NFL Power Rankings: Saints, Falcons soar into Divisional Round

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They wouldn't be called wild-card games without a little controversy, right?

On Saturday, there was the Marcus Mariota forward-progress call, among others, robbing the Chiefs of a turnover -- and leading to Jeff Triplette's name trending on Twitter. (Poor Jeff Triplette.) Then on Sunday came the intentional grounding penalty in the other exciting matchup of Wild Card Weekend, Panthers at Saints. Carolina went from second-and-long to third-and-longer, the key sequence that decided the fate of the Panthers' final endeavor to win the game.

What a close shave that play was. And not everyone agreed with me. Intentional grounding is the definition of a judgement call, from gauging if the quarterback is still in the pocket to whether the ball was headed in the general area code of a receiver.

Even college football's national title game wasn't immune to the catcalls of social media, with an obvious false start missed on Alabama's game-tying touchdown in the fourth. Still, you have to admire a freshman quarterback making those big-time throws late. Which leads us back to the NFL -- and one particularly juicy theme of this Divisional Round: A bevy of inexperienced quarterbacks vs. a few big-time resumes.

Never seen a divisional round with such a disparity.

How does this impact the league pecking order entering Round 2 of the postseason? See below. You'll find that even the losers from Wild Card Weekend are included for closure's sake, as the Chiefs, Rams, Bills and Panthers all have different question marks going forward. Your questions ----> @HarrisonNFL is the place.

Let the dissension commence!

PROGRAMMING NOTE: For more in-depth analysis on the updated league pecking order, tune in to NFL Network every Tuesday night at 6 p.m. ET for the "NFL Power Rankings" show. Want to add YOUR voice? Provide your thoughts at the bottom of this page or tweet @HarrisonNFL, and your comments could be featured on air.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The lineup below reflects changes from our Wild Card Round Power Rankings.

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1

13-3 PATRIOTS

All anyone talked about last Friday was the ESPN.com article detailing reportedly intense Patriots strife, strafing the league's preeminent dynasty while purportedly showing why Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft might not be going out for a pitcher of Milwaukee's Best -- or non-fat cold-fish-flavored sorbet (only in the summer months) -- any time soon. Whether it's because of the TB12 storefront, the collection of egos fed by 17 years of unprecedented success or some dude playing quarterback 3,000 miles west of Foxborough, apparently all isn't well in New England. (It should be noted that Brady, Belichick and Kraft issued a statement denying such discord in response.) Here's what I do know: The fact that the Patriots' Royal Football Triumvirate has kept it together, with the organization performing on-point, for that long supersedes any B.S. you might be hearing about now. Look no further than Jim Harbaugh coaching at Michigan rather than coaching Jimmy G in San Francisco for an example of how difficult it is to keep the various factions driving overwhelming success glued together.

In fact, this situation reminds of a fiasco that involved an advisor of Belichick's, Jimmy Johnson. Johnson's run in Dallas lasted all of five years before he and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones split over an issue of who was really behind the team's success. They divorced after winning back-to-back Super Bowls. That unfortunate situation should show you how lucky fans in New England have been to see Brady, Belichick and Kraft work together as they have. If Troy Aikman were a "me" guy or had been a grizzled veteran at that time (he was in Year 5), the JJs might not have even lasted that long. Bet you a Mike Greenwell rookie card the Patriots' big three will be in the playoffs, together, next January.

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2

13-3 VIKINGS

The Vikings spent their bye week getting healthy, or so you would think. Their fans might point out that Minnesota disposed of the Saints -- who stand between the Vikings and a place in the NFC title game -- rather easily earlier this season. Yep. The defense bottled up then-New Orleans RB Adrian Peterson in his revenge (attempt) game, Sam Bradford threw for more than 300 yards with no picks and Dalvin Cook looked like a stud in his NFL debut. Exactly none of those players will be participating in this week's game. This will be a tough matchup for the Vikings, particularly when it comes to Saints RB Alvin Kamara. That said, this group is more talented than the Panthers and should be able to hold up in coverage better than Carolina, even when dedicating Andrew Sendejo to the box to stop the Kamara/Ingram sandwich.

