The New England Patriots started and finished this season on top of these power rankings, but it was a little more difficult than expected along the way.
Maybe there’s hope for all of you Patriots haters. Hope that it won’t be another Super Bowl Sunday spent with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. We’d understand if you’re sick of that by now.
With the No. 1 seed, all the Patriots need to do is win two home games to make the Super Bowl. They’ll likely be the favorite to win it all if they made it that far, too. Football Outsiders has the Patriots as a 28.6 percent chance. Nobody else is higher than 18.5 percent.
But there are reasons to believe someone other than the Patriots will win it all. For the majority of folks outside of New England who are rooting for anyone but the Patriots, here are four reasons why you have some hope:
1. Tom Brady hasn’t played like Tom Brady for a while
Brady is likely going to win MVP, and if he beats Todd Gurley it’s deserved. He had a fine season. But since the start of December, Brady hasn’t been the same quarterback.
First 11 games: 279 of 408 (68.4 percent), 3,374 yards (306.7 per game), 26 TDs, 3 INTs, 111.7 rating
Last 5 games: 106 of 173 (61.3 percent), 1,203 yards (240.6 per game), 6 TDs, 5 INTs, 81.6 rating
Brady is still the best quarterback ever and nobody would be surprised if Brady turned back into September-through-November Brady for the playoffs. But it’s hard to ignore that for almost a third of the season, Brady’s play had a severe dip. Yes, his age matters in this conversation. He’s 40, and only one other quarterback (Brett Favre in 2009) came close to playing this well at 40. He will hit the wall at some point soon, and it’s at least possible we’re seeing the start of that. Patriots fans are very sensitive about the subject, but we have to acknowledge that Brady’s final five games haven’t been outstanding. Whether that carries into January, we don’t know.
2. No defense with this resume has ever won a Super Bowl
If you go by Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric (which they’ve tracked dating back to 1986), the 2006 Colts are the worst defense to win a Super Bowl. They finished 25th. The Patriots this season are 31st. As the Boston Herald pointed out, the 336 yards per game allowed by the Patriots would also be a high mark for a Super Bowl champ. New England ranked 29th in that stat this season.
Patriots fans will probably reply that the team allowed the fifth-fewest points in the NFL this season, and most of the damage to their defensive profile was done in the first four weeks of the season. That’s fair. They allowed 14 points per game over the last 12 weeks, allowing more than 17 points in only two of 12 games. Still, just keep in mind that no defense with a statistical profile like this has ever won a Super Bowl.
3. The schedule wasn’t tough
Patriots haters constantly whine about them having an easy path every season due to the AFC East’s problems. I don’t agree with it, and it’s mostly petty nonsense. But, if you’re one who believes the Patriots fatten up on bad opponents, you have some ammunition this season
The Patriots played the 28th toughest schedule this season, according to Football Outsiders. As the Patriots went 11-1 in the final three-fourths of the season, they had a razor-thin win over the Steelers, three wins over the No. 6 seed in each conference and that’s about it. Two of New England’s best wins came against the Bills and they aren’t a strong playoff team; Buffalo’s minus-57 point differential is the fourth-worst among playoff teams in the Super Bowl era according to NFL Network’s Andrew Siciliano. So among quality wins over this 11-1 stretch we have two wins over a Bills team that wasn’t all that great, a win over the Steelers that would have flipped if not for the catch rule, and a win in the fog against a shaky Falcons team (the most complete and impressive win might have been a 21-13 victory over a good Chargers team). You can’t put asterisks on every win, and beating 11 of 12 NFL teams is tough no matter who they are. But it was a fairly easy schedule.
4. They’ll likely get two AFC opponents who could beat them
If everything goes to plan in the other games, the Patriots will have to play the Chiefs and Steelers to make the Super Bowl. Neither will be scared of New England.
The Chiefs blew out the Patriots in Week 1. That seems like ages ago, and the Chiefs’ midseason swoon can’t be ignored, but they did get back on track late and that first meeting with the Patriots was not close. New England gave up 537 yards and lost 42-27. Let’s just agree the Chiefs wouldn’t be a gimme for New England.
