While Sunday’s NFC and AFC championship games meant trips to Super Bowl LV for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs, it also meant the end of the road for another pair of teams as the 2020 NFL playoffs near their end.
The Green Bay Packers closed out their season with a 31-26 loss to the Buccaneers, and the Buffalo Bills followed with a 38-24 loss to the Chiefs. They join the New Orleans Saints, Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens, Los Angeles Rams, Indianapolis Colts, Seattle Seahawks, Washington Football Team, Tennessee Titans, Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers as playoff teams whose runs have been cut short.
So what’s next for the teams that were eliminated from the playoffs? NFL Nation digs in.
How the season finished: Reaching the AFC Championship Game after failing to win a playoff game in 25 years is a major win for the Bills; the only thing that went wrong for them was that they ran into the reigning Super Bowl champions. Buffalo has to figure out its run game this offseason, as it was far too one-dimensional during its three-game playoff run.
Biggest offseason question: Who will return to Buffalo in 2021? General manager Brandon Beane will have to play gymnastics with the salary cap this offseason, as the Bills have a few key players to make decisions on, including linebacker Matt Milano, offensive linemen Jon Feliciano and Daryl Williams and cornerback Taron Johnson. Buffalo might not be able to keep all four with the projected drop in the salary cap. Plus, with quarterback Josh Allen‘s meteoric rise in 2020, the team might consider signing him to an extension this offseason, before it gets any more expensive to do so. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
How the season finished: This was the season everything went the Packers’ way — until it didn’t. Aaron Rodgers finally got an NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field, yet it still didn’t matter. He became the first quarterback to lose four times in a row in conference championship games.
This team was supposed to be different than, say, the one from a year ago that won ugly all the way to the NFC title game. This time around, the Packers were dominating, especially on offense, leading Rodgers to say this heading into the playoffs: “I feel like we have a lot of confidence this year, belief in ourselves. Offensively, we’re just a much better team than we were. We’re a much more efficient team. That helps, for sure, on the offensive side of the ball. Last year, we were just so up and down. I think that’s been the biggest difference offensively is we’re playing with a lot more confidence.”
This was the second time in Rodgers’ career as a starter that the Packers have had the No. 1 seed. Both times, they failed to get to the Super Bowl. Instead, Rodgers is stuck on one Super Bowl, while Tom Brady is back again — for his 10th Super Bowl appearance — this time with a different team, the Buccaneers.
And it ended when coach Matt LaFleur took the ball out of Rodgers’ hands and opted for a field goal with a little more than two minutes to play down eight in the championship game. Rodgers never got the ball back.
Biggest offseason question: How many more chances at a second Super Bowl will Rodgers get? That could depend on what happens this offseason — not only with Rodgers and when the Packers decide to move on now that they have Jordan Love in the fold, but also with the players around Rodgers. Salary-cap guru Russ Ball will have to get creative, and general manager Brian Gutekunst will have to make some difficult decisions on players under contract and with pending free agents such as running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams and All-Pro center Corey Linsley. It wouldn’t hurt to shore up their special teams, either. — Rob Demovsky
How the season finished: What an awful way to end an era. Drew Brees, who is widely expected to retire after this season, threw three interceptions in a playoff game for the first time in his career in Sunday’s 30-20 loss to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If this was indeed Brees’ final game, he deserved a much better final impression. And he and coach Sean Payton definitely deserved more than one trip to the Super Bowl during their 15 years together. Instead, they finished with an unfortunate pattern of four straight NFC South titles — and four straight gut-wrenching playoff exits. The Saints faced more adversity than usual this season: Brees missed four games with a punctured lung and 11 broken ribs and receiver Michael Thomas was plagued all year by a sprained ankle. But they appeared to be peaking and getting healthy at the right time before Sunday’s disappointing finish. New Orleans’ defense, which had been stellar for most of the year, put up a great fight for three quarters — but ultimately couldn’t overcome the 4-0 turnover ratio that gave Tampa Bay so many short fields.
