The NFL’s second season is here. After a regular season that began with Aaron Rodgers getting shelved after four plays and featured an obscure rookie named Tommy DeVito turning into a folk hero, 14 teams have made it to the playoffs in the hopes of hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl champions.
The playoffs begin this weekend with a doubleheader Jan. 13, as the Cleveland Browns visit the Houston Texans at 4:30 p.m. ET in a game that will air on NBC, followed by the Kansas City Chiefs hosting the Miami Dolphins at 8 p.m. ET in a battle that will stream on Peacock. (Peacock is owned by TODAY.com's parent company, NBCUniversal.)
The road to the Super Bowl is rugged and often filled with upsets and storylines that captivate fans. This year offers a new look, as Tom Brady is retired. But just because one of the NFL’s greatest players is no longer on the field doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of other developments to keep an eye on as the teams begin the march to Super Bowl 58 on Feb. 11 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.
Here are some plot points to watch as the playoffs kick off.
Are the Ravens and 49ers too tough?
The Ravens are the top seed in the AFC, while the 49ers earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC. They have been the most consistent teams for the duration of the season, punctuated by the Ravens’ 33-19 thrashing of the 49ers on Christmas night.
The Ravens are led by quarterback Lamar Jackson, the league’s presumptive MVP, while the 49ers also sport a pair of MVP-caliber players in quarterback Brock Purdy and running back Christian McCaffrey. The road to the Super Bowl will go through each team, which will have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They could very well be poised for a rematch of their regular-season tussle on the league’s biggest stage in Las Vegas next month.
Will we see a rematch of last year’s Super Bowl?
Kansas City and Philadelphia squared off in last season's historic Super Bowl, and a rematch hardly seemed an outlandish thought in the preseason. However, both teams have endured surprising struggles this season.
Philadelphia and its controversial "tush push" looked unstoppable for the first two-thirds of the season, as the Eagles raced out to a 10-1 start. They dropped five of their last six games to end the regular season, though, and a leaky defense that has given up lots of points highlights concerns about whether they can return to form.
Since Patrick Mahomes became the team’s starting quarterback, the Chiefs have been synonymous with a prolific offense. That's not the case so much this season, however, as the team’s fall from grace has been, well, swift. Yes, in a season with headlines dominated by the relationship between tight end Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift, the team’s strength has been its defense, while the offense has sputtered, particularly with an inability to score in the second half of games.
Mahomes and the Chiefs know the rigors of a postseason, so they have the ability to kick it into another gear. This will be the first time they may have to go on the road for a playoff game, too. How will the team handle playing away from home in a hostile environment where the loser’s season comes to an end?
Can the Cowboys or Bills break through?
The Cowboys have not won a Super Bowl since 1996 and have only won four playoff games this century, including one last year. Quarterback Dak Prescott and wide receiver CeeDee Lamb have been downright phenomenal this season, while the defense has stifled opponents.
But there have been some hiccups. The Cowboys, who host head coach Mike McCarthy's former team, the Green Bay Packers, in the wild card round, are much better at home and they may have to go on the road in the conference championship in order to make the Super Bowl. Plus, Dallas has had trouble in the playoffs for decades. Can they finally get over the hump?
It feels as if the Bills have been knocking on the door of the Super Bowl for several seasons. As good as quarterback Josh Allen is at creating havoc with his arm and his legs, he does tend to turn over the football, and the team was sloppy for a good chunk of the year. At the midway point of the season it looked as if the Bills would miss the playoffs, but they won their last five games, won the AFC East and appear to be back on track where most people thought they’d be — which is a very dangerous squad.
Which Dolphins team will show up?
When they’re on, there is simply no stopping the Dolphins. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and sensational wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who will return to Kansas City to face his former team in the wild card round, are potent, and the team is capable of putting up points close to the temperature of a moderately comfortable Miami day. But the Dolphins can be neutralized and have struggled to keep up with some of the league’s premier teams (see the 56-19 drubbing at the hands of the Ravens in Week 17).
The Lions and the Browns?
