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NFL playoff predictions – Forecasting the postseason, including Super Bowl contenders, upset picks and impact players

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It’s playoff time in the NFL, and 14 teams all have a chance to win Super Bowl LVI. It begins this weekend with six wild-card games, before the winners join the Packers and Titans in the divisional round next weekend. Anything can happen in the NFL playoffs. Just ask the Buccaneers, who won the Super Bowl a year ago out of the NFC’s No. 5 seed, winning three road games en route to their title. So how will the next few weeks play out? Will favorites live up to their expectations, or will underdogs pull off some unlikely upsets?

We asked 15 of our NFL analysts for their best prediction for the postseason as a whole and what will happen in the games leading up to the Super Bowl. Which team is best set up to win it all, and who will help them get there? Will it be Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or someone else leading the way in the NFC? And will the Titans hold off plenty of talented AFC teams? Let’s predict this season’s playoffs, starting with how far the AFC’s top-seeded team can go.

Are the Titans the top AFC contender?

Sam Acho, NFL analyst: I’m doubling down on my midseason pick. After three wins to end the regular season and a 12-5 record, Tennessee will reach the Super Bowl. And it won’t be the only No. 1 seed. I got the Packers and Aaron Rodgers meeting the Titans in the biggest game of the year.

Stephania Bell, NFL fantasy analyst: The Titans will win the AFC Championship with a run-heavy offense behind the return of Derrick Henry. For those who might scoff at the notion of a modern offense that ranks near the bottom of the league in pass-play percentage going all the way to the Super Bowl, may I present to you the 2018 Patriots? Yes, they had this guy named Tom Brady, but they also ran the ball 43.1% of the time, fifth in the league that year. The 2021 Titans rushed on a league-high 46.1% of plays, and they did it without Henry for half their games after he suffered a significant foot injury. The return of Henry adds power to their run game and a massive red zone threat on the ground (10 TDs prior to his injury), which will prove to be too much for the Titans’ AFC opponents.

Jeremy Fowler, NFL writer/reporter: Henry will pick up right where he left off and lead the playoffs in rushing. Rarely does a star player have two months to rest his legs before the postseason, especially a 247-pound back with a 2,000-yard season on his résumé. The No. 1 seed Titans battled through injuries and are ready for January football, which means Henry will be touching the ball 20 or more times. I’m not sure I’m ready to put Ryan Tannehill in the Super Bowl, but this team has the ingredients to get there behind Henry, receiver A.J. Brown and an opportunistic defense.

Can the Bills or the Chiefs get back to the AFC Championship Game?

Dan Graziano, NFL writer/reporter: The Bills will play in the Super Bowl. This is a team that has been together for a while now, and they still sting from last year’s AFC Championship Game loss in Kansas City and crave an opportunity to avenge it. The Dec. 26 game in Foxborough, Massachusetts, was a turning point for their season. Running back Devin Singletary told me, “We knew we have what it takes to get where we want to go, but that game just gave us even more confidence and made us more hungry.” The Bills’ run game is in a much better place than it was this time last season, which should help offensive coordinator Brian Daboll avoid the trap of being too one-dimensional. And I don’t think people really appreciate how good their defense is under Leslie Frazier. I know it was the Jets and their season was over (Week 18), but holding another professional football team to 53 total yards of offense in a game is really something. This team is well coached, believes in itself, has the league’s most weather-proof quarterback and has been building toward this for a few years now. I say they cash it in.

Jason Reid, senior writer at The Undefeated: Kansas City will advance to its third consecutive Super Bowl by defeating Tennessee in the AFC Championship Game at Tennessee. A 34-31 road loss to Cincinnati in Week 17 cost Kansas City the conference’s No. 1 seeding and a chance to host the AFC title game for an unprecedented fourth straight season. But there’s still plenty to like about the Chiefs, starting with quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The superstar learned to operate more patiently this season while teams were content to play Cover 2 and rarely blitz him, hoping to avoid giving up the big plays that have defined the historic start to his career. But the Chiefs’ biggest turnaround occurred on defense. Often overmatched during the team’s 3-4 start, Kansas City’s defense provided the foundation to its eight-game winning streak. During that span, the Chiefs allowed the fewest points per game (12.9) and had the most takeaways (21) in the NFL.

