What to Watch for in Sunday’s N.F.L. Games

Sunday’s slate of N.F.L. playoff games features the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Kansas City, the A.F.C.’s most dominant team in recent years. But in a season in which no one truly pulled away as the N.F.L.’s best team, this postseason could be just as unpredictable as the regular season.

The Green Bay Packers (the top N.F.C. seed) and the Tennessee Titans (the top A.F.C. seed) have a bye week. But 12 other teams will face off this weekend.

Below is a look at Sunday’s matchups.

All times are Eastern.

Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

1 p.m., Fox

The No. 2 Buccaneers (13-4) enter Sunday afternoon’s matchup at Raymond James Stadium as favorites against the No. 7-seeded Eagles (9-8).

Tampa Bay has the experience and the weapons that could take it far in the playoffs, but its roster enters the postseason brimming with injuries. Wide receiver Chris Godwin won’t return this season after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament against the Saints in December. The Buccaneers released receiver Antonio Brown amid conflict between him and the team about a lingering injury from October. Mike Evans, who is one of quarterback Tom Brady’s top receiving targets, is dealing with a lingering hamstring issue.

On defense, linebacker Shaquil Barrett, defensive back Jamel Dean, cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting and edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul have all missed time. Linebacker Lavonte David and running back Leonard Fournette were both designated to return from the team’s injured reserve list and are expected to be game-time decisions.

With injuries putting a dent in the Buccaneers’ roster, a lot has been asked of the 44-year-old Brady, who threw for the most yards ever in his career this season. He led the league in passing (5,316), attempts (719) and touchdowns (43).

The Eagles enter the game relatively healthy with one of the best rushing attacks among this weekend’s teams.

2021 N.F.L. Season News and Analysis

  • What the Bills’ and Bengals’ Wins Mean for the Divisional Matchups: Cincinnati beat the Las Vegas Raiders to end a 31-year run of postseason futility and the Bills dispatched with the Patriots.
  • The Reason Every Playoff Team Will Lose: All but one remaining team have a fatal flaw.
  • The Buccaneers’ Offense Works Because of This Man (and Tom Brady): Byron Leftwich has customized gameplans to a hodgepodge of stars, injury replacements and holdovers.
  • Are the Cardinals Cursed?: Arizona has the longest championship drought in American sports. A long-forgotten N.F.L. title theft may be the reason.
  • The N.F.L Coaches Fired So Far in 2022: The Texans’ firing of David Culley leaves the league with just one head coach who is Black.

After a 2-5 start to the season, Coach Nick Sirianni shifted to a run-first offensive plan featuring running back Miles Sanders. Philadelphia finished the season with the league’s highest rushing average (159.7 yards per game). Teams also had to account for quarterback Jalen Hurts as a runner. He led the Eagles with 784 rushing yards during the regular season.

Sanders missed the final two games of the season with a hand injury but is expected to play on Sunday.

When Brady last met the Eagles in the postseason — in the Super Bowl for the 2017 season — Philadelphia, led by quarterback Nick Foles, bested Brady’s Patriots, 41-33.

San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys

4:30 p.m., CBS

The 49ers (10-7) were 2-4 on Oct. 24, behind the Cardinals and the Rams in a tough N.F.C. West division. The Cowboys (12-5) were 5-1 by then, sitting comfortably in the N.F.C. East.

San Francisco’s poor start to the season was in part the result of a brutal schedule. Its first six games included matchups against the Seahawks, the Packers, the Cardinals and the Colts. Two of those teams are in the postseason (Indianapolis missed the playoffs after a Week 18 blunder against Jacksonville). The 49ers played themselves back into playoff contention, though. They won six of their last eight games and came back from a 17-point deficit to defeat the Rams last week to clinch the No. 6 seed in the N.F.C.

Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco’s quarterback, battled various injuries all season. Recently, he tore a ligament and chipped a bone in his throwing thumb, which sidelined him in Week 17, but he’s expected to start Sunday.

The 49ers have a physical defense that defends both the run and the pass well, and they have a bevy of threats on offense. But the centerpiece of San Francisco’s offense is Deebo Samuel, who can bully teams when he’s split out wide and when he’s in the backfield. Samuel was second in the league in receiving yards after the catch and recorded over 1,400 receiving yards (a team high) and over 300 rushing yards.

When Dallas’s offense was on the same page this season, it was one of the N.F.L.’s most fearsome units. Quarterback Dak Prescott completed over 80 percent of his passes in two of the Cowboys’ first three games. In their season opener, he threw for over 400 yards and three touchdowns against Tampa Bay. But the Cowboys’ dynamic offensive attack has vacillated between exceptional and mediocre this season.

Miscommunication between Prescott and his receivers has stifled Dallas’s offensive rhythm. Opposing defenses have essentially eliminated explosive plays. And a knee injury from October has limited running back Ezekiel Elliott.

Dallas never gave up its spot as the top team in the N.F.C. East, however. Its defense has the front-runner for the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year Award in linebacker Micah Parsons, and the league’s interception leader in cornerback Trevon Diggs. (The Cowboys do struggle against the run and will face one of the league’s best running teams.)

Najee Harris, the Steelers’ rookie running back who had 1,200 rushing yards this season, is questionable for Sunday’s game against Kansas City.Credit…Terrance Williams/Associated Press

Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City

8:15 p.m., NBC

Pittsburgh (9-7-1) earned a playoff spot with the Colts’ puzzling loss to the Jaguars and the Chargers’ overtime loss to the Raiders in Week 18. The Steelers’ gift? A trip to Arrowhead Stadium to face a Kansas City team that beat them by 26 points in the regular season.

Kansas City (12-5) clinched the No. 2 seed and the A.F.C. West but may have one of the weakest defensive units in the postseason. After a disastrous start to the season, Kansas City’s defense seemed to repair itself during an eight-game winning streak — it gave up just 9 points in each of three straight games — but the team has struggled to stop good offenses.

The Steelers, with a banged-up veteran quarterback and an embattled offensive line, may not present the most frightening offensive challenge for Kansas City. But they could benefit from the return of their No. 1 receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was back in practice this week after being placed on the injured reserve list in October with a shoulder injury. Pittsburgh has a 21-day window to activate him to its roster.

Najee Harris, the Steelers’ rookie running back who had 1,200 rushing yards this season, is questionable for Sunday’s game with an elbow injury.

Kansas City expects to have receiver Tyreek Hill, who is dealing with a heel injury. And running backs Darrel Williams (toe) and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (shoulder) should return as well.

Quarterback Patrick Mahomes is 2-0 against the Steelers with nine touchdown passes and no interceptions. He had over 200 passing yards and three touchdowns in Week 16 without one of his top targets, tight end Travis Kelce, who missed the game after failing to clear the league’s Covid-19 protocols.

Pittsburgh’s strength is its ability to get to the quarterback, thanks in large part to T.J. Watt, arguably the best pass rusher in the league. The Steelers’ ability to generate pressure and disrupt Mahomes could be the key to avoiding a postseason embarrassment for a team that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said isn’t “supposed to be here.”

“We don’t have a chance,” Roethlisberger told reporters this week. “So let’s go in and play and have fun.”

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