The NFL’s Week 18 slate was a surprisingly fun ride that served up the official postseason bracket. The Colts’ postseason hopes were dashed by a disappointing loss to the Jaguars on Sunday while the 49ers, Steelers, and Raiders all punched their playoff tickets with dramatic overtime wins over the Rams, Ravens, and Chargers, respectively. Now that we’ve come to the end of an unusual but unforgettable regular season, let’s focus on the 14 teams still vying for the Lombardi Trophy. With the NFL playoffs set to finally kick off, here are my updated power rankings.
1. Green Bay Packers (13-4)
Despite suffering an inconsequential 37-30 loss to the Lions on Sunday, the Packers sit in the catbird seat in the NFC after locking up the no. 1 seed last week. And with a wild-card bye and a decided home-field advantage at Lambeau Field (where they went 8-0 this season), it’s hard to overstate just how well-positioned Green Bay is for a Super Bowl run. That upcoming bye not only frees the Packers from the Any Given Sunday–style variance of wild-card weekend, but it gives this team the critical opportunity to get healthier. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers can give his injured toe some rest and rehabilitation, and Green Bay could get some key pieces back during their time off: Star cornerback Jaire Alexander has a chance to return to the field in the divisional round after missing most of the season to a shoulder injury; All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari, who has been out with an ACL injury, will have an extra week to work back to full strength (and improve his conditioning) after making his season debut in Week 18; the same could be said for center Josh Myers, who returned from a knee injury this week; and the bonus time off gives both receiver Randall Cobb (core injury) and pass rusher Za’Darius Smith (back) the chance to get back into action.
As for that home-field advantage, the Packers are perfectly built to exploit Lambeau Field’s extreme weather. It all starts with Rodgers, of course, who’s more dialed in as a passer than any other quarterback in the world right now. He’s got a near-unstoppable trump card in his mind-meld connection with Davante Adams, and that duo has been incredibly efficient converting in key third-down and red-zone situations. But crucially, in the off chance that Rodgers has a bad day (or if wind and snow prevent the team from executing in the passing attack), the Packers can lean on their two-man running game, throwing a thunder-and-lighting element at opponents in AJ Dillon and Aaron Jones. Jones has explosive score-from-anywhere potential and Dillon is a walking cliché as the guy no one wants to tackle as the game wears on and the temperature drops. The Packers have been built to be almost perfectly balanced on offense, and head coach Matt LaFleur has been a virtuoso in orchestrating that group. His relationship with Rodgers, and his knowledge in how to deploy the team’s offensive arsenal, is what gives Green Bay a distinct edge this postseason.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (12-5)
It’s been a topsy-turvy season for the Chiefs, who’ve alternated between issues on offense and on defense … and at times, both. But despite the team’s worrisome slow start, Kansas City has still managed to get right back to where everyone figured they’d be before the season: atop the AFC West. And they still have Patrick Mahomes under center … which is really the primary reason I’ve got them at no. 2 on this list. Kansas City’s going to need its defense to start tackling again after struggling mightily in that area over the past two weeks, sure, and if that unit can get back to the dominant style of football we’d seen from them during most of the second half of the season it’ll make the Chiefs hard to beat. But if that group falters, Mahomes remains the ultimate equalizer; with unmatched arm talent and a knack for out-of-structure genius, Mahomes is still capable of making his offense a postseason buzz saw.
It helps that Mahomes’s interception luck has changed in the second half of the year. During the first eight weeks of the season, he threw 19 touchdowns to a league-worst 10 picks, but the majority of those interceptions were either tipped at the line or egregiously dropped by Mahomes’s intended receiver. The wily passer has cleaned up his decision-making in his last nine games in an effort to cut down on those back-breaking turnovers, but he’s also simply gotten more help from his pass-catchers, too, and has posted 18 touchdowns to three picks in that time.
And speaking of getting more help, the injuries that have slowed down Tyreek Hill and Clyde Edwards-Helaire over the past few weeks might end up being blessings in disguise for the Chiefs this postseason. Kansas City has gotten depth receivers like Mecole Hardman (eight catches, 103 yards in Saturday’s win over the Broncos) and Byron Pringle (five catches, 56 yards) more action late in the season, and both have stepped up and made big plays. Meanwhile, Darrel Williams has filled in nicely in Edwards-Helaire’s stead, and should either he (or both he and CEH) be unavailable next weekend (Williams aggravated a toe injury in Saturday’s game), Derrick Gore and Jerick McKinnon have shown that they can pick up the slack. The Chiefs offense has typically run through Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and Hill, and when all three of those guys are on, look out. But in a season in which teams have deployed more Cover-2 looks and forced Mahomes to work the short-and-intermediate areas at a higher clip, Kansas City’s offense seems to be finding new ways to move the ball―and new players on which to lean to score points. If Hardman, Pringle, and the team’s backups at running back can step up and make plays when they’re given opportunities this postseason, it could make an already dangerous offense that much harder to stop.
