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NFC playoff field loaded with reunions, chances for redemption

Mike McCarthy
Posted at 6:20 PM, Jan 12, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-12 19:20:36-05

Four years ago, the San Francisco 49ers were closing in on their first Super Bowl triumph in a quarter century when Patrick Mahomes led Kansas City to three touchdowns in the final six-plus minutes, rocketing the Chiefs to a 31-20 victory.

Each of the past two years the Niners (12-5) came up one step short of returning to the big game for a shot at redemption, losing on the road to the Rams and Eagles in the NFC championship game.

They're positioned better this time around.

"We're right where we want to be," Niners left tackle Trent Williams said. "We're the No. 1 seed."

So, they'll get to enjoy wild-card weekend like the rest of us and with one playoff win would get to host the conference championship game on Jan. 28 for the chance to reach Super Bowl 58 in Las Vegas next month.

A caveat: the 49ers went 5-3 at home this season, including a 33-19 loss to Baltimore, the AFC's top seed on Christmas Day.

Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys (12-5) surged past the slumping Philadelphia Eagles to win the NFC East and earn the NFC's No. 2 seed, edging No. 3 Detroit 20-19 in Week 17 in part because of a controversial call that negated the Lions' go-ahead 2-point conversion with 23 seconds left.

The Cowboys (12-5) host coach Mike McCarthy's former team, the Green Bay Packers (9-8), on Sunday afternoon ahead of another big reunion when Matthew Stafford and the Los Angeles Rams (10-7) visit Detroit to face Jared Goff and the Lions (12-5) in a primetime game pitting the two QBs who were traded for each other in 2021.

On Monday night, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-8), led by Tom Brady's successor, Baker Mayfield, host defending NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles (11-6), who stumbled into the playoffs with five losses in six games.

1. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (12-5). Five Lombardi trophies in seven Super Bowl appearances: beat Bengals 26-21 in Super Bowl 16, beat Dolphins 38-16 in Super Bowl 19, beat Bengals 20-16 in Super Bowl 23, beat Broncos 55-10 in Super Bowl 24, beat Chargers 49-26 in Super Bowl 29, lost to Ravens 34-31 in Super Bowl 47, lost to Chiefs 31-20 in Super Bowl 54. Last year: 13-4, No. 2 seed, beat Seahawks 41-23 in wild-card round, beat Dallas 19-12 in divisional round, lost to Eagles 31-7 in NFC championship.

Plan the parade: San Francisco might have the league's most difficult offense to defend with playmakers such as NFL leading rusher Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle, and a quarterback in Brock Purdy able to get them the ball. The defense is almost as good with stars on every level, starting with DE Nick Bosa, do-everything LB Fred Warner and star CB Charvarius Ward. When everyone is healthy, there might not be a team as deep or as balanced.

Hold the confetti: The Niners have a few holes on the roster with the right side of the offensive line struggling in pass protection this season and subpar special teams. The biggest knock against San Francisco during coach Kyle Shanahan's run has been their ability to play from behind. The Niners are 0-38 under Shanahan when falling behind by at least eight points in the fourth quarter and Purdy struggled in his few chances this season to lead a game-tying or game-winning drive.

"We're here right back where you want to be with an opportunity to go do something special with the right type of guys."— Warner.

2. DALLAS COWBOYS (12-5). Five Lombardi trophies in eight Super Bowl appearances: lost to Colts 16-13 in Super Bowl 5, beat Dolphins 24-3 in Super Bowl 6, lost to Steelers 21-17 in Super Bowl 10, beat Broncos 27-10 in Super Bowl 12, lost to Steelers 35-31 in Super Bowl 13, beat Bills 52-17 in Super Bowl 27, beat Bills 30-13 in Super Bowl 28, beat Steelers 27-17 in Super Bowl 30. Last year: 12-5, No. 5 seed, beat Buccaneers 31-14 in wild-card round, lost to 49ers 19-12 in divisional round.

