The NFL playoff field is finally set, and an exciting wild-card slate lies ahead. Here's your guide to everything you need to know about the 14 teams vying to win Super Bowl LVI.
Welcome to the NFL playoffs: Mini previews for all 14 teams, and how each can win
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Every game counts in the NFL, as we like to say, largely because the league uses its schedule to ensure it. Once again, its playoff field was not finalized until the 272nd and final game of the 2021 regular season. The Raiders' overtime victory over the Chargers on Sunday night locked in the AFC's final spots and set in motion the most exciting month of the NFL calendar.
While 2021 featured the NFL's first 17-game season, it was the second year of an expanded 14-team playoff format. The No. 1 seeds in each conference -- the Titans in the AFC and the Packers in the NFC -- will receive first-round byes. The remaining 12 teams will play in next week's three-day wild-card extravaganza: two games on Saturday, three on Sunday and a new Monday night finale to be broadcast by ABC/ESPN. Last season's top seeds each made it to their respective championship games, and the Chiefs also got to Super Bowl LV. But the eventual champion was the Buccaneers, who had advanced as a wild-card team. In other words, it's time to buckle up and prepare for some unexpected twists and turns.
Our playoff primer will preview the wild-card matchups and take a broader look at what each team must do to reach Super Bowl LVI next month at Los Angeles' SoFi Stadium along with their updated chances via ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI). Odds are via Caesars Sportsbook. AFC: 1. Titans 2. Chiefs vs. 7. Steelers 3. Bills vs. 6. Patriots 4. Bengals vs. 5. Raiders
NFC: 1. Packers 2. Buccaneers vs. 7. Eagles 3. Cowboys vs. 6. 49ers 4. Rams vs. 5. Cardinals
Super Bowl odds: +850 FPI chance to win Super Bowl: 9% Reason for hope: The Titans were 6-2 when they lost tailback Derrick Henry to a foot injury in Week 8. At the time, Henry was leading the NFL with 942 yards from scrimmage, 32% more than the second-highest player. What happened next? The Titans went 6-3 the rest of the way. While there was a lot going on underneath the hood -- and not all of it was good -- their post-Henry big picture has been encouraging. Style points shouldn't count when a team can come close to replicating its outcomes after losing the player it relies on more than any other. That's a sign of a well-built, well-coached team that is deep and resourceful enough to overcome a major challenge. And those attributes are quite important in the playoffs. Reason for concern: At the same time, those issues under the hood shouldn't be discounted. The Titans' offensive scoring dropped by nearly 30% in the games Henry missed. And it's worth noting that their second-half schedule was one of the NFL's least imposing, with two games against the Texans and only two against teams that made the playoffs. The Titans are hoping to get Henry back for the playoffs, and maybe this all becomes a moot point. But if they don't or he is available for only partial work, it's reasonable to wonder whether the Titans can score enough points to make a deep run against playoff-caliber defenses. X factor:A.J. Brown, WR. He missed four games because of injuries but played a huge role in three of the Titans' most impressive and important wins of the season. In victories over the Chiefs (Week 7), the Colts (Week and the 49ers (Week 16), he caught a combined 26 passes for 433 yards and three touchdowns. With or without Henry in the lineup, the Titans are at their best when Brown is a central focus of their offense; in those three contests, the Titans targeted him 38 times. First-game outlook: The Titans have the AFC's first-round bye, so they'll host a divisional-round game on either Jan. 22 or 23 against the lowest-seeded AFC team remaining after the wild-card round. That could be the Bengals, Raiders, Patriots or Steelers.
