The Chiefs have the clearest path to the Super Bowl, but they’re followed closely by a group of teams that could put up plenty of fight. Who will hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February?
The wacky and wild Week 17 slate served as a playoffs-clinching game of musical chairs for a handful of contending teams, as the Colts, Browns, Rams, and Football Team punched their playoff tickets while the Dolphins and Cardinals are done for the year. There are 14 teams left vying for Super Bowl glory, so instead of our typical 32-team rankings, let’s focus this week on the teams that are still alive in the NFL’s expanded playoff field. With the new six-game format on tap, here are my power rankings for the NFL’s so-called Super Wild-Card Weekend.
1. Kansas City Chiefs (14-2)
The Chiefs didn’t have a lot to play for on Sunday―they locked up the no. 1 seed in AFC and a crucial first-round bye last week―so we can’t take much away from their JV squad losing 38-21 to the Chargers. Instead, I’m focused on the main points that make Kansas City the team to beat in the AFC and the playoffs at large. That list starts with Patrick Mahomes, who’s the closest thing the NFL has to prime Michael Jordan. He’s capable of effortlessly putting points on the board and willing his teams to wins in high-leverage situations. Mahomes is the guy I’d trust most if my team needed to drive down the field in a two-minute drill and score a touchdown.
He has plenty of help, too. His incredible supporting cast is headlined by superstars in tight end Travis Kelce and receiver Tyreek Hill. And he’s playing in a system designed by head coach Andy Reid, who’s built a nimble offense that can adjust to and exploit just about any opposing scheme. Crucially, Kansas City also has home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Chiefs have played with fire at times this season, as they’re winners of eight one-score games in 2020. But they also somehow seemed to be in complete control in all of those games. A lot has to go wrong for this team to lose, and it’s clear that in the AFC, the road to the Super Bowl goes through Kansas City.
2. Buffalo Bills (13-3)
If the Chiefs are the team to beat in the AFC, the Bills look best equipped to do just that. Buffalo locked up the no. 2 seed in the conference with an absolute shellacking of the Dolphins on Sunday, dropping 56 points (most by any team this year) on a defense that came into the week ranked first in the NFL in points allowed (18.8). Buffalo’s offense is an absolute buzz saw, and it’s tough to see any team slowing this group down. The Bills have averaged an absurd 37.9 points per game from Week 9 on, easily tops in the NFL, and won seven of the eight games in that stretch. (The lone loss came on a Hail Mary completion by Kyler Murray and the Cardinals.) Buffalo hasn’t just been winning those games, it’s been blowing the absolute doors off of teams: During their current six-game win streak, the Bills have outscored their opponents 229-110.
Buffalo has a well-balanced and complete roster, but the offense has been its identity and trump card during the second half of the year. The combination of Josh Allen’s pinpoint passing and Brian Daboll’s brilliant scheming has been beautiful to watch: Allen has bloomed under Daboll’s tutelage, setting new single-season franchise records for passing yards (4,544) and passing touchdowns (37) while adding another 421 yards and eight scores with his legs. Allen is in the running for the league’s MVP award, and he became the first player in NFL history to throw for 4,500-plus yards and 35-plus touchdowns while also rushing for five-plus touchdowns in a single season.
The third-year quarterback got plenty of help from playmaking no. 1 receiver Stefon Diggs, who came to Buffalo via Minnesota and immediately established a rapport with Allen. With a seven-catch, 76-yard outing to end the year, Diggs finished the regular season with league highs in both catches (127) and yards (1,535).
The triumvirate of Allen, Diggs, and Daboll makes the Bills a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Their path to the championship is a little bit longer than that of the Chiefs, though, and Buffalo will have a tough test on Saturday when facing off against Colts, who finished with the seventh-ranked defense per DVOA.
3. Green Bay Packers (13-3)
The margins separating the Packers from both the Chiefs and Bills in these rankings are impossibly thin, and Green Bay sits at a clear cutoff point for the elite tier of postseason squads―there’s a substantial drop-off before moving into the next group. On the back of an incredible renaissance performance by MVP front-runner Aaron Rodgers, the Packers offense finished the regular season ranked first in both points per game (31.8) and Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA—yes, ahead of both the Chiefs and Bills—and now look like the clear Super Bowl favorites in the NFC. Green Bay owns the no. 1 seed and that critical first-round bye, and head coach Matt LaFleur has this team running like a well-oiled machine.
