Before Super Bowl LI kicks off, before old rivalries are renewed and season-long scores are settled with higher stakes than ever, before anyone enters a gauntlet of hostility in Foxborough or Arrowhead or Arlington, even before Connor Cook or Brock Osweiler emerges as the quarterback of record in a playoff victory ... we’ll do our best to spoil it all for you. After 17 weeks of monitoring the league, SI.com’s writers and editors have peered into their respective crystal balls, then turned in their 2017 playoff brackets and Super Bowl picks. Read their explanations below.
Note: When reading the brackets, please keep in mind that the highest remaining seed hosts the lowest remaining seed in the following round of the playoffs. The higher-seeded team receives home field advantage in each matchup.
The Packers just aren’t good enough against the run to defeat the Cowboys, and Dallas can limit Green Bay's big plays in the pass game. Chiefs are a worthy opponent for Patriots, but Andy Reid and Alex Smith are just too conservative to take down Tom Brady and Bill Belichick at Gillette. You have to put the foot down and never let up to do it, and Reid and Smith can't do that. And while a great running game with a mobile/accurate QB like Dak Prescott is the antidote to the Patriots, Belichick, with two weeks to prepare, would not let Prescott become first rookie QB to win a Super Bowl. It's just not happening.
Preseason, I had Patriots-Seahawks in the Super Bowl; mid-season, I went with Patriots-Packers. So, there’s one constant in those picks. K.C. or Pittsburgh is capable of pulling off a title-game win in Foxborough, but New England has the most complete team in that conference. The NFC is more of a crapshoot—hence my constantly changing conference champ call. Atlanta has the offense to win a shootout but it also has enough pass rush to make life on, say, Aaron Rodgers difficult. Whichever team survives the NFC will be an underdog to New England in Super Bowl LI, and rightfully so.
Two months ago I had the Vikings as the No. 1 seed in the NFC and Denver as the No. 2 in the AFC. Let’s forget about all that and simply remember I had the Patriots winning it all. Atlanta hasn’t gotten the credit it deserves all year, and the Falcons have enough firepower to outgun the Packers in the NFC title game. But when they run into the best scoring defense in Houston, Tom Brady will get his fifth ring.
In a season that lacked dominant teams, one stood out, from beginning to end. Whether Tom Brady was sitting out his suspension or carving up defenses, whether Rob Gronkowski was healthy or hurt, whether Michael Floyd was playing for the Cardinals or the Patriots, it didn't matter. New England won and won and won and won. It's hard to see any other scenario unfolding in the playoffs. The Patriots are more than the safest bet. They're the surest one.
The only team in the AFC that might have a chance to beat the Patriots is the Chiefs, but I’m not betting against Brady and Belichick in the playoffs— especially when they are in the midst of their own version of Sherman’s March to the Sea through the NFL and Roger Goodell this season. And because the NFC is completely wide open (I debated between three different possible NFC winners: Dallas, New York, and Green Bay), I’m riding the “things happen in threes” theory and picking a Giants-Patriots Super Bowl matchup. I feel like these types of perfect sports narratives just have a way of coming to fruition. But I see the ending of Giants-Pats Part III ending differently, simply because Brady has had to put up with nine years of hearing that Eli Manning is his only kryptonite and two years of jokes about his deflated balls.
No pun intended, but Connor Cook is an absolute wild card, perhaps not yet self-aware enough to grasp the enormity of the playoffs. This can be a good thing. Brock Osweiler is no mystery—he’s been an absolute disappointment this season, and it’s easy to envision him crumbling under pressure. The Steelers’ secondary—which has only allowed nine touchdowns to opposing receivers this year—should envelop the Dolphins. Never bet against Russell Wilson in the playoffs, at home, against a susceptible Lions defense. Giants-Packers was the toughest call of the first round, but Aaron Rodgers is too on fire now to think he’ll slip.
The Chiefs have so many ways to win—including one of the league’s best home field advantages. Patriots-Raiders…hahaha. The Chiefs are the only AFC team that matches up well against New England, but master strategist Bill Belichick will unleash LeGarrette Blount to advance. That leaves us with the new quarterback royalty: Brady vs. Rodgers. While the Packers’ defense is improved and Rodgers is playing out of his mind right now, there’s a karmic factor happening with Brady. After he wills the Pats to their fifth Super Bowl title, the photo op with him and Roger Goodell standing on the same confetti-strewn stage will be an instant classic.
Though I’m tempted to stick with my Packers-Chiefs preseason prediction or my Packers-Steelers midseason pick, it’s time to face facts. New England is—once again—the NFL’s best team. And, given their seemingly unending supply of good fortune, they’ll probably avoid a hot Steelers team on their way to Houston.
