Power Rankings  

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Packers, Saints cream of the crop entering NFL playoffs


You know how you know the Playoff Power Rankings are here? Because everyone keeps getting fired.

Harrison: It's about to get wild
From the surprising Bengals and late-surging Giants to the playoff-tested Steelers and Saints, Elliot Harrison examines wild-card weekend. More ...

Bill Polian got the ax. Not a lot of tears for that one. The Colts finished 31st in my final tally of the regular season (though my colleagues obviously didn't agree). The final tally for Colts owner Jim Irsay's decision was a 2-14 record (and a roster totally exposed) once Peyton Manning was removed from the equation. You won't find the Rams below either. They finished 32nd. GM Billy Devaney and coach Steve Spagnuolo lost their jobs as well.

Andy Reid hasn't lost his gig and you won't find his Eagles here, because this is a playoff edition of Power Rankings. Only teams in the postseason are included, though it's worth noting that Philly finished above Denver in the final NFL.com power poll.

None of the 12 teams below have relinquished their gigs as it pertains to this season, although some maintain more hope than others. The biggest surprise? Houston is ranked eighth. Consider it a vote of confidence for a team that should survive the wild-card round. Meanwhile, the Saints are also without a bye, but could be waving bye-bye to the rest of the NFC if they keep playing the way they have the past eight weeks. That's why they sit near the top.

So, without further ado, here are the abridged Power Rankings, playoffs edition. Let the dissension, per the usual, flourish.




NFC No. 1 seed. On the heels of his 480-yard passing performance against the Lions, expect Matt Flynn to start again in two weeks. OK, maybe not. But even with Aaron Rodgers getting the day off, the Packers look pretty good offensively, don't you think? With that in mind, Greg Jennings' return will only give the uber-aggressive Mike McCarthy more options on his laminated flipcard. This club is going to be tough for any team to stop.




NFC No. 3 seed. We know the Saints offense can march down the field on any team in the league, including the Packers. But how about Gregg Williams' defense? There are some positive signs. New Orleans has given up 17 points or less in four of the past five outings. No team has scored more than 24 points on the Saints since October. They can give up the yards, but they're holding their water late in opponents' drives.




AFC No. 1 seed. Remember in "Titanic" how James Cameron tried to pull the ultimate diversion with Leo DiCaprio's homeless character pulling the rich chick, so as to make you forget why we all came to the theater? No one cared about that diamond, either. One wonders if that is what's going on with the Patriots. The high-powered offense and the media love affair with Tom Brady is a diversion. When will the defense that can't stop anybody ultimately sink this ship? Believe it or not, it might not be until the Super Bowl. Who in the AFC can keep up with New England in a track meet?



13-3 49ERS

NFC No. 2 seed. The great thing about playing for the Niners, as well as rooting for them if you're indeed a fan of Jim Harbaugh's group, is that everything is simplified. There's no complex equation here. San Francisco shuts down the ground game, forces teams into third-and-not-so-manageable, and plays responsible pass coverage. Not great, but good enough to let a formidable pass rush (42 sacks) get home. Offensively, the playoffs will be about Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, and play-action.




AFC No. 2 seed. If Cam Cameron leans on the run game in the manner he did last Sunday in Cincy, this club can beat the Pats in the AFC. The Ravens can beat anyone, including the Packers. Still, they are the least likely of the top five teams to do it because A) the corners can be had (see: Week 15 in San Diego); and B) Joe Flacco's game hasn't progressed, though he was a very efficient 15 of 19 for 130 yards against the Bengals. Can Flacco ratchet it up should the Ravens get involved in a 30-27 contest? Of course, you can ask the same question of Alex Smith and the Niners, but their defense allowed 37 fewer points than the Ravens in '11. Either way, both of these defensive-minded teams are talented enough to make hay in the playoffs.




AFC No. 5 seed. So much of an NFL-record ninth Super Bowl berth rests on one guy's health. Ben Roethlisberger's high ankle sprain didn't get a rest in Cleveland on Sunday, but maybe one more week will do the trick. The Steelers need his mobility in Denver, unless the defense can replicate what the Chiefs did last Sunday. The Broncos got very little going on Romeo Crennel's team and will find its hands full with the league's top-ranked defense this weekend. If Ryan Clark can't go, Ryan Mundy likely would be next man up.




NFC No. 5 seed. It's tough to gauge the success of Atlanta's 2011 season. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey -- a head-coaching candidate in Jacksonville -- had trouble getting the ground game going late in the year. On the other hand, Matt Ryan was sterling down the stretch, while not throwing a pick in almost a month. The Falcons didn't win the South and were swept by the Saints, but still finished with 10 wins. Like I said, tough to figure out these guys.




AFC No. 3 seed. Houston lost Sunday in a game it didn't try very hard to win. With T.J. Yates going out, Arian Foster not active, and Andre Johnson hardly playing, the Texans were prepping for the playoffs. Some fans don't like it, but Gary Kubiak had no choice. The Texans head coach has to rely on his silver-haired defensive coordinator to do his best job ever for the Texans to win more than one playoff game. Go get 'em, Wade Phillips. That said, for all those who say the Texans are surely one-and-done and will fall this weekend, exactly who have the Bengals beaten this year?



10-6 LIONS

NFC No. 6 seed. Matt Stafford continues to get high praise from around the league, but the Pro Bowl snub must be very careful in New Orleans. Stafford can still press from time to time, as evidenced in losses to the Packers and Bears earlier this season, when he tossed a whopping seven picks. That's why it's imperative that offensive coordinator Scott Linehan maintains some balance. Power Rankings side note: Win, lose, or draw, Detroit won 10 games just three years removed from going 0-16. Now, about those Buffalo Bills…




NFC No. 4 seed. Some analysts or fans might be so inclined to rate the Giants higher. It's hard to do so, given the herky-jerkiness of their season. Only the Star Trek movies were more inconsistent than the G-Men (II, IV, VI ... good. All the odd movies ... terrible.) Just like Khan's obsession with Captain Kirk, Eli Manning declares jihad on Jerry Jones. Check out these numbers from Manning's past four games:

Dec. 11 and Jan. 1 versus Cowboys: 67.5 completion pct, 373 pass yards per game, five touchdowns and one interception
Dec. 18 and 24 versus Redskins and Jets: 47.8 completion pct, 241 pass yards per game, one touchdown and four interceptions




AFC No. 6 seed. The little ugly orange-and-black-multi-striped engine that could. That's what these Bengals are, losing their way into the playoffs. That's OK -- an in is an in. No one thought Cincinnati would make it this far, and for that, a big bag of credit should be laid at the feet of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Despite some rough outings, like against Ray Rice on Sunday, Zimmer's guys finished seventh in the NFL. For all the love Jay Gruden has gotten for developing Andy Dalton, the Bengals O came in at 20th overall.




AFC No. 4 seed. Te lowmania. It's gotten rough in Denver, with the low water mark the loss to former starter Kyle Orton at home while backpedaling into the playoffs at 8-8. Speaking of backpedaling, the Broncos' zone-read offense has taken a step back the past couple of weeks. Without question, 2011 remains a successful season for the Denver franchise. But to build on it, the pass rush must force Ben Roethlisberger to test that healing ankle, while Willis McGahee and Lance Ball use their vision to find the seams in the Pittsburgh front seven. Otherwise, it's 8-9mania.



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