Home NFL Divisional Round playoff primer: Times, TV networks, previews

NFL Divisional Round playoff primer: Times, TV networks, previews

Scott Ratcliffe
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Wild Card Weekend left us with eight teams standing to decide an NFL champion, and the sparks will be flying in the four Divisional Round matchups this weekend.

With two exciting games on tap for Saturday and two more set for Sunday, the postseason action continues to heat up as the temperatures outside continue to drop.

For many, it will be the perfect time to kick back on the couch, enjoy a snack and a beverage or two, and set the rest of the world aside while immersing themselves in the January tradition of watching playoff football at the highest level, and it all gets underway Saturday afternoon.

Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens, 4:30 p.m. Saturday (ABC/ESPN)

The AFC’s top seed went to Baltimore, as the North Division champs received a bye and will host No. 4 seed Houston in the weekend’s first matchup.

It will be a battle of two of the league’s most talented signal callers, as the Ravens (13-4) are led by star quarterback Lamar Jackson, while the upstart Texans (11-7) will counter with promising rookie C.J. Stroud.

AFC South champion Houston made a statement over the weekend, eliminating Cleveland, 45-14, to kick off the postseason, while the Ravens got a bye and had a chance to relax and watch extra film of their upcoming opponent.

Baltimore has been here before, wrapping up the No. 1 spot and securing home-field advantage in the 2019-20 season, only to be knocked out by the Titans in the Divisional Round. Jackson and his teammates are determined to not let history repeat itself.

“We had some time off to regroup, lock back in,” Jackson said earlier in the week. “I’m hype. Antsy.”

Jackson amassed 3,678 yards and 24 touchdowns through the air this season, while also running for a team-high 821 yards and 5 more touchdowns.

Star tight end Mark Andrews returned to practice after suffering what initially was thought to be a season-ending ankle injury. The latest reports from NFL Network’sIan Rapoport on Friday indicate that Andrews — who’s officially listed as questionable after being removed from the IR list — will not be activated prior to kickoff, but should the team advance, there’s a very realistic chance that he’d be in the mix for the duration of the playoffs.

Second-year reserve Isaiah Likely has stepped right in for Andrews during his six-game absence, contributing 5 touchdown catches and 56.4 yards per game across the final five weeks of the regular season.

“You see it game by game, him getting better and better and making big-time plays,” Andrews said of his backup, “and that’s a credit to how hard he’s worked and it’s been awesome to see him do that, and we’re thankful to have him.”

Former Boston College standout Zay Flowers has enjoyed a stellar rookie year, leading the team in targets (108), receptions (77) and receiving yards (858), while finding the end zone five times.

Running back Dalvin Cook is expected to make his Baltimore debut on Saturday, joining Gus Edwards and Justice Hill in the backfield. Cook had four-straight 1,000-yard seasons with the Vikings from 2019-22 before joining the Jets as a reserve in 2023, when he ran for just 214 yards on 67 carries and caught 15 passes for 78 yards in 15 games.

On the other side of the ball, the Ravens were No. 1 in scoring defense this season, allowing only 16.5 points per game, and also led the league in QB sacks with 60.0, and had the best turnover margin in the NFL with a plus-12.

“Everything you get versus this defense is going to be earned,” said Texans coach DeMeco Ryans. “They’ve done an outstanding job throughout the entire year. Talk about a consistent defense, they’ve been [at the top] all year in a ton of categories, but really great playmakers at the second level and they do a really good job up front of making you earn everything you get.”

Offensively, Stroud was increasingly effective as the season progressed. The second pick in the 2023 Draft out of Ohio State, Stroud put up huge numbers in his first year, posting 4,108 yards and 23 touchdowns through the air.

He completed 76 percent of his passes (16-for-21) for 274 yards and 3 touchdowns against the Browns last week, and has the young talent around him to pull off the upset.

“It’s really just up to us to go out there and do our jobs,” said Stroud. “We believe in ourselves and we trust in ourselves to win games, and hopefully win this game. We have complete confidence in ourselves, so we’re not really worried about what everybody else has got to say.”

History will be made either way Saturday — with a win against Houston, the city of Baltimore would be hosting the conference championship game for the first time since 1971 when they were the Colts, while the Texans have an opportunity to advance to their first AFC title in franchise history.

In their lone meeting this season, John Harbaugh’s squad blasted the Texans in the opener at M&T Bank Stadium, 25-9, on Sept. 10. Baltimore is a 9.5-point favorite to collect another win on Saturday.

