The NFL playoff picture is almost complete and soon the NFL playoffs will begin after the 2020 season. But this year, the league’s playoff seeding sets up for a wilder postseason, with now three wild cards joining four division winners in the both the AFC and NFC tournaments toward Super Bowl 55.
With teams seeded No. 1-7 in both conferences, now only one team gets a bye along with home-field advantage in each conference. Another twist is the fact hosting the game doesn’t come with the same advantage with teams varying from limited to no in-person attendance. While weather will be a factor, in the end, there should be a lot more even matchups than usual, setting up one of the most exciting NFL playoffs ever.
Looking at who’s positioned to be in the playoffs now in the AFC and NFC, here’s a breakdown how teams might get a break with their opponents — or run into an obstacle they would like to avoid on the postseason path:
AFC playoff matchups
1. Chiefs (14-1)
Best possible matchup: Browns. The Chiefs would welcome facing an inexperienced playoff team in the divisional round. The Browns have been pretty good against the run, but they are limited in defending the pass away from Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward. Patrick Mahomes would easily pick them part and put Baker Mayfield in uncomfortable catchup mode.
Worst possible matchup: Titans. The Titans are pesky. There’s no way the Chiefs, after needing a big comeback to beat them in the AFC title game last year, want to deal with them again early with a Super Bowl return on the line. The Titans can run the ball well with Derrick Henry, and both A.J. Brown and Corey Davis can make big plays for Ryan Tannehill. The Titans are also capable of winning a shootout, despite how bad their defense will be against Mahomes.
2. Bills (12-3)
Best possible matchup: Browns. The Browns are solid against the run, but again, they have a mostly weak pass rush and mostly shaky coverage. The Bills, like the Chiefs, don’t care if they run the ball traditionally well when they have the big arm and strong legs of Josh Allen. Defensively, Mayfield would be challenged by good coverage behind improving pressure packages that capitalizes on mistakes.
Worst possible matchup: Colts. The Colts would stick with the run to work on the Bills’ biggest defensive weakness. They also can exploit the Bills’ issues in covering tight ends. Defensively, the Colts’ zone defense would force Allen to sustain drives with short-to-intermediate passes.
3. Steelers (12-3)
Best possible matchup: Dolphins. The Steelers at this point need to face another defensive-minded team that leans toward trying to win low-scoring battles of attrition, because with Ben Roethlisberger’s struggles, they’re not equipped to win any kind of shootout.
Worst possible matchup: Ravens. The Steelers did beat the Ravens both times. But it wasn’t easy, needing a big comeback in the first meeting and barely holding off a Lamar Jackson-less offense in the second meeting. The Ravens are healthier and playing much better. It’s hard to beat any team three times in a season. So Pittsburgh doesn’t want a No. 2 vs. No. 7 or No. 3 vs. No. 6 matchup to lead it to Baltimore.
4. Titans (10-5)
Best possible matchup: Bills. There was evidence of this when Tannehill and Henry were too much for Buffalo to handle in the regular-season meeting. Similar to the Colts, they are built to exploit some of the Bills’ shortcomings. One cannot ignore the 42-16 drubbing from October.
Worst possible matchup: Steelers. The Titans went down 24-7 at halftime in the regular-season meeting before falling just short with a rally in the second half. The Steelers can contain Henry and when that happens, Tannehill can struggle with pressure. Plus, the Titans’ secondary cannot cover the Steelers’ receivers on shorter routes well.
5. Dolphins (10-5)
Best possible matchup: Steelers. The Steelers will need to grind out games in the playoffs, and with the better overall defense, can out-grind the Dolphins and make it tough on Tua Tagovailoa on the road.
Worst possible matchup: Steelers. What the? The Dolphins, at the same time, also would welcome facing the most inept offense in the AFC field that isn’t them. They simply cannot hang with the Bills, Chiefs, Colts or Titans in a shootout.
6. Ravens (10-5)
Best possible matchup: Bills. The Bills’ defense isn’t really built well to stop the running of Lamar Jackson, J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards. They also won’t be able to cover Mark Andrews well. The Ravens’ secondary can also make it tricky for Allen’s targets, led by Stefon Diggs. An Allen-Jackson duel would be epic in a No. 2-No. 7 game.
Worst possible matchup: Titans . Remember the Titans took down the Patriots and Ravens back to back before falling short against the Chiefs in a surprise run to the AFC championship game. The Titans followed that up with a 30-24 overtime win, capping a big comeback this November.
7. Browns (10-5)
Best possible matchup: Titans. The Browns beat the Titans 41-35 in October with a complete performance wire-to-wire on offense, led by Mayfield playing like a passer possessed. Their improved run defense helps against Henry and so does the Browns’ willingness to be run-heavy themselves and get aggressive when needed with the intermediate-to-deep passing game around Mayfield.
Worst possible matchup: Bills. Adding to the flip side of this from above, Allen simply will outplay Mayfield when it comes down to it, possessing more offensive firepower.
