Each week of the NFL season, The Baltimore Sun will rank all 32 NFL teams. The rankings will take into account not just weekly performance, but how well each team measures up as Super Bowl contenders, regardless of win-loss record.
Here are the rankings after Week 18:
Super Bowl favorites
1. Green Bay Packers (13-4; No. 1 last week)
2. Kansas City Chiefs (12-5; No. 2)
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4; No. 3)
4. Buffalo Bills (11-6; No. 4)
The Packers enter the playoffs as the betting favorite to win the Super Bowl, and it’s easy to see why. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has put together a Most Valuable Player-worthy season, and All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari returned Sunday to bolster an offensive line that has dealt with injuries all season. With home-field advantage and a first-round bye in the NFC, the Packers can rest up for what could be Rodgers’ last dance in Green Bay.
In the AFC, the Chiefs put a stamp on their regular season with a 28-24 win over the Broncos, but it came at a cost. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill injured his heel during warmups, and tight end Travis Kelce was banged up toward the end of the game. Losing one or both would be a big blow for Kansas City, as Hill and Kelce combined for 47.8% of the Chiefs’ total receiving yards and caught 18 of Patrick Mahomes’ 37 touchdown passes. Fortunately for coach Andy Reid, the Raiders’ dramatic win over the Chargers on Sunday night sets up a first-round matchup against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers, who Kansas City crushed, 36-10, in Week 16.
Could we see another Bills vs. Chiefs meeting in the AFC championship game? Buffalo locked up the No. 4 seed and a first-round home game against the AFC East rival Patriots, its third meeting against New England this season. After a bizarre 14-10 loss to the Patriots on Dec. 6, the Bills responded with a 33-21 victory on Dec. 26 to continue a four-game winning streak. The Bills, who finished the season ranked second in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, have all the talent to make a run to the Super Bowl. It’s only fitting coach Sean McDermott and Co. have to start their journey against Bill Belichick.
Speaking of Belichick, he’ll be coaching his first postseason game in 22 seasons as New England’s coach without quarterback Tom Brady. The former Patriots star is aiming for his second straight Super Bowl title with the Buccaneers, but he faces a much steeper climb this time around. After the strange departure of wide receiver Antonio Brown, Brady will be leaning on Mike Evans, tight end Rob Gronkowski and relatively inexperienced wideouts Breshad Perriman, Cyril Grayson, Tyler Johnson and Scotty Miller. He’s done more with less during his Hall of Fame career, but getting back to the Super Bowl will be his biggest challenge yet in Tampa Bay.
The top contenders
5. Dallas Cowboys (12-5; No. 8)
6. Tennessee Titans (12-5, No. 10)
7. Los Angeles Rams (12-5; No. 5)
8. Cincinnati Bengals (10-7; No. 6)
9. Arizona Cardinals (11-6; No. 7)
10. San Francisco 49ers (10-7; No. 14)
Has there been a more surprising No. 1 seed in recent years than the Titans? After star running back Derrick Henry went down with a foot injury Oct. 31, Tennessee seemed fated to fall back down to earth and not make much noise in the postseason. But they went 6-3 down the stretch to clinch the top spot in the AFC and might be hitting their stride at just the right time. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill put together his best performance of the season in Sunday’s 28-25 win over the Texans, completing 23 of 32 passes for 287 yards and four touchdowns, and Henry could return after the bye. The Titans have already proved their mettle, beating the Chiefs, Bills, Rams and 49ers this season. This could be the team that breaks Kansas City’s stranglehold of the AFC.
In the NFC, the hierarchy is less clear. The Cowboys enter the playoffs as the top-ranked team in DVOA by a pretty wide margin, signaling their high-powered offense and revamped defense should be taken seriously. But they face a tough first-round matchup against the 49ers, a team that could take advantage of Dallas’ below-average run defense with its powerful ground-and-pound attack. If the good version of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo shows up Sunday, the Cowboys’ Super Bowl dreams could disappear quickly.
