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Packers and Titans on Super Bowl collision course

<span>Photograph: Stacy Revere/Getty Images</span>

Photograph: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Team that will be most missed in the postseason

The Los Angeles Chargers. Extra chances to see Justin Herbert doing Justin Herbert things should be treasured. Brandon Staley’s side was flawed – their run defense would likely have doomed them in any playoff matchup – but Herbert’s excellence would have balanced the scales, giving the Chargers a shot at causing an upset. OC

It would have been more fun to see Justin Hebert’s Chargers making the playoffs rather than the Pittsburgh Steelers (it’s a shame their head coach flunked the Prisoner’s Dilemma) but in all honesty, the current NFL postseason format is forgiving enough that any team that doesn’t qualify doesn’t deserve to. HF

The Chargers and it’s not even a close second. It’s a shame Los Angeles couldn’t eke out the, uh, tie against Las Vegas because the NFL world deserves to see Justin Herbert and all his gifts in the postseason. Between Herbert, Austin Ekeler, Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, the Chargers have as explosive an offense as anyone, and their defense was starting to get healthy – though not healthy enough to stop Las Vegas on third-and-5 in overtime. Welp. MJ

The Baltimore Ravens. They’re always a tough out, and their rivalry with the Titans has been something of a standing appointment these last few years. But their loss to the Steelers in the season finale means another year of Lamar Jackson having to hear that he can’t make a deep playoff run. If only he had been healthy … AL

High-seeded team at risk of going out early

The Dallas Cowboys are loaded on both sides of the ball. But the Niners are just the kind of team that can give them trouble. Kyle Shanahan’s offense is still running the ball at will. On defense, they have one of the highest pressures rates in the league when rushing just four and playing coverage behind. Dak Prescott is a founder member of the Do Not Blitz club. The only chance to slow the Dallas offense: create pressure with four pass-rushers. The Niners can do that, and they can churn out yards on the ground, backing up Dallas’ ferocious pass rush. OC

The Tennessee Titans are only the top seed in the AFC because somebody had to be, not because they were heads and shoulders above the rest of the conference. If star running back Derrick Henry ends up returning and playing like peak Derrick Henry, they should be a significant problem to everybody. If not, a one-and-done wouldn’t be shocking. HF

Buffalo Bills
Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills launch their run at a first Super Bowl appearance since the 1995 season against the New England Patriots. Photograph: Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs. The two-time defending AFC champions can make multiple mistakes during wild-card weekend and still top the Steelers. Beyond that, if Patrick Mahomes and co remotely resemble their first-half-of-the-season selves, a team that was turnover prone and shot itself in the foot with dumb penalties, they could see a divisional round exit. The defense has been astounding the second half, but did surrender over 800 yards in the past two games. MJ

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Word is they’re a little thin at wide receiverAL

Dark horse to win

When you start putting together the perfect playoff cocktail, you start with three things: A defense that can pressure with four; a quarterback that can create magic on third downs; an offense that can hit three or four splash plays a game. The Cincinnati Bengals tick all the boxes. There are issues on the edges – their linebackers aren’t good enough; the running game isn’t consistent – but those are playoff wants, dependent on matchups. The Bengals have all of the championship needs. OC

Do the Buffalo Bills count as a dark horse? Maybe not at the start of the season, but it feels like Buffalo’s stock has dropped after nearly letting the New England Patriots sneak in to win the division. However, the Bills ended the season on a relative upswing. An iffy AFC field and a Josh Allen hot streak could result in an unlikely Super Bowl appearance. HF

Yes, the San Francisco 49ers barely squeaked into the playoffs but if they play like they did in the second half against the Rams, they can beat anyone. The stars will have to align. Jimmy Garoppolo will have to play mistake-free football. Kyle Shanahan will have to get creative with Deebo Samuel’s usage from the get-go. And the secondary will have to play the ball of their life against Dallas and any future opponents. MJ

Have you heard? Derrick Henry, the league’s most talent rusher, is returning to a Titans team that locked up the No 1 seed in his absence. Be afraid, Chiefs fans. Be very, very afraid. AL

