It’s playoff time in the NFL, and 14 teams all have a chance to win Super Bowl LVI. It begins this weekend with six wild-card games, before the winners join the Packers and Titans in the divisional round next weekend. Anything can happen in the NFL playoffs. Just ask the Buccaneers, who won the Super Bowl a year ago out of the NFC’s No. 5 seed, winning three road games en route to their title. So how will the next few weeks play out? Will favorites live up to their expectations, or will underdogs pull off some unlikely upsets?
We asked 15 of our NFL analysts for their best prediction for the postseason as a whole and what will happen in the games leading up to the Super Bowl. Which team is best set up to win it all, and who will help them get there? Will it be Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or someone else leading the way in the NFC? And will the Titans hold off plenty of talented AFC teams? Let’s predict this season’s playoffs, starting with how far the AFC’s top-seeded team can go.
Are the Titans the top AFC contender?
Sam Acho, NFL analyst: I’m doubling down on my midseason pick. After three wins to end the regular season and a 12-5 record, Tennessee will reach the Super Bowl. And it won’t be the only No. 1 seed. I got the Packers and Aaron Rodgers meeting the Titans in the biggest game of the year.
Stephania Bell, NFL fantasy analyst: The Titans will win the AFC Championship with a run-heavy offense behind the return of Derrick Henry. For those who might scoff at the notion of a modern offense that ranks near the bottom of the league in pass-play percentage going all the way to the Super Bowl, may I present to you the 2018 Patriots? Yes, they had this guy named Tom Brady, but they also ran the ball 43.1% of the time, fifth in the league that year. The 2021 Titans rushed on a league-high 46.1% of plays, and they did it without Henry for half their games after he suffered a significant foot injury. The return of Henry adds power to their run game and a massive red zone threat on the ground (10 TDs prior to his injury), which will prove to be too much for the Titans’ AFC opponents.
Jeremy Fowler, NFL writer/reporter: Henry will pick up right where he left off and lead the playoffs in rushing. Rarely does a star player have two months to rest his legs before the postseason, especially a 247-pound back with a 2,000-yard season on his résumé. The No. 1 seed Titans battled through injuries and are ready for January football, which means Henry will be touching the ball 20 or more times. I’m not sure I’m ready to put Ryan Tannehill in the Super Bowl, but this team has the ingredients to get there behind Henry, receiver A.J. Brown and an opportunistic defense.
Can the Bills or the Chiefs get back to the AFC Championship Game?
Dan Graziano, NFL writer/reporter: The Bills will play in the Super Bowl. This is a team that has been together for a while now, and they still sting from last year’s AFC Championship Game loss in Kansas City and crave an opportunity to avenge it. The Dec. 26 game in Foxborough, Massachusetts, was a turning point for their season. Running back Devin Singletary told me, “We knew we have what it takes to get where we want to go, but that game just gave us even more confidence and made us more hungry.” The Bills’ run game is in a much better place than it was this time last season, which should help offensive coordinator Brian Daboll avoid the trap of being too one-dimensional. And I don’t think people really appreciate how good their defense is under Leslie Frazier. I know it was the Jets and their season was over (Week 18), but holding another professional football team to 53 total yards of offense in a game is really something. This team is well coached, believes in itself, has the league’s most weather-proof quarterback and has been building toward this for a few years now. I say they cash it in.
Jason Reid, senior writer at The Undefeated: Kansas City will advance to its third consecutive Super Bowl by defeating Tennessee in the AFC Championship Game at Tennessee. A 34-31 road loss to Cincinnati in Week 17 cost Kansas City the conference’s No. 1 seeding and a chance to host the AFC title game for an unprecedented fourth straight season. But there’s still plenty to like about the Chiefs, starting with quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The superstar learned to operate more patiently this season while teams were content to play Cover 2 and rarely blitz him, hoping to avoid giving up the big plays that have defined the historic start to his career. But the Chiefs’ biggest turnaround occurred on defense. Often overmatched during the team’s 3-4 start, Kansas City’s defense provided the foundation to its eight-game winning streak. During that span, the Chiefs allowed the fewest points per game (12.9) and had the most takeaways (21) in the NFL.
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Seth Walder, analytics writer: The winner of the Bills-Chiefs divisional-round matchup will win the Super Bowl. Per ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), they’re the second- and third-best teams in the league, respectively. The Bills boast the best point differential in the league and the Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes at quarterback — either is a great sign for a deep playoff run. And while I’m still a believer in Tampa Bay, and it is FPI’s No. 1 team, the model doesn’t know that of the trio of great wide receivers the Bucs began the season with, only Mike Evans is still healthy and on the roster.
