It took an extra week to get here, but the NFL playoffs have finally arrived. This year’s bracket has a healthy mix of familiar names and fresh faces.
The favorites to win Super Bowl LVI are still the usuals — Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, and Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. Right on their heels are other teams we know well, including Mike Vrabel and the Titans and Sean McVay and the Rams.
But seven of the 14 playoff teams didn’t make the field a year ago — Arizona, Cincinnati, Dallas, Las Vegas, New England, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.
Derek Carr, in his eighth season, Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow, Mac Jones, and Jalen Hurts will all be starting their first playoff games. (The Raiders qualified for the postseason in 2016, but Carr suffered a broken leg right before the playoffs.)
Let’s take a deeper look inside this weekend’s wild-card games and the 2022 postseason:
▪ The Buccaneers won last year’s Super Bowl as a wild-card team, but that was a rarity. Only seven wild-card teams have won a championship, with the 2010 Packers, 2007 Giants, and 2005 Steelers last accomplishing the feat before the Buccaneers. The 2012 Ravens and 2011 Giants also won Super Bowls after playing on wild-card weekend.
But the Titans and Packers, the No. 1 seeds who get home-field advantage and the only first-round byes, have the clear advantage. Only four out of 21 Super Bowls this century have not featured at least one No. 1 seed.
▪ A handful of streaks are on the line this postseason. The Chiefs are looking to become the fourth team to reach at least three straight Super Bowls (Miami 1971-73, Buffalo 1990-93, New England 2016-18). The Bengals are looking for their first playoff win since January 1991, having lost eight straight postseason games.
And road teams have actually done quite well in wild-card games, compiling a 10-4 record the past three seasons.
▪ This year’s quarterback field features players that are really old (Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Rodgers) and really young, with six under the age of 27 (Jones, Burrow, Murray, Hurts, Mahomes, and Josh Allen).
▪ The NFL certainly did the Raiders no favors with the scheduling, channeling the days of Pete Rozelle sticking it to Al Davis. The Raiders played a 70-minute overtime game against the Chargers into the wee hours of Monday morning, then drew the earliest wild-card slot — 4:30 p.m. Saturday, three time zones away in Cincinnati. That’s essentially a five-day week to get ready for the most important game of the season.
Of course, had the Raiders kneeled on the ball and taken the tie against the Chargers, they would have gotten to play Sunday night against the Chiefs.
▪ Saturday’s Patriots-Bills game is the sixth since 2000 to feature the NFL’s No. 1 and 2 scoring defenses (Bills had the top slot). The team with the No. 2 defense was 3-2 in those games, including the Patriots’ win over the Steelers in the AFC Championship game played 20 years ago.
▪ This wild-card weekend features two divisional games — Patriots-Bills and Cardinals-Rams. In the last seven playoff games featuring division rivals, dating to 2014, the road team has won six. Last year, the Buccaneers won in New Orleans, the Browns won in Pittsburgh, and the Rams won in Seattle.
▪ Brady will continue to build on the dozens of playoff records he owns when the Buccaneers play the Eagles on Sunday. Most notably, it will be his 46th postseason start, with Peyton Manning second with 27. Brady also has 83 postseason touchdown passes, with Joe Montana and Rodgers next with 45.
▪ The NFL created a Monday night playoff game (Cardinals-Rams). But it’s actually the fifth Monday night playoff game in league history, joining Rams-Vikings (December 1988), Rams-Cowboys (December 1983), and two the day after Christmas in 1977, Rams-Vikings and Bears-Cowboys.
▪ The matchup of Murray vs. Matthew Stafford will be the first playoff game to feature two No. 1 overall draft picks at quarterback since Andrew Luck outdueled Alex Smith in a 45-44 Colts win over the Chiefs in January 2014.
▪ Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium will be the ninth one played in Los Angeles, but the first since the Cowboys beat the Bills at the Rose Bowl in 1993. The AFC will be the home team this year, which raises an interesting question: What if the Rams make it? They would be the road team, but an NFL spokesman said the Rams would use their own locker room. The two Super Bowl teams will use the Rams’ and Chargers’ home locker rooms, not the visitors’ locker room.
▪ Finally, postseason shares. If a No. 1 seed wins the Super Bowl, players on that team will make an extra $257,500. If it’s a division winner that plays on wild-card weekend, it’s $300,000. If it’s a wild-card team, it’s $295,000.