The same goes for the Cardinals’ matchup against the Rams, who blew a 17-point lead in a 27-24 overtime loss to the 49ers. No matter how much coach Sean McVay believes in him, quarterback Matthew Stafford continues to make the kind of frustrating mistakes that have made him an enigma throughout his NFL career. Stafford finished Week 18 with the most interceptions in the NFL (17), but he also finished with the third-most yards (4,886) and second-most touchdown passes (41). Here’s a stat you’ll likely hear again this week: Stafford is 11-70 in his career against teams with winning records, including 3-5 this season. Until he proves he can win a few games in a row against top competition, the Rams can’t be considered an elite team.
The wild cards
11. Las Vegas Raiders (10-7; No. 15)
12. New England Patriots (10-7; No. 9)
13. Philadelphia Eagles (9-8; No. 13)
14. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7-1; No. 16)
When the Raiders and Bengals meet Sunday in Cincinnati, years of playoff anguish will collide. The Bengals haven’t won a postseason game since 1991, while the Raiders haven’t won one since 2003. Sunday night’s thrilling 35-32 overtime win over the Chargers gave Las Vegas an improbable playoff berth after it fired coach Jon Gruden and cut wide receiver Henry Ruggs midway through the season. Interim coach Rich Bisaccia could wind up with the full-time job if he leads the Raiders to another upset.
While the Raiders celebrated their overtime win over the Chargers, the Steelers breathed a deep sigh of relief. A tie would have denied Pittsburgh a playoff berth, which would have been a gutting way for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to enter retirement. At least he’ll get a shot at taking down Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs on Sunday night, but there’s not much confidence in a Steelers upset. It’s safe to say Pittsburgh is by far the worst of the 14 playoff teams, as evidenced by Roethlisberger’s meager 56.2 Pro Football Focus grade — the worst of any playoff quarterback — and the Steelers’ No. 24 ranking in DVOA. Still, it’s a credit to Roethlisberger, coach Mike Tomlin and a talented defense led by star pass rusher T.J. Watt that the Steelers are in the playoffs in the first place.
Facing an identity crisis
15. Los Angeles Chargers (9-8; No. 12)
16. Seattle Seahawks (7-10; No. 24)
17. Miami Dolphins (9-8; No. 19)
18. Indianapolis Colts (9-8; No. 11)
How improbable was Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert’s comeback against the Raiders? Herbert converted six fourth downs facing elimination in the fourth quarter and overtime, which carried 1-in-8,123 odds (0.01%), according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. The sad truth is that the Chargers have failed to build a contender around their star quarterback, thanks in large part to a defense that struggled to stop the run all season. Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi also deserves some of the blame for shoehorning Herbert into a quick-strike offense that limited his average depth of target to 21st in the league. There’s no reason to be so conservative with one of the best arms in the NFL.
But the Chargers’ problems pale in comparison with the Colts and Dolphins. Indianapolis blew an easy win-and-in opportunity with an inexcusable 26-11 loss to the Jaguars, a team they were favored to beat by more than 14 points. The Carson Wentz experiment showed signs of working out at times, but it can only be considered a failure after he couldn’t take advantage of one of the worst defenses in the league. Fortunately for the Colts, they owe just $15 million guaranteed on the remainder of Wentz’s four-year, $128 million deal he signed with the Eagles. But in a weak draft class and a depressed veteran quarterback market, a replacement might be hard to find.
Meanwhile, the Dolphins surprisingly fired coach Brian Flores on Monday after he led the team to the brink of the playoffs following a 1-7 start. Miami hasn’t been able to build a consistent winner under the former Patriots assistant, but employing four offensive coordinators, two defensive coordinators and four offensive line coaches created constant upheaval during his tenure. Flores’ first season began with a near-complete teardown by the front office that saw left tackle Laremy Tunsil and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick traded away, yet Flores finished his three seasons with a 24-25 record. Miami is already facing questions about the long-term future of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and rumors of interest in Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, so whoever it hires to replace Flores faces a tough road ahead.
