NFL

Ranking the eight teams left in NFL playoffs: Bills-Chiefs showdown features two of league’s heavyweights

We’re days away from the NFL’s best weekend of football, the divisional round of the playoffs. Eight teams remain in contention for Super Bowl LVI with four advancing to the conference championship game after this weekend. Those four teams will have to earn their conference championship game spots, as none of the teams left are an easy out.

The Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills continue their recent rivalry in a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship Game while the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers meet in a rematch of the NFC Championship Game from two seasons ago. The Tennessee Titans were the surprise No. 1 seed in the AFC, but face an upstart Cincinnati Bengals team with a high-powered offense, while the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers get their anticipated rematch with the Los Angeles Rams

All of these teams are good, which makes it difficult to rank the best of the best. These rankings are based on which teams have the best shot to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy three weeks from Sunday. 

8. San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers are a tough matchup for any team because of their physicality and their ability to make Deebo Samuel a Swiss Army knife in the offense. Samuel is the first player in NFL history with 1,300 receiving yards and 300 rushing yards in a season — and had a season-high 10 carries for 72 yards and a touchdown in the wild card win over the Cowboys

San Francisco is a dangerous team that averages 6.1 yards per play and has 67% red zone conversion rate — both lead the NFL. The 49ers are 8-2 in their last 10 games, with the defense allowing just 18.0 points per game (fourth in the league). The much-maligned Jimmy Garoppolo has won 77% of his games on the road, trailing only Patrick Mahomes for the best win percentage on the road since the merger. 

The 49ers will be a tough out for the Packers this weekend, even as the No. 6 seed in the NFC, the lowest remaining seed in the playoffs.

7. Cincinnati Bengals 

How can a team with Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, Joe Mixon, and Tee Higgins be ranked this low? This isn’t an indictment of the Bengals, but how stacked the remaining playoff teams are. Cincinnati is 0-7 all time in road playoff games, but Burrow is 5-1 in his last six road games and is on a hot streak. Burrow has completed 75% of his passes with 11 touchdowns to zero interceptions and a 131.3 passer rating in his last four games, making the AFC North champions a tough out for any team they face in these playoffs. The Bengals have also taken 44 fewer penalties than their opponents this year — the best in the league. 

The Bengals are 5-0 against AFC playoff teams this season, but not having Larry Ogunjobi is going to significantly hurt their defense. Cincinnati has gotten pressure on 35% of their 478 snaps with Larry Ogunjobi on the field (second in NFL), and on just 26% of their 269 snaps with Ogunjobi off the field (30th in NFL). Burrow has also been sacked 53 times this year, the most in the league. 

This team needs their high-powered offense to produce against the Titans this weekend with the pass rush taking a significant hit, but there’s no reason to count out Cincinnati in this matchup. The Bengals have an offense to go to the Super Bowl, if that line can protect Burrow. 

6. Los Angeles Rams

The Rams are going to be a tough out for any team left in the NFC playoffs, especially as the champions of the NFC West, the best division in football this season. Los Angeles is 7-2 on the road with Matthew Stafford being arguably the best quarterback of the remaining signal callers against the blitz (72%, 17 touchdowns, one interception, 141.8 rating). That’s significant facing a Buccaneers team that blitzes 36% of the time, second-most in the NFL. 

Los Angeles is 12-3 in the eastern time zone under Sean McVay (including 3-0 this year), averaging 29.0 points per game and allowing 19.1 points per game. Midseason acquisitions Odell Beckham Jr. and Von Miller have made their impact, as Beckham has a receiving touchdown in six of his last eight games and Miller has a sack in five straight games. 

Regardless of the Rams’ talent, their defense is 15th in points allowed and 17th in yards allowed. Their third-down defense sits at 41.3%, 21st in the NFL. Los Angeles will be tested at Tampa Bay this weekend, a matchup where the Rams can prove they can play up to their talent level.

5. Tennesse Titans

The No. 1 seed in the AFC doesn’t have a good history as the No. 1 seed. Both times the Titans were the No. 1 seed (2000 and 2008), they lost their first playoff game. Why is this Titans team different? 

Tennessee has eight wins against teams with a winning record and has used 91 different players this season — both are NFL records. This is despite missing Derrick Henry for nine games, after he rushed for 837 yards and 10 touchdowns in the first eight games. The Titans defense has also been scorching hot over the last five games, allowing just 12.8 points (second in NFL) and 3.2 yards per carry (also second in NFL). Ryan Tannehill has seven pass touchdowns to zero interceptions over the last three games. 

The Titans are expected to get Henry back for the postseason. They averaged 28.4 points per game with Henry in the lineup (21.3 without). Harold Landry, Denico Autry, and Jeffery Simmons were the only trio of teammates with eight or more sacks this year, indicating Tennessee’s pass rush can get to Joe Burrow. If Henry doesn’t get off to a slow start in his return, the Titans are going to be a dangerous team to beat at home this postseason. 