Super Bowl odds: +475 FPI chance to win Super Bowl: 14% Reason for hope: Anyone with playoff experience will tell you that among the most important signals of success is the way a team plays at the end of the regular season. Using that criteria, has anyone in the AFC played better than the Chiefs over the final 10 weeks of the season? They turned their 3-4 start into an eight-game winning streak, broken only by a loss to the AFC North champion Bengals on the final play of the game in Week 17. And here's where it gets really interesting: While quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs' offense played well during that run, it was their defense that really made it happen. Over those eight games, it held opponents to a league-low 12.9 points per game. Reason for concern: There are several. First, we shouldn't forget the issues that got the Chiefs into their early-season hole. The biggest one was turnovers. They committed 17 in the first seven weeks of the season, most in the league over that stretch. Mahomes had 11 of them, tied for the most in the league during that span, perhaps frustrated by opponents that mostly played coverage and blitzed him on only 13.8% of his dropbacks this season. That was the lowest blitz rate in the NFL in 15 seasons. More recently, the Chiefs' defense took a nose dive in the final two games of the regular season, giving up 839 yards to the Bengals and Broncos at an average of 7.6 yards per play. And lastly, wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce both suffered injuries in Week 18. X factor:Chris Jones, DT. The Chiefs had three games this season with no sacks. Jones missed all three of them, two because of an elbow injury and one after testing positive for COVID-19. For all the attention that will be paid to Mahomes, Hill, Kelce and safety Tyrann Mathieu, Jones holds the underrated key to defending playoff-caliber quarterbacks and offenses. First-game outlook: vs. Steelers (8:15 p.m. ET Sunday, Jan. 16, on NBC). On paper, this is a great matchup for the Chiefs. They've given up an NFL-worst 7.2 yards per play in the past two weeks. The Steelers over that same period? They've averaged 4.0 yards per play on offense.
Super Bowl odds: +750 FPI chance to win Super Bowl: 13% Reason for hope: Quarterback Josh Allen took a step back in some areas this season, throwing a league-high 12 interceptions after Week 8. And although they were not always his fault, Allen absorbed contact on 24.6% of his plays, the fourth-highest rate in the NFL. Still, Allen remains one of a handful of players in the field who can take over a playoff game, whether it be with his arm strength or running ability. And this season, the Bills relied on him more than ever. He set a career high in rushing yards and attempts. The Bills are the Josh Allen show, and that's not a terrible place to be. Reason for concern: While they had two signature wins this season -- in Week 5 over the Chiefs and in Week 16 over the Patriots -- the Bills largely feasted this season on inferior quarterbacks. If anything, as FiveThirtyEight.com pointed out, they underperformed based on their schedule this season. Six of their victories came against teams that were using a backup quarterback; and against the five best quarterbacks they faced in 2021, the Bills went 2-3. It stands to reason that you're much more likely to face the latter than the former in the playoffs. In other words, the Bills won the AFC East and they will host a home playoff game without us really understanding how good they are (or aren't).
Singletary scores pair of TDs in fourth quarter to seal AFC East for Bills
Devin Singletary runs for a touchdown and catches a TD pass from Josh Allen in a 27-10 win over the Jets. X factor:Micah Hyde, S. Throughout his nine-year career, Hyde has been one of those players who is always around the ball. Those instincts paid off in 2021 as much as they ever have. He intercepted a career-high five passes, returning one of them for a touchdown, and tied a career high with two fumble recoveries. In a close playoff game, Hyde's ball hawking could be crucial. First-game outlook: vs. Patriots (8:15 p.m. ET Saturday, Jan. 15, on CBS). The Bills and Patriots had a weird season series. The Patriots won on a windy night in Buffalo after asking quarterback Mac Jones to throw only three passes, while the Bills trounced the Patriots on the road in Week 16. In either case, the Bills were not hurt at all by Jones and the Patriots' passing offense this season.
