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Thursday, May 28, 2020

Which NFL teams have the easiest path to the Super Bowl?

Drew Brees

We now know the 12 teams that will play in the NFL playoffs with a chance to win the Super Bowl. Some come in hotter than others, while every one of them has flaws to be mindful of. Much can also depend on the draw: some teams got much tougher opponents than others, and home field advantage can matter a lot this time of year.

Who has the path of least resistance to the Super Bowl? We’re ranking all 12 teams from toughest to easiest in terms of that path.

12. Philadelphia Eagles

If the Eagles want to repeat as Super Bowl champions, they’re going to have to go through the entire NFC without the benefit of a single home game. Their first game alone is incredibly difficult, as they travel to Chicago in January to take on the vaunted defense of the Bears with Nick Foles under center. Get past that game and they have to go to New Orleans to face the Saints. Those are about the two roughest road games you can get in these playoffs, and if they can escape both of them, they’ll have earned whatever comes next.

11. Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks are .500 on the road, but they open the playoffs in Dallas against the Cowboys, who went 7-1 at home. Dallas isn’t the toughest team in the NFC playoffs, but they’re very difficult to beat in Arlington. From there, it depends on how fortunate they are, but they’ll be facing a road game at one of the top two teams, more likely the Saints. Anyone who has to travel through New Orleans is in for a very tough ride, meaning Seattle’s roadblock is quite similar to Philadelphia’s.

10. Indianapolis Colts

The good news for the Colts is they’ve held their own away from home this season and they’ve also beaten the Houston Texans in a road game. The bad news is, even if they do that, the Kansas City Chiefs await in the divisional round. The Chiefs, of course, are known for home playoff collapses, but Patrick Mahomes would be a very tough test for this team and for Andrew Luck to keep up with. They have a road, but it’s a tough one.

9. Dallas Cowboys

Dallas’ problem is that they’re one of the worst road teams in this year’s playoffs, posting a 3-5 record with only one of those wins coming against playoff opposition. They may well get past the Seattle Seahawks in their playoff opener, but that will give way to a trip to either Los Angeles or New Orleans. The Cowboys beat the Saints this year, but at home, and they’re probably not quite as talented on paper. They’re going to have to break their season-long trend of mediocre road performances to beat the odds.

8. Houston Texans

The Texans have to be wary of their opening matchup, as they lost on their home field to the Colts, one of just two defeats in their last 13 games. Indianapolis is coming in on a high after playing their way into the playoffs, so this is one of the tougher wild-card games of the weekend. Provided they get past that, it’ll be a trip to New England, a team that has won nine in a row at home in the playoffs despite looking more flawed than usual this season. Either way, Houston will have to defy some history to even get to the AFC Championship.

7. Baltimore Ravens

Few teams are as dangerous entering these playoffs as the Ravens, but if they’re going anywhere near the Super Bowl, they’re going to have to earn it. They have the toughest opponent of any wild-card team in the Los Angeles Chargers, who are 7-1 on the road and won’t be as bothered by a trip to Baltimore as some other possible opponents. The Ravens shut down the Chargers late in the season, and Baltimore might actually appreciate a trip to New England or Kansas City if they can win this one.

6. Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers are a popular dark horse pick to reach the Super Bowl, and deservedly so, but their road to the Super Bowl isn’t a clear one. The good news is that the Chargers are 7-1 on the road, and no team is more equipped to handle a lack of home games; perhaps their apathetic fan support has some fringe benefits. The bad news is they drew the tougher of the home teams in Baltimore, but they’ve shown they can already beat Kansas City on the road if they get that far. This is a formidable team, and if the road dominance holds, they have a good shot at fulfilling their dark horse reputation.

5. Chicago Bears

If defense wins championships, then the Bears are well-equipped for a lengthy playoff run. They are better than the Philadelphia Eagles and, with the benefit of home field advantage, should make it to the divisional round. There, they’ll meet the Rams, whom they beat once this season, albeit at home. A Bears-Saints matchup in New Orleans would be a blockbuster, but much of their playoff run depends on how the defense holds up and Mitchell Trubisky performs. If the answer to both is positive, they have a real chance.

4. Kansas City Chiefs

Why so low for the top seed in the AFC? We’re accounting for a bit of history here — namely the fact that the Chiefs and coach Andy Reid both have a long history of premature playoff exits, particularly at home in Kansas City’s case. Patrick Mahomes will be entering his first playoff, and the Chiefs have very real defensive vulnerabilities, particularly in the secondary. They have a good chance of going far in these playoffs. They also stand the chance of flaming out prematurely.

3. Los Angeles Rams

The Rams looked better in the first half of the season than in the second, and the loss of Cooper Kupp seemed to take something away from the offense, if only temporarily. In addition, their home field advantage is the least-pronounced of the four playoff teams with first-round byes in terms of crowd support, though they’ve only lost once there all season. The Rams are still loaded on offense, but it’s easy to forget that this is an unproven playoff team. They probably won’t want to see the Bears again.

2. New England Patriots

These Patriots don’t look quite as solid as they have in the past. Rob Gronkowski is a non-factor and they can no longer claim the best offense in the AFC. That said, they’re unbeaten at home this season and haven’t lost a playoff game at Gillette Stadium since 2013. In other words, whoever ends up traveling there is going to have a very hard time, but a potential AFC Championship against Kansas City would be on the road, where they’re 3-5. It’s worth remembering that the Pats have already beaten KC, though it was at home.

1. New Orleans Saints

The Superdome offers arguably the most pronounced home field advantage in these playoffs, and the Saints will have that at their disposal as long as they’re still playing in the NFC playoffs. They also have one of the best offenses in the postseason and a defense that is good enough to get stops when needed. The question is whether New Orleans’ late-season swoon on offense is an aberration. If it is, they might run into some trouble, but if not, it’s tough to see anyone walking into New Orleans and beating them head-to-head.

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