Between the 2013 and 2019 seasons, all 14 Super Bowl teams had first-round byes. From 1990 to 2019, the last season of the 12-team playoff field in which two teams in each conference got byes, 80 percent of Super Bowl participants had byes (h/t to CBS Sports).
Stories like the 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a wild-card team that won a Super Bowl, did happen. But it was rare. Teams with byes had a big advantage, for obvious reasons. Then the NFL expanded the playoff field, taking that edge teams got from having a week off and giving it to just the No. 1 seed in each conference.
That’s why Sunday was so damaging to a trio of teams: the Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs. They came into Week 17 with hopes of landing that all-important No. 1 seed. The Cowboys and Bucs can’t get it anymore and the Chiefs would need a major upset from the Houston Texans in Week 18 to have a chance.
Let’s start with the NFC. The Green Bay Packers clinched the No. 1 seed. It didn’t work out last season, but it’s enormous to be two home wins at frozen Lambeau Field from the Super Bowl. While six NFC playoff teams will be beating each other up on wild-card weekend, the Packers will be resting. The Cowboys were hopeful to get that No. 1 seed, and would have been a big NFC favorite if they did, but a loss to the Cardinals ruined that dream. The Buccaneers were a longer shot to get the No. 1 seed but their issues after Sunday go far beyond having to potentially play on the road in the divisional round and NFC championship game. It’s hard to feel sorry for the Buccaneers when Antonio Brown, who has quit on teams in the past, quit on them. It does mean the Buccaneers are not as formidable and winning at Green Bay might not happen again with a shorthanded offense.
The Cowboys or Bucs could win three straight games, including one at Green Bay, and make a Super Bowl. But the odds are a lot longer than they were a few days ago.
In the AFC, The Chiefs will have a lot of regret if the Texans can’t upset the Titans in Week 18. If the Titans beat the 4-12 Texans, they’re the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The Chiefs would have had that spot if they won in Week 17 and Week 18, but they lost to the Bengals on the final play Sunday. There’s no shame in losing to an up-and-coming Bengals team on the road. But it took away the control the Chiefs had over the No. 1 seed. Like the Bucs and Cowboys, the Chiefs are clearly capable of making a Super Bowl after playing on wild-card weekend. But it will be a lot harder.
The most obvious problem with playoff expansion is letting in mediocre teams as the No. 7 seeds. The less-discussed effect is giving the No. 1 seed a much bigger edge than it ever had before. For the Packers and likely the Titans, the path is clear. Some of the NFL’s better teams will have to go the long way to SoFi Stadium after a rough Week 17.
Here are the power rankings following Week 17 of the NFL season:
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-14, Last Week: 32)
Hopefully Jaguars interim coach Darrell Bevell is accurate when he says rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s confidence hasn’t been dragged down this season. “Just the makeup that he has,” Bevell said, according to the Florida Times-Union. “I’m really impressed with him … impressed with the poise that he has. He’s learning from all of these. As long as he continues to take those as learning moments and improves from them and gets better, I don’t think that these are deep scars.”
31. New York Giants (4-12, LW: 31)
On Sunday Joe Judge gave the Giants an offensive game plan that wasn’t in any way trying to win (23 runs, two passes in the first half as the Bears took a 22-3 lead), then afterward he was spinning stories about free agents who left calling him saying they wished they had taken less money to stay. This is becoming a bizarre end to the season, and it doesn’t help that the Giants are entirely uncompetitive.
30. Detroit Lions (2-13-1, LW: 28)
Rookie receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown’s emergence late in the season has been a great story for the Lions. He had his fifth big game in a row on Sunday, with eight catches for 111 yards and a touchdown. He’s a great building block for the 2022 Lions offense.
29. Houston Texans (4-12, LW: 30)
There was an NFL.com report that David Culley seems to be in no danger of being fired, and why would he be? The Texans have been fairly competitive lately and Culley has gotten the most he can out of this roster. It’s impossible to blame him for the Texans’ poor record.
28. Carolina Panthers (5-11, LW: 27)
Is there one positive out of this Panthers season? Brian Burns and Haason Reddick have each had good seasons rushing the quarterback. That might be it.
