So it’s no surprise that with the playoffs beckoning, the Ravens are Super Bowl favorites in Las Vegas. At Caesars Sportsbook, a successful $100 bet on the Ravens would result in a $200 payoff (plus the $100 back). The Kansas City Chiefs, one of two teams the Ravens have lost to this season, are getting the second-best odds, while the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints aren’t far behind.
When the Ravens next play, in a Jan. 11 divisional-round game, the 12-team Super Bowl chase will have been cut down to eight. Who’s best positioned to deny the Ravens a third NFL title? Here’s how the 11 other contenders rank.
1. New Orleans Saints (13-3, No. 3 NFC seed)
New Orleans ended its regular season by blowing out the Panthers in Carolina, only to have home-field advantage ripped away by the Green Bay Packers’ comeback win over the Detroit Lions. Still, no team wants to see these Saints. After a shootout loss to the 49ers in Week 14, they’ve started to come around on defense.
They don’t need to be elite there to be Super Bowl contenders. Drew Brees, Michael Thomas and Co. are back to their long-awaited hellacious form. New Orleans averaged 40 points per game over the final quarter of the regular season, and Brees has thrown for 16 touchdowns and no interceptions since Week 13. The Saints’ special teams play remains elite, too.
Kansas City enters the playoffs as hot as any team outside Baltimore, having won six straight games. With their win Sunday over the Los Angeles Chargers and the New England Patriots’ loss to the Miami Dolphins, the Chiefs jumped to the AFC’s No. 2 seed and will be rewarded with a first-round bye.
After missing two games in the middle of the season because of a dislocated kneecap, Patrick Mahomes is back to his MVP-level form. But the biggest revelation for Kansas City has been the improvement of its defense, which is giving up just 11.5 points per game during its winning streak. With an offense explosive as any in the league and a steadily rising defense, the Chiefs are the Ravens’ top threat in the AFC.
3. San Francisco 49ers (13-3, No. 1 NFC seed)
When San Francisco came to Baltimore in Week 13, it was billed as a matchup of the NFL’s top two teams. The Ravens won that day and haven’t fallen off since. The 49ers, meanwhile, lost just once in the season’s final four weeks — to the Atlanta Falcons. At home.
Kyle Shanahan has helped turn this San Francisco offense into a force, especially when George Kittle’s in sync with Jimmy Garoppolo, but a once-elite defense has regressed of late. After holding the Ravens’ explosive attack to 283 yards, the 49ers allowed 465 against the Saints, 395 against the Los Angeles Rams and 348 against the banged-up Seattle Seahawks. Their pass rush is still scary, but injuries have been a problem for the defense.
4. New England Patriots (12-4, No. 3 AFC seed)
New England won its 11th straight AFC East title this season, but this is not your older brother’s Patriots team. They’ve already lost to the AFC’s Nos. 1, 2 and 4 seeds, and an inexplicable defeat in their regular-season finale cost them a first-round bye. For the first time since the 2009 season, New England will play in the wild-card round.
Tom Brady has started to show his age in his 20th season, and a lackluster receiving corps hasn’t helped much. The defense, while not quite the historically elite unit it was early in the season, has led the way and will likely have to carry the Patriots to a potential fourth straight Super Bowl appearance. Still, Brady and Bill Belichick’s postseason experience can’t be ignored, and they’ll be a tough out for any team.
It’s been a strange season for Green Bay. The Packers haven’t looked like a top-two team in the NFC very often this season, but here they are, having locked up a first-round bye after coming back from a 14-point halftime deficit against the Lions.
Green Bay continues to do just enough. Its offensive line is one of the NFL’s best, and Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith are the league’s top pass-rushing duo. But Aaron Rodgers, despite a flattering 26-touchdown, four-interception 2019, is averaging just 7.0 yards per pass attempt, the definition of mediocre. Green Bay won five straight to end the regular season, but other than the Minnesota Vikings, that stretch included a lot of bad to average teams.
6. Houston Texans (10-4, No. 4 AFC seed)
Houston has mixed statement victories with head-scratching defeats this season. Still, the Texans should enter the playoffs with a key contributor returning on both sides of the ball. Will Fuller has struggled to remain healthy — a groin injury kept him out of the team’s regular-season finale — but there’s hope he can play in the wild-card round. When the speedster can line up opposite star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, Deshaun Watson and Houston’s offense are markedly better.
On defense, defensive end J.J. Watt has recovered from a nearly season-ending pectoral injury and is expected to be added to the Texans’ active roster this week. While nagging injuries have limited the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year recently, Watt’s presence, even as a situational player, will boost a defense that has struggled to stop the run and rush the passer.
7. Minnesota Vikings (10-6, No. 6 NFC seed)
Minnesota’s one of the most intriguing playoff teams out there. Just look at its offense. The Vikings have all the pieces to be dynamic: a good enough offensive line, a star running back, two great wide receivers and a quarterback who not long ago was a dark horse for MVP honors.
But Dalvin Cook is coming off a shoulder injury, Adam Thielen has had a disappointing and injury-plagued season opposite Stefon Diggs (Maryland), and Kirk Cousins is still looking for a signature victory. Minnesota has the defense to stay in games, but complete games have been elusive this season.
Buffalo sputtered in the last month of the season, losing three of its final four games, including a Week 17 game to the New York Jets after they’d already secured the AFC’s fifth seed. That shouldn’t dampen a breakthrough 2019. The Bills, maybe the conference’s biggest surprise team, have leaned on a stout defense and a solid ground game week after week.
But Buffalo’s hopes for its first playoff win since 1995 will ultimately fall on second-year quarterback Josh Allen, who for all his improvements still struggles with deep-ball accuracy. The Bills also could be without several key players who suffered injuries Sunday.
9. Seattle Seahawks (11-5, No. 5 NFC seed)
Seattle has not looked good in December, and neither has its injury report. Running back Chris Carson is out for the rest of the season with a hip injury, left tackle Duane Brown had minor knee surgery last week, and safety Quandre Diggs hasn’t played since Week 15 because of an ankle injury.
When the Seahawks have succeeded this season, it’s because Russell Wilson has played like the NFL’s best quarterback. But the margin for error narrows with every injury, and Pete Carroll has been rightly criticized for his conservative approach. No serious contender should be losing at home to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 16 — or expecting Marshawn Lynch to get up to speed this quickly.
Since taking over for Marcus Mariota, Ryan Tannehill has been one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, throwing 22 touchdowns to six interceptions and posting a league-high 117.5 passer rating. Tennessee also relies heavily on 2019 rushing champion Derrick Henry, who’s healthy for the postseason, while getting solid contributions from a number of young offensive targets.
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But if the Titans want to continue their late-season run, their defense needs to raise its game. They’ve won just two games against teams with a winning record: a Week 10 home matchup with the Chiefs and Sunday’s trip to Houston against a Texans team resting many of its starters.
11. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7, No. 4 NFC seed)
Philadelphia has the dubious distinction of being the best team in the worst division in football. In early December, the Eagles were 5-7 and the sky was falling; they’d just given up 37 points in a loss to the Miami Dolphins. Barring a Week 16 win over the first-place Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia’s season was almost certainly over.
Well, it’s not. But no one will be picking the Eagles to make another Super Bowl run. While Philadelphia doesn’t necessarily profile as a bad team — according to Football Outsiders’ efficiency rankings, they had a top-15 offense and defense entering Week 17 — injuries have done a number on its potential. Carson Wentz can’t carry the offense by himself.