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NFL

NFL playoff power rankings: Stacking the top contenders heading into the divisional round

With the NFL’s first “Super Wild Card Weekend” in the books, only eight teams remain in the hunt for the Super Bowl title.

After ranking all 32 teams throughout the 18-week regular season, The Baltimore Sun examines the top contenders heading into the divisional round:

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1. Green Bay Packers

Thanks to their first-round bye, the Packers (13-4) were able to give left tackle David Bakhtiari, cornerback Jaire Alexander and edge rusher Za’Darius Smith another week of rest as they work their way back from injury. Bakhtiari shook off some rust in Week 18 against the Lions, while Alexander and Smith returned to practice in recent weeks. That’s three Pro Bowl-caliber players the NFC’s No. 1 seed can drop onto its roster for the most important stretch of the season.

Of course, the Packers also have the best quarterback-receiver combination in the league in Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams, a strong one-two at running back in Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon and one of the most successful young coaches in NFL history in Matt LaFleur. But if there’s one Achilles heel on this team, it’s special teams, which ended the season ranked last in Football Outsiders’ DVOA.

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Despite having the best odds to win the Super Bowl, the Packers face a tough matchup Saturday night against a San Francisco 49ers team that has dominated them in recent postseasons. The Packers’ defense is still weak against the run, which plays right into coach Kyle Shanahan’s hands with his run-heavy wide-zone offense. Still, Green Bay is getting healthy at the right time and has the likely Most Valuable Player under center. This is the team to beat.

2. Kansas City Chiefs

Since losing 27-3 to the Titans to drop to 3-4, the Chiefs (13-5) have won 10 of their past 11 games to once again stake their claim as the best team in the league. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes has been exceptional as usual, but the Chiefs’ turnaround coincides with a drastic improvement on defense. After allowing 32.6 points per game in Weeks 1-5, Kansas City gave up just 16.7 points per game from Weeks 6-18.

All the Chiefs needed was a league-average defense to return to the Super Bowl. Instead, it got one of the best in the NFL down the stretch, thanks to some important adjustments by coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and some key changes in personnel. The emergence of safety Juan Thornhill and rookie linebacker Nick Bolton, the trade for rejuvenated edge rusher Melvin Ingram and the return of defensive lineman Chris Jones to the interior has helped solidify a unit that threatened to sink Kansas City’s season.

It helps to have perhaps the best quarterback in the league, too. With his 404 yards and five touchdowns in Sunday night’s 42-21 win over the Steelers, Mahomes is averaging 309.8 yards and 2.8 touchdowns over the past six weeks. With receiver Tyreek Hill, tight end Travis Kelce and breakout running back Jerick McKinnon leading the way, the Chiefs have more than enough talent on offense to outscore any team in the league.

3. Buffalo Bills

If there’s one team that can keep up with Kansas City offensively, it’s the Bills (12-6). That was evident in Saturday night’s record-setting 47-17 rout over the Patriots in which Buffalo became the first team in league history to not kick a field goal, punt or commit a turnover, scoring on its first seven possessions before running out the clock. Quarterback Josh Allen showcased his elite ability with a commanding performance: 21-for-25 for 308 yards and five touchdowns through the air, six carries for 66 yards on the ground. Allen became the fifth quarterback in NFL history with more touchdowns (5) than incompletions (4) and set the record for highest Total QBR (98.5) since the stat was introduced in 2006.

If Allen’s superstardom wasn’t enough, the Bills’ defense has been among the league’s best all season. The unit entered the postseason ranked No. 1 in DVOA before intercepting Patriots rookie Mac Jones twice, recording three sacks and limiting New England’s running backs to 3.6 yards per carry. Even without star cornerback Tre’Davious White, this defense is still elite.

There just aren’t many holes on this roster, which is why Buffalo could be well on its way to its first Super Bowl title.

4. Tennessee Titans

As good as the Chiefs and Bills have been all season, the Titans (12-5) are the team that earned the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye. With its ground-and-pound rushing attack and play-action heavy passing game, Tennessee is an intriguing foil for Kansas City and Buffalo’s spread offenses. To make things even more interesting, star running back Derrick Henry is on track to return for the divisional round after missing most of the season with a foot injury.

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You don’t have to squint to see how the Titans could win the AFC. In a four-game stretch midway through the season, Tennessee defeated three high-caliber playoff teams and one strong contender in the Chiefs, Bills, Colts and Rams. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill isn’t usually considered when discussing the top quarterbacks in the league, but he remains one of the most efficient. He’s getting hot at the right time, too, throwing seven touchdown passes and zero interceptions over his past three games while completing more than 73% of his attempts.

If Henry can return to his usual dominant self, wide receivers A.J. Brown and Julio Jones impose their will on smaller defensive backs and the defense plays as well as it has for most of the regular season, there’s a path for the Titans to make a surprising run to the Super Bowl.

