The Green Bay Packers are the only NFL team that didn't lose a game at home in the 2021 season. They're counting on their frenzied fanbase and frigid climes to help them get to the Super Bowl for the first time in 11 years.
"I'm really looking forward to having a full crowd, that good old Green Bay weather," Aaron Rodgers said after the Packers' 13-4 finish gave them the top seed in the NFC for the second straight year. "It's been an advantage for us for a long time. I think it's an advantage having 78,000 instead of 7,800 like we did last year."
Actually, only 7,772 fans attended last year's conference championship because of COVID-19 restrictions when Tom Brady led Tampa Bay to a 31-26 win at Lambeau Field. Brady and the Buccaneers went on to beat Kansas City in the Super Bowl, Tampa Bay's first title since 2003 and Brady's record seventh championship to go with the half dozen he won in New England.
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This time, the Packers can have full capacity — 81,441 — at their games beginning with the divisional round.
The Buccaneers are the No. 2 seed followed by the Dallas Cowboys, led by rookie sensation Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs on defense and a talent-laden offense guided by a now-healthy Dak Prescott, and the Los Angeles Rams. The wild cards are Arizona, San Francisco and Philadelphia.
The Rams, powered by the midseason additions of Odell Beckham Jr. and Von Miller, are hoping to do what the Bucs did a year ago and play in the Super Bowl at their home stadium, SoFi Field in Inglewood, California, on Feb. 13.
Wild-card weekend pits the Eagles at the Buccaneers on Saturday, the 49ers at the Cowboys on Sunday and the Cardinals at the Rams on Monday night.
Meanwhile, in the AFC, no team ever needed a first-round bye in the playoffs more than the Tennessee Titans, who used a record 91 players this season, most ever in a non-strike season.
The Titans (12-5) edged perennial power Kansas City (12-5) for the top seed and the lone bye in the AFC playoffs.
The week off also gives running back Derrick Henry, the 2020 AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year, more time to practice for an expected return for the divisional round. He broke his right foot and underwent surgery more than two months ago and started practicing with the Titans this month.
Despite playing in just eight games, Henry still finished the season ninth in the NFL in rushing with 937 yards after leading the league each of the past two seasons.
The Chiefs, Bills (11-6) and Bengals (10-7) also won their divisions and the wild cards are Las Vegas (10-7), New England (10-7) and Pittsburgh (9-7-1) in what will almost assuredly be Ben Roethlisberger's farewell.
The wild-card round begins Saturday with the Raiders at the Bengals and the Patriots visiting AFC East foe Buffalo. On Sunday, the Steelers visit the Chiefs.
1. GREEN BAY PACKERS (13-4). AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 1. Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 45, 31-25 over Steelers on Feb. 6, 2011, at Arlington, Texas. Last year: No. 1 seed, beat Rams 32-18 in divisional round, lost to Buccaneers 31-26 in NFC championship. Eleventh trip to playoffs in Rodgers' 14 seasons as starting QB. Third consecutive NFC North title under Matt LaFleur.
Why they'll prevail: The Packers can get to the Super Bowl without ever leaving Lambeau Field. Reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers has thrown 20 TD passes without an interception over his past seven games, and he says the fractured pinky toe that bothered him the second half of the season is starting to feel better. The Packers are getting healthier just in time for the playoffs after struggling through injuries throughout 2021. The O-line got star LT David Bakhtiari and C Josh Myers back for the regular-season finale. CB Jaire Alexander and OLB Za'Darius Smith are expected to be back for the playoffs.
Why they'll derail: A defense that seemed much improved under new coordinator Joe Barry for much of the season has started to slump. After allowing 18 points per game during an 8-2 start, the Packers have given up 27.3 points per game over their past nine. Special teams has been a major weakness all season. Slow starts also have been a problem. The Packers have been outscored 84-51 in the first quarter. Fall behind early in the playoffs and they might find themselves booking flights to Cancun instead of L.A.
"It is great having the road to the Super Bowl going through Lambeau. But as we learned last year, that doesn't guarantee anything. We have to take advantage of being at home and playing in our climate." — Packers coach Matt LaFleur.
2. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (13-4). AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 2. Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 55, 31-9 over the Chiefs on Feb. 7, 2021, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. Last year: No. 5 seed, beat Washington 31-23 in wild-card round, beat Saints 30-20 in divisional round, beat Packers 31-26 in NFC championship. Won first NFC South title since 2007.