Super Bowl odds: +1800 FPI chance to win Super Bowl: 3% Reason for hope: Quarterback Joe Burrow is coming in hot. He threw for a combined 971 yards in Weeks 16 and 17, leading the Bengals to wins over the Ravens and Chiefs. That was three yards less than the NFL record for yardage in a two-game span. For those who discounted his performance against the Ravens' injury-riddled defense, he followed it up by exposing the Chiefs' previously stout defense with 446 yards and four touchdowns. Burrow had the fourth-highest sack-per-dropback ratio in the NFL through Week 17 (8.6%), but in the playoffs, the difference between a big play and a punt can be a quarterback willing to hold the ball while his receivers work. Reason for concern: Is coach Zac Taylor up to the challenge of playoff football? He has rightfully earned credit for the Bengals' worst-to-first turnaround in the AFC North this season, as well as bringing along Burrow and rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase into becoming one of the NFL's most feared big-play duos. But some of his game-management decisions raise questions about the Bengals' chances to win a close playoff game. One that comes to mind: a timeout, followed by a delay-of-game penalty, as the Bengals scrambled to go for two points late in a loss to the Chargers. In an environment where every move is magnified, Taylor's decisions will be closely scrutinized. X factor:Joe Mixon, RB. With so much public discussion of the Bengals' offense falling on Burrow and Chase, it's worth remembering that Mixon accounted for 16 touchdowns in 16 games this season. (He missed the Week 18 matchup against the Browns after testing positive for COVID-19.) Only one player in Bengals history has scored more (Carl Pickens in 1995). Mixon's total included 13 TDs on the ground and three via receptions, and getting him to close out drives in the red zone will be one of the Bengals' keys to pulling off a playoff victory. First-game outlook: vs. Raiders (4:30 p.m. ET Saturday, Jan. 15, on NBC). The Bengals beat the Raiders by 19 points on the road in Week 11, and it's worth noting that the Raiders' subsequent turnaround came mostly against some underwhelming opponents. The Bengals should be strong favorites in this game. They've put opposing quarterbacks under pressure at a rate of 30.3%, ninth best in the NFL and a significant threat to Raiders quarterback Derek Carr's jittery feet.
Super Bowl odds: +4000 FPI chance to win Super Bowl: 1% Reason for hope: The Raiders won four consecutive games to end the season and qualify for the playoffs, along the way helping to derail the playoff chances of both the Colts (Week 17) and the Chargers (Week 1. To be fair, one of those wins came against a Browns team that was ravaged by COVID-19, and another was against the Broncos, who were in the midst of a four-game losing streak to end the season. But there is a value in grinding out victories to get into the playoffs, and the Raiders are riding it. Reason for concern: You might not realize it, but quarterback Derek Carr -- in his eighth season -- has never appeared in a playoff game. He was injured and inactive for the Raiders' 2016 wild-card loss to the Texans. Generally speaking, a team is better off with a veteran quarterback than a young one in the playoffs. But Carr already has a tendency to fling the ball up for grabs when under duress, and it's worth noting that he set a career-high for interceptions even before playing in his 17th game of the season. X factor: Rich Bisaccia, interim coach. There is clearly something special about the way Bisaccia connects with his players and pushes them through adversity. The Raiders elevated Bisaccia under the most unusual circumstances -- former coach Jon Gruden departed after offensive emails he sent years ago were published by multiple media outlets -- and asked him to hold together a 5-2 team. He did that and then some. It's fair to worry if his game-management skills are sharpened enough for postseason play, but there's little doubt he'll have the Raiders ready to play. First-game outlook: at Bengals (4:30 p.m. ET Saturday, Jan. 15, on NBC). The Raiders and Bengals were in a close game in their Week 11 matchup until the Bengals scored 19 points in the fourth quarter to take a 32-13 victory. The Raiders did a great job of slowing down Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow, who threw for just 148 yards. That might be a tough feat to duplicate, however. Over the course of the season, the Raiders' defense ranked No. 22 in opponent QBR.
Super Bowl odds: +2000 FPI chance to win Super Bowl: 5% Reason for hope: The Patriots, and especially coach Bill Belichick, know how to do this. Since he arrived in New England, Belichick has taken his team to the playoffs 18 times. In 14 of the first 17 appearances, his teams won at least one playoff game; there have only been three one-and-dones. Every year is judged on its own, but the history here suggests the Patriots have some pretty reliable insights into winning playoff games -- at least some of which go beyond having Tom Brady at quarterback. Reason for concern: The Patriots no longer have Brady at quarterback, of course. Instead, they have rookie Mac Jones. For most of the season, Jones played far beyond expectations in terms of his poise and accuracy. But his play during the latter stages of December were a reminder that he is a rookie. The Patriots limited him to three passes in a Week 13 victory over the Bills, and then Jones threw two interceptions apiece in losses to the Colts and Bills. Jones rebounded somewhat thereafter, but remember: The last rookie quarterback to win a playoff game was the Seahawks' Russell Wilson in 2012. X factor:Matthew Judon, OLB. It's not often that you see a player elevate his productivity after signing a significant free-agent contract, but that's exactly what happened after Judon signed last spring with the Patriots. He produced a career-high 12.5 sacks, tops on the team, and gave the Patriots their first double-digit sack season since Chandler Jones in 2015. Judon will be a key to any winning defensive effort in a playoff game. First-game outlook: at Bills (8:15 p.m. ET Saturday, Jan. 15, on CBS). Jones threw three passes in the Patriots' first game against the Bills and completed only 14 in the second. On the other hand, running back Damien Harris amassed 244 rushing yards and four touchdowns in those games. So we should all prepare for a week of discussion about how the Patriots will try to control the game on the ground.
