Sportsmail's guide to the NFL play-offs starting this weekend
The NFL playoffs start TOMORROW… So can the Cleveland Browns cope with a Covid crisis? Are we heading for a Mahomes vs Rodgers showdown in Super Bowl LV? And where are the New England Patriots?
- The NFL playoffs get underway this weekend with a round of Wild Card games
- The Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers have byes to the divisional round
- Tom Brady is in action for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but there’s no NE Patriots
- Derrick Henry could lead Tennessee to glory, and watch out for the Buffalo Bills
- Sportsmail takes a look at everything you need to know ahead of the post-season
The NFL has played a blinder. Fortunate scheduling meant it sidestepped the start of the pandemic and it duly completed all of its 256 regular season games.
But with current events in Washington and Covid outbreaks the stakes could not be higher. All eyes will be on the sport.
As 32 teams become 14 due to the expanded playoffs, seemingly only a select few can win it. Just two teams – the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs and the Green Bay Packers – have been afforded the luxury of a first-round bye.
Patrick Mahomes (left) and Aaron Rodgers have a week off with both of their sides having byes
Since 1990, only 12 teams seeded three or lower have reached the Super Bowl. And none since the 2012 Ravens.
And for those who didn’t make it, the season starts now. There are six coaching vacancies and seven general manager posts up for grabs – as well as decisions on free agency and the draft.
Ahead of this weekend’s six playoffs games, many questions surround the NFL. How will Cleveland cope with Covid? Will King Henry bulldoze Baltimore again? What is Bill Belichick up to? And can anyone stop the Chiefs?
- 6.05pm: Indianapolis Colts @ Buffalo Bills
- 9.40pm: LA Rams @ Seattle Seahawks
- 1.15am: Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Washington Football Team
- 6.05pm: Baltimore Ravens @ Tennessee Titans
- 9.40pm: Chicago Bears @ New Orleans Saints
- 1.15am: Cleveland Browns @ Pittsburgh Steelers
TV: All games LIVE on Sky Sports
AGAINST ALL ODDS
In his first year as a head coach, Kevin Stefanski made Cleveland relevant.
He ended the NFL’s longest playoff drought and did so largely without wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr, whose season ended in October.
True, they flirted with blowing a 15-point lead over the Steelers on Sunday – a game they had to win – but made it to the postseason for the first time since the 2002 season.
Yet it wouldn’t be Cleveland without crisis.
Preparation for the trip to Pittsburgh was derailed on Tuesday – 18 years to the day since their last playoff game – after Stefanski tested positive for Covid-19.
As did guard Joel Bitonio, wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge and two coaches.
The team’s training facility is closed as Stefanski virtually prepares for the biggest game of his life – against all of the Steelers starters this time – and special teams co-ordinator Mike Priefer will coach the team at Heinz Field.
Oh, the Browns also lost key defensive end Olivier Vernon and rookie guard Nick Harris to injury this week.
‘We’ve got to find a way,’ Stefanski, 38, said.
Kevin Stefanski guided Cleveland to the play-offs but this week tested positive for Covid-19
A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
Home advantage is huge in the NFL. Fans make a racket when their teams do not have the ball, attempting to cause confusion among visiting offenses.
But for the first time home teams finished below 0.500 with a 127-128-1 record.
Yes, there will 6,700 Covid-tested fans at Buffalo and a few less at Kansas City, but they will not be able to replicate the noise levels normally associated with crowds of 60,000-plus.
‘It doesn’t feel any different playing at home or playing away right now,’ said Seattle coach Pete Carroll, whose fans have a history of creating earthquakes in their stadium. ‘It’s just evened everything out.’
Crowds will be sparse this weekend, with no fans present for Seattle’s game against the Rams
Yet aside from the luxury of a week off and not having to travel, the two top seeds have another advantage up their sleeves.
The Chiefs and Packers play outdoors and it’s a bit parky in Kansas City and Green Bay this time of year.
‘People play different, people act different, they talk different, everything (is different) coming through Lambeau,’ Green Bay receiver Davante Adams said.
WHERE ARE THE PATRIOTS?
For the first time since 2008, Bill Belichick can spend January on his boat.
Without Tom Brady and after a raft of Covid opt-outs the Patriots (7-9) sank to a losing record. The last time that happened was in Belichick’s first year in 2000.
On a one-year deal, quarterback Cam Newton struggled to fill the biggest void in sport. It is unlikely he will return. He ended the season healthy but with significant concerns about his arm strength and accuracy, all at the age of 31.
Back up Jarrett Stidham has not made a start in two years and Belichick may chance his arm with the 24-year-old. He’s cheap too.
Bill Belichick (left) didn’t guide the Patriots to the post-season and missed QB Tom Brady
But the scale of the job should not be underestimated. Could Belichick even decide to retire – he has to one day – or has the greatest coach of all time got everything under control?
‘We’ll just look at everything in the offseason,’ he said in trademark fashion.
‘We’ll take a full evaluation of all the things that we do and have done and look forward and I’m sure, as we do every year, we’ll want to modify some things.’
Six teams are scrabbling to find new head coaches. Chiefs offensive co-ordinator Eric Bienemy and 49ers defensive co-ordinator Robert Saleh are the hottest candidates with both dumpster fires and promising blank slates available.
In Jacksonville (1-15), Doug Marrone was within touching distance of the Super Bowl three years ago, but paid the price for his meagre overall record of 24-43 in four seasons.
