As usual, they found solutions as the season progressed, winning 11 of their final 12 games to clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. It was enough for a panel of four NFL coaches and evaluators to rank the Patriots No. 1 — though not unanimously — when stacking all 12 playoff teams.
Two of four insiders slotted the Patriots first. The Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints each drew a single vote. The surrounding debate was entertaining and informative before giving way to a crapshoot feel toward the bottom of the field. Panelists were asked to rate teams on their strengths and playoff readiness, without regard for how home-field advantage or other outside factors might affect results.
13-3 record | No. 1 seed in AFC
Let's not overthink things here.
"They will finish with a top-five defense by points, they have the best player in the game [ Tom Brady] and they are the most well-coached," one of the insiders putting the Pats first said. "So what the f— are we doing talking about anyone else being No. 1?"
The Patriots held 10 of their final 12 opponents to 17 or fewer points. They rank among the NFL's top five in special-teams efficiency, an ESPN metric using expected points to measure how all three phases contribute to winning. They lead the league in offensive efficiency, appearing vulnerable only when tight end Rob Gronkowski was unavailable against Miami (this was New England's only game all season when the offensive efficiency dipped below 50, which is average, on the 100-point scale).
"Is there enough defensively to get the Patriots to the Super Bowl?" said an insider who ranked the Patriots second, behind the Steelers. "That is ultimately what it is going to come down to for them. Tom Brady overcomes a lot of things."
The Patriots played eight games this season against teams that went into Week 17 with their playoff hopes still alive. The only two they lost were early home games against Kansas City and Carolina, games featuring defensive performances ranked among the Patriots' five worst since 2006, a span of 215 total games.
"They are still champs 'til someone beats them," an insider who ranked the Patriots first said. "They haven't done anything statistically or recordwise to make me believe they should not be No. 1."
13-3 record | No. 2 seed in AFC
The insider who ranked Pittsburgh first did not necessarily think the Steelers would win at New England, but he gave their team an edge based on talent.
"They have a real big mismatch with the back [ Le'Veon Bell] and the wide receiver [ Antonio Brown]," another insider said. "I think they are weatherproof. [Ben] Roethlisberger is the X factor, his ability to put the game on his shoulders and do it."
Pittsburgh went 4-2 this season in games when it was tied or trailing by no more than one score in fourth quarters. The Steelers would have been 5-1 in those games if officials had not overturned a late scoring pass against the Patriots in Week 15.
"Mentally and physically, they are tough," another insider said. "They have been there and have too much experience."
11-5 record | No. 4 seed in NFC
The Patriots and Steelers were relatively clear choices at the top. They were first or second on three of the four ballots.
"From there, there is a fairly big drop-off for me," said an insider whose ballot mirrored these rankings through four spots. "I think the Saints are dangerous. Offensively, they can explode and win a playoff game or two. Their defense is markedly improved."
One insider, a personnel director, had the Saints atop his ballot.
"They have a proven quarterback, a solid offensive line and they finally got enough production out of their defense to hold teams off as their offense scores points. And they have Sean Payton."
The teams with Brady, Roethlisberger and Drew Brees are ranked 1-2-3. Those teams also have Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin and Sean Payton. All those quarterbacks and their coaches have been together since at least 2006. They have combined for 58 playoff games. All have won championships. The nine other coach/quarterback batteries in the playoffs have combined for 13 playoff games together: six for Cam Newton/Ron Rivera, four for Alex Smith/Andy Reid and three for Matt Ryan/Dan Quinn.
"After New England and Pittsburgh, it's a close call between New Orleans and Minnesota because as good as the Saints are on offense, that is how good the Vikings are on defense," one of the insiders said. "But only one has the playoff-experienced quarterback who has won a world championship, so he always is dangerous in the one-game, single-elimination format."
13-3 record | No. 2 seed in NFC
Vikings quarterback Case Keenum finished second only to Carson Wentz in Total QBR this season. If it feels like the league has been waiting for him to implode, that is probably because it's true. And now that Keenum has made it to the playoffs without imploding, he will be docked for his postseason inexperience.
"After the top three, every team has a major liability," an insider said. "For example, the Vikings. They have a nice defense, a really solid kicking game and, in theory, they should be weatherproof. The issue is, the quarterback has been in nowhere near the kind of important situations — I don't like the word pressure — of a playoff game."
"It can be things like when to slide vs. when to dive, because starting next week, these quarterbacks dive," the insider said. "When you dive and it's the best player on the other team's defense bearing down, do you get injured and are not able to finish? He has none of that experience, where Brees, Brady and Roethlisberger have all of that.