Super Bowl odds: +7000 FPI chance to win Super Bowl: 1% Reason for hope: The Steelers won three of their final four games to get into the playoffs, and every team they beat -- the Titans, Browns and Ravens -- was also fighting for either a playoff spot or positioning. Battling for a playoff spot through the month of December is always a preferable position to be in, as opposed to advancing in the midst of a slump. The Steelers' defense was stout in those three wins, holding opponents to an average of 13.3 points per game. Reason for concern: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did enough to bring the Steelers back on Sunday against the Ravens, but it's no secret that he has been a shell of himself for most of what is almost certainly his final season. There will be sentimental suggestions that he could "recapture" the magic to make a playoff run, but anyone watching him throw this season knows that it would require a bionic transplant of some kind. The only qualified quarterback this season who averaged fewer air yards per pass than Roethlisberger was the Lions' Jared Goff. Suffice it to say, the Steelers aren't going to be able to rely on big plays in their passing game to win in the playoffs.
Ben's huge 4th-down conversion sets up game-winning FG
Ben Roethlisberger finds Ray-Ray McCloud for the huge fourth-down conversion, setting up Chris Boswell's game-winning field goal. X factor:T.J. Watt, OLB; Minkah Fitzpatrick, S. The Steelers scored fewer than 20 points in three of their final four games of the season. Their offense is likely to need some help, and the two most dynamic playmakers on their defense will need to provide it. The Steelers are going to need something special -- a sack that forces a turnover, an interception or a fumble return deep into opponents' territory to get into the next round of the playoffs. Watt had an NFL-high 22.5 sacks during the regular season -- which tied an NFL record -- and Fitzpatrick is tied for the most defensive touchdowns (three) since the start of the 2019 season. First-game outlook: at Chiefs (8:15 p.m. ET Sunday, Jan. 16, on NBC). The Steelers have had two shots at the Chiefs during the Patrick Mahomes era. They've lost both (one in 2018 and one in Week 16 of this season), giving up a combined 78 points in the process. In Week 16, they trailed 30-0 midway through the third quarter en route to a 36-10 loss. The Steelers will truly need help from their defensive playmakers to slow down the Chiefs' attack.
Super Bowl odds: +380 FPI chance to win Super Bowl: 21% Reason for hope: The Packers have this season's best player at the most important position. And by the time the divisional round arrives, he'll have had multiple weeks to rest a broken toe that caused him pain -- but minimally affected his performance -- over the final two months of the season. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is a front-runner for the MVP award and has what might be his best chance to appear in (and win) a second Super Bowl that has eluded him for more than a decade. Reason for concern: Lambeau Field isn't the home-field advantage that it is often assumed to be, at least not in the playoffs. Since the Falcons upset them in the 2002 wild-card round, the Packers have a 6-6 postseason record at home. They were eliminated at Lambeau in 2020, 2013, 2011, 2007, 2004 and 2002. Make no mistake: The Packers have produced a genuinely impressive home record under coach Matt LaFleur, going 8-0 this season and 22-2 in his three-year tenure. But the playoffs bring the NFC's best teams to Lambeau, and they've had more success -- sometimes in exceptionally brutal weather conditions -- than many people realize. X factor: The Packers played most of the season without three of their best players: Left tackle David Bakhtiari, linebacker Za'Darius Smith and cornerback Jaire Alexander. It remains possible that one, two or all three of them will be recovered sufficiently from their injuries to return for the playoffs. Even if they're not 100 percent, it would be an incredible boost to get an All-Pro-caliber player back on the active roster for a playoff run. So for the Packers, at least, we'll call this category "X factors." First-game outlook: The Packers have the NFC's first-round bye, so they'll host a divisional round game on either Jan. 22 or 23 against the lowest-seeded NFC team remaining after the wild-card round. That could be the Rams, Cardinals, 49ers or Eagles.
