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Super Bowl predictions already? NFL teams without Lombardi trophies square off in this way-too-early playoff preview

Super Bowl predictions already? NFL teams without Lombardi trophies square off in this way-too-early playoff preview originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Offseason Super Bowl picks are a frivolous exercise but with Memorial Day in the rearview, now seems just as good a time as any to unleash a batch of NFL perspectives that are almost certainly to change over the next seven months.

The NFL playoffs are that far off on the calendar, and yet they seem to demand our attention at all times. Is the regular season ever really a success if you’re not one of the final 14 teams remaining when Week 18 ends?

Most would say no — rather than squabble, let’s hit fast forward on the NFL season and envision who the two conference winners are this upcoming year and the other dozen teams who qualify for postseason berths.

Teams with the best records first, then playoff picks and finally who gets to play for the Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans.

AFC No. 1 seed: Buffalo Bills (13-4)

Division: The Bills have the clearest path to a division title of any of the four AFC divisional favorites this season, with New England in the first year of a rebuild and Miami shedding some of its top talent to make way for the inevitable Tua extension contract.

We’ll get to New York a bit later as they do make it into the NFL's “Big Dance” but the Jets are not equipped to take the AFC East crown from Buffalo despite winning without Aaron Rodgers in Week 1 against the 2023 division champs.

MVP candidate: Speaking of Allen, there’s no reason to believe he doesn’t continue to ascend with James Cook providing a formidable 1-2 punch out of the backfield in upstate New York. The losses of Stefon Diggs and Gabe Davis outside should allow them to be more creative with the talent they are bringing back (and welcoming in) this upcoming season.

The offense was trending upward throughout the second half of the season without much contributions from the two top wideouts in the locker-room. Why is the expectation of a drop-off?

‘Remember the Alamo!’: When forecasting who will win the AFC during the 2024 regular season, NFL experts and analysts might be too blinded by the fact Buffalo lost again to Kansas City in the postseason -- and this time at home. The Chiefs went on to collect their second straight Lombardi Trophy.

It’ll likely be forgotten how close that game was in the final quarter, ditto for just how much the Bills looked like a Super Bowl favorite until the clock hit zero on Jan. 21, 2024.

The Bills have a ridiculously good case as the most motivated team in the NFL right now, with doubt not just seeping in but beginning to take up residency in Buffalo.

NFC No. 1 seed: Detroit Lions (14-3)

Sit on the lead: Unlike their AFC counterpart, the Detroit Lions do not have the easiest path to a divisional crown in 2024 out of the four NFC division favorites entering the season — that honor appears to belong to Philly or Atlanta. However, this Lions team has a different gear offensively, and that switch shows no signs of being turned off at all this fall.

Detroit's ability to jump out on teams will be the league’s biggest advantage in 2024, and sets the Lions up to play ahead which is a spot they seem to thrive in over the last two seasons.

They could even use this as a springboard to be the league's last remaining unbeaten team comes late October.

No distractions: The winners of the offseason do get rewarded during the season as we’ve seen with the Kansas City Chiefs over this half decade reap the success of brilliant, progressive moves like the Patrick Mahomes contract extension or the Tyreek Hill trade.

The Lions do not have either of those Hall of Fame talents in their locker room but they have set themselves up for a distraction-less 2024 NFL season thanks to shrewd transactions over the last few months.

Most NFC favorites this year are riddled with controversy and questions about the future, if you look close enough.

Everyone knows about the contract situation in North Texas with the Dallas Cowboys’ starting QB, but there are also signs of shakiness out of both the Bay Area and the City of Brotherly Love – the conference’s last two Super Bowl representatives – that leaves the door very much open for Detroit to take over.

Proximity to San Francisco: No, not physical, geographic proximity. There's still a noticeable difference between Michigan and California.

But on the football field -- you know, the object we're talking about here --- the Lions seemed oh-so-close against the 49ers in January, and it feels wrong to think there’s a marginal gap between the two rosters after the NFL offseason and 2024 draft.

One team is on the ascent with the other one coming to terms with bumping its head on the ceiling twice with no reward or breakthrough.

Way too-early AFC playoff predictions

OK, now that the top seeds are out of the way let’s lay out the bracket for Wild Card Weekend.

