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Posted: Wednesday December 31, 2008 12:29PM; Updated: Wednesday December 31, 2008 12:29PM
Don Banks Don Banks >

NFL Playoff Power Rankings

Ordering the teams from least likely to most likely to win Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa

It's Super Bowl tournament time, and this season's 12-team playoff field is devoid of perfect seasons, overwhelming favorites or storylines cluttered up by tired angles having to do with revenge or redemption. This year just has a wide-open, anybody-can-win feel to it, and we like it. Here's our one and only power rankings as we start the postseason, from the longest of the Super Bowl long-shots, to the teams we deem best positioned to make it all the way to Tampa Bay.

NFL Playoff Power Rankings
12Arizona Cardinals
Teams that are too one-dimensional get exposed in the playoffs, and the throw-happy, run-challenged Cardinals are the poster children for that sort of thing in this year's postseason. I'm not implying that it's been awhile since Arizona beat anybody decent, but the Cardinals most recent five wins have come against: Seattle, St. Louis, Seattle, San Francisco, and St. Louis. Sense any pattern there? To repeat myself, Arizona ranks as the worst NFL playoff team in recent history. One and done, over and out.
11Minnesota Vikings
No matter what the Vikings might say publicly, the real challenge this season was to win a weakened NFC North and save Brad Childress's job. Mission accomplished. But this is not a team ready to make any real noise in the crucible that is the NFL playoffs. I expect Andy Reid's Eagles will teach his former offensive coordinator's Vikings a thing or two about what it takes to play and win in January. Minnesota's best hope is that Adrian Peterson steps up and puts the whole team on his shoulder pads.
10Miami Dolphins
Nobody's really mentioning this, but the only other time an NFL team improved by 10 games from one season to the next, those 13-3 Colts of 1999 lost their playoff opener at home to a lower seeded team (Tennessee). That doesn't necessarily mean Miami can't keep the magic alive into the postseason, but the level of competition just increased dramatically for the Cinderella story of this year's playoffs. Before beating the Jets last week, the Dolphins hadn't defeated a team with a winning record since pulling an upset at Denver in Week 9. And that was 4-3 Denver, mind you.
9Philadelphia Eagles
There's no team in this year's Super Bowl tournament that has a bigger boom-bust quotient. When the Eagles are clicking, they can destroy anyone (see Week 17, Dallas). And when the Eagles are struggling, they can, well, tie Cincinnati and get demolished by Baltimore. But the Vikings are the right first-round opponent for Philly, because Reid doesn't even have to pretend to establish the run against Minnesota's stout defensive front. He can have Donovan McNabb firing away from the opening snap.
8Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons' formula for victory is surprisingly clear-cut: Score first. They're 11-0 when they do, and 0-5 when they don't. When Atlanta gets a lead, it can control the clock with its second-ranked running game, and put rookie quarterback Matt Ryan into good throwing situations. That also helps minimize how much heavy lifting must be done by a Falcons defense that ranks 24th overall and rarely induces turnovers (a playoff-field low of 18 takeaways). The best news for Atlanta is that its first-round date at Arizona will do nothing but build confidence for Mike Smith's unheralded team, and dramatically lower its chances of experiencing the typical one-and-done letdown that often plagues first-time playoff qualifiers.
7San Diego Chargers
I'll grant you I may be over-estimating the Chargers' chances, but the way I see it, they're playing with house money after that 4-8 start, and that makes them a very dangerous team with little to lose. A lot would seem to depend on the groin injury LaDainian Tomlinson suffered last Sunday night, but it's not as if quarterback Philip Rivers couldn't win a game with his red-hot right arm. San Diego might be .500 on paper, but its 439 points led all 2008 playoff teams, and only Indy and Miami enter the postseason with longer winning streaks than the Chargers' four-gamer.
6Indianapolis Colts
Though they wound up with their customary 12 or so wins, this Colts season had an entirely different feel to it of course. But as hot as Indy is (nine wins in a row), I still have them in the middle of the pack, maybe because I've seen one too many playoff-opening losses out of Tony Dungy's club (2007, 2005, 2002). If they can get past the Chargers, who have had their number in recent years, there may be no stopping the Colts, because I love how they match up with both Pittsburgh and Tennessee.
5Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens are my playoff-field sleeper, because historically the combination of great defense, a stout running game, and a quarterback who can take care of the football and selectively make big plays is a tried and true winning formula in the postseason. Indy and San Diego might be the teams that could really give Baltimore trouble in this bracket, but if things break as I expect them to, the Ravens won't see either one of them. It could be shades of 2000 all over again in Baltimore.
4Pittsburgh Steelers
I kept waiting all season for the Steelers' pass protection problems to catch up with them, and finally there was Ben Roethlisberger flat on his back in Week 17 in that blowout win at home against the Browns (sorry, purists, but he shouldn't have been out there for longer than a series or two in a completely meaningless situation). I can't really think of a quarterback who has won a Super Bowl while battling concussion problems, can you? As dominating as the Steelers defense can be, without a sharp Big Ben, Pittsburgh isn't the same threat.
3Carolina Panthers
It made all the difference in the world for the Panthers to earn a first-round bye and avoid potentially going on the road for three straight weeks. Carolina was the NFL's only undefeated home team this season, and that means John Fox's club has a great shot to be playing for the NFC Championship on the third weekend in January. Big-name players making big plays is a huge part of winning in the playoffs, and nobody in the NFL is making as many of them these days as DeAngelo Williams and Steve Smith.
2Tennessee Titans
I'm trying to picture the Titans as the AFC's juggernaut, but it's not coming easily given that Tennessee has played .500 ball over the last six weeks of the season after its 10-0 start. And don't even get me started on the dangers of being top-seeded in the AFC. Other than New England, the only other No. 1 in the AFC to reach the Super Bowl in the past 10 seasons was Oakland in 2002. That's a 60 percent failure ratio that simply can't be discounted.
1New York Giants
As much as I like the Giants' chances of making a return trip to the Super Bowl, only one team has made back-to-back appearances in the Big Game in the past 10 NFL seasons ? that being the 2003-2004 Patriots. New York lost three of its last four games, and needed a strong fourth quarter at home against Carolina just to squeak out one win in December. That said, this is a poised and veteran team that should be well-served by last season's extraordinary playoff run and its 7-1 home record this year.

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