Super Bowl odds: +800 FPI chance to win Super Bowl: 16% Reason for hope: The Buccaneers have a player who has appeared in 10 of the past 20 Super Bowls and has won seven of them. Quarterback Tom Brady's experience is invaluable in the postseason, as he proved last season in getting the Buccaneers over the hump and into Super Bowl LV. But his insight wouldn't be as valuable if, at age 44, he wasn't still one of the best passers in the league. You could argue that no playoff team was more reliant on the passing game than the Buccaneers this season. Brady led the league in attempts, and his 682 passes through 16 games were by far the most in his career. Reason for concern: The Buccaneers had significant personnel attrition over the final month of the season. They lost wide receivers Chris Godwin (knee) and Antonio Brown (waivers). Running back Leonard Fournette (hamstring) and linebacker Lavonte David (foot) are on injured reserve, pass-rusher Shaquil Barrett is dealing with a knee injury and wideout Mike Evans has played limited snaps because of a hamstring injury. No team is completely intact right now, especially after the addition of a 17th regular-season game, but the status of the Buccaneers' list is quite concerning, even if some players are ready to return in some capacity when the postseason begins. X factor:Rob Gronkowski, TE. Even if the Bucs' offense were at full strength, it would be reasonable to think that Brady would shift his focus toward Gronkowski as the playoffs begin. He has caught 14 touchdown passes in 20 postseason games with Brady, including two in the Super Bowl last season. It's hard to imagine the Buccaneers advancing far into the playoffs if Brady and Gronkowski are unable to connect. First-game outlook: vs. Eagles (1 p.m. ET Sunday, Jan. 16, on FOX). This could be a fun game for Gronkowski and the rest of the Buccaneers' tight ends. The Eagles gave up an NFL-high 107 receptions and 14 touchdowns to tight ends during the regular season. The Eagles will have to make some significant adjustments to contain them.
Super Bowl odds: +1200 FPI chance to win Super Bowl: 8% Reason for hope: Quarterback play is usually the most reliable indicator of playoff success, but a close second might be defensive playmaking. The Cowboys have as much capacity to change a postseason game as any team in the NFL. Through Week 17, they were tied for the league lead with 33 takeaways, including an NFL-high 25 interceptions. Their pass rush had produced a 33.3% pressure rate against opposing quarterbacks, fifth highest in the league, and their defensive EPA (56.9) ranked No. 3. The Cowboys' defense alone gives them a great chance to make a deep playoff run. Reason for concern: There has been plenty of debate about the Cowboys' offense after quarterback Dak Prescott returned to the lineup in Week 9. But what follows are the facts: The Cowboys averaged the NFL's third-most offensive points per game (30. in Weeks 1 to 6, but in Weeks 9 to 17, their average was 23.6, good for No. 13 in the NFL. The causes are less clear. Prescott hasn't been as sharp; he ranked No. 11 in Total QBR from Weeks 1 to 6 and No. 17 in Weeks 9 to 17. And as with many teams, injuries and COVID-19 have taken some key players from the lineup. The Cowboys still have the explosive potential, but we have seen enough evidence over the past few months to at least give pause about their ability to outscore other playoff teams. X factor:Tony Pollard, RB. This season brought Pollard more public attention, as he accumulated more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage. But he is still overlooked among a group of Cowboys skill players that includes Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb. Pollard's precise role in the playoffs is unclear, given a foot injury that has lingered in the season's second half. But if healthy, he could improve field position as a kickoff returner and give the Cowboys a speedy weapon on offense who would need to be accounted for by defenses on every play. First-game outlook: vs. 49ers (4:30 p.m. ET Sunday, Jan. 16, on CBS). The Cowboys have made plenty of big plays against the pass this season, but their run defense is going to have to step up against the 49ers. It ranked No. 23 in the NFL this season in giving up an average of 4.5 yards per rush. If the Cowboys are going to get upset at home, it's probably going to be because the 49ers would be able to control the game by getting chunk plays on the ground.
