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Playoff power rankings have Packers, Saints at the top

Being the steward of SI.com's NFL power rankings can be a thankless task at times. But there are little rewards along the way. Like the small feeling of satisfaction for nailing the correct 12 teams to make the playoffs in slots 1-12 of last week's final regular-season edition of the PRs. Sure, nine of those teams had already clinched playoff berths and were a given in the top 12. But the Bengals, Giants and Broncos hadn't, and yet there they were in spots 10-11-12. The Jets, Titans, Raiders and Cowboys were all banished to No. 13 and beyond.

And for the record, I'm still feeling very bullish on my preseason Super Bowl pick of Green Bay over Baltimore. There's work to be done on both fronts, but the Packers and Ravens went a combined 16-0 at home this season and will play at least three of their possible four pre-Super Bowl playoff games before their own fans. If the Ravens do have to hit the road for New England in the AFC title game, they've proven they can handle the Gillette Stadium environment, winning big there in the 2009 postseason and pushing the Pats to overtime before losing by three points in October 2010.

But now it's playoff time and we get to find out if we had this league figured out all along. Or at least roughly. At the very end of the season. Of the eight teams in action this weekend, the Saints and Steelers look like the class of the bunch, and I could foresee three road teams winning and moving on (Pittsburgh at Denver, Atlanta at the Giants and Cincinnati at Houston). Exactly half of this week's first round field lost in Week 17, with both Denver and Houston wheezing their way into the playoffs on three-game losing streaks.

No matter. It's the playoffs. We'll watch every second of it anyway. Now here's how we rank them as the 12-team Super Bowl tournament begins...

NFL Power Rankings
1Green Bay Packers
Last Week: 1
NFC No. 1 seed. The Packers won six games this season by eight points or less, including that three-point win at the Giants in Week 13 and last Sunday's thrill-a-minute 45-41 shootout over Detroit at Lambeau. Throw in the sobering Week 15 loss at Kansas City and there's absolutely no reason Green Bay should suffer from over-confidence in the coming month. And I see that as a good thing, reminding the defending champs how easily it could all end if they don't bring it in the playoffs. One word of caution in Green Bay: The Packers are the eighth different team to earn the NFC's top seed in the past eight years, and only the 2009 Saints used it to win the Super Bowl.
 
2New Orleans Saints
Last Week: 2
NFC No. 3 seed. Sean Payton's Saints are playing better than anyone in the NFL at the moment, but home against Detroit, at San Francisco and at Green Bay would be a very arduous path to Indianapolis. Can it be done? Definitely. But there are no layups in that lineup. We have witnessed the full fury of the Saints offense with three consecutive 40-point-plus outings, but maybe the best news with January having arrived is that Gregg Williams' defense has given up 17 points or less five times during New Orleans' current eight-game winning streak, with no one topping 24 points during that span. That will work.
 
3New England Patriots
Last Week: 3
AFC No. 1 seed. It's almost time to throw out the book when it comes to the Patriots, because logic says we should not be taking a team seriously that gave up the second-most passing yards in NFL history (trailing only this year's Packers). But they're the AFC's top seed, and they can routinely overcome deficits of 17 to 21 points in the time it takes to spell Rob Gronkowski's last name. So, it's Tom Brady's right arm and a defense that's hanging on for dear life in New England. As playoff formulas go, this is a relatively new one.
 
4San Francisco 49ers
Last Week: 4
NFC No. 2 seed. The 49ers won this season with a defense that held the score down, and a conservative-style offense that ran the ball and didn't beat itself in the passing game. It's a great blueprint for success in the regular season, but maybe the 2000 Ravens or the 1990 Giants were the last couple of teams to go all the way with that approach in the postseason. It's going to take more offense than San Francisco has needed thus far to get past the likes of New Orleans and Green Bay in the playoffs. That puts a big burden on Alex Smith's shoulders this month.
 
5Baltimore Ravens
Last Week: 5
AFC No. 2 seed. Last season, the Ravens went 12-4 and earned the No. 5 seed, while the Steelers went 12-4 and earned the No. 2 seed, using that advantage to beat Baltimore head-to-head at home in Heinz Field in the divisional round. This year? The Ravens went 12-4 and claimed the No. 2 seed, while the Steelers went 12-4 and are the No. 5 seed. I think we all know where this is headed: Pittsburgh at Baltimore in the divisional round, with the Ravens putting their 8-0 home record to the test.
 
