Each year, the divisional playoffs matchups bring the top quarter of the league to the spotlight for a chance to compete for their conference championships and potentially move on to the game’s biggest stage. Luckily, this season was no different, even in the midst of a global pandemic. Out of the remaining eight teams in the playoffs, here are the top four ranked based on their strengths that put them ahead of the others and the weaknesses that could hold them back. To read more about the four bottom-ranked teams left in the divisional playoffs, check out the first article in this series entitled 2021 Divisional Playoffs Ranks: Bottom Four Teams.
Top Four Teams – 2021 Divisional Playoffs Rankings
4. Baltimore Ravens
What a turn around in the last month of the season for the Baltimore Ravens. After starting off the season a disappointing 6-5, the Ravens have come storming back, winning their last six games, including last week’s wild card triumph over the AFC South champion Tennessee Titans. Not only did this quiet the critics of Lamar Jackson’s inability to win in the playoffs, but it also showed incredible growth for the reigning MVP by notching his first win of his career when trailing by ten or more points.
Sure the Ravens had a soft schedule to close out the season, but they got the job done and in true 2019-contender fashion. The difference this time around though? In their playoff rematch with their newly cemented foes, that Baltimore defense shut down the 2020 rushing champion Derrick Henry. And what’s more, is they continued to defy standards with their one-of-a-kind ground game between the tailbacks and the x-factor abilities of Jackson. One thing that will have to become a bigger part of their game if they want to make it to the final dance, however, is more consistent passing out of Jackson. He has looked much better later in the season, but the Ravens need their franchise quarterback to hit on all cylinders to give them a chance at a deep playoff run. They continue their journey with a tough battle on a potentially snowy night in Buffalo this coming Saturday in the divisional playoffs.
The team with the best chance to overtake the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC needs great play-making abilities on defense and an assortment of uniqueness and explosiveness on the offensive side of the ball. All signs point to the Ravens as the team with the best competition for that scenario.
Lamar Jackson: 179 Pass Yards
Ryan Tannehill: 165 Pass Yards
Lamar Jackson: 136 Rush Yards
Derrick Henry: 40 Rush Yards pic.twitter.com/PHBjAd0U5j
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) January 10, 2021
3. New Orleans Saints
There’s not much different coming out of the bayou than we have seen in recent seasons. The New Orleans Saints defense is playing great football, Alvin Kamara is continuously showing us how truly special he is, both on the ground and through the air, and Drew Brees is still operating Sean Payton’s offense like a surgeon. The one thing that has yet to be seen though is if they can win every big game this year. After being booted out of the playoffs much earlier than expected the past two seasons, and with an inevitable retirement for their first ballot Hall of Fame quarterback looming, can the Saints make it happen this year?
One thing that does feel different about this squad is the adversity they have continued to overcome, in a year full of adverse moments. With single-season reception record-holder Michael Thomas being essentially a non-factor for most of the season and with Brees missing a four-game stint with eleven fractured ribs and a punctured lung, the two had only played a total of 10 quarters together prior to the wild card game this past Sunday. More importantly Brees continues to find ways to get everyone involved in their offense – Deonte Harris had 20 catches during the regular season; he had seven on Sunday.
With the top three teams on this list having the most complete teams in the NFL this season, the Saints come in at third in the rankings due to their defensive abilities and their veteran leadership on offense, which shined through in their convincing win over the Chicago Bears last weekend. If that defense can continue to shine – they play Tom Brady this weekend and potentially could have to travel to play Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in Lambeau Field if the Saints and Packers both advance – there is a real chance Drew Brees could get his fairytale ending.
"Tom and I have a friendship and mutual respect. We were texting back and forth on Monday, chuckling at this whole scenario," – Drew Brees
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) January 13, 2021
2. Kansas City Chiefs
This one was tough. It’s extremely hard to rank a team with Andy Reid calling the plays and Patrick Mahomes playing quarterback anywhere but first. Obviously it seems as if the Chiefs offense has picked up right where it left off after winning it all last year, and with Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce being as consistent as they have been all season, it presents a matchup nightmare for almost any team.
So what makes the team that has been so heavily favored this season fall to second on this list? Ranked right in the middle of the pack at 16th, Kansas City’s defense was right where they were at the end of the regular season last year as well. However, the Chiefs defense started picking up their play in the postseason last year to help solidify their Super Bowl run last year. So what could play to their disadvantage? Mostly matchups. Obviously it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to anyone to see the Chiefs win it all again this year. But if the Ravens or the Bills can move the ball on Kansas City’s defense and keep Mahomes on the sidelines, there’s a fighting chance they could earn the rights to the AFC title. And there is also a team out in the ‘Frozen Tundra’ that may be even more complete that could make for a great matchup if the two late-season MVP front-runners were to meet in February.
Chiefs points off a bye with Andy Reid and Mahomes, including playoffs
— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) January 11, 2021
1. Green Bay Packers
What makes the 2020 Green Bay Packers so unique has been their ability to continue to win games in a variety of ways. While their record is the same as it was last year when they got absolutely smoked in the NFC Championship game (and earlier in the season) by the San Francisco 49ers, what’s different about this team this year is the way they are able to win their games. Last year the Packers running game and defense dominated their games, allowing for Aaron Rodgers to not have to do everything himself. But as the year went on, it seemed like maybe he didn’t have as much left in the tank anymore.
Off-season conundrums aside, obviously anyone who had that thought couldn’t have been more wrong. Rodgers had a league-leading (and personal best) 48 touchdown passes (51 total touchdowns) and broke a record with ten games with a passer rating of over 120.0 during the 2020 season. Davante Adams became the first receiver in history with 100-plus receptions and 18 receiving touchdowns in a single season – and he missed two and a half games. Their running game is the most diverse out of the eight teams left in the playoffs, and like Brees, Rodgers has continuously found ways to make his secondary pass-catchers succeed (namely Robert Tonyan who tied for a league-best 11 touchdowns for a tight end).
And in a year with no ‘true’ home-field advantage, the Packers seem to have found some, with the three remaining teams being located in Florida, Louisiana, and Southern California.
Although the defense had been vulnerable against the ground game earlier in the season, they have picked it in the back-half of the year, and their secondary has been one of the best in the game, led by shut-down corner Jaire Alexander. If they can stop the emerging Cam Akers in his tracks on Sunday and continue to push ahead with their MVP quarterback and his number-one scoring offense, it’ll be hard to stop the Packers from bringing home the Lombardi Trophy come February.
Aaron Rodgers loves freezing temps 🥶
Rodgers – In Playoff Games Below 30 Degrees
Comp Pct 63.9%
Pass YPG 269.3
>> Has not thrown an INT since 2010 NFC Championship Game pic.twitter.com/X0jihKjGlZ
— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) January 13, 2021
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