NFL Power Rankings, Divisional Round: Chiefs' AFC rivals tested; Giants rise to occasion; Chargers flop

NFL Power Rankings, Divisional Round: Chiefs' AFC rivals tested; Giants rise to occasion; Chargers flop

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Published: Jan 17, 2023 at 08:36 AM

You want drama? You’ll have your drama.

Super Wild Card Weekend gave us plenty of excitement without upsetting the larger order of things — either in the playoff bracket … or the NFL Power Rankings.

The top six teams in our rankings from a week ago all made it to the NFL’s version of the Elite Eight. What we’re left with is the promise of delicious theater in the Divisional Round.

This is where it gets special. For now, we still see the 49ers sitting higher than anyone else.

Don’t forget to check out the NFL Power Rankings Podcast with Dan Hanzus and Colleen Wolfe. New episodes every Tuesday.

San Francisco 49ers

Previous rank: No. 1

The 49ers continue to run circles around the enemy. On Saturday, it was the Seahawks’ turn to face the music — a Brock Purdy-orchestrated symphony that rolled off 25 unanswered points in the second half en route to a 41-23 win. After some misfires in the first few drives, Purdy locked in and became the first rookie QB in NFL history with four total touchdowns in a playoff game. His casual dominance can be explained in part by a Kyle Shanahan offense firing on all cylinders: According to Next Gen Stats, all three of Purdy’s passing scores were thrown to receivers who had at least 5 yards of separation. Of Purdy’s 332 passing yards, 179 went to receivers who were virtually uncovered. Purdy hit the NFL QB version of the lotto, and he’s bathing in the riches.

Kansas City Chiefs

Previous rank: No. 4

You can imagine the Chiefs watching this past weekend’s games with smiles on their faces as the Bills and Bengals scratched and clawed for survival against inferior opponents starting backup quarterbacks. Yes, the reward for a 14-3 record — and the bye that came with it — is multi-layered. A fully rested Kansas City squad will get the Jaguars on Saturday — a victory at Arrowhead punches the ticket for a fifth consecutive trip to the AFC Championship Game. History tells us no team wants to face Patrick Mahomes in the second round of the playoffs: The former MVP is undefeated in four games on the divisional stage, with nine touchdowns, zero interceptions and a passer rating of 114.1. The Great Ones play like immortals at this time of year.

Buffalo Bills

Previous rank: No. 2

The Bills were supposed to high-step their way into the Divisional Round. Instead, Buffalo was fighting just to stay in the tourney against a Dolphins team playing its third-string quarterback. The Bills managed to advance with a 34-31 win in Orchard Park, but the sloppy play in all phases must be addressed posthaste. “I mean, the turnovers, they hurt us,” Josh Allen said. “Really let them back in the game. Up 17-0 with chances, and I give them the ball two times and give them a touchdown — it’s just things you can’t do. And you can’t expect to win like that, so some stuff to clean up.” The Dolphins converted Allen’s three turnovers into 18 points. If the quarterback is similarly generous against the Bengals on Sunday, the Bills are going home.

Cincinnati Bengals

Previous rank: No. 3

In the bad old days, January football for the Bengals was ground zero for heartache and disappointment. In the Joe Burrow era, it feels like the glory days. Cincinnati had its latest massive playoff moment courtesy of the unforgettable 98-yard fumble return touchdown by Sam Hubbard that allowed the home team to escape with a 24-17 win over the hated Ravens. “Run faster, Sam! Get there!” Burrow said afterward, relaying his inner monologue in the moment. “He actually did look pretty fast, surprisingly.” The 6-foot-5, 265-pound lineman was fast: Per Next Gen Stats, Hubbard reached a top speed of 17.43 mph on the return, the third-fastest speed by a defensive lineman as a ball-carrier this season. Up next? A titanic showdown with the Bills, with a trip to the AFC Championship Game on the line.

Philadelphia Eagles

Previous rank: No. 5

Was a No. 1 seed ever in more desperate need of a bye than the Eagles? The team hopes to get star right tackle Lane Johnson and beast edge rusher Josh Sweat back in time for Saturday night’s grudge match against the Giants, but the biggest health-related concern continues to center on Jalen Hurts. Last week, the quarterback acknowledged he still might not be fully healthy for the Divisional Round. “I’m feeling better,” Hurts said after being limited in a Thursday practice session. “I’m just taking it day by day. I think the whole world knows I’ve been dealing with something.” That “something” is a throwing-shoulder injury that seriously threatens to limit the quarterback’s explosive playmaking ability. Without it, Philadelphia will be vulnerable against a surging Giants team.

Dallas Cowboys

Previous rank: No. 6

Pressure? What pressure? Monday night’s 31-14 romp over the Bucs was exactly what the Cowboys needed after a late-season slump that made you wonder if Mike McCarthy’s team had already peaked. Instead, Dak Prescott played perhaps the best game of his career, and the Dallas defense dominated Tom Brady and Co. Prescott’s performance was a potential landscape-shifter: The veteran finished 25-of-33 for 305 yards with five total touchdowns and — this is important — zero turnovers. “The light is different on Dak,” Micah Parsons told ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt after the win. “The criticism he gets is unfair and unjust sometimes, but the way he handles it, the way he comes back every time and shows who he truly is, it’s a credit to him and the work he puts in.” The Cowboys will need their QB to stay in God Mode this weekend against the rampaging 49ers. 

