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Ravens still a notch below top contenders in deep playoff field – Boston Herald

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Each week of the NFL season, The Baltimore Sun will rank all 32 NFL teams. The rankings will take into account not just weekly performance, injuries and roster depth, but how well each team measures up as Super Bowl contenders.

Here are the rankings heading into Week 17:

The top contenders

1. Philadelphia Eagles (13-2, No. 1 last week)

2. Kansas City Chiefs (12-3, No. 2)

3. Buffalo Bills (12-3, No. 3)

4. Cincinnati Bengals (11-4, No. 4)

5. San Francisco 49ers (11-4, No. 5)

The Eagles blew a chance to secure the NFC East title and the No. 1 overall seed in the conference in a 40-34 loss to the Cowboys on Christmas Eve, but there’s no reason to panic just yet. With quarterback Jalen Hurts sidelined as he recovers from a sprain in his throwing shoulder, Philadelphia nearly beat Dallas with backup Gardner Minshew, who threw for 355 yards and two touchdowns thanks in large part to standout wide receivers DeVonta Smith and A.J. Brown. Despite three costly turnovers from Minshew — including a third-quarter fumble and fourth-quarter interception that led directly to Cowboys points — the Eagles still had a chance to win in the final minute. If Hurts can return soon and help Philadelphia secure the first-round bye, this loss won’t mean much.

The Eagles’ defeat was just about the only shakeup at the top this week. Kansas City beat Seattle, 24-10, for its eighth win in its past nine games; Buffalo surged past Chicago, 35-13, for its sixth straight win; Cincinnati held off New England, 22-18, for its seventh straight victory; and San Francisco rolled over Washington, 37-20, for its league-leading eighth straight win. The 49ers haven’t missed a beat with rookie Brock Purdy, who joined Hall of Famer Kurt Warner as the only two quarterbacks since 1950 to start their careers 3-0 with multiple touchdown passes in each game. Even a second straight inconsistent performance from the Bengals, who nearly blew a 22-0 lead, wasn’t enough to end their long streak. Don’t overlook Cincinnati’s first-half dominance, which included Joe Burrow completing 28 passes — the most by any quarterback in a half this season — for 284 yards and three touchdowns.

The flawed contenders

6. Minnesota Vikings (12-3, No. 6)

7. Dallas Cowboys (11-4, No. 7)

8. Baltimore Ravens (10-5, No. 8)

9. Los Angeles Chargers (8-6, No. 9)***

The Vikings apparently can keep getting away with this. Thanks to kicker Greg Joseph’s 61-yard field goal as time expired in a 27-24 win over the Giants, Minnesota is now 11-0 in one-possession games this season. Even a poor defensive performance against an uninspiring Giants offense wasn’t enough to derail the Vikings, who look like this year’s team of destiny given how they’ve continued to make plays in clutch moments. That includes a blocked punt and two forced turnovers Saturday, as well as some luck on a dropped interception by Giants rookie cornerback Cor’Dale Flott late in the third quarter. The old saying is it’s better to be lucky than good, and no team embodies that philosophy more than Minnesota.

The Ravens have been anything but fortunate this season, having endured more injuries and late-game collapses than just about any team. Yet they’re still postseason bound thanks to a 17-9 win over the Falcons on Saturday led once again by their running game and a dominant defense. The absence of star quarterback Lamar Jackson due to a sprained knee makes the Ravens one of the biggest mysteries in the league heading into January, with anything from a wild-card round loss to an improbable Super Bowl run seemingly on the table. Hanging over all of it is the uncertain future of Jackson in Baltimore as he finishes the final year of his rookie deal. Will he be healthy enough to play well and earn the big contract he wants, or will the Ravens be content to place the franchise tag on the 2019 Most Valuable Player in 2023? Is there a scenario in which Jackson and the Ravens are so far apart in negotiations that both sides look to move on? It’s a fascinating team both on the field and off, largely because so much is still unknown.

