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Seven Burning Questions Entering the NFL Playoffs

Will the Bills challenge the Chiefs for AFC supremacy? Can the Browns win their first postseason game since the mid-’90s? Let’s break down the league’s biggest story lines now that wild-card weekend is set.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL somehow finished its regular season and is set to begin its postseason. This year’s playoff bracket has expanded from 12 to 14 teams, as two of the four first-round byes were eliminated so that the league could have six wild-card weekend games instead of four. Here is the schedule.

Saturday

1:05 p.m. ET: Colts at Bills
4:40 p.m. ET: Rams at Seahawks
8:15 p.m. ET: Buccaneers at Washington

Sunday

1:05 p.m. ET: Ravens at Titans
4:40 p.m. ET: Bears at Saints
8:15 p.m. ET: Browns at Steelers

What should we expect from back-to-back days of triple-headers? What did Week 17 show us about the contenders and pretenders? How will the coronavirus affect the playoffs? And will the Toyotathon commercials finally come to an end? Let’s look at seven burning questions with the playoff field set.

Can Anyone Knock Off the Chiefs?

The defending Super Bowl champions loom over these playoffs. The Chiefs are a no. 1 seed and have a first-round bye. Any AFC team with Super Bowl aspirations will likely have to go through Kansas City. That’s tough. The Chiefs are 23-1 in their last 24 games (not counting Sunday’s loss, when their starters were resting), have the best player on the planet in Patrick Mahomes, and feature a deep skill-position group led by Travis Kelce—who set the NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end despite not catching a pass in Week 17. The biggest threat to the Chiefs may be themselves, as they have looked sloppy early in games over the past couple of months.

But two AFC teams that lost to the Chiefs early this season could now be up to the challenge. The first is the Bills. Buffalo went 13-3 and won the AFC East for the first time in 25 years. It is playing its best football of the season right now, annihilating the Dolphins 56-26 on Sunday in a game that was even more of a blowout than that lopsided score suggests. The Bills did this despite having little to play for while Miami was competing for a playoff spot. That game might singlehandedly cost Brian Flores the Coach of the Year award.

It was also just Buffalo’s latest display of dominance. The Bills chased the Patriots off the field 38-9 in Week 16. They beat the doors off Denver 48-19 the week before. Buffalo is piling on the points. Josh Allen ranks third in total quarterback rating behind only Aaron Rodgers and Mahomes. Receiver Stefon Diggs leads the league in catches and receiving yards; he literally flossed on the sideline Sunday. The Bills rank ahead of Kansas City in points per drive (third vs. fourth) and drive success rate (first vs. fourth). Buffalo has one of the few offenses that can keep pace with the Chiefs, and its defense is playing well enough to give the Chiefs trouble. Kansas City’s 26-17 win over the Bills in Week 6 feels a long way away.

The other team that could test the Chiefs is the Ravens. Like Buffalo, Baltimore is playing its best football of the season right now. It rushed for 404 yards against Cincinnati on Sunday, the fourth most a team has had in a game since 1950. To put that in context, the Steelers have just 329 rushing yards since Thanksgiving.

The Ravens have been rolling since getting their starters back from the COVID-19 list in early December. After losing to Pittsburgh on December 2, Baltimore is 5-0 and averaging more than 37 points per game. Lamar Jackson just became the first quarterback to record multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons—and he’s younger than Joe Burrow. The Ravens look nothing like the team that was trounced by the Chiefs on Monday Night Football in Week 3.

Can the Browns Beat the Steelers Twice in a Row?

Cleveland’s playoff drought is over. The Browns made the postseason for the first time in 18 years by beating the Steelers 24-22. Now they have to play a wild-card game against … the Steelers. That game will be much tougher than the one in Week 17, when Ben Roethlisberger, T.J. Watt, and several of Pittsburgh’s other key starters rested. The Browns also have to go to Heinz Field instead of hosting. The last time Cleveland made the playoffs, it lost in the wild-card round to … you guessed it, the Steelers.

This matchup is winnable. The Steelers are struggling to run the ball, throw deep, and catch short passes. Pittsburgh’s once-dominant defense is riddled with injuries, and particularly misses pass rusher Bud Dupree and linebacker Devin Bush. While the Steelers wrecked Cleveland 38-7 in October, these teams look completely different now.

The Browns have not won a playoff game since January 1995. Their head coach for that game was Bill Belichick, and their opponent was Bill Parcells’s Patriots. That was an entirely different era of football. If the Browns beat the Steelers this weekend, we might enter another new era.


Can Anyone Stop Derrick Henry?

Derrick Henry needed 223 yards on Sunday to reach 2,000 for the season. He had more than 200 before the fourth quarter even started. Henry finished Week 17 with 34 carries for a career-high 250 yards. He became just the eighth player to reach the 2,000-yard plateau, and that’s only the beginning of his accomplishments. He’s the first player to lead the league in carries, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns for two straight seasons since the 1960s, per Sunday Night Football. Here is the list of the players with more career 200-yard rushing games than Henry.

1. Adrian Peterson
2. O.J. Simpson

There have been 11 200-yard rushing performances in the NFL over the past four seasons. Five of them belong to Henry. Furthermore, in the past two years (regular season and postseason), a running back has rushed for 175 or more yards 17 times. Henry has eight of those performances. Four came in games with the Titans facing elimination, either from the playoffs or playoff contention. Not only is Henry as dominant as the rest of the league’s running backs combined, but he is especially dominant when it matters most. If Henry puts up another 200-yard game against the Ravens in the wild-card round, we’ll have to begin asking whether he is a future Hall of Famer.

Is This the Final Postseason for the League’s Oldest Quarterbacks?

