As we head into the NFL playoffs, which teams have the highest ceiling? The lowest? Which are the dangerous clubs nobody wants to meet? Here's the early line on this season's tournament:
Favorite: New England Patriots
Tom Brady is 39 years old and quite possibly the best quarterback to ever play the game -- and yet, he just completed what might be the most impressive season of his 17-year career, with his third-highest mark ever in yards per passing attempt (8.2) and a breathtaking/record-setting 28:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. In 2007, when the Patriots were a perfect 16-0, Brady completed nearly 69 percent of his passes while throwing 50 touchdowns to just eight interceptions -- but he also had Randy Moss and Wes Welker. This year, in his 12 games, Brady posted a better TD-to-INT ratio with a more pedestrian receiving corps (other than Julian Edelman) and without Rob Gronkowski for half the season. Brady is absolutely the main reason the Patriots are the favorites to win the AFC, but he isn't the only one.
The Pats entered Week 17 with an NFL-best point differential of 170 -- and that was before putting a serious 21-point beatdown on another playoff team, the Dolphins, at their place. Each of the last three teams to lead the NFL in point differential (2013 Broncos, 2014 Patriots, 2015 Panthers) have gone on to play in the Super Bowl. And while Brady obviously plays a role in that point differential -- the Patriots rank third in the NFL in scoring at 27.6 points per game -- it is New England's top-ranked scoring defense that has been the difference maker in this area. This will be the first time since 2003 that Belichick enters the postseason with the NFL's stingiest defense -- of course, he went on to win the Super Bowl that season.
To put this year's defensive effort into perspective, the vaunted Broncos D that carried a hardly recognizable Peyton Manning to his second Lombardi Trophy last season allowed an impressive 18.5 points per game -- and as the confetti dropped on Super Bowl Sunday, that unit was being considered by many as one of the best defenses in NFL history. This year's Pats are allowing nearly three full points fewer, at 15.6 points per game! Yet, this defense is still flying somewhat under the national radar. But to me, that unit will allow the Patriots to cruise to their seventh Super Bowl appearance in the Brady/Belichick era. (Well, along with a kind draw, which guarantees New England will be playing an underwhelming quarterback at home in the Divisional Round.)
Most dangerous: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers have lacked a certain amount of consistency this season, but that doesn't make them any less dangerous. This is simple, so let's not overthink it: Pittsburgh has the best players in the NFL at the skill positions of running back and wide receiver, and that fact alone will keep opposing coaches up at night. Le'Veon Bell, despite missing three games to suspension, ranked second in the NFL in rushing yards coming into Week 17 (Jordan Howard, DeMarco Murray and Jay Ajayi surpassed Bell while the Steelers back was held out for rest), and he finished second among running backs in receiving yards with 616 (only David Johnson had more). Meanwhile, Antonio Brownbarely missed out in leading the NFL in catches for the third consecutive season, kept from doing so by the Steelers' decision to rest him in Week 17.
Ben Roethlisberger started the season looking like an MVP candidate -- averaging nearly 300 yards through Week 10 while throwing 20 touchdowns to just seven picks -- but the wins weren't following, as the Steelers opened 4-5. Part of the problem was a lack of continuity -- with Bell missing the first three games, and then Roethlisberger banged up midseason, it was hard for the Steelers to get into a groove. In the final seven weeks of the season, when Pittsburgh went undefeated, Big Ben averaged just 236 yards per game while recording a mediocre TD-to-INT ratio of just 9:6.
But that's also a product of how well the Steelers have run the ball. Starting with a Week 11 win over Cleveland to even their record at .500, the Steelers ran for 146, 148, 117, 240, 97 and 127 yards in a six-game surge to the AFC North title and No. 3 seed, an average of more than 145 rushing yards per game. Combine that with the overall explosiveness of the Steelers' offense -- Roethlisberger, Brown and Bell can score from anywhere -- and Pittsburgh is the team that no one wants to play. If the Steelersbeat Miami on Sunday, they'll have to travel to Arrowhead, but it's worth remembering that they hammered the Chiefs, 43-14 (in Pittsburgh), earlier this season.
One and done: Oakland Raiders
The Houston Texans will enter the NFL postseason with a negative point differential: -49, the fourth-worst among playoff teams since divisional realignment in 2002. Oddly enough, the three teams worse than the Texans -- the 2010 Seahawks (-97), 2011 Broncos (-81) and the 2004 Rams (-73) -- all won a first-round playoff game. That trend will continue again with the 2016 Texans. Derek Carr's injury has dropped the Raiders, who had a chance to earn the No. 1 overall seed on Sunday, down to the fifth seed, and it has made Oakland quite possibly the only team that the Texans can beat in the entire playoff field.