The wild cards

10. Jacksonville Jaguars (7-8, No. 13)

11. Miami Dolphins (8-7, No. 10)

12. New York Giants (8-6-1, No. 12)

13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-8, No. 19)

14. Green Bay Packers (7-8, No. 20)

What a difference a few weeks makes. Coming off their Week 11 bye, the Jaguars were 3-7 and staring up at the 7-3 Titans in the AFC South. With four wins in its past five games coinciding with a five-game losing streak by Tennessee, Jacksonville looks poised to win its first division title since 2017. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence has been the driving force behind the big turnaround, as the 2021 No. 1 overall draft pick has completed 66.7% of his passes for 1,415 yards with 11 touchdowns and just one interception in his past five games. In Thursday night’s 19-3 win over the Jets, the defense stole the show, allowing just 4.1 yards per play, recording three sacks and forcing two turnovers. If they beat the Texans and Titans to close out the season, the Jags can complete one of the best worst-to-first turnarounds in NFL history.

While Lawrence is part of a rising group of young quarterbacks in the AFC, the old guard in the NFC is not going away just yet. With an ugly 19-16 overtime win over the Cardinals on Christmas night, Tom Brady and the Buccaneers maintained their lead in the lowly NFC South. It was far from an inspiring performance from Brady, who threw two interceptions and averaged just 5.9 yards per attempt. Tampa Bay needed a fumble recovery with 4:49 left in regulation to overcome a 16-6 deficit and force overtime against a team already eliminated from playoff contention and playing a third-string quarterback in Trace McSorley.

The Packers’ performance was a bit more inspiring, especially on the defensive end. After allowing 20 points in the first half, Green Bay intercepted Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa on three straight drives in the fourth quarter to help erase a 10-point deficit in a 26-20 victory. Aaron Rodgers was far from perfect, finishing with a lower passer rating than Tagovailoa (78.6 vs. 80.8), but the Packers remain a dangerous team with the back-to-back MVP leading the offense. If rookie receiver Christian Watson can avoid missing more time after leaving Sunday’s game with a hip injury, Green Bay’s offense might finally be able to live up to its promise.

Not done yet

15. Detroit Lions (7-8, No. 11)

16. Seattle Seahawks (7-8, No. 15)

17. Washington Commanders (7-7-1, No. 16)

18. New York Jets (7-8, No. 17)

19. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8, No. 23)

20. New England Patriots (7-8, No. 22)

21. Tennessee Titans (7-8, No. 14)

22. New Orleans Saints (6-9, No. 24)

23. Carolina Panthers (6-9, No. 25)

The race for the final three playoff spots in each conference is going to be fascinating. With the Giants and Buccaneers likely to punch their tickets in the NFC, it’s going to be a four-way battle between Detroit, Seattle, Washington and Green Bay for the final berth. While the Lions fell back to earth in a 37-23 loss to the Panthers in which they allowed 570 total yards, they still have a talented roster that is more than capable of winning out against the Bears and Packers. Seattle was unfortunate to run into the 49ers and Chiefs in back-to-back weeks, but quarterback Geno Smith and company showed flashes of being a postseason contender during their 6-3 start.

The Commanders and Jets are perhaps the two most intriguing playoff aspirants remaining considering their quarterback situations. After more trouble with turnovers and scoring in the red zone in Saturday’s loss to the 49ers, Taylor Heinicke was benched for Carson Wentz, who will likely get the chance to start the final two weeks. The Jets, meanwhile, might have seen the last of quarterback Zach Wilson after the 2021 No. 2 overall pick struggled once again in a loss to the Jaguars. With Mike White cleared to return from his rib injury, New York should at least have some hope that the offense can move the ball and give its outstanding defense a chance to win.

The basement

24. Los Angeles Rams (5-10, No. 27)

25. Las Vegas Raiders (6-9, No. 18)

26. Cleveland Browns (6-9, No. 21)

27. Atlanta Falcons (5-10, No. 26)

28. Indianapolis Colts (4-9-1, No. 30)***

29. Chicago Bears (3-12, No. 29)

30. Arizona Cardinals (4-11, No. 31)

31. Houston Texans (2-12-1, No. 32)

32. Denver Broncos (4-11, No. 28)

The Broncos didn’t even give coach Nathaniel Hackett a chance to finish his first season, firing the former Packers assistant Monday after an ugly 51-14 loss to the Rams on Christmas Day. While Hackett didn’t help himself with clock mismanagement and questionable decision-making, much of the blame falls at the feet of Russell Wilson, who threw three interceptions Sunday to continue the worst season of his career. Denver invested so much in Wilson — including a premium package of draft picks and $161 million guaranteed across a five-year deal — and expected immediate results. Instead, the Broncos are stuck with Wilson’s onerous contract and already back on the coaching market. It’s hard to see a path back toward contention without finding a play-caller who can coax the most out of the 34-year-old quarterback.

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