NFL Power Rankings: B/R's Expert Consensus Rank for Conference Finalists

NFL StaffContributor IJanuary 14, 2020

NFL Power Rankings: B/R's Expert Consensus Rank for Conference Finalists

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The NFL's final four are set.

    For the most part, chalk ruled the day during the divisional round. The weekend's action kicked off with a dominant performance by the NFC's top seed in San Francisco. On Sunday, both No. 2 seeds advanced to the conference championships when the Kansas City Chiefs erased a 24-point deficit against the Houston Texans, and the Green Bay Packers held off the Seattle Seahawks at Lambeau Field.

    However, there was one upset—and it was a doozy. At M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore on Saturday night, the 14-2 Baltimore Ravens (owners of the NFL's best record in 2019) weren't just sent packing by the upstart Tennessee Titans.

    They got thumped, 28-12.

    It sets up a very interesting pair of conference title games. In the AFC, the Titans will attempt to finish off a grueling three-game gauntlet by traveling to Arrowhead to face the Chiefs. In Santa Clara, the 49ers will host the Packers in a battle of the NFC's top two seeds and a rematch of a Week 12 contest won in blowout fashion by San Francisco.

    Ahead of the next-to-last weekend of NFL action of the season (the Pro Bowl most assuredly does not count), Bleacher Report NFL analysts Gary Davenport, Brad Gagnon and Brent Sobleski have gathered one final time to rank the last four clubs left standing in the NFL's 100th season.

    It's hardly surprising that the giant-killers in Nashville lead things off.

         

4. Tennessee Titans (11-7, AFC No. 6 Seed)

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    High: 4

    Low: 4

    Last Week: 7

    Divisional Round Result: Won at Baltimore 28-12

    The Tennessee Titans are becoming pretty good at this whole giant-slaying thing.

    One week after stunning the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium, the Titans went one better by blasting the AFC's No. 1 seed in Baltimore. Over the past two weeks, the Titans have defeated a pair of the conference's best teams—teams that combined to go 26-6 in the regular season—by a combined score of 48-25.

    The Titans used a script against the Ravens that was nearly identical to the week before. For the second straight game, bruising tailback Derrick Henry ran wild, piling up 195 rushing yards on 30 carries and even throwing a touchdown pass. The Titans allowed over 500 yards of offense, but much of that came with the game all but decided—for most of the evening, Tennessee did an excellent job of containing presumptive NFL MVP Lamar Jackson.

    And for the second straight week, while Ryan Tannehill's stat line was pedestrian and then some (just 88 yards on 7-of-14 passing), the eighth-year veteran made plays when he had to. As Tyler Sullivan reported for CBS Sports, Tannehill's playoff performance this year puts him in some unique company.

    "According to NFL Research," Sullivan wrote, "Tannehill joins Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw as the only players in the Super Bowl era to win consecutive playoff games with one or more touchdown passes and fewer than 100 yards passing. Bradshaw did so in the 1974 AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl IX."

    "After the Titans shocked the defending champs," Davenport said, "I will freely admit that I expected the Cinderella run to end in Baltimore. But after watching Tennessee use the same recipe to not only beat the 14-2 Ravens but do so handily, I'm not about to count them out in the AFC Championship Game."

    Gagnon's not writing the Titans off either, but he admits next week's trip to Kansas City presents an uphill climb.

    "The Titans are remarkably different than the rest of the final four," he wrote. "And yes, on paper, they're also clearly inferior. But Derrick Henry is matchup-proof, and these guys are really rallying behind Mike Vrabel. They absolutely have a shot, but it's also easy to envision the run finally ending on Sunday in Kansas City."

    Sobleski is of a similar mind.

    "Tennessee's old-school approach is something to behold," he said. "No defender wants to tackle the runaway freight train known as Derrick Henry. The defense, meanwhile, plays fundamentally sound football with very few mistakes. It's a tried-and-true method to win games. But it's not enough to topple Mahomes and Co., right? Lamar, help me out here. The Chiefs offense is far too explosive for the Titans to hold in check. Maybe."

