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NFL playoffs see a weekend of rivalries

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

And finally, let's talk football. The NFL playoffs continue this weekend. In the divisional round. It's down to eight teams, including some postseason regulars like the Chiefs and some teams that are usually on the beach this late in the winter, and I am looking at you, Detroit Lions. Here to break down what to expect, we've called Lindsay Jones. She's a senior editor at the sports news outlet The Ringer, where she covers the NFL. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

LINDSAY JONES: Hi. Thanks for having me.

DETROW: So we've got some classic rivalries this weekend, like Packers-49ers. We've got some of the more recent big rivalries like Chiefs-Bills. I mentioned that surprising Lions run. What storyline this weekend are you most interested in and excited about?

JONES: Yeah, I mean, you mentioned Chiefs-Bills, and this is really becoming kind of a, you know, the Brady-Manning of a new generation between Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. This is going to be the third time that these two quarterbacks have met in the playoffs. But it's the first time that this game is happening in Buffalo.

DETROW: Yeah.

JONES: So you know, the - a couple of years ago in the divisional round, these two guys, these two teams played one of the most memorable postseason games that I've ever seen, probably a lot of people have ever seen. So we're really hoping that, you know, this could be another classic matchup.

DETROW: And, of course, we saw the Bills fans out there, some of them shirtless, clearing off the snow before...

JONES: Yes.

DETROW: ...This weekend. I mean, you mentioned Chiefs-Bills. Unlike those Manning-Brady rivalries in the past, like, the Chiefs have had the upper edge by far here. The Bills have kind of come up short in the playoffs over and over again. Is this the make-or-break window moment for the Bills this year?

JONES: Yeah. I mean, it kind of feels like that in the sense that, you know, they've kind of been this runner-up team in the AFC, you know, kind of the second-best team during this Mahomes era. And yeah, this really feels like they've kind of - you know, they've been building to try to win a Super Bowl. It's been a really rocky year for them. About six weeks ago, it seemed really unlikely that they were going to make the playoffs at all, and yet here they are hosting the divisional round, a win away from the AFC Championship Game. So you know, and the Chiefs have had a little bit of a down year. The Bills did beat Kansas City in Kansas City earlier this year. So I know in Buffalo, they're really excited that this is the year that they're finally going to knock off Mahomes in the postseason.

DETROW: And I think a lot of casual sports fans are much more aware of who has been showing up at Chiefs games than the on-the-field performance this season. But, I mean, what's the biggest difference from the Chiefs this season compared to recent Super Bowl runs?

JONES: Yeah, they just don't have kind of the juice of the skill position players when it comes to wide receivers, especially Travis Kelce. You know, that's the first time we've mentioned Kelce and - you know, Taylor Swift's boyfriend. He really is their most important offensive weapon, and the receivers outside of him have really let the team down a lot this season.

So that's really been the biggest change. I mean, I think if you're kind of a casual football fan, you're used to seeing the Chiefs' just, you know, explosive plays and really big passing yardage. And that just hasn't been the style of this team this year. And if they're going to win, they're going to need a big game from Kelce. And they're probably going to have to win with their defense.

DETROW: Let's go over to the NFC for a moment. The Detroit Lions - definitely the feel-good story this season. If they can pull it out, this is a team of perennial underachievement - never been to the Super Bowl. Their wild-card victory last week was their first playoff win in more than 30 years. How far do you think the Lions can go?

JONES: Yeah. I mean, as you said, last week, they got their first postseason win in about three decades, which was really incredible. They're really the - kind of the most lovable, likable team in this postseason. If you don't have a team that you already like, I think a lot of casual fans will find themselves rooting for Detroit right now because it is such a great story. But they've got a really good offense. Their defense has been kind of shaky, but they tend to come through in the big moments, and, you know, they're getting a second home playoff game.

And a week ago, they didn't necessarily expect this, but the fact that the Cowboys lost last week really clears the path for them to get to the NFC Championship game. Sure, they have to beat the Bucks first...

DETROW: Yeah.

JONES: And, you know, the - you know, Baker Mayfield, their quarterback, their offense played pretty well last week when they beat the Eagles. But, you know, Detroit has - you know, they're not this, like, lovable loser anymore. Like, they are a formidable team, and it would just be a really fun story to see them advance to the NFC Championship game next week.

DETROW: You mentioned the Cowboys losing last week. There were a couple of upsets. The Packers beating the Cowboys was one of them. You know, there's been so much focus in other sports, particularly baseball, about how regular season records just seem to have no bearing on the postseason anymore. Is that the case in football, or is it the teams generally with the best regular-season record that are making the deep runs?

JONES: Yeah, I mean, having a buy in the first - getting the No. 1 seeds and having a buy the first round of the playoffs is really, really helpful. You can avoid kind of that sort of upset. The Cowboys' loss last week was pretty monumental. They were the first No. 2 seed to lose in the new format of the playoffs since the NFL expanded the postseason field. So yeah, I mean, the NFL is - I think there's a lot more parity in the NFL.

So you know, the gap between the best teams and the worst teams, especially in the postseason field, I don't think is as big. But you know, this is the weekend. Divisional round is my favorite weekend of football of the year because the games tend to be a lot better, they tend to be a lot more - a lot closer, a lot more competitive. And we'll see if the Packers, who pulled off one set - one upset already, if they can do that, do it again, or at least keep it close against the 9ers.

DETROW: We got about 30 seconds left. What are the biggest questions that you're hoping this weekend's games can answer for you?

JONES: Yeah, I mean, I think, like, the Bills-Chiefs, who wins that game I think is just going to tell us a lot about those two franchises. But otherwise, this is just an awesome quarterback field. It's really interesting where, you know, Lamar Jackson is playing. We've got Brock Purdy, who has, I think, a lot to prove with the 49ers. Jordan Love - we've just got this really interesting quarterback field where we're going to learn a lot about some of the best young quarterbacks in this league.

DETROW: That's Lindsay Jones, senior editor at The Ringer. Thank you so much.

JONES: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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