One of the NFL's most unusual playoff slates begins this weekend. Multiple teams qualified for the first time in over a decade, while a handful of veteran quarterbacks accustomed to this stage will have a say in determining the Super Bowl LV matchup. Here are the most intriguing players from this year's expanded playoff field.
The Seahawks paid up for the defensive chess piece and need dominance from the former top-10 pick beginning Saturday. Seattle's defense re-routing its season off the historically bad track on which it began involved a slew of marginal starting quarterbacks or backups. Adams has been iffy in coverage but obviously has an unmatched pass-rushing acumen (DB-record and team-leading 9.5 sacks) among safeties. How much havoc he creates will go a long way toward determining if the Seahawks can qualify for their first NFC championship game in six years.
A difference from some of the recent Aaron Rodgers-dependent Packer teams comes in the secondary, where Green Bay has built something interesting. Alexander took another step this season, making his first Pro Bowl and holding quarterbacks to a 67.4 passer rating when in coverage. The Packers, who have not seen strong returns from recent second-round picks Josh Jackson and Kevin King, needed Alexander to break out. He and top-end safety duo Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage spearhead a secondary that will be tested if the favorites prevail and the Buccaneers head to Green Bay next week.
Following Tampa Bay's bye, Brady looked more like his pre-2019 self. That form could disrupt this year's NFC aristocracy. In his final three games (five halves), Brady threw for 1,137 yards and 10 TD passes. The obvious issue: said games were against the Falcons and an already bad Lions defense using a research analyst as its D-coordinator. The Saints, Chiefs, and Rams humbled Brady, who struggled on the deep balls required in Bruce Arians' offense prior to the late-season ignition. The Bucs beat one team with a winning record; is their recent surge enough to believe they can win four straight against good/elite competition?
The Saints may be down to their last postseason with the franchise's defining player. Brees should have Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas back against the Bears, but the margin for error will shrink after that game. The Saints have endured a ghastly spree of January misfortune since Beastquake and did not receive Brees' best in the 2018 and '19 postseasons. Only Alex Smith and Jimmy Garoppolo posted a lower average intended air yards number than Brees' 6.3 this season, though he showed positive signs in the Kamara- and Thomas-less rout of Carolina. Can the soon-to-be 42-year-old get a loaded Saints team to the finish line?
How much the Ravens can sell out to stop Derrick Henry will depend on how much the Titans involve their superstar-in-training wideout. Brown may well be ascending to an All-Pro level, again posting a 1,000-yard season (1,075) with a modest target total (104, 36th in the league). Brown's 2.6 expected yards after catch per reception led the NFL (among full-timers). Ryan Tannehill is better equipped to beat teams through the air this year. Despite a defensive regression, Tennessee has a path back to the AFC title game. Brown is that ticket.
The Buccaneers might not need Mike Evans to beat Washington, but they will need all hands on deck at Lambeau Field -- their Round 2 destination the favorites take care of business this weekend. Tom Brady has shown a better connection with the probable Hall of Famer, who has behaved himself in Tampa, in recent weeks. But Brown's two standout games came against an overmatched Falcons secondary; he cleared 60 yards in just one other game this season. If Evans cannot go in the Bucs' divisional-round game, their hired gun will be called upon. Does Brown's All-Pro form still exist?
Perhaps the AFC's strangest Pro Bowl selection, Clark was honored despite registering five sacks and zero forced fumbles -- when Pro Bowl nods surfaced -- in his second Chiefs season. The Chiefs are 14-2 (14-1 with their starters) but did not put teams away in the season's second half. Their point differential (plus-111) looks more like a good team, even if the defending Super Bowl champions often provide superb visuals. Clark finished a sluggish 2019 with a five-sack playoff, proving vital to an improved defense's effort. This year's unit took a step back and may need a similar Clark surge to return to the Super Bowl.
The Chiefs are loosely expecting their compact rookie back to return for their divisional-round game. That could be a game-changer in the team's title-defense effort. Kansas City received a sneaky-productive (1,100 scrimmage yards) season from its first-round pick, even if the LSU product fell out of the Offensive Rookie of the Year race early. While the Chiefs may need to limit Edwards-Helaire's workload in the playoffs due to his injuries, he adds a gear Le'Veon Bell no longer appears to possess.
The Saints being outbid by the Titans for Jadeveon Clowney keyed an unexpected breakout. Hendrickson's 13.5 sacks (with 25 QB hits) led the Saints and tied for second in the NFL. He played a big role in ensuring injury and COVID-19 issues did not doom the Saints' pursuit for a fourth straight NFC South title and added to what already is the NFL's most well-rounded starting lineup. The contract-year defensive end can add more millions to his free agency contract by coming through in the playoffs when the Saints will likely need more from their defense given Drew Brees' status.
