B/R NFL Power Rankings: Where Does Every Team Stand Entering Wild Card Weekend?

NFL StaffContributor IJanuary 10, 2022

B/R NFL Power Rankings: Where Does Every Team Stand Entering Wild Card Weekend?

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    Justin Rex/Associated Press

    Now that the NFL's regular season is over, the real fun is about to begin.

    For just over half of the league's 32 teams, Week 18 was the end of the line. But for the 14 teams that qualified for the playoffs, the pressure level just ratcheted up a notch or six.

    Lose another game and the season is over. Peel off a few consecutive wins, and you will be crowned the champions of Super Bowl LVI.

    Two fortunate teams—the Tennessee Titans and Green Bay Packers—earned a first-round bye by virtue of finishing first in their respective conferences. The other 12 teams will square off starting Saturday in the Wild Card Round.

    Just as they have all season long, Bleacher Report's NFL analysts have assembled to offer their take on how the league's teams stack up against one another, although this time, it's just the 14 postseason participants.

    Here's how Maurice Moton, Brent Sobleski and Gary Davenport view this year's playoff field—including a surprising ranking for one of those top seeds.

14. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7-1, AFC No. 7 Seed)

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Week 18 Result: Won at Baltimore 16-13

    Wild Card Round Opponent: at Kansas City 

    Ben Roethlisberger is the Freddy Krueger of NFL quarterbacks: He just won't die.

    Had the Indianapolis Colts not choked in epic fashion in Jacksonville on Sunday afternoon, what the Steelers accomplished in Baltimore wouldn't have mattered. But as he has done so many times this season, Roethlisberger played just well enough to keep his team in the game.

    The defense played its part as well. Edge-rusher T.J. Watt now shares the single-season sack record of 22.5 with Michael Strahan. But even Ravens defensive end Calais Campbell admitted that Roethlisberger deserved credit for dragging the Steelers back into the playoffs.

    "You've got to pay respect where respect is due. We made it hard on him and he kept coming," Campbell said. "He made the plays he needed to. Big Ben, he's a legend for making the plays in critical moments. He's a warrior."

    However, at least one of our analysts is already turning out the lights on this party.

    "You know who was almost as happy as Pittsburgh to see the Steelers make the playoffs?" Davenport asked. "The Kansas City Chiefs. We saw Patrick Mahomes and company drop a piano on the Steelers in a Week 16 blowout that wasn't even as close as the score indicated. (The score was 36-10.) This is like being invited to a party and being hit with a crowbar eight seconds after you walk through the door. Should be fun."

13. Philadelphia Eagles (9-8, NFC No. 7 Seed)

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    Daniel Kucin Jr./Associated Press

    Week 18 Result: Lost vs. Dallas 51-26

    Wild Card Round Opponent: at Tampa Bay 

    The 2021 regular season did not end the way that the Philadelphia Eagles wanted. But it was Gardner Minshew and the team's second-stringers who were shelled by the Dallas Cowboys, and Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni was clear about his motives for resting players in the regular-season finale.

    "We thought it was an opportunity to get (quarterback Jalen Hurts) back to 100 percent," Sirianni told reporters. "We need to be able to have our full arsenal of offense going into the playoffs."

    That the Eagles made the playoffs at all is at least somewhat surprising given their 3-6 start. But once they adopted a run-heavy philosophy, they won six of their final eight games.

    By season's end, Hurts and running backs Miles Sanders, Boston Scott and Jordan Howard had combined to power a rushing attack that led the league with 159.7 yards per game. That ground game has allowed the Eagles to dictate the tempo of games and to keep pressure off the defense.

    But there's a massive problem facing Philly in the Wild Card Round, which could be all but insurmountable: Teams just don't run the ball against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. No team in the NFC surrendered fewer yards on the ground per game during the regular season.

12. Las Vegas Raiders (10-7, AFC No. 5 Seed)

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    Week 18 Result: Won vs. Los Angeles Chargers 35-32 (OT)

    Wild Card Round Opponent: at Cincinnati 

    Sunday night's overtime thriller between the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders was an instant classic. Rather than take a knee at the end of overtime to send both teams to the playoffs, the Raiders kicked a game-winning field goal to send the Chargers home for good.

    While that decision may be the primary talking point today, we should instead focus on how the Raiders have developed into a tough out.

    Since getting pummeled by the Chiefs in Week 14, the Raiders have peeled off four straight victories. Quarterback Derek Carr is playing some of the best football of his career. Tailback Josh Jacobs is running hard. Wide receiver Hunter Renfrow had a breakout season. Star tight end Darren Waller is back. And a Vegas defense led by edge-rusher Maxx Crosby is better than many realize.

    Are the Raiders a legitimate threat to the Chiefs, Titans and Bills in the AFC? Maybe not.

