and questionable defence means we can almost certainly count them out from making it to the big dance.
5. Green Bay Packers (10-6) Best priced: 25/1
One of the preseason favourites for the Superbowl the Packer can now be backed as high as 25/1 to win it all. For a year in which they have underwhelmed many they have still managed to string together 10 victories despite losing lead receiver Jordy Nelson in preseason to injury. In his absence the remainder of the receiving corps have struggled and lead running back Eddie Lacy was anonymous for much of the year before showing some signs of life down the tail end. Their chances will depend heavily on QB Aaron Rodgers who much like Brady for the Patriots has the ability to turn on the magic and make things happen. To enable this their injury plagued offensive line will have to step up after giving up 51 sacks during the regular season, 5th highest in the league.
6. Seattle Seahawks (10-6) Best priced: 6/1
Much like the Steelers in the AFC, the Seahawks will be a 6th seed that nobody wishes to face. The team and especially quarterback Russell Wilson are red-hot right now. They have won 6 of their last 7 games and in that span Wilson has 24 touchdowns to 1 interception. And how about wide receiver Doug Baldwin who has caught 11 TDS in those 7 games and overall 14 for the season when his previous personal best was 5! They are also boosted by the return of lead back Marshawn “Beast mode” Lynch to further boost that offence. The road will be tough as they will have to play in Minnesota this weekend and should they progress, next week in Carolina. They have had their struggles and the defence is not the dominant unit it was last year but this is a surging team that it would be impossible to discount.
To me this is as open season as I have seen in a long time and it’s very easy to make a case for 7 or 8 of these teams. However regular readers on here will know that there is one team that I’ve been hot on from the very beginning of the season and that is the Arizona Cardinals. Of all the contenders they represent the team with the best balance. They have a potent passing attack, a strong running game and a tough defence that creates plenty of turnovers (and that’s what will win you playoff games.)I’m also quite happy to overlook last week blowout to the Seahawks as one of those late season anomalies. Veteran QB Carson Palmer is the heartbeat of the team and has been phenomenal this year. He’s often overlooked because of flashier QBs such as Wilson and Newton but to me he is destined to lead the Cards to glory.
As a pick of the outsiders I’m also quite happy to stick with the Steelers. While the price has dropped 14/1 still represents tremendous value for a team that capable of beating any team on its day.
Arizona Cardinal 9/2
Pittsburgh Steelers 14/1
Name the finalists:
Arizona Cardinals & Pittsburgh Steelers 22/1
I’ll be back later today with the preview of Saturday night wildcard games.
Best of luck