A bad Titans defense minimized Jackson in Week 11, days before his COVID-19 contraction. Since his return, the electric quarterback lifted the Ravens to a five-game win streak. But the Ravens' final-stretch surge -- which left them with an NFL-best plus-165 point differential -- involved four double-digit loss teams and a low-end Browns defense. The Ravens are sixth in passing DVOA since Week 9, after a bad start, but viewing the run-dependent team as a frontrunning-or-bust squad remains valid. Jackson's elite rushing talents have not been an issue when trailing by two scores against the Chiefs. Will this year be different?
Titans GM Jon Robinson's moves to bolster the team's pass rush -- deals for Vic Beasley and Jadeveon Clowney -- bombed, and Tennessee enters these playoffs even more Derrick Henry-dependent than it did last year. Landry is the Titans' best hope for edge disruption. He produced only 5.5 sacks but a career-high 16 quarterback hits. The Titans rank 29th in defensive DVOA -- the worst among playoff teams -- and will need their top pass rusher's best work to mount another surprising postseason run.
The Bears went 8-8, beat one .500-or-better team, and may be dangerously close to using this playoff cameo to green-light another Mitchell Trubisky season. The Bears are 9.5-point underdogs against a Saints team they took to overtime in the regular season (with Nick Foles and without Michael Thomas). They will need a monster Mack outing to make a road upset possible. Pro Football Focus' No. 1 edge defender this season, Mack finished with lower raw numbers (nine sacks, 13 QB hits) but is plenty capable of beating the best tackles. The Saints have two premier bookends, but Mack sacked Drew Brees in Week 8.
The Browns are the first 11-win team to enter the playoffs with a negative point differential (minus-11) since the 2012 Colts, and they face the unique handicap of being without their head coach and play-caller due to COVID-19. The Steelers, NFL sack champions for the fourth straight year, dropped Mayfield four times in both games. But the third-year QB has been lethal when given time, and the Browns still have a quality O-line without COVID-positive guard Joel Bitonio. Mayfield dropped his INT total from 21 to eight this season but runs into the most difficult assignment of any first-round quarterback.
Mostly due to the Seahawks' pass-happy first half of the season, Metcalf broke Steve Largent's single-season team record with 1,303 yards. He only topped 80 once in the season's second half, however. Two of those games came against the Rams, who employ arguably the NFL's top cornerback. Jalen Ramsey made life exceedingly difficult for Metcalf. The Seahawks may be able to beat a QB-limited Rams team without their physical specimen shining but will need Metcalf's 'A' game soon after. His potential later-round matchups do not taper off much in Marshon Lattimore and Jaire Alexander.
Set to start either John Wolford or an injured Jared Goff, the Rams will need their defensive alphas to justify their contracts in these playoffs. Both Ramsey and Aaron Donald did that in the regular season, leading a No. 1 scoring defense that makes the Rams live underdogs against the Seahawks. Ramsey dominated his matchups with Metcalf this season, holding the second-year phenom to three catches for 28 yards when matched up. The ex-Jaguar allowed a minuscule 5.0 yards per target and can make a rare (for a corner) impact on these playoffs, mitigating the Rams' QB disadvantage to a degree.
No AFC offense is humming like the Bills' going into the playoffs. Rhodes should see plenty of ex-teammate Stefon Diggs, who jumped a level in Buffalo. Rhodes used his forced Minnesota departure to bounce back, ranking as Pro Football Focus' No. 12 overall cornerback after a woeful 2019 season. The Colts' free agency gamble on Rhodes helped give them a top-10 DVOA defense. That said, Rhodes gave up five touchdowns this year -- more than he ceded last season -- and will have a tough assignment Saturday. How he fares against a deep Bills receiver cadre will go a ways toward determining Indianapolis' upset viability.
At 38 and a year removed from elbow surgery, Roethlisberger has relied on shorter throws. Teams pounced down the stretch, sitting on those crossing routes and turning the Steelers from 11-0 to 12-4. How real was his crucial rebound in the second half against the Colts? Roethlisberger is 24-2-1 against the Browns, who will play Sunday without their head coach. But Big Ben's average completed air yards figure (4.6) matches Mason Rudolph's ghastly 2019 number. He enters the playoffs a high-variance player, past success notwithstanding, who must be better with downfield throws if Pittsburgh is to have any Super Bowl hopes.
