Another regular season has come and gone. Earlier this week, our staff voted in our end-of-season power rankings and handed out hardware for our picks to win seven major NFL awards. Now we are officially on to the playoffs. It’s time to fill out our brackets for the 13 postseason games we’ll see over the next week five weeks.
Our panel of eight writers and editors is as evenly spread as ever this year, with seven different teams picked to reach Super Bowl LVII and six different champions.
Cooper Neill/Getty Images (Mahomes); Andy Lyons/Getty Images (Burrow); Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images (Allen); Cooper Neill/Getty Images (Bosa); Cooper Neill/Getty Images (Prescott); Scott Taetsch/Getty Images (Hurts)
Here are our pickers:
Albert Breer, senior NFL reporter
Conor Orr, senior writer
Greg Bishop, senior writer
Michael Rosenberg, senior writer
Andrew Brandt, business of football columnist
John Pluym, managing editor
Gary Gramling, senior editor
Mitch Goldich, editor
Super Bowl: Bengals 31, 49ers 24
MVP: Joe Burrow
One thing I noticed about the Bengals coming out of last weekend’s win over the Ravens: They were still hot over the way the league handled them in reworking the playoff rules in the aftermath of the Damar Hamlin situation. And I think they have a point. The league wouldn’t treat a team owned by, say, Jerry Jones or Robert Kraft, that way. So whatever extra push you might want for your team, I’d say feeling like they were treated as second-class citizens of the NFL did that for the Bengals. So I think you’re going to see a loaded team looking to go through the playoffs on a rampage, and they have the players to make it look like that. Truth is, I wanted to stick with my preseason prediction and have the Bills get their storybook ending to an impossibly difficult season. But just based on how I’ve seen the Bengals play down the stretch, and the fact that they’re coming into this thing with a pretty serious edge, my head’s telling me to go with Zac Taylor’s crew. And that’s largely because they’re probably second in front-line talent in the playoffs, and second only to the team I see them meeting in a rematch of Super Bowls XVI and XXIII.
That’s the Niners, for whom the equation is simpler. From Nick Bosa to Trent Williams to Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel, to George Kittle to Christian McCaffrey to Fred Warner, there isn’t a roster in the NFL that can match San Francisco player for player. The biggest question, for the Niners, comes at quarterback, where they’re rolling rookie Brock Purdy out there. And it’s one I think they’ll be able to manage all the way until they meet Joe Burrow for all the marbles.
Super Bowl: Bengals 27, 49ers 24
MVP: D.J. Reader
So how did we get here? Yes, before the season I (along with editor Mitch Goldich!) was absolutely in love with the Ravens and would have loved nothing more than to have them represent the AFC. But, uncertainty surrounding Lamar Jackson forces me to predict an early exit for Baltimore. I think this is the year we realize that Joe Burrow is, psychologically, something of a superhuman. We tried to tell you about that in the football preview issue of the magazine, but I think this is the year where everyone realizes that this is going to be something of a Peyton Manning/Drew Brees/Ben Roethlisberger scenario. The Bengals are going to be in it so long as Burrow is there. This year, they’ll take the title.
But … not without some serious competition from the 49ers. Brock Purdy is legitimate, a quarterback who is still developing and growing physically and who already has an incredible mental Rolodex. This game is going to come down to who can stop the run, which is why I’ve picked D.J. Reader for MVP.
The two glaring upsets from the NFC side of my bracket are the Buccaneers beating the Cowboys and the Giants beating the Vikings. The latter is fairly obvious, while the former is kind of a measure of convenience for me. It makes it far easier to advance the 49ers knowing that Dallas isn’t in the mix, and I can hide behind the fact that Tom Brady has never lost a game to the Cowboys. I am unsure whether you’ve heard this. I see the 49ers over the Eagles as a coin-flip game, with the slightest of edges to the 49ers.
Super Bowl: Bills 28, 49ers 17
MVP: Josh Allen
Let’s start with this: I’m a sucker for a good story. And this particular bracket of picks for upcoming games is laden with narratives. I like the Bills a lot, in the overall sense: stout defense, a healthier Josh Allen compared to various points earlier this season, tons of offensive weapons and the emotional heft of playing for Damar Hamlin. That’s not to say the situations are equal, of course, but imagine if Buffalo did romp. All those years of tortured history. All those Super Bowl losses. All that took place over the course of this uneven season. You can’t make up a better story, unless it features a healthy Hamlin not having to endure what he has endured.
