Ranking NFL Divisional Round playoff teams: Chiefs await all challengers for the throne, Browns a legit threat


It’s impossible to label NFL Super Wild-Card Weekend as anything but just that: super. It was a tumultuous 2020 season, to say the least, but the NFL was able to push through the raging COVID-19 pandemic and the ravages thereof to complete its 256-game regular season slate. The first weekend of the playoffs nearly went off without a hitch though, save for the COVID-19 issues that threatened to prematurely eliminate the Cleveland Browns from their first postseason appearance since 2002. Instead, they used the issues to galvanize themselves against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and on the road, to provide a magnificently entertaining climax to the six-game slate.

But, as the divisional round approaches for the six teams that advanced, it’s time to reintroduce the top dogs in each conference — namely the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers. After enjoying a hard-earning first-round bye, both juggernauts are retaking the field to start what they hope will be their journey to the Super Bowl, which would be the second in a row for the defending champion Chiefs. There’s a healthy mix of old blood plus newly-established superstars in the tournament, with youth going to the AFC slate of quarterbacks while experience is owned by the NFC, hinting at what could be one of the most intriguing postseasons in recent NFL history.

It’s time for Round 2 of the NFL playoffs, and to find out who might shock the world this weekend.

1. Kansas City Chiefs (14-2)

Until further notice, this is the king of the castle.

Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs haven’t slowed one iota since upending the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl, and are hot on the heels of a potential repeat that could see Mahomes land a second-consecutive SB MVP nod. Having secured the top seed in the AFC, they’ll enjoy a bye week before having to square off with the winner of the Titans vs. Ravens, and they’ll be well-rested by virtue of that bye and the fact key starters sat out the regular season finale. The only concern here will be potential rust, but then again, Mahomes has proven he’s not necessarily human. He and Tyreek Hill lead an aerial assault that is nearly impossible to halt, and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire could potentially return to anchor the ground attack. All the defense has to do is match serve, and the Chiefs will be/remain the frontrunner to hoist the Lombardi in February. But that begins with trying to keep a surging Browns team at bay, a task they might find more difficult than others presume. 

Divisional round opponent: Cleveland Browns

2. Green Bay Packers (13-3)

What is a “Jordan Love“?

While Aaron Rodgers claims (read: pretends) the decision to draft Love isn’t driving him to what’s become an MVP-caliber season, the fact is he’s arguably due to receive that NFL honor for the third time in his Hall of Fame career. Rodgers and wideout Davante Adams are on an absolute tear and running back Aaron Jones provides an excellent balance to what they can do in the air. On the defensive side of the ball, the Smith Bros are as much of a terror as they’ve ever been, led by Za’Darius Smith and his 12.5 sacks on the season. Behind them are safeties Darnell Savage, Jr. (4 INTs) and Adrian Amos (2 INTs), a dynamic duo capable of grounding any potential aerial threat that comes their way. Sitting atop the NFC, the Packers are on a collision course with Kansas City. Don’t teleport them to the Super Bowl just yet though, because Sean McVay leads a scrappy bunch that isn’t making excuses as they walk into Lambeau Field. Still, considering how prolific the Packers’ offense is and how their defense is opportunistic, the balmy-weathered and currently bruised Rams are in for the fight of their life. 

Divisional round opponent: Los Angeles Rams

3. Buffalo Bills (13-3)

This is where things get interesting.

On one note, you’d like to award a nod to a team here with more playoff experience but, then again, Josh Allen and the Bills are playing out of their collective mind right now. It’s a rollover of momentum they established in the regular season, proving what they’re doing isn’t a fluke by any stretch of the imagination. And their lack of experience was nowhere to be found when they clamped down to close out the older Indianapolis Colts in the wild-card game, jumping out on them early but never playing as if they were comfortable or complacent. That’s youth, firepower and a veteran mindset fueled by one of the best coaching staffs and up-and-coming quarterbacks in the game today, not to mention a nuclear weapon named Stefon Diggs. Watch out world, because the Bills want all the smoke — especially when playing in Buffalo.

Divisional round opponent: Baltimore Ravens

4. New Orleans Saints (12-4)

This is where experience begins to weigh heavily in the rankings.

