With only the top seeds in both the AFC and NFC benefitting from a bye, and a seventh team in each conference getting to join the party, the NFL’s new playoff format promises plenty.
After breaking down Saturday’s slate of the 14-team Super Wild Card Weekend, we’re doing the same for the final three games. So let’s take a look at what’s going down on Sunday…
No. 5 Baltimore Ravens (11-5) AT No. 4 Tennessee Titans (11-5)
1:05 p.m. ET
This time last year, the 14-2 Ravens were the hottest ticket in town and Lamar Jackson was on the verge of being crowned MVP. It seemed nothing could stop their procession through the playoffs. But then, to everyone’s astonishment, they ran into a Titans brick wall backed up by a Derrick Henry-shaped sledgehammer.
And when the fault lines exposed by Kansas City in Week 3 started threatening to open into fatal chasms as Baltimore slumped to 6-5 at the start of December – on the back of a run of four losses in five games – it seemed the damage done by Tennessee’s hammer blow ran far deeper than anyone imagined.
That streak included a spirit-crushing Week 11 overtime loss to the Titans in what was supposed to be a hangover-clearing revenge match for the Ravens.
Jackson struggled to regain his MVP form, but in the context of a coronavirus-riddled campaign that played chaos with Baltimore’s schedule, there was definitely more at play.
Jackson, however, rediscovered his imperious best down the stretch, leading the Ravens to five straight wins to punch their card for the postseason. His 97 rushing yards against the Bengals in Week 17 took him to 1,005 for the year, making him the first quarterback in NFL history with multiple four-figure rushing seasons. He and Michael Vick remain the only two signal callers to ever breach the 1,000-yard rushing mark in a single campaign.
Lamar’s legs are part of the reason why Baltimore rushed on a league-leading 55.9% of scrimmage yards, pounding their way to another NFL-high of 191.9 rushing yards per game. But Sunday’s opponents aren’t far behind on that count. Unsurprisingly for a team featuring Henry, the Titans ranked second in the league with 168.1 rushing yards a game, having run on 50.5% of their plays – the third-highest proportion.
Henry steamrolled his way to 250 yards in Week 17 against Houston, becoming the eighth player in NFL history – and first since Adrian Peterson in 2012 – to amass 2,000 yards on the ground. His three games with more than 200 rushing yards this year has only been bettered once in the league, by Hall of Famer Earl Campbell some 40 years ago.
Tennessee is on a great run against the Ravens, with those two recent wins forming part of an 8-4 record against Baltimore since 2004. The last year of this rivalry has been decisively owned by the Titans, but one of those four Ravens victories came in 2008 – the last time Tennessee entered the playoffs as AFC South champions.
One way or another, history is going to repeat itself on Sunday.
No. 7 Chicago Bears (8-8) AT No. 2 New Orleans Saints (13-3)
4:40 p.m. ET
The Saints dominated the NFC South in a way that division has never been dominated before.
New Orleans went 6-0 against NFC South opponents on the way to a fourth-straight division title. The franchise only had five such crowns before that run, only two of which came before Sean Payton and Drew Brees’ arrival in 2006. And yet, they haven’t been able to break through in the playoffs, suffering three-straight postseason heartbreaks in varying degrees of absurdity, including Stefon Diggs’ ‘Minneapolis Miracle’ and Nickell Robey-Coleman’s infamous no-call hit.
Each time, they’ve dusted themselves off and gone again. This year feels different though. With his 42nd birthday looming before the divisional round, Brees seems highly unlikely to be back for one more try at repeating his and Payton’s 2008 Super Bowl success. Many have questioned his arm strength, and the Saints have only suffered one loss during his enforced injury absences over the last two campaigns, but there’s little doubt he is a reassuring presence under center for New Orleans.
Brees is, after all, the NFL’s all-time passing yards leader. He threw for 201 yards and three touchdowns in the Week 17 demolition of Carolina. It was the 95th time he’s passed for more than 200 yards and three scores, which is the most all-time.
Chicago is also looking at a quarterback who might not be back next year, but for different reasons. Mitch Trubisky has wrestled the starting spot back from Nick Foles after losing it earlier in the season, but with the Bears having declined his fifth-year option, he’s set to enter free agency at the end of the season.
The maligned 2017 second overall pick has played better in helping the Bears stumble into the playoffs, though it’s on the ground where Chicago has seen the biggest resurgence. In his first nine games this year, David Montgomery ran for 52.4 yards per game and amassed just one touchdown. But in his last six, he’s posted an average of 99.7 rushing yards with seven TDs. His best game in that early-season stretch was against New Orleans in Week 8, when he had 89 yards on the ground.
The Saints prevailed in overtime in that first meeting at Soldier Field. Each of New Orleans’ last two playoff losses came in OT, and if this one goes to bonus football, it would become the first franchise ever to play extras in three-straight postseason games.
While the omens might point to this game being extended, all Brees and the Saints care about is pushing his career into another week – and his 43rd year.
No. 6 Cleveland Browns (11-5) AT No. 3 Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
8:15 p.m. ET
Matchups between the Browns and Steelers are a bit like London buses, except you don’t have to actually wait for ages before two show up. This will be the second time in seven days that the franchises have faced each other, with the Browns finally ending their NFL-worst 17-year playoff drought thanks to a 24-22 win.
But then, it wasn’t really the Steelers that Cleveland scraped past, was it? Mason Rudolph is not Ben Roethlisberger, and the defense isn’t the defense without TJ Watt, Cam Heyward and others who were rested last week.
That said, has Pittsburgh really been Pittsburgh for much of the second half of the season? Even by the time Washington – which if it doesn’t look like a playoff team now, definitely didn’t in Week 12 – inflicted the Steelers’ first loss, they were already stuttering badly. Having started out 11-0, Pittsburgh dropped four of its last five games and even that one win came after trailing 24-7 in the second half against the Indianapolis Colts.
The Steelers allowed 23 points or more in each of those last five games after having done so just three times in the first 11. They’ve been held under 100 yards rushing in each of their final six games, and 10 of their last 11.
The ground game hasn’t been an issue over in Ohio, though COVID-19 certainly has this week. Despite the Browns being down head coach Kevin Stefanski, Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio and potentially several others, the game remains on schedule for Sunday night – for now.
The Browns will still have Nick Chubb, who rushing for 1,067 yards to become the first Cleveland player with two consecutive 1,000-yard seasons since Jamal Lewis in 2007 and 2008. The third-year running back’s 5.6 yards per rushing attempt was only bettered this season by Baltimore’s JK Dobbins. He also ran for 12 touchdowns, which tied for fourth in the league and was the most by a Brown since Leroy Kelly more than half a century ago.
But with star wideout Odell Beckham Jr. suffering a season-ending torn ACL in Week 7, Chubb’s backfield mate Kareem Hunt was the only Cleveland player to record five touchdown catches this year. By comparison, five different Steelers managed the feat, which is tied for the most in NFL history.
Big Ben’s return feels ominous for Cleveland, given the Browns could only just get past a Rudolph-led Pittsburgh last week. But the weight of history was clearly hanging heavy over Baker Mayfield et al, with a first playoff appearance since 2002 on the line. Freed of that pressure, this week feels like more of a free hit against a Steelers team that stumbled when expectation and hope of an undefeated season got too much to carry.
So could the Browns’ playoff train steam on, or – having lost its last two postseason games to Pittsburgh – is its final destination going to be a painfully familiar one?
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