The NFL has arrived at the playoffs, surviving a regular season unlike any other as it played through the novel coronavirus pandemic. As the threat of the virus looms, the league will unveil a new playoff format while challengers line up to knock off the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs and quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Seven teams from each conference made the playoffs, with only the top seed earning a bye into the divisional round, a departure from the old format of six teams and two byes in each conference.
When do the playoffs start?
The first round will feature three games Saturday and three more the following day, Jan. 10. The division round will occur Jan. 16 and 17. Conference championships will take place Jan. 24, with the winners of the two games advancing to the Super Bowl on Feb. 7.
Which teams are in the playoffs?
AFC first round: No. 5 Baltimore Ravens (11-5) at No. 4 Tennessee Titans (11-5)
Sun., Jan. 10, 12:05 p.m. (ESPN/ABC)
The Ravens have an opportunity for catharsis. Last year, the Titans ruined Baltimore’s dream season when they bullied it in a massive divisional-round upset. The Titans also beat the Ravens, 30-24, in overtime in Week 11, the nadir of a season the Ravens have turned around.
AFC first round: No. 6 Cleveland Browns (11-5) at No. 3 Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
Sun., Jan. 10, 7:15 p.m. (NBC)
These two teams, who played on Sunday, could not have more divergent recent histories. With their 24-22 victory over the Steelers in Week 17, which Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sat out, the Browns made the playoffs for the first time in 18 years and earned their best record since 1994. First-year coach Kevin Stefanski has been a revelation, cleaning up the mess of 2019 by relying on running back Nick Chubb and powerful play-action passing.
The Steelers are an annual contender under Coach Mike Tomlin. They began the season 11-0, but as teams solved their short-passing attack and injuries mounted on defense, they lost their next three games. They revived their season with a comeback Week 16 win against the Indianapolis Colts, and the Super Bowl experience of Tomlin and Roethlisberger will make them a difficult out.
AFC first round: No. 7 Indianapolis Colts (11-5) at No. 2 Buffalo Bills (13-3)
Sat., Jan. 9, 12:05 p.m. (CBS)
Quarterback Philip Rivers came to Indianapolis after 15 seasons with the Chargers to try to win his first Super Bowl. Despite barely making the playoffs, the Colts have a roster that could do it. Linebacker Darius Leonard and defensive lineman DeForest Buckner lead a stout, speedy defense, and Jonathan Taylor is a rookie running back who can control a game.
The Bills may be the hottest team in the league. In his third season, Allen blossomed into one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL while throwing to wide receiver Stefon Diggs, whom the Bills acquired in a blockbuster offseason trade. The Bills captured their first division title since 1995, knocking the New England Patriots off the AFC East throne.
NFC first round: No. 5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) at Washington Football Team
Sat., Jan. 9, 7:15 p.m. (NBC)
The NFC East title and the fourth seed went to Washington after it defeated Philadelphia on “Sunday Night Football.” Washington took the division with a 7-9 record.
The end will come for Tom Brady eventually, but it still looked far off at age 43. He passed for 4,622 yards and 40 touchdowns, even with rockiness in adjusting to Coach Bruce Arians’s deep-passing system. He is an all-time great still operating at the highest level.
NFC first round: No. 6 Los Angeles Rams (10-6) at No. 3 Seattle Seahawks (12-4)
Sat., Jan. 9, 3:40 p.m. (FOX)
Wilson made the playoffs for the eighth time in his nine-year career, and this may be his best offensive supporting cast. DK Metcalf emerged as one of the best wideouts in football, a blend of freakish size and speed, while Tyler Lockett remains one of the most unheralded players in the league. The Seahawks’ defense emerged late in the year behind superstar safety Jamal Adams, who set an NFL record for sacks by a defensive back after arriving in a trade that sent two first-round draft picks to the New York Jets.
The Rams and the Seahawks split their season series, with Seattle thumping the Rams, 20-9, two weeks ago in Seattle. Quarterback Jared Goff underwent thumb surgery and missed the Rams’ Week 17 victory against the Arizona Cardinals, but he could return. Regardless of who plays quarterback, the Rams will rely on a defense that became one of the NFL’s best behind otherworldly defensive tackle Aaron Donald and star cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
NFC first round: No. 7 Chicago Bears (8-8) at No. 2 New Orleans Saints (12-4)
Sun., Jan. 10, 3:40 p.m. (CBS)
The Bears backed into the playoffs in Week 17, reaching the postseason only after the Cardinals lost to the Rams on Sunday. Former No. 2 overall pick Mitchell Trubisky led the Bears’ late-season revival, bouncing back from a midseason benching to lead four straight 30-point performances before Sunday’s loss to Green Bay. To beat the Saints, the quarterback will need to control the ball with running back David Montgomery.
