The air is crisper, the atmosphere carries more decibels and even the popcorn is fresher. There’s a win-or-go-home mentality that carries a palpable brand of urgency. Games of inches become games of millimeters. Fourteen teams from two conferences playing 13 games with one focus: The Vince Lombardi Trophy at Super Bowl LVII in Arizona.
Welcome to the 2022 playoffs.
(all times eastern)
Saturday, January 14
NFC Seattle (9-8) at San Francisco (13-4), 4:30 PM, FOX
AFC Los Angeles Chargers (10-7) at Jacksonville (9-8). 8:15 PM, NBC
Sunday, January 15
AFC Miami (9-8) at Buffalo (13-3), 1:00 PM,CBS
NFC New York Giants (9-7-1) at Minnesota (13-4), 4:30 PM, FOX
AFC Baltimore (10-7) at Cincinnati (12-4), 8:15 PM, NBC
Monday, January 16
NFC Dallas (12-5) at Tampa Bay (8-9), 8:15 PM, ESPN
If recent history is an indicator, at least one Super Bowl team will be in action this weekend. That’s because the last No. 1 seed to win a Super Bowl was the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles’ head coach that season was Doug Pederson. Could he be on the verge of another postseason run?
Now at the reins of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Pederson has joined Mike Holmgren and Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Parcells as the only head coaches ever to follow a Super Bowl win by taking another franchise to the playoffs in their first seasons with that team. With Pederson on his roster as a player, Holmgren guided the Packers to a Super Bowl XXXI title and then led the Seahawks to the playoffs in his first season with Seattle, 1999. Parcells won Super Bowls XXI and XXV with the Giants and then led the Cowboys to the playoffs in his first season with Dallas, 2003.
Since the 1970 league merger, Jacksonville (3-14 in 2021) is one of just five teams to rebound from having at least a share of the league’s worst record to a division crown the following season. The AFC South champion Jaguars join the 2008 Miami Dolphins, 2004 San Diego Chargers, 1999 Indianapolis Colts and 1975 Baltimore Colts in that group of remarkable turnarounds.
In 18 of the past 20 NFL seasons, at least one team has won its division the season after finishing last or tied for last place, including the 2022 Jaguars.
The future of the NFL is in great hands. When Jacksonville (9-8) hosts the Los Angeles Chargers (10-7) on Saturday (8:15 PM ET, NBC, Peacock, Universo), two of the game’s most exciting young signal-callers will be in the spotlight. The Chargers’ Justin Herbert (24 years, 310 days on Saturday) and the Jaguars’ Trevor Lawrence (23 years, 100 days) are expected to make their matchup just the ninth playoff contest since 1950 in which both starting quarterbacks are under 25 years old. Three of those games happened in the past two postseasons (2020-21).
The number of consecutive seasons (2005-22), without a repeat Super Bowl champion, extending the longest streak in league history.
7– The NFL’s streak of postseason games entering this week decided by six points or less. Six of those seven were separated by just three points.
7 – The NFL’s streak of postseason games entering this week decided in the last two minutes of regulation or in overtime. Teams have scored the winning points on the game’s final play in five of the past seven NFL postseason contests.
25 – Games during the 2022 regular season decided by a winning score on the final play.
There’s every reason to believe the unprecedented level of close games and comebacks in 2022 will continue into the playoffs. During the regular season, the average margin of victory was just 9.70 points, the lowest over a full season in 90 years, since it was 9.13 in 1932. Plus, the NFL established four other single-season records: Most games decided by six-or-fewer points (122), most games decided by seven-or-fewer points (141), most games decided by eight-or-fewer points (156) and most games within one score in the fourth quarter (203).
When Tampa Bay (8-9) has the ball on Monday Night Football (8:15 PM ET, ESPN/ABC, ESPN2-Manningcast, ESPN+, ESPN Deportes), look for a one-on-one matchup between two Pro Bowlers. Whether tackle Tristan Wirfs is able to neutralize linebacker Micah Parsons could play a significant role in which team advances. Led by Parsons, just the third player since 1982 with at least 13 sacks in each of his first two NFL seasons, Dallas (12-5) ranked second in the NFL this season with a sack on 9.82 percent of opponents’ pass attempts. Wirfs and Tampa Bay’s offensive line, however, led the league by allowing sacks on only 2.93 percent of the Buccaneers’ pass attempts.
Monday’s game features the Dallas Cowboys, tied with Green Bay for the most postseason appearances all-time by an NFL franchise (35), against Tom Brady, who is expected to add to his NFL-record 20 career postseason games. Adam Vinatieri and Pro Football Hall of Famers Peyton Manning and Jerry Rice are tied for second on that list with 15 postseason games.
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and his Cowboys unit have led the NFL in takeaways each of the past two seasons. Prior to 2021, the last time Dallas had the most takeaways in a season was 1971.
Miami’s Tyreek Hill (1,710 receiving yards) and Jaylen Waddle (1,356) combined for 3,066 receiving yards, the third-highest total ever by a pair of teammates in a season. On Sunday at Highmark Stadium (1:00 PM ET, CBS, Paramount+), they face a Buffalo secondary that includes Pro Bowlers Tre’Davious White and Jordan Poyer, as well as standout rookie cornerback Kaiir Elam. Miami (9-8) and Buffalo (13-3) split their season series this year.
Five teams – San Francisco (10 straight wins), Cincinnati (eight), Buffalo (seven), Jacksonville (five) and Kansas City (five) – enter the playoffs on winning streaks of at least five games. That’s never happened in a postseason.