A wild-card weekend draw against a Steelers team that the Chiefs dispatched 36-10 in Week 16 gives K.C. the chance to start the playoffs right.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4)
The Buccaneers won the Super Bowl last year in part because they were one of the healthiest teams in the league, but that advantage has been wiped away in the past few weeks. The defending champs are banged up as they head into the postseason, and they’ll have to dig deep with star receiver Chris Godwin on the injured reserve and various levels of injury to Lavonte David, Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Richard Sherman, Leonard Fournette, Ronald Jones II, and Cyril Grayson, all of whom either missed the team’s Week 18 matchup with the Panthers or left that game early. Making Tampa Bay’s injury woes worse is that they’ll play a Philadelphia team that’s relatively healthy heading into the wild-card round. Lucky for Tampa Bay, though, is that in the history of football―hell, in the history of sports, maybe―there’s never been a force-multiplier quite like Tom Brady.
The future Hall of Famer and unquestioned GOAT can still lean on reliable go-to pass-catchers Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski. But he’ll have to prove once again that he remains without peer in elevating the players around him―an opportunity he’ll get when he’s throwing passes to depth guys like Tyler Johnson, Scotty Miller, Cameron Brate, and Ke’Shawn Vaughn this postseason. That’s a big ask for the 44-year-old signal-caller, but I’m not sure why I’d start doubting the guy now. He not only continued to set new bars for quarterbacks over 40 this season, but literally led all NFL quarterbacks in passing yards (5,316) and touchdowns (43). I’ll admit to doubting the Buccaneers a bit too much at the start of the postseason last year, but I won’t make that mistake again. Football is a complex, often chaotic sport, but it doesn’t always have to be super-complicated: With Brady under center, the Bucs should be one of the favorites to win it all.
4. Tennessee Titans (12-5)
The Titans have been up and down this season as they’ve battled injuries to key players, collecting impressive wins over the Bills, Chiefs, Rams, 49ers, and Saints, among others, while also dropping games to the lowly Jets and Texans. That inconsistency is definitely a red flag, but it’s hard to ignore how well the stars have aligned for this team as we head into the postseason. Not only did Tennessee secure the no. 1 seed in the AFC, but they’re getting some key contributors back into action.
Offensively, we may see a healthy trio of Derrick Henry (who’s expected back soon), A.J. Brown (who’s thrived the past few weeks), and Julio Jones (who’s back on the field and caught his first touchdown in over a year on Sunday) take the field in the divisional round―a rarity for Tennessee this year. The Titans, of course, survived the second half of the season with Henry on the sideline (rotating a cast of D’Onta Foreman, Dontrell Hilliard, and Jeremy McNichols), but the big playmaking running back’s presence should give opponents a hard-to-reproduce pucker factor in planning how to defend this offense. Henry’s a home run hitter who must be accounted for: He’s capable of swinging games, so opponents will surely load up to try to stop the Titans’ ground game. That will be a welcome sight for Ryan Tannehill, whose play-action passing attack marries well with Henry’s foundational ground game.
The Titans spent the whole season fulfilling all the other levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: They kept their heads above water and stayed alive after Henry got hurt, eked out necessary wins, forged important relationships, and built some swagger. Now, for the first time all year, we might finally see the self-actualization of this Tennessee team. This is where the Titans realize their full potential. In some ways, the Titans remind me of the Packers: Obviously, they’re both no. 1 seeds in their respective conferences. But both squads also win with balance. Both teams are built to wear defenses down. And while Tannehill isn’t on Rodgers’s level, both quarterbacks are capable of creating explosive plays through the air. For most of the season, I’ve doubted that the Titans have a high ceiling, but they’re so well-positioned, well-constructed, and well-coached that nothing they do this postseason would surprise me.
5. Dallas Cowboys (12-5)
It’s hard to get a read on the Cowboys right now. There are moments when Dallas looks like the best team in the NFL―so it shouldn’t be too surprising this team finished first in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Defensively, the Cowboys can take over a game and suffocate opposing quarterbacks with star pass rushers DeMarcus Lawrence, Micah Parsons, and Randy Gregory. And when that group is paired with a good day for the team’s offense, this squad is like John Williams’s soundtrack to Jurassic Park: a beautifully symphonic piece of art that almost makes you forget you’re looking at an eccentric billionaire’s vanity project.
