New England Patriots: Wild Card Round Power Rankings (#1)

It’s 2006 again. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning appear to be on a crash course. Both quarterbacked arguably the best teams in the league (the Broncos and Patriots ranked 2nd and 3rd in the NFL in DVOA, but I don’t trust #1 Seattle on the road). Both are MVP candidates. Peyton Manning is currently viewed as the favorite, but I think that’s both undeserved and beneficial to the Patriots. I went into the former in Denver’s write up and I’ll get into the latter here.

The Patriots thrive when doubted and that’s exactly what’s happening with the Broncos taking the #1 seed. They’ve failed to finish in the last 2 seasons as the #1 seed, but this year, I think things will be different. Tom Brady has an impressive record as an underdog in his career, going 24-18 and he’ll almost definitely be an underdog in Denver when the two meet. He also has an incredibly impressive record against teams with a record better than his, going 26-11 in those games in his career.

Add in his 9-4 career record against Peyton Manning and I think the Patriots are the AFC favorite right now in a two team race. Winning the Super Bowl once they get there will be harder, as they are 0-2 against NFC playoff teams this year (AFC division winners are 0-6 as a whole against NFC playoff teams this year), but I like the way the Patriots match up against the NFC teams they could have to play. I think they’re better than Atlanta and Green Bay and would win rematches with Seattle and San Francisco as the former struggles away from home and the latter is playing with their best defensive player at less than 100%. Tom Brady also possesses a 10-3 record in same season revenge games.

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Denver Broncos: Wild Card Round Power Rankings (#2)

It’s 2006 again. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning appear to be on a crash course. Both quarterbacked arguably the best teams in the league (the Broncos and Patriots ranked 2nd and 3rd in the NFL in DVOA, but I don’t trust #1 Seattle on the road). Both are MVP candidates. Peyton Manning is currently viewed as the favorite, but I think that’s both undeserved and beneficial to the Patriots. I’ll go into the former here and the latter in New England’s write up.

The Patriots and Broncos played back in week 5 and the Patriots got a pretty convincing 10 point win, Denver’s biggest of the season. The Broncos also lost to Atlanta and Houston early on the season and as a result they are just 2-3 on the season against playoff teams. The Broncos have won 11 in a row since the New England loss, but only 2 of them (Cincinnati and Baltimore) came against teams with a record of .500 or better. I think it’s clear that the Broncos are a better team than the one that started the season out 2-3, but I don’t think they’re as improved as people think.

Projected fate: Lose to New England in AFC Championship

Green Bay Packers: Wild Card Round Power Rankings (#3)

It’s tough to know what to make of the Packers. On one hand, they were the preseason favorites and they went 11-5 in spite of a bogus loss in Seattle. They haven’t really been significantly worse than their expectations and I feel like no one is talking about them enough and this might give them that added chip on their shoulder.

They are also playing in Wild Card weekend, which might be a blessing in disguise for this team, as they won the Super Bowl in 2010 out of Wild Card weekend, but lost their first game off a bye last year. They are as healthy as they’ve been all season and are just 2 weeks removed from their most impressive win of the season. Aaron Rodgers is just one of 4 quarterbacks in the playoffs with a playoff win and I think that gives them an advantage.

On the other hand, the Packers aren’t as complete of a team as they’ve been in the last 2 years thanks to injuries. 7 of their 11 wins have come by 10 or fewer points and all the momentum they had off that Tennessee blowout might have been lost when they lost in Minnesota week 17. They also play in the tougher conference and have to deal with a bunch of other very good teams, while Brady and Manning really only have to deal with each other.

At the end of the day, I think they can win in San Francisco and the San Francisco/Green Bay winner will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl because Atlanta is overrated. I like Aaron Rodgers’ record as a dog (which he will be in that game) and his record in same season revenge games. I also like the general record of dogs trying to avenge same season losses as favorites.

