The NFL playoffs kick off this Saturday and with American Football becoming increasingly popular in the UK, this article will try to provide enough context so that you know what’s going on throughout the playoffs, lasting until the Super Bowl on Sunday 11th February. Impact’s Tom Henigan is on hand with all you need to know about the NFL over the coming month…
The structure of the playoffs
There are 14 teams that make the playoffs. 7 from the American Football Conference (AFC), and 7 from the National Football Conference (NFC). Over the regular season, each team played 17 games, and at the end of those 17 games the teams are ranked by their record. The best 7 teams in each conference make the playoffs.
Some teams can have a worse record than others but still be ranked higher
Where it gets complicated is the fact that some teams can have a worse record than others but still be ranked higher. For example, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a win-loss record of 9-8, but are ranked 4th seed, above the Philadelphia Eagles and the Los Angeles Rams who have an 11-6 record and a 10-7 record respectively.
The reason for this is that the Buccaneers won one of the four divisions in the NFC as the teams in their division were weaker, but the Eagles and the Rams did not as teams in each of their divisions had better records than them.
A division win guarantees you the playoffs and a top 4 seed. Then, after the four division winners in each conference, the three teams that didn’t win their division that have the next best records in their conference make up the rest of the playoff spots, making it 7 teams in each conference.
The playoffs are like two mini tournaments between each conference. The first round is the ‘wild card round’ on each side, followed by a ‘divisional round’ on each side, which then leads to the AFC and NFC championship games. The winner of the AFC championship game plays the winner of the NFC championship game in the Super Bowl.
The higher seed you are in the conference, the more home playoff games you will likely play. Home field is so important in the NFL playoffs, because unlike the NBA, MLB or NHL playoffs, it’s win or go home every time. So, given that if you lose one game you’re eliminated from the playoffs, having home field plays a massive advantage.
Along with this, getting the 1st seed adds extra value as it means you get a bye to the second round of the playoffs. The 2nd-7th seeds all have to go straight into the playoffs with no week off. If you are the number 1st seed in your conference though, you get that week off to rest and prepare. In a league as physically demanding as the NFL, the importance of the bye cannot be overstated.
A high seeding will also allow you to play weaker opposition as well as the fact you’ll be playing at home
As the 1st seed has a bye to the second round of the playoffs (the divisional round), the 2nd seed then plays the 7th seed, the 3rd plays the 6th, and the 4th plays the 5th in the first round of the playoffs (the wildcard round). So, a high seeding will also allow you to play weaker opposition as well as the fact you’ll be playing at home.
The 1st seed continues to have an advantage in the divisional round. The lowest seed out of the three winners in the conference from the wildcard round, will play the 1st seed of their respective conference at the stadium of that 1st seed.
This year for example, the first seeds are the Baltimore Ravens from the AFC, and the San Francisco 49ers from the NFC. Let’s say in the AFC, the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th seed win in the wildcard round, the Ravens will host the 4th seed while the 2nd seed will host the 3rd seed in the divisional round. If in the NFC, the 3rd, 4th and 7th seed won, the 49ers would host the 7th seed while the 3rd seed would host the 4th seed.
Who is who this year?
With all of these seedings flying around, let’s finally discuss who is what seed in each conference. In the AFC, the seeding in order from 1-7 is: 1) Baltimore Ravens, 2) Buffalo Bills, 3) Kansas City Chiefs, 4) Houston Texans, 5) Cleveland Browns, 6) Miami Dolphins, 7) Pittsburgh Steelers.
In the NFC, these are the rankings: 1) San Francisco 49ers, 2) Dallas Cowboys, 3) Detroit Lions, 4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 5) Philadelphia Eagles, 6) Los Angeles Rams, 7) Green Bay Packers.
Now that we know the structure of the playoffs and who is what seed, let’s take a look at some of the teams.
No defence has more takeaways or sacks this season than the Ravens unit
Being the no. 1 seed in their conference, it comes as no surprise that the Ravens are the bookies’ favourite to make the Super Bowl on the AFC side. They are led by quarterback Lamar Jackson, who looks like he is going to win his second MVP at just 27 years old. Not only that but their defence is arguably the best in the league, giving up just 16.5 points per game, the fewest in the NFL. Along with that, no defence has more takeaways or sacks this season than the Ravens unit.