For those who’ve ever wondered what a quarterback with truly elite tools could do in one of Kyle Shanahan’s or Sean McVay’s savvy offensive schemes, this Green Bay squad offers a pretty good proxy. Combining balance between the run and pass with heavy doses of play-action, motion, and creative play sequencing, LaFleur has helped to unlock Rodgers’s skill set and take the veteran quarterback to heights we haven’t seen in years. The 37-year-old signal-caller’s numbers this year have been ludicrous: Rodgers has tallied a league-high 48 touchdowns and just five interceptions, completed a league-best 70.7 percent of his passes, put up 8.2 yards per attempt (third), and notched an NFL-best 121.5 passer rating. Green Bay’s defensive and special teams units are average at best, but it just hasn’t mattered. With Rodgers throwing to Davante Adams and handing the ball off to Aaron Jones, there aren’t many NFC teams capable of going punch for punch with these Packers.
4. New Orleans Saints (12-4)
The Saints’ dominant 33-7 win against the Panthers on Sunday served as a microcosm for the character of this team, an extraordinarily well-coached and adroit squad that seems uniquely equipped to deal with just about any speed bump. With star playmaker Alvin Kamara and the team’s entire running backs group on the COVID-19 list (along with the team’s running backs coach), Sean Payton and Drew Brees turned to a guy who’s primarily contributed on special teams this year, Ty Montgomery, to carry the load. It went as smoothly as I expected it to go, and I mean that earnestly: Montgomery, who has played both receiver and running back at different points in his career, stepped in and carried the ball 18 times for 105 yards. The Saints offense barely skipped a beat.
If that sounds familiar, that’s because the Saints have made it a habit in the past couple of years to thrive in what could have or should have been much tougher situations. Last season, New Orleans went a clean 5-0 with backup Teddy Bridgewater under center. This year, the Saints won three out of four with Taysom Hill as their starter. And they weathered the loss of Michael Thomas for long stretches this season, too, trotting out receiver sets that included former undrafted free agents Marquez Callaway, Juwan Johnson, and Lil’Jordan Humphrey, among others. It’s not always pretty, but Payton has shown time and again he can get his players ready to go―even when they’re backups we’ve never heard of.
Locked into the no. 2 seed in the NFC, New Orleans hosts the no. 7 Bears on Sunday. It’d obviously be better if Kamara is cleared to play before the game, but even if he’s forced to sit, I have no doubt that Payton and the Saints will have an interesting offensive plan up their sleeves.
5. Baltimore Ravens (11-5)
It’s true that the Ravens’ offense has feasted on a lineup of bad defenses during the team’s current five-game winning streak, but I’m not convinced that’s the only reason for Lamar Jackson and Co.’s second-half resurgence. The reigning MVP has seemed to recapture his swagger after a long slump during the middle of the year, and the offense as a whole has rediscovered its roots. We saw that in Baltimore’s 38-3 beatdown of Cincinnati on Sunday, when the Ravens racked up 525 yards of offense, including a truly ridiculous 404 yards on the ground.
Rookie J.K. Dobbins led the way for that reenergized group, picking up 160 yards and two touchdowns as the lightning element to the team’s running back tandem. Gus Edwards, meanwhile, thundered his way to 60 yards on 12 carries. That duo was buoyed, as usual, by Jackson, who added 97 yards on 11 totes to eclipse 1,000 yards on the season, becoming the first quarterback to do that twice (he also did it in 2019).
The win locked Baltimore into the no. 5 seed in the AFC, giving it an intriguing draw against the no. 4 Titans―the same team that beat the Ravens in the divisional round last year. There’s no doubt that the Ravens will look to control possession and run the rock with Jackson, Dobbins, and Edwards, but in order to keep the ball out of Ryan Tannehill’s and Derrick Henry’s hands, Jackson will have to drop back and make some passes on key third-down situations. That’s when Hollywood Brown could be a crucial element. The second-year receiver, who caught a pair of touchdowns on Sunday and has enjoyed a strong finish to an otherwise disappointing season, could be the key for getting the Ravens over the hump this postseason.
