The NFC divisional round will give fans a third-time treat: another meeting between old-timers Tom Brady and Drew Brees.
Possibly the final one.
The AFC matchups, meanwhile, will include the Cleveland Browns for the first time since they re-entered the NFL in 1999, and Lamar Jackson and the Ravens.
Brees assured that the NFC South rival Saints and Buccaneers will meet once more, throwing for two touchdowns in a 21-9 victory over Chicago. The New Orleans quarterback, who turns 42 on Friday — one year younger than Tampa Bay’s star — is toying with retirement, but with the way the Saints defense is playing, a second trip to the Super Bowl is not a long shot.
Tampa Bay (12-5) defeated Washington 31-23 on Saturday. The Bucs will travel to New Orleans (13-4) next Sunday night.
“The minute that he signed with the Bucs and came to the division, you felt like that was going to be a team to contend with, that was going to be a team that would have playoff aspirations and beyond, just like us,” Brees said of meeting Brady in the playoffs for the first time. “So, I guess it was inevitable.”
The other NFC game next weekend will be on Saturday as Green Bay (13-3 and coming off a bye) hosts the Los Angeles Rams (11-6), who downed Seattle this weekend.
In the AFC, Cleveland’s return to the postseason for the first time in 18 years went very well. The Browns not only snapped a 17-game skid at Heinz Field, they manhandled the mistake-prone archrival Steelers 48-37 Sunday night. On to face reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City (14-2 and coming off a bye) next Sunday.
After two postseason flops, Jackson was his usual dynamic and decisive self in leading the Ravens to a 20-13 wild-card victory at Tennessee. That sends them to Buffalo on Saturday night.
Browns 48, Steelers 37
In their first playoff road victory since 1969, the Browns (12-5) overcame all sorts of problems and history.
Baker Mayfield threw for three touchdowns and the Browns got their first playoff win in 26 years. Kareem Hunt added two touchdown runs for Cleveland, playing without several high-profile players and head coach Kevin Stefanski due to COVID-19.
It hardly mattered as the Browns raced to a quick 28-0 lead then turned aside Pittsburgh’s second-half rally. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger passed for 501 yards and four touchdowns but also threw four interceptions.
Saints 21, Bears 9
Michael Thomas and Latavius Murray caught Brees’ touchdown passes, and Alvin Kamara rushed for 99 yards and a 3-yard scoring run after sitting out the regular-season finale and not practicing this past week because of COVID-19 protocols.
New Orleans (13-4) held Chicago (8-9) to 239 yards, just 48 rushing.
“Our defense played outstanding,” coach Sean Payton said. “We tackled well in space. … Ultimately we forced them to become one-dimensional, and when you do that you’re going to win a lot of games.”
The Saints won both meetings with the Bucs during the regular season.
Ravens 20, Titans 13
Some first steps are far longer than others. Such as what Jackson achieved Sunday.
He isn’t in any way the only reason Baltimore is advancing — the defense shut down 2,000-yard rusher Derrick Henry like no other team has come close to doing. But he was a positive contributor, unlike in losses to the Chargers and Titans in his other playoff appearances.
Jackson ran for 136 yards and a 48-yard touchdown while throwing for 179 more, rallying the Ravens from a 10-0 hole. The Ravens (12-5) went 21 straight losses in either the regular season or playoffs when trailing by 10 or more points.
Despite being sacked five times and throwing an interception, Jackson turned in the sixth 100-yard rushing game by a quarterback in the postseason, and joined Colin Kaepernick with two.
“We stayed focused. We didn’t get rattled. Our coaches didn’t get rattled. We had to put points on the board,” Jackson said. “I throw an interception, a dumb interception. We just kept fighting.”
Especially the defense: Henry had his worst performance this season with 18 carries for 40 yards and the Titans (11-6) were held to their fewest points of the season.
“Our defense was tired of hearing the noise,” Jackson said. “And they did what they were supposed to do.”