Kansas City Chiefs at Buffalo Bills, 6:30 p.m. Sunday (CBS)

In the other AFC semifinal, No. 3 seed Kansas City travels north to Highmark Stadium in frigid Orchard Park, N.Y., to face No. 2 Buffalo on Sunday. If the matchup seems familiar, it is — the Bills and Chiefs will have duked it out in three of the last four years in the playoffs, with the previous two meetings (2020, 2021) being claimed by Kansas City, in Kansas City.

Andy Reid’s West Division-winning Chiefs (12-6) got past Miami, 26-7, on a chilly day in KC last weekend to get here, but will be taking their show on the road in the postseason for the first time in Patrick Mahomes’ already-storied career.

“Obviously I’ve been lucky to play a lot of games at home at Arrowhead Stadium, it kind of — everything has fell that way,” said the two-time league MVP, “but now we get the great opportunity to go on the road, play in a hostile environment… I’m excited for it because, I mean, it’s one of the best environments in football.”

Mahomes, who owns an impressive 12-3 career record in playoff games, had another solid campaign, throwing for 4,183 yards and 27 touchdowns. He still has trusty star tight end Travis Kelce (93 receptions, 984 yards, 5 TDs) to get the ball to, while SMU rookie receiver Rashee Rice continues to impress with back-to-back 100-yard performances, and second-year back Isiah Pacheco has emerged as one of the league’s most talented rushers.

Meanwhile, the AFC North-champion Bills (12-6) knocked off Pittsburgh last week, 31-17, after getting hot at the end of the regular season and earning the 2-seed with a big win over the Dolphins in Week 18.

It won’t be the first meeting between these two rivals, however, as Buffalo’s turnaround moment of the season came in KC on Dec. 10, rolling into Arrowhead Stadium after dropping three of its previous four games and walking away with a 20-17 victory that sparked the team’s current six-game win streak.

Bills QB Josh Allen has been the catalyst, throwing for 4,306 yards and 29 touchdowns during the regular season while rushing for 524 yards and 15 more scores. His top target, Stefon Diggs, eclipsed the 100-yard plateau in five of his first six contests, hauling in 3 TD catches against Miami in Week 4 alone, but has averaged just 51.3 yards per game with 3 touchdowns in the 12 games since.

Buffalo is looking to get back to the AFC title bout for the eighth time in franchise history, but will have to find a way to dethrone the reigning Super Bowl champs to do so.

“They’re at the top of the mountain,” Allen said of the Chiefs. “They know what it takes to get there. We’ve yet to do that. As a competitor, to be in a situation like this is something you dream about.”

The Bills, who will be without the services of starting cornerback Christian Benford and No. 2 wideout Gabe Davis, are a 3-point favorite to advance to the conference championship game next week. For the Chiefs, offensive tackle Wanya Morris and defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi are out, while receiver Kadarius Toney is questionable.

Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers, 8:15 p.m. Saturday (FOX)

On the NFC side, top-seeded San Francisco will host No. 7 Green Bay in the nightcap on Saturday. The 49ers (12-5) cruised to the NFC West title and secured home-field advantage in the process, and are the overall favorites to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February. The Niners and Packers did not meet in the regular season, but have locked horns nine times in the playoffs since the 1995-96 campaign, with San Francisco claiming each of the last four.

Quarterback Brock Purdy (4,280 yards, 31 touchdowns) and running back Christian McCaffrey (career-high and league-best 1,459 yards and 14 touchdowns rushing; 564 yards and a career-best 7 touchdowns receiving) have both put together MVP-caliber seasons, and will try to get the 49ers back to the NFC Championship for the third year in a row and fourth time in the past five seasons.

Those two, along with receiving weapons Brandon Aiyuk (17.9 yards per catch), George Kittle (15.7 yards per catch) and Deebo Samuel (14.9 yards per catch), breezed through the competition for the majority of the season, and will be tough to beat at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara this postseason.

The Niners did drop two of their last three regular-season contests, but are a 9.5-point favorite to get the job done this weekend.

On the injury front, San Fran is relatively healthy aside from defensive end Clelin Ferrell (out) and linebacker Dre Greenlaw (questionable).

“You try to go with how you feel your team is, and our team is ready to go,” said SF head coach Kyle Shanahan, “so [I’m] excited to see how we play.”

For Green Bay, running back A.J. Dillon, linebacker Isaiah McDuffie, cornerback Jaire Alexander and punter Daniel Whelan are all listed as questionable, while linebacker Kingsley Enagbare will not play.

