And so, after 256 games over four months, we finally know who will compete for the Super Bowl LIV trophy. The 49ers’ exciting 26-21 victory Sunday night over the Seahawks finalized the NFC bracket and set in motion the next five weeks of NFL playoffs.
The win gave the Niners the No. 1 seed in the conference, while the Ravens’ season-long domination secured them the AFC’s top spot. The Packers and Chiefs also receive first-round byes.
Our playoff primer breaks down what all 12 teams must do to reach the Super Bowl in Miami. ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) also provides such chances for every playoff-bound team.
First game: vs. lowest remaining seed in divisional round (Jan. 11 at 4:35 p.m. ET, NBC)
Chance to make the Super Bowl: 34.8%
Reason for hope: The 49ers obviously have an impressive win total, but their losses have actually been among their most impressive games of the year — which bodes well for postseason competitiveness. They took the Ravens to the final play in Baltimore. They went to overtime in their first game against the Seahawks. And in their one “letdown,” they lost to the Falcons at home in the final seconds. In other words, this team always shows up.
Reason for concern: Because of injuries and other personnel issues, the 49ers defense didn’t replicate its first-half success in the latter stages of the season. It has ranked No. 24 in points allowed since Week 9. Most concerning was a three-game stretch between Weeks 14-16 when they allowed an average of 35.3 points per game, second-most in the NFL during that period. There are still some elite-level players and disruptors on this defense, but its overall performance has trended the wrong way over an extended period.
X factor: Coach Kyle Shanahan’s playcalling. Of everything the 49ers have going for them, the best might be Shanahan’s ability to set up defenses and choose the perfect time for an unconventional play. It’s no accident when you see 49ers receivers running wide open across the field. It’s also not surprising to note that 49ers running backs have ranked among the NFL’s top five all season in average yards gained before contact. Shanahan on game day might be the 49ers’ best weapon of all.
First game: vs. highest remaining seed in divisional round (Jan. 12 at 6:40 p.m. ET, Fox)
Chance to make the Super Bowl: 26.6%
Reason for hope: The Packers won 13 games without needing quarterback Aaron Rodgers to carry them in any of them. There are plenty of theories about his subdued statistics this season; he entered Week 17 ranked No. 21 in QBR. Had he lost a step? Was he simply subordinating himself to a new value system set forth by first-year coach Matt LaFleur? Regardless, the Packers enter the playoffs with a quarterback who has a long and proven history of willing teams to big championship-level victories.
Reason for concern: The Packers only beat two teams that will finish the season with a winning record: the Vikings (twice) and the Chiefs when they were playing without quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The Packers have offered no excuses about “winning ugly,” nor should they. Thirteen wins is no joke. But not all wins are created equal. In the one game they faced a championship contender at full strength, in Week 12 at San Francisco, they lost by 29 points. In short, a 13-win team has entered the playoffs without showing us that they are a dominant team.
X factor: Tailback Aaron Jones. Why hasn’t Rodgers been asked to carry the team? The biggest reason is Jones, who finished the season with 1,084 rushing yards — the most by a Packers player in five seasons. Jones also caught 49 passes, the most by a Packers running back in 16 seasons. The Packers will need to get him going in the playoffs if they want to re-create their regular-season success.
First game: vs. Minnesota in wild-card round (Sunday at 1:05 p.m. ET, Fox)
Chance to make the Super Bowl: 25.5%
Reason for hope: The Saints overcame the biggest obstacle a team can face — the extended loss of a starting quarterback — and still finished with one of the top records in the NFL. Winning all five games that quarterback Drew Brees (thumb) missed is not only an enormous confidence-booster, but also a demonstration of the team’s depth, balance and ability to adjust. All three qualities are critical to making a playoff run.
Reason for concern: On the other side of receiver Michael Thomas‘ record-setting season lies a fair question: What would the Saints’ offense look like if he was injured or otherwise sidelined. Any team would be set back by the loss of a No. 1 receiver, but the Saints’ offense runs more directly through him than any other receiver in the game. Thomas led the league in targets by a mile, and had at least 120 more targets than every other Saints receiver. Regardless of their ability to adapt, the Saints don’t want to have to answer this question.
Drew Brees passes for 253 yards, including touchdown passes to Tre’Quan Smith, Jared Cook and Taysom Hill in the Saints’ 42-10 victory over the Panthers.
X factor: Linebacker Demario Davis. One of the best free-agent signings in Saints history, Davis is the rare three-way linebacker who is a sure tackler against the run, can cover running backs and tight ends in space and also blitz effectively. His versatility allows defensive coordinator Dennis Allen to use playcalls that would leave other teams vulnerable.
First game: vs. Seattle in wild-card round (Sunday at 4:40 p.m. ET, NBC)
Chance to make the Super Bowl: 4.5%
Reason for hope: Quarterback Carson Wentz pulled off quite a feat in leading the Eagles into the playoffs after a 5-7 start. In fact, he became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for at least 4,000 yards without a single wide receiver who finished the season with at least 500 receiving yards. Such was the revolving personnel door that Wentz and the Eagles dealt with, one caused mostly by injuries.
