NFL Playoffs Primer: Schedules, Super Bowl paths and possibilities

Dan Graziano ESPN Staff Writer

So your team made the playoffs. Congrats! Very exciting. And sometimes, a little confusing.

When do they play? Where do they go next if they win? What other games can impact their playoff schedule? How many home games might they play, if any?

We’ve got you covered. Whichever of the 12 NFL playoff teams you root for, keep it locked right here for the next few weeks to follow all of the implications and permutations as your team tries to hold off an early vacation. We give you, ESPN’s Playoff Primer.

Note: All times are Eastern.


1. Dallas Cowboys

First game: Divisional round, Jan. 15 (4:40 p.m., Fox)

Path to Super Bowl LI: If the Lions win their wild-card matchup in Seattle, the Cowboys would host Detroit in the divisional round. If the Seahawks win that game, Dallas would host the winner of the Giants-Packers game. Win one game and Dallas advances to the NFC Championship Game Jan. 22 in Dallas.

Reason for hope: They’ve been the best team in the NFC all year. They reach the playoffs healthy. And no team in the field is better equipped to win if it loses its starting quarterback to an injury. And if the Cowboys do see the Giants … well, they say it’s hard to beat a team three times in one year, right?

Reason for concern: The Cowboys could conceivably open the playoffs against the Giants, who are the only team to beat them this year when Dallas was at full strength — meaning, not including Sunday’s rest-the-starters game in Philadelphia. Dallas was 0-2 against the Giants this year, and the Cowboys would surely breathe a sigh of relief if Green Bay were to beat New York or if Detroit were to beat the Seahawks.

Home cooking: The Cowboys don’t have to leave the state of Texas again all postseason. Any playoff game they play will be at home, and the Super Bowl is in Houston.

2. Atlanta Falcons

First game: Divisional round, Jan. 14 (4:35 p.m., Fox)

Path to Super Bowl LI: If Seattle wins its first-round game, the Falcons would host the Seahawks in a divisional-round game. But if Detroit beats Seattle, then Atlanta would host the winner of the Giants-Packers game. Win one game, and the Falcons advance to the NFC Championship Game Jan. 22, either in Dallas or at home against the Packers, Lions or Giants.

Reason for hope: Getting the Seahawks at home would be huge. Seattle was 3-4-1 on the road this year, outscored 156-127 in those games and failed to score a touchdown in three of them. The Falcons played the Seahawks tough in Seattle in Week 6, when Atlanta had a 24-17 lead late in the fourth quarter but lost 26-24. Two weeks later, the Falcons beat the Packers by a point at home.

Reason for concern: The Georgia Dome hasn’t been the same home-field advantage this year as it was for Falcons’ playoff teams of years past. Atlanta was 5-3 at home this year, which is fine. But when they went to the playoffs three straight years from 2010 to 2012, they were a combined 20-4 at home. Maybe the Georgia Dome’s swan song will provide a boost.

Home cooking: Atlanta will play its first game at home. If the Cowboys lose that weekend and the Falcons win, then the NFC Championship Game would also be in Atlanta. But if Dallas wins its first game, it would host the conference title game.

3. Seattle Seahawks

First game: vs. Detroit, Saturday (8:15 p.m., NBC)

Path to Super Bowl LI: To reach the Super Bowl, the Seahawks would have to beat Detroit at home, beat the Falcons in Atlanta, then win an NFC Championship Game either in Dallas or at home against either the Giants or the Packers.

Reason for hope: The Seahawks do get the one home game, which is big, since they’re 7-1 at home and only 3-4-1 on the road this year. And if they can find a way to get past Atlanta in the second round, there’s a reasonable chance they could host the conference title game. The Cowboys’ divisional-round matchup against either the Giants or the Packers would be about as tough a matchup as any bye team could draw.

Reason for concern: The road, the road, the road. Yeah, you’ll say they won in Foxborough, and they did. That shows they can win anywhere. But they were dreadful on the road the rest of the season, and they had Earl Thomas that day at Gillette Stadium. Falling out of the bye with their Week 15 (home!) loss to Arizona could end up being very costly for the Seahawks.

Home cooking: Seattle definitely plays at home on the first weekend, and if they win, they play at Atlanta the second weekend. In order for Seattle to host the NFC Championship Game, the Seahawks would have to win twice, and the Cowboys would have to lose to the Giants or the Packers in their first game.

4. Green Bay Packers

First game: vs. New York Giants, Sunday (4:40 p.m., Fox)

Path to Super Bowl LI: Aaron Rodgers said the Packers could “run the table,” and they’ve since won six straight games and a division title. To finish off the table, they’ll need to beat the Giants at home next weekend — something they couldn’t do five years ago, when they were 15-1 — then travel to either Dallas or Atlanta for their second-round game. If Detroit beats Seattle and the Packers beat the Giants, the Packers would play the Falcons in the second round. If Seattle beats Detroit and the Packers beat the Giants, the Packers would play Dallas in the second round.

Reason for hope: The Giants’ defense is no joke, but neither is Rodgers, and the Packers beat the Giants 23-16 at Lambeau Field in Week 5. Overall, Green Bay was 4-2 against the NFC playoff field, and one of the losses was by one point in Atlanta.