Anyway, I think the top three AFC seeds are a cut above the rest of the field. I had a really hard time picking between Buffalo and Cincinnati. I went with the Bills mostly because they will host that game, and I like them in another close, thrilling affair against the Chiefs at Arrowhead.
The NFC was harder to predict. I think the Eagles are capable of a Super Bowl run, and Philly has certainly played several complete games this season. The Eagles can beat teams in myriad ways. They have an MVP-caliber quarterback back and healthy. But it still feels like they’re a year or two away from winning another title. I like San Francisco as a complete team but would worry about their quarterback situation if I picked them to win it all. The Vikings are certainly elite and have been good for most of the season. But does anyone trust Kirk Cousins to deliver rings? I think Cousins should be given more credit and respect in general. I also don’t see him playing in the final game of this season. Both things are true.
In the end, I chose the NFC’s most complete team and the AFC’s most deserving one. Just imagine how that would unfold. A Shanahan back in the Super Bowl and—based on these picks—losing once more. An inspirational story worthy of a movie. Years of tortured history upended. It’s the Narrative Bowl, and it would be glorious.
Super Bowl: Bills 24, 49ers 16
MVP: Josh Allen
For me, at least, it was pretty hard to pick AFC teams to lose and just as hard to pick NFC teams to win. Put the Chargers in the NFC, and I might have put them in the Super Bowl. The Eagles have been the best NFC team all year, as long as they have Jalen Hurts, which they will … but I think Dallas at its best is just as good as Philly, and the Cowboys seem to believe they are better. Was the Cowboys’ dud in Washington last week disconcerting? Absolutely. But this team is 8–3 since Dak Prescott returned, and two of the losses came in overtime on the road. The Eagles are dealing with injuries to critical players—Hurts, Josh Sweat, Lane Johnson—at the worst time. I’m picking the Cowboys largely due to the vaunted “Things Sorta Even Out Eventually” theorem, which states that the NFL playoffs are more random than we like to believe. This is also why I have the Ravens beating Cincy, even though I, like every other freedom-loving American, have the greatest respect for Joe Burrow.
Miami would have been scary if Tua Tagovailoa were healthy, and they were playing literally anyone else and anywhere else, but I don’t see how they’d win in Buffalo without him. I have coaching questions about the Chargers, but the talent there is undeniable, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they make a run to the conference title game.
If my bracket is completely accurate, and of course it will be, then Cowboys-Eagles will be the most memorable game of the first two weekends, but Buffalo–Kansas City will be the matchup that determines the Super Bowl champion. I am picking the Bills to beat Kansas City for one of the same reasons that I believe Patrick Mahomes is the MVP: Buffalo has a greater team around Josh Allen than Kansas City has around Mahomes. The Bills are an incredible story, but that’s not why I picked them. I think, top to bottom, they’re the best team.
Super Bowl: Eagles 34, Bengals 24
MVP: Jalen Hurts
I am picking two teams that, despite their success this season, have seemed to be overlooked in this Super Bowl discussion, especially lately. In the AFC, while the focus has been on the Chiefs and Bills and an apparent inevitability of their being in the AFC championship, the Bengals have been operating in relative quiet, doing their thing with a top-tier quarterback, wide receiver, running back and defense. I like them to repeat as AFC champions.
In the NFC, I am not understanding a recent souring on the Eagles’ title chances. They have the best roster in the NFL and are 14–1 with Jalen Hurts as starting QB (and he is now starting again). They have to win two games in the cold in Philadelphia to get to the Super Bowl, and I see them doing that and then playing even better against the Bengals. It has been their year since September, and it will be in February.
Super Bowl: 49ers 28, Chiefs 24
MVP: Nick Bosa
Who’s ready for Chiefs-49ers 2.0? I don’t think there’s any doubt that Kansas City and San Francisco are the two best teams in the NFL right now. The Chiefs have won 10 of their last 11 games, while the 49ers have won 10 consecutive games. Yes, Patrick Mahomes is the MVP of the league. He also has one of the best coaches in Andy Reid. Even without Tyreek Hill, Mahomes has had an incredible season, throwing for 5,250 yards and 41 touchdowns. Kansas City’s defense isn’t too bad, either. The Chiefs are No. 11 in the league, and Chris Jones is one of the top candidates for Defensive Player of the Year with 15.5 sacks.