Trivia: The Vikings and Saints met in the postseason for the first time in the 1987 campaign. A current Saints player's dad caught a touchdown pass in that game. Who was it? ( @HarrisonNFL)

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3

13-3 STEELERS

While hopping around Twitter on playoff Sunday, I managed to see some Blair Witch-quality video of Chad Johnson working with Antonio Brown. The Steelers' star wideout looks quick. I pronounce him healthy. Not only should Brown be ready to go, but he should be ready to hear his name called on "NFL Honors" night. Despite missing the last couple of games, Brown is as deserving of the MVP as any other player. No one has been better at any given position than Brown has at wideout over the last five seasons. By the way, Johnson can still move. He's got quicker feet than Timberlake, Gosling or any Jags receiver. And to think, he just turned 40.

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4

12-5 SAINTS

1

The Saints are the most complete team left in the tournament, with equal strength through the air and on the rug -- plus a solid kicking game, to boot (mostly because of the punter). That said, they wouldn't have sniffed advancement if Drew Brees hadn't made at least eight highly difficult throws with perfect ball placement against the Panthers. Troy Aikman referred to Brees' accuracy repeatedly, noting how important it is to "put the ball where you want to." Which is precisely what Brees did on plays that were well-covered by the Carolina secondary. The touchdown strike to Ted Ginn Jr. was reminiscent of vintage Brees-to-Devery Henderson connections. The throw on the run to Mike Thomas in the mid-fourth quarter was Canton fuel. Brees might have received more help this year than he did at any time over the last seven years, but he was the difference Sunday.

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5

11-6 FALCONS

4

As shown by the Jaguars all season, when a team boasts not one but two corners who can blanket, that team is tough to beat. Opposing quarterbacks can only go to WR3s, RBs and TEs so much. Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant are the difference for the Falcons right now. Not only were they (particularly Trufant) all over the Rams receivers on Saturday, but the secondary as a whole tackled like a pack of wild ... like a pack of ... like a pack of wild tacklers. L.A. wideouts couldn't generate any catch-and-runs, while the pass rush made Jared Goff uncomfortable repeatedly in the first half. That was the best game Atlanta's defense has played all season, though it was of a piece with this team's performances since an early-December surge. Including the win in Los Angeles, the Falcons have allowed 16.3 points per game since the beginning of that month.

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6

11-6 JAGUARS

4

Jalen Ramsey capped off the first playoff win for the Jaguars in 10 years, and the first postseason home win since Jacksonville sent Dan Marino careening into retirement on the heels of a 62-7 shellacking. (That is not a misprint.) Ramsey's tip drill to himself was emblematic of a season in which the Jags' defense delivered time and again -- including at Heinz Field in October. This time around, Jacksonville shouldn't anticipate Ben Roethlisberger throwing them two or three freebies, much less five, as this Sunday's matchup could devolve into a run-a-palooza. Le'Veon Bell has been a workhorse reminiscent of 1980s running backs, with 406 total touches this season. After the bye, though, he's coming in rested. Leonard Fournette? Not so much. The rookie tailback hasn't been running with his usual pop. In fact, Fournette has averaged 4-plus yards per carry in a game just once since Week 6. Wow.

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7

13-3 EAGLES

Despite earning home-field advantage, despite beating the Rams and Giants with Nick Foles under center (at least part of the time), and despite many of the 1s getting essentially two weeks off, the Eagles are underdogs at home -- this is in keeping with the Foles Axiom. Philadelphia has met the Falcons three times before in the postseason. The last time was in the 2004 NFC Championship Game, when Brian Dawkins crumpled Alge Crumpler. Two years prior, a young Michael Vick couldn't overcome a battle-tested Eagles team in what was the last postseason win at the Vet. The first meeting came in the 1978 Wild Card Round, when a bartender-turned-kicker named Tim Mazzetti hit the game-winning extra point for Atlanta to beat Dick Vermeil's team, 14-13. This Saturday should be fun. Oh, and Matt Bryant ain't no bartender.

