NFL playoff bracket finalized; CFP championship preview

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Good morning to everyone but especially …

THE NFL PLAYOFF TEAMS

The NFL playoffs are set. Here’s the AFC field and how they got there:

  1. Ravens (clinched No. 1 seed and bye last week)
  2. Bills (clinched berth with Jaguars‘ 28-20 loss to Titans; clinched No. 2 seed and won AFC East with 21-14 win over Dolphins)
  3. Chiefs (clinched No. 3 seed last week)
  4. Texans (clinched berth with 23-19 win over Coltswon AFC South with Jaguars’ loss to Titans)
  5. Browns (clinched No. 5 seed last week)
  6. Dolphins (clinched No. 6 seed with loss to Bills)
  7. Steelers (clinched berth with 17-10 win over Ravens and Jaguars’ loss to Titans)

And here’s the NFC field:

  1. 49ers (clinched No. 1 seed and bye last week)
  2. Cowboys (clinched No. 2 seed and won NFC East with 38-10 win over Commanders)
  3. Lions (clinched No. 3 seed with Cowboys’ win)
  4. Buccaneers (won NFC South with 9-0 win over Panthers)
  5. Eagles (clinched No. 5 seed with Cowboys’ win)
  6. Rams (clinched No. 6 seed with 21-20 win over 49ers)
  7. Packers (clinched berth with 17-9 win over Bears)

So here’s the first-round schedule, with an early thought on each game:

  • No. 5 Browns at No. 4 Texans, Saturday, 4:30 p.m. | NBC
    CJ Stroud
    is absolutely terrific. So is the Browns’ defense.
  • No. 6 Dolphins at No. 3 Chiefs, Saturday, 8 p.m. | Peacock
    The Dolphins do not like the cold, and it’s going to be hovering around zero degrees that night in Kansas City.
  • No. 7 Steelers at No. 2 Bills, Sunday, 1 p.m. | CBS
    Buffalo (five straight wins) and Pittsburgh (three straight wins) are riding high.
  • No. 7 Packers at No. 2 Cowboys, Sunday, 4:30 p.m. | Fox
    The top two touchdown passers of the year — Dak Prescott (36) and Jordan Love (32) — meet.
  • No. 6 Rams at No. 3 Lions, Sunday, 8 p.m. | NBC
    Matthew Stafford
    and Jared Goff both face their former team, the first such matchup in NFL playoff history.
  • No. 5 Eagles at No. 4 Buccaneers, Monday, 8 p.m. | ABC
    Let’s talk about the Eagles …

Some teams are surging into the postseason. Others are limping — literally and figuratively — and the Eagles are one of those squads. Philadelphia benched many of its starters before halftime with the offense doing nothing and the defense stopping nothing in an eventual 27-10 loss to the Giants. To make matters worse, A.J. Brown suffered a knee injury in the first quarter.

The Eagles have lost five of their last six games. Using defensive success rate (a measure of down-to-down efficiency), only the Commanders have been worse over that span. The pass rush — dominant last year — is milquetoast. The linebackers and secondary are a complete mess. It’s not much better on offense: 25th in success rate over the last six weeks, right behind the Jets and Giants.

The slate is wiped clean in the postseason, but it’s really ugly right now.

Here’s more on the playoff teams …

Honorable mentions

And not such a good morning for …


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NFL TEAMS ELIMINATED FROM THE PLAYOFFS

Week 18 can be as brutal as it can be beautiful. You work for months and months — years and years, really — for games like this, all to lose in agonizing, infuriating fashion. That explains the slumped looks of devastation on the Jaguars’ sideline after a 28-20 loss to the Titans eliminated Jacksonville from playoff contention.

When we talk about a game of inches, we talk about Trevor Lawrence coming up inches short on fourth-and-goal late. We talk about Lawrence missing Calvin Ridley by inches on a potential long touchdown on Jacksonville’s final drive of the season.

