The NFL made it to the championship round of the playoffs after surviving a regular season unlike any other as it played through the coronavirus pandemic. As the threat of the virus looms, the league is playing under a new playoff format as 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 to the divisional round, a departure from the old format of six teams and two byes in each conference.
The Chiefs entered the postseason as a strong favorite to repeat as Super Bowl champions, but they will face a difficult challenger in the AFC championship game. The Buffalo Bills, who are in the conference final for the first time since 1994, emerged as one of the NFL’s best teams as quarterback Josh Allen transformed into a star.
In his first season with Tampa Bay and making his 12th consecutive trip to the playoffs, Tom Brady has made the Buccaneers the first team to play in the Super Bowl in its home stadium. After beating Drew Brees and the Saints in the divisional round, he and the Bucs won a third straight road game against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to claim the NFC title.
Who will play in the conference championship games?
NFC championship game: No. 5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31, No. 1 Green Bay Packers 26
The Packers were unable to overcome an early deficit, including a deep touchdown pass from Brady to Scotty Miller just before halftime, despite intercepting Brady three times during Sunday’s game.
Green Bay Coach Matt LaFleur chose to kick a field goal on fourth and goal while trailing by eight points with just more than two minutes remaining, a decision that will be heavily scrutinized after the Bucs were able to run out the clock and keep Rodgers from getting the ball back a final time.
AFC championship game: No. 2 Buffalo Bills at No. 1 Kansas City Chiefs
Sun., Jan. 24, 6:40 p.m., CBS
The Kansas City Chiefs’ title defense may depend on the health of reigning Super Bowl MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who missed most of the second half of the Chiefs’ victory over the Cleveland Browns in the divisional round after being ruled out of the game under the NFL’s concussion protocol. Mahomes said Friday he had been cleared to play, and the Chiefs enter as three-point favorites.
While the Chiefs are trying to ride a nearly identical roster to a second consecutive Super Bowl title, the Bills are trying to reach their first since the 1993 season, when they lost in the Super Bowl for the fourth year in a row. The Bills began their turnaround when they chose Josh Allen with the seventh draft pick in 2018. They have surrounded him with one of the league’s best receiving corps, headlined by Stefon Diggs, and Coach Sean McDermott’s relentless competence.
What happened in the divisional round of the playoffs?
Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense shredded the NFL’s top-ranked defense, accumulating nearly 500 yards in a game Green Bay led throughout. Rodgers threw two touchdown passes — including one to favorite target Davante Adams — and ran for a score to lead the Packers back to the NFC championship game, where they lost last year.
Green Bay has improved in nearly every way in Coach Matt LaFleur’s second season. Rodgers, 37, had one of the best seasons of his career and is the favorite to be voted league MVP. And Rodgers has formed an all-time partnership with Adams, who may be the best wide receiver in the NFL.
The Bills entered on a seven-game winning streak fueled by a relentless offense. On a cold Saturday night, they won a different way. In a sloppy game that featured missed passes, missed field goals and a 3-3 tie at halftime, Buffalo got a 101-yard interception return for a touchdown to reach its first conference championship game since January 1994. Taron Johnson’s pick-six late in the third quarter turned a potential tie game into a crucial two-touchdown lead for the Bills.
Several plays later, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson left the game with a concussion and did not return. The Bills’ offense failed to add insurance points, but Baltimore couldn’t score, either, with undrafted rookie QB Tyler Huntley trying to lead a desperate comeback.
The Chiefs escaped with a victory even after Patrick Mahomes was ruled out of the game under the NFL concussion protocol, holding off Cleveland’s fourth-quarter comeback attempt with a key defensive stop and a fourth-down conversion from backup quarterback Chad Henne to wide receiver Tyreek Hill that allowed them to run out the clock.
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield finished with 204 passing yards, one touchdown and one interception. They lost a scoring opportunity at the end of the first half with wide receiver Rashard Higgins was hit and fumbled while trying to reach the ball over the goal line. The ball rolled out of the side of the end zone, resulting in a touchback and giving the ball back to the Chiefs.
