The 2017 NFL postseason is on the verge of kicking off, and 12 franchises still have legitimate hopes for a Super Bowl ring.
We've seen nearly every kind of playoff team make the Super Bowl, and even the unlikely ones that couldn't close the deal often came extraordinarily close. For that reason, we can't count any of these 12 teams out of the picture. With Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees as the only playoff quarterbacks with championships on their resume, it could take only a single upset for a wild-card team to lap those ahead of them.
Using Football Outsiders' DVOA metric as a beginning guideline, and classic postseason narratives as a further guide toward comparison, there's a conference champion in history that closely resembles each of the 12 playoff teams. Even the Bills. If you're a fan of the Pats or Steelers, you probably don't need reason to believe, but your first guess as to which teams in history that they're like may be wrong. If you're a fan of the Falcons or Titans, hope may be closer than you think.
6. Atlanta Falcons
Super Bowl comparison: 1991-93 Buffalo Bills
Only twice in history has a team lost the Super Bowl and come back the next year to win it: The 1971 Cowboys and the team they beat, the 1972 Dolphins. The Falcons at least have a chance to avenge "28-3," and they have the reigning MVP on their side.
The 1990 Bills finished with the best offense in the NFL but suffered a heartbreaking Super Bowl loss to the Giants. The offense gradually got worse with each successive season, but they still had three opportunities in a row to make up for that initial loss. They never did, but the Falcons still have their opportunity to write a happy ending. Despite dealing with offensive regression, they have Matt Ryan in a conference where the top two seeds are led by Nick Foles and Case Keenum. Should they beat the Rams on Saturday, the Falcons could have a manageable road game between them and their third NFC championship game in the last six years.
6. Buffalo Bills
Super Bowl comparison: 2008 Arizona Cardinals
The quintessential example of "bad team makes the Super Bowl" has to be the 2008 Cardinals. Despite having Hall of Fame talent like Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Edgerrin James and a rookie Calais Campbell, the Cards were not good in the regular season. They ranked 21st in DVOA, finishing 15th on offense, 21st on defense and 28th on special teams. They lost 56-35 to the Jets, 48-20 to the Eagles and 47-7 to the Patriots en route to a 9-7 finish. And they won the NFC West. The veteran talent was enough to beat the Falcons, Panthers and Eagles, before they fell seconds shy of upsetting the Steelers for the Lombardi Trophy. Could the Bills do the same?
Buffalo ended its 17-season playoff drought by ranking 20th overall in DVOA -- 26th on offense, 15th on defense -- entering Week 17. The Bills lost 47-10 to the Saints, 54-24 to the Chargers and 23-3 to the Patriots, but they are just one incredible hot streak away from their first Super Bowl in 24 years. The Bills haven't won three games in a row since last October, but Arizona wasn't supposed to make it that far, either.
5. Carolina Panthers
Super Bowl comparison: 2003 Carolina Panthers
Sixteen years ago, the Panthers went 1-15. Fourteen years ago, the Panthers won their final three games to get into the playoffs at 11-5 and lost the Super Bowl by a field goal. Two years ago, the Panthers went 15-1 and lost in the Super Bowl again.
This year, the Panthers are back to 11-5. Can they knock off Minnesota and finally get Cam Newton some press conference swag for his ring finger?
This Carolina team is actually closer to its 2003 Super Bowl iteration than the 2015 version. The Panthers have an average offense and very good defense, much like when they were 18th on offense and 10th on defense during the run to their first Super Bowl appearance.
The Panthers must start their postseason with a road game in New Orleans, a team that swept them in the regular season. If they can get through that, the Panthers could be looking at their third NFC title in 15 seasons.
5. Tennessee Titans
Super Bowl comparison: 2007 New York Giants
Of all the Giants' unlikely Super Bowls and Super Bowl QBs -- Phil Simms, Jeff Hostetler, Kerry Collins -- nothing stands a Hail Mary's chance of comparing to Eli Manning vs. Brady I.
The '07 Giants were a league-average team (14th in DVOA, 18th on offense) that finished 10-6 and made the playoffs despite double-digit losses to the Cowboys (twice), Packers, Vikings and Redskins. Manning struggled his way to 23 touchdowns and 20 interceptions, but Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward helped them rank fourth in yards per carry at 4.6.
The Titans finish 9-7 and 19th in DVOA and wobbled through a bad season by Marcus Mariota, who ended up with 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. They relied on the running back duo of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry to move the ball on the ground. To get to the Super Bowl, the Titans will need to do the same thing that New York did and pull off three road upsets (unless they host the Bills in the AFC championship), which seems impossible. So did the idea of the Giants doing it in 2007, only to upset the 18-0 Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
If Manning can do it, Mariota can probably do it. He just needs help and a prayer.
