NFL Playoff Picture 2021: Updated Scenarios and Bracket Before Divisional Round

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 12, 2021

NFL Playoff Picture 2021: Updated Scenarios and Bracket Before Divisional Round

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    And then there were eight.

    The biggest Wild Card Weekend in NFL history lived up to its name. The No. 2 seeds were the only teams to protect their seeds, and even that required the Buffalo Bills to sweat out a three-point win over the Indianapolis Colts, who became the first team to lose a playoff game in which they recorded 450-plus total yards and never turned the ball over.

    Now, attention shifts to the divisional round, when the top seeds rejoin the fight for Super Bowl LV.

    After laying out the updated playoff bracket and examining the postseason scenarios, we'll give an early breakdown of the four-game slate ahead.

Updated NFL Playoff Bracket

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    NFC

    No. 6 Los Angeles Rams at No. 1 Green Bay Packers; Saturday at 4:35 p.m. ET on Fox

    No. 5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers at No. 2 New Orleans Saints; Sunday at 6:40 p.m. ET on Fox

                  

    AFC

    No. 5 Baltimore Ravens at No. 2 Buffalo Bills; Saturday at 8:15 p.m. ET on NBC

    No. 6 Cleveland Browns at No. 1 Kansas City Chiefs; Sunday at 3:05 p.m. ET on CBS

Playoff Scenarios

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    To the higher seed goes the spoils.

    As the encapsulation of the regular season's significance, the seeding effectively decides everything when it comes to playoff matchups. The highest seed not only hosts its playoff game, but it also draws the lowest seed left in its conference.

    That means that until proved otherwise, the road to Super Bowl LV runs through Green Bay and Kansas City.

    Unless those teams trip up this weekend, in which case New Orleans and Buffalo could host the Conference Championships.

    Of course, if chaos reigns supreme and lower seeds sweep the divisional round, then Tampa Bay and Baltimore would suddenly become the surprise sites of these semifinal collisions.

Divisional-Round Preview

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    We never want to be blinded by seeding lines, and we certainly don't want to fall short in our recognition of the two sixth seeds.

    Cleveland's 48-37 takedown of the Pittsburgh Steelers was incredible for myriad reasons, as it allowed the Browns to secure their first playoff victory since 1994 and simultaneously snap a 17-game losing streak at Heinz Field.

    And the Los Angeles Rams' 30-20 triumph over the Seattle Seahawks featured an exceptional blend of defensive dominance and a boatload of Cam Akers (28 carries for 131 yards and a score, plus two receptions for another 45 yards).

    However, the Browns and Rams could struggle to keep up with the Chiefs and Packers, respectively. Baker Mayfield isn't Patrick Mahomes, and Jared Goff isn't Aaron Rodgers. It isn't always all about the quarterback, but big talent gaps like we have here are incredibly difficult to overcome.

    The weekend's real intrigue, at least in our eyes, resides with the pair of No. 5 vs. No. 2 matchups. Again, though, it's hard not to focus on the quarterbacks.

    Baltimore's Lamar Jackson is the reigning MVP, while Josh Allen makes the short list of current MVP candidates. Either can get hot enough to lead a Super Bowl run, and they can dismantle opposing defenses through the air, on the ground or—more often than not—with both.

    Buffalo's run defense can be bullied, but Allen and Stefon Diggs can ignite enough aerial fireworks to keep pace if that happens. This should be electric, and it seems destined to go down to the wire.

    In the NFC, it's a meeting of NFL signal-calling royalty with Tom Brady leading the Buccaneers into New Orleans for a tussle with Drew Brees and the Saints.

    "I guess it was inevitable," Brees told reporters. "Listen, the minute that he signed with the Bucs and came in the division, you felt like that was gonna be a team to contend with. That was gonna be a team that had playoff aspirations and beyond, just like us."

    Add a pair of top-10 scoring defenses—New Orleans ranked fifth in the regular season, Tampa Bay was three spots behind—and this has serious instant-classic potential.

    Throw the lopsided regular-season collisions (the Saints won by a combined 46 points) out the window and prepare for a nail-biter engineered by two of the greatest quarterbacks this league has ever seen.