The NFL postseason begins on Saturday, and it promises an epic first weekend with six games in three days. But who will reign supreme? Can the Packers stay hot enough to get Aaron Rodgers his second Super Bowl? Which AFC teams have a chance to challenge the top-seeded Titans? And will another team surprise those squads and give them a run for their money? The Ringer’s NFL staffers make their playoff picks below.
Kevin Clark: The Packers are going to win the Super Bowl. I write all sorts of NFL pieces that delve into the data of the game, but I tend to base my Super Bowl pick on more of a feeling: Which team will we look back on in five years and say, “Of course they won the Super Bowl”?
That reaction is generated by a combination of things: a stacked roster, a talented coach, a handful of decent coordinators, and lots of good contracts. The Packers have two guys who are playing better than anyone at two of the most important positions in the sport: quarterback Aaron Rodgers and wide receiver Davante Adams. In the past five weeks, Adams has led the NFL in touchdowns—and Allen Lazard, the Packers’ no. 2 receiver, is tied for second with five. Green Bay clinched the no. 1 seed despite injuries to David Bakhtiari, Jaire Alexander, and Za’Darius Smith, all of whom could return for the playoffs (Bakhtiari is already back).
When Rodgers plays like this, he needs very little to be an NFC-championship-level quarterback, and just a little bit more to be a Super Bowl quarterback. A good defense (check), a coach with a good scheme who makes good decisions (check), and a line that keeps him at least upright (check). We have no idea what the Packers’ future will be: Rodgers may still want out after this season, and Adams will likely play on the franchise tag, increasing the chance of contract drama. But what I do know is that we will look back on the 2021 Packers as an uncommonly talented team, the type that wins a Super Bowl.
Nora Princiotti: It’s been a weird season. We just watched the Jaguars beat the Colts, for goodness’s sake. But picking the Packers to win the Super Bowl is my attempt to prove that stability and consistency do exist in this version of the NFL.
While most other playoff teams have had hot and cold streaks this season, Green Bay has simply chugged along, stacking wins with a balanced offense led by an MVP-caliber quarterback in Rodgers. Three of the Packers’ four losses have significant caveats attached: The first, to the Saints, came in Week 1 after starters had rested during the preseason; the second came to the Chiefs, with Jordan Love playing quarterback; and the last came in a meaningless Week 18 game against the Lions in which many starters came out at halftime. Green Bay’s only other loss was in Week 11, to the Vikings, on a last-minute field goal—Minnesota’s best effort of the year.
Compare that to the Rams dropping three in a row in the middle of the season, the Bucs losing to the Saints and Washington in back-to-back weeks and then getting shut out by New Orleans in the rematch, the Bills losing to the Jaguars, Kansas City struggling early in the season, and Arizona crashing back to earth, and it’s clear the Packers have been the most consistent team in football. Now they have a first-round bye, home-field advantage, two of the most important predictors of playoff success—a top-tier passing offense and a quarterback who’s had both a great season and career—plus an excellent coach and a defense that’s set to get Smith and Alexander back for the playoff run. This is a team you can trust. And those have been hard to come by this season.
Steven Ruiz: The Chiefs have now officially replaced the Patriots as my pick to win the Super Bowl. Getting past the Bills in the second round could prove difficult, but if they can do it, the Chiefs should be off to a third consecutive trip to the Super Bowl. Patrick Mahomes will take it from there, beating the Cowboys to win a second ring. While Green Bay looks like the NFC’s best team at the moment, Dallas is a bad matchup for the Packers and appears to be heating up at the right time.
Ben Solak: The Packers are pretty comfortably the best team in the league. The last time they had an Actually Bad game was in Week 1, against the Saints, in what was a peculiar and largely dismissable week outright. Since then, the offensive line has settled in. The defense has seen key names rise at all three levels: Rashan Gary, who has developed into the player the Packers envisioned when they spent a top-15 pick on him; De’Vondre Campbell, arguably the best free-agent signing of the season; Rasul Douglas, a Cardinals practice squad member turned reliable ballhawk at cornerback. Oh, and Jaire Alexander is coming back, too.