When Dak Prescott is on his game, distributing the ball to Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Dalton Schultz, or any of the team’s playmaking pass catchers, the Cowboys offense is unstoppable. But here’s the problem: The offense doesn’t always play up to its potential. Through the past few months, that unit has been all over the map in its effectiveness. Prescott’s accuracy has come and gone―perhaps the result of the midseason calf injury―and the team’s run game under Ezekiel Elliott has been unreliable. Strangely, a microcosm for the whole thing is how wildly variable Elliott appears from game to game: One week he’ll look like he’s running in mud, and the next week he’ll look like he was shot out of a cannon. Zeke has been battling injuries for the past few weeks, but there’s seemingly little rhyme or reason to which version of him we’ll get in a given game. And so it goes with the Cowboys.
I’ve got Dallas at no. 5 on my list, though, because ultimately I believe in their upside. They’re going to have to figure out how to capture that potential in their wild-card matchup with a very good 49ers team, but it’s just not hard for me to envision this team making a deep run in the playoffs.
6. Buffalo Bills (11-6)
The Bills were my preseason Super Bowl champions pick, and the reasons I gave then still apply today: This team has a strong defense (which finished the season no. 1 in DVOA) led by a fearsome pass-rushing front. They’re well-coached. And crucially, they’ve got Josh Allen.
Allen’s numbers have dropped off ever so slightly from last year, as he finished with fewer passing yards (4,544 last year, 4,407 this year), fewer touchdown passes (37 last year, 36 this year), more interceptions (10 to 15), and a worse passer rating (107.2 to 92.2) and yards per attempt average (7.9 to 6.8) than last season. But while a slight regression across a full season was predictable considering the incredible efficiency marks Allen hit in 2020, the bottom line is that this dude is still more than capable of completely taking over a game. He’s Achilles on the football field; he has vulnerabilities, and they’ve manifested in big games before, but when he sets out to put his team on his back, it’s truly a thing to behold. No one can stop him.
Allen’s dual-threat talent as both a passer and runner are unmatched right now and something we haven’t seen since Cam Newton was in his prime. Whether the Bills are looking to convert a third down or punch the ball into the end zone, Allen is an absolute cheat code: He has one of the strongest arms in the league and the ability to thread the needle into tight coverage or connect on a 60-yard bomb. And if the situation calls for it, he doubles as a 6-foot-5, 237-pound fullback with gazelle-like speed, a playmaker who can break through arm tackles and truck-stick defenders on his way to a first down or score. That’s exactly the type of guy I want to bet on when games get tight and the weather gets worse. Allen is appointment viewing for the playoffs, and if he gets rolling, I’m not sure who’s going to slow him down.
7. Los Angeles Rams (12-5)
The Rams made the right decision in trading for Matthew Stafford, in my opinion, and the veteran quarterback gives L.A.’s offense the explosive potential it needs to make a real run at the Super Bowl this year. The former Lions signal-caller is capable of making damn-near impossible throws and has helped to activate every level and every eligible receiver in the Rams’ deep-passing attack all year. He changes the way defenses have to play L.A., stretches opposing coverages thin, and gives the Rams the ability to create game-changing plays through the air. He was the catalyst to Cooper Kupp winning the regular-season triple crown in receiving (most catches, yards, and touchdowns) and he’s been an integral part of L.A.’s journey to 12 wins in 2021. With all that being said, Stafford’s inconsistency as a passer just may spell the Rams’ postseason doom.
The contrast between Stafford’s elite upside and his mystifyingly pedestrian downside can be summed up by his three touchdowns and two interceptions in the Rams’ 27-24 loss to the 49ers on Sunday.
Yesterday, Matthew Stafford threw two interceptions and took five sacks but still ended the game with 0.35 EPA per dropback, the fourth-highest mark of the week, per TruMedia— Dan Pizzuta (@DanPizzuta) January 10, 2022
That loss, which featured a handful of Stafford highlight throws along with a couple of back-breaking mistakes, was a microcosm for the veteran passer’s performance this year: It’s usually great, but also sometimes atrociously bad. With a series of big-ticket trades and flashy offseason acquisitions, the Rams have pushed all their chips into the pot with the hopes of winning a Super Bowl. And this team certainly has the star power to do so, especially when Aaron Donald, Von Miller, Jalen Ramsey, Kupp, Odell Beckham Jr., and Stafford are all doing their respective thing. But ultimately, the Rams’ playoff destiny rests on Stafford’s shoulders. If the efficient, turnover-averse version of Stafford shows up, I’d give L.A. a good chance to run the table. But if bad Stafford shows up, they won’t make it to February.
