Super Wild Card Weekend didn't produce any significant upsets, but it did set the table for a Divisional Round with the potential for historic greatness.
Josh Allen vs. Patrick Mahomes. Aaron Donald vs. Tom Brady. Kyle Shanahan vs. Aaron Rodgers. Joe Burrow vs. the top-seeded Titans.
Yes, we've reached the most compelling week of the NFL season. Only eight teams remain. It's about to get real.
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Previous rank: No. 1
The 49ers' defense is worthy of respect, but there isn’t a unit in the league that can stop the Packers as presently constituted. Green Bay will be a fully functioning machine when it returns from its bye: Three starting offensive linemen will be back from injury (including rookie center Josh Myers and two-time All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari, who each had a Week 18 tune-up), blocking for a quarterback who’s been invincible since November. Aaron Rodgers’ stats over his last seven games represent Madden-on-“Rookie”-level dominance: 1,929 passing yards, 20 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Davante Adams is Rodgers’ obvious No. 1 target, but Allan Lazard has developed into a legit No. 2: Lazard had five receiving touchdowns in Green Bay’s final five games, trailing only Adams (six) for most in the league during that span. Throw in a balanced running attack, and ... well, you don’t want none of this.
Previous rank: No. 5
The Bills decimated the Patriots on Saturday night in a game that will be remembered for one of the greatest offensive performances in history -- postseason or otherwise. Josh Allen led the Buffalo attack to seven touchdowns in seven possessions. The Bills never punted, never attempted a field goal, never even reached fourth down against a New England defense that ranked as one of the NFL’s best entering the playoffs. This was unprecedented domination, but Allen deserves special recognition: The fourth-year QB torched Bill Belichick twice in the past month, dicing up the Pats with his arm and legs. Allen has established himself as a giant in the league, and the new king of an AFC East that no longer resides in Belichick’s back pocket. Yes, the bully was sent home with a fat lip and two black eyes.
Previous rank: No. 3
It started poorly for the Chiefs. The offense was out of sync, there was yet another interception on a tipped pass in scoring range, then disaster in the form of a T.J. Watt fumble return for a touchdown. What Watt didn’t realize as he crossed the goal line, what Watt couldn’t have known, was that he had just functioned as a human alarm clock for the two-time defending conference champs. The Chiefs scored touchdowns on their next six possessions, led -- of course -- by Patrick Mahomes, who threw five touchdown passes in less than 11 minutes of game time. It was a staggering display of might that puts the rest of the NFL on notice: Unique greatness still exists in Kansas City, despite the potholes that dotted the road during the regular season. Sunday night’s blowout clears the decks for a fascinating showdown against the similarly offensively gifted Bills.
Previous rank: No. 2
The Bucs took care of business -- but not without a cost. The defending champions coasted to a 31-15 win over the overmatched Eagles at Raymond James Stadium, but lost All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs to an ankle injury in the first half. Center Ryan Jensen and Josh Wells -- Wirfs’ backup -- also got banged up in the win. Tampa Bay has enjoyed spectacular injury luck along the offensive line since Tom Brady got to town, and you can rightly argue this is the one position group above all others the team cannot afford to see decimated. Brady can still make magic with backups at wide receiver and running back, but a lack of protection and time -- Brady was sacked twice as many times Sunday (four) as he was in his previous three games combined -- is a recipe for season-ending doom.
Previous rank: No. 4
Derrick Henry’s expected return for Saturday’s Divisional Round matchup against the Bengals is cause for celebration for Titans fans, but let’s not overlook certain realities of the situation. Henry missed nine games with a fractured foot that required surgery to repair. Under normal circumstances -- i.e., a non-playoff scenario -- you’d expect the Titans to slowly work their superstar RB back into the lineup on a snap count. The general expectation seems to be that Henry will return to action and immediately be the game-changer he was before the injury; in reality, his playing time and effectiveness will remain a question mark until we see him in action. The good news? Tennessee’s running game was solid even without Henry. A more varied attack that mixes Henry with D'Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard could still yield big returns. A ground-and-pound approach that keeps Joe Burrow off the field may be the key to victory for Mike Vrabel’s team.
UPDATE: The Titans officially activated Henry on Friday, putting the running back in line to return to action against the Bengals in Saturday's Divisional Round bout.
Previous rank: No. 6
The Bengals won their first playoff game in 31 years on Saturday, and this feels like a team that might be just getting started. Joe Burrow threw two more touchdown passes, Ja’Marr Chase went over 100 yards receiving once again and Lou Anarumo’s defense sealed the victory on a goal-line interception by linebacker Germaine Pratt to knock out the Raiders and advance to the Divisional Round for the first time since Boomer Esiason was in town. “To me, personally, it means the world,” said edge rusher Sam Hubbard, a Queen City native. “Never in my lifetime have we had a playoff win. I feel like we broke a curse.” The Bengals now head to Tennessee for a showdown with the rested, top-seeded Titans. Who’s going to count out Who Dey?
Previous rank: No. 7
Kyle Shanahan’s team has matured into a certified beast. The 49ers are rising on both sides of the ball at the perfect time, and the Cowboys became the latest NFC contender to learn the hard way. The San Francisco defense made Dak Prescott look mediocre even with Nick Bosa (concussion) missing the entire second half, while Jimmy Garoppolo performed well in his game-manager role en route to a 23-17 win. Jimmy G is usually good for One Big Mistake, of course, and his fourth-quarter interception opened the door for a Dallas comeback. Still, Garoppolo deserves credit for doing his part in recent weeks for a Niners team that needs its quarterback to get the ball in the hands of Deebo Samuel and get the hell out of the way. Samuel has been an absolute revelation this year, entering the conversation of the league’s very best players. You can safely assume Deebo will score yet another touchdown on Sunday at Lambeau ... will he take the game over entirely?