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)
It’s tough to overstate just how impressive Tom Brady’s performance has been this season. The 43-year-old signal-caller shattered just about every passing record for quarterbacks his age, throwing for 4,633 yards and 40 touchdowns with his new team. That passing yardage total is a cool 3,681 yards better than the next closest performance of an age-43-or-older quarterback in league history (Vinny Testaverde in 2007), and his 40 touchdown passes is 34 better than no. 2, George Blanda, who’d held the mark (six) since 1970.
Even widening the scope to include all quarterbacks older than 40, Brady’s season represents the new bar, eclipsing the numbers Brady himself posted back in 2017 (4,577 yards and 32 touchdowns). There were a few moments this season when it started to feel like Brady was on the cusp of sinking into mediocrity, but I’ve got to hand it to the dude: He just keeps slicing and dicing opposing defenses. He’s gotten hotter as the season has rolled along and he’s gotten more reps in this offense with these receivers. Thanks to a 44-27 win against the Falcons on Sunday (in which Brady threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns), the Buccaneers locked up no. 5 seed and a date with the no. 4 seed Football Team.
7. Seattle Seahawks (12-4)
The Seahawks notched their first 12-plus-win season since 2014 on Sunday, narrowly defeating a banged-up 49ers squad 26-23 to lock up the no. 3 seed in the NFC. That win puts Seattle on a collision course with the no. 6 seed Rams, one of two intradivisional matchups on wild-card weekend. And while the Seahawks defense continued to show signs of life in the win, Russell Wilson was again frustratingly off target or downright timid for large swaths of the game. Through three quarters, Seattle’s offense had totaled just 79 net passing yards and seven first downs, mustering a pair of field goal drives as the team fell behind 16-6 by the early fourth quarter.
But with his back up against the wall, Wilson came alive in the final frame, leading the Seahawks offense on three consecutive touchdown drives to build a 10-point lead. Despite that valiant comeback effort, the Seahawks offense as a whole put together an ugly slog of a performance and made things far too difficult on themselves. In other words, things went pretty much according to Pete Carroll’s design.
As they’ve done for the vast majority of Carroll’s tenure in Seattle, the Seahawks seemed more interested in using their early-game possessions to probe for weaknesses, assess defensive reactions, and protect the football at all costs instead of scoring points. Carroll all but confirmed that was the case after the game, noting that “there’s a patience to it that nobody wants to see, but we are feeling OK about it.” He added, “We just have to make sure we come out of it and we get the points we need to win.”
That’s a maddening approach for some, including me, who’d prefer that the Seahawks try to score more than the absolute bare minimum number of points, but it’s also a philosophy that’s brought Carroll plenty of wins. In Carroll’s mind, the best and most consistent way to succeed is to win the turnover battle. The Seahawks accomplished that on Sunday, creating one takeaway while not giving the ball up. But Carroll’s conservative approach has meant a whole lot less Letting Russ Cook and a whole lot more of Pressuring Russ to Not Turn the Ball Over. That equals sacks. That equals fewer deep shots. And it makes this team tough to watch.
I’m expecting more of the same against the Rams’ excellent defense on Saturday, and I’m all but certain the game will come down to the final possession. That’s what Carroll wants, and he expects his squad to come out on top more often than not.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
The Steelers sat many of their starters, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, in the team’s 24-22 loss to the Browns on Sunday, so it’s tough to put too much stock into what we saw in that game. But if there’s anything we can take away from that matchup, it was that rookie receiver Chase Claypool could have an expanded role in the team’s wild-card rematch with Cleveland this weekend.
