A casual fan's guide to the NFL playoffs

Another year, another annoyingly stellar Patriots squad ...

It's NFL playoff time! And in case your team is already golfing and you need a Cinderella story, a grudge match, a potential redemption … SOMETHING to provide a rooting interest until that big nacho party with the spiffy commercials on the first Sunday in February, here's our annual guide to the NFL playoffs.

As sure as water is wet, the New England Patriots have performed their annual steamrolling of the perennially hapless AFC East, while the Pittsburgh Steelers are once again the other big dog in the AFC. But those two teams are on bye weeks, so let's get to the Wild Card games.

The Tennessee Titans visit the Kansas City Chiefs in a game that feels like a matchup of professional wrestling jobbers dutifully warming up the crowd before the steel cage is constructed for the marquee acts. Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota was once hyped as a future superstar, but after two promising seasons he regressed badly in 2017, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns. The Titans also have no rushing game, their defense is spotty, they're bad on the road, and Coach Mike Mularkey's job is reportedly in jeopardy. But … they're playing the Kansas City Chiefs, they who are coached by Andy Reid, who never met a big game clock he couldn't mismanage. My pick: Kansas City Chiefs

The other AFC game has the built-in drama of two hapless franchises getting an unexpected shot at glory, with one team coached by the ex-coach of the other! The Jacksonville Jaguars have a stout defense and a roster overhauled by Tom Coughlin, who has found surprising redemption in the front office after completely losing his two-time Super Bowl champion mojo (and his head coaching job with the New York Giants) following a string of playoff-less seasons ending in 2015. Doug Marrone — who mysteriously quit his gig as head coach of the Buffalo Bills three years ago (taking a $4 million buyout with him) — coaches the Jags, and will face off against his former team, who is making its first playoff appearance since Bill Clinton was president.

Sure, the Bills backed into a playoff spot (never an intimidating look to celebrate a playoff berth while watching TV in a locker room), but don't rule out a deep playoff run for Buffalo. Just look at those two Super Bowl champion Giants teams coached by Coughlin; they were bad to mediocre for 16 games. Yet there by the grace of a higher power, the G-Men somehow prevented the Patriots from an undefeated championship season in Super Bowl 42 and made Gisele Bundchen super mad at Wes Welker in Super Bowl 46. The point is, weird stuff happens in the NFL nowadays; so don't sleep on the Bills' potential Cinderelladom. You could make the case that America needs this. My pick: Buffalo Bills

In the NFC, the Philadelphia Eagles were putting together a season to make the notoriously cranky fans of the frequently moribund franchise entertain non-delusional dreams of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. That is, until MVP candidate quarterback Carson Wentz went down with a season-ending ACL tear. Now the nominal conference favorites are piloted by Nick Foles, who only three years ago was nearly usurped as starting QB by Mark "Butt Fumble" Sanchez. Joining the Eagles on a bye are the Minnesota Vikings, who somewhat quietly are being given the second-best odds to win the Super Bowl by FiveThirtyEight.

The NFC Wild Card features the Los Angeles Rams, playing in their second season back in L.A., led by the youngest coach in NFL history — Sean McVay — and coming into the postseason having done something no team has done in the Super Bowl-era NFL: Go from last place to first place in a single season. Their opponent is the Atlanta Falcons, whose historic offense was everything we were told it was for two-and-a-half quarters in last year's Super Bowl, before they melted down in the greatest choke in NFL history. If a team needs redemption, it's Matt Ryan's dirty birds. My pick: Atlanta Falcons

The other NFC matchup — the Carolina Panthers versus the New Orleans Saints — boasts two quarterbacks capable of putting up video game-like numbers. The Panthers' Cam Newton has fallen far from his the peak of his MVP-winning 2015 season (which ended in a Super Bowl loss) but he remains a legitimate threat, and at the age of 28, already has some big playoff wins on his resume. Leading the Panthers' opposition is the ageless yardage-gobbling quarterback Drew Brees, who has a Super Bowl ring, a bunch of NFL passing records, and whose Saints have positively throttled the Panthers twice this season already. My pick: New Orleans Saints

The AFC's Divisional Round is going to be unexciting. The Steelers will thump the Chiefs, and the Patriots will crush the Bills as mercilessly as Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski dropped a post-whistle elbow on the back of Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White's head earlier this year.

The NFC's Divisional Round may well be more exciting than the lopsided AFC affairs, but you should still bet on the favorites. The Vikings excellent defense will likely stifle Brees, and Minnesota will triumph over New Orleans. Even with the hapless Foles at QB, expect the Eagles to soar over the Falcons.

In the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots will defeat Pittsburgh and head to their eighth Super Bowl appearance in the Brady/Belichick era, because the Steelers never win in New England. Over in the NFC, the Vikings' top-ranked defense will be too much for Nick Foles and the Eagles, leading the Vikings to top Philly and sending Minnesota to its first Super Bowl in more than four decades.

Having already won two Super Bowls since Deflategate entered the public consciousness, the Patriots will have to dig deep for some kind of "Us Against the World" narrative to fulfill their fanbase's martyrdom complex while they joylessly trudge toward another Super Bowl. But the biggest controversy this team endured all year was when coach Bill Belichick finally banished Tom Brady's diet guru Alex Guerrero — variously described as a "quack," "snake oil salesman," and "bullshit peddler" — from the sidelines and team planes.

Will "No One Believed in the TB12 Method! Water really does prevent sunburn!" be a compelling enough war cry to win the Patriots another Lombardi Trophy? I'm going to say yes. So, sorry Vikings fans, and sorry to all of us, for that matter.

The Patriots are going to win another Super Bowl, and the only way to keep this thing fresh anymore is to not get mad about it and just enjoy the nachos. Dig in!


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