The NFL postseason begins on Saturday, and this year’s format is a brand-new adventure: The league added a third wild-card spot in each conference this season, meaning 12 teams will be competing in an epic first weekend, while the Chiefs and Packers sit out and await their divisional-round opponents. So who will reign supreme? Will the Chiefs find the gear they lacked over the final weeks of the regular season? Will Aaron Rodgers continue his MVP-level tour de force? Or will another team come out of the woodwork to give those squads a run for their money? The Ringer’s NFL staffers make their playoff picks below.
Kevin Clark: It is with a heavy heart that I pick almost entirely chalk with the exception of, perhaps, the Super Bowl. There’s a reason for this: This season has been defined by little edges becoming big ones. If you do a few things really well, that’s all you need to compete. We have no idea what the toll of limited practice time is on players and staffs, or the stress of such a complicated season. But it all matters. I’ve said since August that most people in the league view the outcome of this season as sort of an Occam’s razor: The simplest explanation is the best. That means Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid, Aaron Rodgers, and a talented Packers team meeting in the Super Bowl.
This has been the highest-scoring season of all time, and I’m picking the best offense in football by points scored, the Packers, and the best quarterback in the sport in Mahomes. This may sound simplistic, but in a season with so many variables, it’s best to go with the most talented groups who need the least to go right for them to win the Super Bowl. Football Outsiders gives this Super Bowl matchup a 21 percent chance of happening, and it’s easy to see why. There are few things more automatic than these quarterbacks finding their skill guys—Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill in Mahomes’s case, and Davante Adams in Rodgers’s case. And both defenses are certainly good enough to make this happen—the Chiefs are 10th in points against, the Packers are 13th.
There are clear pathways for a handful of other teams—I love the Ravens, and the Bills are the hottest team in football right now. But I don’t think either can overcome Mahomes in the AFC. It sounds like junk science, but it just keeps proving to be true: Mahomes is inevitable, and he’s the tiebreaker between the Chiefs and the teams that are close behind them.
In the NFC, the teams with the best cases—the Saints and Bucs—have big question marks that the Packers don’t. Drew Brees’s average intended air yards figure is nearly half a yard shorter than last year, when he threw impossibly short passes, and his health still worries me after he suffered a punctured lung and multiple broken ribs. The Bucs simply haven’t strung together enough impressive games in a row, even if they’ve recently beat four straight bad teams. This is the weirdest season of all time, and I’m ready to believe anything—but in the playoffs, I can trust only the two best teams.
Danny Kelly: I went with the chalk picks for the most part here, but to me, the Chiefs, Packers, and Bills stand out above the rest of the postseason squads. Those three teams are led by big-armed, dynamic, and MVP-contending quarterbacks, each of whom has shown the ability to go into God Mode at moments and carry their respective teams to wins. And while I really wanted to pick Aaron Rodgers and the Packers (who finished the regular season ranked first in both points per game, at 31.8, and Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA) or roll the dice on the Josh Allen–led Bills (who just got done scoring 56 points on the previously stingy Dolphins defense and averaged 37.9 points per game over their final eight contests), it’s tough to bet against an experienced, high-octane squad like the Chiefs.
The defending champs have the wholly unique advantage of having Patrick Mahomes under center, of course, and while it’s true that Kansas City hasn’t been quite as sharp as either the Packers or Bills over the past month, the team feels like a sleeping dragon that’s ready to wake up and belch some flames. Under the skilled guidance of head coach Andy Reid, the Chiefs are as matchup-proof as any team can be. Kansas City is capable of creating and exploiting mismatches with Travis Kelce, who finished second in the NFL in receiving yards (1,416) this season while reeling in 11 touchdowns. And regardless of the defense the Chiefs are facing, no one on the field is fast enough to keep up with Tyreek Hill, who racked up 1,276 yards and 15 touchdowns of his own.
Kansas City is also unrivaled in its ability to play in every conceivable style of game. Whether the Chiefs are looking to play a slow-em-down, run-centric style, go full-on scorched earth with an up-tempo, pass-happy attack, or dink and dunk their way down the field, Reid and Mahomes have shown an ability to succeed this year. No lead is safe against this team. They’re basically impossible to match up with. And they’re extremely difficult to prepare for. For those reasons, the Chiefs are my pick.
Rodger Sherman: I love watching Josh Allen, who has fully transformed into an Unstoppable ThrowGod. I love watching Aaron Rodgers continue to be Aaron Rodgers after all these years. I love when Russ cooks, and I love when the Ravens run. But it feels like everything else happening in the NFL is a subplot when compared with Patrick Mahomes. It’s intriguing that Kansas City was less than dominant down the stretch while the Bills blew everybody out, but I still think we’d be foolish to pick any team besides the Chiefs.
Danny Heifetz: Three years ago, the Saints got knocked out of the playoffs by Stefon Diggs on the Minneapolis Miracle. This year, the Saints will match up against Diggs in the Super Bowl, but this time, Diggs will be on the Bills—and the losing side.
