And then there were eight.
Truth be told, Super Wild Card Weekend was quite underwhelming in a number of areas: Officiating, the actual game quality and entertainment value. Most of these highly-anticipated games were one-sided and didn’t provide all that much drama.
Here’s hoping the Divisional Round will enjoy better reffing and more get-out-your-popcorn moments. As we head into the final eight, here’s a look at how the Divisional Round competitors stack up against one another in our latest edition of the power rankings.
8. San Francisco 49ers (10)
It was the first 49ers-Dallas Cowboys playoff matchup since the 1994 NFC Divisional Round.
Nothing will ever top the epicness of the legendary 1981 NFC title game, but this latest chapter may be the second-best 49ers-Cowboys playoff game EVER.
The wild card 49ers came into AT&T Stadium and absolutely took it to the 13-win Cowboys. Don’t look at the final score. San Fran could’ve and should’ve won by more.
Jimmy Garoppolo didn’t have to play great for San Fran to win. Not when the rushing offense racked up 169 yards and two scores. Not when the vaunted Dallas offense was held to 307 yards of offense. And certainly not when your defense holds CeeDee Lamb to one catch, Amari Cooper to 64 yards and Ezekiel Elliott to 31 rushing yards.
Even if Jimmy G didn’t play great, every win only increases his trade value…or perhaps his chances of remaining the starter in San Fran for one more year? Lots of 49ers fans will roll their eyes at that, but moving on from a winning QB is so much easier said than done.
Anyway, this was arguably the greatest all-around performance of Kyle Shanahan’s coaching career. And the effort of DeMeco Ryans’ defense shall only increase his market for a head coaching position down the road.
Watching this resilient and mentally tough squad, it’s hard not to get similar vibes of the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers, 2007 New York Giants or 2010 Green Bay Packers in this 49ers team. Y’know, major underdog wild card teams who fought their respective ways to a Super Bowl title.
Up next for the 49ers? An opponent that they just so happened to have defeated three times in the postseason already: Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.
Green Bay will be the overwhelming favorite to win, but trust us. This is not a matchup they want. San Fran has the explosive front seven and virtually unstoppable ground game to work with. Y’know, the two main factors in beating a Rodgers-led team.
Rivalry renewed at Lambeau Stadium this Saturday. Don’t miss it!
7. Winner of LAR vs. ARI (Rams were eight and AZ was 9)
6. Cincinnati Bengals (7)
It was closer than it should’ve been, but the Bengals ultimately held off a late Las Vegas Raiders’ rally for their first playoff win since the 1990 season.
What more can we say? The Bengals franchise deserves this. It’s hard not to be happy for this fanbase, even if you’re a Raiders fan. The young duo of Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase did more than enough to power Cincinnati past a battle-tested and determined Vegas team.
Bengals fans should be extra excited in seeing that Burrow has already earned the “Joe Cool” moniker that the great Joe Montana went by during his Hall of Fame career.
Burrow embraced the pressure and high-stakes game. He looked so calm, cool and collected out there.
Unlike past Bengals stars – especially the QBs – fans can actually breathe in knowing that Burrow will come through when it matters most. This core isn’t going to keep blowing games the way the ‘80s powerhouse and Andy Dalton-led teams did.
Simply winning the AFC North was special enough. Ending the 31-year playoff win drought was a nice bonus.
The Bengals will now travel to Tennessee to take on the top-seeded Titans, but there’s really nothing to lose here. Nobody gave them a chance to make the postseason at the start of the year, but here they are residing in the Elite Eight.
5. Buffalo Bills (5)
Well, that had to feel good.
Nobody needs to be reminded about how much the Bills were humiliated by the longtime AFC East bullies during the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era.
After being embarrassed time and time again by the Pats for nearly two full decades, the Bills finally got their George McFly-on-Biff-Tannen moment: That is, punching your enemy in the face.
The Bills absolutely manhandled the Patriots on Super Wild Card Weekend.
Josh Allen once again solved the Belichick defensive enigma puzzle, racking up 308 passing yards and five passing touchdowns. He also hit 66 rushing yards, didn’t turn the ball over once and took zero sacks.
And the league’s No. 1 defense was pretty good, too! They only allowed 305 yards of offense, sacked Mac Jones three times and picked him off twice. Buffalo didn’t allow a TD until late in the third quarter when the game was practically over.
And just like that, the Bills are back in the Divisional Round for the second straight year. And for the second straight year, they’ll have to conquer Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead if Allen and company are to advance.
KC destroyed Buffalo in last year’s AFC Championship Game, but the Bills got a form of comeuppance by crushing Mahomes and company 38 to 20 on the road back in Week 5.
This may be a divisional round matchup, but it’s not too crazy to think of it the unofficial AFC Championship Game. These two clubs are by far the most balanced in the conference with the two best quarterbacks in the conference.
Regardless of where the AFC title game is played, the winner of KC vs. Buffalo has to be considered the favorite against either Cincinnati or Tennessee.
And no, it’s not premature to call this the most hyped-up AFC playoff game since the last Tom Brady-Peyton Manning in the 2016 AFC Championship Game. Can Mahomes and KC put themselves one step closer to winning a second ring, or are the Bills ready to avenge last year’s heartbreaking loss?
Only room for one winner. And we can’t wait!
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4)
The defending Super Bowl champions made oh-too-easy work of the Philadelphia Eagles at home on Super Wild Card weekend.
