The 2017 NFL playoffs are right around the corner and, while home-field advantage hardly guarantees postseason success, it certainly helps. Look no further than last season, when both No. 1 seeds – Atlanta and New England – advanced to the Super Bowl.
With that in mind, here is how we think home field will be determined in each conference.
Philadelphia Eagles (10-2)
Chances of the No. 1 seed: 40 percent
Carson Wentz is the favorite to win the MVP, and for good reason. His 29 touchdown passes lead the league, as do his nine games with at least two touchdowns. Philly has the NFL’s top scoring offense and top-ranked third-down offense. The only reservation with the Eagles not locking up the top seed is a brutal schedule down the stretch. That schedule already includes a loss at Seattle, as well as a road tilt with the first-place Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, along with a tricky final game against archrival Dallas. But the Eagles have been up to the test all year. And in truth, nobody has been more consistent. Don’t forget about the defense either, which is tied with the Seahawks for fifth in turnover margin and ranks fourth in points allowed.
Minnesota Vikings (10-2)
Chances of the No. 1 seed: 35 percent
Minnesota, who controls the top spot, has been buoyed by Case Keenum’s stellar play. In a huge divisional win over Detroit on Thanksgiving Day, the 29-year-old Rams washout accumulated three total touchdowns and registered his sixth game without a turnover this year. In fact, Keenum’s DVOA (which measures a quarterback’s value) is a healthy 33.4 percent, which slots him third, behind only Tom Brady and Drew Brees.
We would be remiss if we didn’t mention Mike Zimmer’s dominant defense either. The Vikings make life miserable on quarterbacks. They possess an ideal blend come playoff time because Minnesota doesn’t beat itself and now has a legitimate ground game with veteran Latavius Murray, who has nearly 600 yards rushing and five scores. The Vikings still have road games against Carolina and Green Bay, as well as home games with Cincinnati and Chicago.
New Orleans Saints (9-3)
Chances of the No. 1 seed: 15 percent
Winners of eight of nine games, the Saints have flipped the switch this year. Instead of Drew Brees throwing the ball 40 times a game and merely outscoring people, they have implemented a dominant ground game predicated off of the best running back duo in the league in Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara. Combining for over 2,000 yards from scrimmage, no tandem is even close to their production. Only once in the new millennium, when the 2007 Minnesota Vikings featured Adrian Peterson, has a team featured a more productive rushing attack between two players.
It’s the perfect scenario for New Orleans: Ingram serves as the closer while Kamara is the flashy set-up man. Both can catch the ball and Brees can rely on the highly intelligent rookie in any situation. The Saints have a manageable final four games, none more important than the home-and-away with Atlanta.
Carolina Panthers (8-4)
Chances of the No. 1 seed: 5 percent
After a ho-hum start that saw Carolina lose to the lowly Chicago Bears, the Panthers rattled off four consecutive wins before losing to the Saints on Sunday. In that winning stretch, the Panthers resembled the 2015 form that nearly earned them their first world championship. Cam Newton hasn’t been MVP great (hence the 11 picks) but he’s certainly been good. His five touchdown runs are tied for the most by any quarterback, while his 515 rushing yards lead all quarterbacks. The key for Carolina is the defense, which ranks second in total defense and eighth in scoring. A crucial home tilt against NFC leader Minnesota in Week 14 could not only determine the division, but perhaps the NFC’s top two seeds.
Seattle Seahawks (8-4)
Chances of the No. 1 seed: 5 percent
The Seahawks played their most complete game of the year in an impressive 24-10 victory over the visiting Eagles on Sunday night. Russell Wilson made another push for MVP and the defense held Philly to its lowest point total of the season. Seattle’s schedule down the stretch, however, is brutal, which will significantly limit its ability to attain even the NFC’s two seed. After a Week 14 game in Jacksonville, Wilson and company will host the Rams, followed by a game in Dallas and one more home affair with Arizona.
The race for the AFC’s top seed is much less murky. In essence, it’s a two-team battle between 9-2 New England and 9-2 Pittsburgh, who will face off in Week 15.
New England Patriots (10-2)
Chances of the No. 1 seed: 90 percent
Surprise, surprise: New England is as complete a team as there is in the NFL. Tom Brady is ageless. He leads the NFL in passing yardage and his 26 touchdowns are tied with Russell Wilson for second most. Brady will finish this season with the third-highest quarterback rating of his career. Defensively, the Patriots are not as good as they’ve been in the past – the pass rush isn’t great and the secondary has struggled – but they have been steadily improving. Remember, after a sluggish 2-2 start in which they surrendered 128 points (the most in the NFL through four weeks) they have won eight straight, surrendering just 11.3 points per game in that span. In perhaps the most anticipated regular-season game of the year, the Pats will host Pittsburgh in Week 15.
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-3)
Chances of the No. 1 seed: 10 percent
The Steelers have relied on excellent defense all year. They are the only team in the NFL to give up fewer than 200 passing yards per game and fewer than 100 rushing yards. Additionally, they rank second in sacks (40) and fourth in total defense. That could all change with the scary injury to stud linebacker Ryan Shazier, whose incredible speed and athleticism has been the impetus to the Steelers’ defensive success all year.
The key for Pittsburgh is keeping an inconsistent Ben Roethlisberger upright so he can deliver the ball to Antonio Brown and force-feed Le’Veon Bell to set up play-action. Fortunately for the Steelers, they have a fairly easy schedule to close the season. Other than the Pats, they will get Baltimore, Cleveland and Houston.
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Follow Jordan Schultz on Twitter @Schultz_Report
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