The NFL playoffs begin Saturday, taking us on a ride that won’t end until the big confetti shower commences on the night of Feb. 7 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
Here are 10 storylines to get you ready for the 12-team Super Bowl tournament that’s about to kick off:
1. Marvin Lewis's Tree of Success
As has been well chronicled, Cincinnati hasn’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season, way back toward the end of the team’s Sam Wyche coaching era. But in a way, the Bengals are already the big winners in this year’s postseason, thanks to Cincinnati, Washington and Minnesota all winning their division and taking part in this weekend’s opening round of the playoffs.
Head coach Marvin Lewis is back for his seventh playoff trip with the Bengals, and he’s joined by his two former coordinators: Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer, both of whom served under Lewis as recently as 2013. Gruden led Washington to a surprise NFC East title in his second season on the job, going 9–7, and Zimmer has his 11–5 Vikings in the playoffs as the NFC North champion in his second season.
You would think that kind of recent track record bodes pretty well for the head coaching prospects of current Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who is one of the hotter candidates in this year’s hiring season. And if the Bengals, Vikings and Washington can manage to win at home this weekend, the Cincinnati effect could be even more pronounced in this year’s postseason.
2. Later Start, Colder Weather
Everything on this season’s NFL schedule started a bit later due to the way the calendar fell in 2015, but the league has never opened its postseason on a later date than this weekend’s Jan. 9-10 first round—other than in 2001, when the 9/11 terrorist attacks delayed the regular season by a week.
For a little historical perspective, this Saturday’s games will be played in Houston and Cincinnati on Jan. 9. Thirty-nine years ago, the NFL played Super Bowl XI on Jan. 9, 1977, when Oakland routed Minnesota in Pasadena.
Being a little deeper into winter could make for some memorable cold-weather playoff games, and this week’s schedule calls for outside games in Minnesota, Cincinnati, Washington, with a open versus closed roof decision to make in Houston. Next weekend, it should at least be pretty frosty in the AFC, at Denver and New England, while the NFC’s top seeds stay relatively warm in Charlotte and indoors in Glendale, Ariz.
3. The Year of the Backup
Teams needing to rely on their backup quarterbacks—and in some cases, backups for the backups—was one of the stories of the year in the NFL. And not just for the bottom-feeders of the league.
Look at the AFC playoff field, where four of the six teams that qualified started at least two different quarterbacks this season: Denver, with Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler; Cincinnati with Andy Dalton and A.J. McCarron; Pittsburgh with Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick and Landry Jones; Houston with Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, and Brandon Weeden. Only Kansas City (Alex Smith) and New England (Tom Brady) have bucked that trend.
In the NFC, things have been much less chaotic at the game’s most pivotal position. All six NFC playoff teams have started the same quarterback in each of their 16 regular-season games: Cam Newton in Carolina, Carson Palmer in Arizona, Teddy Bridgewater in Minnesota, Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, Russell Wilson in Seattle and Kirk Cousins in Washington. And Washington hadn’t had a quarterback manage that feat since Jason Campbell did it in 2009.
4. Déjà Vu All Over Again
The NFL loves to talk up the turnaround-team angle and how everyone starts every season with a chance to make the playoffs, but in reality there’s an awful lot of repetition in recent postseasons. This year, two-thirds of the 12-team field is back again after making the playoffs in 2014, and six of the teams are making at least their third consecutive postseason trip.
Even this season’s four playoff newbies aren’t all that new: Kansas City last qualified in 2013, Houston in 2012, Washington in 2012, and Minnesota in 2012.
The other eight teams are all pretty familiar by now: New England and Green Bay have made it every year since 2009, followed by Denver since 2011, Cincinnati since 2011, Seattle since 2012, with Carolina going three years in a row and Arizona and Pittsburgh qualifying in back-to-back seasons.
