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NFL Playoffs Primer: Schedules, Super Bowl paths and possibilities

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NewsHubSo your team made the playoffs. Congrats! Very exciting. And sometimes, a little confusing.
When do they play? Where do they go next if they win? What other games can impact their playoff schedule? How many home games might they play, if any?
We’ve got you covered. Whichever of the 12 NFL playoff teams you root for, keep it locked right here for the next few weeks to follow all of the implications and permutations as your team tries to hold off an early vacation. We give you, ESPN’s Playoff Primer.
Note: All times are Eastern.
First game: Divisional round, Jan. 15 (4:40 p.m., Fox)
Path to Super Bowl LI: If the Lions win their wild-card matchup in Seattle, the Cowboys would host Detroit in the divisional round. If the Seahawks win that game, Dallas would host the winner of the Giants-Packers game. Win one game and Dallas advances to the NFC Championship Game Jan. 22 in Dallas.
Reason for hope: They’ve been the best team in the NFC all year. They reach the playoffs healthy. And no team in the field is better equipped to win if it loses its starting quarterback to an injury. And if the Cowboys do see the Giants… well, they say it’s hard to beat a team three times in one year, right?
Reason for concern: The Cowboys could conceivably open the playoffs against the Giants, who are the only team to beat them this year when Dallas was at full strength — meaning, not including Sunday’s rest-the-starters game in Philadelphia. Dallas was 0-2 against the Giants this year, and the Cowboys would surely breathe a sigh of relief if Green Bay were to beat New York or if Detroit were to beat the Seahawks.
Home cooking: The Cowboys don’t have to leave the state of Texas again all postseason. Any playoff game they play will be at home, and the Super Bowl is in Houston.
First game: Divisional round, Jan. 14 (4:35 p.m., Fox)
Path to Super Bowl LI: If Seattle wins its first-round game, the Falcons would host the Seahawks in a divisional-round game. But if Detroit beats Seattle, then Atlanta would host the winner of the Giants-Packers game. Win one game, and the Falcons advance to the NFC Championship Game Jan 22, either in Dallas or at home against the Seahawks, Packers, Lions or Giants.
Reason for hope: Getting the Seahawks at home would be huge. Seattle was 3-4-1 on the road this year, outscored 156-127 in those games and failed to score a touchdown in three of them. The Falcons played the Seahawks tough in Seattle in Week 6, when Atlanta had a 24-17 lead late in the fourth quarter but lost 26-24. Two weeks later, the Falcons beat the Packers by a point at home.
Reason for concern: The Georgia Dome hasn’t been the same home-field advantage this year as it was for Falcons’ playoff teams of years past. Atlanta was 5-3 at home this year, which is fine. But when they went to the playoffs three straight years from 2010 to 2012, they were a combined 20-4 at home. Maybe the Georgia Dome’s swan song will provide a boost.
Home cooking: Atlanta will play its first game at home. If the Cowboys lose that weekend and the Falcons win, then the NFC Championship Game would also be in Atlanta. But if Dallas wins its first game, it would host the conference title game.
First game: vs. Detroit, Saturday (8:15 p.m., NBC)
Path to Super Bowl LI: To reach the Super Bowl, the Seahawks would have to beat Detroit at home, beat the Falcons in Atlanta, then win an NFC Championship Game either in Dallas or at home against either the Giants or the Packers.
Reason for hope: The Seahawks do get the one home game, which is big, since they’re 7-1 at home and only 3-4-1 on the road this year. And if they can find a way to get past Atlanta in the second round, there’s a reasonable chance they could host the conference title game. The Cowboys’ divisional-round matchup against either the Giants or the Packers would be about as tough a matchup as any bye team could draw.
Reason for concern: The road, the road, the road. Yeah, you’ll say they won in Foxborough, and they did. That shows they can win anywhere. But they were dreadful on the road the rest of the season, and they had Earl Thomas that day at Gillette Stadium. Falling out of the bye with their Week 15 (home!) loss to Arizona could end up being very costly for the Seahawks.
Home cooking: Seattle definitely plays at home on the first weekend, and if they win, they play at Atlanta the second weekend. In order for Seattle to host the NFC Championship Game, the Seahawks would have to win twice, and the Cowboys would have to lose to the Giants or the Packers in their first game.