And the Steelers lost at home to New England, but we know how close that game was. The Patriots led for only about eight minutes of that game. The Steelers thought they won late, then Jesse James’ catch was reversed in a controversial call. The Patriots won, and nobody is trying to change that history, but the Steelers probably came out of that game with the confidence they can beat the Patriots. Maybe they’re right.
The Patriots are still the clear front-runner to win the Super Bowl, and going against the Pats in the postseason is generally not smart. But there are reasons to believe this isn’t a traditional New England powerhouse going into the playoffs. If you hate the Patriots, maybe you’ll be spared from seeing them on Super Bowl Sunday again.
Here are the power rankings at the end of the NFL regular season:
32. Cleveland Browns (0-16, Last week: 32)
A winless season stinks, but the consolation is the Browns now have the first and fourth picks of the draft. Let’s assume a quarterback will be one of those picks, because it would be outrageous if that didn’t happen (unless there’s some Kirk Cousins overpay coming). So the Browns get Josh Rosen and Saquon Barkley? Josh Allen and Minkah Fitzpatrick? Bradley Chubb and Sam Darnold? Whatever the combination, it’s going to be exciting for a fan base that needs some hope.
31. New York Giants (3-13, LW: 31)
The Giants tried to screw up the second pick by winning, but the Colts won too. So New York picks second. I still feel like this team could turn things around fast. Dave Gettleman was a good hire as their new GM. They’ll land a good coach. I know it’s not the popular selection because there’s no name-brand young quarterback in place, but I’d say this is the best job opening because of the organization’s history of stability and patience. And assuming they like a quarterback aside from whoever the Browns draft, they’ll have their answer at that position (and, from the way Gettleman is talking, Eli Manning could still be around so the rookie is not rushed). I doubt they’re ranked anywhere near this low at the end of next season.
30. Indianapolis Colts (4-12, LW: 30)
Owner Jim Irsay can get as fired up as he wants trying to convince us Andrew Luck is OK. We’ve heard it before. Now we need to see it.
29. Houston Texans (4-12, LW: 29)
Amid reports that GM Rick Smith and coach Bill O’Brien weren’t on the same page, Smith took an extended leave of absence to care for his wife who is battling breast cancer, and the Texans will hire a new GM. It seems like it’s O’Brien’s show now. I still don’t know if he’s the right coach for the job or not. We’ll get a chance to find out, it seems. No more excuses.
28. New York Jets (5-11, LW: 27)
I believe in Todd Bowles as a coach, and was glad to see the Jets not overreact and fire him. I really do think the extension for him is a good thing. I’m not as sure on GM Mike Maccagnan — the second-round pick on Christian Hackenberg alone is enough to make me wonder if he’s in over his head — but I get that the team wanted to be patient with both. But they’ll need a good offseason, because that patience won’t last forever.
27. Chicago Bears (5-11, LW: 25)
Weird stat: The Bears had a better point differential (minus-56) than the playoff-bound Bills (minus-57). The Bears retained GM Ryan Pace, and probably with one message: No matter what resources need to be used, find some competent receivers for Mitch Trubisky.
26. Miami Dolphins (6-10, LW: 22)
Any team not making the playoffs made its own bed. And teams can do whatever they want with playing time in Week 17. Still, it seemed a little suspect that the Dolphins went nearly the entire game with David Fales at quarterback against the Bills, who were fighting for (and got) a playoff spot. It’s not like the Dolphins could honestly believe Fales is the future. Whatever. But Adam Gase better never complain about not getting help in a similar situation down the road.
25. Denver Broncos (5-11, LW: 24)
Vance Joseph stayed, but I think GM John Elway’s waffling until the end did Joseph no favors going forward. With Elway, I think these two statements can both be true: He’s a good GM, and he has had a couple bad years. I’d still trust him to get Denver out of this mess. But for the first time, there is legitimate criticism of the most cherished person in franchise history.
