How Sunday’s Games Are Affecting the NFL’s Playoff Image
The NFL’s NFC playoff squad began to shrink on Sunday with the Buccaneers completely eliminating the Philadelphia Eagles, beating them 31-15 to advance to the Divisional Round with at least one more home game guaranteed. in Tampa Bay. Tom Brady threw for 271 yards and the Buccaneers defense kept the Eagles from scoring until the fourth quarter.
The Buccaneers, the two seeds, will face the highest remaining seed among other wildcard games in the conference – the No. 6 San Francisco 49ers against the No. 3 Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night and the Los Angeles No. 4 Rams against the No. 5 Arizona Cardinals on Monday night.
The AFC playoff picture will be resolved after the two top seeds from Kansas City take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in Sunday night’s game.
The lowest remaining seed in each conference will face the Green Bay Packers (the NFC seed) and the Tennessee Titans (the AFC seed) in the divisional round.
Below is an overview of Sunday’s matches.
All times are Eastern.
Buccaneers 31, Eagles 15
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers accomplished the first task as they attempted to defend their Super Bowl title by beating the Eagles, who for the first three quarters scored zero points and inflicted key errors on themselves. Sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts threw for 258 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, including a delayed throw on a potential touchdown to rookie DeVonta Smith in the end zone.
Philadelphia, which finished the regular season rushing for a record 159.7 yards per game, ran for just 95 yards. Jalen Reagor missed a punt early in the third quarter, causing a turnover that led to a Buccaneers touchdown, and Smith, their top receiver, caught just four passes for 60 yards.
Tom Brady and his receivers in the first quarter initially seemed out of sync, but eventually regrouped, though Tampa Bay lost starting right tackle Tristan Wirfs for the game to an ankle injury. The Buccaneers await their next opponent in the Divisional Round, who will be the highest remaining seed after other NFC results are finalized on Monday night.
San Francisco 49ers vs. Dallas Cowboys
4:30 p.m., CBS
The 49ers (10-7) were 2-4 on Oct. 24, trailing the Cardinals and Rams in a tough NFC West split. The Cowboys (12-5) were 5-1 then, sitting comfortably in the NFC East.
San Francisco’s poor start to the season was partly the result of a brutal schedule. His first six games included matchups against the Seahawks, Packers, Cardinals and Colts. Two of those teams are in the playoffs (Indianapolis missed the playoffs after a Week 18 mistake against Jacksonville). The 49ers, however, got back into contention for the playoffs. They’ve won six of their last eight games and came back from a 17-point deficit to defeat the Rams last week to clinch the NFC’s No. 6 seed.
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San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo suffered various injuries throughout the season. Recently, he tore a ligament and chipped a bone in his throwing thumb, which sidelined him in Week 17, but he is expected to start on Sunday.
The 49ers have a physical defense that defends the run and the pass well, and they have a host of threats on offense. But the centerpiece of San Francisco’s offense is Deebo Samuel, who can intimidate teams when he’s wide apart and when he’s in the backfield. Samuel was second in the league in receiving yards after the catch and recorded over 1,400 receiving yards (a team high) and over 300 rushing yards.
When Dallas’ offense was on the same page this season, it was one of the toughest units in the NFL. Quarterback Dak Prescott has completed more than 80 percent of his passes in two of the Cowboys’ first three games. In their first game of the season, he threw for over 400 yards and three touchdowns against Tampa Bay. But the Cowboys’ dynamic offensive offense has fluctuated between exceptional and mediocre this season.
Miscommunication between Prescott and his receivers stifled Dallas’ offensive rhythm. Opposing defenses have essentially eliminated explosive plays. And an October knee injury limited running back Ezekiel Elliott.
However, Dallas never gave up their place as the NFC East’s top team. His defense is the favorite for the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award with linebacker Micah Parsons and the league’s interceptions leader with cornerback Trevon Diggs. (The Cowboys struggle with the run and will face one of the best running teams in the league.)
Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City
8:15 p.m., NBC
Pittsburgh (9-7-1) secured a playoff berth with the Colts’ puzzling loss to the Jaguars and the Chargers’ overtime loss to the Raiders in Week 18. The Steelers’ gift? A trip to Arrowhead Stadium to face a Kansas City team that beat them by 26 points in the regular season.
Kansas City (12-5) clinched the No. 2 seed and AFC West, but may have one of the weakest defensive units in the playoffs. After a disastrous start to the season, Kansas City’s defense appeared to mend itself during an eight-game winning streak – it gave up just 9 points in each of three consecutive games – but the team struggled to stop good offences.
The Steelers, with a battered veteran quarterback and a beleaguered offensive line, may not present the scariest offensive challenge for Kansas City. But they could benefit from the return of No. 1 receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was back in practice this week after being placed on injured reserve in October with a shoulder injury. Pittsburgh has a 21-day window to activate him on its roster.
Najee Harris, the Steelers rookie running back who has rushed for 1,200 yards this season, is questionable for Sunday’s game with an elbow injury.
Kansas City is expecting wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who is out with a heel injury. And running backs Darrel Williams (toe) and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (shoulder) are also expected to return.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes is 2-0 against the Steelers with nine touchdowns and no interceptions. He had over 200 passing yards and three touchdowns in Week 16 without one of his top targets, tight end Travis Kelce, who missed the game after failing to clear Covid-19 protocols from the league.
Pittsburgh’s strength is its ability to reach quarterback, thanks in large part to TJ Watt, arguably the league’s best passing thrower. The Steelers’ ability to generate pressure and disrupt Mahomes could be key to avoiding playoff embarrassment for a team that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger says isn’t “supposed to be here.”
“We have no chance”, Roethlisberger told reporters this week. “So let’s go, let’s play and have fun.