Reason for concern: The Eagles’ injury list is ridiculous. They finished up a Week 17 win over the Giants without their top three wideouts, their No. 1 tight end, their top two running backs and right tackle Lane Johnson. Playing at home is preferable to being on the road, but next weekend’s starting lineup might well look more like what we would see for a preseason game than in the postseason.
X factor: Tight end Dallas Goedert. The responsibility for replacing Zach Ertz (ribs, kidney) and preserving the Eagles’ tight end-centric offense falls on Goedert. He was targeted on a team-high 10 passes in Week 17, catching four for 65 yards. It is hard to imagine the Eagles advancing without an Ertz-like performance from Goedert.
First game: at Philadelphia in wild-card round (Sunday at 4:40 p.m. ET, NBC)
Chance to make the Super Bowl: 4.2%
Reason for hope: Quarterback Russell Wilson has played at an MVP level for much of the season and has been the NFL’s best at completing passes with high degrees of difficulty. He’s rescued them in playoff games before and can do it again.
Reason for concern: Losing left tackle Duane Brown and the majority of running back depth in late December could be a crippling blow. It’s possible that Brown could return for the playoffs, and it’s fun that the Seahawks brought back Marshawn Lynch. But the Seahawks have absorbed a late personnel crisis that will make a deep playoff run more difficult.
X factor: Pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney. When on the field, Clowney is the defensive game-wrecker that the Seahawks haven’t had in recent seasons. The Seahawks just need to keep their fingers crossed that he can stay healthy.
First game: at New Orleans in wild-card round (Sunday at 1:05 p.m. ET, Fox)
Chance to make the Super Bowl: 4.3%
Reason for hope: Running back Dalvin Cook is expected to return after missing two weeks because of a chest injury. Cook has previously been limited by a shoulder injury and averaged 3.1 yards per carry in his final four games of the regular season. But the Vikings’ offense runs through his ability to hit the outside zone and to be a productive outlet receiver, and there is optimism that he’ll be fresh and ready for the playoffs.
Reason for concern: The Vikings didn’t beat a winning team on the road this season and haven’t won a playoff game on the road since 2004. In fact, their road playoff record is 2-11 over the past three decades, dating back to 1988. It’s difficult for any team to win away from home in the playoffs, but there is little evidence to suggest this Vikings team can be any different.
X factor: Quarterback Kirk Cousins. We have seen more of “Good Kirk” than “Bad Kirk” this season, but “Bad Kirk” in a playoff game means almost certain defeat. His worst performances of the season, in Weeks 2 and 14 against the Packers (8.3 and 25.1 QBR, respectively) and Week 4 against the Bears (21.1) all came in Vikings losses.
First game: vs. lowest remaining seed in divisional round (Jan. 11 at 8:15 p.m. ET, CBS)
Chance to make the Super Bowl: 42.4%
Reason for hope: No one figured out how to stop an offense centered around the unique skills of quarterback Lamar Jackson, and if anything, the Ravens got more productive over time. They averaged 30 points per game during the first half of the season and 36 during the second half, not counting the Week 17 matchup against the Steelers when they rested many starters. The closest anyone came was the 49ers in Week 13 — and the Ravens still scored 20 points and won. If there is a blueprint for stopping them, someone is going to have to debut it in the playoffs.
Reason for concern: Running back Mark Ingram II suffered a strained calf in Week 16, and while he’ll have a full two weeks to rest, such injuries can linger and are especially limiting for a runner. Ingram averaged 5.0 yards per carry and scored 15 total touchdowns in 15 games, serving as an important counterpunch when defenses loaded up against Jackson. Gus Edwards is a solid backup, but like any team, the Ravens want to be at full strength in the postseason.
X factor: Kicker Justin Tucker. What coach wouldn’t cherish the security Tucker provides? He made 24 of 25 attempts during the regular season, and his only miss bounced off the upright. Tucker has the highest career conversion rate (90.6%) of any active kicker, and there is no better choice to take a game-winning kick in the playoffs.
First game: vs. highest remaining seed in divisional round (Jan. 12 at 3:05 p.m. ET, CBS)
Chance to make the Super Bowl: 40.3%
Reason for hope: Were it not for the emergence of the Ravens’ Jackson, Patrick Mahomes might have repeated as MVP — despite a knee injury that cost him two games. Mahomes has roared back in the second half of the season, leading the Chiefs to victories in five of the six games since his return, and is playing at the same level at which he finished 2018. There is nothing that could give the Chiefs more confidence as they enter the playoffs.
Reason for concern: If the Chiefs need to run the ball, as teams often do during the playoffs, do you trust that part of their offense? The Chiefs entered Week 17 with the lowest per-game average of rushing yards (93.8) of any team that had qualified for the playoffs. Leading rusher LeSean McCoy, who is 31, has been deactivated for multiple games — presumably to ensure he is healthy for the playoffs.