24. Oakland Raiders (6-10, LW: 23)
I don’t know if Jon Gruden is the miracle worker he has been made out to be. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, etc. In Gruden’s last six Tampa Bay seasons, he went 45-51 and didn’t win a playoff game. The Bucs missed the playoffs four of those six seasons. And he hasn’t coached since 2008. But there wouldn’t be a more entertaining and fun hire in the NFL this offseason, so here’s hoping this thing with the Raiders gets done.
23. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11, LW: 28)
Dirk Koetter got a reprieve and will return despite a frustrating, underwhelming season. He is going to have to be better in 2018. The good news is Jameis Winston showed some good signs in the final part of the season, though a three-interception finale (as exciting as the last-second win was) is still a reminder of the work that needs to be done.
22. Cincinnati Bengals (7-9, LW: 26)
I get why fans wanted something new at coach. And Marvin Lewis’ return was strange, to say the least. But I also believe this to be true: The Bengals were very unlikely to hire a coach as good as Lewis this offseason.
21. Green Bay Packers (7-9, LW: 21)
Ted Thompson was a great general manager, but maybe the Packers will benefit from a new philosophy. The Packers have some bright in-house candidates so they’ll be in good hands, and the team presumably won’t stray to an entirely different path than the one Thompson set out, which was relying heavily on the draft. Getting a new GM might be exactly what the Packers need, even though Thompson did some great things.
20. Washington Redskins (7-9, LW: 18)
Even until the end, Washington couldn’t just give Kirk Cousins a ringing endorsement. Given a chance before Week 17 to talk about how much he’d want Cousins back, Gruden said, “I’m sure he knows.” Then here’s what Gruden said about Cousins, one of the few bright spots in a bad season: “Kirk had his flashes where he was really good. From a consistent standpoint, over the course of 16 games, we’re 7-9. He did some great things, threw for over 4,000 yards and  touchdowns. He’s a very, very good quarterback without a doubt, but as far as getting us over the hump from 7-9 to winning the division with all the injuries we had, he competed and did some good things.” We’re blaming Cousins’ inconsistency for 7-9? They’d have been like 3-13 without him. The Redskins have gone out of their way to not pay Cousins what he’s worth. Gruden strangely wouldn’t go out of his way to praise Cousins when given the chance. It’s like Washington doesn’t realize how much it will miss Cousins when he’s gone.
19. Arizona Cardinals (8-8, LW: 20)
Carson Palmer and Bruce Arians have retired, and we’ll see about Larry Fitzgerald. A fun, albeit short, revival for the Cardinals is over. It’s not to say Arizona can’t be good again in short order, but they also have zero quarterbacks under contract for 2018 because they had zero urgency in finding Palmer’s successor.
18. San Francisco 49ers (6-10, LW: 19)
An 0-9 start was followed with a 6-1 finish. That includes three wins over playoff teams, although the Rams played nobody of note in Week 17 and the Titans are fortunate to be in the playoffs. Still, 49ers fans should be very excited for next season.
17. Detroit Lions (9-7, LW: 16)
Yahoo’s Charles Robinson polled NFL insiders on which head-coaching opening was the most appealing. The Lions got the most votes. I get it, it’s fueled by Matthew Stafford (and, to lesser degrees, cornerback Darius Slay and left tackle Taylor Decker). But the Lions? Who haven’t won a division title since 1993? It will be interesting to see if a new coach can finally get Stafford and this crew to a new level.
16. Dallas Cowboys (9-7, LW: 14)
All of the attention from the Eagles-Cowboys finale was on the struggles of Nick Foles, but what about the Cowboys going with mostly starters and struggling to score six points? They can talk themselves into a win giving them momentum, but it was not pretty at all.
15. Tennessee Titans (9-7, LW: 17)
The Titans made the playoffs despite a mediocre season, and that probably saves Mike Mularkey’s job. Maybe. If the staff stays just because of a fortunate postseason berth, after how stagnant the offense was all season, sneaking into a playoff spot might be the worst thing that happened to this team.
14. Buffalo Bills (9-7, LW: 15)
What a great story. The Tyler Boyd touchdown and the Bills’ reaction to it might have been the best moment of the season. Congratulations to the #BillsMafia for finally not having to hear about 1999 and that playoff drought anymore.
