The Panthers are the safest pick here. Regardless of whether they win the NFC South, they're the only team in this group that actually knows how it feels to be in the playoffs in recent years. Carolina is still just two seasons removed from playing in the Super Bowl, and most of the core players from that squad remain on the roster. The Panthers also have the essential elements critical to surviving in January: strong run game, tough defense and a seasoned quarterback.
The NFC is filled with a deep group of contenders. Carolina is as dangerous as any of them. After seeing how physical the Jaguars played in their win over Seattle, I have to go with Jacksonville. This team has a good shot at winning the division and could end up with a high seed. The Jags' defense boasts a bunch of players who get after the quarterback ( Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, Malik Jackson, Dante Fowler) and the best cornerback duo in the league ( Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye). The offense has improved of late and the special teams units are making plays.
The Jaguars are building momentum heading toward the playoffs and have the potential to make the AFC title game. This is a total wild-card question. I think the NFC is completely up for grabs. And if we played out the coming postseason multiple times, we'd get a different winner each time.
When considering how dangerous these four teams are, here is how I rank them, from most likely to make a run to least likely: Chargers, Eagles, Jaguars, Panthers. (That is my order today. Tomorrow, the order would probably be different.) I like the Bolts most because they have the best offense and quarterback of the four teams. They also have a potent pass rush. When I look at these four teams, it's hard to pick the Jaguars or Chargers because of the two perennial powerhouses in the AFC (New England and Pittsburgh). The Eagles are balanced, but it's going to be tough to reach the Super Bowl without Carson Wentz. That leaves me with Carolina.
The Panthers have the right pieces in place. They're healthy and playing well heading into the final three weeks of the regular season. Carolina, which was the NFC's Super Bowl representative two seasons ago, will be playing in the NFC Championship Game. I like Jacksonville to go the furthest. I consider sack differential to be one of the most important factors in determining a team's success, and the Jaguars' is a robust plus-27. They're also tops in turnover differential at plus-14. And good luck throwing on this team: Opposing quarterbacks own a 66.4 passer rating, averaging just 174.2 passing yards per game and a miniscule 6.0 yards per attempt -- all league-best marks for the Jags. With a highly manageable remaining slate (vs. Houston, at San Francisco, at Houston), Jacksonville could win out and end up with a first-round bye.
After the Jaguars, I'd take the Eagles, then the Chargers, then the Panthers (who, I think, have the toughest remaining schedule). If it's not the Chargers, then you can color me shocked (which I believe is sort of a mauve). Were it not for a wretched start to the season marked by poor placekicking, the Chargers might have locked down the AFC West already. Nonetheless, this team has everything you need to make a solid run: a franchise quarterback with playmaking pass catchers, a solid running game, a ferocious pass rush and a ball-hawking secondary.
In an open AFC playoff race, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Philip Rivers and company playing for a chance to go to Minneapolis. The pass-rushing tandem of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram is why I like the Chargers to go the farthest of the last-place teams from 2016. The only way to beat Tom Brady is to pressure him relentlessly, and there's no better tandem at that in the NFL than Bosa and Ingram.
Combining this ferocious defense with the white-hot play of Keenan Allen and Philip Rivers makes the Chargers look like the team nobody wants to see in January -- a group that could make a serious run at the Super Bowl.