Super Bowl odds: +900 FPI chance to win Super Bowl: 5% Reason for hope: Anyone facing the Rams will have to contend with one of the top passing duos in NFL history. In the first 16 games of 2021 (matching the length of NFL seasons from 1978 to 2020), quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Cooper Kupp connected for 138 completions, the third most in NFL history. Kupp also led the league this season in receiving yards (by a wide margin) and touchdown receptions. Say what you want about Stafford, but he has proved exceptional during his career in maximizing opportunities for the receiver everyone knows he wants to throw to. (See Calvin Johnson from 2009 to 2015.) Reason for concern: Although Stafford has built a special connection with Kupp, the signal-caller has struggled to avoid the kind of mistakes that can wipe out his team in a playoff game. Since the start of Week 9, he has thrown the NFL's second-most interceptions (11), and four have been returned for touchdowns. Stafford is absolutely part of the reason why the Rams have returned to the playoffs, but the second half of the season served as a reminder that he has never won a playoff game, and his capacity for leading his team to meaningful wins remains largely unobserved.
Cooper Kupp makes leaping grab for Rams' go-ahead TD
Matthew Stafford lofts the ball in the end zone, where Cooper Kupp makes the jumping catch to give the Rams the lead vs. the 49ers. X factor:Jalen Ramsey, CB. The single most important thing a defense can do is get a consistent pass rush, especially from the inside. The Rams are well-positioned to do that with defensive tackle Aaron Donald and linebackers Von Miller and Leonard Floyd off the edge. But a close second is to be able to lock down a receiver whom opponents rely on to move the ball and score touchdowns. That's what Ramsey can do as well as -- if not better than -- any other cornerback in the league. The trick is going to be whether the Rams can counter schematic efforts to avoid him. In a regular-season matchup against the Packers, for example, Ramsey lined up across from No. 1 receiver Davante Adams on fewer than half of the game's snaps. First-game outlook: vs. Cardinals (8:15 p.m. ET Monday, Jan. 17, on ESPN/ABC). The Rams got their season turned around by beating the Cardinals in Week 13, but that win came at State Farm Stadium. The Cardinals were a much better team on the road this season (8-1), including a Week 4 victory versus the Rams at SoFi Stadium. This should be a highly competitive game between division rivals.
Super Bowl odds: +2200 FPI chance to win Super Bowl: 3% Reason for hope: The Cardinals finished the season 8-1 on the road. Home-field advantage in the NFL has been shrinking for years, but the Cardinals are one of only nine teams ever to win eight road games in one regular season. When something happens over a period of four months, it isn't a fluke. The Cardinals have won at the Titans, Rams, 49ers and Cowboys, among others. Given those performances, a run through the wild-card bracket doesn't seem as daunting as it might be for other teams. No one should be looking forward to hosting the Cardinals in the playoffs. Reason for concern: The Cardinals' only road loss this season came at Detroit in Week 15, a symbol of their long slump in the second half of the season. After a 7-0 start that had many thinking of them as the likely No. 1 seed in the NFC, they finished 4-6 and in a wild-card spot. Oddly, the worst of that downturn -- a three-game losing streak from Weeks 14 to 16 -- came after quarterback Kyler Murray returned from an injured ankle. Generally speaking, teams that played their best football in September and October can't be counted on to rediscover themselves in January. X factor:J.J. Watt, DL. After suffering a shoulder injury in Week 7, it appeared that Watt's season was over. As it turns out, however, Watt is on track to return in some capacity for the playoffs. He pulled off a similar feat in 2019 while playing for the Texans. We don't know how close to 100 percent Watt will be, and he wasn't the only player responsible for the Cardinals' hot start this season. But as the playoffs begin, it's worth noting the Cardinals won all seven of the regular-season games Watt played in. His return will be welcomed, no matter how limited his playing time might turn out to be. First-game outlook: at Rams (8:15 p.m. ET Monday, Jan. 17, on ESPN/ABC). One of the Cardinals' eight road wins this season came in Week 4 at SoFi Stadium, a 37-20 decision over the Rams. That seems like a long time ago, but as we noted, the Cardinals have played better on the road all season. Still, they could be vulnerable to the Rams' downfield passing game. In their past five games, the Cardinals have allowed opponents to complete 62.3% of passes that traveled at least 15 yards in the air, for six touchdowns and without an interception.
