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The NFL’s top contenders for the Super Bowl, ranked

Let’s rank every team left standing in the 2021 NFL playoffs.

The dust has settled on the opening weekend of action in the NFL playoffs with eight teams remaining in the hunt to make the trip to Tampa Bay for Super Bowl LV on Feb. 7. Four games will take place next weekend to determine who faces off in each conference championship game.

Super Wild Card weekend was headlined by the Cleveland Browns’ upset win over the Steelers. Their prize for winning? A date with the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs, who are trying to win back-to-back Super Bowls. In the NFC, the No. 1 seed Green Bay Packers will face a Los Angeles Rams team that advanced out of the opening weekend despite suffering several injuries to key players. Elsewhere, we have a pair of intriguing quarterback matchups featuring the future of the position (Lamar Jackson vs. Josh Allen) and two of its all-time greats (Drew Brees vs. Tom Brady).

Who looks best positioned to hoist the Lombardi Trophy of the teams that are left? Here is the rest of the playoff field, ranked.

8. Cleveland Browns

The Browns’ first playoff appearance in 18 years came as head coach Kevin Stefanski and several key players (including All-Pro guard Joel Bitonio) were out because of Covid protocol. As if that weren’t enough, Cleveland was facing its long-time rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers, on the road, where they haven’t won since 2003. Just when it felt like the Browns were still cursed even after finally making the playoffs, Cleveland responded with a thrilling 48-37 win that pushes them into the Divisional Round.

Cleveland scored a defensive touchdown on the very first play from scrimmage. Baker Mayfield threw for 263 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. Nick Chubb added 76 yards on the ground, while fellow running back Kareem Hunt got into the end zone twice. The Browns are going to have their work cut out for them against the top-seeded Chiefs next week, but the win over the Steelers was the type that should be celebrated by the fanbase for years to come.

7. Los Angeles Rams

Though offense has been the Rams’ calling card for much of Sean McVay’s tenure thus far, defense was their biggest strength in 2020, and that continued in their 30-20 playoff win over the Seahawks in Seattle. The Rams made Russell Wilson look awful as he completed just 11-of-27 passes for 174 yards with a pick and two scores while taking five sacks.

The offense got an unexpected spark when Jared Goff came off the bench in relief of John Wolford, who left the game after a big hit from Jamal Adams. Goff managed the game well while throwing for 155 yards and a score as he’s recovering from thumb surgery, but the Rams will need more from him to make a deep playoff run.

The real story on offense was rookie running back Cam Akers, who torched Seattle for 131 yards and a score on 28 carries while grabbing two passes for 45 yards. After battling for touches in the regular season, Akers has left no doubt he’s the best back for this offense moving forward.

Unfortunately, the Rams lost Aaron Donald (ribs) and Cooper Kupp (contusion) to injuries, and their status for the Divisional Round is in doubt. If the Rams are to beat the Green Bay Packers and make a deep playoff run, they need both of those guys in the lineup, especially Donald, a strong candidate for NFL Defensive Player the Year.

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Despite entering the game as 10-point favorites, the Buccaneers were pushed to the limit by the Taylor Heinicke-led Washington Football Team before holding on for a 31-23 win. Tampa’s top-10 defense struggled to stop Washington’s journeyman passer, but Tom Brady did what Tom Brady does in the playoffs, throwing for 381 yards and two scores to win his first playoff game as a Buc while his former Patriots teammates and coaches sit at home for the postseason.

The offense looks primed for a big postseason, but the defense must play better to continue the playoff march. Next up for the Bucs is a Divisional Round showdown with the New Orleans Saints. In a meeting between two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Brady needs to show he’s the one with more left in the tank. If Tampa can match the 500+ yards of total offense they put up against Washington, they should have a good chance to continue their dream of playing in the Super Bowl on their home field.

5. New Orleans Saints

The Saints beat the Chicago Bears, 21-9, in the opening round in a game that wasn’t as close as the score might indicate. Chicago scored only a garbage time touchdown, and was held to just 239 yards of total offense. New Orleans is about to face a much stiffer test against Tom Brady and a Tampa Bay offense that put up more than 500 total yards against Washington in their own playoff opener.