3. Green Bay Packers (14-3, NFC No. 2 Seed)

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    High: 3

    Low: 3

    Last Week: 4

    Divisional Round Result: Won vs. Seattle 28-23

    The Green Bay Packers have accomplished quite a few things in 2019. The team won 13 games in the regular season and now sits one victory away from the sixth Super Bowl appearance in franchise history in Matt LaFleur's first year as the team's head coach.

    What they haven't done is pile up style points while doing so—and Sunday evening's win over the Seattle Seahawks was no different. The Packers were outgained by Seattle in the game and had to hold on at the end to secure the victory. As has been the case so often this year, Aaron Rodgers' stat line was good but not great—243 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns.

    These Packers have found new ways to win. The MVP quarterback has ceded top billing offensively to the running of Aaron Jones, who found the end zone twice in the victory. Free-agent additions Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith (no relation) have keyed a defense that's been vital to the team's success.

    "Green Bay's best chance to win the NFC Championship Game depends on the Packers defense," Sobleski wrote. "Yes, Rodgers is a future Hall of Famer with multiple weapons. That's great and all, but this year's Packers squad is driven by guys named Za'Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Kenny Clark and so on and so forth. If they can rattle Jimmy Garoppolo, the Packers can realistically pull off the upset."

    As Kalyn Kahler reported for Sports Illustrated, longtime Packers kicker Mason Crosby said the arrival of new faces like the Smiths and safety Adrian Amos have given the team a badly needed jolt of energy.

    "You have to play," Crosby said. "The interjection of some of the new guys in the locker room, guys from other teams has been fun, it's been good to freshen that up. They bring a lot of energy and a lot of excitement so I am glad those guys are in the building."

    Now, however, the Packers face the stiffest of tests—a trip to San Francisco to play a 49ers team that throttled the Packers 37-8 back in Week 12. For the Pack to pull off the upset, Gagnon thinks Rodgers is going to have his best game of the year.

    "If Aaron Rodgers has discovered something in hopes of landing that elusive second championship, the Packers could pull this off," he said. "They certainly have the talent on both sides of the ball. But San Francisco is the better all-around team and will have that critical home-field advantage Sunday. The 49ers still have an edge."

    Davenport doesn't see that happening away from Lambeau Field.

    "Rodgers has been next to impossible to beat at home in his career, but he's actually a sub-.500 quarterback on the road," he said. "It's going to take a near-perfect effort from the Packers to avenge the November beatdown they got in San Francisco—and even that perfect game may not be enough."

2. Kansas City Chiefs (13-4, AFC No. 2 Seed)

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    High: 1

    Low: 2

    Last Week: 2

    Divisional Round Result: Won vs. Houston 51-31

    The Kansas City Chiefs apparently like doing things the hard way. Sunday at Arrowhead, the team's matchup with the Houston Texans got off to a catastrophic start. By the second quarter, a raucous crowd was whisper-quiet, and Kansas City was staring at a 24-0 deficit.

    The Chiefs had the Texans right where they wanted them.

    What happened after that made postseason history. To say that the Chiefs flipped a switch is an understatement. After spotting the Texans that 24-point cushion, the Chiefs peeled off 41 unanswered points and 51 of the 58 points that were scored the rest of the game.

    Yes, you read that right. It was the first time in NFL history that a team scored touchdowns on seven straight drives in a playoff game, and the first time a team that trailed by 20 or more in the postseason went on to win by 20.

    It was also (per ESPN) the first time in playoff history that a team in a 20-point hole led said game at halftime with the highest-scoring first half in playoff history.

    Other than that, though, not much happened.

    Patrick Mahomes, who per CBS Sports could be set to land a record-setting contract extension that pays in excess of $40 million a season, threw for 321 yards and five scores. Banged-up tight end Travis Kelce had three of them, hauling in 10 passes for 134 yards.

