What to Watch for in Sunday’s N.F.L. Wild-Card Games

The Cleveland Browns hadn’t been to the playoffs in 17 seasons, but it took them just one game to notch their first playoff victory in a quarter century as they held off the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, 48-37.

Cleveland won without its coach, Kevin Stefanski, who this week tested positive for the coronavirus along with two assistant coaches and two players. The team had barely practiced during the last two weeks because their facility was closed to prevent the further spread of the virus in the locker room, but are now set to face the top-seeded Chiefs in Kansas City in the divisional round next Sunday.

In a moment that would be emblematic of the stunningly lopsided first half, the Browns scored on the game’s first play from scrimmage, 14 seconds into regulation. A high snap sailed over Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s head and the ball rolled all the way back to the end zone, where Browns safety Karl Joseph fell on it for a touchdown.

Roethlisberger then threw two first-quarter interceptions, helping the Browns build a 28-0 lead, the most points ever scored in the first quarter in a playoff game. The Steelers finally scored with less than two minutes left in the first half, but Cleveland quickly responded and led at halftime, 35-10.

Pittsburgh found its footing, scoring on its first two possessions of the second half on well-calibrated drives that were punctuated by touchdown passes from Roethlisberger, who was 47 of 68 for 501 passing yards and four touchdowns. But the Browns finally exhaled after Roethlisberger, trying to erase a 16-point deficit with less than four minutes left, threw his fourth, and final, interception of the game.

Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield completed 21 of 34 passes for 263 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

For Pittsburgh, the first-round playoff exit raises questions about Roethlisberger’s future. At 38 years old, the future Hall of Fame quarterback showed a diminished ability to throw deep.

The Steelers jumped out to an 11-0 start this season despite having their schedule scrambled because of Covid-19 outbreaks in their opponents’ locker rooms. But they stumbled down the stretch, losing four of their last five regular season games.

They’ll get no sympathy from the Browns, who won a playoff game on the road for the first time since 1969 by overcoming a Steelers team that had beaten them 17 straight times in Pittsburgh.

“Once you’re in, anything can happen,” Mayfield said of the Brown’s playoff hopes.

The Saints, and their fans, had a simple wish on Sunday: no surprises.

After three successive years of painful, freakish, even unfair, exits from the N.F.L. postseason, what the New Orleans Saints sought most in their wild-card playoff game on Sunday was nothing truly memorable at all. A standard victory, even a humdrum one, would suffice, thank you.

The second seed in the N.F.C., and the biggest favorite of the league’s opening postseason weekend, the Saints still got a bit of a scare when they led by only 4 points after a jagged first half against the lowly Chicago Bears. But New Orleans, the winner of 11 of its final 13 regular-season games, imposed its will on the seventh-seeded Bears with lengthy, methodical second-half drives to pull away for a tidy, predictable 21-9 victory.

The Saints’ next game, however, will draw a far bigger spotlight and the pressure of a marquee matchup of football royalty. It may also be the final game between Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Tom Brady, whose fifth-seeded Tampa Bay Buccaneers will visit New Orleans in next weekend’s divisional round.

The two have never met in the playoffs, and it will be the first game in N.F.L. history featuring two starting quarterbacks over age 40. And while Brady, 43, has not suggested he will retire after this season, there is considerable speculation that Brees, who turns 42 on Friday, is playing in his final N.FL. season.

After Sunday’s game, Brees said that as soon as Brady joined the Buccaneers he knew they would be an N.F.C. team “with playoff aspirations and beyond.”

Of the impending showdown, Brees added, “I guess it was inevitable.”

The Saints defeated Tampa Bay twice during the regular season, outscoring the Buccaneers, 72-26.

Nursing an uncomfortable 7-3 halftime lead against Chicago, the Saints used their first possession of the second half to mount a 12-play, 85-yard scoring drive that took seven minutes 29 seconds. There was only one crucial play in the march downfield. On a third-and-4, Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas caught a 38-yard pass from Brees. Nine plays later, on second-and-goal at the Chicago 6-yard line, the Bears’ defensive front pressured Brees, who scrambled backward and seemed without options for safely getting rid of the ball.

