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NFL playoffs: No lead safe, drama abounds in wild weekend

APTOPIX Seahawks 49ers Football
Posted at 6:53 AM, Jan 16, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-16 10:49:46-05

The Buffalo Bills blew a 17-point advantage before recovering to win Sunday. That narrow escape came less than 24 hours after the Jacksonville Jaguars overcame a 27-point deficit and pulled off one of the most stunning comeback victories in playoff history.

No lead is safe and the drama abounds so far in the NFL playoffs.

A loaded Sunday schedule saw the Bills escape with a 34-31 win over the Miami Dolphins, the New York Giants upset the Minnesota Vikings 31-24 and the Cincinnati Bengals hang on to beat the Baltimore Ravens 24-17 as wild-card weekend continued.

One more game in the round remains: Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers host Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys on Monday night.

All three of Sunday's games were decided in the final minutes. In the nightcap, Sam Hubbard returned Baltimore quarterback Tyler Huntley’s fumble 98 yards for a tiebreaking touchdown in the fourth quarter in a stunning turn of events that led the Bengals to their win.

Huntley tried to go over the top of the line for the go-ahead score. But he was stood up by Germaine Pratt and stripped by fellow linebacker Logan Wilson.

The ball went right to Hubbard at the 2, and the defensive end took off down the field for the longest fumble return for a touchdown in NFL postseason history. It also was the longest go-ahead TD in the fourth quarter in the postseason.

In Sunday's opener, Bills quarterback Josh Allen shrugged off a three-turnover outing by throwing two touchdown passes 3:11 apart in the third quarter. He finished 23 of 39 for 352 yards and three TDs, but also threw two interceptions and lost a fumble.

Cole Beasley scored the go-ahead touchdown with a 6-yard catch, and Gabe Davis extended the lead to 34-24 with a 23-yard TD reception after Buffalo squandered its early 17-0 advantage.

Giants quarterback Daniel Jones became one of the stars of wild-card weekend by leading sixth-seeded New York to its road win over No. 3 Minnesota. Jones — playing in his first playoff game — threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 78 yards in a stellar all-around performance. Saquon Barkley rushed for two scores, including the tiebreaker midway through the fourth quarter.

On Saturday, rookie Brock Purdy and the San Francisco 49ers beat the Seattle Seahawks 41-23 while the Jaguars capped their comeback by beating the Los Angeles Chargers 31-30.

The No. 1 overall seed in the AFC was claimed by Kansas City with its 31-13 win over Las Vegas in Week 18. The NFC's top spot was taken by Philadelphia. Those teams got the weekend off before playing in the divisional round next weekend.

Here are some other things to know during the postseason:

WHAT'S THE UPCOMING SCHEDULE?

MONDAY

Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 8:15 p.m. EST, ESPN/ABC

SATURDAY, JAN. 21

Jacksonville Jaguars at Kansas City Chiefs, 4:30 p.m. EST, NBC/Peacock/Universo

New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles, 8:15 p.m. EST, Fox/Fox Deportes

SUNDAY, JAN. 22

Cincinnati Bengals at Buffalo Bills, 3 p.m. EST, CBS/Paramount+

Dallas/Tampa Bay at San Francisco 49ers, 6:30 p.m. EST, Fox, Fox Deportes

WHAT'S THE FORMAT FOR PLAYOFFS?

This is the third straight year of the current playoff format, which includes the top seven teams from both the AFC and the NFC.

The four division winners in both conferences automatically get the top four seeds, regardless of record, and then the top three teams with the best record that didn't win their division are the wild-card selections. That's why it's fairly common for a wild-card selection to have a better record — but worse playoff seeding — than a team that finished as a division winner.

The No. 1-seeded team in each conference gets a bye into the second round — that's the Chiefs and Eagles — while No. 2 hosts No. 7, No. 3 hosts No. 6 and No. 4 hosts No. 5 during the wild-card weekend.

The NFL re-seeds teams after each playoff round. That means no matter how the bracket started, the lowest-seeded team will always travel to the highest-seeded team.

There are four rounds to the playoffs: The wild-card round is this weekend, the divisional round is Jan. 21-22, the conference championship games are on Jan. 29 and the Super Bowl is scheduled for Feb. 12 in Glendale, Arizona.

WHAT CHANGED WITH BILLS-BENGALS CANCELLATION?

Players and fans watched in horror on Jan. 2 as Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field at Cincinnati when his heart stopped and he received CPR before leaving the field in an ambulance. Over the next week, those same players and fans reacted with joy at news of Hamlin's recovery.

Even better news came Saturday: Hamlin visited with teammates at the Bills’ facility for the first time since being discharged from a Buffalo hospital.

A person with direct knowledge of Hamlin’s schedule confirmed to The Associated Press the player’s visit. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because Hamlin has kept his schedule and recovery private.

Hamlin's remarkable recovery has made it much easier to focus on the playoffs.

The cancellation of the Bills-Bengals game because of Hamlin's injury could lead to one big change to the AFC playoff format.

The AFC championship game would be played at a neutral site if the Chiefs and Bills reach that point under a rule adjustment approved by NFL owners last Friday. That's because Buffalo (13-3) played one fewer game than Kansas City (14-3) and missed out on a chance to earn the top seed. The Bills beat the Chiefs 24-20 on Oct. 16 and would have held the tiebreaker had the teams finished with the same record. Buffalo lost 42-36 at Kansas City in a divisional-round classic last season.

The Chiefs would host the AFC title game against any other team, including the third-seeded Bengals (12-4).