With fantasy football leagues in the rearview mirror and the NFL playoffs right around the corner, I decided to bridge the gap with a fun exercise: Re-seeding the 14-team playoff field by “fantasy juice” in each conference.
Essentially, if we ranked these teams based on their fantasy appeal, how would the field and matchups look different than the version we’ll get this weekend and beyond?
Have some fun with it — and please remember, this is NOT a prediction/power ranking/list of preferences for what I think will happen in the actual NFL playoffs.
1st seed Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs are typically a set-it-and-forget-it No. 1 team in an exercise like this but with their own struggles and the ascension of a few other squads, there was a pause in placing them here.
Nevertheless, with Patrick Mahomes, a top-six wide receiver and the TE2 still in tow, they end up ruling the roost. The presence of Darrel Williams also helps boost their ranking. Williams was an excellent fill-in for fantasy managers this season with 47 catches and eight total touchdowns.
As of now, the Chiefs are expecting Tyreek Hill to play in this game after dealing with a weird warmup injury from Week 18. If Hill does miss time, the overall lack of skill position depth of this team is weak enough to see them cede the top spot to the No. 2 AFC seed ...
2nd seed Cincinnati Bengals
I strongly considered giving the Bengals the No. 1 seed in this fake football AFC playoff picture.
Cincinnati had some frustrating moments for fantasy football managers at times this season but by the end of the year was without a doubt the juggernaut we all hoped for. Ja’Marr Chase and Joe Mixon ended up inside the top-five of their respective positions and Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins were players you typically wanted to break ties in favor of starting. Even Tyler Boyd ended the year on a strong note, averaging 71.4 yards per game from Weeks 13 to 18.
Some of the small lulls during the season for this team ended up keeping them in the No. 2 seed behind Kansas City. But it’s extremely close.
3rd seed Buffalo Bills
Josh Allen completed the rare feat of back-to-back QB1 seasons and despite all the weird hand-wringing over Stefon Diggs’ production, he was still the WR7 overall. Diggs’ catch rate predictably fell but he did see a positive swing in his touchdown rate from 4.8 in 2020 to 6 percent this past season.
Buffalo did experience a drop-off behind those two guys, however. The rest of the receiver room was a bit of a roulette wheel at times this season between Emmanuel Sanders, Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis. It was quite rare that two guys of that trio were reliable fantasy starters at the same time.
However, the emergence of Dawson Knox (TE8) and Devin Singletary's legitimate league-winning stretch run in conjunction with Allen and Diggs’ star power was enough to keep the Bills in the three-seed here.
4th seed Tennessee Titans
If we get Derrick Henry at the height of his powers in the playoffs, you could argue the Titans should be granted a higher seed. If we don’t … you could just as easily make the case they deserve to fall at least one spot.
With all of their front-line guys hurt for large stretches of the season, the Titans became one of the least fruitful offenses for fantasy football in certain chapters of 2021. Ryan Tannehill somehow scratched his way to a QB12 finish but he was essentially a guy you couldn’t consider starting from Weeks 11 to 17. A.J. Brown would have finished as a top-five wideout were it not for his own injury absences. Beyond them, true upside didn’t exist for Julio Jones (WR93 in 10 games), no tight end emerged and it took a minute for D’Onta Foreman to get rolling post-Henry injury.
The Titans are a top-heavy and banged-up team. That’s been the case all year. They possess a great ceiling — we just need these fellas to be healthy.
5th seed Pittsburgh Steelers
It appears that zero humans who aren’t active Steelers fans are excited this team made the playoffs. The current iteration of Ben Roethlisberger has a lot to do with that.
However, let’s not forget this team brings some serious young talent. Najee Harris was a top-four back in fantasy football with 1,600 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns. Diontae Johnson (WR9) remains one of the most underrated receivers in the game. Pat Freiermuth (TE13) looks like a keeper at tight end. All of these guys would have more upside in a different version of reality but even in this offense, they have the capability to put up surprising performances.
One issue for Pittsburgh is that there isn’t much truly reliable juice behind Harris and Johnson. Everyone’s first instinct is to just blame the quarterback but Chase Claypool has to wear some of the blame for his incredibly disappointing second season. Johnson and Harris are enough to drag this team to the fifth seed — but that’s the best we can do.
6th seed Las Vegas Raiders
The Raiders have a WR1 in Hunter Renfrow. Crazy as that statement would have sounded a few months ago, it’s true. We know what Darren Waller can be, even if this was a slower season for him amid some injuries. Even Josh Jacobs ended up as a top-15 fantasy back.
The Raiders certainly have guys. But with Derek Carr falling off as a fantasy passer post-Henry Ruggs fallout, Waller’s disappointing season and the lack of depth beyond the top players, the sixth-seed feels right.
