Stack the best candidates on their way into the division round – The Mercury News

With the NFL’s first “Super Wild Card Weekend” in the books, there are only eight teams left in the hunt for the Super Bowl title.

After ranks all 32 teams through the 18-week regular season, The Baltimore Sun examines the top candidates heading into the division round:

1. Green Bay Packers

Thanks to their farewell in the first round, the Packers (13-4) were able to give left tackle David Bakhtiari, cornerback Jaire Alexander and edge-rusher Za’Darius Smith another week of rest as they work their way back from injury. Bakhtiari shook off some rust in week 18 against the Lions, while Alexander and Smith returned to training in recent weeks. These are three Pro Bowl-caliber players that NFC’s No. 1 seed could fall on his list for the season’s most important stretch.

Of course, the Packers also have the best quarterback receiver combination in the league in Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams, a strong one-two on running back in Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon and one of the most successful young coaches in NFL history in Matt. LaFleur. But if there is one Achilles heel on this team, it is the special team that ended the season placed last in Football Outsiders’ DVOA.

Despite having the best odds of winning the Super Bowl, the Packers face a tough matchup Saturday night against a San Francisco 49ers team that has dominated them in recent off-seasons. The Packers’ defense is still weak against the onslaught, which plays right into coach Kyle Shanahan’s hands with his running-heavy wide-zone offensive. Still, Green Bay is getting healthy at the right time and has probably the most valuable player under the center. This is the team to fight.

2. Kansas City Chiefs

Since losing 27-3 to the Titans to fall to 3-4, the Chiefs (13-5) have won 10 of their last 11 games to once again bet on their claim as the best team in the league. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes has been unusual as usual, but the Chiefs’ turnaround coincides with a drastic improvement in defense. After allowing 32.6 points per. game in weeks 1-5, Kansas City gave up only 16.7 points per game. match from week 6-18.

The only thing the Chiefs needed was an average defense in the league to return to the Super Bowl. Instead, it became one of the best in the NFL, thanks to some important adjustments by coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and some important staff changes. The emergence of safety Juan Thornhill and rookie linebacker Nick Bolton, swapped with rejuvenated winger Rusvin Melvin Ingram and the return of defensive lineman Chris Jones to the inside have helped solidify a unit that threatened to lower Kansas Citys season.

It also helps to have the best quarterback in the league. With his 404 yards and five touchdowns in Sunday’s 42-21 win over the Steelers, Mahomes has averaged 309.8 yards and 2.8 touchdowns over the past six weeks. With receiver Tyreek Hill, tight-end Travis Kelce and breakout running back Jerick McKinnon at the helm, the Chiefs have more than enough talent on the offensive to surpass any team in the league.

3. Buffalo Bills

If there is one team that can keep up with Kansas City offensively, it is the Bills (12-6). That was evident in Saturday night’s record-breaking 47-17 round over the Patriots, with Buffalo becoming the first team in league history to not kick a field goal, score or make a turnover, and score on its first seven possessions before time ran out . . Quarterback Josh Allen showcased his elite skills with a commanding performance: 21-for-25 for 308 yards and five touchdowns through the air, six carries for 66 yards on the ground. Allen became the fifth quarterback in NFL history with more touchdowns (5) than incomplete (4) and set the record for highest Total QBR (98.5) since the statistics were introduced in 2006.

If Allen’s superstar status was not enough, Bills’ defense has been among the league’s best all season. The unit entered the postseason ranked No. 1 in DVOA before snatching the Patriots rookie Mac Jones twice, recording three sacks and limiting New England’s running backs to 3.6 yards per carry. carry. Even without star-cornerback Tre’Davious White, this defense is still elite.

There are just not many holes on this list, which is why Buffalo may be well on its way to its first Super Bowl title.

4. Tennessee Titans

As good as the Chiefs and Bills have been all season, the Titans (12-5) are the team that got seed No. 1 and a farewell in the first round. With its ground-and-pound rushing offense and play-action heavy passing play, Tennessee is an exciting foil for Kansas City and Buffalo’s scattered offenses. To make things even more interesting, star runner Derrick Henry is on his way to returning to the division round after missing most of the season with a foot injury.

You do not have to squint to see how the Titans could win the AFC. In a four-game stretch midway through the season, Tennessee defeated three high-caliber playoff teams and a strong candidate in the Chiefs, Bills, Colts and Rams. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is usually not taken into account when discussing the best quarterbacks in the league, but he remains one of the most effective. He’s also getting hot at the right time, and he has thrown seven touchdown passes and no interceptions during his last three games, while completing more than 73% of his attempts.

If Henry can return to his usual dominant self, wide receivers AJ Brown and Julio Jones impose their will on less defensive backs, and the defense plays as well as it has for most of the regular season, there is a way for the Titans to make a surprising run for the Super Bowl.