While I’m switching things up, the Falcons’ chances are being undersold right now. Matt Ryan’s offense just put up as many points as Kurt Warner’s Greatest Show on Turf ever did, and I don’t see any NFC defense slowing them down, especially in the Georgia Dome. Come Super Bowl Sunday, however, Bill Belichick probably finds a way.
The NFC playoffs could play out like 2014, when a few moments—a Dez Bryant non-catch, an onside kick, a botched pass interference call—determined everything. Which historical narrative repeats itself here: The ’14 Seahawks? The ’07 or ’11 Giants? The ’10 Packers? I’m sticking with my preseason pick, Green Bay, because of Aaron Rodgers’s ability to make plays with his feet. Of course, I’m well aware they could lose in the first round to a good Giants team. The AFC is much simpler, since the conference title game will be in Foxborough.
I have a weird sense of undying devotion to my preseason crystal ball Super Bowl pick, which was Steelers over Packers. Also, this would be an incredibly boring round of predictions if we all picked New England. To be clear, the Patriots essentially have a free pass to the AFC title game, and it’s incredibly difficult to pick against them in any capacity. But the Steelers, when they’re clicking, are one of the few teams in the league with a real shot at beating them. The Chiefs have had a phenomenal regular season, but when it’s Alex Smith vs. Ben Roethlisberger in the playoffs (plus the elephant in the room of the Chiefs’ lurid postseason history), the Steelers get the slight edge—it’ll likely come down to a field goal at Arrowhead. Pittsburgh has been maddeningly inconsistent all year, but it arguably has the most dangerous arsenal of weapons of any team. Plus, it’s coming into the playoffs on a hot streak (seven in a row), and sometimes that momentum can be the key.
Speaking of hot streaks ... meet Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. The Green Bay offense looks unstoppable again at the best possible time. The impressive Giants defense will give them a tough game, but I don’t think this will be a repeat of the Ice Bowl II. An NFC title game between Green Bay and Atlanta has the potential to finish 56–49, but I think it’ll be the Packers who make the trip to Houston and then fall just short to the Steelers. But then again, the last three Super Bowls have been No. 1 seed vs. No. 1 seed, so take all of this with the largest grain of salt that exists.
After the four road teams won on wild-card weekend last season, I think the home teams sweep this weekend before things get interesting. Pittsburgh and Green Bay are as hot as anyone in the league, and I think they can keep rolling into the conference championship games.
In the preseason, I had Pittsburgh beating New England in the AFC title game, but at the time I thought Pittsburgh would be hosting. Green Bay over Atlanta was a tougher pick for me than Green Bay over Dallas, but I see Patriots vs. Packers in a matchup of franchises going for their fifth Super Bowl titles. Brady vs. Rodgers would be right up there with other all-time QB matchups, maybe the best we’ve seen since Elway vs. Favre.
As much as I’d enjoy the story of Rodgers’s table-running to continue through the playoffs, I’ll make the safe, boring prediction that Brady, Belichick and the Vegas favorite Patriots will win the Super Bowl.
The NFC feels like a toss-up, with several teams riding hot streaks and several teams capable of putting up huge numbers on offense. And I’m picking the team that fits in both of those categories to win the NFC championship. With their backs against the wall, the Packers pulled out six straight wins to close out the season atop the NFC North, shoving aside the Vikings and the Lions—both of which were favored at one point to take the division. In the AFC, the Chiefs are clicking on all cylinders right now, and there’s no doubt that they will be out to avenge their Week 4 loss against the Steelers. But there’s no team that can beat the Patriots in Foxborough in the playoffs. I predicted a Green Bay–New England Super Bowl with a Patriots victory back in the preseason, and I’m sticking to that.
I picked the Packers to win it all in the preseason on the basis of my bold claim that Aaron Rodgers is utterly incredible, and the idea of typing “Had it all the way!” and fast-tracking them to Houston is so tempting, but their road through the NFC is just too tough. If the Giants or Cowboys don’t expose Green Bay’s undermanned secondary, Matt Ryan most certainly will. Ryan’s critics have gotten real quiet this fall, and he hasn’t taken his foot off the gas pedal down the stretch, with 11 touchdowns and no picks in the last month.
Brace yourself for this—the Patriots’ defense has played, at absolute maximum, three solid quarterbacks all season: They needed a missed field goal to outlast Carson Palmer, nearly blew a 28-point lead to Ryan Tannehill and lost at home thanks to Russell Wilson’s best game of the year. (Sub in Joe Flacco for Ryan Tannehill in that trio if you’re so inclined.) Containing this year’s diverse Atlanta attack, or even just keeping up with it, is a few weight classes up from that.