Why they'll prevail: The defending champs haven't been as dominant as some people envisioned when the team defied the odds by returning every starter from last season, but it hasn't been because of Tom Brady and a potent offense that averaged 406 yards and 30.1 points. The Bucs set a franchise record for regular-season victories and won their first NFC South title in 14 years. At age 44, and in his 22nd season, Brady has had one of his best years, leading the league in completions (a single-season record 485), attempts (719), passing yards (5,136) and TD passes (43). He's just the third QB in the past 30 years to lead the league in all four categories.
Why they'll derail: The dominant defense led by Lavonte David, Shaquil Barrett and Devin White peaked late last season, keying an impressive postseason run. Injuries have made it difficult to build on that success. CBs Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Richard Sherman spent time on IR. Safeties Jordan Whitehead and Antoine Winfield Jr. have been in and out of the lineup. And while the run defense yields an NFC-low 92.5 yards per game, opponents have enjoyed more success on the ground lately with LBs David (foot), Barrett (knee) and Jason Pierre-Paul (shoulder) ailing.
"I think our guys are just prepared. Once we figure the other team out, they're in trouble." — Coach Bruce Arians, dismission the notion that parting ways with oft-troubled WR Antonio Brown could wind up galvanizing his high-powered offense and inspiring a deep playoff run.
3. DALLAS COWBOYS (12-5). AP Pro32 Ranking No. 5. Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 30, beat Steelers 27-17 on Jan. 28, 1996 at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. Last year: 6-10, missed playoffs. First NFC East title and first playoff appearance since 2018.
Why they'll prevail: QB Dak Prescott and the league's No. 1 offense have plenty of options to send the Cowboys deeper in the playoffs than they've been in 26 years. While their numbers aren't staggering, WRs Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb can take over games. Cedrick Wilson can be a dangerous option with Michael Gallup sidelined by a knee injury. Star RB Ezekiel Elliott has battled a knee injury most of the year, but looks to be getting healthy at the right time.
Why they'll derail: The Cowboys have an opportunistic defense that led the NFL with 34 takeaways in the regular season. That unit has played more freely when Dallas takes a lead. The Cowboys will be in trouble if they don't, and they've had a tendency to let opposing rushing attacks dictate games when they don't get the takeaways. Dallas never led in its last four losses and didn't force a turnover in three of them.
"For me to have this opportunity before me on Sunday is kind of unimaginable. Honestly, just because I can't really believe it right now. It's a surreal moment. Most importantly, I'm excited and I can't wait to do it with my brothers." — Lamb, a second-year player preparing for his playoff debut.
4. LOS ANGELES RAMS (12-5). AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 6. Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 34, St. Louis beat Titans 23-16 on Jan. 30, 2000, at Atlanta. Last year: 10-6, No. 6 seed, beat Seahawks 30-20 in wild-card round, lost to Packers 32-18 in divisional round. First NFC West title since 2018. Second straight trip to playoffs.
Why they'll prevail: The Rams' offense is good and getting better, with WR Cooper Kupp's historic season and QB Matthew Stafford's big-play ability pushing Los Angeles to five wins in six games down the stretch. Their passing game ranks fifth in the NFL with 273.1 yards per game. After two years of stagnation, L.A. is scoring points in bunches while controlling the ball with a balanced approach. The Rams seem capable of outscoring just about any opponent that has defensive flaws to exploit, particularly with a revitalized rushing attack led by Sony Michel and Cam Akers.
Why they'll derail: Los Angeles' defensive stars are supported by an unimpressive cast, and opponents have been taking advantage of those flaws. The Rams' linebackers and defensive backs beyond Jalen Ramsey are simply not at all impressive, and they're getting worse: leading tackler Jordan Fuller (ankle) is out for the season, further depleting the secondary with the departure of its top safety. From targeting David Long or Nick Scott in coverage to forcing LB Troy Reeder to stop plays in the middle of the field, good opponents have racked up big numbers on the Rams' defense, and there are only good opponents left in the playoffs.
"You just have a little bit more familiarity with it, but it's going to come down to the same things that are in alignment with winning football games: executing, taking care of the football, getting takeaways, tackling, breaking tackles, being good situationally in third down and red area." — Rams coach Sean McVay on opening the playoffs against NFC West rival Arizona.
5. ARIZONA CARDINALS (11-6). AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 9. No Lombardis. The Cardinals lost Super Bowl 43 to the Steelers 27-23 on Feb. 1, 2009, at Tampa. Last year: 8-8, missed playoffs. First playoff appearance since 2015.
