The NFL playoffs are officially set with the conclusion of the regular season and the field consists of 8 teams that did not qualify a year ago.
The NFC side is completely new with the exception of the Atlanta Falcons. The Buffalo Bills, who just snapped a 17-year playoff drought, are one of three new squads in the AFC.
The top of the AFC is lethal. The defending champion New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers each won 13 games and have earned a bye week. Home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs belongs to New England thanks to that week 15 thriller that ended in controversy.
The Patriots will play the lowest remaining seed that survives the wildcard round this weekend. They will likely face the 4-seeded Kansas City Chiefs or their 5-seeded opponent Tennessee Titans. If the 6-seeded Bills can defeat the 3-seeded Jacksonville Jaguars, they will automatically play the Patriots. If the Jaguars win, they will automatically travel to Pittsburgh.
This is truly one of the weaker AFC wildcard fields we’ve seen in quite some time. Many began to put stock in the Baltimore Ravens, who would have secured a spot with a victory against the Bengals in week 17, but Cincinnati played spoiler and pulled out a last-minute victory to assist Buffalo.
The Chargers were also a scarier team than the Bills and Titans in my opinion, but were the odd team out in a three-way tie at 9-7 despite defeating Buffalo 54-24 in week 11. The Chargers will look at their 2017 season with disappointment after an 0-4 start with three losses by 3 points or less. Philip Rivers led the team to a 9-3 record the rest of the way along with a terrific pass rush in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram.
Since I don’t believe the Bills and Titans will give the Jaguars and Chiefs much fight, I think we’ll see a rematch from Kansas City’s week 1 win in New England in the Divisional Round. A Steelers and Jaguars matchup would also be a repeat. Ben Roethlisberger had perhaps the worst afternoon of his career with five interceptions to Jacksonville in week 5.
While the AFC drama shouldn't really start until Roethlisberger and Tom Brady take the field, the NFC is a different story. Wildcard weekend will showcase three teams from the NFC South, the best division in football, as well as talent that’s as apparent from the bottom seeds as it is from the top.
For the third time this season, the New Orleans Saints will play the Carolina Panthers. The Saints took care of business the first two times, limiting Cam Newton and posting more than 30 points on the stingy Carolina D. While it’s tough to beat a team three times, New Orleans has been a little bit more consistent throughout the season with their two-headed monster in the backfield.
No single player is more dynamic when he’s on that Carolina’s Newton, but he has also been too inconsistent as a whole. This is especially true against the Saints. The Carolina defense will have to step up this time around if they hope to stop Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. Regardless of the winner, one of the three NFC quarterbacks with any sort of postseason experience will be eliminated on Sunday afternoon.
The other NFC Wildcard matchup features the defending conference champion Atlanta Falcons and the fresh Los Angeles Rams. The Rams have been led by quarterback Jared Goff and running back Todd Gurley, who will each play in their first postseason game.
The Falcons are on a mission to avenge their devastating Super Bowl loss from last February. With experience on their side, they have a great chance to come away with a win in Los Angeles. If the Rams win, they will automatically match up with the 2-seeded Minnesota Vikings in the Divisional Round. If the Falcons advance, they will meet the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles.
This postseason has a rare mix of experienced veterans and up-and-coming stars. The Patriots and Steelers are undoubtedly the teams to watch from the AFC while the NFC is wide open. I see the Saints as the biggest threat in the NFC, but they will have a very tough road to the Super Bowl. The most plausible pick could be the Vikings, who have been a model of consistently on both sides of the ball throughout the season and will enjoy a bye as well as at least one home game. Minnesota would also be the first team in NFL history to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium if they can pick up two more victories.
Despite the national consensus that the SEC was weaker than in recent years, the conference will be represented by two teams in the National Championship on Monday night.
Georgia advanced with a thrilling overtime victory in the Rose Bowl over Heisman winner Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma, while Alabama easily took down Clemson in a rematch of last year’s title.
Georgia and Oklahoma showcased perhaps the best game in college football this season. Bulldog running back Sony Michel redeemed himself with a 27-yard score in the second overtime to win the game after he committed a devastating fumble in the fourth quarter. Michel piled 181 yards on the ground on just 11 carries and scored three times. Running back Nick Chubb also came to play, recording 145 yards and two scores.
The Rose Bowl showcased two elite offenses that combined for 102 total points in the 54-48 Georgia win. Mayfield made the most headlines as usual, but actually had a subpar day by his lofty standards. The Heisman winner completed 23 of his 35 passes for 287 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He also caught a touchdown pass in the first half. Running back Rodney Anderson stole the show for the Sooners with 201 yards on the ground and two scores.
Oklahoma seemed to be well on their way to a National Championship appearance with a 31-17 lead at halftime. Georgia came storming back in the third quarter with 14 unanswered points to tie the game. The teams traded touchdowns in the fourth and field goals in the first overtime to send the contest to double OT.
The Bulldogs essentially won the game when Sooner kicker Austin Seibert had his 27-yard field goal blocked by Lorenzo Carter to conclude their second possession in OT. With all the momentum, Georgia would advance with any score. Michel took care of the rest and the comeback victory was official.
In the nightcap, Alabama met Clemson in the Sugar Bowl for a highly anticipated rematch of last year’s thrilling Championship. A few short weeks ago, the selection committee was criticized for awarding the Crimson Tide the fourth and final seed in the College Football Playoff.
However, Nick Saban and Alabama continued to do what they do best: win. Clemson never found the end zone in what became a 24-6 loss in New Orleans. The Tide had no trouble slowing down the Deshaun Watson-less Tigers with a defensive performance for the ages.
Clemson was still alive in the second half. The offense had no answers, but neither did Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts. The Tide then turned a tight, defensive struggle into a rout with two defensive touchdowns in 13 seconds.
If this is a down year for Alabama, what does that say about the rest of college football? Make no mistake about it, the Tide deserved to be in the playoffs. Not because they wear crimson, but because it’s nearly impossible to out-prepare Saban.
The championship will provide us with a heavy offensive attack against an immovable defense. We will finally get to see a matchup that many thought we’d see in the SEC Championship. In a league dominated by offense, the Tide boast one of the last remaining programs that truly believe in the old adage, “defense wins championships.”
Regardless of who comes away with the win on Monday, the SEC still rules college football.