5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Placing a team with the best quarterback ever in fifth place in this exercise seems foolish, but injuries have taken their toll on this talented Bucs list. Tampa Bay (14-4) lost All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs to an ankle injury in Sunday’s 31-15 win over the Eagles, taking another top player away from quarterback Tom Brady and this besieged offensive.

Mike Evans remains an elite receiver, but the loss of Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown has erased some of the great play potential in Brady’s downfield passing attack. Evans and tight-end Rob Gronkowski are good enough to carry the burden against the Eagles, but how will this offensive fare against some of the best defenses in the league? That puts a lot on the plate for a 44-year-old quarterback.

The Bucs can at least hang their hats on their defense, which has been stabilized by the return of veteran linebacker Lavonte David. A secondary led by star safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean are able to shut down some of the league’s best passing attacks, while a defensive line led by Vita Vea, Shaq Barrett and athletic rookie Joe Tryon-Shoyinka can both stop the run and speed up the passer effectively.

With more playoff wins than the rest of the league’s post-season quarterbacks combined, Brady knows better than anyone how to win an ugly win. Tampa Bay will need him to lead a few more to defend his Super Bowl title.

6. Los Angeles Rams

Thirteen seasons and 323 touchdown passes later, Matthew Stafford finally has a playoff win. The veteran quarterback has been the source of much frustration for his head-scratching turnover throughout his career, but he showed in Monday’s 34-11 win over the Cardinals that he can be patient. The former Lions star finished 13-of-17 for 202 yards and two touchdowns by simply taking what the defense gave him and not forcing throws into tight windows. That version of Stafford may be the difference for a Rams (13-5) team thinking Super Bowl or bust.

What was more encouraging Monday night was the play of the Rams’ defense, which forced quarterback Kyler Murray to make more costly mistakes. Pressure from Aaron Donald and Co. led to two interceptions, including the shortest pick-six in postseason history, while Los Angeles held Arizona to just 183 yards in total. The Rams will miss defensive signal-caller Jordan Fuller after starting safety suffered an ankle injury that ended the season in week 18, but young backups Nick Scott and Terrell Burgess played well in his absence. Closing Brady and the Bucs will be a bigger challenge, but this Rams defensive front should be able to take advantage of a weakened Tampa Bay offensive line.

If Stafford and the defense can play as well as they did Monday night, the Rams could be Green Bay’s biggest threat in the NFC.

7. Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals (11-7) drove out some demons on Saturday, securing their first playoff victory since the 1990 season with a 26-19 victory over the Raiders. All that was needed was to reunite perhaps the most productive quarterback receiver duo in college football history.

After setting a record at LSU, Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase have moved on where they left off in the NFL. Returning from a season-ending knee injury, Burrow has quickly become one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, ranking first in the Pro Football Focus rating and second in the EPA / CPOE composite, according to RBSDM.com. Chase, meanwhile, was number four in the NFL with 1,455 receiving yards, including a rookie single-game record of 266 in a Week 17 victory over the Chiefs. Their chemistry has led to big game after big game, usually deep down the field. According to Next Gen Stats, the Chase led the NFL with 923 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns outside of the numbers in the regular season.

Bengal’s defense, however, needs a healthy Trey Hendrickson to stick to the Bills and Chiefs. After the star edge rusher went down with a concussion on Saturday, Cincinnati’s pass rush disappeared completely. For the season, the Bengals’ pressure rate was twice as high with Hendrickson on the field (35.8%) than without (17.6%), according to Next Gen Stats. Fortunately for the Bengals, their defense has been much better against the race than the pass, which is a reason for optimism heading into Saturday’s matchup against the Titans.

8. San Francisco 49ers

Could we see another Super Bowl run from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers like we did three years ago? Sunday’s dramatic finish against the Cowboys obscured the fact that San Francisco (11-7) dominated most of the game against a team that came into the postseason as No. 1 in DVOA. Were it not for a Garoppolo interception late in the match, the 23-17 victory could have been more skewed.

The Garoppolo selection, of course, illustrates exactly why it’s hard to trust these Niners. San Francisco certainly did not trade up the draft for quarterback Trey Lance because it believes in its veteran starter, who is likely to make his way out after this season. But with star receivers Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk and a strong offensive line paving the way for rookie sensation Elijah Mitchell, this Kyle Shanahan offense is almost foolproof when it hits all cylinders.

The big question for the 49ers is the health of star-edge rusher Nick Bosa (concussion) and linebacker Fred Warner (knee), who both left Sunday’s game with injuries. The 49ers are likely to need both full strength to defeat Aaron Rodgers and Packers, especially since the secondary is unlikely to hold for 60 minutes against Adams and Co. But even with Garoppolo’s many faults, this team is talented and physical enough to give the Packers a scare in Lambeau.

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