The breakdown: Division winners get $42,500 per player this week, while wild-card teams get $37,500; everyone makes $42,500 in the Divisional Round, and $65,000 in the conference championships; the Super Bowl winner makes $150,000, and the loser gets $75,000.
THE ENVELOPE PLEASE
Rodgers, Kupp, Watt worthy of awards
The regular season is complete, which means it’s time to award MVP, Coach of the Year, and other season awards. The actual awards will be announced on the Thursday night of Super Bowl week. I don’t have a vote, but here is one man’s opinion:
▪ MVP: Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Tom Brady, Joe Burrow, Kyler Murray, Matthew Stafford, and Dak Prescott are all deserving. But it’s hard to go against Rodgers, who led the NFL in passer rating (111.9), was top five in touchdown passes (37), threw the fewest interceptions (four), and led his team to a 13-3 record and a No. 1 seed.
▪ Offensive Player of the Year: Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp. I like to separate this award from MVP, and there were several great candidates among Jonathan Taylor, Deebo Samuel, Austin Ekeler, and Joe Mixon. But Kupp led the NFL in catches (145), receiving yards (1,947), and touchdown catches (16), becoming just the fourth receiver to win the “triple crown.”
▪ Defensive Player of the Year: Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt. With all due respect to Darius Leonard, Nick Bosa, Myles Garrett, Robert Quinn, and Trevon Diggs, this one is easy. Watt tied the NFL record with 22½ sacks while adding 5 forced fumbles, 3 recoveries, and 7 passes defended.
▪ Offensive Rookie of the Year: Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. Mac Jones was looking like the clear favorite after a stellar November, but he fell off sharply. Chase finished fourth in the NFL with 1,455 receiving yards, second with 13 touchdowns, second with an 18.0-yard average, and had two games of 200 receiving yards.
▪ Defensive Rookie of the Year: Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons. An easy choice with 13 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and 20 tackles for loss, third most in the NFL.
▪ Comeback Player of the Year: Burrow. It was basically a coin flip between Burrow and Prescott. But Burrow’s 2021 season was arguably more impressive due to him only being a second-year player and coming off a terrible knee injury with two torn ligaments.
▪ Coach of the Year: Mike Vrabel, Titans. Several strong choices among Matt LaFleur, Zac Taylor, Nick Sirianni, and Rich Bisaccia. But Vrabel guided the Titans to the No. 1 seed in the AFC, and he did it despite losing workhorse running back Derrick Henry in the middle of the season, and getting generally decimated with injuries. The Titans used an NFL-record 91 players.
▪ Executive of the Year: Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin. Would have given this award to Bill Belichick had the season ended after November, but the Patriots wheezed to the finish line, and some of their free agent signings fell off sharply. And nobody expected the Bengals to be 10-7 and winning the AFC North. Tobin has built one of the NFL’s most explosive young teams, surrounding Burrow with talented playmakers all under the age of 25. Tobin hit a home run in last year’s draft with Chase when everyone was telling him to draft offensive tackle Penei Sewell. And defensive end Trey Hendrickson was a terrific signing, leading the Bengals with 14 sacks.
Time couldn’t stop Brady this season
Tom Brady isn’t my choice for MVP, but he deserves a special shout-out for compiling an incredible season at age 44. If Brady ends up retiring after this season, he can always say that he went out while still on top.
He established a personal best with 5,316 passing yards, marking just the second time in his career that he cracked 5,000 (5,235 in 2011). Brady also set a career high with 719 pass attempts, second most in NFL history (Matthew Stafford had 727 in 2012).
Brady led the NFL with 43 touchdown passes, the second most of his career (50 in 2007). He completed 67.5 percent of his passes, also the second-highest of his career (68.9 in 2007).
Brady was also one of 11 quarterbacks to start all 17 games, playing 96.3 percent of the possible snaps (1,139 of 1,183).
The other QBs to start all 17: Justin Herbert, Matt Ryan, Ryan Tannehill, Trevor Lawrence, Carson Wentz, Stafford, Patrick Mahomes, Derek Carr, Josh Allen, and Mac Jones. Only Lawrence (3-14) and Ryan (7-10) didn’t have winning records.
