Things to know for the NFL's super-sized playoffs
Pair of triple-headers on tap for expanded Wild Card Weekend
The NFL's super-sized playoffs have arrived.
The league is branding this Saturday and Sunday as Super Wild Card Weekend, and not for nothing. This is the debut of an expanded playoff tournament that features seven teams from each conference (up from six) and gives first-round byes to only the No. 1 seed in each conference (not the top two). The delightful result of this for football fans is that, instead of two games on both Saturday and Sunday, we get a pair of triple-headers.
As Green Bay and defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City rest up, here are the matchups and an interesting thing about each team playing this weekend:
Saturday 1:05 p.m. ET: Indianapolis (11-5) at Buffalo (13-3)
Colts head coach Frank Reich returns to the scene of his greatest triumph. On Jan. 3, 1993 at what was then known as Rich Stadium, the Bills backup quarterback helped rally his team from a 35-3 second-half deficit to beat the Houston Oilers in a first-round playoff.
The Bills earned their first home playoff game in 24 years on the strength of a surprisingly potent offence. Third-year quarterback Josh Allen took a huge leap, new wideout Stefon Diggs led the league in catches and receiving yards and co-ordinator Brian Daboll orchestrated the attack brilliantly. This resulted in a franchise-record 501 points — tops in their conference.
Saturday 4:40 p.m. ET: Los Angeles Rams (10-6) at Seattle (12-4)
Before taking his first NFL snap last week, Rams backup QB John Wolford was so unsure about his future that he still had a LinkedIn profile. But he became the first QB to throw for 200-plus yards and run for 50-plus in his debut start and helped L.A. win what was essentially a play-in game vs. Arizona. He might start again Saturday if Goff's surgically repaired thumb isn't ready.
Seahawks QB Russell Wilson was the early front-runner for MVP after leading Seattle to a 6-1 start by throwing 26 TDs and only six interceptions in those seven games. But, since then, his TD/INT ratio is only 14/7 and the Let Russ Cook movement has quieted.
Saturday 8:15 p.m. ET: Tampa Bay (11-5) at Washington (7-9)
Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady has won six Super Bowls, started 41 playoff games and won 30 of those — all records for a QB. But this is the first time he's been part of a wild-card team. All 17 of his post-season trips with New England came after the Patriots won their division.
Washington QB Alex Smith is a great story. Two years ago, he suffered a gruesome leg injury that nearly led to an amputation and even threatened his life. He made it back on the field this season and helped Washington win the rancid NFC East with a sub-.500 record. But now he's trying to play through a calf injury in the same leg.
Sunday 1:05 p.m. ET: Baltimore (11-5) at Tennessee (11-5)
The Ravens are perceived as a disappointment after falling from an NFL-best 14-2 last season to 12-5 and losing the AFC North to Pittsburgh. So it may surprise you to hear they led the league in point differential again this year.
Titans running back Derrick Henry ran for 250 yards last week to become only the eighth player to reach 2,000 yards rushing in a season. At 6-foot-3, 247 pounds, he's tailor-made for January football.
Sunday 4:40 p.m. ET: Chicago (8-8) at New Orleans (12-4)
The Bears' record is even, but their season was anything but. Chicago started 5-1, then lost six in a row, then won three straight to resurrect their playoff hopes. Like his team, QB Mitch Trubisky is very up-and-down, but he's played well over the last month.
The Saints remained Super Bowl contenders despite their three biggest stars missing time. 2019 NFL catches leader Michael Thomas played fewer than half the games because of an ankle injury, QB Drew Brees was sidelined for a month after suffering 11 (!) broken ribs and running back Alvin Kamara sat out last week because of a positive coronavirus test. He and Thomas are expected to play Sunday, while Brees has been back for a few weeks now.
Sunday 8:15 p.m. ET: Cleveland (11-5) at Pittsburgh (12-4)
The Browns just snapped their NFL-high 18-year playoff drought thanks largely to first-year head coach Kevin Stefansky, who installed a run-heavy offence that takes the pressure off erratic quarterback Baker Mayfield. Unfortunately, Stefansky will miss this game after testing positive for the coronavirus, and so will another key piece of the running attack: Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio. Cleveland wasn't allowed to practise until today, but the game is scheduled to go on.
Steelers rookie receiver Chase Claypool just had one of the best seasons ever by a Canadian NFL player, making 62 catches for 873 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns. He went the whole month of December without reaching the end zone, but exploded for 101 yards and a TD in Pittsburgh's regular-season finale.
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