Up is down. Black is white. The Lions and Browns are both in the playoffs — in the same season. It's the first time that's happened since 1994. What is going on here? Neither the Lions nor the Browns have ever made the Super Bowl. Prior to this season, the last time the Lions and Browns each reached double digits in wins in the same year was 1953 — when Detroit wound up beating Cleveland in the NFL championship.
The Lions are searching for their first playoff win since January 1992, while the Browns have won a grand total of three playoff games in the last 34 years.
The Lions’ renaissance began with a strong second half last season that many pundits felt set them up as favorites to win the NFC North this year, which they did, their first division crown since 1993. Quarterback Jared Goff, who went to the Super Bowl with the Los Angeles Rams in the 2018 season, has stud wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown and a healthy running game, while Aidan Hutchinson leads the defense. The Lions have not won a championship since the 1957 campaign, nearly a decade before the first Super Bowl was played.
The Browns, meanwhile, are improbably in the playoffs. They lost star running back Nick Chubb in Week 2 and shuffled through three quarterbacks before turning to Joe Flacco. At age 38 and in his 16th season, he has found the fountain of youth and been embraced by fans. He wasn’t even playing in the NFL when the Browns called him to become their fourth starting quarterback this season. The result has been magical, as he has turned in electrifying performances. He’s also won a Super Bowl with the Ravens, so he’s been in this situation before.
The Browns haven’t claimed an NFL title since 1964, about two years before the Super Bowl was first played.
Remember the Rams?
It was only two years ago that the Rams won the Super Bowl. They missed the playoffs last season and didn’t appear to be much of a threat this year, but they turned it on in the second half of the season. Their playoff matchup against the Lions is an intriguing one, as quarterback Matthew Stafford will return to Detroit, where he spent the first 12 years of his career before he was traded to the Rams in exchange for Goff. It's a compelling matchup, for sure.
Los Angeles has the makeup of the proverbial “team nobody wants to play.” While the defense can give up big plays, the Rams boast an impressive offense that features a pair of star rookies in running back Kyren Williams and wide receiver Puka Nacua.
Will the Bucs and Texans surprise fans?
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the NFC South and the Houston Texans topped the AFC South, but neither team outright overwhelmed opponents this year. The Buccaneers sported a pedestrian 9-8 record and don't do anything so well that it jumps off the page. They get a reeling Eagles team in the wild card round and could be ripe to pull off an upset.
Meanwhile, the Texans and star rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud are way ahead of schedule when it comes to their rebuild. Stroud has been a dynamic player capable of putting up big numbers and he hasn't looked like a rookie. How far can he carry his team in the postseason?
NFC playoff seeds
(1) San Francisco 49ers
(2) Dallas Cowboys
(3) Detroit Lions
(4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
(5) Philadelphia Eagles
(6) Los Angeles Rams
(7) Green Bay Packers
AFC playoff seeds
(1) Baltimore Ravens
(2) Buffalo Bills
(3) Kansas City Chiefs
(4) Houston Texans
(5) Cleveland Browns
(6) Miami Dolphins
(7) Pittsburgh Steelers
NFL playoff schedule
Here's a look at the entire playoff schedule. All times Eastern.
Saturday, Jan. 13
(5) Cleveland Browns at (4) Houston Texans, 4:30 p.m. (NBC)
(6) Miami Dolphins at (3) Kansas City Chiefs, 8 p.m. (Peacock)
Sunday, Jan. 14
(7) Green Bay Packers at (2) Dallas Cowboys, 4:30 p.m. (Fox)
(6) Los Angeles Rams at (3) Detroit Lions, 8 p.m. (NBC)
Monday, Jan. 15
(7) Pittsburgh Steelers at (2) Buffalo Bills, 4:30 p.m. (postponed from Jan. 14 due to dangerous conditions)
(5) Philadelphia Eagles at (4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 8:15 p.m. (ESPN/ABC)
Saturday, Jan. 20 — Two games. Matchups/times TBA.
Sunday, Jan. 21 — Two games. Matchups/times TBA.
Sunday, Jan. 28 — AFC Championship. Matchup/time TBA. Game broadcast on CBS.
Sunday, Jan. 28 — NFC Championship. Matchup/time TBA. Game broadcast on Fox.
Sunday, Feb. 11 — Super Bowl 58. Matchup TBA. Game broadcast on CBS.