The most important player will be …

Joe Burrow. The Bengals have a chance to string together upsets if Burrow is able to continue his recent hot streak. The Cincy offensive line isn’t good enough to consistently block playoff-caliber pass-rushes, but Burrow has a way of slipping and sliding out of pressure, of extending plays, and punishing defenses when he does so. OC

Is it boring to say Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who at the very least is the most interesting player in the postseason? Rodgers has been the best player in football on the field and a lightning rod off it. You know your reputation has taken a hit when experts start spreading (apparently baseless) rumors that you will sit out the freaking Super Bowl. HF

Joe Burrow

Joe Burrow has Cincinnati Bengals fans dreaming of their first playoff win since 1991. Photograph: Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers hasn’t won a Super Bowl in a decade. He’s lost back-to-back NFC championship games. Nothing to scoff at for a pedestrian quarterback, but Rodgers is in a different league. With the No 1 seed and a ferocious defense, Rodgers has never been as well positioned to win a title. Whether he does could go a long way to determining his future, which could have a major domino effect on the league. MJ

QAron (aka Aaron Rodgers). The Chiefs at least know they can count on Chad Henne to win a game for them. But if the presumptive league MVP goes down? The Packers’ title hopes will fall to Jordan Love – and we all got a glimpse of how that project is going when the Pack fell to the Chiefs in Week 9. AL

AFC championship game

Chiefs over Bengals OC

Chiefs over Bills HF

Titans over Bills MJ

Titans over Chiefs AL

NFC championship game

Packers over Buccaneers OC

Buccaneers over Packers HF

Packers over Buccaneers MJ

Packers over Cardinals AL

Super Bowl LVI

Packers over Chiefs. When trying to figure out contenders, you have to look at the certainties. Two things are certain about the Packers: In Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams, they have the surest connection of any quarterback and playmaker in the league; Rodgers does not turn the ball over. Those are sound building blocks. On top of that, you can add a fearsome pass rush, versatility at linebacker – which allows them to toggle to different looks depending on the matchup – and, if healthy and available, a true shutdown corner, the likes of which it’s tough to find elsewhere in the playoffs. There are concerns. Green Bay’s special teams unit is a disaster of doomsday-ish import; the team’s offensive line has struggled in protection for much of the year. But neither of those flaws has been enough to offset Rodgers’ precision and lack of turnovers. Green Bay steal possessions. And when they have the ball, they have the surest quarterback-receiver tandem in the league. Of all the contenders, they have the fewest warts. OC

Chiefs over Buccaneers. How about a Super Bowl rematch with a different outcome? This season’s Chiefs have a better defense than the previous edition while the high-scoring offense is mostly the same. Meanwhile, the division-winning Buccaneers won’t have to survive the playoffs as a wild-card team. Look for the Chiefs will to dish out revenge in a changing-of-the-guard game: an erratic Tom Brady will show his age for the first time and Patrick Mahomes will clinch a Super Bowl MVP trophy before the fourth quarter has even ended. HF

Packers over Titans. Tennessee will make a valiant run aided by AJ Brown, who has been phenomenal since returning, and Derrick Henry, the most impactful rusher in football. Unfortunately for the Titans, they will face off against the most impactful player in the game, who is way overdue for a second Super Bowl ring. The Pack were already well-positioned seeding and talent wise, and they have a strong track record of winning close games this season (5-1 in games decided by three points or less). Add in the possible returns from injury of left tackle David Bakhtiarti, cornerbacck Jaire Alexander and linebackers Za’Darius Smith, three of their best players, and the Packers are sitting pretty. MJ

Packers over Titans. Again, if nothing happens to Rodgers, Green Bay should have no problem neutralizing Tennessee’s play-action attack on the way to claiming a fifth Lombardi trophy for Titletown. They’ve been the class of the league all season, and their record might actually show it if Rodgers hadn’t missed that Week 9 Chiefs game with … you know. A second ring, and presumably another Super Bowl MVP nod with it, might not change the conversation about the league’s best all-around passer relative to the GOAT Tom Brady or baby-GOAT Pat Mahomes. But it would promote Rodgers into that all-time great echelon just beneath it – where Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and co reside. It’s just a shame it all has to end here, as Rodgers seems bent on moving on from the Packers after this season. AL

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