Just as I make an attempt each year to persuade the NFL to consider reseeding the playoff field, I will do the same in my Playoff Power Rankings. I will only be ranking the field of 12, because from here on out, it’s all about individual game matchups.
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1. New Orleans Saints: Of the other explosive offensives in the playoff field (Packers, Patriots, Lions), the Saints actually average almost one full yard more per rushing attempt — and that will come up big in the postseason. Even with the loss of Mark Ingram to injury, the Saints still have a solid trio of backs with Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory and the explosive Darren Sproles. Drew Brees’ record-setting season actually starts with his pre-snap dictations. By shifts, motions and alignments, the Saints find ways to create mismatches for tight end Jimmy Graham and Sproles that will take them deep into the playoffs.
2. Baltimore Ravens: When compiling the Power Rankings, it often comes down to determining who has the best quarterback. That is not the case with the Ravens, as Joe Flacco is, obviously, not the second-best quarterback in the field. But he does have the support of a fantastic defense and an explosive rushing attack. Offensively, Ray Rice is a difference-maker and should get at least 25 touches per game. Pass rusher Terrell Suggs was, arguably, the most dominant defender in all of football this season. Although they are getting up there in age, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed’s experience will carry this defense through the postseason.
3. Green Bay Packers: The Packers headlined my Power Rankings all season long, so why the drop now? I believe their offensive imbalance and charitable defense will finally catch up to them. The Packers employ the league’s worst defense, in terms of yards per game (411.6) but have made up for it by forcing an NFL-high 31 turnovers. But counting on takeaways in the red zone can be a risky business. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is good enough to camouflage some weaknesses in the running game, but the Saints are a better bet, for my money.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger is an elite quarterback, in my book, and having the NFL’s best defense in total yards, passing yards and scoring is always a plus. On the surface, the loss of running back Rashard Mendenhall looks worse than it really is. The Steelers have transformed themselves offensively by using the quick passing game as a substitute for the power running game. If Big Ben is able to move around the pocket on his injured ankle and extend plays in the patented way that Roethlisberger does, this team will be a tough out during any round of the playoffs.
5. New England Patriots: Had it not been for Drew Brees, Tom Brady would have had a record-setting year, as both surpassed Dan Marino as the single-season passing yardage leader. Brady has proven time and again that he can withstand the pressure of carrying this team, but he has never done it while dragging the 31st-ranked defense behind him. The Ravens have struggled on the road this season, but I still think they can go into New England and win. Same with the Steelers.
6. San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers have the No. 2 seed in the NFC, but I view them as the third-best team in the conference. The 49ers have an excellent front seven on defense but can be exposed in the back half. If Justin Smith and Aldon Smith fail to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, they could get burned by the likes of Brees, Rodgers, Matt Stafford, Matt Ryan or Eli Manning, depending on how it plays out. Offensively, the 49ers can run the ball with Frank Gore, but the big question mark is QB Alex Smith. It’s not Smith who is the anchor for this offense, but I’m not sure he can be the catalyst, either, and he might have to be to keep pace with the aforementioned signal callers.
7. Detroit Lions: I love what Stafford has done this season, but the lack of a running game concerns me greatly with Detroit. The Lions attempt only about 22 rushes per game, 31st in the NFL, and that means all of the offensive productivity falls squarely on the shoulders of Stafford. The Lions have a slight edge over the Falcons because of their defense, but the Lions have the misfortune of facing Brees in the first round. Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Ndamukong Suh better get in his face, or it could be an early exit for the NFC’s sixth seed.
8. Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons’ offense has gotten hot at just the right time, but Ryan will carry a lot of pressure on his back until he proves he can win a playoff game. Although Atlanta’s rushing game hasn’t been all that explosive, it has been very productive. Michael Turner’s workload should increase even more, especially against the Giants’ suspect rushing defense in the first round. When wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White do get behind the defense, they can’t afford to misfire on those opportunities, as we have seen them do throughout the season.
9. New York Giants: New York is a mentally tough team, but could be a little physically and emotionally fatigued after an up-and-down regular season. On defense, I worry about the Giants’ secondary and the defense’s ability to stop the off-tackle running plays. Because their passing defense starts with pressure up front, their rush ends often run themselves too far upfield and out of run support. On offense, Manning has had a great year and has benefitted from big-yards-after-catch plays by wide receiver Victor Cruz. Opposing defenses will need to make sure tackles are in order to limit the Giants’ big-play potential.
10. Cincinnati Bengals: I don’t buy the idea of the Bengals “backing in” to the playoffs. In fact, I actually like them over the Texans in the first round. Throughout the season, the Bengals have had excellent first-down efficiency, which means they have third-and-shorts rather than third-and-longs and don’t force their rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton, into bad scenarios. On defense, the Bengals’ ends aren’t flashy, but they hold the edge well on rushing plays. The Bengals also have a nice run-blitz package that should slow down the two-headed monster of Arian Foster and Ben Tate this weekend.
11. Houston Texans: The Texans were best equipped to handle the loss of two starting quarterbacks because of their excellent running game and stout defense, but that has changed over the past couple of weeks. The defense has been average at best and hasn’t been the same since defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ surgery. Offensively, they have had some inopportune fumbles that have been costly during the three-game losing streak that ended the regular season. Although I give the edge to the Bengals in the first round, I expect it to be a close game. It could very easily go in the favor of the Texans.
12. Denver Broncos: The Broncos were writing a great story three weeks ago, but that story is looking as though it will have an unhappy ending. Coming off a three-game losing streak and now having to face the best defense they have seen all year, they are the surest bet for a one-and-done. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is sure to draw up some zone-blitz schemes that will have QB Tim Tebow back-peddling and spinning around in the pocket more than ever.