That means the longest playoff “drought” that ended this season was just two seasons, for Minnesota, Washington and Houston. The good folks in Buffalo, Cleveland, Oakland and St. Louis are not exactly feeling their pain.
5. The Waiting is the Hardest Part
Now, if you want talk playoff victory droughts, that’s a different story. And as mentioned earlier, we already know Cincinnati’s tale of woe. The Bengals have dropped seven playoff games in a row, dating to a second-round loss at the Los Angeles Raiders in January 1991. Bo Jackson made his final NFL appearance in that game, but injured his hip and never played again. That was so long ago that the Raiders have returned to Oakland, spent 21 seasons there, and are now trying to get back to LA.
The Bengals are 0–6 in the playoffs under coach Marvin Lewis, losing their postseason opener in 2005, 2009, and each of the past four seasons. That streak of frustration started with a first-round game against Pittsburgh in Cincinnati 10 years ago this month, so there’s some decade-old payback waiting to happen this weekend.
And let’s not overlook the futility in Kansas City, where the Chiefs are 0–8 in their past eight postseason games, a streak that began with their 30–13 loss at Buffalo in the 1993 AFC Championship Game. The next year, Kansas City went back to the playoffs, but dropped a first-round matchup at Miami, in Joe Montana’s final game. That was the first of seven consecutive one-and-done playoff trips, stretching from 1994-2013.
But why’d I have to go and bring up 2013 to Chiefs fans? You remember that game at Indianapolis, right? Kansas City led 38–10 in the third quarter—Indy’s win probability was at 0.10 at that point—but somehow lost 45–44 to Andrew Luck and his comeback Colts. Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith played the game of his life that day, with 378 yards passing and four touchdowns, to go with 57 yards rushing, and still lost.
Saturday could be a very big day indeed in Kansas City and Cincinnati, because no one else in the playoffs has a drought that comes anywhere near matching the Chiefs’ and Bengals’ wait for postseason gratification. The next longest dry spell belongs to Washington, which last won a playoff game in 2005’s first round. Minnesota and Arizona last won in 2009, Pittsburgh in 2010, Houston in 2012, Denver in 2013, and Carolina, Green Bay, Seattle and New England in 2014.
6. Not-So-Mediocre After All
After absorbing so much grief all season long from the likes of me and so many others, the NFC East and AFC South both wound up producing champions that finished strong and posted winning records in Washington and Houston (both 9–7). And while that’s nothing to beat your chest over, if you consider where those two divisions stood as December arrived, it’s also no small accomplishment.
Everyone in this year’s playoff field has at least nine wins, and in four of the past five postseasons that wasn’t the case. A seven- or eight-win team had become a common occurrence in the playoffs of late. The 7–8–1 Panthers won the NFC South in 2014. The 8–7–1 Packers won the NFC North in 2013. Denver went 8–8 and won the AFC West in 2011. And Seattle was 7-9 but NFC West champions in 2010. Among those, all but the Packers won their first-round game.
So here’s a tip of the hat to Washington and Houston, which persevered and rose above the mediocrity—albeit slightly—in their divisions.
7. Home Sweet Home?
Homefield advantage in the playoffs is supposedly a sizable advantage. But is that advantage negated when three of the four games feature a visiting team that has already won rather handily once this season in the stadium its returning to?
Kansas City went in to Houston and won 27–20 in Week 1, leading 27–9 at halftime. Seattle thoroughly embarrassed the Vikings 38–7 at TCF Bank Stadium in Week 13. And Pittsburgh, in its most recent meeting with the Bengals, owned its division rival 33–20 at Paul Brown Stadium in Week 14.
I can't see the Chiefs, Seahawks or Steelers being intimidated in any way at the thought of going back to the scenes of those happy memories. Only the Green Bay at Washington weekend finale doesn’t feature a 2015 rematch, and the Packers haven’t visited FedEx Field since dropping a 16–13 overtime decision to the home team in Week 5 of 2010, long before that Green Bay squad looked like the eventual Super Bowl champion it would become.