Plan the parade: If Dak Prescott and CeeDee Lamb can keep their QB-WR connection humming the way it has since before the halfway point of the season, just a little help from the run game will give Dallas plenty of potency on offense. Turnovers and sacks have always been important in Dan Quinn's defense. The Cowboys just need to avoid lulls in those areas. The biggest boost was the rise to the No. 2 seed, which potentially means two, maybe three, playoff games for a team that has a 16-game winning streak at AT&T Stadium.

Hold the confetti: If the offense bogs down the way it did in losses to San Francisco each of the past two postseasons. The first was a wild-card game at home, the second a divisional loss to the Niners on the road. Without sacks and turnovers, the defense sometimes struggles to make an impact. Two late-season examples were end-of-game drives in a loss at Miami and a squeaker over Detroit. The Cowboys beat the Lions only because a disputed penalty negated a 2-point conversion that would have given the Lions a one-point lead with 23 seconds left.

"It's all about an excellent opportunity that we prepared ourselves and we put ourselves in this position. We earned it, deserved it and more importantly, we're going to take advantage of it." —coach Mike McCarthy.

3. DETROIT LIONS (12-5). One of four teams never to have reached the Super Bowl. Last year: 9-8. Have lost past nine playoff appearances, most recently 26-6 to Seattle in wild-card round on Jan. 7, 2017.

Plan the parade: Detroit broke a single-season NFL record with rushing and passing touchdowns in 15 games and tied league marks with 325-plus total net yards of offense and rushing touchdowns in 16 games. Jared Goff, who led the Rams to a Super Bowl appearance in his third season, ranked second in the NFL with 4,575 yards passing, fourth with 30 TD passes and he didn't throw an interception in nine games. David Montgomery and rookie Jahmyr Gibbs might be the best pair of running backs in the league. Amon-Ra St. Brown led the NFL with nine 100-yard receiving games and 677 yards after the catch.

Hold the confetti: The Lions don't have a championship-caliber defense, ranking 27th against the pass and 23rd in points allowed. They allowed Minnesota's journeyman QB Nate Mullens to throw for more than 800 yards combined in Weeks 16 and 18. Rookie Sam LaPorta, who set an NFL rookie record for tight ends with 86 catches, and return specialist and speedy receiver Kalif Raymond sustained knee injuries in Week 18 and would be tough to replace in the playoffs.

"We've won 12 games for a reason, we're where we're at for a reason, let's do it again."—coach Dan Campbell.

4. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (9-8). Two Lombardi trophies in two Super Bowl trips: beat Raiders 48-21 in Super Bowl 37, beat Chiefs 31-9 in Super Bowl 55. Last year: 8-9, No. 4 seed, lost to Cowboys 31-14 in wild-card round.

Plan the parade: With QB Baker Mayfield making the most of an opportunity to jumpstart his career on a one-year, $4 million contract, the Bucs rebounded from a stretch in which they lost six of seven games to go 5-1 down the stretch and overtake New Orleans and Atlanta to win the division. Mayfield has thrown for career highs of 4,044 yards and 28 touchdowns while cutting down on critical mistakes that undermined him in previous stints with the Browns, Panthers and Rams. The defense regained its swagger in the final month, too, and enters the postseason coming off Tampa Bay's first shutout since 2010.

Hold the confetti: While coach Todd Bowles feels good about the overall progress of the offense, the Bucs sputtered the past two games while scoring 13 in a 10-point loss to the Saints and just nine in the shutout win over the last-place Panthers that clinched a playoff berth. Mayfield (ribs, ankle) played through injuries against Carolina, however the passing attack suffered because of his lack of mobility. The Bucs were last in rushing for the second straight season, averaging just under 89 yards per game. If they can't run the ball effectively in the playoffs, their chances for success diminish greatly.

"We have a locker room full of guys that are comfortable being counted out. That's when we're most comfortable." — Mayfield.

5. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (11-6). One Lombardi in four Super Bowl appearances: lost to Raiders 27-10 in Super Bowl 15, lost to Patriots 24-21 in Super Bowl 39, beat Patriots 41-33 in Super Bowl 52, lost to Chiefs 38-35 in Super Bowl 57. Last year: 16-4, No. 1 seed, beat Giants 38-7 in divisional round, beat 49ers 31-7 in NFC championship.