Why they'll prevail: The best news for the Cardinals is that they're going on the road. Arizona had a remarkable 8-1 record away from home this season, including a win over the Rams in Week 4. Arizona is a team that doesn't have a ton of holes when it's playing well and QB Kyler Murray has been one of the best in the league, completing nearly 70% of his passes. The Cardinals could also get a huge boost if three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt is able to return from a shoulder injury.
Why they'll derail: Simply put, the Cardinals aren't playing very good football these days. Arizona is 1-4 over its past five games, 4-6 over the past 10 and hasn't looked much like a team ready to go on a deep playoff run. Arizona's offense hasn't looked the same since three-time All-Pro WR DeAndre Hopkins sustained a knee injury.
"I think this is what he's been waiting for for three years. He's a guy who wants to be playing for something and knows he's playing for something. This is his first shot at the playoffs, and I expect him to probably play the best game of his career. I know he's going to give it everything he's got," — coach Kliff Kingsbury on Murray.
6. SAN FRANCISCO 49ers (10-7). AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 10. Five Lombardis but none since Super Bowl 29, when they beat the Chargers 49-26 on Jan. 29, 1995. Last year: 6-10, missed playoffs after losing Super Bowl 54 to Chiefs 31-20.
Why they'll prevail: The Niners offense is loaded with playmakers who can make big plays out of seemingly nothing. Deebo Samuel had 1,770 yards from scrimmage and 14 TDs as a receiver and a running back, George Kittle is one of the top tight ends at getting yards after the catch and rookie RB Elijah Mitchell averaged 100 yards from scrimmage per game. Throw in improving WR Brandon Aiyuk and versatile FB Kyle Juszczyk and coach Kyle Shanahan has numerous options for his creative playbook.
Why they'll derail: While San Francisco is loaded with playmakers, there are still major questions at quarterback. Jimmy Garoppolo had good stretches this season, but still is apt to throw interceptions at key times and struggles when he needs to get the ball deep or outside the numbers. Garoppolo's limitations were a reason why San Francisco drafted his eventual replacement in Trey Lance last spring and could end up dooming the 49ers the same way they did in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl two years ago.
"The culture of our team is never quit. We've been in good situations, bad situations over the years. One thing I can say is, even before Kyle and (GM) John (Lynch) got here, there was never any quit in us. When they got here, they implemented their culture. We don't quit, no matter the situation, and we worry about the next snap." — DE Arik Armstead.
7. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (9-8). AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 13. Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 52, beat Patriots 41-33 at Minneapolis for first title in three tries. Last year: 4-11-1, missed playoffs. Fourth playoff appearance in five years.
Why they'll prevail: Dual-threat QB Jalen Hurts leads the league's best rushing offense, but also has talented playmakers in WR DeVonta Smith and TE Dallas Goedert. Running the ball effectively with Hurts and a stable of productive backs, including Miles Sanders, Jordan Howard, Boston Scott and Kenny Gainwell, could keep Tom Brady and Tampa's high-powered offense on the sideline. The Bucs can't score as much if the Eagles control the clock and keep Brady off the field.
Why they'll derail: The Eagles were 0-6 against opponents that made the playoffs, 1-7 against teams that finished with a winning record. Rookie coach Nick Sirianni is coaching his first playoff game and Hurts, who played in big games in college, is starting for the first time in the postseason. These are not the ingredients for a deep playoff run.
"I don't remember," — Hurts, when asked his earliest recollection of Brady.
1. TENNESSEE TITANS (12-5). AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 4. No Lombardi Trophies. Last year: No. 4 seed, lost to Ravens 20-13 in wild-card round. Third consecutive trip to the playoffs. Second straight AFC South title.
Why they'll prevail: The Titans are healthier than they’ve been all season. Although they didn't capitalize on their previous No. 1 seeds in 2000 and '08, when they lost to the Ravens in the divisional round both years, they are 8-0 over the past four seasons under coach Mike Vrabel when having at least nine days to prepare for an opponent. QB Ryan Tannehill is coming off his best game of the season, matching his career high with four TD passes. Not only is Henry preparing to return, but WRs Julio Jones and A.J. Brown are hitting stride after battling through injuries. Only four NFL teams allowed fewer points than the Titans’ revamped defense, and their 43 sacks more than doubled their total from 2020.
Why they'll derail: The Titans can be their own worst enemy. The offense starts too slowly, and they settle for too many field goals. K Randy Bullock has missed six field-goal attempts between 40 and 49 yards. Among playoff teams, only the Niners (minus-4) and Raiders (minus-9) have a worse turnover margin than the Titans' minus-3.
“Most players are defined by what they do in the playoffs. Don’t get me wrong, I think having regular-season success is really good, but I think when you have a culture that we have here and the type of program that we have, we’re more defined on what we do in the playoffs,” — Pro Bowl S Kevin Byard.
2. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (12-5). AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 3. Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 54, 31-20 over the 49ers on Feb. 2, 2020, at Miami. Last year: No. 1 seed, beat Browns 22-17 in divisional round, beat Bills 38-24 in AFC championship; lost to Bucs 31-9 in Super Bowl. Seventh consecutive trip to the playoffs. Sixth consecutive AFC West title.
Why they'll prevail: Patrick Mahomes. Do you need another reason? His prolific passing ability fundamentally changed the way defenses play the Chiefs, forcing them to use two-deep shell coverages on just about every snap. Mahomes still threw for nearly 5,000 yards with 37 TD passes. WR Tyreek Hill took advantage of all those throws under the coverage to set a franchise record with 111 receptions, and TE Travis Kelce had his fourth straight 1,000-yard season.
Why they'll derail: The Chiefs defense, which has held five consecutive opponents to fewer than 10 points at Arrowhead Stadium, was an abject failure through the first six weeks of the season. They ranked near the bottom of the league in just about every statistical category. And while they have played like an entirely different team the past three months, there were signs of cracks in a late-season loss to Cincinnati that cost them a first-round bye and a nip-and-tuck win at Denver to end the regular season.
“There’s a lot of teams that won’t be out there this week. It’s a blessing, a blessing to be here in Kansas City and have the success we’ve had over my nine years in the league, and we just try to take advantage of those opportunities, because not everybody gets them.” — Kelce.
3. BUFFALO BILLS (13-3). AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 8. No Lombardis in four Super Bowl appearances. Last year: No. 2 seed, beat Colts 27-24 in wild-card game, beat Ravens 17-3 in divisional round, lost to Chiefs 38-24 in AFC championship. Fourth trip to the playoffs in five seasons. Second straight AFC East title.
Why they’ll prevail: It’s not just the Josh Allen Aerial Show anymore. While Allen became Buffalo’s first player to top 4,000 yards passing and throw at least 30 TDs twice in his career, the Bills’ late-season run to clinch the AFC East was partially fueled by a re-emphasis on running the ball. After managing 495 yards rushing and two scores in Buffalo’s first 12 games, Devin Singletary combined for 375 yards rushing and five touchdowns (including one receiving) over the past five. The Bills are 10-1 when running for a touchdown and 11-2 when topping 100 yards rushing. Add in a Bills defense which allowed the fewest total yards, fewest passing yards and fewest points in the NFL and combined for 19 sacks over a season-ending four-game winning streak.
Why they’ll derail: The Bills padded their win total against non-playoff opponents and either rookie or journeymen QBs. Buffalo finished 7-2 against QBs with 16 or fewer career starts, including splitting two games against New England’s Mac Jones. Buffalo went 4-4 against more experienced starters, with losses against Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Tannehill and Carson Wentz. On offense, slow starts have been the recipe for failure. Buffalo has overcome a second-half deficit just once, in a 29-15 win over the Falcons on Jan. 2.
“My playoff message is we’re going to do what we always do. We’re coming out here, we’re playing fast and playing physical, especially up front. We hear all the chirping. We hear guys talking about us and all that. It ain’t nothing. We’re going to strap it up and let the pads talk come Saturday.” — DE Jerry Hughes.
4. CINCINNATI BENGALS (10-7). AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 7. No Lombardis in two Super Bowl appearances. Last year: 4-11-1, missed playoffs. First playoff appearance and first AFC North title since 2015 season.
Why they'll prevail: Dynamic young stars aren’t aware and don’t care about the team’s playoff futility in the past three decades (zero wins in the past seven postseason appearances). Second-year QB Joe Burrow is unflappable and does whatever it takes to move the chains, even if it means taking big hits. He and rookie WR Ja’Marr Chase, his national championship teammate at LSU, shattered a host of franchise records. Chase and second-year WR Tee Higgins are masterful at 50-50 balls. Pro Bowl RB Joe Mixon is a powerful, relentless runner.
Why they'll derail: Protecting Burrow has been an issue all season. Injuries have bitten into the offensive line depth, and the loss of veteran tackle Riley Reiff to an ankle injury last month was a big hit. Burrow was sacked a league-high 51 times and chances are he'll be on the run again in the playoffs, which could force him into critical mistakes. The defense was 26th in the league against the pass.
“The amount of time, the amount of hours spent away from your family and then finally to have some success, to have something to show for it, it’s really cool,” — S Jessie Bates III on the Bengals' division title after finishing in the AFC North basement in each of his first three seasons.