This is the oldest group of quarterbacks in the playoffs ever. Tom Brady is 43. Drew Brees turns 42 this month. Philip Rivers is 39, Ben Roethlisberger is 38, Aaron Rodgers is 37, and Alex Smith is 36. These are a bunch of Gen X quarterbacks in a Gen Z league. While we know that Brady and Rodgers plan to keep playing beyond this season, the outlook for the rest of these players is not as certain.

Brees is expected to retire at the season’s end, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. That is neither a guarantee nor a surprise. He broke 11 ribs and punctured a lung in 2020; those developments probably go in the “cons” column for returning next fall. Brees has already signed a contract with NBC to be a broadcaster after he retires, but first he’ll take at least one more shot at a Super Bowl run. The Saints average fewer passing yards per game than any other New Orleans offense in the Brees–Sean Payton era, but they also average the most rushing yards. And this defense might be the best in the entire playoff field.

Rivers is also a serious candidate to retire after this season. His contract is set to expire, and he said last week that Sunday’s game might be his last if the Colts didn’t make the playoffs. Rivers has been solid for the Colts, but not solid enough to prevent the franchise from exploring the myriad quarterback options available this offseason. Considering that as many as five quarterbacks could be picked in the first round of the 2021 draft, and that some solid veterans could be acquired through trades (Sam Darnold, Carson Wentz) or in free agency (Jameis Winston, Andy Dalton, Cam Newton), it’s hard to see Rivers returning to Indy next season—and he’s not going to hang around as a backup.

Roethlisberger is the wild card here. After a loss to the Bills a few weeks ago, he said, “If I don’t play good enough football, I need to hang it up.” Roethlisberger’s arm strength has been sapped, and he’s dealing with injuries to both knees that make him slow as smell. The days of Roethlisberger extending plays and shaking off defenders are long gone. Now he is so weary of getting hit that he gets rid of the ball faster than any quarterback over the past decade, according to Pro Football Focus. Even if the reports that Roethlisberger intends to return next season are accurate, Steelers fans must be concerned the team has no real quarterback succession plan.

Alex Smith will obviously keep playing forever.

Can Washington Upset the Buccaneers?

Prepare for the clichés. Brady, like most quarterbacks, always has struggled against defenses that can generate consistent pressure with a four-man rush. Washington has perhaps the best four-man rush in football. That group is led by rookie pass rusher Chase Young, who is one of five first-round picks in the rotation on Washington’s defensive front. These guys can stuff the run, collapse the pocket, and bat down passes. Heading into this game, there will be plenty of comparisons between Washington and the Giants teams that beat Brady in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI. They will be justified.

Whether Washington stands any chance against Tampa Bay’s defense is a different question. Washington hasn’t mustered more than 23 points since Thanksgiving. Alex Smith ranks 34th in ESPN’s total quarterback rating, ahead of only former Washington quarterback Dwayne Haskins. This offense is 31st in yards per play, ahead of only the Jets. Meanwhile, the Bucs defense pressures quarterbacks at the second-highest rate in the NFL.

How Will COVID-19 Impact the Playoffs?

The NFL completed its regular season without canceling any games. The league’s policy is to reschedule a game only if it believes that playing the game could lead to transmission of the virus. It did not reschedule the Week 12 game between the Broncos and Saints when Denver had no available quarterbacks because it deemed there was no active virus spread in the Broncos organization. But the Ravens and Steelers game originally set for Thanksgiving was postponed six days because the Ravens were experiencing an outbreak. As long as the NFL feels the virus is contained, it plans to keep playing games as scheduled—even if that means the Browns are without their top receivers or the Saints are without their star running back.

But the COVID-19 rules designed for the regular season might lead to uneven standards in the playoffs. According to the league’s COVID protocols, any player considered a “high risk” for coronavirus exposure must be placed on the COVID-19 list until five days have passed since the last close contact. That timeline means players placed on the list on Tuesday can test negative five days in a row and be eligible to play on Sunday. But half of the games on wild-card weekend are slated for Saturday. ESPN’s Schefter reported that teams were jockeying to play on Sunday and get an extra day of wiggle room. He also reported that the league did not factor in those requests to the weekend schedule.

It is possible that the teams playing on Saturday of wild-card weekend will have different roster availability than they would have on Sunday. Relatedly, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has some simple advice for his teammates.

Will Home-Field Advantage Matter?

Home-field advantage always has been prized in the NFL. From 2002 to 2019, home teams won 57 percent of their games. This season, they went 127-128-1. Even removing the three “home” games San Francisco lost in Arizona, home teams still had a winning percentage of only 50.2. Bizarrely, the decreased effectiveness can’t be blamed entirely on the lack of fans. This trend actually began last season, which makes it harder to explain.

Whatever the reason, the lack of home-field advantage was obvious in 2020. Home fans try to be as loud as possible when the visiting team is on offense to make it hard for players to communicate. That has not been a factor this season. In one memorable Week 3 moment, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers drew the Saints offside with a hard count in the red zone. He did this in the Superdome, which is usually one of the loudest stadiums in the league.

We’ll see how big of a story this will be in the playoffs. Some teams will allow fans. Limited amounts of Bills fans will attend Buffalo’s game against the Colts. The Chiefs have been hosting small numbers of fans all season, and will continue to do so in the divisional round. These fans can’t create the noise of 80,000 people, but sometimes performing in front of a small group can be more nerve-wracking than doing so in front of a huge crowd.

Fans aside, travel and weather could still make home-field advantage meaningful. The Packers and Chiefs are the two no. 1 seeds. They not only play in two of the NFL’s most iconic stadiums, but also in places that get cold and snowy in January.