Projected fate: Lose to Patriots in Super Bowl

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San Francisco 49ers: Wild Card Round Power Rankings (#4)

It’s a shame Justin Smith had to get hurt. I was really interested to see just how much of a quarterback league this really is. We know it’s a quarterback league. Of the last 21 Super Bowl winning quarterbacks, 20 made a Pro-Bowl first. As meaningless as the Pro-Bowl is and as bad a job as the fans do in voting in the correct players, they generally do a good job picking the correct quarterbacks as the traditional, easily available stats do a very good job of evaluating them (by that rule the only true Super Bowl contenders this year are Denver, New England, Atlanta, Washington, Houston, Green Bay, and Cincinnati.)

However, this team is one of the most complete in a long while and has some of the most non-quarterback talent. Colin Kaepernick has never made a Pro-Bowl; in fact, he has just 7 starts under his belt, but he’s played well and he gives them a better chance to win the Super Bowl than game manager Alex Smith. With Justin Smith healthy, I could see no reason not to make them the Super Bowl favorites and Kaepernick a strong candidate to be an exception to that rule. They have a ridiculous 12 players (none of whom are quarterbacks), who I thought had borderline Pro-Bowl seasons: (in no order) Frank Gore, Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Alex Boone, Michael Crabtree, Jonathan Goodwin, Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Dashon Goldson, Ahmad Brooks (none of them were Pro-Bowler Donte Whitner).

However, Smith’s injury really hurts them. On a loaded defense, he’s the most irreplaceable player. In the first 6 quarters they were without him after he got hurt, they were outscored 80-23. They settled down somewhat against lowly Arizona, beating them 27-13, but still allowed them to pass for a touchdown for just the 3rd time since Kevin Kolb got hurt week 5.

He frequently takes on double teams and is the guy they center their defensive scheme around. He allows Aldon Smith to have one on ones, where he’s almost impossible to block (Smith not so surprisingly saw very little production in the final 10 quarters of the season without Justin in front of him). He’ll play this postseason, but whether or not he can be effective is questionable at best.

For that reason, I knocked them below the 3 teams above them in these Power Rankings. For the first time I can remember, we have significantly more quarterbacks in the playoffs who have never started a playoff game (6) than have ever won a Super Bowl (3). For that reason, the 3 who have (Rodgers, Brady, and Manning) have a tremendous advantage over the rest of the field and I think they are the three favorites right now. The 49ers would have not just been in that group but probably atop that group had Smith been 100%, but I don’t trust Kaepernick to win against any of the aforementioned quarterbacks without his full 100% supporting cast.

Projected fate: Lose to Green Bay in divisional round

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Atlanta Falcons: Wild Card Round Power Rankings (#5)

I’d like to start this off by saying the argument that Matt Ryan can’t go deep into the playoffs because he’s never won a playoff game is ridiculous. Peyton Manning was once 0-3 in the playoffs and he went on to win a Super Bowl. Plus, two of Ryan’s playoff losses came against eventual Super Bowl Champs. Finally, it’s just 3 games. It doesn’t really mean much. However, the conclusion those people come to is not wrong, just the reasoning. I don’t think the Falcons have a real strong chance of winning the Super Bowl, but I don’t care so much about those 3 playoff games as I do about how they’ve played in 16 games this season and I’m not impressed.

They do have one thing going for them. Matt Ryan is 32-6 at home in his career and, by virtue of their record, they got the #1 seed and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. However, that’s where the good news stops for the Falcons. The Texans and Colts are both rated much lower in DVOA than their record would suggest because of a weak schedule and a lot of close call wins.

The same is true for the 13-3 Falcons, who rank 10th in regular DVOA and 13th in weighted. They have played just 2 playoff teams and they have 7 wins by 7 points or fewer. They did beat both of the playoff teams they played, but those games were in weeks 2 and 5 respectively against teams that are better now than they were then. The beat the Broncos by 6 when Peyton Manning was still getting his bearings back and they beat the Redskins by 7 in a game in which Robert Griffin actually left with an injury.

They also have won their last 3 games by more than 7 points, snapping a streak in which 6 of their 7 wins were close calls. However, they’ve also lost twice to non-playoff teams in that stretch. The loss to an underrated Panthers team wasn’t that bad and for a while it looked like it woke them up (they beat the Giants 34-0 the following week, a win that’s not as impressive as it once seemed, but still pretty impressive), but a home loss to the Buccaneers last week killed their momentum. The Falcons didn’t rest starters in that one either and that loss came at home to a team that had previously lost 5 straight, including 2 in blowout fashion.