    But the Bengals need to realize this team is no easy out, either.

    "In the end, the Raiders got the job done despite significant upheaval during the regular season," Sobleski said. "Interim head coach Rich Bisaccia deserves ample credit for keeping the team together and rallying the locker room as Las Vegas won their final four games. With that said, it's hard to envision these Raiders making it beyond the first round."

11. New England Patriots (10-7, AFC No. 6 Seed)

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    Willfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Week 18 Result: Lost at Miami 33-24

    Wild Card Round Opponent: at Buffalo

    The New England Patriots entered Week 18 with an opportunity to win the AFC East if they defeated the Miami Dolphins and the Buffalo Bills lost to the New York Jets.

    Neither of those things happened. And after losing to the Dolphins, New England head coach Bill Belichick made it clear that he wasn't pleased with how his team performed.

    "Played poorly, coached poorly, didn't do anything very well," Belichick said. "Just too many mistakes. Way too many. We'll go look at the film, turn the page here, make some corrections and move on to next week. That's really about it."

    This marks uncharted waters for Belichick's Patriots. The team has never made the postseason in his tenure as anything other than AFC East champions.

    While the Pats aren't exactly firing on all cylinders, Moton still thinks they can potentially do some damage in the playoffs.

    "Aside from a 50-point game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 17, the Patriots offense has struggled to score, finishing with 24 or fewer points in four of the last five weeks," he wrote. "Belichick isn't likely to put a lot on rookie quarterback Mac Jones' plate in the postseason. New England's eighth-ranked ground attack will take pressure off the signal-caller's arm during the Patriots' playoff run."

    The Patriots beat the Bills in Buffalo back in Week 13. But since then, New England has dropped three of four.

10. San Francisco 49ers (10-7, NFC No. 6 Seed)

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    Week 18 Result: Won at Los Angeles Rams 27-24 (OT)

    Wild Card Round Opponent: at Dallas

    After falling into a 17-3 halftime hole on Sunday and staring elimination in the face, the San Francisco 49ers did something that has never been accomplished before.

    They beat a Sean McVay-coached team that was leading at halftime.

    The game itself was a microcosm for what makes San Francisco hard to peg heading into the postseason. When wide receiver Deebo Samuel is tearing through the open field or edge-rusher Nick Bosa is terrorizing opposing quarterbacks, the 49ers look like they can beat anyone.

    However, Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo committed a pair of costly turnovers Sunday, and San Francisco's secondary is held together with Silly Putty and hope.

    "The Niners' comeback in Los Angeles was impressive," Davenport said. "And their ability to run the ball and play defense makes them the sort of wild-card opponent no one wants to take on. But Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Dalton Schultz and the Cowboys passing game feel like a bad matchup for a banged-up San Fran secondary. The Niners can win this game. But I don't think they will."

9. Arizona Cardinals (11-6, NFC No. 5 Seed)

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    Ralph Freso/Associated Press

    Week 18 Result: Lost vs. Seattle 38-30

    Wild Card Round Opponent: at Los Angeles Rams 

    Good luck figuring out the Arizona Cardinals.

    At times this season, the Cardinals looked like the best team in the NFC. They spent a chunk of the season as the NFC's top seed. In Week 17, they a earned a decisive win over the NFC East champion Cowboys.

    But those same Cardinals got walloped by the Detroit Lions and squandered a chance to win the NFC West and host a playoff game when they fell at home in the regular-season finale to a bad Seattle team.

    Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury told reporters that the team needs to flush Sunday's loss quickly and start looking ahead to their third meeting this season with the rival Rams.

    "Everybody is zero and zero and our guys understand that," Kingsbury said. "We are disappointed today, but we got to get it out of our system quick and come back because anything can happen once you make the postseason."

    The Cardinals have shown they can win at SoFi Stadium. Back in Week 4, Arizona handled the Rams 37-20 on the road. However, the Rams returned the favor in Week 14 to set up an all-important rubber match.

8. Cincinnati Bengals (10-7, AFC No. 4 Seed)

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    Nick Cammett/Associated Press

    Week 18 Result: Lost at Cleveland 21-16

    Wild Card Round Opponent: vs. Las Vegas Raiders

    For the first time since 2015, the Cincinnati Bengals are in the playoffs.

    Second-year quarterback Joe Burrow has emerged as a superstar in the making and a legitimate MVP candidate. Rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase has been a revelation, breaking Chad Johnson's single-season franchise record for receiving yards.

    Chase played just long enough in the season finale to set the record, while Burrow sat out to rest his sore knee. Head coach Zac Taylor told reporters that where "rest vs. rust" is concerned, he decided the former was more important.

    "No perfect decision there," Taylor said. "We felt like we needed to be healthy next week. There were so many things out of our control with the seedings at stake that we felt it was better to rest them."