8. Colts (10-5)
Best possible matchup: Bills. Adding to the flip side of the this from above, Frank Reich, Nick Sirianni and Matt Eberflus would game-plan well against Sean McDermott, Leslie Frazier and Brian Daboll. Jonathan Taylor would be tough to stop for the Bills’ defense.
Worst possible matchup: Steelers. The Colts did allow a big comeback to blow a 24-7 lead in the Week 16 meeting, a loss that has put them in precarious position to not make the palyoffs. But they still had some big success at times with the running game and it took the very best of Ben Roethlisberger’s passing to beat them.
NFC playoff matchups
1. Packers (12-3)
Best possible matchup: Washington. Washington has a good pressure defense and can force mistakes. But Aaron Rodgers wouldn’t give them the chance with his hyper efficiency to exploit plenty of holes in WFT’s back seven. There’s also no chance WFT scores enough to beat Rodgers in the divisional round.
Worst possible matchup: Buccaneers. The Bucs demolished the Packers 38-20 in the first meeting. The rematch vs. Tom Brady wouldn’t feel comfortable, either.
2. Saints (11-4)
Best possible matchup: Bears. The Saints would welcome this NFC North opponent after losing to the Vikings at home last postseason and in two of the past three playoffs. New Orleans has a good handle on how to grind to beat Chicago with the running game and calculated shots in the passing game, now entrenched in its current winning formula against anyone. The Saints would contain David Montgomery on the ground and get after Mitchell Trubisky to force big mistakes.
Worst possible matchup: Rams. Imagine playing the team that cost you a Super Bowl appearance two years ago again at home when you least want to have them over. Drew Brees’ struggles in the passing game would be fully exploited by the Rams’ nasty defense, and Sean McVay would find the right holes in the Saints’ defense.
3. Seahawks (11-4)
Best possible matchup: Rams. The Seahawks can’t feel different after winning the rematch in Week 16 at Seattle. There’s some familiarity there and there’s still a big QB disparity between Russell Wilson and Jared Goff, who might need to play through a broken thumb come playoff time. Also, the Seahawks’ running game and defense are performing like they should be beating the Rams consistently again.
Worst possible matchup: Buccaneers. The Buccaneers can stop the run, exploit the Seahawks’ problems in pass coverage and get after Wilson with a good pash rush. if Carlton Davis is healthy, they also would have a big cornerback who can contain D.K. Metcalf.
4. NFC East Champions (under .500)
Best possible matchup: Rams. Just a week ago, facing the Rams seemed like a nightmare, given they beat the Cowboys, Giants and Washington during the regular season. But now their offense is sputtering and the defense has shown more dents. For the NFC East winners to pull of a big home upset in the first round, they need to win an ugly game. Also, the alternative is pretty awful.
Worst possible matchup: Buccaneers. This is that alternative, facing Brady and red-hot Tampa Bay. The Giants played the Bucs tough, but the Cowboys and Washington would be no contest. The Bucs will get a massive break in the first round as the No. 5 and will take full advantage of it to make all the higher seeds sweat.
5. Buccaneers (10-5)
Best possible matchup: Seahawks. Really, both Seattle and Green Bay do not match up well at all against Brady’s team when it is all put together and not making mistakes.
Worst possible matchup: Saints. If the Bucs go bust as a playoff team with major upside in 2020, it would be totally because of their NFC South rivals.
6. Rams (9-6)
Best possible matchup: NFC East champions. The Rams would still be confident in winning an ugly rematch vs. the alternative of facing either the Saints or the Seahawks.
Worst possible matchup: Saints. So yeah, the feeling is mutual. You figure the Saints would avoid testing the Rams’ pass defense downfield and use the running game and short passing game well to their advantage here. This would be a pretty good tight matchup if it happens, assuming Goff is healthy enough to give it a go next week.
7. Bears (8-7)
Best possible matchup: Saints. The feeling is mutual here, too. The Bears and Saints played a solid regular-season game that was decided in overtime, with New Orleans winning 26-23 to begin November. Not playing in Chicago would be trickier for the Bears, but they have the right adjusted makeup offensively and defensively
Worst possible matchup: Seahawks. Traveling to Seattle would be a pretty rough reward for getting into the playoffs. Wilson vs. Trubisky feels like the third edition of Rodgers vs. Trubisky. Seattle’s defense is playing well enough to cool off Chicago’s offense. The Bears’ banged-up secondary won’t be able to handle Metcalf or Tyler Lockett.
8. Cardinals (8-7)
Best possible matchup: Seahawks. Kyler Murray felt really comfortable dueling them twice. The Cardinals’ passing game is coming back alive at the right time to exploit Seattle’s defense well again.
Worst possible matchup: Saints. The Saints can contain their running game and come up with some creative pressure looks for Murray. The Saints also will have all kinds of success moving the ball in different ways on the Cardinals’ defense.