27. New York Jets (4-12, LW: 29)
Had the Jets just picked up a fourth-and-2 with a little more than two minutes left, they’d have knocked off the Buccaneers. It wasn’t the wrong call to go for it, and it ultimately isn’t the worst thing they lost either. That performance, giving Tom Brady and the Bucs all they could handle, should inspire some confidence going into the offseason.
26. Washington Football Team (6-10, LW: 24)
Over Washington’s last six games Terry McLaurin has a 19-225-0 line. McLaurin is way too talented to be that quiet over a month-and-a-half. That’s a problem Washington needs to address in the offseason and make sure it never happens again.
25. Seattle Seahawks (6-10, LW: 26)
We all seem to think Russell Wilson will be traded this offseason. But it’s hard to get past this thought: At some point Seattle will sit down and come to the reality that there’s a minuscule chance its next quarterback will be as good as Wilson. That’s why the hype over the quarterback carousel is never as interesting as reality. GMs and coaches of teams that start over at quarterback often don’t survive until the team has dug out of the abyss. Seattle might trade Wilson. But let’s not act like that will be easy.
24. Chicago Bears (6-10, LW: 25)
The Bears are saying Justin Fields will start the finale if healthy, but they can always say he’s not 100 percent and sit him. It would be nice to get Fields some extra game reps before his rookie season is done. But there’s also a good argument that it’s not worth a potential injury going into a big offseason.
23. Atlanta Falcons (7-9, LW: 23)
It’s a little odd that Cordarrelle Patterson made a huge splash in a versatile role early in the season, then became mostly a conventional running back and has disappeared the past few weeks. Maybe that was bound to happen anyway, but it seems like a bit of a coaching error, too.
22. Denver Broncos (7-9, LW: 22)
I don’t see why the Broncos would bring back Vic Fangio after this poor finish to another losing season, but I’m also not sure the Broncos are going to do much better. This has become a low-key unattractive potential job opening due to ownership and quarterback issues.
21. Minnesota Vikings (7-9, LW: 21)
Mike Zimmer needlessly hanging rookie quarterback Kellen Mond out to dry, saying he doesn’t want to get a look at him next week because “I see him everyday” isn’t why Zimmer will or won’t be retained as coach. But it seemed like a moment of extreme frustration, and to many Vikings fans the feeling is mutual.
20. Cleveland Browns (7-9, LW: 16)
Baker Mayfield hasn’t played well, and everyone has mentioned his injuries. It also needs to be pointed out that since dumping Odell Beckham Jr., Cleveland has very little at receiver either. Getting multiple receivers has to be an offseason priority.
19. Miami Dolphins (8-8, LW: 18)
It’s a bummer the Dolphins were eliminated in Week 17. Their comeback from 1-7 was fun. Seeing the offense fail miserably at Tennessee is going to open up another round of Tua Tagovailoa bashing, and Deshaun Watson speculation.
18. Baltimore Ravens (8-8, LW: 17)
It was impressive for the Ravens to even be in position to win on Sunday. It was certainly disappointing to lose it on the Rams’ final drive. But the Ravens will get healthy in the offseason, make some additions and be a contender again. The infrastructure is strong.
17. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7-1, LW: 19)
T.J. Watt put on a show Monday night, with four sacks and two passes defensed. He has 21.5 sacks, one behind Michael Strahan’s record of 22.5. Whether he gets the record or not, he seems like a good bet to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
16. New Orleans Saints (8-8, LW: 20)
Cameron Jordan isn’t splashy but he’s one of the best defensive players in football. After getting 3.5 sacks in a must-win game against the Panthers, it’s worth at least considering if he should be in the NFL Defensive Player of the Year conversation.
15. Las Vegas Raiders (9-7, LW: 15)
The Raiders deserve a ton of credit, fighting back into the playoff mix when it looked like their season might be over. Hunter Renfrow deserves a lot of credit too, as he has gone from a pretty good slot receiver to one of the most productive receivers in the NFL. His 1,025 receiving yards rank 18th in the NFL.
14. Los Angeles Chargers (9-7, LW: 14)
The Chargers outplayed the Raiders in the first meeting, taking a fairly easy 28-14 win. That doesn’t mean it’ll happen again, but the Chargers are the better team in a huge Week 18 game. And they’re fully capable of losing.
13. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7, LW: 13)
Who had the Eagles winning 10 games this season? That’s on the table considering Dallas should be resting starters in Week 18, since the No. 1 seed in the NFC isn’t possible anymore. It has been a nice first season for new coach Nick Sirianni.
12. San Francisco 49ers (9-7, LW: 12)
I don’t know that there will be or should be a Jimmy Garoppolo/Trey Lance debate. Garoppolo is the safer option for the playoffs. But I think there’s a debate to be had about playing Garoppolo if he’s less than 100 percent due to a thumb injury. If Garoppolo is compromised in a significant way, Lance seems like the better choice.
11. Indianapolis Colts (9-7, LW: 7)
Sunday wasn’t a good loss, but it also wasn’t the end of the world. If the Colts beat the 2-14 Jaguars, they’re in the playoffs. The loss to the Raiders really wouldn’t cost them anything if they handle business in the finale. But it is hard to trust them in the playoffs after they’ve blown so many winnable games.
10. Cincinnati Bengals (10-6, LW: 11)
Zac Taylor got lucky. It was a huge risk to go for it on fourth-and-goal with less than a minute left in a tie game. He was bailed out by two defensive penalties (the first was offset by an offensive penalty). The second penalty was questionable, too. Had the Bengals not gotten those penalties and ended up losing, we’d be hearing a lot about that decision this week.
9. New England Patriots (10-6, LW: 8)
Kristian Wilkerson was undrafted out of Southeast Missouri State in 2020, signed with Tennessee and was cut at the end of preseason. New England signed him to the practice squad, and he’s bounced between the practice squad and active roster a few times. He had the first four receptions of his NFL career, including two touchdowns, in Sunday’s win. Then he went back on the practice squad Monday. He probably made an impression and will be back on the active roster, but at very least he had a day he’ll never forget.
8. Tennessee Titans (11-5, LW: 10)
Derrick Henry hasn’t played since Oct. 31. He is still sixth in the NFL in rushing yards.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-4, LW: 5)
Getting Leonard Fournette back might be what the Bucs need for the playoffs. Ronald Jones II, Ke’Shawn Vaughn and especially Le’Veon Bell don’t look like difference-makers. Fournette was having a fine season before he got hurt. He can help the Bucs reinvent themselves without Chris Godwin or Antonio Brown.
6. Dallas Cowboys (11-5, LW: 3)
This isn’t exclusive to the Cowboys, but if they aren’t turning teams over it’s going to be very hard for them to win. They’re 1-3 when not forcing a turnover, with home losses to Denver, Las Vegas and Arizona. It’s fine to be a turnover-dependent big-play defense, but there are potential pitfalls.
5. Arizona Cardinals (11-5, LW: 9)
Arizona isn’t dead yet. The win at Dallas showed the Cardinals are still capable of making a playoff run. Getting James Conner would be a big boost too, and presumably he’ll be back for the postseason.
4. Buffalo Bills (10-6, LW: 6)
Josh Allen had three interceptions and a 17 passer rating on Sunday. It was a snowy field but that doesn’t excuse all of his bad decisions. Why is it so hard for these Bills to have everything clicking at once?
3. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5, LW: 2)
Giving up more than 400 yards to Joe Burrow made you wonder if the Chiefs’ bad defense from earlier this season could reappear. I doubt it since Kansas City had played some good defense for two months, but it’s a reminder that the right opponent could still pile up yards on them in the playoffs.
2. Los Angeles Rams (12-4, LW: 4)
The Rams were right about Odell Beckham Jr. They were aggressive to go get OBJ after Cleveland gave up on him, and Beckham has scored in five of the Rams’ last six games. You also have to wonder why Cleveland couldn’t get this out of Beckham.
1. Green Bay Packers (13-3, LW: 1)
Davante Adams had a huge night (Minnesota really can’t figure out how to slow him down despite facing him twice a year) and has a 117-1,498-11 line this season. He’s going to be a free agent. He’s also going to get the franchise tag, and that franchise-tag situation could be as messy as we’ve seen.