How Sunday’s Games Affect the NFL Playoff Picture


The N.F.C. side of the N.F.L. playoff bracket began to whittle Sunday with the Buccaneers thoroughly dispatching the Philadelphia Eagles, 31-15, to advance to the divisional round with at least one more guaranteed home game in Tampa, Fla. Tom Brady threw for 271 yards and the Buccaneers’ defense prevented the Eagles from scoring until the fourth quarter.

The Buccaneers, the No. 2 seed, will play the highest-remaining seed after the conference’s other wild-card games — the No. 6 San Francisco 49ers vs. the No. 3 Dallas Cowboys on Sunday afternoon, and the No. 4 Los Angeles Rams vs. the No. 5 Arizona Cardinals on Monday night.

The A.F.C.’s playoff picture will be resolved after No. 2 Kansas City faces the seventh-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night.

In the divisional round, the lowest-remaining seed from the N.F.C. will face the Green Bay Packers, and the A.F.C.’s lowest-remaining seed will play the Tennessee Titans.

Below is a look at Sunday’s matchups.

All times are Eastern.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers completed the first task in attempting to defend their Super Bowl title by beating the Eagles, who for the first three quarters failed to score and inflicted themselves with key mistakes. The second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts threw for 258 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, one of them a delayed throw on a potential touchdown to the rookie DeVonta Smith in the end zone.

Philadelphia, which finished the regular season with a league-best 159.7 rushing yards per game, rushed for only 95 yards. Jalen Reagor muffed a punt early in the third quarter, causing a turnover that led to a Buccaneers touchdown, and Smith, their best receiver, caught only four passes for 60 yards.

Brady and his receivers in the first quarter initially seemed out of sync, but they eventually regrouped, though Tampa Bay lost starting right tackle Tristan Wirfs for the game to an ankle injury.

4:30 p.m., CBS

The 49ers (10-7) were 2-4 on Oct. 24, behind the Cardinals and the Rams in a tough N.F.C. West division. The Cowboys (12-5) were 5-1 by then, sitting comfortably in the N.F.C. East.

San Francisco’s poor start to the season was in part the result of a brutal schedule. Its first six games included matchups against the Seahawks, the Packers, the Cardinals and the Colts. Two of those teams are in the postseason (Indianapolis missed the playoffs after a Week 18 blunder against Jacksonville). The 49ers played themselves back into playoff contention, though. They won six of their last eight games and came back from a 17-point deficit to defeat the Rams last week to clinch the No. 6 seed in the N.F.C.

Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco’s quarterback, battled various injuries all season. Recently, he tore a ligament and chipped a bone in his throwing thumb, which sidelined him in Week 17, but he’s expected to start Sunday.

The 49ers have a physical defense that defends both the run and the pass well, and they have a bevy of threats on offense. But the centerpiece of San Francisco’s offense is Deebo Samuel, who can bully teams when he’s split out wide 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’s offense was on the same page this season, it was one of the N.F.L.’s most fearsome units. Quarterback Dak Prescott completed over 80 percent of his passes in two of the Cowboys’ first three games. In their season opener, he threw for over 400 yards and three touchdowns against Tampa Bay. But the Cowboys’ dynamic offensive attack has vacillated between exceptional and mediocre this season.

Miscommunication between Prescott and his receivers has stifled Dallas’s offensive rhythm. Opposing defenses have essentially eliminated explosive plays. And a knee injury from October has limited running back Ezekiel Elliott.

Dallas never gave up its spot as the top team in the N.F.C. East, however. Its defense has the front-runner for the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year Award in linebacker Micah Parsons, and the league’s interception leader in cornerback Trevon Diggs. (The Cowboys do struggle against the run and will face one of the league’s best running teams.)

8:15 p.m., NBC

Pittsburgh (9-7-1) earned a playoff spot 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 the A.F.C. West but may have one of the weakest defensive units in the postseason. After a disastrous start to the season, Kansas City’s defense seemed to repair itself during an eight-game winning streak — it gave up just 9 points in each of three straight games — but the team has struggled to stop good offenses.

The Steelers, with a banged-up veteran quarterback and an embattled offensive line, may not present the most frightening offensive challenge for Kansas City. But they could benefit from the return of their No. 1 receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was back in practice this week after being placed on the injured reserve list in October with a shoulder injury. Pittsburgh has a 21-day window to activate him to its roster.

Najee Harris, the Steelers’ rookie running back who had 1,200 rushing yards this season, is questionable for Sunday’s game with an elbow injury.

Kansas City expects to have receiver Tyreek Hill, who is dealing with a heel injury. And running backs Darrel Williams (toe) and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (shoulder) should return as well.

Quarterback Patrick Mahomes is 2-0 against the Steelers with nine touchdown passes 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 the league’s Covid-19 protocols.

Pittsburgh’s strength is its ability to get to the quarterback, thanks in large part to T.J. Watt, arguably the best pass rusher in the league. The Steelers’ ability to generate pressure and disrupt Mahomes could be the key to avoiding a postseason embarrassment for a team that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said isn’t “supposed to be here.”

“We don’t have a chance,” Roethlisberger told reporters this week. “So let’s go in and play and have fun.”