Kansas City had an impactful offensive game with 4 touchdowns, including Mecole Hardman’s 104-yard kickoff return touchdown.
X factor: Pass-rusher Terrell Suggs. The Chiefs put in a waiver claim for Suggs in part to keep him from the Ravens. But imagine what a postseason boost he could give, even if for only a handful of plays per game. The Chiefs defense finished the season well, but any playoff team could benefit from a pass-rush specialist such as Suggs.
First game: vs. Tennessee in wild-card round (Saturday at 8:15 p.m. ET, CBS)
Chance to make the Super Bowl: 13.7%
Reason for hope: The Patriots always find a way. Even after one of the more trying and frustrating seasons of the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era, they are just three games away from the Super Bowl. If they could win 12 regular season games while Brady produced his lowest-ever QBR, then what can’t they do? (QBR was first tabulated in 2006.) Their league-leading defense has carried it through the year, and defense is never more valuable than in the playoffs.
Reason for concern: The Patriots have breezed through the Belichick/Brady era essentially with two kickers: Adam Vinatieri and Stephen Gostkowski. Each made kicks that secured and validated a dynasty. But Gostkowski’s season-ending hip injury has left the Patriots bouncing through multiple replacements. In a season when points were already at a premium given their offensive struggles, the Patriots can’t rely on drive-ending bailouts from the kicking game.
X factor: Cornerback Stephon Gilmore. The Patriots’ best player this season, Gilmore should be at the center of Belichick’s postseason approach. As he told NFL Films earlier this year, Belichick abides by the Sun Tzu advice that teaches: “Attack weaknesses and utilize strengths.” Gilmore likely will be asked to handle some of the most difficult assignments of the playoff run. The Patriots will count on him to handle it.
First game: vs. Buffalo in wild-card round (Saturday at 4:35 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN)
Chance to make the Super Bowl: 1.3%
Reason for hope: The Texans have successfully addressed one of their biggest problems from 2018: lost yardage from quarterback Deshaun Watson taking 62 sacks (for a league-high 384 yards). This season, Watson cut the sacks by nearly 30%. The Texans are going to have a hard time distinguishing themselves in a loaded conference, but sacks are one way they have objectively improved after previous playoff flameouts.
Reason for concern: The Texans’ defense entered Week 17 ranked No. 22 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, worst among any team that had qualified for the playoffs. Most concerning is that it had given up an average of 270.3 passing yards per game, third-worst in the NFL, through 16 weeks. That’s a big worry in a conference with Mahomes and Jackson.
X factor: Wide receiver Will Fuller V. When he isn’t sidelined by injury, Fuller is a game-changer. He managed to catch 49 passes in 11 games during the regular season, and despite multiple leg injuries, he still has the ability to stretch the defense. The Texans’ offense is different when he is available.
First game: at Houston in wild-card round (Saturday at 4:35 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN)
Chance to make the Super Bowl: 1.1%
Reason for hope: If you’re in the “defense wins championships” crowd, you probably consider the Bills a legitimate contender. They entered Week 17 ranked No. 5 in defensive DVOA and No. 2 in points allowed. They have an active front, multiple playmakers in the back end and make opponents work for everything. This is a team built to stifle opponents and hope that the offense can find a way to score enough to win.
Reason for concern: Quarterback Josh Allen has no doubt improved from his rookie season and offers a unique set of playmaking skills. Most notably, he is a good enough runner for the Bills to design plays for him. But any objective ranking of playoff passers would put him at or near the bottom. There wouldn’t be a ton of optimism if the Bills need to throw to win a game.
X factor: Safety Micah Hyde. Of all the Bills’ defensive playmakers, Hyde might be the most versatile and perhaps the one most likely to make a surprising game-changing play. He is a strong tackler, has some burst as a blitzer and always finds a way to get near the ball.
First game: at New England in wild-card round (Saturday at 8:15 p.m. ET, CBS)
Chance to make the Super Bowl: 1.1%
Reason for hope: There is a reason the Titans were the final AFC team to clinch. They’ve got some holes. But they can enter the postseason knowing that they are 7-3 since quarterback Ryan Tannehill replaced Marcus Mariota in the starting lineup. From that point on, the Titans were the NFL’s fourth-highest-scoring offense.
Reason for concern: It’s one thing to get on a run to clinch the No. 6 seed. But are the Titans really ready to go to Foxborough, Massachusetts, and beat the Patriots? The last time they won at New England, the year was 1993 and the franchise was known as the Houston Oilers. Since then, the Titans are 0-6 at Gillette Stadium, including the playoffs. Overall, the Patriots are 8-2 against the Titans since 1993.
Derrick Henry rushes for 211 yards and three touchdowns in a win against the Texans, securing his spot as the NFL’s leading rusher for the 2019 season.
X factor: Wide receiver A.J. Brown. Along with Tannehill, Brown’s emergence has been key to the Titans’ run. He had at least 100 receiving yards in four of the Titans’ final six games, demonstrating elite-level ball skills as well as a strong ability to run after the catch. He is the kind of playmaker who can make up for deficiencies in other areas.