Owner Shad Khan also gave general manager Dave Caldwell the boot in November, but perhaps unsurprisingly kept his son, Tony, on the books.
Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone was given the boot after a torrid 1-15 season
The Jags, who lost their last 15 games, are shoo-ins to draft outstanding Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. And with $100million of cap space, this is an attractive proposition. Retired college coach Urban Meyer is favourite.
The Jets (2-14) sacked Adam Gase after another season of irrelevance. The high, or low, point was a week 15 win over the LA Rams which scuppered their chances of landing Lawrence. With a decision to be made on Sam Darnold, expect the unexpected.
Detroit (4-12) have been mostly shambolic under supposed defensive guru Matt Patricia and wasted three years of Matt Stafford. A large rebuild is required.
The Chargers, for whom Anthony Lynn’s 7-9 season was the last straw for Dean Spanos, are also leaderless. But with a franchise quarterback Justin Herbert in situ, they will not be short of suitors.
After starting the season with five losses, Atlanta (4-12) moved on from coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff in October. The pair took them to the Super Bowl in 2016, but there a habit was formed of taking a seemingly commanding lead and crushingly watching it ebb away.
And in Houston (4-12), despite the presence of Deshaun Watson, the process to recover from the farcical Bill O’Brien era appears a long and painful one.
Falcons head coach Dan Quinn came close to a Super Bowl in 2017 but was sacked this season
THE 2,000 YARD CLUB
- Eric Dickerson, LA Rams (1984) – 2,105
- Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings (2012) – 2,097
- Jamal Lewis, Baltimore Ravens (2003) – 2,066
- Barry Sanders, Detroit Lions (1997) – 2,053
- Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans (2020) – 2,027
- Terrell Davis, Denver Broncos (1998) – 2,008
- Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans (2009) – 2,006
- OJ Simpson, Buffalo Bills (1973) – 2,003
Under reigning MVP Lamar Jackson, the red-hot Ravens wrapped up a fifth straight win and a playoff spot for the third straight season.
But both were one-and-done and last year they ran into a 6ft 5in buzzsaw by the name of Derrick Henry.
Henry ran for 195 yards – and threw for a touchdown – as the Titans bullied Baltimore in a 28-12 blowout.
He carried on his one-man destruction of Baltimore in the regular season, rushing for 133 yards and scoring the game-winning touchdown. In overtime, of course.
Henry, whose 2,027 yards rushing led the league, is the eighth player to join the 2,000-yard club and has no intention of slowing down.
After putting up 250 yards against Houston on Sunday, Baltimore’s run defense has its work cut out to stop Henry rampaging once again.
‘Derrick Henry is one of the best running backs to ever play this game and he’s in the zone right now,’ defensive end Calais Campbell said. ‘I take pride in the challenge to line up and try and shut him down.’
Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry will take some stopping against the Ravens
WHO CAN WIN IT?
Aaron Rodgers sometimes appears superhuman. At 37 – and with Green Bay having drafted his apparent heir – would there be a better way to retire?
Rodgers, who threw for a lifetime best 48 touchdowns this season, also has Adams at his extraordinary best.
After his NFL-leading 18th touchdown catch, Adams tied Sterling Sharpe’s franchise record set in 1984. In doing so, he matched the third-highest amount of touchdowns in a season, only trailing Jerry Rice’s 23 in 1987 and Randy Moss’s 23 in 2007.
Rodgers and wide receiver Davante Adams will pose a big threat in the play-offs this year
The Packers (13-3) score for fun with a league-leading 31.8 points per game. On his day – and even when it’s not – Rodgers can outduel anyone.
But there is a storm brewing in Buffalo. Sean McDermott has assembled a fine roster and they, too, are racking up the points. Sunday’s 56-26 humiliation of Miami saw Buffalo set a single-season franchise record of 501.
As they prepare for their first home playoff game in 25 years, quarterback Kyle Allen has made the jump and in Stefon Diggs they have a superstar receiver who leads the league in receiving yards (1,573) and catches.
Buffalo went to four consecutive Super Bowls in the 1990s and lost them all. This year they can take that final step.
Buffalo wide receiver Stefon Diggs (bottom) leads the league in receiving yards and catches
BACK-TO-BACK SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONS
- Green Bay Packers (1966-67)
- Miami Dolphins (1972-73)
- Pittsburgh Steelers (1974-75)
- Pittsburgh Steelers (1978-79)
- San Francisco 49ers (1989-90)
- Dallas Cowboys (1992-93)
- Denver Broncos (1997-98)
- New England Patriots (2003-04)
AREN’T YOU FORGETTING SOMEONE?
After a five-decade wait for a Super Bowl win, the Chiefs are odds-on favourites to make it back-to-back titles.
With (arguably) the best player, best roster and a magnificent coach, the only thing that can stop KC would appear to be complacency.
After retaining many of their Super Bowl winning roster they won 10 in a row and went 14-2 – their back-ups losing a meaningless final game of the season – it is tough to bet against them.
With a fine team spirit (a long-standing joke this season is to post old, unflattering pictures of team-mates on Twitter to use as a profile picture) and the likes of Tyrann Mathieu acting as a mentor to young players, they have it all.
The fastest receiving corps, a superb running back stable, a prototype tight end in Travis Kelce. Even a decent offensive line.
And of course Patrick Mahomes, a man who makes the impossible possible on a weekly basis.
Mahomes is targeting back-to-back Super Bowls as he leads the Chiefs again in the playoffs
Share this article
Source: Read Full Article