It’s not too early to look ahead to how next weekend’s NFL Divisional Round schedule might turn out, as some of it will depend on which teams win their Wild Card games.
For the third consecutive season, 14 teams, not just 12 like we saw each year from 1990 to 2019, qualified for the NFL playoffs following the approval of expansion.
Seven teams compete from each conference, and only one team in each conference receives a first-round bye, which inherently allows for two additional Wild Card games on the opening weekend of the postseason.
In the 2020 postseason, three games were contested on Saturday of “Super Wild Card Weekend”, and three were contested on Sunday. But last year, just two were contested on Saturday, and one was moved to Monday night. That is set to be the case again this year.
Knowing this, we can start to piece together next week’s Divisional Round schedule even before this year’s opening round begins, and we can start by using this Monday night’s Wild Card matchup between the No. 5 seed Dallas Cowboys and the No. 4 seed Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Given the NFL’s focus on creating the fairest possible outcome for everybody, it is highly unlikely (if even an option at all), that the NFL would have the winner of Monday night’s game play in a Saturday game in the Divisional Round.
Take a look at last year, when the Los Angeles Rams beat the Arizona Cardinals on Monday night and didn’t play until the following Sunday afternoon, when they defeated the Buccaneers.
This means that either the Cowboys or Buccaneers would be slated to play next Sunday as opposed to next Saturday, which leaves the NFL with just three possibilities for an NFC game on Saturday.
Seattle Seahawks @ Philadelphia Eagles
The No. 7 seed Seattle Seahawks know that if they defeat the No. 2 San Francisco 49ers, they are headed to Philadelphia for a date with the No. 1 seed Eagles. The Eagles are set to match up with whichever remaining NFC team has the lowest seed, and a Seattle win ensures that it would be Seattle.
If this happens, then the game would likely be on Saturday since it would not include the Cowboys or the Buccaneers. The winner of that game would then take on the winner of the game between the No. 6 seed New York Giants and the No. 3 seed Minnesota Vikings.
New York Giants @ Philadelphia Eagles
The only way the Giants play the Eagles next week is if Seattle loses to San Francisco and if New York beats Minnesota, as this would ensure that the Giants are the team with the lowest seed heading into round two.
A Seattle loss means a San Francisco win, so with a Giants win, the 49ers would host a Sunday game in the Divisional Round against the winner of the Cowboys vs. Buccaneers game. This would send New York to Philadelphia on Saturday.
Minnesota Vikings @ San Francisco 49ers
The final possibility for a Saturday NFC Divisional Round game is Vikings vs. 49ers. If both teams care of business against the Giants and Seahawks, respectively, they would be set to match up in round two for the second time in four years.
This would mean that the winner of the Cowboys vs. Buccaneers game would travel to Philadelphia, in which case that game would be contested on Sunday.
What does it all mean for the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs?
Considering the fact that all eight of the other potential NFC Divisional Round matchups include either the Cowboys or Buccaneers, these are the only three options that make sense for a Saturday NFC game.
Because only one of these three matchups can happen (i.e. both Seattle and San Francisco can’t win, and both New York and Minnesota can’t win), the schedule will kind of sort itself out on the NFC side. The only questions become which time slot each game gets on which day, and which AFC teams play when.