After seeing his snaps and overall role in the offense decline over the last month-plus―an intentional strategy by the team, according to Mike Tomlin, who didn’t want Claypool to hit the proverbial rookie wall―the dynamic receiver became a focal point against the Browns. The 6-foot-4, 238-pound pass catcher reeled in five catches for 101 yards and a touchdown, finishing with his best game since a breakout seven-catch, 110-yard, three-touchdown performance in Week 5. Claypool used his rare size and top-tier speed to get behind the Cleveland defense and create a few big plays, showing off the exact thing that the Steelers’ tepid passing game has mostly missed during the second half of the season. If the rookie can help unlock Roethlisberger’s mostly absent vertical game, he could be a key to a long postseason run.
9. Tennessee Titans (11-5)
The Derrick Henry show was a sight to behold on Sunday, as the runaway beer truck back racked up a ridiculous 250 yards and two touchdowns on 34 attempts―a performance that pushed him past the 2,000-yard mark on the season and made him one of just eight running backs to achieve that feat in NFL history.
But as impressive as Henry was in the Titans’ 41-38 win over the Texans, I came away just as amazed with Ryan Tannehill, who continues to prove, week in and week out, that he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the league. His stats from Sunday don’t exactly scream elite: 18-of-27 for 216 yards and a touchdown. But as we’ve seen all year―and really, during his entire tenure in Tennessee―Tannehill isn’t afraid to let it rip when the game is on the line. That’s exactly what happened Sunday when the Titans got the ball back with 18 seconds left and the game tied at 38.
What a bomb from Ryan Tannehill to AJ Brown!pic.twitter.com/14zh09Oyg9
— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) January 4, 2021
That 52-yard gain to A.J. Brown pushed Tennessee into field goal range (Kaʻimi Fairbairn hit the kick) and helped Tanny Dimes notch his sixth game-winning drive of the season, top among all passers this year. One of those six, by the way, was the game-clinching overtime drive Tannehill led against the Ravens back in Week 11. Henry may be the engine that powers the Titans offense, but this team will need a few big-time throws from its quarterback to beat Baltimore on Sunday.
10. Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
Jonathan Taylor is getting hot at just the right time. The rookie back put a short midseason slump securely in the rearview with an absolutely bonkers performance in the Colts’ 28-14 win over the Jaguars on Sunday, doing his best Derrick Henry impression en route to 253 yards and two scores on 30 carries. Taylor’s dominance covered up for a forgettable day from Philip Rivers, who finished a slightly concerning 17-of-27 for 164 yards with a touchdown and a pick, and helped push Indianapolis into the postseason. The reward? A matchup with the red-hot Bills.
It’s a tired and overused cliché, sure, but in the Colts’ case, winning the time-of-possession battle might be the key to the game. The best, and perhaps only, way to slow down the juggernaut Bills offense will be to keep the ball out of Josh Allen’s hands. To do that, Indy needs more from Rivers, and it’ll surely look to get Taylor rolling too. If the rookie back can move the chains, bleed the clock, and do his part to limit Buffalo’s possessions, Indianapolis has a shot at pulling off the upset.
11. Cleveland Browns (11-5)
Well, it wasn’t pretty, but the Browns did what this franchise hadn’t been able to do in 17 seasons. Their 24-22 win over the Steelers’ JV squad not only ended a postseason drought dating back to 2002, but also solidified Kevin Stefanski as one of best coaches the franchise has ever had. Yes, after just one season.
Kevin Stefanski’s 11 wins in his first season are more than seven Browns head coaches had in their entire Browns tenure. Since the team resumed play in 1999, only Butch Davis and Romeo Crennel won more games in their entire tenure than Stefanski won this season. Legend.
— Kevin Clark (@bykevinclark) January 3, 2021
Stefanski inherited a team with some pieces to build around, but there’s no denying that he’s created stability for a club that’s had anything but over the past, well, forever. The no. 6 seed Browns have, for the first time that I can remember, a real identity, one based on the team’s elite offensive line, Nick Chubb’s explosive piston-like feet, and their big-play-creating run game. They play hard. They play physical. With Baker Mayfield and Myles Garrett at the vanguard, they play with passion. And they also get an opportunity to knock a division rival out of the postseason this Sunday. Perhaps more than any of the other games on the slate, Browns-Steelers feels like a toss-up.