7th seed New England Patriots
New England is the seventh seed because of the lack of juice in the passing game. Jakobi Meyers and Hunter Henry ended up being great values in summer drafts and Kendrick Bourne shockingly had a solid stretch in fantasy. But rookie Mac Jones and the lack of a No. 1 threat made this an aerial attack to pass up when looking for fantasy starters.
Damien Harris (RB13) ended up being one of the few hits out of the running back dead zone in drafts this season. He and Rhamondre Stevenson gave you massive weeks at different chapters of the season. The backfield was the place to mine for fantasy gold on the Patriots’ roster.
1st seed Green Bay Packers
By the end of the season Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon were both running backs that you could consider starting. In any given week, either of those guys could give you top-10 running back numbers.
The passing game is also a money zone for fantasy managers. Davante Adams is an elite wide receiver play and Aaron Rodgers merely slipped from the QB4 in his 2020 MVP campaign to QB6 this season. Even beyond those two high-end pieces, Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdez-Scantling ended up giving managers solid weeks when healthy.
2nd seed Los Angeles Rams
The Rams have a legitimate argument to be the No. 1 seed in this exercise. Matthew Stafford was the QB5, Cooper Kupp was the fantasy football MVP and several secondary players provided real value.
Robert Woods was a top-20 receiver before his injury and Odell Beckham has been a WR3 candidate since his arrival in LA. Van Jefferson was the WR35 on the year despite being completely free off the waiver wire following the vast majority of summer drafts. The only true whiff on this team was tight end Tyler Higbee, whose TE14 finish somehow paints a rosier picture than the actual journey to get there. Then there’s the matter of the backfield. Darrell Henderson was a high-end RB1 to start the season and Sony Michel stepped into that role to end the year.
Again, you could argue that the Rams deserve to be the No. 1 seed here. I won’t knock you.
3rd seed San Francisco 49ers
Full transparency: I flipped the 49ers and the Cowboys many, many times before settling on this order. It was the most difficult debate of the exercise.
It took way too long to get there but by season’s end, the 49ers had legitimately some of the best fantasy juice in the league. They deserve to be the three-seed, at worst.
Deebo Samuel was one of the biggest difference-makers in the game this year. For a variety of different reasons, George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk and Elijah Mitchell were not available all season long but when they were, they rocked. Kittle was an elite tight end, Mitchell was a locked-in RB1 — which never happens in San Francisco — and Aiyuk was the WR14 from Week 8 on.
There are some teams seeded behind the 49ers with high-end players on their roster. But the 49ers absolutely have the offensive star power to hang.
4th seed Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys had the best on-paper talent in the game heading into the season. They’re still quite strong heading into the playoffs but a few factors drop them down to the fourth seed.
Ezekiel Elliott (RB6) and Dak Prescott (QB7) finished the season with great year-long numbers but we all know these two limped to the finish line. Dalton Schultz’s emergence as a weekly starter at tight end was huge but it’s offset by Michael Gallup’s ACL tear as we head into the postseason. This offense is still quite talented, but the other units ahead of them are just a bit hotter and have fewer questions right now.
If Dallas makes a Super Bowl run, their defense might end up the bigger reason why they get there. That’s not what we expected heading into the season but here we are.
5th seed Tampa Bay Buccaneers
If Tampa Bay was at its full form, they might well rank No. 1 on this list. As it stands, they’re not even close.
With Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown out of the mix — for very different reasons — the once elite wide receiver room is down to Mike Evans and questions marks. Even Cyril Grayson is now banged up.
Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski were still fantastic options at their position and if he’s healthy, Leonard Fournette is a top-five pick in any fantasy playoff format. Those guys save the Bucs from slipping to a lower seed but the lack of juice in the receiver room has to cap their ceiling at No. 5.
6th seed Arizona Cardinals
Kyler Murray and James Conner were top-six players at their position in points per game. After those two on the front-line, we’re down to mostly replaceable flex options at receiver between Christian Kirk/A.J. Green and Zach Ertz as a middling TE1.
If DeAndre Hopkins was healthy and 100 percent ready to rock in the playoffs, there’s an argument for pushing Arizona up the list. This unit just hasn’t been completely healthy and clicking together for quite some time, as their record reflects.
7th seed - Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles' offense as a collective ended up becoming one of the best turnaround stories of the season.
From an individual perspective, the only guy to ride the wave consistently through this season was Jalen Hurts as the QB9. Dallas Goedert had strong stretches as a TE1 and if you could land on the right running back, there was plenty of juice to squeeze out of this backfield. But beyond that, we’re just looking at DeVonta Smith as a boom/bust WR3 option from 2021.
The Eagles deserve all the flowers for getting into the real NFL playoffs this year but in this particular exercise, they just don’t really compare to the 1-6 seeds.