Seven of the 14 teams in this year’s playoffs didn’t make the field last season, giving the NFL’s upcoming wild-card weekend a mix of traditional powerhouses and underdogs.
Tom Brady begins his quest for an unprecedented eighth Super Bowl title when his Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Dallas Cowboys next Monday night. Meanwhile, Jacksonville second-year standout Trevor Lawrence and Seattle veteran Geno Smith will be among at least five quarterbacks making their playoff debuts.
The schedule is set: In the AFC, it’ll be the Los Angeles Chargers at Jacksonville, Miami at Buffalo and Baltimore at Cincinnati. In the NFC, it’s Seattle at San Francisco to begin the playoff slate, followed by the New York Giants at Minnesota and Dallas at Tampa Bay.
The Seahawks were the last team to make the field after Detroit beat Green Bay 20-16 on Sunday night. The Lions were eliminated from playoff contention earlier Sunday when the Seattle beat the Rams, but Detroit pushed past the disappointment to deny Aaron Rodgers and the division rival Packers a spot in the postseason.
The Lions’ win capped a Week 18 that saw the Dolphins make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2016. The surprising Jaguars also return to the postseason for just the second time since 2007.
Among those who didn’t make the cut: The New England Patriots and six-time Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Belichick, eliminated after a loss to the Bills.
The No. 1 overall seed in the AFC was claimed by Kansas City with its 31-13 win over Las Vegas on Saturday. The NFC’s top spot was taken by Philadelphia, which beat the Giants 22-16 on Sunday.
Here’s a look at some other developments as the postseason approaches:
WHAT’S THE WILD-CARD SCHEDULE?
Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers, 4:30 p.m. EST, Fox
Los Angeles Chargers at Jacksonville Jaguars, 8:15 p.m. EST, NBC
Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills, 1 p.m. EST, CBS
New York Giants at Minnesota Vikings, 4:30 p.m. EST, Fox
Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals, 8:15 p.m. EST, NBC
Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 8:15 p.m. EST, ESPN/ABC
WHAT’S THE FORMAT FOR THE PLAYOFFS?
This is the third straight year of the current NFL playoff format, which includes the top seven teams from both the AFC and the NFC.
The four division winners in both conferences automatically get the top four seeds, regardless of record, and then the top three teams with the best record that didn’t win their division are the wild-card selections. That’s why it’s fairly common for a wild-card selection to have a better record — but worse playoff seeding — than a team that finished as a division winner.
The No. 1-seeded team in each conference gets a bye into the second round — that’s the Chiefs and Eagles — while No. 2 hosts No. 7, No. 3 hosts No. 6 and No. 4 hosts No. 5 during the wild-card weekend.
The NFL re-seeds teams after each playoff round. That means no matter how the bracket started, the lowest-seeded team will always travel to the highest-seeded team.
There are four rounds to the playoffs: The wild-card round is during the upcoming weekend, the divisional round is Jan. 21-22, the conference championship games are on Jan. 29 and the Super Bowl is scheduled for Feb. 12 in Glendale, Arizona.
WHAT CHANGED WITH THE BILLS-BENGALS CANCELLATION?
Players and fans watched in horror Monday night as Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field at Cincinnati when his heart stopped and had to be given CPR before leaving the field in an ambulance. A few days later, those same players and fans reacted with joy at news of Hamlin’s recovery.
That made it easier to focus on Week 18 and now the playoffs.
The cancellation of the Bills-Bengals game because of Hamlin’s injury could lead to one big change to the AFC playoff format.
The AFC championship game would be played on a neutral site if the Chiefs and Bills reach that point under a rule adjustment approved by NFL owners last Friday. That’s because Buffalo (13-3) played one fewer game than Kansas City (14-3) and missed out on a chance to earn the top seed. The Bills beat the Chiefs 24-20 on Oct. 16 and would have held the tiebreaker had the teams finished with the same record. Buffalo lost 42-36 at Kansas City in a divisional-round classic last season.
The Chiefs would host the AFC title game against any other team, including the third-seeded Bengals (12-4).
WHAT ARE THE GOOD WILD-CARD GAMES?
There’s not a bad matchup in the bunch but a couple stand out.
— Cowboys at Bucs: Brady suffered through his first losing season in his 23-year career, but even at 8-9, the Bucs won the NFC South. They’ll face the Cowboys, who were 12-5 and always attract a white-hot spotlight.
— Ravens at Bengals: It’s the third time these AFC North rivals will meet this season. Former MVP Lamar Jackson could return at quarterback for the Ravens after missing several weeks because of a knee injury. He’ll face the Bengals and Joe Burrow, who lost the Super Bowl to the Rams last season.
— Chargers at Jaguars: This one features two of the NFL’s best young quarterbacks, both of whom are making their playoff debuts. Jacksonville’s Lawrence took a big step forward in his second season while LA’s Justin Herbert has compiled impressive numbers during his three years in the league.