Super Bowl odds: +2500 FPI chance to win Super Bowl: 2% Reason for hope: After a 2-5 start, the 49ers won eight of their final 10 games to qualify for the postseason, beating three playoff teams in the process. That's a pretty strong body of work, and while there were multiple contributing factors, we should recognize how their defensive front seven gives them a chance to compete against just about any playoff opponent. Look no further than how defensive tackle Arik Armstead, defensive end Nick Bosa and linebacker Fred Warner, among others, dominated the Rams in the second half of the 49ers' playoff-clinching win on Sunday. They'll be a problem in the playoffs. Reason for concern: Even after all these years, it's hard to know whether to trust quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the playoffs. There's no doubt he led some extraordinary drives on Sunday to bring the 49ers back against the Rams, all with a painful thumb injury that was clearly making it difficult to grip the ball. But he also threw two interceptions for a second consecutive start. He had a total of four such games during the regular season. Interceptions in playoff games are usually magnified. X factor:Deebo Samuel, WR/RB. Since the 49ers began using him extensively in the backfield in Week 10, Samuel has been one of the NFL's most unstoppable offensive weapons. He tied for the league high with 11 touchdowns over that span and ranked No. 4 in yards from scrimmage (1,006). It's easy for opponents to say they are going to key on him, but Samuel lines up in so many different places that it's difficult for defenses to get the matchups they want. And on Sunday, the 49ers gave them something else to think about: Samuel threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jauan Jennings. Samuel will be a key factor in any 49ers playoff victory. First-game outlook: at Cowboys (4:30 p.m. ET Sunday, Jan. 16, on CBS). The 49ers haven't defeated the Cowboys since Week 1 of the 2014 season. It's not too difficult to imagine Dallas' big-play defense harassing Garoppolo with its pass rush and in the back end. The 49ers are hoping to get left tackle Trent Williams back in the lineup, but don't forget that Garoppolo took five sacks in two separate games this season and four in another. He can be got, as they say.
Super Bowl odds: +6000 FPI chance to win Super Bowl: 1% Reason for hope: After a season of shuffling their offensive line due to injuries, COVID-19 and other reasons, the Eagles will enter the playoffs with a pretty full deck. That includes left tackle Jordan Mailataa, center Jason Kelce and right tackle Lane Johnson. A well-stacked offensive line is a comfort for any quarterback, but as Jalen Hurts makes his first playoff start, it should provide a tremendous boost. Reason for concern: You can only play the teams on your schedule, but after the Eagles followed their 2-5 start with a 7-3 run to clinch a playoff spot, it's only fair to note they didn't beat a single team with a winning record. And four of those wins came against teams that were playing a backup quarterback. The Eagles are entering the playoffs on the kind of run, per their record, that all teams hope to have. But are they battle-tested? That's harder to argue. Ultimately, they didn't beat a playoff team this season. X factor:Darius Slay, CB. Let's face it: The Eagles are probably going to need some unusual plays to make a postseason run. Among those on their roster capable of pulling one (or more) off, Slay ranks at the top. He scored three touchdowns this season -- two on fumble returns and one on an interception return. First-game outlook: at Buccaneers (1 p.m. ET Sunday, Jan. 16, on FOX). Here's a comparison that doesn't bode well for the Eagles. Their defense ranked last in the NFL during the regular season in opponents' completion rate (69.4%). Now they're facing one of the NFL's most accurate quarterbacks in Tom Brady, who happened to rank second in the league with a completion rate of 66.7%. That's the foundation for a strength-on-weakness matchup disadvantage.