The NFL regular season has reached its conclusion and the 12 playoff teams are set for action. The rest of the league are now embroiled in preparations for the new campaign or searching for new head coaches or general managers, but the best have their eyes firmly set on the Super Bowl.
Eight teams will battle it out in the first weekend of the playoffs in wildcard round action, while the elite sides of the AFC and NFC Conferences will have the chance to rest up on their bye week ahead of the divisional round next week.
We’ll take a look at the teams with the best chances of advancing all the way to Houston to compete for the Vince Lombardi trophy.
Bill Belichick’s men secured a first-round bye for the seventh season on the spin and will have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Patriots won 14 of their 16 matches, and only one with starter Tom Brady at quarterback, losing their one of their contests with rookie Jacoby Brissett at the signal-caller position against the Buffalo Bills.
Since tasting defeat at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks in week nine of the campaign, New England have won seven matches on the spin and have been dominant on both sides of the ball.
Despite losing tight end Rob Gronkowski to a season-ending back injury, Brady and company have continued to put points on the board, with running back LeGarrette Blount leading the way with 18 touchdowns, while Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell have also been on form.
Defensively, the Patriots have grown over the course of the year and were forced to do so without Pro Bowl linebacker Jamie Collins, who was surprisingly traded away by Belichick mid-season. Fellow star Chandler Jones had already been dealt away in March, leaving the unit light on playmakers.
However, Trey Flowers emerged with seven sacks, while Devin McCourty, Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler began to produce turnovers with regularity towards the end of the campaign. This allowed New England to end the term with the stingiest defense in the league.
As result of their strength on both sides of the ball, it’s no surprise to see Bovada sportsbook back them at -200 to win the AFC and advance to the Super Bowl.
The Steelers have been touted as the one side out of the five competitors in the AFC that could halt New England’s charge towards Houston and the Super Bowl. Although they will be forced to play on wildcard weekend after only notching the third seed in the conference, leaving them exposed to a potential shock at the hands of the Miami Dolphins.
Importantly for Mike Tomlin’s men, for once entering the post-season they’re relatively healthy. In the past few seasons Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell have all endured some form of ailment that has either ruled them out of action or limited their capacity to perform. This has prevented the club from surging towards the latter stages of the playoffs, with exits in the wildcard round in 2014 and the divisional round last season.
Should the Steelers hit the peak of their powers in the post-season it will take an excellent defense to hold them in check as Brown and Bell have the ability to destroy their opposition at will. Roethlisberger’s big-game experience will also be vital, with his propensity to deliver in crucial moments at the heart of any potential run to the Super Bowl.
He proved that he had not lost his touch with a fine last-minute drive to overcome the Baltimore Ravens to secure the AFC North crown and will be aiming to produce four similar performances to end the campaign on the highest of notes.
Their defense could be their Achilles heel, although there are playmakers in the linebacking corps such as Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons that could spring a surprise. Backing them at +400 may not be a bad option to take with Bovada.
Not many Cowboys’ supporters would have predicted that the club would attain the number one seed in the NFC Conference with a 13-3 record after losing quarterback Tony Romo to injury during the pre-season.
The 36-year-old’s back complaint pressed rookie Dak Prescott into action, and after losing their opener to the New York Giants at AT&T Stadium hopes were not high of a dominant run to the playoffs.
However, with Prescott nailing his throws downfield and sensational running back Ezekiel Elliott making plays out of the backfield with regularity, Dallas surged towards the post-season, reeling off 11 wins on the spin. Elliott has enjoyed an outstanding rookie campaign in the NFL, leading the league in rushing yards with 1,631, while also notching 15 touchdowns.
Both players are in the mix for the MVP award given the quality of their displays, but will neither will be satisfied without ending the term without the Vince Lombardi trophy in their hands.
They did show signs of slowing down towards the end of the campaign before proving a point that that the Cowboys are in it for the long haul by thrashing the Detroit Lions. Experience could be an issue, but talent alone could be enough to drive the club to the Super Bowl. Therefore backing them at +150 would be a sensible punt.
The Packers look dead and buried with a 4-6 record after being hammered by the Washington Redskins in week 11 of the campaign. Aaron Rodgers and head coach Mike McCarthy were being put under the media spotlight due to the club’s struggles, with suggestions that McCarthy could be fired should Green Bay’s season end in a slump.
The criticism sparked a sensational run towards the post-season as Green Bay win their next six games on the spin, with Rodgers returning to the form that saw him crowned MVP in the 2014 term. Jordy Nelson also rediscovered his best at wide receiver, becoming a serious threat in the redzone to support his quarterback and help put points back on the board.
Defensively there are still a number of concerns, including a number of injuries in the secondary, which were only intensified by a worrying fall sustained by Quinten Rollins. They could be exposed by a good offense in the playoffs like the Cowboys or the Atlanta Falcons, which would put huge pressure on Rodgers to deliver in crucial moments.
As long as their quarterback continues to be excellent, the Packers have an excellent chance to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2010. Therefore it might be good idea to back them at +350 to win the NFC Conference.
New England Patriots to win the AFC Conference
Pittsburgh Steelers to win the AFC Conference
Dallas Cowboys to win the NFC Conference
Green Bay Packers to win the NFC Conference
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