8.Six Degrees of NFL Coaches
As this week’s blood-letting has again reminded us, football coaches tend to move around quite a bit in their careers. This year’s 12 postseason head coaches have plenty of cross ties across the playoff bracket. In fact, 11 of the 12 coaches in the postseason have worked for one of the other teams to make this year’s tournament. To wit:
• Denver head coach Gary Kubiak led Houston to its only two previous playoff berths in franchise history, in 2011 and 2012.
• Kansas City’s Andy Reid got his shot as an NFL head coach, something he has been for the past 17 seasons, because he was a very successful Packers quarterbacks coach on Mike Holmgren’s staff in the ‘90s.
• As previously noted, Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer and Washington’s Jay Gruden were both coordinators under Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati. But Lewis himself worked for both Washington (2002) and Pittsburgh (1990-95) before he got the Bengals job in 2003.
• Houston’s Bill O’Brien was a New England offensive assistant of varying roles from 2007-2011.
• Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin spent a year as Minnesota’s defensive coordinator in 2006, the year before he got the Steelers head coaching gig.
• Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy was a Chiefs offensive assistant from 1993-98.
Seattle’s Pete Carroll, of course, was the Patriots head coach between Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, lasting three seasons (1997-99), and spent five years in Minnesota as the Vikings' defensive backs coach in 1985-89.
• Arizona’s Bruce Arians has been around a bit, and his stops include a stint on Kansas City’s offensive staff from 1989-92, and a long stay in Pittsburgh from 2004-2011.
• And lastly, New England’s mastermind, Bill Belichick, was actually a Broncos assistant in 1978, working with special teams and the defense.
Only Carolina head coach Ron Rivera has no first-hand coaching ties to any of the other 11 teams in this year’s playoffs.
9. Plethora of Super Bowl-winning QBs...
It’s tough to beat this year’s playoff field if you like watching Super Bowl pedigree quarterbacks work. We could have yet another Tom Brady-Peyton Manning AFC Championship Game showdown to anticipate, and who would have thought that was possible just a few short days ago.
How about a Super Bowl rematch of five years ago in Aaron Rodgers versus Ben Roethlisberger? Not likely, but not impossible either.
There could be a reprise of last year’s Brady versus Russell Wilson matchup in store for the Super Bowl. Or Brady versus Roethlisberger in the AFC title game for a second time (see 2004).
And wouldn’t it be something if the fifth-seeded Packers and sixth-seeded Seahawks did the improbable and gave us a rematch of last year’s settled-in-overtime NFC Championship Game, this time in Green Bay? Or, anyone for Andy Dalton against Carson Palmer in the past and present Bengals QB Bowl?
10. ...Plus some QBs trying for their first playoff win ever
Five of the 12 playoff teams feature a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, but that’s not the whole story at the game’s most high-profile position. You’ve got the likely league MVP this season involved in Carolina’s Cam Newton, plus five different passers who will be trying to win their first playoff game ever.
That list starts with Arizona’s Carson Palmer, now in his 13th NFL season, and also includes Washington’s Kirk Cousins, Houston’s Brian Hoyer, Cincinnati’s A.J. McCarron or Andy Dalton, and Minnesota’s Teddy Bridgewater. Dalton and Palmer, linked by their Bengals history, need to get that 0-fer monkey off their backs this month.
The only other quarterback in the bracket is Kansas City’s Alex Smith, the former No. 1 overall pick a decade ago, who plays in nothing but playoff instant classics. Smith is 1–2 as a playoff starter in his career, having won that 36–32 division-round thriller over the Saints with San Francisco in 2011. In Smith’s most recent two playoff starts, he lost 20–17 in overtime with the 49ers against the Giants in the 2011 NFC title game, and then saw that huge Chiefs lead evaporate in the second half against the Colts two years ago in the first round, falling 45–44.