"Remember Andy Dalton trying to dive for 15 feet in the playoffs a few years ago? Miami gave us that example last year when they had to start Matt Moore on a frozen field and it was a cluster. Your quarterback separates his shoulder and you are not winning."
The Vikings were between third and fifth on all four insiders' ballots. One insider said he thought the odds favored Keenum continuing to play well. However, he thought other playoff teams were better equipped to extend drives without reaching third down, and that this could be a difference-maker for Minnesota.
"Teams like the Rams and Saints can dictate what is happening in the game and maybe avoid some of those tough third downs," this insider said. "The Vikings, I just don't know if they can do that all the way through."
The insider who placed Minnesota third on his ballot was more optimistic.
"They are first in points allowed and 10th in points scored," this insider said. "They are going a long way, period. They are going right past Atlanta, right past the Panthers, right past a lot of the NFC."
11-5 record | No. 5 seed in NFC
The Panthers drew a road matchup against a Saints team that swept them this season, which suggests this could be a one-and-done situation. This was probably the worst draw for any team on either side of the playoff bracket, because one key to beating the Panthers is understanding their quarterback-driven running game.
"They really are not explosive offensively," one of the insiders said. "Their receivers don't threaten you at all. Cam [Newton] is their leading rusher. He is everything. He is their entire offense. If you keep Cam in the pocket and force him to beat you with his arm, which someone like Philadelphia could do, the Panthers could have some trouble. I just don't think they have enough on the perimeter in one-on-one matchups and I don't think they are strong enough as far as pass protection."
The instability and lack of firepower at wide receiver was the No. 1 concern.
"They might be [ranked] a little high," another insider said, "but when you look at what is underneath them, not really. There is a level of consistency there where they are not going to s— themselves. It's like a college basketball team going to the Final Four because they have all seniors. They just can't score like the Saints."
10-6 record | No. 6 seed in NFC
The Falcons split with the Saints and nearly beat the Vikings (14-9 defeat) over the season's final five weeks. They finished the season ranked tied for 24th in turnover differential, second-worst to Tennessee among the playoff teams, but they did pick off Newton twice in the fourth quarter Sunday.
"I think the Falcons can be dangerous," one of the insiders said. "They are playoff-tested. They have played good offense in spurts. They have a good style of defense that is opportunistic. Not everyone coaches a style of play to take the ball, but they do. They effort, pursue to the ball, strip and punch, play vision coverage. It has not clicked consistently but they are dangerous because they could start taking it away — it's how their scheme is coached."
Another insider listed the Falcons as a team he wouldn't want to face in the playoffs because their roster is without obvious holes.
"Schematically, they have one of the best rushing offenses in the league," this insider said. "With a Ben Garland in there, he is not the best guard or anything like that, but they have the right types of guys for the system they are running and they run it really well. Their problem is, they just beat themselves with turnovers, their pass defense can be iffy and sometimes they have struggled to scheme Julio [Jones] open."
11-5 record | No. 3 seed in NFC
The Rams aren't getting the respect their production warrants because their quarterback and head coach lack playoff experience. Is that fair?
"Playoff season and regular season are two totally different things," one of the insiders said. "They have a rookie coach and a first-time playoff quarterback, and I think resting people this week could put them in a lull."
Jared Goff tossed 28 touchdown passes with seven interceptions while ranking fifth in passer rating (100.5) and near the middle of the pack in QBR (51.4), with all eyes on Todd Gurley II in the backfield.
Insiders want to know what happens when the Rams need Goff to carry the load in pure-pass situations. Goff has completed 13 of 30 passes (5.3 per attempt) with one touchdown and two picks in games when the Rams were tied or trailed by one score in fourth quarters. The Rams were 1-4 in those games.
"I just think the inexperienced quarterback usually doesn't do a lot in the playoffs," an insider said. "It can be big, wide, coffee-saucer eyes and remember, they have an inexperienced head coach, too."
Before resting starters in Week 17, the Rams ranked seventh in offensive efficiency, seventh in defensive efficiency, first in special-teams efficiency and first in total efficiency. They were the only team ranked among the top 10 in all four categories (the Eagles and Panthers were close).
"I think it does help to be there once or twice before you go much distance, but this was a really good team," another insider said.
10-6 record | No. 4 seed in AFC
Before resting starters in Week 17, the Chiefs tied with the Eagles for first in offensive touchdowns on explosive plays, defined as rushes of 12-plus yards or passes of 16-plus yards. That included 15 Alex Smith passes, seven of them to Tyreek Hill. The Chiefs were also first in turnover margin to that point in the season.