Reason for concern: The other loss was by two touchdowns at home against Dallas, so the Packers might not match up well with the top seed if they see them in the divisional round. And while they beat Seattle the first time, if they see them again, it would be in Seattle.

Home cooking: The Packers will definitely play at home on the first weekend, and if they win, they would play at either Dallas or Atlanta in the second round. In order for Lambeau Field to host the NFC Championship Game, the Lions would have to beat Seattle and Dallas, and Green Bay would have to beat the Giants and Falcons. If all of that happens, the conference title game would be the third Lions-Packers matchup of the year, at Lambeau Jan. 22.

5. New York Giants

First game: at Green Bay, Sunday (4:40 p.m., Fox)

Path to Super Bowl LI: The Giants’ path could feel very familiar to those who followed their two most recent Super Bowl runs. They start in Green Bay. If they win and Seattle beats Detroit, the Giants would go to Dallas for the second round. If they win and Detroit beats Seattle, the Giants would go to Atlanta for the second round. Then an NFC Championship Game in Dallas, Atlanta, Seattle or — just maybe — at home.

Reason for hope: The Giants were 2-0 this year against the Cowboys. The rest of the league was 1-13, with the Eagles beating the Dallas backups Sunday afternoon. New York is excellent at stopping the run and, therefore, a difficult matchup for the NFC’s top seed. And Eli Manning has gotten hot in the playoffs before.

Reason for concern: The Giants averaged 19.4 points per game this year. Houston is the only team in the playoffs that scored less. Could they score with the likes of the Packers, Cowboys and Falcons? And could they do it three weeks in a row?

Home cooking: The only way the Giants could host a playoff game is if both they and the Lions advance to the NFC title game. If that happens, that game would be in East Rutherford Jan. 22.

6. Detroit Lions

First game: at Seattle, Saturday (8:15 p.m., NBC)

Path to Super Bowl LI: The Lions sat in the No. 2 seed only three weeks ago, but consecutive losses to the Giants, Cowboys and Packers dumped them here. They have to win in Seattle then in Dallas just to get to an NFC Championship Game at either Atlanta, Green Bay or New York.

Reason for hope: They’re never out of a game, these Lions. They trailed in the fourth quarter 15 times and won nine of those games. And while no one wants to go to Seattle, the Seahawks don’t look quite as scary, even there, as they have in years past.

Reason for concern: The Lions go in losing three games in a row. They’re 0-5 against teams that made the playoffs. Their first two games would be on the road against teams that were a combined 14-2 at home. The Lions would be a January miracle, but again, they do like making miracles.

Home cooking: There is no possible way the Lions could host a playoff game.


1. New England Patriots

First game: Divisional round, Jan. 14 (8:15 p.m., CBS)

Path to Super Bowl LI: The Patriots get the first week of the postseason off to rest. If Miami wins its first-round game, New England would host the Dolphins in the divisional round. If the Steelers beat the Dolphins, then the Patriots’ first opponent would be the winner of the Houston-Oakland wild-card game. One win would put the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, which they would host regardless of opponent.

Reason for hope: The only two scary quarterbacks in the AFC are Tom Brady, who plays for the Patriots, and Ben Roethlisberger, who the Patriots can’t face until the AFC title game at the earliest. New England’s first game is either going to be against a Dolphins team they’ve already beaten twice or against a Houston or Oakland team that has major questions at the most important position.

Reason for concern: It’s hard to find one. The Patriots just finished the regular season on a seven-game winning streak, during which their average margin of victory was 16.1 points per game. They were 8-0 on the road this year and “only” 6-2 at home, so if you want to make up a reason for concern, maybe that’s it: They don’t get to go on the road anymore!

Home cooking: The Patriots will play at home in the divisional round, and if they win, they will play at home the following Sunday in the AFC Championship Game.

2. Kansas City Chiefs

First game: Divisional round, Jan. 15 (1:05 p.m., NBC)

Path to Super Bowl LI: The Chiefs get a week off to rest as AFC West champions. If the Steelers win their first-round game against the Dolphins, Kansas City would host the Steelers in the divisional round. If the Chiefs win that game, they’ll play in the AFC Championship Game Jan. 22, either at home or in Foxborough.

Reason for hope: Getting the bye week — which the Chiefs accomplished with their win and Oakland’s loss on Sunday — is huge for a team whose best player still isn’t 100 percent healthy. Pass-rusher Justin Houston sat out the last two games, and while he’s expected to be ready for the playoffs, getting an extra week to rest will have to benefit his chances of being at his best when the games matter most.

Reason for concern: The Chiefs are 10-21 all time against their potential second-round opponent: the Steelers. They’ve lost four of their last five against Pittsburgh, including a 43-14 loss at Heinz Field in Week 4. The Chiefs would love it if the Dolphins were to knock the Steelers off for them.