8. Cincinnati Bengals (10-7)
The Athletic’s Sheil Kapadia wrote in a recent column that offense is actually what wins championships in the NFL these days. I’m paraphrasing a bit, but as Kapadia notes, 19 of the 20 teams that have reached the conference championships in the past five seasons finished with a top-10 offense that year, per DVOA. For reference, this year’s top 10 includes eight playoff teams: the Bucs, Packers, Chiefs, 49ers, Cowboys, Rams, Patriots, and Bills. The ability to score points in bunches, control the clock, and play keep-away from your opponent has been an extremely effective strategy in the postseason of late―and it’s no coincidence that all but one of the teams I’ve listed above (the Titans) can be found among 2021’s top 10 offenses.
The Bengals, notably, are not among them―they finished 18th in offensive DVOA―but I’m willing to make an exception based on the way they’ve been moving the ball and scoring during the past few weeks. More specifically, it’s tough to ignore the absolute heater that second-year quarterback Joe Burrow is on to finish out the regular season. Burrow benefited from playing an injury-decimated Ravens’ secondary in the team’s 41-21 win over Baltimore in Week 16, but the way he torched the previously red-hot Chiefs defense in Week 17 drove the point home. Burrow is feeling himself right now, and through his past two starts has thrown 971 yards, eight touchdowns, and no picks while averaging 11.4 yards per attempt with a 145.6 passer rating. Those are Burrow-at-LSU-type numbers.
The Bengals aren’t perfect, but they’re a buzz saw on offense at the moment and that gives them a puncher’s chance in a single-elimination tournament. If head coach Zac Taylor lets loose this weekend against the Raiders and Burrow does his thing (with the help, of course, of Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, and Joe Mixon), Cincy should be in good shape.
9. New England Patriots (10-7)
The Patriots looked like the AFC’s team to beat for a solid chunk of the middle of the season. They won seven consecutive games from Week 7 through 13, a stretch in which they paired a dominant, turnover-creating defense with a smashmouth running game and a well-managed passing attack led by rookie quarterback Mac Jones. New England was playing exactly like you’d expect a Bill Belichick–coached team to play: The Pats understood their assignments, were sound in their execution, and took care of the football. They also showed that they could beat opponents in myriad ways, whether they were asking Jones to air it out or pass the ball just three times. They looked like a team that could dominate through the holidays and into the playoffs.
But then the Patriots faded down the stretch, losing three of their final four games to relinquish control of the AFC East and drop all the way down to the no. 6 seed in the conference. Now they’re set to travel to Buffalo and take on the Bills, who beat them 33-21 in Week 16. The Patriots still have the pieces to excel like they did in November, but they have to figure out how to get back to making key defensive stops and quit turning the ball over on offense. (Jones has thrown five interceptions in the past four games.) It won’t be easy to flip that switch.
New England’s best shot may be becoming the “nobody believes in us” team, as Bill Simmons noted this week. Otherwise, this group has been trending in the wrong direction.
10. San Francisco 49ers (10-7)
San Francisco’s offense is a schematic beauty, a playmaker-packed group that finished the season fifth in DVOA and is capable of going punch for punch with anyone. At least, it is so long as quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t sabotaging its potential. Garoppolo has been downright surgical at times, and his 68 percent completion rate, 98.7 passer rating, and 8.6 yards-per-attempt average are all impressive marks. But all too often, his brilliant plays are counterbalanced by boneheaded ones.
We got the full Garoppolo experience in Sunday’s pivotal win over the Rams. Jimmy G rebounded from a rough first half—in which he threw a pick and put the 49ers in a 17-3 hole—by playing lights out down the stretch; he led his offense on three separate touchdown drives before engineering a game-winning field goal drive in overtime (and he did that while gutting out an injury to his thumb). If it gets that version of Garoppolo in the playoffs, San Francisco could make a run.
In reality, though, the Niners can succeed if Garoppolo simply avoids back-breaking turnovers and lets his teammates do the rest. With the impossibly versatile combination of George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and Jauan Jennings, head coach and play-caller Kyle Shanahan has nearly limitless options when it comes to getting his top offensive players involved. San Francisco often blurs the lines between receiver and running back, and Shanahan is better than anyone at scheming guys open so they can run after the catch. This offense is a pain in the ass to defend, and its starpower at the skill positions could propel the Niners a long way.