If the Saints want to extend their playoff run, Brees will need to show he’s not just a shadow of his former self. Brees threw for 265 yards, two touchdowns, and no picks against the Bears, but it’s clear he doesn’t get nearly as much velocity on his throws as he used to. Star running back Alvin Kamara may be asked to do the heavy lifting. He ran for 99 yards against a good Bears defense, but he’s capable of doing more in the passing game. Brady vs. Brees might feel like an all-time matchup based on their history, but it’s more likely the game will be decided by the other players on the field.

4. Baltimore Ravens

Lamar Jackson has his first playoff win, and it came in impressive fashion as he exercised the demons of last year’s playoff loss to the Titans with 136 rushing yards and a score while throwing for 179 more in the Ravens’ 20-13 win in Tennessee.

The Ravens also snapped a streak of 21 straight losses in the regular season and playoffs when trailing by 10+ points. After going down 10-0 early vs. the Titans, Baltimore ended the game on a 20-3 run, held Derrick Henry to a mere 40 rushing yards, and won the total yardage battle 401-209.

It was the type of complete performance that makes Jackson and the Ravens look like a legitimate Super Bowl threat, but things are only going to get tougher from here. Josh Allen and a tough Buffalo Bills defense are waiting next week in a matchup of two of the brightest young quarterbacks in the league. While Jackson will deservedly get most of the attention, he’ll need to get another sublime performance from his defense that just smothered the Titans.

3. Buffalo Bills

The Bills had gone 25 years without winning a playoff game entering the weekend. That streak is no more.

Buffalo came away with a 27-24 win Saturday over the Colts to advance to the Divisional Round. Josh Allen was once again the star of the show, as he threw for 324 yards and ran for 54 more while accounting for all three of Buffalo’s touchdowns. However, Buffalo’s defense left a lot to be desired, as they allowed the 39-year-old Philip Rivers, who may retire this offseason, to throw for 309 yards and two scores while finishing with a season-high 91.9 QBR. Buffalo’s defense will have to be better against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens.

One thing that should make Buffalo feel better is the performance of wide receiver Stefon Diggs. The Bills’ big offseason acquisition went off for 1,500 yards receiving during the regular season, and followed it up by catching six passes for 128 yards and a touchdown in his playoff debut for Buffalo. Allen will be looking his way early and often against a great Baltimore defense.

2. Green Bay Packers

The Packers will be well rested when they begin their playoff run in the Divisional Round. After finishing the regular season ranked ninth in total defense and fifth in total offense behind likely NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, the top-seeded Packers enter the playoffs as the favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

Green Bay now draws the Los Angeles Rams in their playoff opener. LA looked dominant defensively in their win against Seattle, but several injuries to key players means the Packers are likely to be a big favorite ahead of kickoff. The spotlight will be on Rodgers, as it always is. He’ll be looking for top target Davante Adams throughout the game. Adams popped off for 115 receptions, 1,374 yards, and 18 touchdowns during a breakout regular season performance. We’ll believe someone can stop the Rodgers-Adams connection when we see it.

1. Kansas City Chiefs

What more is there to say about the Kansas City Chiefs? Quarterback Patrick Mahomes leads a perpetually dangerous and explosive offense back into the postseason as the frontrunners to win it all and defend their championship crown.

The Chiefs are coming off of a 14-2 regular season with one of those losses coming with an asterisk next to it seeing as it came in a Week 17 game where Mahomes and several star players sat out to rest up for the playoffs. The loss to the Los Angeles Chargers snapped a 10-game winning streak, but this is still one of the league’s hottest teams entering the Divisional Round.

If there are any concerns about the Chiefs, it might be that they coasted through portions of the regular season and could get bitten by thinking they could turn it on or off at any given time. Still, this team is loaded and ready for another run at the Lombardi Trophy. It would be an absolute shock if Kansas City struggles with the Browns in their playoff opener. The AFC still goes through KC.