The newly expanded playoffs set the stage for a road to the Super Bowl unlike any the world has seen before
When the National Football League (NFL) season kicked off last September, nobody knew if it would actually be completed. Following a lengthy negotiation between the players’ association and the league, the plan was finally set. With no preseason games and a shortened training camp, the lead up to the regular season was one players and fans had never seen before.
Playing team sports in a pandemic is a difficult situation to navigate. As the NFL saw with baseball and college football, one positive test could set a team back for weeks. Despite many challenges and positive tests, the league was able to maneuver the schedule and avoid extending the season an extra week. Finally, on Jan. 3, 2021, the NFL exhaled for the time being, as all 256 games were concluded.
After many years of trying to get it done, the NFL owners were finally able to approve the expansion of the playoffs from 12 teams to 14 this year. Rather than have two teams from each conference earn a first-round bye, this expansion meant that only the top seeded teams had an extra week off. In the NFL, having a bye increases a team’s chances of making the Super Bowl by a large margin. In the past seven years, the Super Bowl matchups have been between teams that had that extra week off, and with an expanded playoff, that No.1 seed became even more important.
On the National Football Conference (NFC) side, the Green Bay Packers, led by star quarterback Aaron Rodgers and receiving touchdown leader Davante Adams, were able to lock up the first seed with a record of 13-3. Closing out the season on a six-game win streak, Rodgers finished with 4,299 passing yards and a league-high 48 touchdowns. Arguably the frontrunner to win MVP, the 37-year-old quarterback had a season for the ages, as he helped the Packers get their extra week of rest and recovery. In the AFC, the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs finished the regular season with a league best 14-2 record, including a 10-game win streak that ended in their final week, a game where they rested their starters. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes had another stellar season, passing for over 4,700 yards and throwing 38 touchdown passes. Sitting closely behind Rodgers for MVP, Mahomes was able to get the Chiefs to that coveted first-round bye as he prepares to lead his team to back-to-back Super Bowl titles, a feat last accomplished in 2003-04.
This year’s Wild Card weekend will be one that many football followers will enjoy. With three games on both Saturday Jan. 9 and Sunday Jan. 10, fans will be in for a slate of playoff football games throughout both days.
The playoffs kick off with the Indianapolis Colts visiting the Buffalo Bills. The Colts are coming off an 11-5 year led by longtime NFL quarterback Phillip Rivers, who is playing his first season with the team after a long stint with the Chargers. Needing a Miami Dolphins loss and a win in the final week to book their ticket, the Colts were fortunate enough to get just that, sneaking in with the seventh and final playoff spot. Their test will not be easy, as the Bills come into the game riding a six-game win streak. Quarterback Josh Allen had an MVP-caliber season with both his arm and legs, as he leads Buffalo through their first home playoff game in 25 years. They will host fans for the first time this season, as their state guidelines did not allow it throughout the entirety of the regular season. 6,200 fans in addition to 500 family members, sponsors and guests will be in attendance in the frigid Buffalo temperatures, as they hope to see the first Bills playoff win since 1995.
The game that follows will see the Los Angeles Rams visit their division rival Seattle Seahawks. Looking to get back to the Super Bowl once again, the Rams season was a rollercoaster. Having appeared inconsistent throughout the year, the team enters this matchup without a clear indication of how they will look. It is unknown whether starting quarterback Jared Goff, who had surgery to repair his right thumb, will play. If Goff is unable to go, backup John Wolford will get the nod, playing in just his second NFL game ever. On the Seattle side, a hot start to the season had many thinking they would get back into the Super Bowl. But, a rough stretch for quarterback Russell Wilson, including bad defense and injuries, was a major setback to a team that began to look like a pretender and not a contender. Still finishing with a 12-4 record and winning the NFC West, Seattle will need all cylinders to be firing if they want to pull out the victory.
The nightcap of the Saturday slate includes two very different teams, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Washington Football Team. Future Hall of Famer Tom Brady will begin his Buccaneer playoff career on the road, and after a season that saw him go through growing pains with a new coaching staff, it seems as though everything is hitting at the perfect time. Although they had an 11-5 record, they will travel to Washington to take on the Football Team. In what was a disaster of a division, Washington came out on top with a record of 7-9, becoming the third team in NFL history to make the playoffs with seven wins. Entering the game, they will be big underdogs in the eyes of many, but if they want any chance to succeed, their exceptional defense will have to lead the way.
The early window on Sunday will include a rematch of last year’s Divisional Round matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans. The Ravens walk into the playoffs scorching hot, winning their last five games. Having lost the division title this year, they ultimately made it into the playoffs after what looked like a lost year midseason. Reigning MVP Lamar Jackson put on a clinic to close the season and will look to exact revenge as the Titans knocked them out of the playoffs last season. Winning the AFC South for the first time since 2008, the Titans look to build off their momentum of last season, where they stood one win away from reaching the Super Bowl. Behind Derrick Henry, who became the eighth player in NFL history to rush over 2,000 yards, Tennessee is hoping to gash the Baltimore defense and limit the offensive attack. In what is the closest matchup of the Wild Card round according to the odds, the matchup is sure to deliver.
Although they lost their final game of the season, the Chicago Bears will travel to New Orleans to take on the Saints. In a season that has seen the Bears change QBs multiple times and struggle on offense, they hope to pull off a major upset. Having had the first seed for a large portion of the regular season, the Saints suffered a major loss, as longtime quarterback Drew Brees was knocked out of a couple of games, clearing the way for the Packers to take advantage. Regardless, the Saints hope to not suffer anymore playoff heartbreak like in recent years, and with all indications pointing to Brees retiring after this season, they would like nothing more than to send him off with another Super Bowl title.
The final game of the Wild Card weekend will be another division rivalry, as the Cleveland Browns will visit their longtime foe, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Needing a win in Week 17, the Browns faced off against the Steelers. Even though most of the Pittsburgh starters did not play, the Browns were just able to pull off the win thanks to some defensive stops and are now back in the playoffs, breaking their 17-year drought. After starting the season 11-0, the Steelers suffered some big blows, losing three straight, effectively taking them out of the running of the first seed. Despite their offense not being able to find their groove, they hope to replicate their first matchup against the Browns, where they won 38-7.
This year’s playoffs will surely be unlike any other we’ve seen so far. With some teams playing their games with no fans, it is essentially a neutral field matchup. The only home-field advantage teams have now would be familiarity and the weather, in the case of outdoor teams. Aside from that, we have yet to see how the intensity differs from past playoffs. Not to mention, the threat of COVID-19 is one that still exists, as one positive test can spell the end of a team’s Super Bowl hopes.