With the NFL playoffs kicking off this week, 11 of our ESPN NFL Insiders — one for each playoff game — filled out a 2017 postseason bracket and predicted how each matchup would turn out, from wild-card weekend through Super Bowl LII.
Teams had to receive a majority of our Insiders’ votes to move on to the next round, and the results were interesting. Here’s how the bracket ended up, with analysis from our group of experts:
Prediction: Chiefs (11 votes) over Titans
Mike Clay, NFL writer: The Titans backed their way into the playoffs after dropping three of their final four regular-season games. With a roster stocked with talent, that certainly qualifies them as one of the biggest underachievers this season. They rank 21st in offensive touchdowns thanks in part to a rough season from Marcus Mariota, who has thrown more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (13). Meanwhile, Kansas City’s season was a roller coaster. The Chiefs started 5-0, lost six of their next seven, then finished with a four-game win streak. The Chiefs’ play has regressed significantly since they upset New England in Week 1, but they shouldn’t have much trouble disposing of the struggling Titans. Tennessee is 3-5 on the road and will have its hands full in the rowdy confines of Arrowhead Stadium. But an upset wouldn’t shock me — Tennessee does have the roster talent.
Prediction: Jaguars (10 votes) over Bills
Aaron Schatz, editor-in-chief of Football Outsiders: Buffalo’s surprise trip to the playoffs is a great story that’s even better for long-suffering Bills fans, but let’s not kid ourselves: The Bills are easily the weakest team in the field. Jacksonville finished the regular season eighth in the Football Outsiders DVOA ratings, and ninth in ESPN’s Football Power Index. Buffalo is 21st and 25th, respectively. Last week, the Bills nearly blew a 22-3 lead in a must-win game to David Fales and the Dolphins. Perhaps the worst area of their game over recent weeks has been the run defense, which ranks dead last in DVOA since Week 10. That’s not a very good weakness to have against a Jacksonville offense built on pounding the ball. Did we mention that Buffalo’s best player, LeSean McCoy, is a game-time decision because of an ankle injury? Oh well, Buffalo fans. At least a playoff loss is better than another year without football in January.
Prediction: Rams (9 votes) over Falcons
Mina Kimes, senior writer: While the Falcons’ offense wasn’t as good as it was last season — very few teams have ever been that good — it was still very strong, finishing ninth in DVOA. But the Rams were better, landing at sixth in Football Outsiders’ efficiency ratings and finishing the season with an NFL-best 29.9 points per game. Atlanta defensive tackle Grady Jarrett has emerged as a legitimate star in recent weeks, but the Rams are stronger on that side of the ball too, allowing the fifth-lowest QBR in the NFL (the Falcons ranked 25th). Atlanta could have the edge in special teams with Los Angeles kicker Greg Zuerlein on injured reserve, but that probably won’t be enough to overcome the Falcons’ other deficiencies.
Domonique Foxworth, The Undefeated senior writer: The Saints beat the Panthers in both of their regular-season meetings. I will set the over/under at 106 times that analysts discussing this matchup will utter this football cliché: “It’s tough to beat the same team three times.” But it isn’t true. According to ESPN Stats & Information, of the 20 times since 1970 in which a team went 2-0 against an opponent then met them a third time, the 2-0 team won the third matchup 13 times. The Saints will make it 14 on Sunday.
Prediction: Patriots (11 votes) over Chiefs
Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We all remember Kareem Hunt and the Chiefs running away from the defending-champion Patriots in their season opener in Foxborough. We’ve had four whole months to pick up our jaws off the floor, and the fact is that the matchup isn’t right for Kansas City. The Patriots’ defense is the fourth best in the league in red zone efficiency. The Chiefs’ offense is the fourth worst in that category. The Patriots’ offense is much different now than it was in Week 1, which is bad news for Kansas City. Over the final six weeks of the regular season, New England averaged 138.2 rushing yards per game — the second most in the league. Run defense has been the Chiefs’ Achilles’ heel, as they gave up an average of 118.1 rushing yards per game in the regular season. All due respect to what Kansas City has done this season and how good it looked in that opener, but the Patriots will have had a week off on top of home-field advantage and are in better shape to slow down the Chiefs than they were in early September.