If there’s a team that can slow down the Chiefs, it’s the 49ers. DeMeco Ryans’s defense is No. 1 in the league, and their speed and quickness on defense is frightening. And speaking of scary, Nick Bosa has had one of his best seasons, with 18.5 sacks off the edge. There’s no doubt that he and Jones could finish one and two in DPOY voting. On the offensive side, Brock Purdy is undefeated since replacing Jimmy Garoppolo, and the 49ers haven’t lost a game since acquiring Christian McCaffrey in a blockbuster trade with the Panthers. I said Reid was one of the best coaches in the league. The Niners’ Kyle Shanahan is one of the best, too, and likely the most creative and innovative play-caller in the game.
When these two teams met in Super Bowl LIV in Miami, Mahomes overcame a 10-point deficit for the third consecutive postseason game, leading the Chiefs to three touchdowns in the final 6:13 to beat the Niners, 31–20. That won’t happen this time for two reasons. First, this 49ers defense will be able to control the line of scrimmage with just four pass rushers. And, second, there’s no Hill to rescue Mahomes. So Shanahan will finally win his first Super Bowl to join his dad, Mike, with a Lombardi Trophy.
Super Bowl: Cowboys 31, Chargers 28
MVP: Dak Prescott
Last July in the Sports Illustrated NFL group text, I advocated for a Cowboys-Chargers Super Bowl pick for the magazine’s NFL preview issue and was immediately shouted down. The vitriol from one particular colleague with whom I also host a podcast—for the sake of anonymity I will assign him the pseudonym “Conor And”—left wounds that will forever remain open. Fast-forward six months, and here we are, staring at the inevitability that my prediction will come to be, at which point my friends and colleagues will feel unrelenting shame.
The Chargers, now relatively healthy, have the pieces in place to be this year’s Bengals: superhuman quarterback (lately the offensive coordinator even lets him throw the ball farther than six yards downfield) and potentially dominant pass rush now that Joey Bosa is back in the lineup. On the NFC side, the Cowboys have always been great; it’s just a question of which Dak Prescott shows up in the postseason—the very, very good quarterback or whomever that guy was who suited up in last year’s wild-card loss to the Niners.
If, somehow, Cowboys over Chargers isn’t how it goes, it will probably be 49ers over Bills in the Super Bowl, because those were and are the two best teams in football this season. And if that’s the case, we will never speak of last July’s group text again.
P.S. Here’s what we’re looking at: The Bills-Chiefs-Bengals in the AFC, and 49ers-Eagles-Cowboys in the NFC were, objectively, head and shoulders better than the rest of their conferences this season. And if you want to have a champion that truly reflects what unfolded during the season, the NFL should dissolve divisions and contract the playoffs back to four teams, maximum (or, better yet, just select however many teams actually reveal themselves as Super Bowl–worthy teams during the regular season, which in this case would mean six teams in the playoffs).
Super Bowl: Chiefs 29, Eagles 22
MVP: Patrick Mahomes
Hello again, my friends. It’s me: the only person on this staff, and one of the relatively few in the national media, to correctly predict heading into last year’s playoffs that the Bengals would make it to the Super Bowl. So don’t be mad at me for having a very chalky bracket this time around. I’m not a coward; it’s just that kind of year. (And two of these wild-card picks are home underdogs!)
In the NFC, of course I can see how great the 49ers are. But putting them in the Super Bowl would mean Brock Purdy winning an NFC title game, not just as a rookie but in his eighth career start, on the road, against the only pass rush in league history with four different players who recorded double-digit sacks, who by the way also have two great corners on the back end. There has rightfully been a great focus on Jalen Hurts’s leap this year, but the defense is also responsible for Philly’s No. 1 seed. I think the Eagles can win two home games.
In the AFC, I admit it feels a little uncomfortable trying to calculate the impact an emotional few weeks (and months) will have on the Bills’ play, even though we know so much of sports is about how teams feed off emotion. Whether they win or lose, the narrative will retroactively be crafted, and people will either say they rallied because of their circumstances or ran out of steam after a long year. But it is a tough road, having to go through both of their fellow conference heavyweights (if they make it that far), and I think they’ll lose to a really determined and very good Bengals team. The Bengals have had the Chiefs’ number three straight times now, including last year’s AFC title game, but I think Kansas City will be ready for them this time around after a year of preparing for revenge.
And in the Super Bowl, Andy Reid vs. the Eagles will not be the cataclysmic event it would have been five years ago, now that both sides have actually won a Lombardi Trophy since their long run of near misses together. It’ll be more of a friendly “Nice to see you here!” party than an all-out war. Of course, both sides will still care a lot about winning, and I think the Chiefs will do that.
This content was originally published here.