12. Los Angeles Rams (10-6)
Rams head coach Sean McVay played coy following the team’s playoff-berth-clinching 18-7 win over the Cardinals on Sunday, refusing to divulge whether the team would go back to Jared Goff or stick with backup John Wolford in L.A.’s wild-card matchup against the Seahawks. On the surface, the decision seems simple: If Goff, who suffered a broken thumb in the team’s Week 16 loss to Seattle, is able to play, he’ll play. But things may not be so cut and dry. I don’t think that McVay was lying when he implied after the game that Wolford gave the Rams offense a completely different dynamic.
“I thought [Wolford] really gave us a chance offensively with the amount of plays that he made in the pass game, with his legs, athleticism, being able to extend things,” said McVay, adding that “John’s ability to … convert with his legs, that’s a big winning edge for us. That was a factor all day. You can just see some of the different things you’re able to do with him really showed up.”
John Wolford’s best plays from his first NFL game! pic.twitter.com/cq5UEDVxq4
— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) January 5, 2021
The former AAF standout went 22-of-38 passing for 231 yards and a pick, adding 56 yards on six carries. But that underwhelming stat line hides the undeniable spark he provided to a previously listless Rams offense. When pressure came, he escaped and made things happen. He converted three third downs with his legs. Outside of his early-game pick, which looked more like the jitters than anything else, he took care of the ball. And it wasn’t like the Rams were just playing it safe and checking the ball down all game.
Say this about Sean McVay and John Wolford… they weren’t timid.
Using NextGen Stats, in his NFL debut, here were Wolford’s Week 17 ranks:
Aggressiveness (throws into tight coverage) – 2nd
Intended air yards – 11th pic.twitter.com/byTk5iqVH2
— J.B. Long (@JB_Long) January 4, 2021
Would L.A. look to rush Goff back from his injury or simply roll with the hot hand in Wolford? (I’m using “hot” in relative terms, at least in the way that Goff has played over the past few weeks.) Goff has struggled this year, even when healthy, and in the Rams’ loss to the Seahawks two weeks ago, he went just 24-of-43 for 234 yards and a pick, notching a 61.6 passer rating. Crucially, Goff has been straight-up bad at the improvisational parts of the game. He’s a rhythm passer with subpar mobility who struggles to keep plays alive and make something out of nothing when things break down or pressure arrives. For that reason alone, I’m not putting it past McVay to stick with his backup, at least this week against the Seahawks.
13. Chicago Bears (8-8)
There’s no denying that the Bears offense has looked better and has functioned more effectively with Mitchell Trubisky back under center over the past six games. But there’s a pretty significant chasm between being better and being good, and we saw just how limited this team’s passing game is in Chicago’s loss to the Packers on Sunday. Trubisky finished 33-of-42 for 252 yards and an interception in the 35-16 loss. This pass chart from NFL Next Gen Stats tells a pretty vivid story about the Bears’ approach.
This is the picture of an offensive coordinator hiding his quarterback. Bill Lazor is going to have to open things up a bit for the Bears to have any shot of knocking off the Saints on Sunday. More importantly, Trubisky is going to have to hit a few more throws.
14. Washington Football Team (7-9)
Washington is the worst and least balanced squad in the NFL’s playoff field. But while it’s difficult to see this Alex Smith–led offense making much noise against a tough Tampa Bay defense on Saturday, Washington does have a hounding, swarming defensive front. That group could make things just tough enough on Tom Brady and Co. to give the Football Team a chance to squeak out an ugly win.
Washington’s defensive line is led by rookie Chase Young, who’s found his groove over the second half of the year and turned an already-good group into an elite one. Young notched a sack, recovered a fumble, and racked up seven quarterback pressures in the team’s 20-14 win over the Eagles. The dynamic edge rusher spearheaded a unit that generated a 57.1 percent pressure rate on four-man pressure schemes in that game, good for the fourth-highest rate in a game by any defense this season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. The book on beating Brady has long been to generate pressure with your front four and then hope for the best with seven-man coverage looks in the back end. Washington may be uniquely equipped to do just that.