Previous rank: No. 8
At long last, Matthew Stafford is a playoff winner. The veteran quarterback picked up the first postseason victory of his 13-year career in a 34-11 beatdown of the Cardinals on Monday night at SoFi Stadium. Stafford easily outplayed counterpart Kyler Murray, leading Los Angeles on five scoring drives in a three-hour party for the home team. Odell Beckham Jr. enjoyed his most productive game as a Ram, while the defense had its way with an Arizona attack that never looked remotely competent when the game was in doubt. "I feel like we was dominant out there," Aaron Donald said. "I feel like the quarterback wasn't comfortable at all." The next quarterback, Tom Brady, will present the biggest challenge yet.
Previous rank: No. 9
When it was all over, after the Cowboys had stumbled and bumbled their way to another “extraordinarily disappointing” playoff exit, Mike McCarthy opted to steer blame for that infamous final play call elsewhere. “The execution between us and the official spotting the ball obviously wasn’t in tune,” McCarthy said of the game’s final seconds. “We shouldn’t have had any problem getting the ball spotted there: Is that the quote you’re looking for?” Well, since you asked, Mike: Some accountability would be nice! Dallas made several mental errors on that final play, a stinging indictment of the entire operation. That was a microcosm of a wretched day for a Dallas team that committed 14 penalties and saw many of its most important players come up small when the stakes were highest. Jerry Jones and the Cowboys have built the organization into a multi-billion dollar jewel -- so why does the on-field version of the team always turn out to be the football equivalent of cubic zirconia?
Previous rank: No. 12
The Raiders never stopped fighting. Not when their season appeared over after a Chiefs blowout in Week 14, not when Justin Herbert willed the Chargers to a miraculous fourth-quarter comeback in Week 18, and not when the Bengals appeared ready to turn the wild-card opener into a city-wide celebration by the second quarter. The Raiders won four overtime games and had six walk-off wins to crash the playoffs, but the magic ran out in a 26-19 loss in Cincinnati. After the game, Raiders players stumped for the return of interim coach Rich Bisaccia and reflected on a memorable season. “Were we the most talented team in the world? No, probably not,” quarterback Derek Carr said. “But this is the closest, best team I’ve ever been on.”
Previous rank: No. 10
After it was over, Bill Belichick was asked to sum up the Godzilla-level carnage that had just transpired. “We just couldn’t keep up with them,” the legendary coach said. The 47-17 loss was one of worst beatings Belichick had ever taken -- and considering the prime-time playoff setting, perhaps the most humbling, too. His defense was completely outclassed, surrendering seven consecutive touchdown drives and never giving Mac Jones and the offense a chance to keep the team in the game. The playoff exit capped a late-season fade by the Pats, who lost four of their final five contests -- all of them by two scores or more. Ten wins and a postseason berth with a rookie QB represents a successful season for most any team, but given the standard of excellence in Foxborough and historic nature of the final defeat, it’s hard to say where the Pats actually stand.
Previous rank: No. 11
The hope was that something would change on Monday night. The Cardinals would flip a switch and revert back to the Super Bowl contenders they appeared to be in the season's first couple months. Ultimately, that was wishful thinking. Arizona laid an epic egg on Monday night in an ugly 34-11 loss to the Rams. Kyler Murray and the offense were stuck in mud for much of the contest, struggling to reach positive yardage as Los Angeles took full control of the game before halftime. The postmortem won't be pleasant for the Cardinals: Murray didn't look special when Arizona needed its quarterback most, and it's hard to ignore how badly Kliff Kingsbury's teams have faded in back-to-back seasons. Does ownership make a bold move now, or double down on this QB-coach combination in 2022? The decision will have repercussions that could last for years.
Previous rank: No. 13
In the end, the Eagles are who we thought they were. A team that could take care of business against the league’s doormats but was ill-equipped to level up when the competition jumped a notch ... or three, in the case of Sunday’s Wild Card loss to the defending champion Buccaneers. Philly put itself in an immediate hole by falling behind 17-0 after the Bucs' first four possessions, a worst-case scenario for a run-oriented team that hoped to pull off an upset by leaning hard on its ground game. Jalen Hurts struggled in his playoff debut, padding his stats late but looking overmatched when the game was in doubt. Hurts was in a walking boot after the loss, a clear indication he never did get physically right after sustaining a high-ankle sprain in late November. The Eagles are a team to watch as the quarterback carousel spins in the coming months.
Previous rank: No. 14
Give the Steelers credit: They hung around in the AFC long enough to steal a playoff spot, then managed to put an early scare into the Chiefs before the tidal wave of cruel reality crashed down upon them. Pittsburgh watched a 7-0 lead turn into a 35-7 deficit in about 11 minutes of game time, presumably ending the storied career of Ben Roethlisberger on an inglorious note. Big Ben kept fighting, throwing two touchdown passes to make things somewhat respectable in the second half, but it’s clear that Mike Tomlin and the Steelers brass need to overhaul the offense now that Roethlisberger will soon be off to retirement. Quarterback and offensive line are two areas in dire need of upgrade. Don’t be surprised when a report connecting the Steelers to a proven veteran passer shakes up the offseason landscape.