"They have playoff experience with the head coach and quarterback, the quarterback is fulfilling the offensive vision and what more could you want than to win the takeaway margin?" one of the insiders asked.
The Chiefs were 26th and the Patriots 27th in defensive efficiency through Week 16. They both ranked in the 20s for QBR allowed. Both also ranked among the top five in special-teams efficiency. But the Chiefs sputtered over the season's second half.
"The knowns on the Chiefs are they will not turn the ball over, their defense is not that good, it will probably be a tight game when you play them and it can come down to special teams, where they have arguably the best special-teams coach [Dave Toub] in the NFL, and they found a kicker," one of the insiders said. "Those things can separate Kansas City from some of the other teams in the AFC."
13-3 record | No. 1 seed in NFC
Having Nick Foles at quarterback instead of the injured Carson Wentz has the Eagles lagging in the rankings, although one insider had them sixth — ahead of the Panthers, Rams, Falcons and Jaguars.
"I think the defense is better than what people give it credit for," this insider said. "I don't feel like they are really explosive on offense. Jay Ajayi is, but I don't see it from the receiving corps. I don't think [Alshon] Jeffery is much of a threat as a playoff receiver."
The insiders thought the Eagles could win one playoff game at home, but probably not two. One insider called them the rare top seed that could lose to a 6-seed.
"I still think they can get to the NFC Championship Game, but at the end of the day, it is going to come down to Foles," one insider said. "There is going to be a prove-it moment for Foles and I just don't know if he can deliver. That falls into the category again with Jared Goff and Blake Bortles, and the positive is that those teams can all run the ball. It's just hard to bank on Foles when the big moments come."
10-6 record | No. 3 seed in AFC
The Jaguars peaked at No. 6 on one ballot, but the Bortles factor dragged them down below the top contenders.
"I think you can win a game defensively in the playoffs, especially if you get against one of the less-experienced quarterbacks," one of the insiders said. "Teams are going to pile up to stop the run and make them win throwing the ball. Blake Bortles cannot do that consistently, so it is just a matter of time."
Bortles threw zero touchdowns with a league-high five interceptions in fourth quarters when tied or trailing by one score, including one pick against Tennessee in that situation Sunday. The Jaguars were 1-5 in those games. They allowed 10 or fewer points in eight of their 10 victories this season. NFL teams have won 97 percent of those games over the past five seasons.
"Once we get past the Rams, it is a crapshoot in the middle," the insider who ranked the Jaguars sixth said. "To me, it is the Jaguars. They have too much rushing and too much defense — too much attitude and toughness for a lot of teams."
9-7 record | No. 5 seed in AFC
Only Browns rookie DeShone Kizer threw more interceptions than the Titans' Marcus Mariota threw this season. Only Kizer, Brett Hundley, Mariota and Trevor Siemian finished 2017 with more interceptions than touchdowns among qualifying passers. Mariota threw no picks Sunday, but the Titans won in large part because Bortles was the opposing quarterback.
"Their offensive line and run game, when it is rolling, is one of the best in the league," one of the insiders said. "The problem has really been Mariota and the turnovers. That is uncharacteristic of him — maybe not the fumbles, but the interceptions. That could have kept them out of the playoffs entirely and that is really the issue."
Some insiders thought it has appeared as though the Titans and Mariota were scaling back their offense, potentially to help him stay healthy. With the season on the line against Jacksonville on Sunday, Mariota rushed for a season-high 60 yards, picking up four fourth-quarter first downs with his legs. The Titans need more of that.
9-7 record | No. 6 seed in AFC
Some insiders had the Bills slightly ahead of the Titans heading into Sunday, but the injury LeSean McCoy suffered was impossible to ignore. McCoy accounted for 33 percent of the Bills' scrimmage yards this season, the second-highest figure in the NFL this season behind the 36 percent for the Rams' Gurley.
"They are a two-man show on offense with 5 [ Tyrod Taylor] and 25 [McCoy] by number of touches, yards and threat," one of the insiders said. "A distant third is No. 85 [ Charles Clay]. The rest is all fractured. [Kelvin] Benjamin is not ramped up. They lost their No. 1 threat in the run and pass game in 25 in a game they had to win. Without 'Shady' [McCoy], they have no chance, not with how good Jacksonville's defense is."
Unless, of course, Bortles can come to their rescue.
"The biggest thing on Buffalo is when they were winning early in the year, it was all about takeaways, and them not turning it over," another insider said. "Going into Sunday, I could see them being a wild-card team that could maybe upset a first-round team, especially against a team like the Jaguars. I would not be surprised to see Buffalo pull off some form of upset due to takeaways — but they need McCoy."