The Texans were going to be this year's example of why the NFL needs to reconsider playoff seeding, but instead, they will face an Oakland squad starting either a gimpy Matt McGloin (career record of 1-6 as a starter) or Connor Cook (who would become the first player in the Super Bowl era to start his first career game in the postseason). In Week 17, McGloin and Cook combined to author the Raiders' worst offensive performance of the 2016 season, with the fewest total yards (221), the fewest first downs (nine) and the most turnovers (three). So while the Texans might actually be the worst overall team in the entire playoff field, they get the lucky draw of hosting the Raiders, who suddenly find themselves with a total mess at the game's most important position.
Favorite: Dallas Cowboys
I've been waiting for the other shoe to drop in Dallas this entire season, but it just won't happen -- so rather than fight it, I'll just jump on the bandwagon. The Cowboys are clearly the most balanced and best overall team in the NFC. Unlike the AFC favorites -- the Patriots, who can change their entire offensive scheme from week to week -- the Cowboys don't overcomplicate the formula. They are going to line up and punish you with the most physical offensive line the NFL has seen in a decade, wearing you down with body blow after body blow. The difference with this rushing attack is that rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott is so much more than a downhill, punishing one-trick pony. He can hit the home run at any given moment with blazing speed -- and, like Adrian Peterson in his dominant years, Elliott can do it against a stacked box. In fact, he excels at it. Because once he punctures the first line of defense, there is no cavalry to come and save the day. The rushing game is also aided by stellar backups Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden -- the Cowboys can run at you all day.
Though the Cowboys can rush the football, I still think it will come down to rookie quarterback Dak Prescott winning a playoff game from the pocket. This team, at least offensively, reminds me a little of the 2013 Seattle Seahawks -- while they had a dominant rushing attack with Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson, it was Wilson's maturation from within the pocket that was the difference come playoff time. I have no doubt that the Cowboys will have to win at least one postseason game in which it will fall squarely on Prescott and how well he can perform from within the pocket. I like what I see, but it's also true that the playoffs are a different animal than the 16-game regular season. If form holds true in Round 1, Prescott's playoff career will start by hosting the red-hot Green Bay Packers. But the 'Boys are still the favorites to run the table in the NFC.
Most dangerous: Green Bay Packers
With all due respect to Tom Brady, there isn't a hotter quarterback in the NFL right now than Aaron Rodgers. The emergence of Davante Adams and the position change for Ty Montgomery (from receiver to running back) have been instrumental in the Packers closing out the season on a six-game winning streak, but Rodgers has been frighteningly accurate in the process. With those three hitting their stride and Jordy Nelson leading the NFL in touchdown receptions (14), Green Bay has scored 30-plus points in four straight games -- and 30 appears to be the Packers' magic number on the other side the ball ...
Green Bay is 10-1 when allowing fewer than 30 points this season. Read that again: The Pack is 10-1 when ALLOWING FEWER THAN 30. That is amazing to me, and not too much to ask of a defense, especially one coordinated by Dom Capers. Quality usually reveals itself, and after the Packers' midseason slump brought panicked calls for Capers' job, Green Bay's defense matured into an effective unit. In Weeks 12 through 16, the Packers surrendered just 17.6 points per game while also manufacturing 14 takeaways in the process. (Without a garbage-time Hail Mary in Week 17, the Packers also held the Lions to 17 points while adding another takeaway.)
One and done: Detroit Lions
Props to Detroit and Jim Caldwell for making the playoffs in the season after Calvin Johnson's sudden retirement. Yet, if you look more closely, this team has been doing it with smoke, mirrors and Matthew Stafford's clutch performances. Detroit beat Chicago to get to 9-4 in early December, but in that game, Stafford dislocated and tore tendons on the middle finger of his throwing hand. Detroit has gone 0-3 since then, and though Stafford has gallantly continued, he's not as pin-sharp as he was earlier this year.
Meanwhile, the defense gave up 30 points a week in that three-game slide -- all against other playoff teams -- and it's hard to see the Lionsgoing into the hornet's nest in Seattle this weekend and turning that around. You never want to say you're just happy to be there, but the Lions surprised a lot of people with this playoff run; they should derive some satisfaction from getting back to the postseason. I would be surprised if their playoff stay lasts past Saturday night.