The Bills winning the AFC would hardly feel like an upset anymore. As dominant as the Chiefs have been, their early-game sloppiness has to catch up to them at some point. No team is better suited to knock them off than Buffalo—though the Chiefs may not even make it out of the second round, considering the way the Ravens have been playing.
But when I think about the Super Bowl, the team I keep coming back to is New Orleans. This group is talented, deep, and healthy. They can win many types of games. Best of all—extreme football cliché alert—they play complementary football. New Orleans has the best running game and the second-best defense in the NFC. Running back Alvin Kamara may miss the Bears game as he recovers from COVID-19, but Kamara missed a game against the Bears last year and backup Latavius Murray ran for 119 yards and two touchdowns.
Rushing aside, the Saints are also getting key players back at the right time. Receiver Michael Thomas will be eligible to return from injured reserve this week, and their elite offensive line will likely get some starters back, too. Betting on Brees to pull out a Super Bowl at 42 years old is risky, especially considering he’ll probably have to beat Aaron Rodgers in the NFC championship game at Lambeau Field to do so. But New Orleans has the best offensive line and the deepest defense in the conference. This time, the Saints will be on the right side of a miracle.
Nora Princiotti: Before we get to more pressing matters like, for instance, the Super Bowl, I’d like to address the matter of my prediction of a Browns upset over the Steelers in the wild-card round. I felt much better about this prediction before Cleveland had several key people—including head coach Kevin Stefanski, left guard Joel Bitonio, and receiver KhaDarel Hodge—test positive for COVID-19 this week. I considered responding to this information in a rational/cowardly fashion by switching my pick but, after much thought (read: not very much), I have decided to stick with it. Team of destiny! Until they meet the Chiefs in the divisional round, that is.
About the Chiefs. They’re my AFC pick to get back to the Super Bowl after beating Josh Allen and the Bills in what would be a very fun conference championship game. The Bills have the better defense and special teams, but I continue to believe the Chiefs have another gear that they’ll unleash in the playoffs. They also have Patrick Mahomes, which feels relevant.
Kansas City, however, will not be repeating as Super Bowl champions. That honor will belong to the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers, who will put all his you-drafted-a-quarterback energy into this playoff run.
Kaelen Jones: There might be reasons to worry about the Chiefs, seeing as they won six straight games that were decided by six points or fewer before they dropped their finale in Week 17 while resting key players. And then there’s Patrick Mahomes’s turnover luck, which could potentially run out against a good team in the playoffs. But even if the Chiefs dig themselves a hole, Mahomes is already one of the best QBs ever when trailing. He has an elite skill set and is surrounded by All-Pro-caliber players in Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. After watching Mahomes and Co. pull off their Super Bowl run last season, there aren’t many reasons they shouldn’t be the favorite to win, even if the team didn’t consistently play at its highest level this year.
There is one potential obstacle standing in Kansas City’s path back to the Super Bowl, though: the Buffalo Bills. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has unlocked quarterback Josh Allen this season, and Allen’s astronomical leap has been aided in a huge way by his talented supporting cast, including the NFL’s leading receiver in Stefon Diggs. The Bills offense was great all season, and their talented defense has awakened at the right time. This is not to say that the Bills have enough to overwhelm the Chiefs, but they will be able to at least compete with them.
The Packers, meanwhile, have succeeded this season because of Aaron Rodgers’s MVP-caliber play. Green Bay is one of the few teams who could boast any type of true home-field advantage. That combination could be enough to get Rodgers back into the Super Bowl. But despite how efficient the Packers have been—and how legendary Rodgers is—it’s not enough to scare me off picking the Chiefs.
Riley McAtee: Picking the Chiefs to win the Super Bowl feels a bit like cheating. They have the best record in the NFL, are the defending champions, and are the clear favorites to repeat. And while I don’t think this Kansas City team is an unstoppable juggernaut, I do think it’s the least-flawed team in the league. Looking at the rest of the AFC, it’s hard to pick a team that could dethrone the Chiefs. I still don’t fully trust the Bills (whom the Chiefs beat earlier this year); the Steelers offense has looked downright awful for more than a month; and the Titans have the worst defense of any playoff team. The Ravens have gotten their offense back on track over the past month, but they’ll be playing on the road all postseason. And, of course, the Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes, their undeniable trump card.
The Chiefs could certainly lose, though, and one team that could beat them is the Packers. Chiefs-Packers would be a dream Super Bowl matchup. They’re the best teams from each conference, they have two best quarterbacks in the NFL, and this would be a rematch of Super Bowl I. It’s also a game that should feature offensive fireworks, since the Chiefs and Packers have the top two offenses by DVOA, but are mediocre on the other side of the ball (17th for Green Bay, 22nd for Kansas City). We were robbed of an Aaron Rodgers–Patrick Mahomes duel last season when Mahomes missed the game against the Packers due to his knee injury, and now’s the time for the universe to correct that.