The only question mark about the Ravens is the fact that they were in a similar position four years ago in the 2019/20 season when Lamar Jackson won his first MVP and took his team to a 14-2 record. Like this year, the Ravens rested their starters in the final week of the season, and in the end, they were shocked at home in the divisional round by the Tennessee Titans who were the 6th seed at the time.
After resting key starters in the final game of this year’s regular season against the Pittsburgh Steelers, those players, including Jackson, will not have played an NFL game since the 31st of December, with the Ravens’ first playoff game scheduled for the weekend of the 20th/21st of January. Time will tell whether this has an affect on Jackson and his team again.
San Francisco 49ers:
This 49ers team has looked dominant multiple times this season
If the games follow the odds, we will see the NFC’s no. 1 seed in the Super Bowl. This 49ers team has looked dominant multiple times this season, comfortably beating two of the other top teams in the NFC. They beat the no. 2 seed Cowboys 42-10 in October and went to Philadelphia in early December where they defeated the no. 5 seed Eagles 42-19. They have the best running back in the NFL in Christian McCaffrey, who some still think should be the league MVP. Their defence is also a strong point, giving up the third fewest points in the league this season.
The only question mark about this team is the quarterback. Brock Purdy was the last pick in the 2022 NFL draft, and last season was a sensation, going undefeated until he left the NFC championship early with an injury in a game the 49ers eventually lost. This year Purdy has put up strong numbers, but many feel he is a product of the system, and that point was given support by the fact that when the 49ers played the Ravens, Purdy had zero touchdowns and four interceptions in a 33-19 loss.
You will struggle to find many players with more of a chip on their shoulder than Purdy in these playoffs
That result makes the Ravens the slight favourites to win the whole thing. But given that he didn’t get a real opportunity to take his team to the Super Bowl last year ,after he left the NFC championship game injured early on, you will struggle to find many players with more of a chip on their shoulder than Purdy in these playoffs.
Kansas City Chiefs:
The Chiefs won the Super Bowl last year. At quarterback they have Patrick Mahomes, who in his first five years as a starter, has won 2 MVPs and 2 Super Bowl MVPs. Despite their legendary quarterback, and the fact that they are defending their own title, the Chiefs this year aren’t viewed as they powerhouse that they have been in years past.
For starters, they are the no. 3 seed, the lowest seed Patrick Mahomes has been, meaning he will likely play his first road playoff game if he wins in the first round. The reason for this lower seed is the fact that their offence ranks in the middle of the pack in the league, something foreign to this team in the Mahomes era.
With their strong defence […] it would be a mistake for anyone to overlook this team
Don’t count the Chiefs out though because although it may be the worst offence under Mahomes, it is definitely the best defence he has had as the team’s starting quarterback. Kansas City’s defence has given up the second least amount of points this season as well as the second least number of yards. With their strong defence, and the fact that Mahomes has the most career playoff wins out of any quarterback in the playoffs, it would be a mistake for anyone to overlook this team.
Los Angeles Rams:
This team still has many of the key pieces that won them a Super Bowl two years ago
This is a personal choice, but not an unpopular one. The Rams may be the no. 6 seed, but they have won 7 of their last 8 games, with the one loss being in overtime away to the Ravens. This team still has many of the key pieces that won them a Super Bowl two years ago. They have the same quarterback in Matthew Stafford and the same head coach in Sean McVay.
Along with this, the Rams still have arguably the greatest defensive player of all time, Aaron Donald, on their team, as well as the man who won Super Bowl MVP two years ago, wide receiver Cooper Kupp. Their first-round matchup against the Lions is also a fascinating one given that not only Stafford will be facing his former team, but Lions’ quarterback Jared Goff will as well.
This week’s schedule and how you can watch:
In the UK, all games, including the Super Bowl, will be shown on Sky Sports NFL. The schedule is as follows:
Saturday, January 13th:
Cleveland Browns @ Houston Texans, kick-off at 21:30.
Sunday January 14th:
Miami Dolphins @ Kansas City Chiefs, kick-off at 1:00am.
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Buffalo Bills, kick-off at 18:00.
Green Bay Packers @ Dallas Cowboys, kick-off at 21:30.
Monday January 15th:
Los Angeles Rams @ Detroit Lions, kick-off at 1:00am.
Tuesday January 16th:
Philadelphia Eagles @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 1:15am.
From then, the divisional round will be the weekend of January 20th and 21st, the conference championships will be on January 28th, and the Super Bowl will be on February 11th at 11.30pm UK time.
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