4. New Orleans Saints
Super Bowl comparison: 2002 Oakland Raiders
The Raiders may not have won the Super Bowl, but if they hadn't run into the best pass defense in history, they would have had a better shot. Oakland ranked second on offense and seventh on defense by DVOA in 2002, exactly the same as the Saints headed into Week 17. New Orleans is doing it with a heavier emphasis on the running game, but the Raiders' duo of Charlie Garner and Tyrone Wheatley was also among the best in the NFL. Rich Gannon was not at the level of Drew Brees, but both used a high completion percentage and efficient passing in these respective seasons, as Brees dialed it back to throw just 23 touchdowns and 4,334 yards, his lowest totals since joining New Orleans.
Both teams also have solid defenses that are overshadowed by their talented offenses, with Marshon Lattimore doing his best impression of a young Charles Woodson. Thanks to their balance on offense, upgrades on the defensive side of the ball and injuries to NFC quarterbacks, the Saints should be the favorites to win the conference. If they get to the Super Bowl, they also won't have to face a defense as good as the '02 Bucs.
4. Kansas City Chiefs
Super Bowl comparison: 2004 Philadelphia Eagles
Kansas City is not heading into the postseason looking like a team that could win the Super Bowl, but nobody was questioning the Chiefs after a 5-0 start. Then they lost six of their next seven games. Still, Kansas City has an offense that ranks first in yards per carry, third in passing efficiency and has three dynamic weapons around Alex Smith. But that comes with a defense that ranks 31st against the run by DVOA and is 29th overall.
The '04 Eagles were not quite that bad on defense (16th by DVOA), but there are plenty of similarities: A ball-hawking cornerback with five interceptions (Marcus Peters, Lito Sheppard), a 28-year-old premium pass rusher (Justin Houston, Jevon Kearse), a quarterback with a passer rating of 104.7 (Alex Smith, Donovan McNabb), a dynamic dual-threat running back (Kareem Hunt, Brian Westbrook) and a big receiving threat (Travis Kelce, Terrell Owens). And yes, both teams were coached by Andy Reid. That doesn't mean the Chiefs can't win the Super Bowl, as those Eagles came very close to doing so.
Reid is hoping to have a similar run as the one he had in 2004, except with a significantly harder road as the four seed instead of the No. 1 seed.
3. Los Angeles Rams
Super Bowl comparison: 1999 St. Louis Rams
Do you think that the Rams-to-Rams comparison is just a cop out and that these Rams clearly don't have a "greatest show" to place on any field surface of your choosing? Well, it goes beyond the obvious comparisons, but the obvious comparisons have some validity.
Kurt Warner and Jared Goff were both surprise entrants onto NFL leaderboards. Todd Gurley is not at the level of Marshall Faulk, but he may win MVP like Faulk once did. Orlando Pace and Andrew Whitworth both provided the elite protection at left tackle.
There's more, and it goes beyond offensive play. The '99 Rams were actually ranked higher on defense that year than they were on offense, at least by DVOA. This Los Angeles version also has a top-ranked defense, led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Aaron Donald, much like Kevin Carter in '99. Another fun fact is that the 1998 Rams went 4-12, just like the 2016 Rams, and so we already know that the basement to the Super Bowl is possible.
This offense may not be as dominant as the '99 version, but given where they were a year ago (32nd), it could get there before we know it. Including this January.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
Super Bowl comparison: 2015 Denver Broncos
A month ago, I was leaning toward a comparison to the 2000 Ravens, but the Jaguars defense has just not been elite enough since to earn that distinction. That Baltimore team had four shutouts and held 11 opponents to 10 points or less, earning a spot as one of the 10 best defenses of all time. That's where Jacksonville looked like it could be heading, but it has just one shutout (of the Jacoby Brissett Colts that rank 30th in scoring) and also allowed 37 points to the Titans and 44 to the 49ers. That brought the Jaguars down closer to 2015 Broncos territory, both defensively and offensively.
Which is still great. And perhaps the best in the NFL.
The Broncos defensive turnaround began in 2014 and really took off in '15 with their elite cornerback tandem of Chris Harris and Aqib Talib, not unlike the Jalen Ramsey-A.J. Bouye duo that the Jaguars have built. Denver had a great pass rush with Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Malik Jackson. Jacksonville has Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue and Malik Jackson. Both teams also suffer from quarterbacks who have their positive moments but could also sink you at any moment. Believe it not, it would be less surprising to see Blake Bortles win a Super Bowl than it was to see Brock Osweiler and end-of-career Peyton Manning win a Super Bowl. The difference between the two teams is that the Jags have a better rushing offense and a worse run defense than Denver.