5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Ranking a team with the greatest quarterback of all time fifth in this exercise seems foolish, but injuries have taken their toll on this talented Bucs roster. Tampa Bay (14-4) lost All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs to an ankle injury in Sunday’s 31-15 win over the Eagles, taking yet another top player away from quarterback Tom Brady and this beleaguered offense.

Mike Evans remains an elite receiver, but the loss of Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown has erased some of the big-play potential of Brady’s downfield passing attack. Evans and tight end Rob Gronkowski are good enough to carry the load against the Eagles, but how will this offense fare against some of the best defenses in the league? It’s putting a lot on the plate of a 44-year-old quarterback.

At least the Bucs can hang their hat on their defense, which has been steadied by the return of veteran linebacker Lavonte David. A secondary led by star safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean is capable of shutting down some of the league’s best passing attacks, while a defensive line led by Vita Vea, Shaq Barrett and athletic rookie Joe Tryon-Shoyinka can both stop the run and rush the passer effectively.

With more playoff wins than the rest of the league’s postseason quarterbacks combined, Brady knows better than anyone how to grind out an ugly victory. Tampa Bay is going to need him to lead a few more to defend its Super Bowl title.

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6. Los Angeles Rams

Thirteen seasons and 323 touchdown passes later, Matthew Stafford finally has a playoff victory. The veteran quarterback has been the source of much frustration for his head-scratching turnovers throughout his career, but he showed in Monday night’s 34-11 win over the Cardinals that he can be patient. The former Lions star finished 13-for-17 for 202 yards and two touchdowns by simply taking what the defense gave him and not forcing throws into tight windows. That version of Stafford might be the difference for a Rams (13-5) team thinking Super Bowl or bust.

What was more encouraging Monday night was the play of the Rams’ defense, which forced quarterback Kyler Murray to make several costly mistakes. Pressure from Aaron Donald and Co. led to two interceptions, including the shortest pick-six in postseason history, while Los Angeles held Arizona to just 183 total yards. The Rams will miss defensive signal-caller Jordan Fuller after the starting safety suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 18, but young backups Nick Scott and Terrell Burgess played well in his absence. Shutting down Brady and the Bucs will be a bigger challenge, but this Rams defensive front should be able to take advantage of a weakened Tampa Bay offensive line.

If Stafford and the defense can play as well as they did Monday night, the Rams might be Green Bay’s biggest threat in the NFC.

7. Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals (11-7) exorcised some demons Saturday, securing their first playoff victory since the 1990 season with a 26-19 win over the Raiders. All it took was reuniting perhaps the most productive quarterback-receiver duo in college football history.

After putting up record-setting numbers at LSU, Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase have picked up where they left off in the NFL. In returning from a season-ending knee injury, Burrow has quickly become one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, ranking first in Pro Football Focus grading and second in EPA/CPOE composite, according to RBSDM.com. Chase, meanwhile, ranked fourth in the NFL with 1,455 receiving yards, including a rookie single-game record 266 in a Week 17 win over the Chiefs. Their chemistry has led to big play after big play, usually deep down the field. According to Next Gen Stats, Chase led the NFL with 923 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns outside the numbers during the regular season.

The Bengals’ defense, however, needs a healthy Trey Hendrickson to stick with the Bills and Chiefs. After the star edge rusher went down with a concussion Saturday, Cincinnati’s pass rush completely disappeared. For the season, the Bengals’ pressure rate was twice as high with Hendrickson on the field (35.8%) than without (17.6%), according to Next Gen Stats. Fortunately for the Bengals, their defense has been much better against the run than the pass, which is a reason for optimism heading into Saturday’s matchup against the Titans.

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8. San Francisco 49ers

Could we see another Super Bowl run from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers like we did three years ago? Sunday’s dramatic finish against the Cowboys obscured the fact that San Francisco (11-7) dominated most of the game against a team that entered the postseason ranked No. 1 in DVOA. Were it not for a Garoppolo interception late in the game, that 23-17 victory could have been more lopsided.

Of course, that Garoppolo pick illustrates exactly why it’s hard to trust these Niners. San Francisco certainly didn’t trade up in the draft for quarterback Trey Lance because it believes in its veteran starter, who’s likely on his way out after this season. But with star receivers Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk and a strong offensive line paving the way for rookie sensation Elijah Mitchell, this Kyle Shanahan offense is just about fool-proof when it’s clicking on all cylinders.

The big question for the 49ers is the health of star edge rusher Nick Bosa (concussion) and linebacker Fred Warner (knee), who both exited Sunday’s game with injuries. The 49ers likely need both at full strength to take down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, especially since the secondary is unlikely to hold up for 60 minutes against Adams and Co. But even with Garoppolo’s many faults, this team is talented and physical enough to give the Packers a scare in Lambeau.


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