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The defending Super Bowl champions are one of the best teams remaining in the playoff field. While the Buccaneers still have Tom Brady, the defense will be the unit getting Tampa Bay back to the NFC Championship Game. The return of Shaquil Barrett, Lavonte David, and Jason Pierre-Paul helped the defense shut out the Philadelphia Eagles through three quarters as Barrett had an interception and and Pierre-Paul had two pressures. 

The Buccaneers are 8-1 in their last nine games and have scored 30 points in all five playoff games with Brady at quarterback, as they have yet to lose a playoff game with Brady. Tampa Bay is averaging 30.1 points (second in NFL), 402.8 yards (first), converting 46% of third downs (third) and scoring touchdowns on 66% of their red zone opportunities (second). 

While Tampa Bay has allowed the fewest pressures in the league (158) and has the most pressures (272), the possible loss of Tristan Wirfs (he’s in a walking boot but could still possibly play Sunday) would be massive. Brady will have to get rid of the ball quick again and rely on Leonard Fournette’s return to curtail a Rams defense that likes to get after the quarterback. 

3. Buffalo Bills

The Bills are a Super Bowl contender, which is expected when a team finished third in the league in points per game (28.4), fifth in yards per game (381.9), first in points allowed per game (17.0) and first in yards allowed per game (272.8). Buffalo is the first team in NFL history to record zero punts, turnovers or field goal attempts in a game (regular season or playoffs) and the first team in league history to score a touchdown on the first seven drives of a playoff game, as they did against the Patriots last week.

After starting the year 7-6, the Bills have won five straight and have outscored their opponents by 18 points per game. They’re the eighth team since the 1970 merger to win 12 games by 12-plus points (each of previous seven teams won Super Bowl). When the Bills win, they win big. 

Buffalo is good enough to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, but they are 0-6 this season when the game is decided by fewer than 12 points. They also have to face a Chiefs team that is 6-1 with Patrick Mahomes starting at quarterback at Arrowhead Stadium. Mahomes has 20 pass touchdowns to one interception in seven career home playoff games.

The Bills did beat the Chiefs this season in convincing fashion. Both Kansas City and Buffalo are different teams than when they met in Week 5, making this showdown between the AFC powers the game of the year in the NFL. 

2. Green Bay Packers 

The top seed in the NFC comes out of their well-deserved bye week looking to make their third straight NFC Championship Game appearance. Green Bay is the first team in NFL history to win 13-plus games in three straight seasons and is potentially getting linebacker Za’Darius Smith, cornerback Jaire Alexander, wide receiver Randall Cobb, and tackles Billy Turner and David Bakhtiari back for the playoffs. The Packers are also 8-0 at home this year, the only undefeated team at home in the league. 

Aaron Rodgers is red hot heading into the playoffs, throwing 20 touchdowns to zero interceptions over his last seven games. The Packers are averaging 33.4 points per game during that stretch. Rodgers is in the midst of another MVP season, completing 69% of his passes (third in NFL) a touchdown to interception ratio of 37-4 (first) and 111.9 passer rating (first). The Packers will always have an opportunity to go to the Super Bowl with Rodgers and head coach Matt LaFleur, who has won 39 games over his first three seasons — the most in NFL history.  

Rashan Gary, Preston Smith, and Kenny Clark are the only trio in the NFL to each have 55 pressures on the year, but the Packers weakness is in the run defense. Green Bay allows 4.7 yards per carry this year (30th in the NFL), and face a San Francisco team that has a physical running game and the best zone-run scheme in the league. If Green Bay can stop the run this weekend, the Packers will be going back to the NFC Championship Game.

This is the Packers’ best chance to go to the Super Bowl with Rodgers playing at a level on par with his MVP season and a more talented roster surrounding him. 

1. Kansas City Chiefs

The Andy Reid-Patrick Mahomes combination is arguably the best in the NFL, especially come postseason. The Chiefs have been to the AFC Championship Game three straight seasons and the Super Bowl two straight years. Kansas City is battle tested for the big games, especially at Arrowhead Stadium (their only playoff loss at home under Mahomes was an overtime loss in which Mahomes never touched the ball in OT). 

Until the Reid-Mahomes combination is taken down in the AFC, Kansas City is the favorite to represent the conference in the Super Bowl. The Chiefs are 10-1 since starting the year 3-4 and have allowed a league-low 16.4 points per game in that span, emerging into the team that has controlled the conference over the last few years. 

Mahomes is incredible at home in the postseason, throwing 20 touchdowns to one interception while completing 67.9% of his passes and averaging 310.3 passing yards per game. He has the highest postseason passer rating in NFL history (105.1), having two of the most dynamic weapons in Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. Kelce is coming off his fourth straight 100-yard receiving game in the postseason (tied for the longest in NFL history) and seventh overall, trailing only Jerry Rice for the most in NFL history (eight). All three of Kansas City’s offensive stalwarts are prime performers in the postseason, making the Chiefs even more dangerous.

The Chiefs’ passing game will need to be at their best to beat a Bills pass defense that’s first in pass yards allowed and have allowed the fewest pass touchdowns in the league. Kansas City will also need Jerick McKinnon to shine again, especially against a Bills run defense that has allowed the sixth-most rush touchdowns in the league.  

Kansas City has all the pieces in place to go to the Super Bowl again.



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