Lost a bit in the justified Josh Allen praise craze: Buffalo's run game. The Bills have continued to use Allen as a secondary ball-carrier, minimizing Singletary's role to a degree. They rank 20th on the ground. Although the second-year back played in 16 games, he finished with nearly 100 fewer yards (687) than he compiled in 2019. The Bills will need their 5-foot-7 runner at key points in these playoffs if they are to make a real run at their first Super Bowl in 27 years. Singletary will be a key playoff piece.
Turning the rookie wall into a trampoline, Taylor used the final six regular-season games to transform his initial NFL season. The second-round pick rushed for 741 yards in the Colts' final six contests -- which included a team-record 253 against the Jaguars -- giving him 1,169 this season. The Colts built their team around an elite offensive line and a Taylor-Marlon Mack tandem. With Mack long out and upper-crust left tackle Anthony Castonzo going down in December, a lot will fall on Taylor in Buffalo. After an underwhelming two-plus months, ex-Wisconsin superstar will have a major say in the Colts' upset chances.
Joel Bitonio's positive coronavirus test will shine a rare spotlight on a guard, but Cleveland's breakout player should be ready. Teller missed the first Browns-Steelers game -- a Pittsburgh rout -- but graded as Pro Football Focus' No. 1 overall guard, making a rapid ascent after two nondescript seasons. Cleveland's right guard will face Cam Heyward and Stefon Tuitt in Round 1 and, were the Browns to win, would most likely encounter Chris Jones in Round 2. PFF slots the Browns first in run blocking, and Teller will be a critical part of the team's Nick Chubb- and Kareem Hunt-required upset formula.
The Packers had an interesting substitute lined up when David Bakhtiari suffered a New Year's Eve ACL tear. They signed Turner to a four-year, $28 million deal in 2019, after he aided Phillip Lindsay's Pro Bowl rookie year, but saw him struggle last season. Used at right tackle and right guard this season, Turner is now Aaron Rodgers' blindside protector. Turner allowed only 25 pressures this season, down from 52 in 2019. The sixth-year blocker will, however, be tested by the likes of Shaq Barrett -- if the favorites prevail this weekend -- and perhaps the Saints' imposing D-ends in two weeks.
The player who probably deprived Aaron Rodgers of the NFL's fourth 50-touchdown season also will be essential to the Packers' championship hopes. Valdes-Scantling scored four 40-plus-yard touchdowns this season; he also dropped multiple TD chances. He did both last week in Chicago. But MVS led the league with 20.9 yards per catch and helped Rodgers improve his deep-ball accuracy. The 37-year-old QB completed 47% of his throws that traveled 20-plus yards in the air -- up from 32% in 2019 -- and will need a couple such strikes to earn his second ring. Valdes-Scantling must come through when called upon.
Barring a Bills loss, a Browns win would send them to Kansas City and force a suspect Bills run defense to deal with Derrick Henry or the Ravens. Perhaps the biggest X-factor in the Browns winning their first playoff game since 1994: their top cornerback's status. The NFL slotting Browns-Steelers on Sunday night makes Ward eligible to return after his positive COVID-19 test, assuming he does not encounter symptoms. The Steelers are flawed, but their wideout corps is deep. Even with Mason Rudolph, that crew won against a Ward-less coverage corps in Week 17. Without Olivier Vernon, the Browns need Ward to win Sunday.
This is contingent on Sean McVay tabbing the Alliance of American Football refugee for the Rams' playoff game. Based on his performance against the Cardinals -- they of a better defense than the Seahawks -- that is oddly an intriguing option. Wolford was on-target on multiple mid-range completions that moved the Rams near the goal line, and he accounted for nearly 300 yards despite zero NFL snaps. McVay: still good. Wolford's rushing capabilities (56 yards on six carries against Arizona) would make him a wild card against a Seahawks defense that muzzled an injured Goff two weeks ago.
Multiple Giants iterations and the 2015 Broncos slowed better versions of Tom Brady with front-four pressure. Washington's elite front facing the Hall of Fame-bound passer at 43 will be a must-see matchup in what otherwise appears a mismatch. Washington's five-first-rounder D-line represents the offensively limited team's only hope of derailing Tampa Bay. Young obviously resides at the center of this battle plan. The former Ohio State game wrecker overwhelmed a few NFL tackles and finished his (likely) Defensive Rookie of the Year slate with four forced fumbles and three recoveries. More of this will be necessary Saturday.
Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.