Thirty-two teams began the 2017 season. Only a dozen will continue in the playoffs. The NFL regular season is coming to a close, and now the league’s best teams have been dropped into the lose-and-go-home forge that creates Super Bowl champions.
The defending-champion Patriots are back for their ninth straight playoff appearance (and 14th in the past 15 years). They hold down the AFC’s top seed, which means like last winter, the road to the conference title runs through Foxborough, Mass. The Steelers, who suffered a painful defeat at home against New England earlier this season, have the conference’s other first-round bye. Those familiar stalwarts will face a threat from a surprising Jaguars team whose top-ranked defense has pushed the franchise to its first postseason bid since 2007.
A Chiefs team that rose to the top of the league through its first five games, then backslid into mediocrity with a 1-6 stretch, is the AFC West champion after regaining their footing late in the season. After running away from the Patriots on the road in Week 1, the Chiefs have proved to be a dangerous threat that can run out of Wild Card Weekend and to the Super Bowl.
The Titans’ Week 17 win over the Jaguars not only snapped a three-game losing streak, but it also ensured their spot in the playoffs. Marcus Mariota overcame one of the dumbest fumbles of the year to extend his season by at least one more week.
Things weren’t as neat and tidy for the Bills to make their first playoff appearance since Jan. 2000. Buffalo held on to beat Miami on the road then watched anxiously as the Bengals faced a 27-24 deficit against the Ravens with fewer than three minutes to play. That put their playoff hopes on the shoulders of Andy Dalton, the league’s 19th-rated quarterback.
But Dalton pulled off an unlikely comeback, and Baltimore’s loss was Buffalo’s gain. The Bills snuck into the playoffs for the first time in 18 years to finally reward a long-suffering fan base in upstate New York.
The Eagles are the top seed on the other side of the league, but may not be the favorite to escape the bracket and fly to the Super Bowl. Philadelphia surrounded second-year quarterback Carson Wentz with talent, then watched that strategy pay dividends as the young passer developed into an MVP candidate in the team’s 11-2 start.
But Wentz was lost to the season due to a torn ACL, and now the No. 2 seed Vikings will have a tremendous opportunity to be the first team to ever play a Super Bowl on their home field. Behind them, a resurgent Rams team with its own impressive sophomore quarterback, Jared Goff, and a punishing defense will push for its first playoff win since the 2004 season. The NFC South, 2017’s toughest division, gave us a season-long war between the Saints and Panthers that wasn’t decided until Week 17 concluded.
In the end, the Falcons victory over the Panthers not only punched their playoff ticket, but it also ensured a division title for New Orleans.
Super Bowl 52 kicks off on Sunday, Feb. 4 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Wild Card Round
AFC byes: New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers
NFC byes: Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings
Saturday, Jan. 6
GAME 1: Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs, 4:35 p.m., ESPN/ABC
GAME 2: Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams, 8:15 p.m., NBC
Sunday, Jan. 7
GAME 3: Buffalo Bills at Jacksonville Jaguars, 1:05 p.m., CBS
GAME 4: Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints, 4:40 p.m., FOX
Saturday, Jan. 13
GAME 5: Lowest NFC seed from Wild Card Round at Philadelphia Eagles, 4:35 p.m., NBC
GAME 6: Lowest AFC seed from Wild Card Round at New England Patriots, 8:15 p.m., CBS
Sunday, Jan. 14
GAME 7: Highest AFC seed from Wild Card Round at Pittsburgh Steelers, 1:05 p.m., CBS
GAME 8: Highest NFC seed from Wild Card Round at Minnesota Vikings, 4:40 p.m., FOX
Sunday, Jan. 21
AFC Championship: Game 5 winner vs. Game 7 winner, 3:05 p.m., CBS
NFC Championship: Game 6 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 6:40 p.m., FOX
Super Bowl 52
Sunday, Feb. 4
AFC Champion vs. NFC Champion, 6:30 p.m., NBC
All times are Eastern.
Article Source: SBNation.com