Biggest offseason question: Obviously Brees’ status is at the top of the list. There are strong indications that he could retire after his 20th season. And if he does, the Saints will have to decide if they’re comfortable with Taysom Hill or pending free agent Jameis Winston as the next starter — perhaps the most colossal decision this organization has had to make in 15 years. But that’s not the only one facing the Saints as they head into 2021 with the highest projected salary-cap figure in the NFL (nearly $100 million over the cap by some estimates). That number isn’t quite as daunting as it seems. They should be able to keep most of their core intact by pushing cap costs into future years, and they should still be talented enough to contend for a fifth straight NFC South title. But they can’t afford to keep everyone while still re-signing all of their pending free agents (Winston, Marcus Williams, Trey Hendrickson, Sheldon Rankins, Jared Cook among others in 2021; Hill, Terron Armstead, Ryan Ramczyk, Marshon Lattimore among others in 2022). — Mike Triplett
How the season finished: In most ways, the Browns had a magical season. In his first year, Kevin Stefanski demonstrated why he’s Cleveland’s coach for the foreseeable future, as he guided the Browns to their first playoff appearance since 2002 — and first playoff victory since 1994 — despite a year full of obstacles. Baker Mayfield enjoyed a resurgence in his third season, and showed why he’s Cleveland’s long-term answer at quarterback, which should begin with the Browns picking up his fifth-year option this offseason and potentially negotiating a long-term extension. Other young stars like running back Nick Chubb and defensive end Myles Garrett continued to show they are among the best players in the league at their positions. There’s no shame in losing to the defending Super Bowl champs on the road. And Cleveland’s contending window figures to be wide open for the foreseeable future.
Biggest offseason question: The Browns need to shore up the defense around Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward. The secondary and linebacking corps were inconsistent for much of the year. Safety is where the Browns should start gathering help, although that could be alleviated if second-round pick Grant Delpit, who was projected to start as a rookie before injuring his Achilles in training camp, can return to form. The Browns also will have to make decisions on Mayfield, Chubb and Ward, who are all up for extensions. Cleveland has the space to absorb big deals, but those three players will not be cheap to extend, either. — Jake Trotter
How the season finished: The Ravens’ championship run came to a painful end when quarterback Lamar Jackson suffered a concussion and was ruled out of the fourth quarter in Saturday’s divisional playoff game against the Bills. Jackson’s injury came two plays after his second pick-six and first red zone interception of his pro career. A week after capturing his first postseason victory, Jackson delivered one of his most frustrating performances, failing to produce a touchdown for the first time in 39 straight games (which was the longest streak in the NFL). The last time Baltimore advanced to the AFC Championship Game was 2012, when Joe Flacco delivered the Mile High Miracle. To Baltimore’s credit, this team overcame plenty of adversity to get to the playoffs: Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas getting cut after allegedly punching a teammate, All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley suffering a season-ending ankle injury and the biggest COVID-19 outbreak in professional sports. The Ravens then took a significant step this postseason, from quarterback Lamar Jackson winning his first career playoff game to Baltimore exacting revenge on the Tennessee Titans from last year’s playoff loss. Now, the question that will linger over Jackson and the Ravens is this: Can a perennial Super Bowl contender finally get to the Super Bowl?
Biggest offseason question: Will the Ravens decide to acquire a No. 1 wide receiver for Jackson? A proven playmaker on the outside is the missing piece for an offense that ranked No. 1 in rushing but No. 31 in passing. Last offseason, the Arizona Cardinals traded for DeAndre Hopkins to give QB Kyler Murray an elite receiver, and the Buffalo Bills acquired Stefon Diggs for Josh Allen. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Ravens get just as aggressive in bringing in a top target for Jackson, or if they will put their faith in Marquise Brown, who finished the season strong and totaled 109 yards receiving in the wild-card win in Tennessee. — Jamison Hensley
How the season finished: Defensive tackle Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey anchored a Super Bowl-worthy defense that finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the NFL and was the driving force behind a playoff run. However, with Donald limited because of a rib injury, the defense could not slow quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ top-ranked offense. In a wild twist, the Rams’ offense — which struggled to establish consistency throughout the season — finished on a high note in the divisional-round playoff loss behind quarterback Jared Goff, who underwent surgery on his throwing-hand thumb on Dec. 28. They put together a nearly flawless performance against the Packers. The defense, without a doubt the downfall in the season finale, had been leaned on throughout the season by Rams coach Sean McVay and the offense. McVay’s playcalling too often put the offense in a difficult position, and Goff’s inconsistencies and turnover-plagued season did not aid the situation.
