We’re through 17 weeks of regular season football, and the NFL playoffs are nearly set to begin. All 12 teams are locked in, after a late Ryan Fitzpatrick interception gifted Pittsburgh the final AFC Wild Card spot.
The afternoon games tried to shuffle both brackets, but it only changed our expectations of certain teams. A Seattle blowout over the Cardinals could look impressive to some, but it’s hard to tell if Bruce Arians was really showing his hand. The Chiefs made it ten straight wins to start the season, but once again looked uncomfortable in the final minutes against a non-playoff team.
After the Vikings knocked off the Packers, the bracket is locked in. With the win, Minnesota earned a division title, and now will play the reigning NFC Champion Seahawks in the opening round next weekend.
Here’s the final NFL bracket:
(Click on the bracket for an enlarged version you can print)
Here’s a full schedule for the 2016 playoffs:
Wild Card Round
Saturday, January 9
Kansas City at Houston, 4:35 p.m. Eastern on ESPN
Pittsburgh at Cincinnati, 8:15 p.m. Eastern on CBS
Saturday, January 16 – Lowest remaining seed at New England, 4:35 p.m. Eastern on CBS
Sunday, January 17 – Highest remaining seed at Denver, 4:40 p.m. Eastern on CBS
Sunday, January 24 – 3:05 p.m. on CBS
Super Bowl 50
Sunday, Feb. 7 at 6:30 p.m. on CBS
After all the news about how he’d never been a backup, Manning was a backup for only three quarters in the Bronco’s regular season finale. Denver came from behind to beat the Chargers, securing home field advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs. Denver turned it over five times before turning to Manning, who hadn’t played since Week 10. Now the Broncos take their league-leading defense into the playoffs, where all teams have to play in the snow at Sports Authority Field. Gary Kubiak’s run-first mentality makes them a playoff threat regardless of if Osweiler or Manning is under center.
Strength: Top-ranked defense
X-Factor: Peyton Manning
2. New England
New England lost consecutive games to end the season, knocking them off the AFC’s top spot. That’s not really a big deal when you learn that Tom Brady is dealing with an ankle injury going into the postseason. The Patriots have an extra week to get healthy, but it’s a bad sign for a thin team. The Patriots fall apart without Brady, who has been sacked at least twice in six straight games. The Patriots noticeably limped into the playoffs, and it’s not clear they have the horses to defend their title. But when you’ve got the two guys that they have, they always have a chance.
Andy Dalton’s thumb. The Bengals Super Bowl chances begin and end with Andy Dalton’s thumb. The Bengals QB fractured it attempting to make a tackle several weeks ago against the Steelers, and AJ McCarron has been filling in for the regular season. McCarron hasn’t been terrible, but will get his first taste of the postseason Saturday against the Steelers. Cincinnati has been labeled a “playoff team” since their 8-0 start, so it’ll be interesting to see how they respond to the season-ling expectations of “it only matters in January.
Strength: Balanced Offense
X-Factor: Dalton’s Thumb, Tyler Eifert
The Texans are in the playoffs for the first time since 2011, as the champions of the AFC South. Bill O’Brien used four quarterbacks to get through the regular season, but Brian Hoyer has been cleared to play and will start for Houston. The playoffs could be a coming-out party for DeAndre Hopkins, who has not gotten enough credit for his 2015 season. Hopkins’ 1,521 yards and 11 scores put him at third-best in the league, and the Texans playoff path could be forged through his large hands. Oh, and teams have to deal with J.J. Watt.
Strength: Pass rush
X-Factor: DeAndre Hopkins
5. Kansas City
The hottest team in the NFL is the Kansas City Chiefs, who enter the playoffs winning 10 straight games. Alex Smith’s 3,486 passing yards are the most in his 10-year career, as the Chiefs have started to become more of a passing team. Jeremy Maclin and Travis Kelce are two matchup problems, who, to their credit, are not afraid of going over the middle. They’ve combined for over 150 catches and 13 touchdowns this season, helping KC change their identity after Jamaal Charles went down. During the week before they play Houston, keep an eye on the injury status of key pass-rusher Justin Houston.
X-Factor: Marcus Peters
Qualifying on the last day of the season may have been dramatic, but it no longer matters. The Steelers are in the tournament, and are as dangerous as anybody. They have the league’s most vertical offense, and could drop 50 points on any of the above teams. The problem is consistency, and if the Steelers can play their best for four straight weeks. It starts against Cincinnati, with whom the Steelers split the season series. The Achilles heel is the Steelers defense, which has been exposed in the secondary against the Broncos and Seahawks.
Strength: Downfield attack
X-Factor: Antonio Brown
For a more detailed look at the AFC bracket, click here.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the seeds of the Patriots, Broncos and Chiefs.
Click the ‘next page’ button to check out the NFC.