    It's a time of excitement for long-suffering Bengals fans. But that excitement is tempered with more than a little trepidation. The last time the Bengals won a playoff game, George H.W. Bush was president.

    That's the older one, if you were wondering.

    "The Bengals showed two weeks ago against the Chiefs that they have the potential to do damage in the postseason," Davenport said. "But this is also a young team with a suspect offensive line and a secondary that can be had. Getting the franchise's first playoff win since 1990 would be a big achievement, but a Super Bowl run doesn't feel especially likely."

7. Tennessee Titans (12-5, AFC No. 1 Seed)

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    Justin Rex/Associated Press

    Week 18 Result: Won at Houston 28-25

    Wild Card Round Opponent: Bye Week 

    As odd as this sounds, the Tennessee Titans must be glad that they won't have to face the Houston Texans again this season.

    Back in Week 11, the Titans were stunned at home by the Texans. After racing out to a 21-0 lead on Sunday in Houston, they still needed to hang on for dear life to secure a three-point win.

    But with that win, they clinched the top seed in the AFC playoffs and a week off in the Wild Card Round.

    To say that the Titans could use that week off is an understatement. Star wide receiver A.J. Brown spent time in the medical tent Sunday, although he returned to the game. Titans head coach Mike Vrabel told reporters before the game that the plan remains for running back Derrick Henry to join the team for the postseason.

    "We have some time to make that decision and we will evaluate where we are at," Vrabel said. "But I think that he looked good. We continue to track his speed and his mileage and volume and see how he responds. I feel good about where he is at."

    At full strength, the Titans beat the Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts, Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints in successive weeks. In other words, they're more than capable of going on a deep playoff run. 

    However, only one of our analysts (Davenport) ranked them among the top five playoff teams. So there's a healthy amount of skepticism that they will.

6. Dallas Cowboys (12-5, NFC No. 3 Seed)

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Week 18 Result: Won at Philadelphia 51-26

    Wild Card Round Opponent: vs. San Francisco 

    How 'bout them Cowboys?

    Granted, it came against mostly reserves, but Saturday's beatdown of the Philadelphia Eagles helped to alleviate doubts about that Dallas offense that had sprouted recently. Those doubts already seemed silly considering that the Cowboys lead the league in both yards per game and points per game.

    Other than that, though, they're just OK.

    Dak Prescott threw five touchdown passes against the Eagles, setting a new franchise record for scores in a season and impressing head coach Mike McCarthy.

    "I just think it's a helluva year for a guy that was in a slump," McCarthy quipped. "He's special. He's a special man. He's a tremendous leader. Hopefully he'll get some recognition for how he plays the game on the field.

    With an explosive offense and an opportunistic and aggressive defense, Dallas has the talent to make it to the Super Bowl. But like seemingly every team in this year's postseason, the Cowboys aren't without weaknesses.

    "The Cowboys may be smack dab in the middle of these rankings, but they're arguably the most complete squad among those remaining," Sobleski said. "They have an elite quarterback, excellent running back stable, top-notch offensive line, multiple weapons in the passing game and an aggressive defense that flies to the ball and creates turnovers. They probably aren't getting enough credit after a strong 12-5 campaign."

5. Buffalo Bills (11-6, AFC No. 3 Seed)

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    Week 18 Result: Won vs. New York Jets 27-10

    Wild Card Round Opponent: vs. New England 

    The Bills are once again AFC East champions. But to get out of the Wild Card Round, they'll have to survive a third meeting this season with the rival Patriots.

    After dispatching the New York Jets to capture a second straight division crown, Bills quarterback Josh Allen made it clear to reporters that so far as he was concerned, Buffalo had a ways to go before this season could be considered a success.

    "Nobody at the end of their career looks back and really figures out how many times you won your division. I think the main goal is the Super Bowl," Allen said. "It's great, it's fine, hats and shirts are cool. But at the end of the day, we've got a lot more work to do."

    Allen became the first player in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards and run for 750 in a season, but he also had something of an up-and-down campaign. Still, Moton believes that even if Allen has an off day in the postseason, Buffalo's stout defense is capable of picking up the slack.

    "Josh Allen isn't playing his best football ahead of a matchup with the New England Patriots' No. 1-ranked scoring defense," he said. "Though he's thrown two touchdowns and three interceptions over the past two weeks, Buffalo has outscored its last two opponents 56-25. While the Bills are heavily reliant on him offensively, they can win games even if he struggles because of their stout defense."

4. Los Angeles Rams (12-5, NFC No. 4 Seed)

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Week 18 Result: Lost vs. San Francisco 27-24 (OT)

    Wild Card Round Opponent: vs. Arizona

    What could have been.

    That's the thought that will dog the Los Angeles Rams this week.

    At halftime of Sunday's game against 49ers, the Rams were cruising toward a division title and the No. 2 seed in the NFC.

