Oliver's NFL rankings: The second season
Position. Team (Postseason record) 1. Denver Broncos (1-0): The Broncos eliminated the two-time defending champion Patriots from the playoffs, ending New England's league-record postseason winning streak at 10 games. As the old saying goes: "To be the champs, you have the beat the champs." Finally, Denver coach Mike Shanahan can get over the "if we only had John Elway" hump that has held back the Broncos ever since they won the Super Bowl XXXIII championship. Saturday's win over the Pats was Denver's first postseason victory since then, and that impressive performance only reinforces our belief that the Broncos are the team to beat in this year's playoff derby, just as we indicated in our final regular-season rankings on Jan. 4. 2. Seattle Seahawks (1-0): Not only is the Seahawks' divisional-round win over visiting Washington the first in 21 years for the franchise, but it's the first for head coach Mike Holmgren since the 1997 NFC Championship game. Similar to his colleague Shanahan – the man who followed Holmgren as offensive coordinator with the 49ers in 1992 - Holmgren had to show his critics that he could win a playoff game with somebody other than Brett Favre at quarterback. 3. Pittsburgh Steelers (2-0): The Steelers are for real. They are the first No. 6 seed to advance to the conference championship round since the six-team playoff format was instituted in each conference in 1990. In pure essence, they are the first bottom seed ever to upset a No. 1 seed since the playoffs expanded beyond four teams in each conference. 4. New England Patriots (1-1): The Patriots were good enough to return again to the AFC Championship game, but they just ran into a team that was playing better at the moment. It still will be difficult for any team to take away NFL "Team of the 2000s" distinction from New England even with half of the decade still remaining. 5. Carolina Panthers (2-0): In the only three playoff trips of their short 11-season existence, the Panthers never have lost before the conference championship round. Of their eight seasons without a playoff appearance, the Panthers are 48-78. In the three playoff seasons, they are 40-16, including games against playoff competition. They'll be gunning this weekend for their second trip to the Super Bowl in three years, which is something Philadelphia – despite its four consecutive trips to the NFC title game from 2001-2004 – never could claim. Could the Panthers be staking their claim for NFC "Team of the 2000s" distinction? 6. Washington Redskins (1-1): The Redskins had an excellent run, turning themselves from a 5-6 team on the verge of playoff elimination into a team that reached the divisional playoff round and gave Washington its first playoff victory since the 1999 season. 7. Indianapolis Colts (0-1): The Colts are the latest prime example why a team shouldn't spend so much time resting its starters prior to playoff competition. The Colts were out of sync most of the afternoon against the Steelers and looked more like the Indianapolis team that finished 1-2 than the team that started 13-0. It's always about how a team finishes – not how it starts. The late-season slide of the Colts in our rankings – while most other NFL rankings kept them at No. 1 or hovering near the top – proved to be accurate. 8. Chicago Bears (0-1): The Bears now are on an 11-year drought – their last playoff victory came in 1994 against Minnesota, after which they were hammered 44-15 by the 49ers the next week in the divisional round. Chicago is on the right track, though. If the Bears can continue to assert their defensive strength in the 2006 season with a divisional schedule against the rebuilding efforts of Detroit, Green Bay, Minnesota, they might get that playoff win next year. 9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-1): The Buccaneers have struggled ever since their franchise-peaking Super Bowl XXXVII win. It's strange to say, but the state of Florida has been without a playoff win for the past three years. Teams from the Sunshine State have not suffered a drought this long since the 1986-1989 seasons. 10. Cincinnati Bengals (0-1): It's positive to see the Bengals make a stride into the playoffs after not getting a taste of the playoff atmosphere since 1990. After Wild Card Weekend, though, it's clear to see which team had more playoff experience. Perhaps that experience will pay off for the Bengals as they take the next step forward in coach Marvin Lewis' progam. 11. Jacksonville Jaguars (0-1): The Jaguars weren't quite ready for the prime-time playoff atmosphere. It's as simple as that. Sometimes, the top-seeded wild card gets a raw deal of playing a team with a weaker record on the road. Even though New England clearly deserved to be the favorite in their first-round game, the Jaguars assembled the better regular season. 12. New York Giants (0-1): How embarrassing is it to put up a goose egg on the scoreboard in a first-round game at your own stadium? The Giants only dipped below the 20-point mark once during the season, so it's shocking that New York put up such a putrid offensive effort in the playoffs, especially when playing on its familiar home turf.
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