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Marcus Spears lauds Andy Reid for the job he’s done coaching the Chiefs this season.

Seth Walder, analytics writer: The winner of the Bills-Chiefs divisional-round matchup will win the Super Bowl. Per ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), they’re the second- and third-best teams in the league, respectively. The Bills boast the best point differential in the league and the Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes at quarterback — either is a great sign for a deep playoff run. And while I’m still a believer in Tampa Bay, and it is FPI’s No. 1 team, the model doesn’t know that of the trio of great wide receivers the Bucs began the season with, only Mike Evans is still healthy and on the roster.

What can we expect out of the Cowboys and Bengals?

Matt Bowen, NFL analyst: Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse will be a difference-maker in the playoffs. Dallas has playmakers at all three levels of Dan Quinn’s defense in Demarcus Lawrence, Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs. But don’t forget about Kearse. He’s a long, rangy safety with versatile traits, and in Quinn’s man-heavy system, Kearse is the tight end matchup player. First up for Kearse: the 49ers’ George Kittle.

Mike Clay, NFL analyst: The Cowboys and Bengals will each win multiple playoff games and are legit contenders to represent their conference in the Super Bowl. Dallas is No. 1 in the league in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, fifth in offensive scores and sixth in touchdowns allowed. The Cowboys have one of the league’s deepest and most talented offenses, along with a breakout defense. And the Bengals are playing their best ball of the season, and if they beat the Raiders and things break right, their path to the title game could include a trip to Tennessee in the divisional round and a rematch with a Chiefs squad they defeated while piling up 34 points just two weeks ago. With a solid defense and quarterback Joe Burrow playing at a high level, Cincinnati would have a shot to win all three games.

Eric Moody, fantasy/sports betting writer: The Bengals will reach the Super Bowl. During Weeks 16 and 17, Burrow passed for 971 yards and eight touchdowns, helping Cincinnati to the AFC North title. With positive momentum, a QB who excels under pressure to overcome mediocre offensive line play, an offense that utilizes a trio of talented receivers (Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd) to threaten opposing defenses vertically and a defense that can apply consistent pressure with only four linemen, the Bengals have all of the elements needed to contend for the Super Bowl.

Mike Tannenbaum, NFL analyst: Dallas will go on a run and win at least two — and maybe three — games. The Cowboys are built for the playoffs and have three elite pass-rushers in Lawrence, Parsons and Randy Gregory. If their offensive line is healthy (most notably Tyron Smith), they’ll be good on offense and elite on defense.

Will the Packers live up to the hype?

Doug Kezirian, sports betting analyst: The Packers are the betting favorite for good reason. The NFC once looked like a gauntlet, but the warts have surfaced with inconsistency and injuries. And the AFC is full of questionable contenders. I expect Green Bay to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, as quarterback Aaron Rodgers is still playing the position flawlessly.

Field Yates, NFL analyst: The Packers will hold serve at home this time around, advancing to a Super Bowl championship. This isn’t exactly going out on a limb, but this team feels different from last year’s iteration that marched into the playoffs with grand expectations. With Green Bay’s balanced offense and a defense that could return multiple key starters (including pass-rusher Za’Darius Smith and cornerback Jaire Alexander), count me among those expecting the Pack to play in SoFi stadium in mid-February.

Seth Wickersham, NFL writer/reporter: This is just a hunch, but I’m predicting that this will be the last playoff run for three future Hall of Fame quarterbacks with their current teams. We know that the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger will retire. But I think Tom Brady will, too. And finally, Aaron Rodgers will leave Green Bay after another season without reaching the Super Bowl.

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Domonique Foxworth outlines why he could see Aaron Rodgers retiring soon and then deciding to come back later down the road.

Tom Brady’s Bucs back in the Super Bowl?

Anita Marks, fantasy/sports betting analyst: It will be Bill Belichick vs. Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. The only two wild-card games that I have conviction in are the Bengals over the Raiders and the Chiefs over the Steelers. The remaining matchups are tossups to me, so to steal a phrase from Jalen Rose: Let’s give the people what they want. I think the Patriots are a complete team. They can pound the rock in the fourth quarter on Saturday night against Buffalo, and then they would match up well against the Titans and Chiefs en route to the Super Bowl. And in the NFC, Brady and the Buccaneers could see the Eagles, Rams and Packers in their path to the Super Bowl — and they have the roster to upset Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game.