Just a few feet from Brees, running back Latavius Murray rose from the turf alone after a blocking attempt. Separating Murray from Brees was Chicago’s fearsome linebacker Khalil Mack, who was bearing down on the quarterback. With a bit of ingenuity, Brees, who completed 28 of 39 passes for 265 yards, lobbed a nifty, high, fluttering pass over Mack’s head that landed in the arms of Murray, who sprinted into the end zone for a score that put New Orleans ahead, 14-3.

Although New Orleans tacked on a 3-yard touchdown run by Alvin Kamara, a stellar Saints defense took care of the rest. Chicago gained just 48 rushing yards. When Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky ran for 7 yards late in the game, it represented Chicago’s longest running play of the game. Without a ground attack, the Bears threw the football repeatedly and netted only 199 yards through the air.

“We forced them to be one dimensional,” Saints Coach Sean Payton said. “When you do that, you’re going to win a lot of games.”

The total of 9 points yielded by New Orleans — Chicago tight end Jimmy Graham scored on a 19-yard touchdown pass on the game’s final play — was the lowest score for a playoff opponent in the team’s history.

The bad blood between the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans simmered after Tennessee routed the top-seeded Ravens in last season’s playoffs and the manifest animus was on full display during a pregame spat on the Ravens’ midfield logo in Baltimore before a regular season game two months ago. The Titans surprisingly won that game, too.

Sunday, in a chippy, spirited game, the Ravens got their revenge — and rubbed it in — with a 20-13 wild-card game victory in Tennessee. When Baltimore defensive back Marcus Peters intercepted a pass from Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill with less than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, he and several of his teammates stomped and danced on the Titans’ midfield logo as they turned to face the Tennessee bench.

The gesture drew a taunting penalty but a 33-yard run by Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson two plays later doomed any chance the Titans had for a rally. It was fitting that Jackson was at the center of the game’s pivotal final moment since the victory was his first in the postseason in three appearances. For the last two years, promising Baltimore seasons have abruptly ended after home playoff upsets with Jackson at the helm.

“It was in my mind,” Jackson said afterward about his 0-2 postseason record entering the game. “I’m glad to get it done. It wasn’t going to be the same results. We finally finished.”

Jackson, whose 48-yard touchdown run tied the game at 10-10 late in the first half, had 136 rushing yards on 16 carries and completed 17 of 24 passes for 179 yards. But as dominant as Jackson was, Baltimore’s defense may have had the biggest impact on the game’s outcome since it held Titans running back Derrick Henry to only 40 yards rushing on 18 attempts. The longest run from scrimmage for Henry, who led the N.F.L. in rushing for a second consecutive year with 2,027 yards, was 8 yards.

“Our defense was tired of hearing the noise,” Jackson said of reminders that Henry had gashed the Ravens defense in their two most recent meetings.

The game remained tied until a 4-yard touchdown run by Baltimore running back J.K. Dobbins in the third quarter. A tense struggle ensued for the rest of the game and the teams traded field goals in the fourth quarter. Trailing, 20-13, Tennessee took possession of the football at their 21-yard line with a little more than four minutes remaining in the game.

Five plays later, the Titans had advanced only 11 yards, and just after the two-minute warning, Tannehill threw toward wide receiver Kalif Raymond, who slipped — or was pushed — to the ground as he was making a break for the pass. With Raymond at his feet, Peters intercepted Tannehill’s throw. At the end of the play, Ravens players gathered on the Titans midfield logo.

After the game, many Ravens, including Jackson, left the field without participating in the traditional postgame shaking of hands. Jackson later called the Titans “disrespectful” for their behavior preceding the November regular season game. He added: “There wasn’t no reason for us to shake hands.”

The Ravens will play at Buffalo next Saturday in the divisional round.