And then there were four.
The Chiefs, Bills, Packers and Buccaneers are the final teams standing, and only one of them will have ownership rights to the Lombardi Trophy in three weeks.
The Divisional Round Playoffs were rugged, with each of the last two NFL MVPs exiting action due to a concussion. The Chiefs survived the loss of Patrick Mahomes, while the Ravens headed home after another January elimination game that created more questions than answers.
The order of the final Power Rankings until after the Super Bowl tells you who I feel will be playing the season's final game in Tampa, but any of the four remaining teams makes sense as a champion. This is a fine Final Four in the NFL. In the words of the immortal Bart Scott: “Can’t wait.”
Previous rank: No. 1
The Chiefs looked cooked. Patrick Mahomes was in the locker room with a concussion and Chad Henne had just thrown a first-and-25 arm-punt interception to set up the Browns with the ball and the chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter. Momentum was cresting for a Cleveland team that looked destined to pull off another huge upset. But the K.C. defense forced a stop and Henne made back-to-back plays -- a 13-yard scramble on third-and-long and a 4th-and-1 completion -- that saved the day at Arrowhead. That game-deciding throw -- completed to Tyreek Hill in the flat -- should go down as one of the gutsiest calls in postseason history. “That’s why we love Big Red,” Tyrann Matheiu said of Andy Reid after the game. “We always know he’s got one play in the chamber.” Big Red. Giant onions.
Previous rank: No. 3
The Packers are going back to the NFC title game for the second consecutive year because their offense is … just impossible to deal with. On Saturday, in a game where they weren’t even operating at peak efficiency, the Pack rolled up nearly 500 yards of total offense in a 32-18 win over the Rams. Aaron Rodgers was barely touched by the L.A. pass rush, while continuing to feast on the opposition with a host of play-action dimes. Rodgers was 8-for-10 passing for 98 yards on play-action, per Next Gen Stats, including the game-icing 58-yard touchdown strike to Allen Lazard in the fourth quarter. Rodgers plays in an offense that is perfectly catered to his strengths, and if you ask us, head coach Matt LaFleur doesn’t get enough credit for finding the balance that’s made Green Bay nearly unstoppable this season.
Previous rank: No. 2
The Josh Allen-led offense has been the focus of attention when talking about the rise of the Bills as a superpower, but it was Leslie Frazier’s defense that carried Buffalo to the precipice of the Super Bowl on Saturday. The Bills stymied reigning MVP Lamar Jackson with a stellar game plan, and Taron Johnson authored one of the most seismic plays in franchise history, a 101-yard pick-six in the third quarter that provided a 14-point swing in a 17-3 win in raucous Orchard Park. The Bills have been out-gained by their opponents in both playoff wins, but they’ve made the key plays when it mattered most. It’s that feeling for the moment that makes champions, and the Bills are one win away from capturing their first AFC title since the team’s legendary (but star-crossed) run in the early ‘90s.
Previous rank: No. 6
Sunday’s win over the Saints should forever be remembered as The Devin White Game. The second-year linebacker delivered a superstar performance, totaling 11 tackles, a key fumble recovery and the game-swinging interception of Drew Brees in the fourth quarter of a 30-20 win that sent the Bucs to the NFC title game for the first time since the team's 2002 Super Bowl season. Tampa Bay’s swarming defense turned four Saints turnovers into three touchdowns, wiping away all memories of two regular-season losses to New Orleans in which Tampa Bay was outscored by 46 points. "Everybody always asked, 'What was our identity?'" White said after the game. "We didn't have an answer. But Coach BA (Bruce Arians) had an answer. He said, 'We're some m-----f-----s who are gonna find a way to win the game.'" They sure did.
Previous rank: No. 5
If this is the end for Drew Brees, it's a reminder that the conclusion of a pro athlete’s career rarely has a storybook ending -- even for the legends. Brees looked every bit his 42 years in the Saints' 30-20 loss to the Bucs, throwing three interceptions while piloting a limited attack that managed its only splash on a trick-play touchdown pass from Jameis Winston. After the loss, Brees said he hadn’t made any decisions on his future, but the reality was all over the Superdome field for 3.5 hours. The Saints were one of the best teams in football over the last four years, but they were never able to get over the hump in January. The time is right to explore a different path to the mountaintop.
Previous rank: No. 4
After the 101-yard pick-six, after their MVP exited with a concussion, after the final play of a dispiriting 17-3 loss to the Bills, the Ravens were left -- once again -- to answer questions about why their offense had sputtered out in another playoff setback. "Whenever you're the No. 1 rushing (offense) and the 30-something passing (team), that's not right," Marquise “Hollywood” Brown said. "That's not balance. We got to find a way to balance our game." Brown isn’t wrong -- Greg Roman’s offense still feels too one-dimensional, especially when the opposition is able to push back against the preferred mode of operation. Baltimore could make adjustments to scheme and personnel, but it’s Lamar Jackson who will remain the key figure. Can he lift his team when it matters most? The Ravens still believe, but at some point they'll need to see confirmation.
Previous rank: No. 8
The future appears bright for these Browns, but it’s always dangerous to make assumptions in sports. You might only get one crack at making a playoff run, and Cleveland had a chance on Sunday. Down five points in the fourth quarter, with the ball, chasing a Chiefs team playing without Patrick Mahomes. That was Baker Mayfield’s star-making moment, and the chance for an iconic drive that would exorcise demons of postseasons past. But the Browns managed one first down before punting, then allowed Chad Henne to close out the game. Don’t get it twisted: By almost any measure, this season was a huge success in Cleveland. But when you have the chance to do something special in January -- when the Football Gods crack open a window and leave the door unlocked -- you have to get yourself into that house. The Browns couldn’t do it.
Aaron Donald’s emotional reaction at the end of Saturday’s 32-18 loss to the Packers told the story of a generational superstar physically unable to deliver when his team needed him most. That was clearly a tough pill to swallow for Donald, a fearsome competitor compromised by a rib injury suffered the previous week in Seattle. With Donald limited, the typically formidable Rams defense was picked apart by a Packers attack that rolled up 484 yards in the win. A few years back, Sean McVay’s offense could pick up the slack, but that’s not where the Rams are right now. It’s no surprise that McVay and the L.A. brain trust are pondering their options after a second consecutive underwhelming campaign from Jared Goff. If there’s a feasible way to pivot, you get the feeling the Rams will do it.