Jordan Reid, NFL draft analyst: Brady will help the Buccaneers become the first back-to-back Super Bowl champions since the Patriots in 2004 and 2005 — who also had Brady at the helm. At 44 years old, he just had arguably one of the best seasons of his career with a league-high 5,316 passing yards and 43 touchdowns. Tampa Bay is riding a three-game winning streak entering the playoffs, and despite not earning the No. 1 seed, Brady has the necessary experience — even in the elements should they see the Packers at Lambeau Field.

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Los Angeles Rams’ Matthew Stafford says toe feeling fine ahead of playoff game vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford doesn’t expect his injured toe to be a factor in Sunday’s divisional-round game against the Buccaneers in Tampa, Florida.

Stafford suffered the injury in the Rams’ regular-season finale against the San Francisco 49ers, a 27-24 overtime loss.

“I’m feeling OK,” Stafford said Wednesday. “The toe kind of happened in that game and that was kind of a real thing, but I got a bunch of treatment on it. I’m feeling a lot better. So I don’t see anything limiting me in this game.”

Coach Sean McVay said one of the reasons he tried to put the 49ers away with their run game near the end of regulation was because Stafford was hobbled. He said Stafford had “no limitations” Monday night against the Arizona Cardinals as the Rams leaned on their run game for much of their 34-11 wild-card victory.

Stafford was 13-of-17 passing, both easily season lows, for 202 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also ran for a score in the first playoff victory of his 13-year NFL career.

“He felt good,” McVay said. “Everything was up and available to be called. He was feeling great.”

The Rams are uncertain about the statuses of left tackle Andrew Whitworth and safety Taylor Rapp for Sunday’s game.

Whitworth, 40, got his right knee rolled up on during the Rams’ opening play against Arizona. He played 30 of the team’s 60 offensive snaps before Joe Noteboom replaced him for the remainder of the game.

McVay said tests results haven’t indicated that the Rams need to rule Whitworth out yet. He’d be a nonparticipant if the Rams were practicing Wednesday, per McVay.

“He’s got some swelling in that knee and that ankle,” McVay said. “It’s a miracle. He’s like Gumby with the way that he got rolled up on. It was not a good looking play when you watch it on the replay. But he’s a resilient guy. He responds quickly. He’s been a quick healer. For him to be able to play and start at tackle at the age of 40 tells you everything you need to know about how blessed he is with his genetics and the way he takes care of himself.

“But we’ll see how quickly he can turn around. Not sure whether he’ll be able to go or not this week. We’ll take it a day at a time. Fortunately his scans gave us some information where we didn’t have to rule him out.”

Whitworth ranked third during the regular season in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate among offensive tackles.

Rapp, who missed the Cardinals game, remains in concussion protocol. His absence and Jordan Fuller‘s season-ending ankle injury prompted the Rams to bring 37-year-old Eric Weddle out of his two-year retirement last week to pad their safety depth. He played 19 of 56 defensive snaps while Nick Scott and Terrell Burgess started.

“With Rapp, we’re just taking that a day at a time,” McVay said. “The concussion protocol and kind of going through those strategic steps and making sure that when you are active, you’re not having any symptoms. Those are the things we’re working through right now and I know Taylor’s going to do everything in his power to be ready if he can.”

Cornerback David Long Jr. (knee) is “doing good,” per McVay. He returned one of the Rams’ two interceptions of Kyler Murray for a touchdown Monday night. McVay said backup running back Buddy Howell (hamstring) also would have been a nonparticipant Wednesday and that “everybody else would be in good shape” if the team was practicing.

McVay expects the Rams to designate linebacker Ernest Jones to return to practice from injured reserve on Thursday, thereby starting his 21-day window to be activated to the 53-man roster.

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Cleveland Browns QB Baker Mayfield has shoulder surgery, eyes return to ‘my true self’

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Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield says he is on track to getting “back to my true self” after undergoing surgery Wednesday to repair a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder.