    Since Sean McVay took over as head coach in 2017, the team had never lost a game it led at intermission. 

    Now that streak is over, and while Arizona's loss to Seattle gave the Rams the NFC West title, Los Angeles fell to the No. 4 seed and now has to face a foe that beat the Rams by 17 points at SoFi Stadium in October.

    Two Matthew Stafford interceptions played a big role in the defeat, and the veteran quarterback admitted after the game that he has to play better.

    "It's important for our team, no question," he said. "The better I play, the better chance we have. That's NFL football. When the quarterback plays good, you've got a good chance. I know that, so looking forward to the opportunity of going to play in the postseason. Taking it one game at a time."

    "The Rams are good, but they'll go only as far as Stafford takes them," Sobleski said. "Statistically, Stafford was great during the regular season, and he makes unbelievable throws look routine. But he's also good for a boneheaded play or two per contest. That could be the difference between advancing in the postseason or the campaign coming to an end."   

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4, NFC No. 2 Seed)

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    Jason Behnken/Associated Press

    Week 18 Result: Won vs. Carolina 41-17

    Wild Card Round Opponent: vs. Philadelphia

    In terms of regular-season wins, the 2021 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are actually better than last year's Super Bowl-winning team.   

    The Bucs also have a pretty good quarterback. Tom somebody (uh, Brady), who has only won seven Super Bowls over his lengthy career.

    However, despite the fact that the Buccaneers are an excellent football team led by the greatest quarterback to ever play the game and are the defending Super Bowl champions, an issue could derail a repeat run.

    The Buccaneers were short their top two running backs (Leonard Fournette, Ronald Jones II) against the Carolina Panthers. Linebackers Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul were also sidelined. Wide receiver Chris Godwin is out for the season. Antonio Brown just had his contract terminated. 

    A short-handed Buccaneers team might be able to get past the Eagles, but it could be another story against the Packers, Cowboys or Rams.

    Still, to be the best, you have to beat the best.

    "In Week 15, the Buccaneers lost Godwin (torn ACL) and Fournette (hamstring) to injuries," Moton said. "Last week, they released Brown after his dispute with the coaching staff. Quarterback Tom Brady will look to wide receiver Mike Evans and tight end Rob Gronkowski in the passing game. Don't underestimate his ability to move the ball with two quality playmakers healthy. Tampa Bay is still a dangerous playoff squad."    

2. Kansas City Chiefs (12-5, AFC No. 2 Seed)

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Week 18 Result: Won at Denver 28-24

    Wild Card Round Opponent: vs. Pittsburgh

    For the Kansas City Chiefs, making the playoffs is no big deal. This is their seventh consecutive year in the postseason. Winning the AFC West isn't a major achievement either. They have ruled the division since 2016.

    For the Chiefs, there's only one goal: winning a third straight AFC Championship, going to Los Angeles and winning Super Bowl LVI.

    Quarterback Patrick Mahomes admitted to reporters that the team will need to play better than it did in Week 18 in order to reach that goal: 

    "I just feel like we haven't had that complete game yet. We have the players — you see it week-in and week-out: the offense has a great game, the defense has a great game, the special teams have a great game. When we all come together and have that run of games, we’re a team that can win as much as we want to win."

    Still, Vegas oddsmakers think the Chiefs have the AFC's best chance for a run to glory. DraftKings has installed them as the favorites in the conference at +450 ($100 bet wins $450).    

    "Kansas City looked well on its way to representing the AFC with a third straight Super Bowl appearance. Then the Bengals game happened," Sobleski wrote. "Joe Burrow and his trio of exemplary wide receivers showed they can keep pace and outscore Mahomes and Co. The Chiefs should still be considered the favorites to capture another conference title, but they're far from certain to play at SoFi Stadium on Feb. 13."   

1. Green Bay Packers (13-4, NFC No. 1 Seed)

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    Lon Horwedel/Associated Press

    Week 18 Result: Lost at Detroit 37-30

    Wild Card Round Opponent: Bye Week

    In 2021, the Green Bay Packers did something that no team in league history has ever accomplished. Despite Sunday's meaningless loss to the Lions, they won 13 games for the third season in a row.

    They also procured home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs—an edge that can come in handy at Lambeau Field in January. But there isn't a team under more pressure to reach the Super Bowl this year.

    Green Bay has experienced defeat in the NFC championship in each of the past two years. For all of the success the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers have enjoyed, the team has played in just one Super Bowl with No. 12, and that was over a decade ago.

    "The Packers certainly have the talent to make it to Los Angeles," Davenport said. "Those 13 wins weren't an accident. And Rodgers is probably going to be named the NFL's MVP for the second year in a row. But none of that is going to matter even a little unless the Packers win the Super Bowl, and that's been a hard hump for this team to get over."