5. LAS VEGAS RAIDERS (10-7). AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 12. Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 18, beat Washington 38-9 on Jan. 22, 1984, while based in Los Angeles. Last year: 8-8, missed playoffs. First playoff appearance since 2016.
Why they'll prevail: The strength of the Raiders all season has been a defensive line that has put relentless pressure on quarterbacks led by edge rushers Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue. Crosby led the NFL in pressures with 101, according to Pro Football Focus, and Ngakoue had a team-high 10 sacks. If they can maintain that level of play, it should take pressure off the secondary and keep the game close enough for Derek Carr and the offense, as well as clutch kicker Daniel Carlson, to pull games out at the end.
Why they'll derail: The Raiders rebuilt their O-line this offseason and it hasn’t paid off. LT Kolton Miller has been a rock all season and C Andre James has improved. But rookie RG Alex Leatherwood, RT Brandon Parker and LG John Simpson have struggled both in run and pass blocking for most of the season. If that doesn’t improve, the Raiders will have a tough time putting up enough points to compete with some of the high-powered offenses in the postseason.
“Obviously, it’s something I’ve dreamed of since I was drafted. That’s all I want to do is get to the playoffs and try and win a championship." — Carr on his first playoff appearance in his eight-year career.
6. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (10-7). AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 11. Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 53, beat the Rams 13-3 for sixth title on Feb. 3, 2019. Last year: 7-9, missed playoffs for first time since 2008.
Why they'll prevail: The Patriots spent exactly one season out of the playoffs following Tom Brady’s departure to Tampa Bay. Bill Belichick made the bold move to name rookie first-round pick Mac Jones the starting QB after he beat out 2020 starter Cam Newton in training camp. Jones took his lumps with the Patriots starting 2-4. But he grew up a lot during a subsequent seven-game winning streak. He also is playing alongside a defense that allowed just 17.8 points per game, ranking second in the NFL. The Patriots are tied for third in the NFL with 30 takeaways. They also have one the league’s top ballhawks in CB J.C. Jackson with an AFC-best eight interceptions. LB Matt Judon has also been a stellar addition in his first season in New England, leading the team with 12½ sacks.
Why they'll derail: As strong as the defense has played, the Patriots also have had a propensity to fall behind early in games. They are 8-1 this season when scoring points in the first quarter, but just 2-6 when they fail to do so. It will be a lot to ask a rookie QB in his first trip to the postseason to lead the team back if they fall behind.
“All we wanted was a ticket to the dance. We got that. We’re in the playoffs. And now we gotta go make it happen.” — Judon.
7. PITSBURGH STEELERS (9-7-1). AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 14. Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 43, 27-23 win over the Cardinals on Feb. 1, 2009, at Tampa, Florida. Last year: 12-4, No. 3 seed. Lost to Browns 48-37 in wild-card game. Tenth playoff appearance in coach Mike Tomlin’s 15 seasons.
Why they'll prevail: The Steelers may be the longest shot in the playoff field but in Roethlisberger they have a veteran leader that — while hardly in his prime at 39 and in his 18th and likely final season — has two Super Bowl rings. The Steelers also have perhaps the most disruptive defensive player in the league in OLB T.J. Watt, whose 22½ sacks tied Hall of Famer Michael Strahan’s single-season record. If Roethlisberger can summon one last bit of magic and Watt’s play can cover up some serious warts on a defense that ranks last against the run, maybe the Steelers can carve out a path to the Super Bowl much as they did 16 years ago when they won the franchise’s fifth Lombardi Trophy as a sixth seed.
Why they'll derail: The 2005 group happened to have the NFL’s third-ranked defense to turn to when things got tight. Not so much this time around. Only eight teams gave up more yards than the Steelers in 2021, the franchise’s worst performance in more than 30 years. Combine that with an offense that can be painful to watch at times as it tries to dink-and-dunk opponents to death and there’s a reason Pittsburgh is the longest shot in the 14-team playoff field.
“I’ve been in a lot of these games where the team that makes the fewest mistakes is going to win. I just try and tell those guys that listen, we got to go out there and you got to play free and have fun, play football, but understand that it does even get a little bit faster and the intensity does pick up,” — Roethlisberger, who's making his 12th trip to the playoffs.
With contributions from AP Pro Football Writers Rob Maaddi, Josh Dubow, Schuyler Dixon, and Teresa M. Walker, and AP Sports Writer Dave Skretta, John Wawrow, Kyle Hightower, Mitch Stacy, Will Graves, Fred Goodall, Steve Megargee, David Brandt and Greg Beacham.