New York Giants

Previous rank: No. 11

A giant step forward for the G-Men. Brian Daboll’s team played beautiful football in a 31-24 conquest of the Vikings — the same Vikings who walked off New York on a 61-yard field goal on Christmas Eve and entered Wild Card Weekend with an 11-0 mark in one-score games. It was sweet revenge, but it didn’t feel like an upset: The Giants, led by a surging Daniel Jones and a fresh and ferocious Saquon Barkley, piled up 431 yards and punted just twice, while a monster performance by defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence made life miserable for Kirk Cousins and short-circuited the Minnesota QB’s connection with star wideout Justin Jefferson. The Giants will again carry the underdog tag into their Divisional Round matchup against the top-seeded Eagles — disregard Big Blue at your own peril.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Previous rank: No. 8

The Jaguars were down 27-0 with less than five minutes to play in the first half against the Chargers. The ensuing comeback, a stunning 31-30 win finalized by Riley Patterson’s 36-yard field goal as time expired, might represent the greatest moment in the history of the franchise. Not just for what the comeback was — and it was remarkable — but also because of what it promises for the future of the team with Trevor Lawrence at the controls. Lawrence and the rest of the Jags were a mess for most of the first half, but the QB recovered and played like a man possessed as Jacksonville rumbled to four touchdowns and the deciding field goal in the team’s last five possessions. In a hyped showdown between Lawrence and Justin Herbert, it was Lawrence who looked like the generational star on the big stage. Pinch yourselves, Jags fans. This is real.

Los Angeles Chargers

Previous rank: No. 7

“I’ve been playing football for 21 years, and I ain’t never felt like this.” Those were the words of Chargers safety Derwin James after the unthinkable happened. The Bolts built up a 27-0 lead in the first half of their wild-card matchup against the Jaguars, only to watch it all disappear in a 31-30 loss that will stick with the organization forever — “Chargers gonna Charger” at the most excruciating level. There’s plenty of blame to go around for a meltdown of this nature, the biggest blown lead in team history, and the question becomes: How does team leadership react? Head coach Brandon Staley figures to be on the hot seat; offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi can’t be too comfortable himself. A loss of this magnitude almost always comes with unpleasant consequences for the parties involved. 

EDITOR’S UPDATE: The Chargers have fired Lombardi, NFL Network Insiders Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero reported Tuesday. Pelissero also reported they have fired quarterback coach Shane Day.

Minnesota Vikings

Previous rank: No. 10

In the end, the Vikings were who so many of their critics thought they were: a good but far-from-great team, the reality of their place in the landscape masked by a 13-4 record and unprecedented success in one-score contests (11-0 in the regular season). On Sunday, the Giants exposed how vulnerable the Vikings truly were, going up and down the field on the Minnesota defense before making the decisive fourth-quarter stop (throw past the sticks, Kirk!) to clinch a 31-24 win for the visitors. Kirk Cousins and the Vikings’ offense wilted in the fourth quarter, but actual improvement in Minnesota goes back to fixing a defense that simply wasn’t good enough. Expect that to be the focus of free agency and the draft.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Previous rank: No. 15

The Bucs never had the look of a serious title contender this season. They went out without any surprises on Monday night at Raymond James Stadium, where the Cowboys had their way in a game that felt like it was over by halftime. The 31-14 loss featured more listless play by the offense, while the defense was cooked up by Dak Prescott, who dominated in one of his greatest games as a pro. Big questions face the Bucs, now nearly two years removed from their Super Bowl win. Will Tom Brady return for a fourth season in Tampa? Does Todd Bowles get another season on the sideline? This feels like a franchise at a crossroads. 

Seattle Seahawks

Previous rank: No. 16

Give the Seahawks credit. They were badly outclassed by the 49ers by nearly every measure — but they can always say they took a lead into the second half of Saturday’s playoff matchup at Levi’s Stadium. Reality came hard for Pete Carroll’s gang in the second half of an eventual 41-23 defeat, but Seattle exits the picture after a season of undeniable progress and — oh, yes — with the fifth overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft incoming. The first big question: Will the team stay in business with Geno Smith? “I want to finish my career in Seattle,” the revitalized QB said after the game. “I want to be here. The town, the city, the team, Coach Carroll, the organization — they all embraced me. I was a guy who probably could have been out of the league. They embraced me, and I want to repay them for that.”

Miami Dolphins

Previous rank: No. 17

The Dolphins weren’t given much of a chance to compete in their wild-card matchup against the mighty Bills. They nearly won. The 34-31 setback was impressive in how Miami — playing third-string quarterback Skylar Thompson — fought hard and took full advantage of an avalanche of Buffalo mistakes, but a sense of regret still permeated due to the Fins’ own self-inflicted errors. The Dolphins were repeatedly late getting out of their huddle, an inefficiency that cost them valuable timeouts and led to multiple penalties, including a killer delay-of-game infraction on a fourth-and-1 near midfield in the final minutes. The subsequent fourth-and-6 incompletion clinched the loss and sent the Dolphins into the offseason with a foul taste of “What if?” in their mouths. 

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