Of course, the 49ers will need some help from their defense too. That’s where a tough and hounding front seven will be asked to mask some of the deficiencies in the secondary. The Niners-Cowboys tilt set for Sunday is one of the most exciting―and wide open―matchups of the wild-card weekend slate.
11. Arizona Cardinals (11-6)
After starting out a red-hot 7-0, the Cardinals have sputtered down the stretch and now limp into the playoffs as losers of four of their last five. It’s some consolation that their lone win during that stretch was an impressive 25-22 victory in Dallas, but this group will have to dig deep if it hopes to make noise in the playoffs.
Kyler Murray is one of the most dynamic players in the sport, but Arizona has struggled to protect its quarterback of late (he was sacked five times in Sunday’s 38-30 loss to the Seahawks), and the team’s injuries on offense have begun to take their toll. Receiver DeAndre Hopkins is nursing an MCL injury and may not return in time for Monday’s wild-card matchup against the Rams in Los Angeles. Running backs James Conner and Chase Edmonds are both banged up, leaving their respective statuses up in the air. And the playmaker combination of A.J. Green, Christian Kirk, and Zach Ertz hasn’t been enough to lift the Cardinals over the top.
Worse yet, the Cards have struggled to slow down the Rams over the past few years. Since becoming Arizona’s head coach in 2019, Kliff Kingsbury has lost five of his six matchups against Sean McVay and L.A. That one win was a road victory in Week 4 of this season, and it’s worth noting that these Cardinals have been better on the road (8-1) than at home (3-5). But Kingsbury and Co. will certainly have their hands full this week, and will need to play mostly mistake-free football to advance.
12. Philadelphia Eagles (9-8)
The Eagles are probably more of a fun story line than a legitimate Super Bowl contender, but anything is possible in one of the weirdest and most parity-driven seasons in recent memory. I’m intrigued to see whether Philadelphia’s smashmouth approach can create some havoc in the playoffs, because any group with a dominant offensive line and one of the league’s most dangerous rushing attacks can’t be dismissed. That tandem could cause problems for the Buccaneers defense, which hasn’t been sharp against the run of late. Behind some rushing combination of Boston Scott, Jordan Howard, Kenneth Gainwell, and possibly Miles Sanders (who’s dealing with a broken hand), the Eagles will look to keep the ball away from Tom Brady for as long as possible on Sunday.
Jalen Hurts will be the true X factor for Philly. He’s a versatile dual-threat quarterback who changes the math of the team’s run game, and he has a knack for scrambling for critical first downs. Hurts will have to do some damage with his arm if the Eagles hope to advance, but with DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert running routes, it’s on the table.
Philly is playing with house money after outperforming expectations this season. What better way to keep the fun going than by knocking out Brady and the defending champs?
13. Las Vegas Raiders (10-7)
The Raiders have to avoid an emotional letdown after winning a wild game against the Chargers on Sunday night, but the pieces are in place for this team to beat the Bengals. On offense, Las Vegas will continue to rely on the increasingly automatic connection between Derek Carr and Hunter Renfrow, as well as on the resurgence of running back Josh Jacobs. With star tight end Darren Waller finally getting back to speed after a long absence due to injury, this unit is trending up.
On defense, edge rusher Maxx Crosby has been an absolute terror. He’s fresh off an 11-pressure performance against the Chargers, and he closed the regular season as the league leader in total pressures with 101, per PFF. With Crosby lining up opposite Yannick Ngakoue (who finished with 10 sacks, 23 QB hits, and 62 pressures) the Raiders have a fearsome pass-rush duo that could create problems for the pass-protection-deficient Bengals.
14. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7-1)
The Steelers’ offense is hard to watch. Ben Roethlisberger’s best days are well behind him, and the team’s passing game consists primarily of throws that travel between 2 and 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. That leaves Pittsburgh reliant on the combination of Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, Pat Freiermuth, and Najee Harris to manufacture yards and touchdowns. Somehow, this blueprint was effective enough to help this team finish 9-7-1 and eke its way into the playoffs.
That skill-position group is talented enough to create some big plays against a Kansas City defense that has recently struggled, but pulling a massive upset on wild-card weekend would require a lot more than that. Pittsburgh also needs Big Ben to avoid turning the ball over. If he can’t manage that, it’ll be damn near impossible for the Steelers to keep pace with Mahomes and the Chiefs.
Pittsburgh’s best chance is an otherworldly effort from its defense. That starts with T.J. Watt, who tied the single-season sacks record (22.5) last week. If Watt, Cam Heyward, Devin Bush, and Minkah Fitzpatrick can generate a few game-changing plays, perhaps the Steelers can keep things close in Kansas City.