6Pittsburgh Steelers
Last Week: 6
AFC No. 5 seed. The Steelers defense won the triple crown of sorts this season, leading the league in average points allowed (14.2), average yards allowed (271.8) and net yards per pass attempt allowed (5.6). That makes Pittsburgh anything but your average 5th seed. Still, given Ben Roethlisberger's ankle issues, Rashard Mendenhall's knee injury, and the Steelers' lack of crispness on offense of late (an average of 14.3 points in the last four games), Pittsburgh has its challenges in attempting a road-only run to the Super Bowl. The Steelers' margin of error is not large unless the passing game is really humming.
 
7Detroit Lions
Last Week: 7
NFC No. 6 seed. Nice of the NFL to make the Lions-Saints wild-card game the Saturday night fare. Anyone for some post-midnight football on the East Coast? With Detroit's Matthew Stafford and New Orleans' Drew Brees combining for the first-ever playoff matchup of 5,000-yard passers (10,514 collectively), this one is going to take a while. The Lions are 10 1/2-point road underdogs, and that should make Saints fans nervous. They remember the last time New Orleans was a double-digit favorite in the playoffs. It was in last season's first round, at Seattle. It didn't end well for Who Dat Nation.
 
8Atlanta Falcons
Last Week: 9
NFC No. 5 seed. As the No. 5 seed in 2008, the 11-5 Falcons went to 9-7 and No. 4 Arizona and got beat 30-24, launching the Cardinals' Super Bowl run. Here they are again, as the No. 5 seed, playing on the road against a division champion (the 9-7 Giants) with an inferior record. Atlanta has to capitalize on this opportunity and end its playoff drought in the Mike Smith-Matt Ryan era. I think they win this one, but I'd feel better if the Falcons had beaten more than two teams that finished with a winning record (Detroit and Tennessee).
 
9Houston Texans
Last Week: 8
AFC No. 3 seed. Here's hoping someone thought of naming Sam Wyche and Jerry Glanville honorary captains for the Cincinnati-Houston playoff opener, running them out to midfield for the pre-game coin toss. The Bengals and Oilers used to really go at it in the old AFC Central, and the head coaches never hid their dislike for each other. The Texans beat the Bengals narrowly in Cincy in Week 14, but Houston hasn't won since. In what is said to be the first playoff matchup of rookie starting quarterbacks since at least 1950, I like Andy Dalton's chances to get it done more than T.J. Yates'.
 
10New York Giants
Last Week: 11
NFC No. 4 seed. The Giants responded to pressure well the past two weeks, winning the NFC East with consecutive playoff-like wins against the Jets and Cowboys. But New York and Dallas specialized in beating themselves this season. That's not Atlanta's game. The Falcons are solid, and takeaways are likely to decide Sunday's early game. The quarterback who plays better, Eli Manning or Matt Ryan, will deliver either New York's first postseason win since 2007, or Atlanta's first playoff victory since 2004.
 
11Cincinnati Bengals
Last Week: 10
AFC No. 6 seed. The Bengals proved how far you can go in today's NFL when you beat the teams you're supposed to beat. Cincinnati was 1-6 against teams that finished with a winning record, with their only victory coming at Tennessee (9-7) in Week 9. That means they were 8-1 against teams at .500 or below, with only a Week 2 loss at Denver marring that record. But I think the Bengals are a dangerous team for Houston, and have little to lose in making the playoffs against all odds.
 
12Denver Broncos
Last Week: 12
AFC No. 4 seed. The Broncos started 1-4 and finished 0-3, but that 7-1 run in between sure was fun. Having the home-field advantage against the 12-4 Steelers (when will the NFL fix that inequity?) will help the Broncos and their quality defense keep the game close for a while, but Denver quarterback Tim Tebow has to produce some points in the passing game early or this one could get very, very ugly. And I mean John Elway might not even be able to watch from his club suite.
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