That type of experience provides at least a little certainty for what to expect during the NFL postseason’s first round, but plenty of questions remain. Here is a look at the biggest question for each matchup:
Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills
Can Josh Allen stay as hot in the playoffs as he was during the regular season?
Allen finished the regular season as the NFL’s hottest quarterback. The Bills won their last six games, and Allen kept getting better each week. He threw for 4,544 yards and 37 touchdowns, and the Bills ended up as the second-highest-scoring team in the league at 31.3 points per game — a nearly 12-point improvement from last season.
But this is only Allen’s second playoff game. Last year, he tried to do a little too much as Buffalo blew a lead to the Houston Texans in a 22-19 overtime loss, and trying to force big plays that turn into mistakes is still an issue for him at times. He’ll also be facing the NFL’s eighth-ranked defense, led by dominant tackle DeForest Buckner and athletic linebacker Darius Leonard.
Sometimes it can take successful passers a while to learn how to win playoff games. For as good as the Bills have been this year, they will only go as far as Allen takes them.
Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks
Can Sean McVay get enough out of the quarterback position to eke out a win?
McVay isn’t sure who will start at quarterback Saturday. Jared Goff will be trying to play 12 days after thumb surgery, which won’t be easy. John Wolford did an adequate job in an 18-7 victory over Arizona on Sunday, completing 22 of 38 passes for 231 yards and adding a running element to the Rams’ offense with six carries for 56 yards. That mobility, a departure from Goff, who is more of a pocket passer, opened up some deep throws downfield that had been missing in recent weeks. But Wolford didn’t lead a touchdown drive; the Rams got their points from field goals and their top-ranked defense.
The Rams probably will look to grind out a low-scoring game against a Seahawks offense that has struggled over the past few weeks, but no matter how well L.A.’s defense plays, the Rams will need their QB — Goff or Wolford — to get them into the end zone. The Seahawks know that if they can take away the run from the Rams — and get some big plays from Wilson and his receivers — they will have a good chance.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Washington Football Team
Will Tom Brady be able to handle the Washington pass rush?
The one thing that gives the greatest quarterback of all time trouble is when defenders are around his legs as he’s trying to throw. Washington’s defensive front is its greatest strength, with four recent first-round picks and veteran Ryan Kerrigan powering a passing defense that allows just 191.8 yards per game, second best in the league.
Making matters worse for Brady is that he may not have star wide receiver Mike Evans, who suffered a hyperextended knee in Sunday’s victory. He has other weapons, from Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown to two good tight ends and a deep running back group, but not having his top target could prove problematic if Washington can consistently disrupt the pocket.
Brady has done a better job of throwing the deep ball the past few weeks, which is something Coach Bruce Arians had been looking for, but those types of throws typically require more time in the pocket. Can Brady make them without Evans and in the face of a fierce pass rush?
Baltimore Ravens at Tennessee Titans
Will Lamar Jackson conquer his past postseason problems?
The Titans shocked the NFL by beating Jackson and the 14-win Ravens in last season’s playoffs, and they came back from a 21-10 deficit to win in Baltimore this season. These are the best running teams in the league, but the difference could come down to quarterback play.
Jackson will need to outduel Tannehill, who had five fourth-quarter comebacks this season, through the air in addition to on the ground. Jackson has excelled during the team’s five-game winning streak, which came against the NFL’s easiest closing schedule, but his passing numbers are down across the board. His completion percentage dropped from 66.1 to 64.4. His touchdowns dipped from 36 to 26. His yards per attempt fell from 9 to 6.9.
Led by Tannehill and Derrick Henry, Tennessee has the chance to put up a lot of points, even against a good Ravens defense. Jackson will need to be at his best — which he definitely was not during last season’s stunning loss — to keep Baltimore in it.
Chicago Bears at New Orleans Saints
Can Mitchell Trubisky actually outduel Drew Brees?
The question might seem ridiculous, given that Trubisky has largely been a disappointment for Chicago (although his recent resurgence might force the Bears to consider bringing him back) and Brees is an all-time great. But Trubisky led a potent offense during the Bears’ recent four-game stretch in which they scored 30 points or more in each contest.
The Saints are built more around a stout defense and the running of Alvin Kamara — who should be able to return for the playoffs after missing Week 17 following a positive coronavirus test — than they are the throwing of Brees. New Orleans is capable of grinding out victories with that formula, so it will be on Trubisky to produce some big plays in the passing game against a defense that has 45 sacks and allows just 217 passing yards per game.
Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers
Can the Steelers run the ball well enough to win?
Pittsburgh ended the season with the NFL’s worst running offense, producing just 84.4 yards per game. That one-dimensionality allowed opposing defenses to catch up with the Steelers during their three-game losing streak after an 11-0 start. Roethlisberger became overly reliant on short throws, and it took some downfield shots against the Colts to fuel their comeback win in Week 16.
Coach Mike Tomlin rested Roethlisberger against Cleveland in Week 17, and the Steelers produced just 85 yards on the ground in a loss. The Steelers probably will need to do better than that to escape with a win in the rematch Sunday night, even though Cleveland has suffered some losses on defense.
Around the NFL
It’s official: Home-field advantage was missing this year because of the pandemic. Home teams finished with a combined record of 128-127-1. It will be interesting to see what effect this has in the playoffs.
Despite the great season by Derrick Henry, only eight running backs had 1,000-yard seasons, one of the lowest totals in NFL history. Ezekiel Elliott didn’t get there, finishing with 979 yards. Melvin Gordon of the Broncos finished 14 yards short at 986. What was interesting was that two rookies had 1,000-yard seasons. Undrafted Jaguars runner James Robinson had 1,070 yards despite missing the final two games. Jonathan Taylor of the Colts had a 253-yard day against Jacksonville and finished third with 1,169 on the season.
The coach firings this week were expected. Adam Gase of the New York Jets, Doug Marrone of the Jaguars and Anthony Lynn of the Chargers had been expected by many around the league to be fired. Lynn almost saved his job with four close wins down the stretch, but that wasn’t enough. Six teams are now looking for coaches, but perhaps the biggest surprise was John Elway restructuring the Denver front office and giving up control of the roster. The move was inspired by the Broncos’ recent losing seasons and issues at quarterback.