San Francisco (13-4) is bidding to join the 1967 and 1976 Oakland Raiders, 1972 Miami Dolphins and 2003 and 2007 New England Patriots as Super Bowl teams that entered the postseason with winning streaks of at least 10 games. The 49ers’ first test is the resilient Seattle Seahawks (9-8) on Saturday at Levi’s Stadium (4:30 PM ET, FOX, FOX Deportes), where San Francisco (8-1) tied for the league’s best home record in 2022.
Seattle quarterback Geno Smith is aiming to become the first quarterback since Rich Gannon in 2000 to win his first postseason start at least 10 years into his NFL career. Smith recorded a career-high and franchise-record 4,282 passing yards with 30 touchdown passes and a 100.9 rating in 2022.
San Francisco’s 10-game winning streak was split between quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Brock Purdy. The last NFL team to finish a season in which two starting quarterbacks had winning streaks of five-or-more games was the 1972 Miami Dolphins (Pro Football Hall of Famer Bob Griese and Earl Morrall).
Super Wild Card Weekend features two contests in which both starting quarterbacks are expected to make their postseason debuts: Seattle’s Geno Smith against San Francisco’s Brock Purdy, and the Chargers’ Justin Herbert against Jacksonville’s Trevor Lawrence, both on Saturday. The last time a postseason had multiple games in which both quarterbacks made their playoff debuts was 1986 (Washington’s Jay Shroeder against the Rams’ Jim Everett, and the Jets’ Pat Ryan against the Chiefs’ Todd Blackledge).
The 49ers, who swept the regular-season series with the Seahawks, are attempting to defeat an opponent three times in the same season. That’s happened 14 times in NFL history, most recently during the 2017 playoffs, when New Orleans captured a third win over Carolina. Of the 14 teams to defeat an opponent three times in the same season, six advanced to the Super Bowl.
The Baltimore Ravens (10-7) travel to meet the Cincinnati Bengals (12-4) on Sunday Night Football (8:15 PM ET, NBC, Peacock, Telemundo) just seven days after concluding the regular season at Paycor Stadium. Since 1978, it’s the 17th time two teams will meet in the playoffs one week after finishing a regular season. The team that won the regular-season finale has won three of the last five playoff games. The Ravens will become the first such team to return to the same stadium one week later since the 2009 Packers, who made consecutive trips to Arizona. In that Wild Card game, Jan. 10, 2010, the Cardinals won a 51-45 overtime thriller to avenge a loss to the Packers in the regular-season finale.
Hope is one of the NFL’s most extraordinary hallmarks. Seven teams in the 2022 playoff field – Baltimore, Jacksonville, the L.A. Chargers, Miami, Minnesota, the N.Y. Giants and Seattle – have returned to the postseason after missing the playoffs last season. Since 1990 – a streak of 33 consecutive seasons – at least four teams have qualified for the playoffs that were not in the postseason the year before.
An NFL-record five head coaches in their first seasons at the reins of their teams are in the playoffs – Todd Bowles, Brian Daboll, Mike McDaniel, Kevin O’Connell and Doug Pederson. Previously, the most head coaches in their first seasons at the helm in a single postseason was four in 1997 (Pete Carroll, Jim Fassel, Steve Mariucci and Bobby Ross).
Three of those five (Daboll, McDaniel and O’Connell) are in their first seasons as an NFL head coach, matching the NFL record for a single postseason (also three in 1992 and 2008).
Daboll’s New York Giants (9-7-1) meet O’Connell’s Minnesota Vikings (13-4) on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium (4:30 PM ET, FOX, FOX Deportes).
O’Connell became one of six rookie head coaches in NFL history to win at least 13 games, joining Jim Caldwell (14), George Seifert (14), Jim Harbaugh (13), Matt Lafleur (13) and Steve Mariucci (13).
Jan. 14, 1973 (50 years ago) – The only perfect season in NFL history isn’t perfect until Miami secures a hard-fought, 14-7 win over Washington in Super Bowl VII, and the issue remains in doubt until the final moments. With the Dolphins nursing a 14-0 lead, eventual Super Bowl MVP Jake Scott intercepts Billy Kilmer in the end zone to thwart Washington’s marathon fourth-quarter drive. His second interception of the day, Scott’s 55-yard return sets up a 42-yard Garo Yepremian field-goal attempt with just over two minutes remaining. But a diving Bill Brundige blocks the kick, Yepremian scoops up the loose ball and attempts to pass before Washington’s Mike Bass snags it out of the air and sprints 49 yards for a touchdown. However, Miami’s No-Name Defense stiffens in the final seconds to extinguish Washington’s hopes, thanks to a pair of outstanding plays by Scott’s Georgia Bulldogs college teammate, defensive end Bill Stanfill, to stamp an exclamation point on Miami’s 17-0 season.
The NFL’s draft class of 2020 figures to play a prominent role in this year’s postseason. Among the notable players from that draft:
Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert has the most passing yards (14,089) and completions (1,316), and second-most touchdown passes (94) by a player in his first three seasons all-time.
Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow this year became the third player ever to reach 4,000 passing yards, 35 touchdown passes and five rushing touchdowns in a single season (he finished with 4,475 passing yards, 35 touchdown passes and five rushing touchdowns). Burrow also has the most games with at least 400 passing yards (five) by a player in first three seasons all-time.
Philadelphia quarterback Jalen Hurts became the third player ever to reach 3,500 passing yards, 20 touchdown passes and 10 rushing touchdowns in a single season. Hurts finished with 3,701 passing yards, 22 touchdown passes and 13 rushing touchdowns.
Minnesota wide receiver Justin Jefferson owns the most receptions (324) and receiving yards (4,825) by a player in his first three seasons all-time.
Joseph Santoliquito can be followed on twitter @JSantoliquito.
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