After finishing strong and essentially backing their way into the playoffs, Matt LaFleur’s Packers (10-8) turned in the most stunning upset of the opening round, going into AT&T Stadium and knocking off No. 2 seed Dallas in what wound up being a shootout, 48-32, on Sunday.

Jordan Love tossed 3 TD passes — one of them to UVA rookie Dontayvion Wicks — and looked like a budding star in the process, while Aaron Jones rushed for 118 yards and 3 more scores, as Cowboys fans had to endure another playoff disappointment.

Can the Packers do it again? Love is confident that the feat is repeatable.

“I think every week, we’ve been getting better and better,” he said. “In terms of just execution, I think we’re executing better and better every week, so I think we’ve been putting better performances out there and I think there’s still more out there for us.”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Detroit Lions, 3 p.m. Sunday (NBC)

In the other NFC matchup, No. 3 seed Detroit — which won its first playoff game in 32 years on Saturday against Los Angeles — will host No. 4 Tampa Bay on Sunday. Fans in the Motor City will be prepping for their first Divisional Round contest since the 1991-92 season, when they defeated the Cowboys before falling in the conference final to Washington.

In one of the feel-good playoff moments in recent memory, the NFC North-winning Lions (13-5) had to pass their first test last weekend against Los Angeles, and Jared Goff — the league’s second-best passer with 4,575 yards during the regular season — held on and defeated his old team and former Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford, 24-23, in a thrilling finish at Ford Field.

Detroit took a 7-point lead midway through the third quarter, as the Rams managed to get a pair of Brett Maher field goals on the board from there, but had to punt it away with just over four minutes remaining and never got the ball back.

Amon-Ra St. Brown was the third-best receiver in the league this season, registering 1,515 yards on 119 catches (tied for second), and finding the end zone 10 times (tied for fourth). On the ground, the Lions boast one of the top duos in the NFL with David Montgomery (1,015 yards, 13 touchdowns) and No. 12 pick Jahmyr Gibbs (945 yards, 10 touchdowns) providing a two-headed attack.

Meanwhile, the Buccaneers (10-8) and quarterback Baker Mayfield pulled off a bit of a shocker of their own in the Wild Card round, sending Jalen Hurts and the Eagles packing with a 32-9 victory, jumping out to a 13-0 advantage before Philly could blink.

Mayfield, who passed for 4,044 yards and 28 touchdowns in the regular season, went for 337 yards and 3 scores in the Wild Card victory, as the Bucs outgained the reigning NFC champs by a 426-276 margin, limiting the Eagles to just 42 rushing yards.

Tampa has won six of its last seven games heading into the weekend, and Mayfield is hoping to keep the momentum rolling.

“Just the stretch and the run that we had to go on, it makes it even more enjoyable to get to the point where we’re at right now,” said Mayfield, who will be competing in just his second career postseason game this weekend. “We’re happy, but we’re not satisfied. We’ve got bigger goals and so we’ve got to keep working.”

Detroit prevailed by a 20-6 margin in Tampa back in Week 6, as Goff threw for 353 yards and a pair of touchdowns. St. Brown had a big day as well, with 12 grabs for 124 yards and a TD. He could be in line for another monumental outing on Sunday.

“We couldn’t really get the running game going, they stopped the run pretty well that game, so we had to throw it,” recalled St. Brown of the first meeting. “We threw it pretty well, I had a good game… You can tell that [Tampa] is a completely different team than when we played them, so we’ve got to be ready. It’s hard to beat a team twice in this league, we know that, but I feel like it’s going to be a completely different game this time around.”

Only wideout Kalif Raymond and rookie tight end Sam LaPorta appear on Detroit’s injury report, as both are carrying the “questionable” tag, while the Bucs have also not yet ruled anyone out, but have four guys who share the same status — receiver Chris Godwin, running back Chase Edmonds, and linebackers Shaq Barrett and Yaya Diaby.

The Lions, who have won four of their last five games coming into the weekend, are favored by 6.5 points to come out on top this Sunday. A win would give them consecutive home playoff wins for the first time since winning the championship in 1957, and leave them one game shy of their first-ever trip to the Super Bowl.

Scott Ratcliffe

Scott Ratcliffe

Scott Ratcliffe has worked as a freelance writer for several publications over the past decade-plus, with a concentration on local and college sports. He is also a writer and editor for his father’s website, JerryRatcliffe.com, dedicated to the coverage of University of Virginia athletics.