    It was a lethal display of offensive efficiency. But for Davenport, it's the Chiefs defense that really makes this team dangerous.

    "People will look at the 31 points the Chiefs allowed and believe that the defense didn't play especially well," he said. "But two of Houston's touchdowns came off special teams plays, and the Chiefs had five sacks and held the Texans to 5-of-15 on third down. We know that Kansas City's offense is a buzzsaw. But the 2019 Chiefs are light-years better defensively than a year ago. And that could be the key to a trip to Miami."

    Gagnon was just impressed all around.

    "When you can score 48 points in 26 minutes with your back against the wall in a playoff game, you're special," he wrote. "This team has a reputation for fading in home playoff games, and it proved this year's edition is different with that unreal comeback Sunday. Patrick Mahomes is the best player in the game, and Andy Reid might finally be ready for that first ring."

    "Kansas City's comeback victory can be viewed through two lenses: Either the Chiefs have some major concerns after letting the Texans build a significant lead that future opponents can exploit, or the Patrick Mahomes-led offense is nearly unstoppable and the team's first-quarter performance was merely a hiccup," Sobleski added. "I'll go with the latter since two of the Chiefs' miscues that led to early Texans touchdowns came on special teams. That won't happen again."

1. San Francisco 49ers (14-3, NFC No. 1 Seed)

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    High: 1

    Low: 2

    Last Week: 3

    Divisional Round Result: Won vs. Minnesota 27-10

    The first day of the divisional round was all about the No. 1 seeds in each conference. And while the AFC's top dog was stunned in Baltimore, the team with the best record in the regular season in the NFC had no such problem.

    The 49ers dispatched the Minnesota Vikings with relative ease, and there was one overriding reason San Francisco controlled the game throughout—dominance in the trenches on both sides of the ball.

    Offensively, the 49ers crammed the ball down Minnesota's throat, rushing for 186 yards on a staggering 47 carries. Defensively, the Niners completely shut Minnesota down. The Vikings had just 147 total yards of offense, 21 yards on the ground and just seven first downs. Kirk Cousins was sacked six times and hit nine more.

    That defense got a number of players back in the lineup Saturday, including edge-rusher Dee Ford, linebacker Kwon Alexander and safety Jaquiski Tartt. Per ESPN's Nick Wagoner, cornerback Richard Sherman said the return of that trio played a big part.

    "It felt good," Sherman said. "That's what we look like when we're totally healthy. Those guys make a huge difference in our defense. They play fast; they recognize things. Just having veteran presence. They understand how teams are trying to attack us. They understand what they're seeing; they play fast. The moment is not too big for them. We're thankful to have them all back."

    The performance made quite an impression on our analysts.

    "When the 49ers dominate the line of scrimmage like they did Saturday, they are next to impossible to beat," Davenport said. "And that loaded defensive line is the stuff of nightmares for opposing quarterbacks. But if the Niners are going to reach Super Bowl LIV, Jimmy Garoppolo is probably going to have to attempt more than 19 passes next week."

    "It was really hard leaving the 49ers out of my top spot after such a dominant performance," Gagnon added. "But that was all about the Chiefs, who still do have the better quarterback and the higher-powered offense. San Francisco is a well-coached, finely tuned, well-balanced team that is finally healthy and could easily keep plowing all the way to a sixth Lombardi."

    "San Francisco is the most complete team still playing," Sobleski said. "Firstly, Kyle Shanahan's masterful play-calling is the X-factor that gives San Francisco an edge over any opponent. The O-line is relatively healthy (sans Weston Richburg, who is on injured reserve). The offense features the game's best tight end and fullback. The running back-by-committee approach works wonderfully. The wide receivers aren't household names yet effective. On the other side of the ball, San Francisco's ferocious front takes over games. Basically, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo's only job is to make sure he doesn't screw things up."