How is it possible that the NFL regular season is in the rearview mirror?? It seems like we traveled at light speed from training camp to Week 17. Now here we stand–on the cusp of the tournament with a dozen teams still alive for Super Bowl glory. We can only hope the 2016 postseason is as wild, wacky, and entertaining as last year’s version.
Remember the Cowboys rallying past the Lions after trailing by two touchdowns? And the Dez “no catch” in Green Bay? Or the Colts picking apart the Broncos in Denver and the Patriots intercepting Joe Flacco in the end zone? How about the NFC Championship when the Seahawks roared back from the dead with a fake field goal for a touchdown, a recovered onside kick, and the overtime victory to stun the Packers? All capped off by the Super Bowl moment we’ll never forget: Malcolm Butler picking off Russell Wilson on the goal line in the final 30 seconds to lock up New England’s fourth title.
Eight of the 12 teams in this year’s bracket are the same as last winter. But the Lions, Cowboys, Colts, and Ravens are replaced by the Vikings, Redskins, Texans, and Chiefs. After much yapping about how the NFL should change its playoff system so teams with losing records didn’t make it or couldn’t host, the whole field is above 500. None of the contenders is perfect; each has major flaws. Safe to say, the postseason is WIDE OPEN.
The Super Sixes: The Seahawks and Steelers are not your typical six seeds. Seattle is loaded with experience and confidence after back-to-back trips to the Super Bowl and a season-ending rout of the Cardinals. After a 2-4 start, the reigning NFC champs rattled off eight wins in ten games. The offensive line is gelled, and Russell Wilson is playing some of the best football of his career. The defense is as brash and bold as ever. Pittsburgh needed a Week 17 choke job by the Jets to make the playoffs, but the Steelers are dangerous. They survived a pair of injuries to Ben Roethlisberger and the loss of star running back Le’Veon Bell to win four of their last five. The offense is lighting it up through the air, but will DeAngelo Williams be healthy enough to go?
The Far-Fetched Fives: Did anyone really expect the Packers and Chiefs to end up in this position?? Green Bay soared to a 6-0 start but couldn’t keep its division crown, while Kansas City did the exact opposite. On life support at 1-5 with Jamal Charles gone to a knee injury, the Chiefs found new ways and new life. On a 10-game win streak, they’ll have star pass-rusher Justin Houston back for Wild Card weekend. Efficient quarterback play, dynamic weapons, and a physical D make KC a force to be reckoned with, and we get to see cancer survivor Eric Berry back on the sport’s biggest stage. The Packers are stumbling the other direction, but Aaron Rodgers is the reigning MVP leading a group of playoff veterans.
The Funny Fours: The Texans and Redskins defied the odds and any reasonable logic to finish 9-7 with the right to host wild card matchups. They deserve the last laugh after they were overlooked and dismissed in their own divisions. Houston started FOUR different quarterbacks to make it this far; but when in doubt, chuck it to DeAndre Hopkins. JJ Watt’s defense finally hit full stride after inexplicably allowing 48 and 44 points to the Falcons and Dolphins earlier in the fall. Washington only started Kirk Cousins, and he finished like a house on fire. Nineteen touchdowns against two interceptions in the second half of his first full season under center. Plus the Redskins are 6-2 at home this year.
The Tricky Threes: The champions of the North could both have quarterbacks making their first playoff starts this weekend. At least Minnesota’s Teddy Bridgewater has the league’s top rusher and a punishing defense that are both necessary to win in bitter cold. Cincinnati posted an 8-0 mark as one of the NFL’s most balanced teams, but will it be newbie AJ McCarron or Andy Dalton under center on Saturday? The Bengals lost Dalton in their December battle with the Steelers who won’t be intimidated by a North rematch. No one’s forgetting that Cincinnati hasn’t won a playoff game since 1991 and the days of Boomer Esiason.
The Terrific Twos: The Patriots and Cardinals are linked by seed only; however, they each pose a major threat. There’s nothing Bill Belichick and Tom Brady haven’t seen in the playoffs. They’ve won games every which way imaginable; and even though New England is battered and bruised, their postseason wisdom and experience trumps every other coach-QB combo in the field. They failed to clinch the AFC’s top seed, but the bye week gives the Pats extra time to get healthy. Arizona took a punch to the gut from the Seahawks to end the season. Still, the Cards are gritty, gutty, physical, balanced, and fearless. Carson Palmer might be MVP if not for Cam Newton, and it’s hard to find weakness on either side of the ball, though they will miss Tyrann Mathieu in the secondary.
The Odd Ones: The improbable journeys of the Broncos and Panthers to the top seeds make them formidable. Denver relies heavily on a star-studded defense to cover the inconsistency and uncertainty of its offense, and the D relishes that responsibility. The O-line and run game are unreliable, and who runs the show? Brock Osweiler doesn’t even have seven full games under his belt, but is Peyton Manning too high-risk after all his time on the shelf? The bye gives the Broncos time to decide. Carolina is fresh off a 15-1 season and firmly in uncharted territory. Cam Newton’s 45 touchdowns and bold leadership are unforgettable, but the Panthers have never been here before. They need to maintain the aggressive, confident style and keep pounding.
Who will provide the jaw-dropping moments? Whose legacy will be forged in the next month? Who’s the last team standing? On the cusp of the playoffs, there’s no easy way to make a Super Bowl pick. So I’m going with alphabetical order in the NFC and a dartboard in the AFC. In other words, buckle up! There’s no telling what happens next.
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 @.