First game: vs. New York Giants , Sunday (4:40 p.m., Fox)
Path to Super Bowl LI: Aaron Rodgers said the Packers could “run the table,” and they’ve since won six straight games and a division title. To finish off the table, they’ll need to beat the Giants at home next weekend — something they couldn’t do five years ago, when they were 15-1 — then travel to either Dallas or Atlanta for their second-round game. If Detroit beats Seattle and the Packers beat the Giants, the Packers would play the Falcons in the second round. If Seattle beats Detroit and the Packers beat the Giants, the Packers would play Dallas in the second round.
Reason for hope: The Giants’ defense is no joke, but neither is Rodgers, and the Packers beat the Giants 23-16 at Lambeau Field in Week 5. Overall, Green Bay was 4-2 against the NFC playoff field, and one of the losses was by one point in Atlanta.
Reason for concern: The other loss was by two touchdowns at home against Dallas, so the Packers might not match up well with the top seed if they see them in the divisional round. And while they beat Seattle the first time, if they see them again, it would be in Seattle.
Home cooking: The Packers will definitely play at home on the first weekend, and if they win, they would play at either Dallas or Atlanta in the second round. In order for Lambeau Field to host the NFC Championship Game, the Lions would have to beat Seattle and Dallas, and Green Bay would have to beat the Giants and Falcons. If all of that happens, the conference title game would be the third Lions-Packers matchup of the year, at Lambeau Jan. 22.
First game: at Green Bay, Sunday (4:40 p.m., Fox)
Path to Super Bowl LI: The Giants’ path could feel very familiar to those who followed their two most recent Super Bowl runs. They start in Green Bay. If they win and Seattle beats Detroit, the Giants would go to Dallas for the second round. If they win and Detroit beats Seattle, the Giants would go to Atlanta for the second round. Then an NFC Championship Game in Dallas, Atlanta, Seattle or — just maybe — at home.
Reason for hope: The Giants were 2-0 this year against the Cowboys. The rest of the league was 1-13, with the Eagles beating the Dallas backups Sunday afternoon. New York is excellent at stopping the run and, therefore, a difficult matchup for the NFC’s top seed. And Eli Manning has gotten hot in the playoffs before.
Reason for concern: The Giants averaged 19.4 points per game this year. Houston is the only team in the playoffs that scored less. Could they score with the likes of the Packers, Cowboys and Falcons? And could they do it three weeks in a row?
Home cooking: The only way the Giants could host a playoff game is if both they and the Lions advance to the NFC title game. If that happens, that game would be in East Rutherford Jan. 22.
First game: at Seattle, Saturday (8:15 p.m., NBC)
Path to Super Bowl LI: The Lions sat in the No. 2 seed only three weeks ago, but consecutive losses to the Giants, Cowboys and Packers dumped them here. They have to win in Seattle then in Dallas just to get to an NFC Championship Game at either Atlanta, Green Bay or New York.
Reason for hope: They’re never out of a game, these Lions. They trailed in the fourth quarter 15 times and won nine of those games. And while no one wants to go to Seattle, the Seahawks don’t look quite as scary, even there, as they have in years past.
Reason for concern: The Lions go in losing three games in a row. They’re 0-5 against teams that made the playoffs. Their first two games would be on the road against teams that were a combined 14-2 at home. The Lions would be a January miracle, but again, they do like making miracles.
Home cooking: There is no possible way the Lions could host a playoff game.
First game: Divisional round, Jan. 14 (8:15 p.m., CBS)
Path to Super Bowl LI: The Patriots get the first week of the postseason off to rest. If Miami wins its first-round game, New England would host the Dolphins in the divisional round. If the Steelers beat the Dolphins, then the Patriots’ first opponent would be the winner of the Houston-Oakland wild-card game. One win would put the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, which they would host regardless of opponent.
Reason for hope: The only two scary quarterbacks in the AFC are Tom Brady , who plays for the Patriots, and Ben Roethlisberger , who the Patriots can’t face until the AFC title game at the earliest. New England’s first game is either going to be against a Dolphins team they’ve already beaten twice or against a Houston or Oakland team that has major questions at the most important position.
Reason for concern: It’s hard to find one. The Patriots just finished the regular season on a seven-game winning streak, during which their average margin of victory was 16.

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