Biggest offseason question: The offense performed well in the loss to the Packers, but the question moving forward remains how it can perform at that level consistently. McVay produced an offensive juggernaut that lit up the NFL in his first two seasons and was among the league’s highest-scoring units. But ever since a disappointing 13-3 loss to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII, the offense has not been able to consistently return to form. McVay must go back to the drawing board, and perhaps most importantly, he must figure out how to get the most out of Goff, who has four seasons remaining on his $110 million guaranteed contract. The Rams entered the season without an experience backup or competition pushing Goff when they elected to keep John Wolford, an undrafted free agent in 2018, as his lone backup. Wolford started in Week 17 and earned an 18-7 win over the Cardinals to clinch a playoff spot, and McVay felt confident enough to start him in the divisional round against the Seahawks. So perhaps Wolford can provide meaningful competition behind Goff. But if not, the Rams should consider signing a veteran quarterback to push Goff in 2021 or use a mid-round selection in the NFL draft to bring in a young QB who can provide daily competition and be inserted into a game if Goff goes on a turnover spree. — Lindsey Thiry
Louis Riddick analyzes the impact Ben Roethlisberger has on the Steelers.
How the season finished: The Steelers maintained the best record in the NFL through 11 games with an unblemished start, but the wheels fell off in a three-game stretch as weaknesses with the run game and short passing game were exposed, not to mention the injuries on defense. The Steelers rebounded for a division-clinching, comeback win against the Indianapolis Colts, but a first-round exit out of the playoffs after an 11-0 start is a disappointment — especially with the first-quarter meltdown that led to a 28-0 deficit in Sunday’s wild-card playoff loss to Cleveland. This team had Super Bowl LV aspirations, and anything less than a trip to Tampa, Florida, in the twilight of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger‘s career is a failure.
Biggest offseason question: Roethlisberger is committed to playing at least through the end of his contract in 2021, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported, but what remains to be seen is how much of the current team the Steelers can retain around him. With nearly 20 free agents hitting the market and a $41.2 million salary-cap hit on Roethlisberger’s deal, the Steelers will have to pull off major wizardry to bring back anyone significant — such as versatile defensive backs Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton or wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. — Brooke Pryor
Chicago Bears (8-9, 2nd in the NFC North)
How the season finished: Despite starting 5-1, the Bears’ offense spent much of the first 11 games of the 2020 season in hibernation. Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky got benched in Week 3 in favor of Nick Foles, who fared even worse. Trubisky took the job back in late November and played mostly inspired football, but the damage was done. The Bears ignored running back David Montgomery — partly because the offensive line play was so subpar early on — for much of the season until he got on a hot streak to close out the regular season. But failing to establish the run for the first three months of the season hurt Chicago. The Bears backed into the playoffs in Week 17 by virtue of the Los Angeles Rams‘ win over the Arizona Cardinals, but Chicago went one-and-done in the postseason. After Sunday’s 21-9 loss at New Orleans, the Bears are 1-7 against playoff teams in 2020. The whole season felt like a wasted opportunity.
Biggest offseason question: The Bears need to determine what organizational changes are necessary despite reaching the playoffs two of three years. A strong argument can be made to retain coach Matt Nagy, but upper management might be a different conversation. General manager Ryan Pace, whose fate is intertwined with Trubisky, has one year left on his contract. The civic cries for team president and CEO Ted Phillips to step aside grow louder each year. The Bears also have a big decision to make at quarterback. Trubisky’s fifth-year option was declined, and Foles looked ineffective. Do the Bears draft another quarterback? Do they re-sign Trubisky (gulp)? Do they find another veteran? The story remains the same in Chicago. — Jeff Dickerson
How the season finished: The major issue for the Titans has been the defense. When a team doesn’t have a stout front end and back end of the defense, the results are typically not good. They signed free agents Jadeveon Clowney and Vic Beasley to shore up the pass rush and take the defense to the next level. But instead, they’ve regressed. The Titans finished with 19 sacks — third worst in the league. Losing Adoree Jackson for 13 games because of a knee injury hurt the secondary severely. Outside of Malcolm Butler, the Titans have especially struggled on third downs, where they’ve allowed an NFL-worst 51.8% conversion rate.
Biggest offseason question: How can the Titans find a way to generate a pass rush? The same issue from last offseason carries over to 2021. The Titans will have limited salary-cap space to add a premier pass-rusher, so they’ll have to bank on signing a player with upside who hasn’t had a breakout season. Tennessee could also turn to the 2021 NFL draft. The offense is too good to have another season wasted away by the issues on defense. The Titans also have to hire a defensive coordinator. — Turron Davenport
How the season finished: A variety of things. But, keep in mind, Washington wasn’t expected to be much more than a six- or seven-win team. In a tumultuous year, it won four more games than last season under first-year coach Ron Rivera. Washington won five of its final seven games to win the division. But the offense needed to be more productive. Quarterback was an issue as Dwayne Haskins was ineffective, benched early and eventually released; backup Kyle Allen lasted four games before a broken ankle ended his season and Alex Smith‘s strained calf cost him down the stretch. His leadership and comeback story mattered, but the offense sputtered too often and needs more consistent wide receiver play, and playmakers, beyond Terry McLaurin. The defense played well, but needs to start games better. It also allowed too many big plays and was inconsistent against the run; it needs to strengthen the linebacker and safety positions.
