2016 was a year of shockers, but perhaps none more surprising than the shattering of the myth of the unstoppable National Football League. The ratings decline of pro football has long been considered unthinkable, but that's what's happened. Ratings are significantly down across the board, and players and television audiences alike are in open rebellion against the insufferably dull Thursday Night Football. So this year's playoffs have taken on a special import for a league desperately in need of storylines to entice fans.
But does it have them this postseason? Here's a complete guide to the contenders:
New England: The Patriots yawned their way to another dominant 14-win season and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The cast surrounding quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick has changed without warning or fanfare every year since 2001, and every year they're good for 10 or more wins and a reasonable shot at the Super Bowl. Same deal this year. And they're once again playing with a chip on their shoulder thanks to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's ham-fisted handling of Deflategate, a "scandal" so stupid that even many Patriots-haters (which includes most of America) sympathized with Brady and the Pats.
So in a year where the NFL as an institution is positively reviled, a modicum of perverse satisfaction can be gleaned from the prospect of Goodell dutifully handing the Lombardi trophy to Brady following another Super Bowl win in early February. It would surely be a crawl-out-of-your-skin moment to remember.
Pittsburgh: If anyone has a shot at the Patriots in the AFC, it's the Pittsburgh Steelers, the No. 3 seed. Le'Veon Bell — coming off last year's prematurely ended season due to a gruesome injury and having missed time at the start of this season for his second drug suspension — has emerged as arguably the most dominant running back in the game. If he and wide receiver Antonio Brown can stay healthy, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger does what he's always done — nothing spectacular but always enough to keep his team in the game — Pittsburgh and New England could make for an enticing matchup of titans with championship pedigrees.
The rest of the AFC field, however, lacks that kind of gravitas.
Miami: The Dolphins — back in the playoffs for the first time since 2008 — were sneaky good this year, winning nine of their last 10 games. But they also lost starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill three weeks ago and it's tough to bet on backup Matt Moore taking the reins so late in the season. They've got the stuff of Cinderella, but I'd expect a quick exit.
Houston: See above. The Texans, winners of the putrid AFC South, are just happy to be invited to the party.
Oakland: The long-embarrassing Raiders could have been the big story going into the postseason, holding the top spot in the AFC West for most of the season before dropping all the way to the No. 5 seed following some late season setbacks, not the least of which was the loss of quarterback Derek Carr due to a season-ending mangling of his leg in Week 16.
Kansas City: The Chiefs are good and somehow leapfrogged over the Raiders to win the AFC West and earn a bye, but it's tough to feel confident about quarterback Alex Smith piloting a team to the Super Bowl. And who would doubt that in any close game, coach Andy Reid is going to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by mismanaging the game clock? It's just what he does.
Dallas: America's other most hated team, the Cowboys are back and stacked and looking to make it past the second round for the first time in two decades. Their offense is led by two rookies — running back (and MVP candidate) Ezekiel Elliot and quarterback Dak Prescott, who obviously lacks playoff experience but has played so stunningly well that long-time incumbent Tony Romo has been relegated to the bench since returning from injury. The 'Boys are back and in win-now mode.
New York: The Giants are back in the postseason for the first since they won the Super Bowl five years ago. And those 2011 champs are a lot like the 2016 vintage of Big Blue — a mediocre mishmash of inconsistency led by Eli Manning, who also took another "meh" team all the way to the promised land in 2007, defeating the then-undefeated Patriots and causing Bill Belichick to sulk off the field before the game was even over. Think the Giants aren't going to do anything this year based on something as insignificant as 16 regular season games? Low expectations are exactly where the Giants are most comfortable. Oh yeah, they also beat the Cowboys twice this year. Sleep on them at your own risk.
Seattle: The Seahawks, Super Bowl champions three years ago (and likely back-to-back champions two years ago if not for the single worst play-call in Super Bowl history) are back thanks to being the only team in the NFC West with a winning record. The defense is still the focal point, even if the Legion of Boom doesn't quite inspire the terror it once did. Russell Wilson is still a fast and sturdy signal-caller, but the running game is weaker in the post-Beast Mode era, and the loss of wide receiver and kick returner Tyler Lockett hurts bad.
Atlanta: MVP candidate quarterback Matt Ryan and the high-flying Falcons offense earned a second seed and a bye. All it takes is a Cowboys loss and a Falcons win to make the latter the hosts of the NFC Championship Game.
Green Bay: The Packers are once again getting hot at the right time. Led by one-time Super Bowl champion and r-e-l-a-x-ed optimist quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the team ran the table after a 4-6 start with a six-game winning streak and an NFC North title. They'll be a tough out, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see them go all the way again.
Detroit: The perennial hapless losers known as the Lions lost the dominant wide receiver known as Megatron (a.k.a. Calvin Johnson) to retirement last offseason, yet they came within one game of a division championship this year. Quarterback Matthew Stafford is a prolific and durable field marshal, running a Peyton Manning-like offense that methodically exhausts defenses. I could see them winning a game on the road, but I'm not sure they've got enough weapons to make a deep run.
My prediction: The smart money remains on a Patriots-Cowboys Super Bowl, and that's my pick as well. You know it's the matchup the league wants, and the ratings could very well make all the lamentation over the dip in regular season viewership a distant memory.
And what could be more appropriate for a year when Americans were given a choice between the two most disliked presidential candidates in history than a Super Bowl with the two most loathed franchises of the gridiron? Sometimes we get the Super Bowl matchup we deserve.