In what may have been his final NFL game, Drew Brees threw three interceptions in a loss to Tom Brady and a Tampa Bay team that the Saints had beaten twice during the regular season. New Orleans tight end Jared Cook also had a costly fumble that allowed the Bucs to come back and eventually take the lead in the second half.
Brady finished with 199 passing yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Brees, who turned 42 last week, is expected to consider retirement.
What happened in the first round of the playoffs?
Philip Rivers’s Hail Mary fell incomplete as time ran out in this year’s NFL playoff opener, and Josh Allen and the Bills escaped with a narrow victory. It was Buffalo’s first postseason victory since December 1995.
Allen finished with 324 yards and two touchdowns passing, plus 54 yards and a touchdown rushing. Rivers, who threw for 309 yards and two touchdowns, led the Colts back from a 24-10 fourth-quarter deficit.
Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson had a frustrating outing against the Rams’ superb defense, including a pick-six to Darious Williams in the second quarter that would help fuel L.A.’s 20-10 halftime advantage.
The Rams earned the victory despite the fact that John Wolford, who was starting at quarterback in place of Jared Goff, suffered a neck injury that knocked him out of the game. Goff entered, despite his thumb injury, and did enough to lead L.A. to victory.
The Rams will play at Green Bay next weekend.
Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke played well in place of the injured Alex Smith, throwing for 306 yards and a touchdown to go with 46 yards and another score on the ground. But Tom Brady and the Bucs built an early lead and were able to hold on for the victory. Brady finished with 381 passing yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Tampa Bay will play in New Orleans next weekend, in their third matchup with the Saints this season.
The Ravens took advantage of their opportunity for catharsis. A year after the Titans ruined Baltimore’s dream season when they bullied the Ravens in a massive divisional-round upset, quarterback Lamar Jackson led Baltimore to victory, coming back from 10 points down on the road.
Jackson finished with 179 passing yards to go with 136 more on the ground, including a dazzling 48-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
New Orleans was able to grind out a victory against Chicago, which put up a fight despite having backed into the playoffs at 8-8. The Saints benefited from the returns of stars Alvin Kamara (116 total yards, one rushing touchdown) and Michael Thomas (73 receiving yards, one touchdown), and their stifling defense limited Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears’ offense.
New Orleans will host the Bucs next weekend.
Sun., Jan. 10, 8:15 p.m. (NBC)
Despite playing without Coach Kevin Stefanski, who missed the game after testing positive for the coronavirus earlier in the week, Cleveland jumped out to a 28-0 lead and held on for a win over its AFC North rival.
How do the NFL playoffs work, and 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 followed by the divisional round and then 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 on both Saturday and Sunday.
How is the NFL handling the coronavirus 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 any high-risk close contacts. Players who test positive are placed on their team’s covid-19 reserve 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.
The NFL moved several games during the regular season, but the league will not have the same flexibility if an outbreak occurs in the playoffs. As in the regular season, games will not be rescheduled if a handful of 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 determined on a team-by-team basis, as some stadiums will allow fans at limited capacity, while other stadiums will be empty.
New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) announced the Bills could host roughly 6,700 fans under the condition they test negative for the coronavirus, making them the first sports franchise to require a negative test for attendance.
The Chiefs plan to fill Arrowhead Stadium to 22 percent capacity, or about 17,000 fans, as they have all season.
How do I watch the NFL playoffs online?
Playoff games will be broadcast on CBS, ESPN/ABC, Fox and NBC, and they can be viewed online on those networks’ streaming services. fuboTV offers online game broadcasts as well.
When is the Super Bowl?
The Super Bowl will be played Feb. 7 in Tampa at Raymond James Stadium, with kickoff scheduled for 6:30 p.m. The game will be broadcast on CBS.
What are the odds for each team?
According to William Hill, the Chiefs are heavy favorites to win the Super Bowl. Here are the odds for the 14 teams at the start of the first round:
- Chiefs 3/2
- Packers 11/2
- Bills 11/2
- Saints 9/1
- Seahawks 9/1
- Buccaneers 12/1
- Ravens 15/1
- Steelers 18/1
- Titans 25/1
- Browns 30/1
- Rams 35/1
- Colts 40/1
- Bears 60/1
- Washington 100/1