Prediction: Steelers (10 votes) over Jaguars
Bill Barnwell, NFL writer: The Jaguars forced Ben Roethlisberger into five interceptions the first time these two teams met in the regular season, which is an outlier — it was the first time Roethlisberger had thrown more than three picks in a game since 2008. Jacksonville won the game thanks to two pick-sixes and had just 220 yards of offense before a 90-yard Leonard Fournette touchdown in garbage time. If the defense doesn’t force a second nightmare game from Roethlisberger, the Jaguars probably don’t have the offense to keep up with Pittsburgh.
Prediction: Saints (9 votes) over Eagles
Matt Bowen, NFL writer: The Saints’ defense ranks eighth overall in sack rate (7.6) this season, and coordinator Dennis Allen isn’t shy about dialing up pressure. With the ability to squeeze the pocket and challenge receivers, New Orleans can force Nick Foles into making throws in tight windows. That leads to turnover opportunities, field position and more possessions for the Saints’ balanced offensive attack to control the tempo. New Orleans has a big advantage in quarterback play, and 38-year-old Drew Brees hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 2013 season. He’ll be ready for whatever Jim Schwartz throws at him.
Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer: Top defenses often beat top offenses in the playoffs. The recent history of this matchup suggests the Vikings’ top-rated defense can stand up to the Rams’ high-scoring offense. Minnesota’s exceptional tackling, as evidenced by an NFL-low 1.38 rushing yards allowed after first contact, will make it difficult for Todd Gurley II to make big plays. And a Vikings’ pass defense that tightens considerably near the end zone, having given up a league-low 13 touchdown throws in the regular season, doesn’t bode well for quarterback Jared Goff‘s chances. The Rams managed a season-low seven points against the Vikings in Week 11 — 24 points lower than the average in their 15 other games.
Prediction: Patriots (7 votes) over Steelers
Field Yates, NFL Insider: Steelers coach Mike Tomlin forecasted this rematch months ago in a conversation with Tony Dungy, calling the matchup “fireworks.” Consider the wish granted. Drama was abundant the first time these two teams met in the regular season. A sequence of unpredictable plays on the Steelers’ final drive packed more suspense in a matter of minutes than many games do in their entirety. This time around, though, we expect Antonio Brown to be on the field, even if he’s not at full strength. But the Patriots — at home — will ultimately find a way to prevail. They still possess a multiplicity of weapons that present a massive challenge for a Steelers defense that aimed this offseason to upgrade its ability to slow down New England. Chris Hogan, Rex Burkhead and James White should all be back to action, complementing the most dominant force on the field in the teams’ first matchup: Rob Gronkowski. With Brandin Cooks‘ speed capable of influencing safety play and creating more room for Gronk and the red-hot Dion Lewis, look for the Patriots to prevail.
Prediction: Saints (5 votes) over Vikings
Mike Sando, senior NFL writer: After surviving the Philly cold in the divisional round, Drew Brees and the Saints head back indoors to face the NFL’s hottest defense in a rematch from Week 1. So much about the Saints has changed since the Vikings claimed a 29-19 victory in the opener. Alvin Kamara has established himself. The offensive line has taken shape. But it’s their defense — which ranked 32nd in efficiency through the first two games, but eighth since then — that is the biggest difference. A lower-scoring game will come down to the quarterbacks in the fourth quarter, and Brees gives the Saints the edge they need. His numbers in fourth quarters when tied or trailing by one score tell the story: 76 percent completion rate, 10.2 yards per attempt, 118.1 passer rating and 80.1 Total QBR (third in the NFL this season).
SUPER BOWL LII
Prediction: Patriots (6 votes) over Saints
Louis Riddick, NFL Insider: The Patriots are the most resourceful, adaptive and multiple team in the history of the NFL. They will do whatever is absolutely necessary to win. The Patriots’ defense won’t stop the Saints’ rushing/passing attack between the 20s, but it is a top-five red zone defense and will get enough stops to allow Tom Brady and the offense to win the game in what will likely be a final-possession ballgame. Dion Lewis and Rob Gronkowski will be the deciding factors on the final drive, and it will be a big play by the Patriots’ special teams coverage units that provides them with the opportunity.