Biggest offseason question: Who will be the quarterback in 2021? Washington cut Haskins, and it would be awfully hard to rely on Smith as a starter next season at age 37. Smith was a fantastic story, but can he last 16 games and be effective? The team must consider its options and can save $13.6 million by releasing him. Because the defense is ready to win now, with its talented and youthful front, Washington can’t afford to wait long for a young quarterback to develop. Washington could contend in the NFC East for a while by adding a veteran and perhaps drafting a quarterback in the middle rounds to develop. Rivera said Allen could have done what Smith did in leading the team to a division title. But if they deem Smith as worthy of returning, then it must draft a quarterback who could provide immediate help, if this offense wants to make a jump. And Taylor Heinicke showed that he should be in contention for a roster spot with a 306-yard passing day against the Bucs in the wild-card round. Washington’s inability to develop, and keep, a quarterback has contributed mightily to its poor record under owner Dan Snyder. He can’t be the one leading the charge, as he was when the team acquired Haskins, Robert Griffin III and Donovan McNabb. — John Keim
How the season finished: The Seahawks’ offense hit a wall around midseason and could never break through it. Russell Wilson was throwing touchdowns at a historically prolific rate early on, carrying a defense that was setting records for futility for the first two months. But Wilson & Co. started cooling off right around the time their defense began its turnaround. All of that was still good enough to score the most points in franchise history, win the most games since 2014 and secure their first division title since 2016. But it wasn’t good enough for the NFC’s No. 1 seed, which, as it turns out, the Seahawks would have gotten had they not inexplicably lost to the Giants at home in Week 13. The Seahawks could have used that week off to rest Jamal Adams and avoid the Rams, who held Seattle’s struggling offense to 20 points in the wild-card round and got a key pick-six.
Biggest offseason question: It all centers around Adams: Can the Seahawks get a deal done? If so, how massive will it be? And if not, then what? This season, Adams validated the Seahawks’ bold decision to give up two first-round picks in last summer’s blockbuster trade. He was arguably their most impactful defensive player, setting the sack record for DBs. He brought an attitude their defense was lacking. Adams still has one year remaining on his current deal, and giving up as much as the Seahawks did for Adams leaves no doubt they want him long term. But negotiations could be tricky because he’ll undoubtedly want to be paid like more than just a safety. The NFL’s decreasing salary cap could complicate matters. The Seahawks figured they could get a strong return for Adams this offseason if they weren’t able to get a deal done and had to trade him. They’re without picks in the first and third rounds after giving them up for Adams, so they have incentive to figure out before the draft if he’ll be around long term. — Brady Henderson
How the season finished: It’s hard to say something went wrong when you finish with double-digit victories for just the second time since 2014. But the Colts didn’t give quarterback Philip Rivers a one-year, $25 million contract to simply lead them to the first weekend of the playoffs. Owner Jim Irsay wants to win “multiple Lombardis,” but they haven’t won any since the 2006 season. They had the talent to make the postseason, but the 2020 season proved there was little room for error. And Indianapolis nearly had one error too many. The Colts didn’t qualify for the playoffs until the final week of the regular season when they beat Jacksonville and then got help from Buffalo beating Miami.
Biggest offseason question: Who will be the starting quarterback and left tackle in 2021? After spending the first 16 seasons of his career with the Chargers, Rivers proved critics wrong by showing he could still compete at the highest level. But he’s 39 and has a high school head-coaching job waiting for him in Alabama when he retires. The risk of keeping Rivers — if all sides want that to happen — is his production falling off, which would force the franchise to hunt for a new starter in 2022. Fourth-round pick Jacob Eason spent this season as the team’s third-string quarterback, learning behind Rivers and Jacoby Brissett. It’s unknown if Eason is ready to push for the starting job next season. The Colts could re-sign Brissett, who will be a free agent, or look for a starter via free agency or a trade (Carson Wentz or Matthew Stafford). Starting left tackle Anthony Castonzo will be 33 in August, and he, like Rivers, has not committed to playing beyond this season. Castonzo flirted with retirement last winter. The only player currently on the roster who might be able to fill in is All-Pro left guard Quenton Nelson. — Mike Wells
(With Inputs from ESPN)
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