The fans at Raymond James Stadium were greatly treated to the franchise’s first home playoff win since…oh yeah, last year’s Super Bowl! And before that? The Bucs’ last home postseason victory was 19 years ago – against the 49ers in the Divisional Round.
Yep, life’s good for the Bucs in the Tom Brady era. All those injuries on offense haven’t been enough to stop a team that has only lost once dating back to Week 11. The front seven and secondary were in full lockdown mode on the Eagles’ high-powered offense, making Jalen Hurts look every bit like a rookie.
The Super Bowl hangover hasn’t hit Bruce Arians’ squad. They topped their win total from last year and avoided the frequent one-and-done trend of many other recent Super Bowl winners.
And so, we enter the Final Four with the Bucs needing just one more home win to reach consecutive conference title games for the first time in franchise history. They can expect a far more difficult matchup compared to the Eagles game, however.
The offense and defense will need to be on point this Sunday if they’re to punch another ticket to the final four.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (3)
The Chiefs have become the new version of the Patriots in the Brady-Belichick era. You can put them down for a division title and at least one playoff win every year.
Patrick Mahomes looked like his prime self against a stingy Pittsburgh defense, and the unforgiving Kansas City defense was sure to end Ben Roethlisberger’s career on a sour note.
Though he had one pick and was sacked three times, it was mostly too easy for Mahomes. He was 30-of-39 for 404 yards and five touchdowns. Pittsburgh’s defense had no answer for Travis Kelce, who racked up five catches for 81 yards and a score.
How scary-good is the depth of this team? Jerick McKinnon was KC’s top rusher and second-best receiver behind Kelce. Little-used Byron Pringle hauled in two touchdowns. And even offensive lineman Nick Allegreti caught a TD!
T’was another brilliant performance by Steve Spagnuolo’s defense.
This Chiefs team is looking a lot more like the 2019 group that had playmakers all over the field on both sides of the ball. And Mahomes is certainly enjoying the rebuilt offensive line that will need to hold up against a top-notch Buffalo defense come Sunday.
Buffalo just might be the toughest test remaining in Kansas City’s quest for a second Super Bowl in three years. Getting past the league’s top defense – and a team that annihilated them back in Week 5 – would serve as a giant statement across the league.
KC vs. Buffalo. Let’s go, folks!
2. Tennessee Titans (2)
The Titans enjoyed that much-needed bye week but were probably not too thrilled about the Wild Card weekend outcomes. Surely, they would’ve preferred a matchup with the Raiders, Steelers and maybe even the Patriots?
But that’s a moot point now. The Titans have to focus on stopping a red-hot Bengals team that hasn’t lost a meaningful game since Week 14.
Will the Titans have 2018 and 2019 rushing champion Derrick Henry back for this game? If so, how much of a workload will he get? That’s the main question for this matchup, because Ryan Tannehill greatly struggled to lead the passing game without the superstar running back.
If Henry isn’t much of a factor, Tennessee will need Julio Jones and AJ Brown to win their pivotal one-on-one matchups. Is it a bad time to note that even with Henry, the Titans lost 31 to 20 at Cincinnati just last season?
Also worth noting: The two instances in which the Titans were the AFC’s top seed – 2000 and 2008 – they failed to reach the Super Bowl. Can Mike Vrabel and company keep the trend going of having a top-two seed represent the AFC in the Super Bowl? A first or second seed has won the conference championship every year since 2013.
These feisty Bengals are playing with nothing to lose. They’re on the road against the AFC’s top team with Super Bowl aspirations.
1.Green Bay Packers (1)
Aaron Rodgers must solve playoff Kryptonite if he’s to lead Green Bay to a third straight NFC Championship Game appearance.
Matt LaFleur and Kyle Shanahan meet again, with plenty at stake. Don’t forget the history that these two have of working together. Who knows if LaFleur would have ever been Green Bay’s head coach if it weren’t for his success with Shanahan?
The Packers were probably bracing for a showdown against the winner of the Rams-Cardinals game, but they’ll instead host the surging 49ers. You know, the team that eliminated Rodgers’ Packers in the 2012 Divisional Round, 2013 Wild Card Round and most recently the 2019 NFC Championship Game!
Thing is, Green Bay looked ultra-scary throughout the regular season. Now they have Jaire Alexander, David Bakhtiari and Za’Darius Smith inching towards their respective returns. The NFL’s top team is getting three Pro Bowl-level players back for the postseason? Well, good luck 49ers.
There are so many enticing storylines around this game. The top one, of course, is the possibility that this could be Rodgers’ final outing as a Packer.
He admitted that retirement is an option after this season. Even if A-Rod comes back for 2022…we still don’t know if the Packers did enough to repair the relationship to the point where he won’t seek a trade again.
All of this is for another day, however. Right now, the Packers have one goal in mind: The Super Bowl. And they have to focus on defeating a scary-good San Fran team that has given Rodgers headaches for years.
By the way, another fun tidbit to mention here: The 49ers memorably passed on Rodgers with the first pick in the 2005 Draft, and he wouldn’t let them forget about it.
Does Rodgers finally hand this storied franchise their first playoff loss under his leadership?
Sit back, pull up a chair and enjoy this game. The 49ers and Packers have given us so many epic playoff games over the years, but this one could very well go down as the best of them all.
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