Should be better in 2022
19. Baltimore Ravens (8-9; No. 17)
20. Cleveland Browns (8-9; No. 20)
21. New Orleans Saints (9-8; No. 18)
Safety Chuck Clark said it best after the Ravens’ 16-13 overtime loss to the Steelers on Sunday, which eliminated Baltimore from playoff contention: “Watch how we bounce back.” The Ravens’ season felt doomed from the start when running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards and cornerback Marcus Peters all went down before Week 1. They had as many as 17 players on injured reserve and lost quarterback Lamar Jackson for the final four games to an ankle injury. There might be a big makeover coming on defense, with Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams, Jimmy Smith, Anthony Averett, Justin Houston and many others hitting free agency. Still, with the No. 14 overall pick in the draft, improved health and Year 2 improvements from rookies Odafe Oweh, Rashod Bateman and Brandon Stephens, there’s a clear path for the Ravens to get back to the top of the AFC.
For the Browns and Saints, it’s less certain. They don’t have a quarterback of Jackson’s caliber to lean on, but there’s a good chance they upgrade in 2022. Jameis Winston could come back to New Orleans after his strong start was derailed by a knee injury. Baker Mayfield is expected to return for Cleveland, but general manager Andrew Berry might bring in an established veteran (Jimmy Garoppolo? Teddy Bridgewater?) to light a fire under the former No. 1 overall pick. The Browns have too much talent to waste another season with mediocre quarterback play.
Entering a new era
22. Minnesota Vikings (8-9; No. 21)
23. Denver Broncos (7-10; No. 22)
24. Chicago Bears (6-11; No. 25)
The Vikings, Broncos and Bears will all be looking for new coaches after parting with Mike Zimmer, Vic Fangio and Matt Nagy, respectively. None of those moves was a surprise given each team fell short of the playoffs in what were expected to be competitive seasons.
Denver enters 2022 in the most intriguing spot, given all the talent on the roster. If they can find a way to upgrade from Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback, there’s a lot to like on both sides of the ball. But how patient will George Paton general manager be?
The Vikings and Bears, meanwhile, are looking for replacements for Rick Spielman and Ryan Pace. Will the new Vikings general manager kickstart a rebuild and jettison quarterback Kirk Cousins, who carries a $45 million cap hit next season? Will the Bears find an offensive coach who can get the most out of quarterback Justin Fields? These teams are talented enough to win now if they make the right hires.
25. Atlanta Falcons (7-10; No. 23)
26. Washington Football Team (7-10; No. 26)
27. New York Jets (4-13; No. 27)
28. Houston Texans (4-13; No. 29)
29. Detroit Lions (3-13-1; No. 30)
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (3-14; No. 32)
31. Carolina Panthers (5-12; No. 28)
32. New York Giants (4-13; No. 31)
It’s fitting that the Panthers and Giants finished the season at the bottom. Of all the teams in this group, they have the least to be excited about in 2022. Matt Rhule and Joe Judge are both trying to explain that what’s happening behind the scenes is better than their teams’ record might indicate, but they’re running out of time to prove it.
The Giants’ situation might be the worst in the NFL. GM Dave Gettleman retired Monday after four disastrous seasons at the helm, but the damage has already been done. The Giants went 19-46 during his tenure and don’t have much to show from his drafts or free-agent signings. If Judge sticks around, owner John Mara will be committing to a former special teams coach who thinks it’s a good idea to run a quarterback sneak on third-and-9 from his own 4-yard line so that the punter has more room.
The Giants at least have a quarterback who’s shown some promise in Jones. The same can’t be said of Sam Darnold, who’s owed $18 million next season after the Panthers picked up his fifth-year option. Carolina enters 2022 still looking for a franchise quarterback and an offensive coordinator who can get the most out of star running back Christian McCaffrey and a talented receiving corps.