In the AFC we have the aforementioned Jets sneaking in and grabbing the conference’s last bid. The No. 7-seeded Jets they will be traveling to (shocker!) Los Angeles where Justin Herbert and the Chargers will be awaiting them.

Yes, that means Mahomes and the Chiefs are not a division winner. Here's what that mean for Kansas City's quest for a third straight Super Bowl championship in 2025.

7. New York Jets at 2. Los Angeles Chargers

6. Indianapolis Colts at 3. Baltimore Ravens

5. Kansas Chiefs at 4. Houston Texans 

Way too-early NFC playoff predictions

OK, so the Chiefs do end up making it in the AFC but we’re not going to skip around it much longer here: San Francisco suffers a similar post-Super Bowl drop in the conference standings.

The fall is indeed so steep they stumble all the way from the top to the bottom (in playoff seeding). So, where will Brock Purdy and the No. 7-seeded 49ers be traveling in January 2025? A familiar site is where – a house of horrors, to some.

7. San Francisco 49ers at 2. Philadelphia Eagles

6. Minnesota Vikings at 3. Atlanta Falcons 

5. Chicago Bears at 4. Los Angeles Rams 

2025 NFL Divisional Round

The experience helps Kansas City and San Francisco survive tests on the road as they knock off the competition in Wild Card Weekend to set up a quadrant of intriguing battles in the divisional round.

Here’s a look at the final four teams remaining in the AFC…

6. Colts at 1. Bills

5. Chiefs at 2. Chargers

Mahomes vs. Herbert in the postseason at SoFi Stadium – what more could NFL fans ask for?

And in the other matchup, we have the projected 2024 NFL Comeback Player of the Year Anthony Richardson facing Allen and the Bills after knocking off the two-time MVP Lamar Jackson in the first round.

What can the NFC do to trump these two marquee events? A repeat of last season’s NFC Championship Game sure sounds appealing.

7. 49ers at 1. Lions

6. Vikings at 4. Rams 

Like Indy in the AFC, there’s a pretty clear party crasher in this conference. He goes by the name J.J. McCarthy.

He'll go toe-to-toe with Super Bowl-winner Matt Stafford in a rookie vs. veteran postseason matchup for the ages.

Rams coach Sean McVay also meets up with his former offensive coordinator and apprentice Kevin O’Connell in this divisional round scenario.

Could either of these young signal-callers see conference championship Sunday in January 2025? Let’s find out.

2025 AFC Conference championship

2. Chargers at 1. Bills

Flipping the format a hair here as we cut four more teams and inch closer to Bourbon Street. The 2025 AFC title game pits Herbert vs. Allen is a matchup of QBs with amazing arm strength and terrific mobility for their size.

And just how far have the Chargers come a year after dismissing Brandon Staley! There’s something to this Jim Harbaugh guy -- his magic touch doesn’t seem to take long to work wonders (see: Palo Alto, San Francisco and Ann Arbor).

He has been a coveted name for a decade in the NFL for a reason. It won’t be long for us to see why that was the case.

And yes, here's the elephant in the room: Eventually there will be an AFC Championship Game without Kansas City in it. Why not now?

2025 NFC Conference championship

6. Vikings at 1. Lions

Saving the best for last: All four conference finalists competing for Super Bowl LIX will be franchises who’ve never had the glory of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season.

Besides that amazing storyline, we do get a battle of two NFC North rivals who share a lot of history – mostly painful.

Wait, isn't this supposed to be the year of Jordan Love and Green Bay?

Super Bowl LIX prediction: Chargers vs. Lions

Chargers go from out of the NFL playoffs all the way to the Super Bowl in one of the more shocking runs in recent history, while the Lions find salvation and redemption in heading to the Caesars Superdome as the NFC’s representative.

How does this one end? Well, you’ve stayed along for the ride so no point in stringing it out anymore:

Lions 31, Chargers 17

We do not get the classic OT finish like we had this February but we do get Dan Campbell doing some sort of Motown related singing that mimics Travis Kelce on the Super Bowl stage in Las Vegas.

Jared Goff goes from being dismissed in Los Angeles to football immortality as Super Bowl MVP.

And, of course, from Barry Sanders to Calvin Johnson – Detroit says farewell to its cursed and failed past while launching into celebration and reaping the rewards of the biggest win in franchise history.

Perhaps it could even welcome in an era that sees a few championship parades through the Motor City.