This may be Drew Brees’s last chance to add a second Super Bowl to his resume. Brees, 41, flirted with retirement last offseason after three consecutive playoff heartbreaks. While Brees and Coach Sean Payton built a perennial contender with explosive offense, this version of the Saints relies on a feisty, physical defense led by defensive end Cameron Jordan and linebacker Damario Davis. They can thump on offense, too, with Alvin Kamara providing one of the best backfield threats in the NFL.
AFC No. 1 seed: Kansas City Chiefs (14-2)
In one year, the Chiefs have transformed from a cursed franchise of playoff disappointment into a burgeoning dynasty. Kansas City won its first Super Bowl in February, and behind quarterback Patrick Mahomes they are the favorite to win this season, too.
The Chiefs managed to bring back almost every key member of their championship team. Tight end Travis Kelce had a historic season, setting a record for receiving yardage by a tight end. The Chiefs appeared lackadaisical as they failed to win by more than a touchdown in seven straight games before losing in Week 17 to end the season, and yet they still finished with the NFL’s best record.
NFC No. 1 seed: Green Bay Packers (12-4)
The Packers advanced to the NFC championship game last season, and they improved in every way in Coach Matt LaFleur’s second season. Rodgers built one of the best seasons of his career at 36, forming an all-time partnership with Davante Adams, who may be the best wide receiver in the NFL.
The Packers’ primary weakness is run defense, which they attempted to solve last week by claiming veteran defensive tackle Damon Harrison. They can control the ball running, too, as rookie A.J. Dillon emerged late in the year as a powerful complement to star Aaron Jones.
How do the playoffs work? What’s different this year?
The NFL playoffs are a single-elimination tournament that determines champions from the AFC and NFC, who then square off in the Super Bowl. The tournament has three rounds before the Super Bowl that take place over three weekends. The first round is the wild card round, the second is the divisional round and the third is championship Sunday.
The format changed this year. Rather than six teams from each conference making the playoffs with the top seeds from each conference earning a bye, seven teams make it with only the top seed earning a bye. The change will result in a more robust initial weekend, with three games each on Saturday and Sunday.
How is the NFL handling coronavirus protocols in the playoffs?
The NFL will use the same protocols it used in the regular season. Players and staff members are tested daily, and if positive tests occur, the league uses contact tracing to determine high-risk close contacts. Players who test positive are placed on their team’s reserve/covid-19 list along with close contacts. Players who test positive must sit out at least 10 days unless it is determined they had a false positive. Close contacts must test negative five days in a row before they can return.
While the NFL moved several games during the regular season, the league will not have the same flexibility if an outbreak occurs. As in the regular season, games will not be rescheduled if players, even within the same position group, are unable to play because of coronavirus issues. The league has prioritized completion of the season over competitive fairness, treating positive cases like injuries.
Will there be fans at games?
This is still being determined for several home playoff teams, but it appears likely at this point that some stadiums will allow some fans, while other stadiums will be empty.
Last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, announced that the Bills could host about 6,700 fans under the condition that the spectators test negative for the coronavirus, making it the first sports franchise to require a negative test for attendance.
The Chiefs plan to fill Arrowhead Stadium to 22% capacity, or about 17,000 fans, as they have all season.
The Steelers reportedly will host a limited number of fans after state restrictions prevented them from allowing fans for two months. The number is still being decided.
The Packers have not announced whether they will sell tickets. Late in the season, they have limited attendance to guests that include team employees, family members of players, health-care workers and first responders.
How do I watch the playoffs online?
Playoff games will be broadcast on CBS, ESPN/ABC, FOX and NBC, and can be viewed online on those networks’ streaming services. One playoff game will be streamed live on Amazon Video, and providers including fuboTV offer online game broadcasts.
When is the Super Bowl?
The Super Bowl will be played Feb. 7 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., with kickoff scheduled for 5:30 p.m. The game will be broadcast on CBS.