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8

10-7 TITANS

8

The Titans delivered the shocker of Wild Card Weekend (including shocking their own fans), upending the Chiefs at their place en route to the franchise's first playoff win since the 2003 Wild Card Round. Much like that Jeff Fisher team, this Tennessee outfit will be rewarded with a trip to chilly Foxborough. That first trip to New England was played in the bitter cold, with the Titans trailing 17-14 and having one final drive to send the game into overtime. The wind chill was minus-10. Steve McNair navigated the Titans offense to the Patriots' 42 before missing Drew Bennett on fourth-and-12. It was one helluva defensive slugfest, and definitely an underrated playoff game of the 2000s. As for this weekend's matchup: Tennessee should go up-tempo. Let Marcus Mariota play fast. Help your quarterback succeed, please. Apparently, he is able to help himself.

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9

11-6 PANTHERS

1

Watched the replay of the loss to the Saints on NFL Network late Sunday night, and I found myself startled (again) by the final stanza. Putting aside the intentional grounding, the 10-second runoff and everything else, that third-down heave to Devin Funchess was close. The safety clearly misplayed the ball; if only Funchess could've stopped, the ball was right there, two feet inside him, falling harmlessly to the ground. Some folks pointed to Graham Gano's missed field-goal try in the first quarter as the key play, but they failed to mention that Gano hit from 58 yards out later in the half. If you're gonna assume the short kicks should all be made, then wouldn't the kicks from downtown be mostly misses? Put another away: Although important, Gano's hiccup didn't rule the day. Drew Brees did. And there is no shame in that. Nice season, Panthers.

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10

11-6 RAMS

6

Rough ending to a beautiful catalogue delivered by the new/old Rams. Los Angeles hosted its first playoff contest at the Coliseum since the 1978 NFC Championship Game, with the result being almost as bad. (The Rams lost to the Cowboys that day, 28-0.) Other similarities to that one abound, as the play that sealed the game that night 39 years ago was made by a linebacker in coverage. And then on Saturday, Deion Jones manned up on Sammy Watkins (or manhandled him, depending on your perspective), and the Rams followed that up by going four-and-out ... for the season. They'll be back, although losing QB coach Greg Olson to the Las Vegas Grudens hurts something fierce.

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11

10-7 CHIEFS

5

So the Chiefs are open to trading Alex Smith. Sure am glad that story broke hours before the playoff game Saturday. Hey, man, we know you led the NFL in passer rating, saved us in several games this year (SEE: Redskins, "Monday Night Football," Week 4) and averaged 5.9 yards per rush, but we'd rather go with Patrick Mahomes, who we've seen play one FULL game. Now go get those Titans! Fans in Kansas City must be sick. Others are saying this is the worst of the home playoff losses they've suffered over the years. False. The 1995 Divisional Round failure was much worse. The Chiefs owned the top seed in the AFC that year, yet lost to the sixth-seeded Colts, 10-7, on a day kicker Lin Elliott couldn't hit the broad side of a barbecue joint. Really did a disservice to a great last name.

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12

9-8 BILLS

The Bills might have been one-and-done, but the playoff appearance was still special. The fans finally had something to cheer about (along with not having to hear sports commentators drone on about the longest postseason drought in sports ... like I just did), while the players have something to build on for next year. No longer can anyone assume that Buffalo will be a nonfactor in January. No more junk about how the Pats are definitely winning the AFC East, and MAYBE the Fins take a wild-card spot. Also worth noting: What a gritty performance we saw from LeSean McCoy on Sunday. He ran hard, toughing out an injury that, had this been the regular season, probably would've sent him to the sideline. You don't cruise past 10K career rushing yards without being tough. Hard to finesse 346 touches in a season, too.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL. And be sure to tune in to the "NFL Power Rankings" show on NFL Network every Tuesday night at 6 p.m. ET.

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