Home cooking: The Chiefs will open the playoffs at Arrowhead Stadium. The only way they play another home game is if they win their first game and the Patriots lose theirs. In that case, the AFC Championship Game would be at Arrowhead Jan. 22.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers

First game: vs. Miami, Sunday (1:05 p.m., CBS)

Path to Super Bowl LI: The Steelers host the Dolphins. If they win, they’ll travel to Kansas City to play the Chiefs in the divisional round. Win that, and they advance to the AFC Championship Game, either in New England or at home against the Texans or Raiders.

Reason for hope: Not having to see Tom Brady and the Patriots until the AFC title game is a nice benefit that comes with being the No. 3 seed instead of the No. 4. It leaves open the possibility that someone else can take out the top seed for them and allow them to play a home game to go to the Super Bowl.

Reason for concern: You could make the case that the sixth-seeded Dolphins are a tougher draw right now than the fifth-seeded Raiders and all of their quarterback questions. The Steelers hit the playoffs on a seven-game win streak, but they’re just 1-2 against fellow AFC playoff teams this year. They beat the Chiefs and lost to the Dolphins and Patriots.

Home cooking: The Steelers will definitely play their first game at home, then the division round on the road. But there remains a chance that they could host an AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh Jan. 22. That would require them to win twice (obviously) and for the Patriots to lose their first game.

4. Houston Texans

First game: vs. Oakland, Saturday (4:35 p.m., ESPN)

Path to Super Bowl LI: As AFC South champions, the 9-7 Texans will host a first-round playoff game against 12-4 wild-card Oakland. If the Texans win that game, their second-round opponent depends on the result of the Steelers-Dolphins game. If Miami wins, that would send the Texans to Kansas City for the divisional round. If the Steelers win, then the Texans’ prospective second-round game would be in Foxborough against the top-seeded Patriots.

Reason for hope: The only team in the playoff field with a more unsettled quarterback situation than Houston is Oakland, which is the Texans’ first-round opponent. Facing Connor Cook or Matt McGloin is preferable to facing Alex Smith and red-hot Kansas City, which would have been Houston’s task had the Chiefs lost or the Raiders won on Sunday.

Reason for concern: Four-seed life isn’t a lot of fun. To get to the Super Bowl, the Texans would most likely have to beat the Raiders, Patriots and Steelers or the Raiders, Patriots and Chiefs. Only five No. 4 seeds have ever won the Super Bowl: the 1980 Raiders, the 1997 Broncos, the 2000 Ravens, the 2011 Giants and the 2012 Ravens.

Home cooking: The Texans will definitely play their first game at home, then their second game on the road. The only chance they have to play the AFC Championship Game at home is to win twice (obviously) and have the Dolphins beat the Steelers and Patriots. In that case, the Texans would host Miami in a conference title game Jan. 22.

5. Oakland Raiders

First game: at Houston, Saturday (4:35 p.m., ESPN)

Path to Super Bowl LI: The Raiders’ loss Sunday, combined with the Chiefs’ win, made Kansas City the AFC West champion and relegated Oakland to a wild-card spot. That means the Raiders have to play on the road to start in Houston, then at either New England or Kansas City in the second round if they win. The Raiders would play at New England if the Steelers win their game with the Dolphins. They’d play at Kansas City if Miami wins that game.

Reason for hope: They were three full games better in the regular season than their first-round opponent, which won the league’s weakest division. Their run game could help them win a low-scoring affair against another team with question marks at the quarterback position.

Reason for concern: Two of Oakland’s four losses were to division-rival Kansas City, which is why the Raiders find themselves here and is obviously a major cause for concern should they run up against the Chiefs in the second round. Plus, the history of 12-4 wild-card teams isn’t great. There have been four in the past 10 years. Only one, the 2013 49ers, reached the conference championship game. Two of the four, the 2008 Colts and 2011 Steelers, lost wild-card round games to 8-8 division champions (San Diego and Denver). The other, the 2010 Ravens, lost to division-rival Pittsburgh in the second round.

Home cooking: The only way the Raiders can play a home playoff game is if they and the Dolphins both reach the AFC Championship Game. In that case, the game would be in Oakland.

6. Miami Dolphins

First game: at Pittsburgh, Sunday (1:05 p.m., CBS)

Path to Super Bowl LI: The Dolphins open in Pittsburgh against the Steelers, a team they beat 30-15 in Jay Ajayi‘s breakout game in Miami in October. A win would land them a second-round trip to Foxborough to see the Patriots, against whom they went 0-2 this season. If they win that, the Dolphins would have to go to Oakland, Houston or Kansas City for an AFC title game to reach the Super Bowl.

Reason for hope: The Week 6 victory over the Steelers was Miami’s most impressive of the season, and it was the one that sparked the Dolphins’ run. They were 1-4 going into that game, and starting that day they won six in a row and 9 of 10 to get into the postseason. There should be good vibes lingering from that game and plenty of ways for the Dolphins to convince themselves they can handle Pittsburgh.

Reason for concern: The Dolphins won’t get a lot of outside help. No one’s going to eliminate Ben Roethlisberger or Tom Brady for them. The soft spots in the AFC field might be the Oakland, Kansas City and Houston quarterback situations, but Miami would have to get to the AFC Championship Game in order to have a chance to take advantage.

Home cooking: As the No. 6 seed, there is no chance the Dolphins can play a home playoff game.