Dr. Orr Limpisvasti, the orthopedic surgeon for the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks, performed the surgery on Mayfield’s left shoulder in California.

“Surgery went great. Was a complete success,” Mayfield said in a video posted to social media. “Now it’s on to the road to recovery. It’s one of those steps to get back to my true self. … This is not the end of my story.”

The Browns said the likely time period for Mayfield’s recovery is four to six months. He will start physical therapy on his shoulder next week and is expected to be cleared by training camp, if not sooner, a source told ESPN.

Mayfield, who suffered the shoulder injury in Week 2 and played through it for the rest of the season, will begin light throwing in April and should be able to participate in the off-season program on a limited basis, the team said.

After the Browns’ Week 17 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mayfield admitted that he was “pretty damn beat up.”

With Cleveland already eliminated from playoff contention, Mayfield sat out the team’s season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals on Jan. 9.

Even though Mayfield finished 27th in the league in QBR (35.3) this season, Cleveland general manager Andrew Berry declared last week that the Browns “fully expect” the 2018 No. 1 draft pick to be their starting quarterback in 2022 and “bounce back” from his injury-plagued season.

Mayfield will be entering the final year of his rookie contract, which will pay him close to $19 million in 2022 after the Browns exercised his fifth-year option last offseason.



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Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy says he does not see his future with team as an issue

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FRISCO, Texas — Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy is operating under business-as-usual conditions after meeting twice with owner and general manager Jerry Jones following Sunday’s wild-card loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

McCarthy met with Jones immediately after the game and again on Monday and does not see his future as an issue.

“We had very positive conversations and, just, the focus is on the evaluation process,” McCarthy said.

Speaking on 105.3 The Fan on Monday, executive vice president Stephen Jones said, “absolutely,” and “very confident,” when asked whether McCarthy would return for a third season.

McCarthy has an 18-15 regular-season record in two seasons, including a 12-5 mark in 2021 that saw the Cowboys win the NFC East; however, they were the only home team to lose in the first round of the playoffs.

After a 13-year run in Green Bay, McCarthy, who has a 143-92-2 regular-season record and 10-9 playoff mark, understands the speculation.

“I think for people in this profession, it’s accepted,” he said. “It’s part of the job. I get that. I understand why you’re asking the question. It’s part of the job. You have a job to do, and I have a job to do here today in answering your questions appropriately and respectfully. But, yeah, I don’t put a lot into it because I know personally what I put into this.

“I understand what goes on here every day. I know how to win. I know how to win in this league. I know how to win playoff games. I know how to win a championship. So I have great confidence in that. What we’ve built here in two seasons, I feel very good about, and I think with that you just stay true to that. The hard part is the personal. We all have kids, so that’s the part that I don’t like. I would hope people are respectful to that.”

McCarthy, who signed a five-year contract with the Cowboys in 2020, acknowledged that the 2022 Cowboys will look a lot different from the 2021 Cowboys. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore have multiple interviews set up for open head-coaching jobs.

McCarthy did not rule out potential changes on the coaching staff whether or not Quinn and Moore stay with the team. The Cowboys have 21 players, including many key contributors, set to become unrestricted free agents, and the team also faces a challenging salary-cap situation.

Yet McCarthy said he has faith things will be better next season.

“No. 1, I trust our personnel process,” McCarthy said. “I think the collaboration [with the personnel department], just what we did last year to this year, I mean, my goodness. The change we had on defense, from a personnel and coaching staff standpoint, that was the biggest change I’ve ever been part of, both the player and coaching side. So to pull all of that together, there was a lot of hard work and a lot of credit that goes to a number of people. I have the same confidence that we’ll do that moving forward. Now, it’s going to be a challenge; I know you can’t keep everybody, but [for] every team, that’s the era that we’re in.

“We’ll go through that and count on another really excellent draft class to go with the two that we have. No, you got to remember, I’ve coached the youngest team in the league for a number of years. I have great belief in that draft and develop. This will probably hopefully be the first year that we can have a normal offseason program, so I think with that, the combination of veteran and young players we have, I think we definitely can take a step forward.”

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