Yes, the Saints have a metric ton of it when it comes to the postseason, but it’s starting to feel as if a usually bulletproof Drew Brees isn’t going to magically morph into his prime form one last time this January. Don’t ever count him or Sean Payton out of the equation though — hence their ranking on this list — but their difficulty dispatching with a Chicago Bears team that tried time and again to give the Saints the win is worthy of at least an eyebrow raise. They ran away with it in the end to stamp their ticket to the second round, showing what they can be if they run the offense through Alvin Kamara and not necessarily Brees, but Payton’s weird infatuation with trying to inject Taysom Hill into the gameplan when Brees or Kamara are better bets might cost them dearly going forward. If they stay true to the best players on the offense and the defense shows up, they’ll be formidable, as usual.

Divisional round opponent: Buccaneers

5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)

You won’t get more postseason experience, and of the winning variety, than with Tom Brady.

The main reason they’re ranked a smidge below the Saints here is that they were swept by New Orleans in the regular season series, evidence Payton has Bruce Arians’ number and will dial it as he so chooses. The problem for the Saints is it’s exceedingly difficult to be a team three times in one season, so expect things to get very interesting at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Brady had the Bucs offense looking mostly crisp despite the hiccups created by Chase Young and a formidable Washington defensive front, while the Saints struggled against a good one from Chicago. All the Bucs have to do is bully Brees — who is still not completely healthy — and find a way to contain Kamara (easier said than done), then use an aerial assault to expose weaknesses in the New Orleans secondary; then hope the third time is the charm. 

Divisional round opponent: Saints

6. Cleveland Browns (11-5)

The Browns is the Browns, eh?

The Steelers found out the hard way that’s not true, after being gutted like a caught fish in the AFC Wild Card Game by a Cleveland team that lacked key players and head coach Kevin Stefanski, and after losing their second-best pass rusher — Olivier Vernon — for the year with a ruptured Achilles suffered in Week 17 against Pittsburgh. Despite it all, and being at Heinz Field, the Browns led an all-out assault on the Steelers and the game was only made close when they took their foot off of the accelerator in the second half, before reapplying it and dispatching with a team that was 11-0 at one point this season. Stefanski and those sidelined by COVID-19 protocol are back for the battle to come because, while capable, motivated and dangerous, they’ll need to be locked and loaded for their second consecutive attempt at shocking the world.

Divisional round opponent: Chiefs

7. Baltimore Ravens (11-5)

Phew. 

That’s how Ravens fans feel after seeing how Baltimore started their wild-card game against the hated Tennessee Titans. It was believed Lamar Jackson and the offense had again found their groove to finish the regular season, but they were initially clamped by a Titans defense not known for being world-beaters. They also allowed Ryan Tannehill and A.J. Brown to take over early en route to a 10-0 lead before shutting them down along with NFL rushing champ Derrick Henry, the latter being an impressive feat by itself. It wound up being the Jackson show after a rough beginning and aided in large part by the defense, but you have to wonder if a more refined defense might give the reigning league MVP trouble after seeing what the Titans successfully did in the first quarter. Time will tell if that’s what awaits in Buffalo but expect fireworks in a dual that will feature Jackson and Josh Allen.

Divisional round opponent: Bills

8. Los Angeles Rams (10-6)

Again, the Rams are making no excuses.

Now, while that’s admirable, there’s still reason to view them as the biggest underdog on this list. They’re still working through injury issues at quarterback and credit to Jared Goff for making the clutch throw(s) when needed, but it was evident in their win over the Seahawks that his thumb is a problem. There’s also a list of other banged-up players who are key to mounting any sort of run to February, and this all couldn’t happen at a worse time for a team that went from nearly out of the playoff hunt to ready to take the field in the divisional round. It will take a Herculean effort, or an outright collapse by MVP frontrunner Aaron Rodgers and Co., to save the day for the Rams this weekend — frigid temps only exacerbating the effects of the injury. And with a defense that can make for a long day at Lambeau Field, McVay better empty the toolbox to have a chance at pulling off this upset.

Divisional round opponent: Packers





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