With another NFL regular season officially in the rearview mirror, it’s hard to believe how much action was crammed into four months. From an 11-game winning streak to a 14-game losing skid, from dynamic rookies to crafty veterans, from a ratings decline to a ratings rebound, from top seeds to top draft picks, from stunning victories to painful postmortems — the NFL delivered!
Now the blank canvas of the playoffs stretches out before us. While it IS true that every team starts over as we enter the “second season,” not all playoff teams are created equal, and Wild Card weekend is a major hurdle. A wild card team has surged to the championship six times in league history. The New York Giants (2007) and Green Bay Packers (2010) accomplished that feat in the last decade. But the odds are long. Since the merger in 1970, only 10 wild card teams have battled all the way to the Super Bowl.
While earning a bye and home-field advantage is a nice respite after the regular-season grind, the top seeds are nowhere near locks to win it all. The NFL began awarding home field based on win percentage in 1975. Since then, the top seed in the AFC has captured the crown just eight times. The Broncos and Patriots did it the last two years. In fact, over the last 30 years, Denver and New England are the only AFC teams to turn their top seeds into titles. They’ve each done it twice. In the NFC, the Seahawks and Saints are the sole top seeds to reach the promised land since the turn of the century.
History reveals the trends in hindsight, but we wouldn’t waste our time watching sports if the past always dictated the future. Momentum, experience, health and leadership play far greater roles in which teams survive to the end.
The Good: The Patriots wrapped the season with the best record (14-2), their MVP candidate directing traffic, and the league’s most prolific scorer sharing the backfield. With Tom Brady’s phenomenal touchdown-to-interception ratio (28:2) and LeGarrette Blount’s career-high 18 rushing TDs, it’s easy to overlook the defense. New England allowed the fewest number of points per game in the NFL this year (15.6), and the Pats are particularly stingy against the run. The NFL’s other number-one seed boasts the season’s longest win streak, the best running back and a Super Bowl path that doesn’t veer outside the Lone Star State. The Cowboys are trying to become the first ever to ride a rookie quarterback to the championship. The stout offensive line and the threat of Ezekiel Elliott give Dak Prescott plenty to work with.
The Chiefs rallying to win the AFC West and a first-round bye; the Falcons putting up 33.8 points per outing; the Packers running the table to earn a division title and playoff game at Lambeau Field; and the Steelers finishing the season with seven wins in a row — all good as we catapult into the new year. It’s also great to see half the field turn over from last winter. Oakland ends a 15-year drought. Miami is tasting its first postseason since 2008, and the Giants are back for the first time since 2011.
The Bad: Because of either injuries or ineptitude, 22 of the league’s 32 teams used multiple quarterbacks this season, and that includes every team still alive in the AFC. Attrition under center has created a major disparity. While the top three seeds can rely on the postseason experience of Tom Brady, Alex Smith and Ben Roethlisberger, the other three will trot out QBs with zero playoff starts among them. At least Matt Moore has directed the Miami offense the last few weeks in place of Ryan Tannehill. Brock Osweiler is restored to the top of the Texans’ depth chart with Tom Savage in concussion protocol. Raiders rookie Connor Cook will likely become the first QB in NFL history to make his first career start in the playoffs.
The NFC is in better shape. Five of the six teams are led by quarterbacks with postseason resumes. Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning possess championship bling. Matthew Stafford will make his third playoff appearance and third on the road; Matt Ryan is into his fifth tournament. Prescott is the lone novice among the group.
The Ugly: Oakland and Detroit both deserve credit for surviving past Week 17, but the final postseason push for each was the opposite of pretty. Since Derek Carr broke his leg on Christmas Eve, the Raiders have managed six measly points. One lonely touchdown is all the offense has to show for itself without its MVP candidate. The Lions didn’t lose Stafford, but they did limp into the playoffs with three straight defeats. Instead of hosting a wild card battle at Ford Field, they’re heading into Seattle where the Seahawks are notoriously tough. It’s interesting to note that only one team has ever advanced to the Super Bowl after dropping its final three contests. The Saints not only got there, they WON the championship — against Jim Caldwell’s Colts. Caldwell now coaches Detroit.
Also ugly is the recent offensive production of the New York Giants. To say they’re struggling is a massive understatement. Despite the Eli-OBJ combo, they’ve failed to hit 20 points in their last five games. The Texans can barely scrounge together 17 points per game, which is by far the lowest scoring average among playoff teams.
The good, the bad and the ugly will duke it out between the white lines over the next month. Who will hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy in Houston on February 5th? This is where the real fun begins!
A well-traveled veteran and pioneer of sports radio and television, Amy Lawrence is the host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program ‘After Hours with Amy Lawrence.’ The show can be heard weekdays from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Follow her on Twitter @.