NFL play-offs: Chiefs and Packers top seeds on road to Super Bowl 55


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The NFL’s 101st season was always going to be one like no other.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, it started in empty stadiums, with players often having to self-isolate and games being rearranged at short notice.

But despite many concerns, the regular season wasn’t just completed on time, it was historic – the highest-scoring in NFL history.

“You have to give the league credit for everything they did, how flexible they were, to complete the season. To me, that’s remarkable,” said two-time Super Bowl winner Osi Umenyiora.

He joined fellow BBC pundit Jason Bell to look ahead to the NFL play-offs, which begin this weekend, as the Kansas City Chiefs aim to reach Super Bowl 55 and defend their title in Tampa, Florida.

Who are the favourites?

The Seattle Seahawks shot out of the blocks in September while the Pittsburgh Steelers were the last team to lose their unbeaten record following an 11-0 start.

But while last year’s champions and their dynamic quarterback Patrick Mahomes did not reproduce the electrifying form they showed in 2018 and Super Bowl 54, the Kansas City Chiefs still finished the season with the NFL’s best record (14-2) to progress as the top seed from the AFC Conference.

The Chiefs’ Travis Kelce also set the single-season record for most receiving yards for a tight end, but as the old adage goes, ‘offence sells tickets, defence wins championships’.

“Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are making plays every week, but it is all about their defensive line,” said Bell.

“Chris Jones and Frank Clark are amazing, and Tyrann Mathieu coming up with all those turnovers in the backfield is key. The Chiefs have a great formula.”

The top team in the NFC Conference was the Green Bay Packers (13-3), inspired by veteran quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who emerged as the leading contender for the regular season’s Most Valuable Player award.

The Packers pulled off a surprise by selecting a quarterback, Jordan Love, in the first round of the 2020 draft but Rodgers, 37, responded by showing he still has plenty to offer.

The two-time MVP threw a career-best 48 touchdown passes – eight more than any other QB – to secure home-field advantage for the play-offs and raise hopes of a second Super Bowl win, which would be the Packers’ first in 10 years.

“Rodgers has had an electric year, and it’s going to be difficult to beat the Packers in Green Bay,” added Bell. “You have to be a team built to win there, that’s used to playing in that (cold) weather.”

Who else to look out for?

Derrick Henry has been a battering ram for the Tennessee Titans and the star running back was again the league leader for rushing yards, becoming just the eighth player to rush for 2,000 in a season.

Baker Mayfield’s Cleveland Browns ended the league’s longest active play-off drought of 18 years while Josh Allen, another third-year quarterback, led the Buffalo Bills (13-3) to their first AFC East title in 25 years.

Yet some of the old guard are still going strong, with six-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady and another veteran QB, Philip Rivers, enjoying a new lease of life in the first year with their new teams, reaching the play-offs with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Indianapolis Colts respectively.

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“I think Derrick Henry will win Offensive Player of the Year,” said Bell. “Most running backs aren’t able to do this two years in a row, but he’s on his way to the Hall of Fame.”

“This guy’s a bruiser,” Umenyiora added. “It’s like something from the 80s and 90s, when running backs were the focal point of the team. It’s been incredible.”

How do the play-offs work?

After 17 weeks of the regular season, it’s now a straight knockout over three rounds to decide who plays in Super Bowl 55 on 7 February.

Last season 12 teams qualified for the play-offs, with the top two seeds in each conference earning a first-round bye. Now it’s 14 teams, with just the top seed in each conference getting a week’s rest and home advantage – the Chiefs and the Packers.

Week one has therefore been billed the ‘super wildcard weekend’ as there are two extra games, making it three games back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday.

“I love it,” said Bell. “It’s great that more teams are in, it makes it more competitive. Everybody’s 0-0 and you have this new energy.”

“It’s been a real boon for the NFL,” added Umenyiora. “The last week of the season was so intriguing because of it, there were so many teams fighting and jostling for a position.”

Who can stop the Chiefs and Packers?

If anyone other than the Chiefs or Packers is to reach the big game, those teams are going to have to win in Kansas City or Green Bay.

The Baltimore Ravens finished with last season’s best record (14-2) with quarterback Lamar Jackson the MVP – but then fell at the first play-off hurdle against the Tennessee Titans.

They face the Titans again but Umenyiora has warned the Chiefs “the way the Ravens are playing right now, they’re trouble”.

“Last year they were the team supposed to win it all – they didn’t. This year they’re flying under the radar because they took a mid-season nap and got themselves together at the right moment.

“They are physically dominating teams, led by that running game, Lamar Jackson and that good defence.”

As for the NFC, Brady has led the Buccaneers to the play-offs for the first time since 2007 and they hope to be the first team to play a Super Bowl in their own stadium.

“What he’s done this season is nothing short of amazing,” said Umenyiora. “There was talk of his relationship with [coach] Bruce Arians being fractured but over the past month they’ve righted that.

“And defensively, I think they’re more solid than Green Bay – they’re able to stop the run and get after the quarterback.”

What are this weekend’s stand-out games?

The Bucs face a Washington team that last week sneaked into the play-offs with a losing record, after which their rookie defensive star Chase Young yelled “Tom Brady, I’m coming! I want Tom”.

“He’s a great young player,” replied Brady, 43. “We’ve got our hands full with one of the best defensive lines in the league. It should be a fun game.”

There are also two divisional match-ups between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Browns, plus the Seahawks against the Los Angeles Rams.

Rams quarterback Jared Goff is doubtful after surgery on a broken thumb suffered in the loss at Seattle two weeks ago, which handed back-up John Wolford his first NFL game in the regular- season finale.

The 25-year-old previously played in the now-defunct AAF league and still has an active LinkedIn profileexternal-link having prepared for a career in finance, but the Rams secured a play-off spot as Wolford became the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for 200 yards and rush for 50 yards on debut.

“The Rams have a great defence, and if this quarterback can run this offence, Seattle don’t have any tape on him, so he could upset them,” said Bell.

“That would be crazy, but it could happen, because Goff’s performances are what has held them back as an offensive unit. This kid could be an instant celebrity.”

But Bell sees the Titans-Ravens meeting as the game of the weekend, saying: “The Titans have beaten them the last two times and the Ravens are flying. It’s going to be old-school, power football with explosive plays.”

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