Bad looks on quick hooks
The NFL appears to be trying to make progress in bringing diversity to its highest-profile positions. The league’s Rooney Rule now requires teams to interview at least two external minority candidates for the positions of head coach and general manager, and at least one minority candidate for coordinators and business-side executive positions.
Last year it resulted in three minority GMs being hired (Atlanta’s Terry Fontenot, Detroit’s Brad Holmes, and Washington’s Martin Mayhew). This year, the Vikings have requested an interview with Catherine Raiche, the Eagles’ vice president of football operations, for their vacant GM job. Raiche is believed to be the first woman in NFL history to interview for a GM position.
Yet it always seems like a case of “one step forward, one step backward” for the NFL. The league office ultimately can’t control how the 32 teams handle their business, and it was a terrible look for the NFL this past week when two of the league’s Black head coaches were fired by impatient teams.
Brian Flores went 19-14 the last two seasons with a mediocre quarterback, yet the Dolphins still fired him because he wasn’t “collaborative” enough, according to owner Stephen Ross. And the Texans fired David Culley after just one season, even though they were essentially tanking without Deshaun Watson.
As of Friday, the only non-white head coaches in the NFL were Mike Tomlin, Robert Saleh, and Ron Rivera.
Culley, a 66-year-old career position coach who has never been a coordinator, was certainly hired out of left field last year. Most people around the league knew Culley was more of a sacrificial lamb than the Texans’ future at head coach. But Culley still deserved better than to be fired after one season. His 4-13 Texans won about three more games than anyone else expected. They played hard through the end of the season and surprisingly won a couple of games in December. And Davis Mills, the eighth QB taken in last year’s draft, outplayed Lawrence, Zach Wilson, and pretty much every rookie quarterback not named Mac Jones.
That it’s the Texans firing their coach after just one season is noteworthy. The franchise has been dogged by accusations of racism for several years, with former owner Bob McNair and current owner Cal McNair each having to issue apologies over separate incidents. Tossing Culley aside after one season, in which he wasn’t given much of a chance, probably won’t help their reputation.
With eight head coaching vacancies across the NFL, there is still a chance that one or more Black head coaches could get hired this year. Several candidates are hot names: Flores, Jerod Mayo, Byron Leftwich, Eric Bieniemy, Aaron Glenn, Leslie Frazier, and Jim Caldwell.
But it was a terrible look for the NFL this past week for two promising Black coaches to get fired when their performance on the field probably didn’t merit it.
Colts GM Chris Ballard made headlines this past week when he declined to commit to Wentz as his quarterback in 2022. But Ballard is in quite a pickle. Wentz already has $15 million fully guaranteed for next season, and another $12 million becomes fully guaranteed March 18. No team in its right mind will want to trade for that contract. If the Colts do want to move on, their best choice may be to eat the $15 million and hope another team would be willing to take on Wentz for $12 million. The Colts could turn the $15 million into a signing bonus and spread the cap hit out over five years . . . The 49ers wrecked Sean McVay’s incredible streak in their 27-24 comeback win last Sunday. McVay is now 45-1 all time when leading at halftime, as the Rams led the Niners, 17-3, at the break . . . The retirement of field judge Scott Edwards after this season probably won’t generate many headlines. But Edwards, an NFL official since 1999, is the last remaining active official from the famous Tuck Rule game in January 2002. Edwards also worked Super Bowls 50 and LII, which featured the Patriots . . . The NFL crushed it in TV ratings again this fall, holding the top 16 most-watched shows on TV, 48 of the top 50, and 91 of the top 100, according to the league. The Raiders-Cowboys game on Thanksgiving was the highest-rated game of the year, and Brady’s return to Foxborough was fifth. We also see again why the NFL continues to schedule boring matchups on Thanksgiving, as Bears-Lions was the fourth-highest-rated game of the season . . . According to @StatsByLopez on Twitter, NFL coaches set records this season for going for it on fourth and 1 (69 percent), fourth and 2 (39 percent), fourth and 3 (19 percent), and 2-point conversions (11 percent) . . . Favorite stat of last Sunday’s wild Chargers-Raiders game: On the final drive of regulation, Herbert was 6 of 19 passing for 78 yards and a touchdown. He was 1 for 7 on first down, 2 for 6 on second down, 1 for 4 on third down, and 2 for 2 on fourth down.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.