Patriots, Tom Brady, Dolphins
Tom Brady was knocked around a bunch against the Dolphins in the team's first meeting this season. Getty Images

1. New England Patriots (13-3) AFC East Champions. First-Round Bye.

 

The Patriots don't look invincible this season. They began the year with the worst-ranked defense in the league through four games and went 2-2 during that stretch. Tom Brady threw six interceptions in the final six games after tossing just two in the first ten. Their running back by committee approach is in jeopardy as injuries to Rex Burkhead and James White have turned Dion Lewis into a workhouse the past few weeks.

 

But with all those chinks in their armor, the defending Super Bowl Champions remain favorites to take home the trophy again. Their own injury troubles aren't as extensive or as important as their competitions. They have a first round bye and home field advantage locked up. Rob Gronkowski has looked uncoverable as the season closes. They don't have to worry about facing the Ravens, one of their rare playoff nemesies. And they still have Brady and Bill Belichick. That counts for a lot.

 

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3) AFC North Champions. First-Round Bye.

 

The Steelers lost Antonio Brown and home field advantage during their Week 15 matchup with New England that ended in defeat. That game and its impact are the main reason the Steelers find themselves second on this list. Gaining the first round bye was a big win for the Steelers, as it increases the possibility they'll have Brown back in time for their first game.

 

Despite missing Brown and Ryan Shazier, the Steelers enter the playoffs with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell, something that hasn't been the case in recent years. Bell endured a 400-touch season following a Summer spent largely away from the team. Their dominant offensive players will always remain the reason the Steelers are a favorite in the AFC, but the defense has taken a step forward in 2017.

3. Minnesota Vikings (13-3) NFC North Champions. First-Round Bye.

The Vikings lost their starting quarterback and starting running back at the outset of the 2017 season but let neither injury slow them down and owned the NFC North from start to finish this season, fending off the Lions and taking advantage of the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers. They've won games against the Rams, Falcons, and Saints.

The defense was every bit the force it has been in recent years, but the change in this season's Vikings team was the much maligned offensive line. Their improved play let Case Keenum have a career year under center and a running game that couldn't produce with Adrian Peterson yield results from Dalvin Cook, Latavius Murray, and Jerick McKinnon. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen have become elite weapons. At the end of the day, most doubters of the Vikings’ postseason chances center that doubt on Keenum’s inexperience in this setting.

4. Philadelphia Eagles (13-3) NFC East Champions. First-Round Bye.

The Eagles spent most of the season as the favorites in the NFC. That all changed when Carson Wentz tore his ACL in Week 14. Up to that point, they played the most consistent football in the league, and their only losses before a meaningless Week 17 came in Seattle and Kansas City. Fortunately for them, they won't make any more trips outside Philadelphia unless they reach the Super Bowl.

The Eagles have already survived injuries to Jordan Hicks, Jason Peters, and Darren Sproles this season. But after a game and a half of uninspired offense led by Nick Foles, it's clear that the team's postseason chances will rely on both lines ability to dominate like they did during the season, where the team ranked third in the NFL in rushing offense and first in rushing defense.

5. New Orleans Saints (11-5) NFC South Champions. Host the Panthers.

The Saints rebounded from season opening losses to Minnesota and New England to roll off eight straight wins behind a hugely improved defense and the two-headed monster of rookie Alvin Kamara and veteran Mark Ingram. They secured the NFC South despite a last week loss to Tampa Bay thanks to their season sweep of the Panthers, a team they now must beat a third time.

Even though their two running backs combined for over 3,000 total yards and 25 touchdowns much of the reason for picking New Orleans to come out of a crowded NFC rests, as always, on their quarterback: Drew Brees. Statistically it was a step back this season for Brees, but he still threw for 4,000 yards for a 12th consecutive season and remains the only signal caller on an NFC playoff team with a ring. If the Saints are going to make a deep run however, it's likely they'll have to do so away from New Orleans.

6. Los Angeles Rams (11-5) NFC West Champions. Host the Falcons.

The Rams came out of nowhere in Sean McVay’s first year to lead the NFL in offense for most of the season and announced their new ownership of the NFC West with a 42-7 drubbing of the Seahawks in Seattle. They have regular season wins over the Saints, Jaguars, and Titans among playoff contenders.