What can we expect out of the Cowboys and Bengals?
Matt Bowen, NFL analyst: Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse will be a difference-maker in the playoffs. Dallas has playmakers at all three levels of Dan Quinn’s defense in Demarcus Lawrence, Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs. But don’t forget about Kearse. He’s a long, rangy safety with versatile traits, and in Quinn’s man-heavy system, Kearse is the tight end matchup player. First up for Kearse: the 49ers’ George Kittle.
Mike Clay, NFL analyst: The Cowboys and Bengals will each win multiple playoff games and are legit contenders to represent their conference in the Super Bowl. Dallas is No. 1 in the league in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, fifth in offensive scores and sixth in touchdowns allowed. The Cowboys have one of the league’s deepest and most talented offenses, along with a breakout defense. And the Bengals are playing their best ball of the season, and if they beat the Raiders and things break right, their path to the title game could include a trip to Tennessee in the divisional round and a rematch with a Chiefs squad they defeated while piling up 34 points just two weeks ago. With a solid defense and quarterback Joe Burrow playing at a high level, Cincinnati would have a shot to win all three games.
Eric Moody, fantasy/sports betting writer: The Bengals will reach the Super Bowl. During Weeks 16 and 17, Burrow passed for 971 yards and eight touchdowns, helping Cincinnati to the AFC North title. With positive momentum, a QB who excels under pressure to overcome mediocre offensive line play, an offense that utilizes a trio of talented receivers (Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd) to threaten opposing defenses vertically and a defense that can apply consistent pressure with only four linemen, the Bengals have all of the elements needed to contend for the Super Bowl.
Mike Tannenbaum, NFL analyst: Dallas will go on a run and win at least two — and maybe three — games. The Cowboys are built for the playoffs and have three elite pass-rushers in Lawrence, Parsons and Randy Gregory. If their offensive line is healthy (most notably Tyron Smith), they’ll be good on offense and elite on defense.
Will the Packers live up to the hype?
Doug Kezirian, sports betting analyst: The Packers are the betting favorite for good reason. The NFC once looked like a gauntlet, but the warts have surfaced with inconsistency and injuries. And the AFC is full of questionable contenders. I expect Green Bay to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, as quarterback Aaron Rodgers is still playing the position flawlessly.
Field Yates, NFL analyst: The Packers will hold serve at home this time around, advancing to a Super Bowl championship. This isn’t exactly going out on a limb, but this team feels different from last year’s iteration that marched into the playoffs with grand expectations. With Green Bay’s balanced offense and a defense that could return multiple key starters (including pass-rusher Za’Darius Smith and cornerback Jaire Alexander), count me among those expecting the Pack to play in SoFi stadium in mid-February.
Seth Wickersham, NFL writer/reporter: This is just a hunch, but I’m predicting that this will be the last playoff run for three future Hall of Fame quarterbacks with their current teams. We know that the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger will retire. But I think Tom Brady will, too. And finally, Aaron Rodgers will leave Green Bay after another season without reaching the Super Bowl.
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Tom Brady’s Bucs back in the Super Bowl?
Anita Marks, fantasy/sports betting analyst: It will be Bill Belichick vs. Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. The only two wild-card games that I have conviction in are the Bengals over the Raiders and the Chiefs over the Steelers. The remaining matchups are tossups to me, so to steal a phrase from Jalen Rose: Let’s give the people what they want. I think the Patriots are a complete team. They can pound the rock in the fourth quarter on Saturday night against Buffalo, and then they would match up well against the Titans and Chiefs en route to the Super Bowl. And in the NFC, Brady and the Buccaneers could see the Eagles, Rams and Packers in their path to the Super Bowl — and they have the roster to upset Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game.
Jordan Reid, NFL draft analyst: Brady will help the Buccaneers become the first back-to-back Super Bowl champions since the Patriots in 2004 and 2005 — who also had Brady at the helm. At 44 years old, he just had arguably one of the best seasons of his career with a league-high 5,316 passing yards and 43 touchdowns. Tampa Bay is riding a three-game winning streak entering the playoffs, and despite not earning the No. 1 seed, Brady has the necessary experience — even in the elements should they see the Packers at Lambeau Field.
Source: ESPN NFL