13. Baltimore Ravens (9-7, LW: 11)
That’s a bad, bad way to end a season. The Ravens had a playoff spot there for the taking, and lost on a fourth-and-12 to a Bengals team that had been knocked out of the playoff race weeks earlier. I’m sure John Harbaugh will blame it on the kickoff time.
12. Seattle Seahawks (9-7, LW: 13)
Great teams get old, and it’s hard to keep winning without any dips. A 9-7 season, with three losses by a field goal or less, is not bad. But Cliff Avril and Kam Chancellor might not be able to return from injury, Michael Bennett seems to think he’ll be cut, Jimmy Graham could leave in free agency and who knows what Richard Sherman’s future is. It has been a great run, but it won’t be easy to keep it going.
11. Los Angeles Chargers (9-7, LW: 10)
Having seen the Jaguars finish so poorly, the Chargers probably aren’t any worse than the fourth-best team in the AFC. But they have nobody but themselves to blame for being at home as the playoffs start. One of these years the Chargers will avoid soul-crushing close losses, and hopefully it’s before Philip Rivers is finished as an effective quarterback.
10. Atlanta Falcons (10-6, LW: 12)
Maybe the Falcons can go on a playoff run and make everyone forget an unsatisfying regular season. I’m not sure that run is coming, but at least they’re in.
9. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6, LW: 8)
Coach Doug Marrone made the weird decision to play his starters in Week 17. Then the Jaguars look terrible in a loss to the Titans. So not only did the Jaguars voluntarily pass on some much-needed rest, they lost momentum going into the postseason. Brilliant.
8. Kansas City Chiefs (10-6, LW: 9)
A 5-0 start. A 1-6 streak. Then a 4-0 finish. What a weird season. But the Chiefs look dangerous again going into the playoffs and get a very good matchup against the Titans in the wild-card game. And we know the Chiefs won’t be scared going into New England, if that’s the divisional round matchup.
7. Carolina Panthers (11-5, LW: 7)
It’s not the worst thing to lose on the road to a Falcons team fighting for its playoff life. But it was a lost opportunity, considering the Saints lost. The Panthers would have been NFC South champs with a Week 17 win. It’ll be tough to win this week at the Superdome, a place the Panthers lost 31-21 a month ago.
6. Philadelphia Eagles (13-3, LW: 4)
I think Doug Pederson made things worse by playing Nick Foles in the season finale. At least, he should have kept Foles in until something positive happened. Although, there’s no guarantee anything positive was going to happen. I thought when Carson Wentz got hurt that the Eagles could still make a Super Bowl, and Foles’ first start was a positive. It’s really hard anymore to believe the Eagles can win two straight playoff games, even at home, given how bad Foles and the offense looked the last two weeks.
5. New Orleans Saints (11-5, LW: 6)
The Saints ended up with the No. 4 seed that the Rams seemed to want when they basically tanked Week 17. That’s good for New Orleans. There’s a good chance the Saints need to beat the Panthers at home (New Orleans was 7-1 at home, with a convincing win over the Panthers) and then need to beat the Nick Foles-led Eagles to make the NFC title game. That’s not too bad.
4. Minnesota Vikings (13-3, LW: 5)
The Saints and Panthers lost in Week 17. The Eagles offense looks like it won’t be Super Bowl caliber. The Vikings have already beat the Rams this season. The Falcons have been underwhelming all season. The Vikings should feel like this season is ending with a Super Bowl in their own stadium.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3, LW: 3)
JuJu Smith-Schuster had 143 receiving yards and a touchdown and also returned a kickoff for a touchdown. That was with Landry Jones throwing him the ball. He was an absolute steal at the end of the second round for the Steelers.
2. Los Angeles Rams (11-5, LW: 2)
The Rams were trying to lose in Week 17, so I’m not worried too much about what happened. I’m still buying stock based on how they looked for most of December, though it will obviously be tough for them to win at Minnesota. That’ll be a classic divisional-round game, if it happens.
1. New England Patriots (13-3, LW: 1)
A potential Chiefs-Steelers playoff menu isn’t easy. But the Patriots are 9-1 in their last 10 home playoff games. Hard to pick against them.
– – – – – – –