Saturday, March 2, 2024
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Ranking NFL’s eight remaining playoff teams: 49ers edge Ravens for No. 1, plus surprise to round out top five

There are only eight remaining teams in the NFL playoffs with Super Bowl LVIII just 25 days away. Of the eight remaining teams, it’s hard to argue that any of them aren’t among the league’s upper echelon. 

Five of the six remaining teams who played last weekend defeated a lower-ranked team at home. The lone exception was the Packers, who shocked the No. 2-seeded Cowboys after putting 48 points on the board. By virtue of their performance in that game, the Packers should be considered as one of the league’s top teams and a legitimate threat moving forward. 

The Packers have a daunting test in front of them, though. Up next for Green Bay is a 49ers team that is oozing with talent and coming off a bye week. It was a similar scene in 1995, when a young quarterback named Brett Favre dethroned Steve Young and the rest of the defending champion 49ers in San Francisco in the divisional round. 

Both the 49ers and Packers are included in our rankings of the eight remaining playoff teams. We’ll see how accurate our list is when the divisional round wraps up next Sunday night in Buffalo.

8. Houston Texans 

I’m not taking anything away from Houston and the awesome season they’ve had. But someone has to be last on this list, and that distinction unfortunately goes to a Texans team that has the most question marks of any of the remaining teams. 

The Texans have a rookie phenom in C.J. Stroud, but they don’t have a proven running game that can back him up. Houston has a young and talented defense that has been stellar against the run. But its pass defense (much like Detroit) can be a liability. 

No one should be surprised, however, if Demeco Ryans‘ team manages to surprise anyone this weekend by pulling off a major upset. The Texans are a confident team that doesn’t look at themselves as underdogs. That mindset alone gives Houston a puncher’s chance against Lamar Jackson and the top-seeded Ravens. 

If they do pull off the unthinkable, it’ll likely be because of Stroud and a defense that had two pick-sixes during last weekend’s blowout win over Cleveland. 

7. Detroit Lions 

I can hear the boos from Detroit, but before Lions fans bury me, let me just say that it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Detroit wound up in the Super Bowl. The Lions are that good and have been that good all year, starting with their season-opening win over the Chiefs. 

Detroit’s pass defense, however, is a red flag, and a big one. The unit, despite the inspired play of rookie safety Brian Branch, has struggled all year, especially against elite receivers. That’s bad news this weekend considering the wideouts the Buccaneers have. 

The Lions have the offense, though, to go all the way. More specifically, they have the quarterback to get them to the place they’ve never been. Jared Goff’s resurgence in Detroit is something we really haven’t seen in the NFL since 1980, when fellow former No. 1 overall pick Jim Plunkett overcame a disappointing start to his career to lead the Raiders to a Super Bowl win. 

Could Goff do something similar over the next month? He could, but he’ll have to beat the Buccaneers first. 

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers 

It was a hard call between Tampa and Detroit, but the Buccaneers’ defense ultimately gave them the nod over the team they’ll face this weekend. Defense usually wins games in the playoffs, and Tampa has a decided edge here. Todd Bowels’ unit was seventh in the NFL in points allowed during the regular season and allowed just nine points during Monday night’s win over the Eagles. The unit is led by All-Pro safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who had three interceptions, six sacks, four forced fumbles and 122 tackles during the regular season. 

Tampa’s offense is more talented that the stats would suggest, especially when you consider what it has at receiver. The Buccaneers still have one of the league’s top WR duos in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, who are both still playing at a high level. The quarterback throwing to them, Baker Mayfield, is playing the best ball of his career. 

5. Green Bay Packers 

You could argue the Packers deserve an ever higher spot after being the only road team to win a playoff game during Super Wild Card Weekend. But given where they were at the start of the playoffs (a 9-8 team that made the postseason as a No. 7 seed), I think No. 5 is a fair spot. 

Green Bay’s shocking upset win over the Cowboys was anything but a fluke. The Packers manhandled Dallas on both sides of the ball, especially on offense. Jordan Love throughly outplayed Dak Prescott and was extremely close to becoming only the third quarterback to post a perfect passer rating in a playoff game. 

Love had success by spreading the ball around and finding the soft spots in the Cowboys’ defense. He was complemented by Aaron Jones, who submitted his third straight 100-yard rushing performance. 

Green Bay’s defense was just as good, with four sacks and two picks of Prescott. It also shut down the Cowboys’ running game, which will have to happen again in San Francisco if the Packers are going to keep their season going.

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4. Kansas City Chiefs 

The Chiefs remind me a lot of the 2018 Patriots team that “sucked” (in Tom Brady’s words) before winning the franchise’s sixth Lombardi. That New England team underwhelmed for most of the year before turning it on in the playoffs. 

The Patriots received a big postseason that year from then-rookie first-round running back Sony Michel. This past Saturday night, the Chiefs’ offense got a big performance from rookie first-round wide receiver Rashee Rice, who recorded a career-high 130 yards that included the game’s first touchdown. 

If you recall, the Patriots held the Rams to just three points in that year’s Super Bowl. The Chiefs’ defense could pull off a similar feat this postseason. Led by Chris Jones, the unit finished second in the league in points allowed during the regular season. 

New England’s defining moment that year came in Kansas City in the AFC title game. If the Chiefs are able to repeat as champions this season, it’s safe to say their defining moment will come Sunday in Buffalo in what will be Patrick Mahomes‘ first road playoff game. 

3. Buffalo Bills 

If Buffalo doesn’t go all the way, injuries will be a big reason why. Sean McDermott classified nine players as day-to-day one day after his team’s Super Wild Card Weekend win over Pittsburgh. 

Injuries aside, the Bills are still a dangerous squad. Buffalo jumped out to a 21-0 lead over the Steelers en route to a 31-17 win. Josh Allen played like the star that he is with three touchdowns passing and a 52-yard scoring jaunt. The defense forced two critical Steelers turnovers that the offense turned into 14 points. 

Along with Buffalo’s stingy defense, a reason why this could be Buffalo’s year is its resurgent running game, led by James Cook. Cook’s running has further opened things up for Allen while giving Buffalo’s offense the balance it had been lacking in previous years. 

2. Baltimore Ravens 

Baltimore enters the playoffs with a healthy Jackson and the regular season’s top-ranked scoring defense. Jackson will probably win his second league MVP of his career after throwing more than three times as many touchdown passes as interceptions and also leading the Ravens in rushing. It’s safe to say Jackson enjoys playing in first year OC Todd Monken’s offense. 

As great as Jackson is, he won’t get his just due until he wins a Super Bowl. That may happen this season as long as Jackson stays healthy. If Baltimore is able to win it all, it’ll likely be because of Jackson and a defense that tallied 60 sacks and 18 interceptions during the regular season.

1. San Francisco 49ers 

It’s hard to argue against the 49ers, whose roster boasts a league-best nine Pro Bowlers. San Francisco finished third in the NFL in both points scored and points allowed during the regular season. 

Kyle Shanahan’s offense has been extremely balanced this season, which is one of the things that makes playing them so difficult. The offense is centered around the talents of MVP candidate Christian McCaffrey, who makes plays in both the running and passing games. If there is a question here, it is whether or not Brock Purdy can lead the 49ers to victory in the playoffs if McCaffrey and the running game are held in check. 

Defensively, the 49ers are as good as it gets. They have a ferocious pass rush that only got stronger with the arrival of Chase Young at the trade deadline. The unit is anchored by Fred Warner, who filled the stat sheet this season with 132 tackles, four interceptions, four forced fumbles and 2.5 sacks. 

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