The N.F.C. side of the N.F.L. playoff bracket began to whittle Sunday with the Buccaneers thoroughly dispatching of the Philadelphia Eagles, beating them 31-15 to advance to the divisional round with at least one more guaranteed home game in Tampa Bay. Tom Brady threw for 271 yards and the Buccaneers’ defense prevented the Eagles from scoring until the fourth quarter.
The Buccaneers, the two-seed will play the highest-remaining seed out of the conference’s other wild-card games — the No. 6 San Francisco 49ers vs. the No. 3 Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night, and the No. 4 Los Angeles Rams vs. the No. 5 Arizona Cardinals on Monday night.
The A.F.C.’s playoff picture will be resolved after the two-seed Kansas City faces the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Sunday night matchup.
The lowest remaining seed from each conference will face the Green Bay Packers (the top N.F.C. seed) and the Tennessee Titans (the top A.F.C. seed) in the divisional round.
Below is a look at Sunday’s matchups.
All times are Eastern.
Buccaneers 31, Eagles 15
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers completed the first task in attempting to defend their Super Bowl title by beating the Eagles, who for the first three quarters failed to score any points and inflicted themselves with key mistakes. The second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts threw for 258 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, one of them a delayed throw on a potential touchdown to the rookie DeVonta Smith in the end zone.
Philadelphia, who finished the regular season rushing for a league-best 159.7 yards per game only rushed for 95 yards. Jalen Reagor muffed a punt early in the third quarter, causing a turnover that led to a Buccaneers touchdown, and Smith their best receiver, caught only four passes for 60 yards.
Tom Brady and his receivers in the first quarter initially seemed out of sync, but eventually regrouped, though Tampa Bay lost starting right tackle Tristan Wirfs for the game to an ankle injury. The Buccaneers await their next opponent in the divisional round, which will be the highest-remaining seed after the rest of the N.F.C.’s results are finalized Monday night.
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.
2021 N.F.L. Season News and Analysis
- The Bills Are Near-Perfect in Win Over Patriots: Buffalo scored touchdowns on all seven of its offensive possessions against one of the N.F.L.’s best defenses.
- What Happened in Saturday’s N.F.L. Playoff Games: Here’s how the Bills’ and Bengals’ wins could affect division-round matchups.
- 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.
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.)
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.”