But we also must talk about how it never should have gotten to this point. The Jaguars lost five of their last six games. For all the “game of inches” talk, this was a game of way too many yards allowed and way too many mistakes.

  • Derrick Henrylikely playing his final game with the Titans, ran for 153 yards and a touchdown.
  • Ryan Tannehill, also likely playing his final game with the Titans (and only playing because Will Levis was hurt), threw two touchdown passes. He had two all season entering Sunday.
  • Lawrence threw two interceptions, one off an awful drop by Evan Engram, another off an awful throw to (or miscommunication with) Zay Jones. The Jaguars’ offense finished this season with the fifth-most expected points lost on turnovers.

I still believe in Lawrence, who needs to get healthy, and the Jaguars need to invest in his line and wide receivers over what will be a very long offseason.

Here are the five other teams that were eliminated over the weekend:

  • One of Arthur Smith‘s final acts as Falcons coach was yelling at Dennis Allen postgame following a late Saints touchdown in a 48-17 beatdown that eliminated Atlanta from the playoffs. The clock struck midnight on Smith (literally, the firing was announced at 12:02 a.m.) after three 7-10 seasons and zero playoff appearances. Our coach and GM tracker is up and running.
  • The Seahawks and Saints were eliminated with the Packers’ win. The Seahawks need defensive help. The Saints are in salary cap hell (again) after putting together a win-now roster that didn’t even make the playoffs (again).
  • The Vikings were eliminated after losing to the Lions. All eyes will be on the quarterback plan with Kirk Cousins set to hit free agency.
  • The Colts were eliminated by losing to the Texans, but things are looking up. I can’t wait for a healthy Anthony Richardson in Shane Steichen‘s offense.

As for teams eliminated long ago, the first 18 picks of the NFL Draft are set. The top five will be … 

  1. Bears (via Panthers)
  2. Commanders
  3. Patriots
  4. Cardinals
  5. Chargers 

Not so honorable mentions

National championship game preview, predictions


USATSI

And then there were two. No. 1 and No. 2, to be exact.

Michigan faces Washington tonight in the national championship game, and we have Tom Fornelli’s final best bets of the season. His game pick?

  • Fornelli: “From an efficiency standpoint, Michigan matches up well with Washington’s offense. … The Wolverines have the best defense in the country, thanks primarily to their outstanding defensive line. It’s simply better than your offensive line and runs deep. … Washington has excellent players on defense at every level … but it doesn’t boast the depth of Michigan’s talent pool. Pick: Michigan -4.5

Tom also notes, though, that when you have Michael Penix Jr., Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Ja’Lynn Polk, individual talent can simply make enough plays to win, and I loved this Dennis Dodd story on Penix.

Michigan’s biggest name, meanwhile, is its coach. Is this Jim Harbaugh‘s last game at Michigan? Will he face discipline for a pair of controversies? What type of coach even is he (other than a successful one)? Dennis dove deep on one of the game’s great enigmas.

We also have keys to victory for Michigan and for Washington and what both teams need to fix.

Buckle up. Determining which school will be the last champion from a four-team field should make for a wild ride in Houston tonight.

Rafael Nadal withdraws from Australian Open


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Rafael Nadal‘s final season is off to an inauspicious start. The 22-time Grand Slam champion withdrew from the Australian Open with a hip injury.

  • After missing essentially all of 2023 with a hip injury he sustained in the last Australian Open, Nadal returned at the Brisbane International, advancing to the quarterfinals.
  • However, he suffered a “micro tear” in his hip. This injury is not to the same area that was operated on in June 2023. 
  • Nadal, 37, now likely sets his eyes on the French Open in May. He has won 14 titles at Roland Garros.

What we’re watching Monday

CFP National Championship: No. 2 Washington vs. No. 1 Michigan, 7:30 p.m. on ESPN
Suns at Clippers, 10:30 p.m. on NBA TV


[colabot]

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