John McClain: NFL playoff races heat up as season winds down

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Matt Patterson/AP/Shutterstock (13410283bd) Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) looks to pass during an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings, in Philadelphia Vikings Eagles Football, Philadelphia, United States – 19 Sep 2022

John McClain: NFL playoff races heat up as season winds down

The NFL playoff race is the best time of the regular season, and as we approach 2023, there’s still so much at stake, including the top seed in each conference – an achievement that comes with a bye in the wild-card round.

Philadelphia (13-2) can secure the NFC bye with a victory at home over New Orleans (6-9). It’s going to be much tougher for Buffalo (12-3) to clinch the AFC bye. In the best Monday night game of the season, the Bills play at Cincinnati (11-4). If Buffalo wins, the Chiefs (12-3) would have to lose at home to Denver for the Bills to get the bye. That’s not likely, so the top seed in the AFC shouldn’t be settled until the last Sunday of the season.

The Bills defeated the Chiefs this season, so they own the head-to-head tiebreaker. Kansas City should finish 14-3 considering a closing game at Las Vegas against new quarterback Jarret Stidham follows the date with Denver. Buffalo finishes at home against New England (7-8).

Realistically, there are three teams in the AFC — Bills, Chiefs, and Bengals – and four in the NFC — Eagles, Vikings (12-3), 49ers (11-4), and Cowboys (11-4) — that have an opportunity to reach Super Bowl LVII at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

It seems strange typing Cowboys and Super Bowl in the same sentence. It seems like they haven’t played in a Super Bowl since Nixon was in office. Only 26 Super Bowls have been played since the Cowboys won their third Lombardi Trophy in four years. It’s difficult to take them as a legitimate Super Bowl contender considering the Cowboys lost to Jacksonville and barely beat the Texans.

Before we rule out the Cowboys or any of the lesser playoff teams, let’s look back at what happened in the 2021 playoffs. And I’m not talking about the Cowboys losing at home to the 49ers. I’m talking about a pair of fourth seeds – the Rams and Bengals – playing in Super Bowl 56. The Rams won 23-20 to settle an incredible playoff picture that featured eight games decided by six or fewer points, including four games in the divisional round, both championship games, and the Super Bowl.

The injury-plagued Rams (5-10) did a face-plant this season and didn’t even make the playoffs. After starting 0-2, the Bengals are 11-2 with a seven-game winning streak and the toughest closing schedule in the league. They have home games against the Bills and Ravens (10-5). Cincinnati is trying to become the first Super Bowl loser other than New England to return since Buffalo lost four in a row after the 1990-93 seasons.

In the AFC, the Bills (Josh Allen), Chiefs (Patrick Mahomes), and Bengals (Joe Burrow) have outstanding quarterbacks. NFC quarterbacks aren’t in their stratosphere. Of the four teams with the best chance of representing the NFC in the Super Bowl, the Eagles’ Jalen Hurts is an MVP candidate who’d rank fourth among playoff quarterbacks based on their performances this season. Kirk Cousins (Vikings), Dak Prescott (Cowboys), and Brock Purdy (49ers) are lined up behind Hurts among the NFC teams with a realistic chance of playing in the Super Bowl.

At this time last season, nobody was taking the Rams and Bengals as serious Super Bowl contenders. As the fourth seeds in each conference, they entered the playoffs as underdogs and came out as top dogs competing for the championship. Based on current standings, the fourth seeds would be Jacksonville (7-8) and Tampa Bay (7-8), teams with losing records from the worst divisions in the NFL. The Jaguars have to beat the Titans (7-8) in the last game to win the AFC South. A Jaguars-Buccaneers Super Bowl isn’t likely.

Last season, the Rams went into the playoffs with a 12-5 record, tied with Dallas for the worst in the NFC. The Bengals entered with an AFC-worst 10-7 record, one-half game ahead of the Steelers in the AFC North. In the playoffs, Cincinnati got hot and won three one-score games before losing to the Rams by three.

For much of this season, fans and media have said teams don’t want to play Tom Brady in the playoffs. I don’t think that’s true. The Bucs, who can clinch the NFC South title with a home victory over the Panthers (6-9), have been so mediocre I imagine teams would welcome the opportunity to play them. How about a Dallas-Tampa Bay game in the wild-card round?

The Eagles are the favorite in the NFC, but Hurts needs to get healthy. The injury to his right shoulder is scary. They have two games left to clinch home-field advantage in the playoffs. An ideal NFC Championship Game would be the Eagles’ offense with a healthy Hurts versus the DeMeco Ryans-led 49ers’ defense that leads the league in every important statistic.

In the AFC Championship Game, how about a rematch of Kansas City’s 42-36 overtime victory over Buffalo in last season’s divisional round? Or the Bengals’ 27-24 overtime victory over the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game?

The Chiefs have built serious rivalries with the Bengals and Bills. Kansas City has played Cincinnati and Buffalo three times each in the last two seasons. The Chiefs may have to play them for the fourth time in a year.

In 2021, the Chiefs lost to the Bengals in the regular season and the playoffs. They also lost to Cincinnati this season. If the Bengals and Chiefs meet again in the playoffs, Cincinnati will have to defeat Kansas City for a fourth time in a year – a tall order against Mahomes and Andy Reid. The Chiefs lost to the Bills last season and this season but beat Buffalo in the playoffs.

It says here any playoff games involving the Chiefs, Bengals, and Bills will provide fans with the best of what the NFL has to offer, but that doesn’t mean the team that represents the AFC in the Super Bowl will party with Lombardi. Just ask the Rams and Bengals.

(John McClain writes four columns a week for He can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Monday and Thursday on Texans Radio. He does three weekly Houtopia podcasts for 610. He also can be read three times a week on

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