NFL Power Rankings: Patriots surge into Championship Sunday

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Championship Sunday's on the horizon! Time to look forward to who could be playing in Super Bowl 50 ...

... but not yet. Let's not step too far away without looking back at an awesome Divisional Round.

The Packers and Cardinals gave us an even better ballgame than the wild wild-card game they produced six years ago. Seattle nearly pulled off a miracle comeback. The Chiefs stayed in the game with the defending champ Patriots. And how about those tough, shorthanded Steelers, who gave it all they had versus the Broncos?

The only downer after a wonderful weekend of football was the news that Glenn Frey left us too soon. One of the founding members of the Eagles (the band, not the football team) and a rock legend who had a successful solo career, Frey will be missed. And if you think there is no connection to the NFL, you're wrong! Sort of. Frey, you might remember, played the GM of the Cardinals in "Jerry Maguire." Ah, but the music. So many good ones ...

OK, back to the conference championship games. Thought this tweet was interesting:

How about that? As much as the NFL has changed, it's the same. Veteran quarterbacks can still give teams a puncher's chance in the playoffs. Cool.

As for where those old guys' teams stack up now, take a look below. As always, share your take: @HarrisonNFL is the place.

Let the dissension commence!

NOTE: The lineup below reflects changes from our Jan. 12 Power Rankings.

PAST: 19 | 18 | 17 | 16 | 15 | 14 | 13 | 12 | 11 | 10 | 9 | 8 | 7 | 6 | 5 | 4 | 3 | 2 | 1

RANK

1

16-1 PANTHERS

Talk about surviving a scare ... The Panthers certainly deserved to win, but as Cam Newton aptly put it, they got a little "tight" in the second half. Sometimes panic sets in when a team like the Seahawks gets on a roll, and a 17-point third-quarter lead feels like a seven-point lead. That said, if there are two guys Carolina has always been able to lean on when big plays were needed, they're Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. They've been the best linebacker combo in football this season. Unfortunately, league observers and fans always point to the LBs who get sacks, which is neither Kuechly's nor Davis' responsibility in that defense. Davis' primary role typically isn't catching onside kicks, either, but he sure made a heckuva play on that deal, too.

RANK

2

13-4 PATRIOTS

4

Call it respect, call it typical or label it "East Coast Bias" (even though your writer lives on the other coast), but the Patriots looked like the defending Super Bowl champions on Saturday. Anyone who watched that game had to come away from it thinking New England can beat any team in the postseason field. In fact, Bill Belichick and company took care of the hottest team in the field. Getting some pieces back on offense wasn't overrated, huh?

RANK

3

14-3 CARDINALS

1

What an NFC Championship Game we have shaping up this weekend. Cardinals at Panthers has been the matchup most have expected for quite some time, and now we're getting it. So why the drop in the Power Rankings? The Cardinals certainly didn't get lucky Saturday night (forget about flip-gate), but they came the closest of all the home teams to falling. Moreover, coming in, the Packers were the weakest remaining team in the NFC playoffs, made more so by the loss of Randall Cobb. Make no mistake, Aaron Rodgers can even any playing field. But letting Jeff Janis, Richard Rodgers and Jared Abbrederis almost beat you? #honeybadger

RANK

4

13-4 BRONCOS

1

There are two ways to look at the Broncos' win: 1) The defense continues to play like a top-seeded defense, or 2) the offense stinks real bad. The latter thought prevailed on Twitter on Sunday, as Peyton Manning struggled to convert on third down (3 for 15). Of course, having receivers who actually receive the football would help. Manning vs. Brady will not be much of a matchup at all if Emmanuel Sanders, C.J. Anderson and whoever else is in the game can't catch. I mean, we know Manning is out there throwing absolute rocketballs, but come on. On another note, Bradley Roby deserves a Coors Cutter for stripping that football. He more than made up for taking a bad angle on Martavis Bryant's 52-yard catch and run. Nice work.

RANK

5

12-6 CHIEFS

2

The NFL's longest winning streak came to an end at 11 on Saturday, but the Chiefs certainly exceeded all expectations for the season after Jamaal Charles went down. They have nothing to hang their heads about ... Well, except for the atrocious clock management in New England. Dan Fouts pointed it out on the CBS telecast. Andy Reid let time dwindle, only to have Alex Smith aggravate the problem by huddling up. Call the play at the line! Watching the broadcast, I thought the problem might be that the Chiefs' young receivers couldn't work in a true no-huddle, hurry-up offense yet. If so, that's on coaching, too. OK, we're done. Fantastic season, Kansas City. # ChiefsKingdom

RANK

6

11-7 SEAHAWKS

2

The Seahawks showed the character of their football team Sunday -- win, lose, or draw. Ultimately, it was the second of those outcomes for Pete Carroll's bunch. And sure, the 'Hawks earned being down five scores in the first place. But how many teams would have folded their tents? Russell Wilson and the offense took the tiniest grain of hope from Tyler Lockett's kick return and made brown-sugar oatmeal out of it. One touchdown pass, then another ... then a dime to Lockett in the corner. The comeback was on ... and then ... it wasn't enough. Perhaps the run is over for this version of Seattle, as Marshawn Lynch might have Beast Mode'd his last defender while donning the lime green. Still, there was a heart of a champion on display in Charlotte. For both teams.

RANK

7

11-7 PACKERS

No drop for the Packers, even with the loss. Mostly because, despite being all sorts of banged up, they darn near pulled off the upset in Arizona. Yes, it would have been nice to get the ball in the extra period, but I think the NFL's overtime rules are much better than they were five years ago. All that aside, what a game! Was thinking of the top non-Super Bowl postseason games from the last decade -- here's a preliminary list I came up with:

1) Saints at 49ers, 2011 Divisional Round
2) Packers at Cardinals, Saturday night
3) Ravens at Broncos, 2012 Divisional Round
4) Giants at Packers, 2007 NFC Championship
5) ???

Your thoughts are welcome here: @HarrisonNFL.

RANK

8

11-7 STEELERS

The Steelers lost. They are ranked the lowest here.

OK, now that we got that out of the way, here's the real takeaway from Sunday: If the Steelers can play that contest that close, without their top RB, backup RB, the best WR in pro football and an ailing quarterback ... how good are these guys? What about the defense, now that Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree are developing? You might be looking at next year's champions in Pittsburgh. Sevenburgh.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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