By BARRY WILNER
From the rested in Kansas City and Pittsburgh to the relieved in Cleveland, Chicago and Los Angeles, the field for the Super Bowl chase is set. There are some powerhouses and some pretenders — and a team with a losing record.
The reigning Super Bowl champion Chiefs (14-2) and Green Bay (13-3) earned each conference’s lone bye in the expanded playoffs. And no, adding a third wild-card entrant is not why a 7-9 club will be playing next weekend. Washington “earned” that spot by winning the abysmal NFC East that displayed in the finale of the regular season why NFC Least has been so appropriate a moniker.
So while New York Giants fans scream that Eagles coach Doug Pederson didn’t truly play to beat Washington on Sunday night, it should emphasized that the Giants went 6-10, a record more in line with relegation than reward.
Besides, coach Ron Rivera dealing with skin cancer and quarterback Alex Smith returning from an injury that nearly cost him his leg, those are redemptive and rewarding plots.
“This one’s special just because of how hard it was,” Rivera said. “How tough everything was, how it’s been on the guys, the organization. There’s a great group of young men in there and we’re trying to do things the right way. It’s really a cool thing to come out and get the division.”
As for the spoils, here’s who plays next weekend and how it might look.
Frank Reich has been a hero in Western New York since engineering the great comeback in NFL history while replacing the injured Jim Kelly in a 1992 opening-round matchup with the Houston Oilers. Reich now coaches the Colts, and he’ll remain heroic in Buffalo if they go quietly against what has been the league’s most impressive team the last month.
This might be Colts QB Philip Rivers’ final game, but it’s the Indy defense that must stand tall here. That’s a tall order the way Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs and the Bills are going.
A third go-around for the NFC West rivals who split during the regular season. Both have strong defenses and have been spotty on offense, LA far more so than Seattle.
The Rams clinched their spot in the playoffs without the inconsistent Jared Goff (thumb surgery) at quarterback. The Seahawks have no issues at that position with Russell Wilson, though his first half of the season was far better than the last two months.
For sure, the Washington story is uplifting, particularly the way Rivera is leading a change in culture for a franchise so desperately needing it. And the last three teams to capture division titles without a winning record also pulled off upsets in the wild-card round.
Don’t look for much of that in prime time, not with Tom Brady leading the Buccaneers, who are balanced enough to threaten anyone. You remember Brady. If not, tune in to this one and see him likely dismantle Washington’s impressive but inexperienced defense.
Tennessee (11-5) at Baltimore (11-5)
A year ago, the Titans rode Derrick Henry’s rushing power, agility and underrated speed to a stunning upset in Baltimore. They still are riding Henry, who became the eighth player to gain 2,000 yards on the ground in a season. Tennessee also can throw the ball better than it could last season.
Alas, the Titans barely play any defense. So, with the Ravens having a more diverse but just as effective running game and a sturdy D — not to mention the memories of that beatdown last January — Henry and Co. have an even bigger task ahead in Baltimore this time.
The other NFC interloper, perhaps, the Bears almost belong in the Least, uh, East. They went from 5-1 to 5-7 before finishing strongly enough to sneak in. Their defense is dangerous if not quite Monsters of the Midway, and when they run the ball well, they can compete.
If the Saints get some of their running backs back from the COVID-19 list — particularly scoring machine Alvin Kamara — they will be heavily favored. This could be Drew Brees’ last shot at a second NFL title, too. And New Orleans has a defense to match Chicago’s.
This had to be the topper for the weekend’s action. One of the grand rivalries of the sport, and it was just played out in Week 17 — albeit with the Steelers resting a bunch of regulars. Yet Pittsburgh pushed Cleveland to the limit before the Browns snapped the league’s longest playoff drought, dating to 2003.
Can the Browns win again in the wild-card matchup? Sure, as long as they get their ample running game going and don’t have another COVID-19 outbreak like the one that hit in the last two weeks. The Steelers have lost four of their last five, but they also have won 17 straight at home against Cleveland. Ben Roethlisberger will be back and he’s 23-2-1 in his career against the Browns.