Published: Jan 24, 2023 at 08:26 AM
And then there were four.
Sure, we were hoping for perhaps a little more drama from the Divisional Round of the playoffs, but ultimately, we all get the desired result: The four best teams are left standing, each with a strong case for the Lombardi Trophy, all playing on one Sunday for a trip to the damn Super Bowl.
That’s the good stuff.
The NFL Power Rankings, meanwhile, has shrunk down to just eight slots, the first four reserved for the final teams in this burly game of musical chairs. Moving the Bengals to the top spot felt necessary after Joe Burrow and Co.’s clinical dissection of the Bills in Buffalo, even if it means half the Bay Area will take umbrage with me dropping the team on a 12-game winning streak out of the top spot.
Listen, at this point, there is no right or wrong way to rank the remaining teams. It’s Juggernaut vs. Behemoth vs. Monster vs. Steamroller. Your guess is as good as mine.
(Just kidding. My order is correct. Duh.)
Don’t forget to check out the NFL Power Rankings Podcast with Dan Hanzus and Colleen Wolfe. New episodes every Tuesday.
Previous rank: No. 4
Anybody else starting to get the feeling Joe Burrow is simply not going to be denied this year? Joe Cool 2.0 played quarterback like a man possessed on Sunday in Orchard Park, picking apart the Bills in a resounding 27-10 win that sent Cincinnati back to the AFC Championship Game for the second straight year. Burrow was casually dominant, but he didn’t do it alone: Lou Anarumo’s defense put the feared Buffalo attack in a phone booth, while Cincy’s offensive line — littered with question marks after a rash of injuries — kept Burrow clean and consistently opened big lanes for running back Joe Mixon. “Domination from start to finish,” Burrow said after the win. “That’s what we expected. Job’s not finished.” This is a quarterback and team afraid of no one — including the Chiefs.
Previous rank: No. 5
You couldn’t ask for a better outcome. Saturday night’s 38-7 destruction of the Giants brought the curtain down on a rival in embarrassing fashion while also restoring the image of the NFC’s No. 1 seed as a swaggering juggernaut not to be trifled with. Entering the weekend, it was legitimately unclear which version of Philly we would see in the Divisional Round after a labored close to the season, with lingering health questions around key stars. But quarterback Jalen Hurts looked like an MVP again, and Lane Johnson led an offensive line that blew open holes en route to 268 rushing yards. The idea of the Eagles being vulnerable now seems, well … absurd. “You f—ing saw it, pardon my language,” left tackle Jordan Mailata said, per The Athletic. “It’s just that juice, man. That swag. Jalen’s got a ton of swag, so he’s always showing it out on the field. And his football IQ, just making plays out there. And having the same continuity on the O-line, it’s a fact — a key stat to winning games. … So it helps when you get your star players back, for sure.”
Previous rank: No. 1
The story on Sunday was not Brock Purdy and the unstoppable offense. Instead, it was a suffocating defense that did most of the heavy lifting in a 19-12 win over the Cowboys that punched San Francisco’s ticket for a third NFC title game appearance in four years. This is a trait of all the truly great teams: You need to be a shapeshifter, especially in the crucible of the NFL postseason. The Niners averaged 38.3 points per game in their previous four weeks, but they outlasted the Cowboys’ defense by bewildering Dak Prescott and holding Dallas to one touchdown and 282 total yards. The challenge will be even greater on Sunday in Philadelphia, but the Niners are battle-tested, undefeated since October and versatile enough to handle anything that comes their way.
Previous rank: No. 2
The Chiefs are back in the AFC Championship Game for the fifth consecutive year, an incredible achievement in an era of grand parity for the NFL. Of course, simply reaching the conference title match isn’t good enough for a franchise as decorated as Kansas City: This is about the Lombardi Trophy, and it’s fair to wonder how badly the team’s chances of securing that hardware were impacted when Patrick Mahomes suffered that gnarly high ankle sprain in Saturday’s 27-20 win over the Jaguars. Mahomes has vowed to play this weekend, but his ability to improvise out of structure and use his mobility to make plays is inherent to his greatness. According to Next Gen Stats, Mahomes completed just one of two throws outside of the pocket in the second half against Jacksonville — he led the NFL with 117 throws from outside the pocket during the regular season. Mahomes needs to be at his best to beat the Bengals, and that might not be physically possible.
Previous rank: No. 3
The Bills entered the season with the outlook that anything less than a trip to the Super Bowl would be considered failure. It’s an unforgiving bar for any team to set, and Sunday’s 27-10 loss to the Bengals brought with it an epic hangover for a franchise that expected to take the next step. Buffalo could not — bounced out in the Divisional Round for the second straight year — and now the braintrust needs to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. Getting beaten by the reigning conference champion Bengals is no cause for shame, of course, but how the Bills were manhandled — in all three phases, from the opening kickoff to the final whistle — has to be disturbing for a team that believed it would find a way after last January’s stomach-punch loss to the Chiefs. This year’s gut shot feels equally terrible, but for different reasons.
Previous rank: No. 6
Last year’s final play of the season against the 49ers was frustrating. This time around, it just felt sad. A doomed gadget play, one with Ezekiel Elliott in the role of “Pancaked Center No. 1” and KaVontae Turpin as the “Receiver Without A Prayer In The World,” pretty neatly summed up a lost Sunday for the Cowboys, who got a tremendous effort from their defense but a maddening no-show from Dak Prescott and the offense in a 19-12 loss at Levi’s Stadium. It’s a game that will stick with Prescott, the franchise quarterback who looked every bit as lost on Sunday as he was dominant six days earlier in Tampa. “If I had the answers, then we would’ve won tonight. Too early. Too soon,” Prescott said. “And I promise you we will, though. In my time playing on this team, for this organization, we will.” One of these years, Dak and Co. need to back up the big words.
Previous rank: No. 8
As far as building-block seasons go, count this one as substantial. The Jaguars couldn’t find a way against the Chiefs and a banged-up Patrick Mahomes on Saturday, but an AFC South title and epic playoff win over the Chargers tells us the future is very bright in Duval. “We worked so hard to get here, and nobody thought we were going to be here, and we had our shot — and that’s what hurts,” Trevor Lawrence said Saturday night after the 27-20 loss at Arrowhead. “We’ll be back. I’m confident in that. This is more the beginning than it is the end of something.” Jacksonville brass is now tasked with improving a roster that still has holes: The lack of a sustained pass rush was glaring with Mahomes limping around the field on Saturday, while the secondary could use an infusion of talent. If the Jags can stack another strong offseason of player development, they’ll be set up to rule their division for years.
Previous rank: No. 7
Saturday night’s 38-7 blowout loss to the Eagles served as a rude reminder that — for all the positive vibes and measurable success we saw in 2022 — the Giants still have a ton of work to do to get on the level of the best teams in football. The map to offseason improvement begins with weighty decisions on Saquon Barkley and Daniel Jones, impending free agents and the two most important players on offense. At the team’s end-of-season press conference, general manager Joe Schoen made it sound like the decision on Jones has already been made. “We’d like Daniel to be here. He said it [Sunday], there is a business side to it. But we feel like Daniel played well this season. He’s done everything we’ve asked him to.” Barkley’s future feels much murkier, even if the star running back more than proved his worth with a season that warrants serious Comeback Player of the Year consideration.