Plan the parade: Somewhere inside Philadelphia's locker room is a team that went to the Super Bowl a year ago and opened this season 10-1. It does look bleak for the Eagles after one of the greatest collapses in Philly sports history. But if coach Nick Sirianni and QB Jalen Hurts can rekindle the greatness that seemingly had them on course for a repeat run to the Super Bowl, the Eagles could emerge as a surprise out of the NFC.

Hold the confetti: Yikes. The Eagles went 1-5 down the stretch. Hurts and wide receivers A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith are hurt. In their past six games, the Eagles have been outscored 182-123. Only five teams have ever won three playoff games on the road to reach the Super Bowl. The most recent team to do it was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020.

"We've got to find a way to be consistent and consistent more often and play at a high level more often. That's what it takes to win championships. In the end, it's about how you respond to it, and we've got to respond."— Hurts.

6. LOS ANGELES RAMS (10-7). Two Lombardi trophies in five Super Bowl appearances: lost to Steelers 31-19 in Super Bowl 14, beat Titans 23-16 in Super Bowl 34, lost to Patriots 20-17 in Super Bowl 36, lost to Patriots 13-3 in Super Bowl 53, beat Bengals 23-20 in Super Bowl 56. Last year: 5-12.

Plan the parade: Not many teams have more momentum than the Rams, who rolled into the postseason with seven wins in eight games while losing only on the road to Baltimore in overtime. Matthew Stafford has put together a Pro Bowl season, throwing to Super Bowl 56 MVP Cooper Kupp behind an improved offensive line, while record-setting rookie receiver Puka Nacua and 1,100-yard rusher Kyren Williams have established themselves as elite playmakers. Coordinator Raheem Morris' defense has been better than anyone imagined after an offseason talent purge, putting the Rams in position to surprise opponents just two years after they won it all.

Hold the confetti: The Rams just don't have the man-for-man talent of most playoff rosters, and their playoff berth is a credit to their coaching staff and top playmakers. The defense is resourceful but lacks consistent pass-rushing pressure to help out a largely unimpressive secondary that could be carved up by an elite quarterback. Their special teams also have been among the worst in the NFL, with returning kicker Brett Maher looking just as shaky as he did before LA cut him earlier in the season. The Rams are ahead of schedule, and that precocity could be difficult to sustain against a top contender.

"This journey that this team has been on, and all the different things that they've navigated, has sure made it fulfilling to be a part of it, and you want to keep it going as long as you can." — Rams coach Sean McVay.

7. GREEN BAY PACKERS (9-8). Four Lombardi trophies in five Super Bowl trips: beat Chiefs 35-10 in Super Bowl 1, beat Raiders 33-14 in Super Bowl 2, beat Patriots 35-21 in Super Bowl 31, lost to Broncos 31-24 in Super Bowl 32, beat Steelers 31-25 in Super Bowl 45. Last year: 8-9.

Plan the parade: QB Jordan Love has thrown 18 touchdown passes and only one interception over his past eight games, sparking a three-game winning streak to close the regular season. Love ranks second in the NFL with 32 TD passes. WRs Jayden Reed and Romeo Doubs have eight TD catches each. RB Aaron Jones has rushed for at least 112 yards in each of his past three games. The defense has allowed just one TD over its past two games. That defense includes three players with at least 7½ sacks in Rashan Gary (9), Preston Smith (8) and Kenny Clark (7½).

Hold the confetti: Green Bay didn't have a single player selected to the Pro Bowl. The Packers have the NFL's youngest roster. Although the defense stepped up in its past two games, that followed a brutal three-game stretch in which it allowed 29.3 points per game. That stretch included a 33-30 Christmas Eve victory over the Carolina Panthers, who didn't score another point the rest of the season. K Anders Carlson's had a shaky rookie season, going 7 of 13 on field goals from 40-plus yards and missing five extra points.

"People counted us out before the season even started. We're resilient. We don't back down from anybody. We're not going to stop fighting. We've got a bunch of dogs in this locker room." — Jones.


AP Pro Football Writers Josh Dubow and Schuyler Dixon and AP Sports Writers Larry Lage, Fred Goodall, Dan Gelston, Greg Beacham and Steve Megargee contributioned.