Like many of the new faces in the NFC, the big question with the Rams is playoff experience. Jared Goff is essentially in his first season as a starter at quarterback. Todd Gurley rebounded from a sophomore slump to gain 2000 total yards and 19 touchdowns and Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp look like emerging stars. But none of these players have ever seen a playoff game. McVay is the youngest coach in NFL history, and even the Rams franchise hasn't seen the playoffs since 2004.

7. Carolina Panthers (11-5) Wild Card. Visit the Saints.

Unlike some of the other teams on this list, and unlike the 2015 edition that went 15-1 on their way to the Super Bowl, there hasn't been a stretch where the Panthers looked unbeatable. What they do have is extensive experience against the rest of this list. They've beaten the Patriots and Vikings, lost to the Eagles, split with the Falcons and been swept by the Saints.

That last bit is what will have to change if the Panthers hope to advance even one round in 2017 and like their opponents, despite a strong running game and defense, their hope lies in their quarterback. Cam Newton finished as the leading rusher on his team with 754 yards. Trading Kelvin Benjamin may hurt the team more now than ever, as they're still waiting for a jump from their younger receivers. In the end, the passing game may rest on the health of Greg Olsen, freshly returned from injury.

8. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) AFC South Champions. Host the Bills.

The Jaguars became the most surprising story of the 2017 season. Theirs started with smashing rookie Leonard Fournette into their opponents, continued with a resurgent Blake Bortles, and ended with the franchise’s first playoff berth in a decade. Present all along was the league's leading and best defense.

The Jaguars haven't had an easy time of it, despite their weak division. They lost Allen Robinson in their opener and have dealt with injuries to Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee ever since. Jacksonville haven't played many of their AFC opponents yet, beating the Steelers but being swept by the Titans. The defense struggled late on some west coast trips to Arizona and San Francisco, but this is a team built to win in the playoffs, even if they haven't done it yet.

9. Atlanta Falcons (10-6) Wild Card. Visit the Rams.

Last year's defending NFC Champions are coming at the post-season from a different angle this season. A two-seed a year ago, the Falcons are the final wild card team in the NFC in 2017 and will have to do all their work on the road. That road starts in Los Angeles and, if the Falcons win there they'll travel to Philadelphia.

Things haven't come as easily to the Falcons in 2017, but they're still loaded with talent and funnily enough, wildly more successful than most other Super Bowl runners-up. Matt Ryan can stack his resume up against Brees and Newton, and Julio Jones is probably the most dangerous weapon in the NFC playoffs.

10. Kansas City Chiefs (10-6) AFC West Champions. Host the Titans.

The Chiefs highs and lows this season were well documented. They started out 5-0, had victories over the Eagles and Patriots, and were the last undefeated team in the league. Then they went 1-6, a period where each loss seemed more unbelievable than the last, culminating in three losses to the Jets, Giants, and a reeling Bills team. Then, they closed the season with four straight wins, including contests against Oakland and the Chargers to secure their division crown.

So which Chiefs team are we getting? The 10-6 one. It's reliant on a good running game to set up the rest of the offense. If Kareem Hunt doesn't get going, the rest of the team won’t. Beset by injuries since Eric Berry went down in Week 1, it doesn't feature the fearsome defense recent Kansas City teams have, though they can still steal a takeaway and Alex Smith is still reluctant to allow one.

11. Buffalo Bills (9-7) Wild Card. Visit the Jaguars.

The most exciting moment of Buffalo’s season wasn't even a Bills game. That would be the Bengals last minute touchdown against the Ravens that knocked Baltimore out of the playoffs and ended Buffalo’s 17 year drought, the longest in the NFL.

Like the Chiefs, the Bills lost their way a bit in the middle of the season. Their defense disappeared in losses to the Jets and Saints, and a benching of Tyrod Taylor led to another blowout loss. If LeSean McCoy (carted off during the finale) is healthy, the Bills are a completely different team, and the playoffs are exactly the atmosphere they went out and traded for Kelvin Benjamin for.

12. Tennessee Titans (9-7) Wild Card. Visit the Chiefs.

The Titans haven't ended the season with the momentum they would have hoped for: they once stood at 8-4 and with a sweep of Jacksonville on their hands, the division for the taking. Losses to Arizona and San Francisco put their playoff hopes in doubt, but they beat a Jaguars team with nothing to play for to get in.

In a lot of the ways 2017 didn't progress the Titans. Marcus Mariota didn't take a step forward. No favored running back emerged from Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray. Instead the duo both took a step backwards. Rookie Corey Davis and vet Eric Decker were unable to contribute in the passing game. But hey, the playoffs are a fresh slate.