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Armando Salguero: Top Seeds In AFC and NFC Aren’t the Best Teams In Each Conference; Plus Two Other Dangerous Teams

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Three NFL teams can clinch a playoff spot this week. So yes, we’ve reached that time of year when talk of the postseason and aiming for a spot in it is no longer limited to fans, but also becomes a topic within locker rooms even when coaches preach a one-day-at-a-time approach.

The Arizona Cardinals can clinch a playoff spot this week if they beat the Los Angeles Rams, which is admittedly no easy task.

The Cardinals can also get in with three other scenarios that don’t involve them beating Los Angeles for the second time this year.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers can clinch a playoff spot with a win, plus a New Orleans loss or tie and a Carolina loss or tie. The Bucs can also get in with a tie against the Buffalo Bills if a number of other teams lose or tie.

And the Green Bay Packers can clinch a playoff spot with a win against Chicago and a Minnesota loss or tie. If the Packers tie the Bears, they can still clinch a postseason spot if the Vikings lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers Thursday night.

So three top spots in the NFC can begin to fill up.

But what about the rest?

And who’s in the best position to do damage in the playoffs?

Allow me to share:

Despite the fact the New England Patriots and Cardinals are currently the top seeds in their conferences, I don’t believe they’re the best teams in their conferences.

(Send your hate mail to Clay Travis, care of FOX).

Best NFC team regardless of seeding: The Green Bay Packers.

They’re tried and tested with victories over the Rams, Bengals, and Washington — all teams with playoff aspirations. The Packers also have a road victory over Arizona, which has the best record in the conference.

And this: The Packers have done it while overcoming major injuries and some of the injured guys could possibly return by season’s end.

Packers coach Mike LaFleur told reporters this week that Wednesday would be a big day to see about getting cornerback Jaire Alexander, tackle David Bakhtiari and outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith on the practice field this week.

“These guys love the game,” LaFleur said. “They love being with their teammates. They love competing. So I know they’re itching to get back as soon as possible, and we just want to make sure there’s no extra risk for a setback and whatnot. Because obviously they’re an important part of this team, and if we can get these guys back, there’s certainly no guarantees with that. We’re hopeful we can get each of those guys back.”

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers said on Pat McAfee’s podcast Tuesday that Bakhtiari likely isn’t returning this week but that’s not the point.

The point is Bakhtiari, Alexander and Smith have all been Pro Bowl players and if they can find a way to get healthy in the weeks leading up to the postseason, it would be as though the Packers — a team that is already very good — got a huge infusion of talent.

Best AFC Team: Kansas City Chiefs.

The New England Patriots are the top seed in the AFC after winning seven consecutive games, including Monday’s night’s run-heavy performance against the Buffalo Bills.

Yeah, not buying the Patriots as the AFC’s best team, despite their great work the past two months.

The Chiefs were 3-4 on the evening of Oct. 24 and there was much handwringing about Patrick Mahomes not figuring out shell Cover 2 coverages and the defense being weak against the pass and not getting enough pass pressure.

Five consecutive victories later, the Chiefs are the second-hottest playoff-caliber team in the conference, riding a five-game win streak.

Are things Super Bowl years great for the Chiefs right now?

No.

The offense still sputters at times as it did in a 22-9 victory over Denver on Sunday. That game marked the first time in six seasons the Chiefs have won a game in which tight end Travis Kelce and receiver Tyreek Hill had fewer than 50 receiving yards each.

That’s bad. But that also offers possibilities.

“You figure when you hopefully get to the playoffs and try to make a run at this thing, (teams) are going to try to take away those guys,” Mahomes said. “And we’ll do our best to try to get those guys open and scheme those guys open in different ways.

“But other guys have to step up, and this week it was the running backs out of the backfield. Next week, it might be other receivers, it might be different tight ends. I think we have
the guys to do it, we just have to continue to go out and do it.”

The Chiefs have beaten the Packers, Raiders and Cowboys during their winning streak so they’re doing something right. That something includes a defense that has begun playing very well since Chris Jones was moved from defensive end back inside where he is often unblockable.

So why not pick the current top seeds?

Why not Arizona in the NFC?

They’re a great road team this year, having won all seven of their away games by double digits. They have great talent on the outside offensively, and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has his attacking defense allowing only 18.7 points per game, which is No. 4 in the NFL.

But did I mention a few paragraphs ago the Cardinals lost to the Packers at home? And Davante Adams and Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling didn’t even play in the game?

Yeah, that’s why.

Why not New England in the AFC?

They’re built for winter football with that running game and punishing defense. But eventually rookie quarterback Mac Jones is also going to have to win a game for them, which is often a playoff requirement for quarterbacks.

Mahomes has already filled that requirement in the past, so I’m going with that production over the prospect of that production from Jones.

Two other dangerous teams:

NFC: Seriously? If I hadn’t picked Green Bay as my top NFC team, I still wouldn’t have picked Arizona. I would have picked Tampa Bay.

Tom Brady is quietly — is that even possible? — authoring a better season than a year ago when the Bucs won the Super Bowl. Brady is averaging 314 passing yards per game and is projected to finish with over 5,000 yards in a season for the first time in his career.

Go ahead and doubt him at your own peril.

AFC: Let’s see, aside from the Patriots and Chiefs, we have the Titans, Ravens, Chargers, Bengals, and Bills currently in playoffs positions (obviously this can change).

I go Indianapolis Colts.

Because nobody wants to play the Colts right now.

NFL leading rusher Jonathan Taylor leads the second-best overall rushing offense (151.7 yards per game) and top rushing TD offense (20). The defense, meanwhile, leads the NFL with 29 takeaways, which has helped give the Colts the best turnover margin in the league at plus-13.

Nobody wants to play the Colts.

Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

Written by Armando Salguero

Armando Salguero has covered the NFL since 1990 for the Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald and ESPN. He was a 2016 Associated Press Sports Editors Top 10 columnist. He is a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector and AP All-Pro team voter.

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  1. Gotta note that the Chiefs win over the Packers was against Jordan Love at QB, and the Packers very likely would’ve won that game with Rodgers. Still, it feels like the football gods are setting us up for a Brady-Belichick Super Bowl matchup – ugh.

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