The Carolina Panthers won the 2015 NFL regular season with a 15-1 record, but as coach Ron Rivera pointed out Sunday, much work lies ahead. Carolina, a playoff winner over the Ryan Lindley-quarterbacked Arizona Cardinals a season ago, has not yet won enough when it counts to command the respect playoff-proven teams enjoy.
A personnel director reached Sunday night ranked the Panthers only fifth among the 12 playoff teams. Two other evaluators had Carolina first, with Seattle second. Arizona remained firmly in the conversation despite absorbing the third-worst Week 17 defeat a playoff team has suffered under the current seeding format. There was some thought New England could re-emerge as the team to beat once receiver Julian Edelman and tackle Sebastian Vollmer return from injuries, but there was little hope Peyton Manning could rescue Denver's offense.
I've ranked the 12 playoff teams below without regard for how their paths through the postseason might influence their Super Bowl chances. The odds are solidly against Seattle beating Minnesota, Carolina and (most likely) Arizona on the road before winning the Super Bowl, for example, but I still saw the Seahawks as the best team right now. Green Bay finished lower on this list than I could have possibly anticipated early in the season.
Here's the list, which features plenty of other surprises:
ESPN Football Power Index (FPI) rank: second
Expected points added (EPA) rankings: fifth offense, seventh defense
Comment: No team can match Seattle's combination of playoff pedigree and current performance level. That and running back Marshawn Lynch's expected return from injury are why the Seahawks top this list even though other teams had better regular seasons overall.
One question deep into the season was whether the Seahawks would regain their bravado after losing the Super Bowl in such a crushing manner at University of Phoenix Stadium last season. They did so resoundingly in their final seven games, punctuated by a 36-6 victory over Arizona in that same stadium on Sunday. Seattle wound up leading the NFL in points allowed for a fourth consecutive season, but Russell Wilson and the offense are the story heading into the playoffs.
Wilson finished the regular season ranked first in passer rating (110.1) while trailing only Carson Palmer and Ben Roethlisberger in Total QBR (74.9). His 24 touchdown passes, 132.8 passer rating and 91.3 QBR over the Seahawks' final seven games were all league highs. The only pick he threw in that span came on a third-and-19 pass thrown 52 yards past the line of scrimmage against St. Louis. Seattle led the NFL in both offensive touchdowns scored (29) and fewest offensive touchdowns allowed (eight) in that closing span, going 3-0 against current playoff teams and outscoring them 113-43.