It’s true that game didn’t really mean anything to the Falcons, but at the very least it snapped their momentum. Since 1989, 17 teams have lost week 17 before having a first round bye. 7 of them have lost their very first playoff game (meanwhile, teams who win week 17 and then have a playoff bye are 16-9 in that same time period). Think about it, when the Falcons take the field in the divisional round, their last win will have come 3 weeks prior, while their opponent won a game the week prior. We know how big momentum is in the playoffs. There’s a reason why Super Bowl teams frequently come out of wild card weekend. And right now, the Falcons don’t have it.

Their home field advantage should propel them to a win over the road challenged Seahawks or the inferior Redskins, but the Packers and 49ers could both easily beat them in the NFC Championship game. Both of those teams are superior to the Falcons and if the Cardinals, Raiders, Panthers, and Cowboys can all almost beat the Falcons at home, the Packers and 49ers can both finish the job. Matt Ryan will get his playoff win, but I think that one will be it.

Projected fate: Lose to Packers in NFC Championship

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Seattle Seahawks: Wild Card Round Power Rankings (#6)

If the Seahawks had home field advantage throughout the playoffs, they’d be the Super Bowl favorites by far. They went 8-0 at home this season, beating three highly seeded playoff teams, the 49ers, Packers, and the Patriots. Those 8 wins came by an average of 18.5 points per game. And unlike past seasons, they aren’t just a good home team. They’re a good team with an excellent home field advantage. They rank 1st in both weighted and regular DVOA by a wide margin. You could call them the best overall team in the league. They’re one of two teams to not lose a single game by more than a touchdown and they beat the only other team who is (Patriots).

However, their relative road struggles are important because they’ll have to win 4 straight games away from Seattle to win the Super Bowl. I don’t doubt their ability to win a road playoff game, but 4 away from home in a row? They were just 3-5 on the road this year, losing to Miami, Detroit, St. Louis, and Arizona. While all 4 of those losses could have gone either way, so could have their wins in Carolina and Chicago.

Their only convincing road win was against the Bills, a huge 50-17 win. That does happen to be their most recent road game and they have won their last 2 (including an overtime win in Chicago), but that’s not enough to change my mind about their Super Bowl chances as a wild card. They should be able to win in Washington and maybe even in Atlanta, but I don’t like their chances of winning in Green Bay or San Francisco.

Projected fate: Lose to Atlanta in divisional round

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Houston Texans: Wild Card Round Power Rankings (#7)

The Texans’ recent 1-3 stretch has a lot of people questioning them, but their struggles aren’t limited to that 4 games stretch. There were signs before, including near overtime losses to Detroit and Jacksonville. Since losing Brian Cushing against the Jets way back in week 5, they have been less than spectacular. They barely beat the Jets and then got blown out at home by the Packers.

They followed that up by blowing out the Ravens in by far their most impressive game since Cushing’s injury, but after the bye, they beat Buffalo by just 12, the Jay Cutler-less Bears by 7, went to overtime with Detroit and Jacksonville, beat Tennessee by 14, got blown out by the Patriots, beat the Colts by 12, and then lost to both Minnesota and Indianapolis.

Now, instead of having the #1 seed that once looked like a given, they could be eliminated as early as tomorrow as they have to play this weekend and they play the better of the two wild cards, the Bengals. Andy Dalton’s career struggles against playoff teams (1 legitimate win) are a good sign for the Texans, but they’re hardly in a good position.

Like the Colts, they are overrated because of an unsustainably good record in games decided by a touchdown or less (5-0) and a weak schedule (not as weak as the Colts’ schedule, but they do play in a very bad division). They have faced all the other AFC division champs, going 2-1, but I don’t like their chances to win in New England or Denver. New England already blew them out and while they did beat the Broncos in week 2, that was a different Broncos team (not as different as they may seem, which I’ll get to in their write up, but still different). While the Colts’ 25th ranked DVOA is the biggest difference between record and DVOA, the Texans’ 11th ranked DVOA (and 19th ranked weighted DVOA) is pretty significant as well.

Projected fate: Lose to New England in divisional round

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