But yes, if the Broncos could get past Brady and stifle Newton in the Super Bowl, these Jaguars are just as capable of doing the same.
2. Minnesota Vikings
Super Bowl comparison: 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers
Not that Case Keenum is Ben Roethlisberger, but there is some comparison to be made. In 2005, Roethlisberger was still just a second-year, unproven quarterback who was averaging fewer than 200 yards per game. Keenum's play in 2017 was arguably better than Roethlisberger's play in 2005, even if he doesn't have a Hall of Fame future ahead of him.
Beyond the QB position, the Vikings have the third-ranked defense by DVOA, just like Pittsburgh in 2005. Minnesota has the No. 6 passing offense, same as the 2005 Steelers. The Vikings may need a heroic unexpected performance from someone at running back, like Pittsburgh got from Willie Parker, but they also have a significant advantage that those Steelers did not have: The '05 Steelers had to win three road games to get to the Super Bowl, and the Vikings have a bye week and home date in the divisional round already. If they win three more games, they should go down as a team about as good as the Pittsburgh team that beat the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
Super Bowl comparison: 2004 New England Patriots
In 2004, the Patriots had a two-time Super Bowl champion at quarterback and were ranked second in DVOA, strengthened by a No. 3 offense and No. 7 defense. Headed into their finale without most of their key starters, the Steelers ranked third in DVOA, with the No. 3 offense and No. 9 defense.
The '04 Patriots also had one of their rare years with a top-ranked running back, as Corey Dillon rushed for 1,635 yards and 12 touchdowns, not too far off from the season had by Le'Veon Bell. The Steelers had a significant late-season loss on defense with Ryan Shazier, and New England lost All-Pro defensive end Richard Seymour for the first two games of the playoffs before getting him back for the Super Bowl; the Patriots also lost Ty Law midseason.
Pittsburgh will have to overcome the loss of Shazier, and to get through the Patriots to reach the Super Bowl, they'll have to become the Patriots. They should have the talent to do so, perhaps enough to get Roethlisberger to his fourth Super Bowl, bringing him full circle to his first playoff loss: an AFC championship loss to the 2004 Patriots. Also worth noting: In that game, we saw a 26-year-old James Harrison.
1. Philadelphia Eagles
Super Bowl comparison: 1987 Washington
A month ago you would not have compared the Eagles to the 1987 Super Bowl winners, but a month ago, Carson Wentz had two healthy ACLs. Instead of being a "second-year QB, great defense wins it all" story like the 2013 Seahawks, it now has to be a "Doug Williams goes 0-2 in regular season, 3-0 in postseason" type of story. And Philly didn't have to do it with replacement players.
Both teams have very good defenses -- Washington was ranked seventh on defense by DVOA, the Eagles are ranked sixth -- but Washington's defense turned it up in the playoffs by allowing 37 points in three games. Philly will need to get a historic effort from its defense, specifically from its pass rushers, and that may be enough to overcome an offense destined to be slowed down by Nick Foles.
But Foles also has the opportunity be a worthy second-chance story like Williams was; 39 starts into his career, he's two home wins away from the Super Bowl. Then, anything could happen.
1. New England Patriots
Super Bowl comparison: 2011 New England Patriots
It would be easy to compare this year's Patriots to last year's Patriots, but really this team is producing more like the 2011 version that went to the Super Bowl but got upset (again) by the younger Manning. This New England team is atypical of many of Bill Belichick's iterations along the years in that they rank 32nd on defense by DVOA. The 2011 Patriots ranked 30th on defense. This team ranks 31st in yards per carry allowed, 29th in passing yards allowed and 29th in total yards allowed. The 2011 team ranked 24th in YPC allowed, 31st in passing yards allowed and 31st in total yards allowed. Belichick signed Stephon Gilmore and kept Malcolm Butler, but instead of improving, they regressed, and maybe even got a little worse. However, this time they know they won't have to face the Giants.
The #Patriots are the only team in #NFL history to win at least 13 games in back-to-back seasons more than once. (Only 7 other teams have done it even one time.) And with today's victory over the Jets they have done it three times: 2003 and 2004; 2010 and 2011; 2016 and 2017.- Sean Glennon (@SeanGlennon) December 31, 2017