In the AFC, your guess is as good as mine. This conference has been a mess of upsets and surprises all year—just ask the Raiders and Steelers, who are somehow … in the playoffs? The Raiders might beat the Bengals because of their advantage in the trenches, but I’m not sure they’ll get far; the Steelers might beat the Chiefs because, sure, why not—but I doubt it. The best thing to rely on when you don’t know what to rely on are quarterbacks: They’re going to influence the most plays, and their positive variance will matter a lot more. I’ve got the Bills and the Titans in the AFC championship because of the downfield passing of Josh Allen and Ryan Tannehill, but Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow are just as likely to make splashes because of their playmaking out of structure. My preseason pick was the Bills, so I’ll go with them here. But man, the AFC is going to be a fun ride.
Kaelen Jones: There isn’t an overwhelming Super Bowl favorite this season, but the parity isn’t enough to scare me off picking the Packers and Chiefs.
Green Bay has been the NFL’s best team this season. Matt LaFleur has his team rolling. And in Bakhtiari, it is adding a significant reinforcement to what’s already the league’s most efficient offense, headlined by likely back-to-back MVP Aaron Rodgers. If Green Bay’s offense is playing at its peak, there isn’t an NFC defense good enough (or, in the Bucs’ case, healthy enough) to slow Rodgers and Co. down.
And then there’s the Chiefs. It might seem bold to pick Kansas City not only to make the championship, but also to beat the Packers, who the Chiefs barely toppled at home when the Packers were without Rodgers earlier in the season. I think that, in a rematch, the Chiefs offense won’t look as inept as it did in November, when it went three-and-out four times. Kansas City has embraced being patient on offense rather than relying on big plays to overwhelm opponents. And that could be the formula it needs to work its way to a second championship in three years.
Danny Heifetz: I picked the Bucs and Chiefs to meet for a Super Bowl rematch in the preseason. Now, I’m changing my mind. The Buccaneers, who were one of the healthiest teams in football last year, seem too banged up. Meanwhile, the Packers are getting healthy at the right time, which so often determines who makes it to the end of these marathon seasons. We’ll get our Rodgers-Mahomes Bowl—but State Farm will be the real winner.
Danny Kelly: It was easy to pick a lot of favorites in this postseason field, but the Packers stand out for being exceptionally well-positioned as the NFC’s no. 1 seed. This team has a clear path to the Super Bowl: Rodgers is playing on another level right now, and with his impossible-to-stop connection with Davante Adams, he can dial up big plays seemingly on command. Green Bay’s ability to scheme things up so Adams gets isolated in man coverage will come in handy in the postseason.
The Packers also have rare balance heading into the playoffs, boasting a dominant run game with big-play-creator Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon, who is just a load between the tackles. That one-two punch gives Green Bay a backup plan in case the passing game isn’t working, and should help keep the ball away from opponents. Together with a defense that could get a few key pieces (like Alexander) back during the team’s wild-card weekend bye, the Packers seem to be rounding into form at the perfect time.
Rodger Sherman: A few years ago, I realized that I was probably going to pick Patrick Mahomes to win the Super Bowl every year until he stops playing football like Patrick Mahomes. There were moments this season when I reconsidered that opinion—like when the Chiefs defense looked like the worst in the league. But then Kansas City closed the season winning nine of its last 10 games and averaging 33 points per game from December on. So I’m sticking with my call from 2018, and it doesn’t feel dumb yet.
Riley McAtee: Death, taxes, Tom Brady. The Buccaneers come into the postseason depleted—they’re missing Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Lavonte David, and Richard Sherman. But fans should be careful about making too big of a deal out of the team’s injuries. Tampa Bay dealt with injuries all season and still managed to finish the year near the top of every ratings metric you can find.
The Buccaneers finished the season first in EPA per play, first in ESPN’s FPI metric, third in DVOA, third in Pro Football Reference’s simple rating system, and fourth in overall Pro Football Focus grade. Plus, they may not be as shorthanded as you think; Tampa Bay will get back Leonard Fournette, Shaquil Barrett, and Jason Pierre-Paul in time for wild-card weekend. The Bucs are the no. 2 seed, which means they wouldn’t see the Packers until the NFC championship game (if both teams get there). If Green Bay doesn’t make it out of the divisional round, Tampa Bay can host the conference championship. Oh yeah, and the Bucs are led by the greatest QB of all time, who managed to lead the NFL in attempts, passing yards, and touchdowns at age 44. Underestimate this team at your own peril.