The football world was rocked this week, with some of the most iconic coaches in the history of the game being relieved of the jobs that made them famous: sometimes by choice, as with Nick Saban’s retirement from Alabama, and otherwise by force, like Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll being let go as head coaches of the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks, respectively. Coaching news this big might make it feel like there isn’t still football being played, but time marches on, and the NFL Playoffs start tomorrow. And, most relevant to this website, while UNC Football’s season is definitely over and the only happenings we’re learning about are some transfer portal acquisitions and maybe some coaching staff changes, there are Tar Heels playing and participating in those playoffs. If you don’t already have rooting interests in the NFL, this Tar Heel-oriented guide is a good place to start. Let’s list them! Steelers x2, Cowboys, Lions, Texans x2
Teams without Heels:
14. Cleveland Browns (AFC 5th Seed)
13. Kansas City Chiefs (AFC 3rd Seed)
12. Philadelphia Eagles (NFC 5th Seed)
11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (NFC 4th Seed)
10. Los Angeles Rams (NFC 6th Seed)
9. San Francisco 49ers (NFC 1st Seed)
8. Miami Dolphins (AFC 6th Seed)
7. Green Bay Packers (NFC 7th Seed)
6. Baltimore Ravens (AFC 1st Seed)
5. Buffalo Bills (AFC 2nd Seed)
I’ve ranked these teams more or less arbitrarily, with the exceptions of the bottom 2 and the top 1. The Cleveland Browns are at the bottom because I, and most decent people, would find it abhorrent to see DeShaun Watson get a ring, even if he’s not going to be playing in these playoffs after his injury. The Chiefs follow them because they won last year and repeat champions are boring. On the other hand, I’ve put the Bills at the top of this section for a couple reasons: first, because Buffalo fans are cool, and second, because Josh Allen plays a lot like Drake Maye, so Tar Heel fans can watch the Bills and kind of be reminded of the high points of the last two seasons.
Teams with Tar Heels
4. Dallas Cowboys (NFC 2nd Seed)
The Cowboys drafted former UNC offensive tackle Asim Richards in the 5th round of the 2023 Draft to bolster their depth in the offensive trenches. Richards impressed the Cowboys’ coaches in the preseason enough to be listed as the first backup at left guard, with the ability to play guard or tackle. He’s been used sparingly throughout the season and isn’t likely to see many postseason snaps barring injury, though after a rough week from Chuma Edoga playing in relief of Tyron Smith in Week 17, some Cowboys fans have started calling for Richards to start in his place.
3. Detroit Lions (NFC 3rd Seed)
The Lions took a swing on former Tar Heel wide receiver Antoine Green in the 7th round of last year’s draft, and he played well enough in preseason, including a long touchdown against the Carolina Panthers, to stick on the Lions’ 53-man roster. After playing spot snaps on offense and contributing on special teams for the first half of the season, Green’s playing time mostly disappeared after Jameson Williams returned from suspension and got back up to speed. He did return to the field in Week 18 for a few snaps. He may be in line for some work with Williams, Kalif Raymond, and tight end Sam LaPorta all injured ahead of this weekend’s game, or if the Lions just need to show a different look at some point in this postseason.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (AFC 7th Seed)
The Steelers employ two Tar Heels, neither of whom is likely to play in the postseason. One of those is through no fault of his own; linebacker Cole Holcomb, after signing with the Steelers in free agency to start as an off-ball linebacker, had a great start to the year before going down with a gruesome knee injury in Week 9 that cut his season short. The other, of course, is backup quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, who started a few games this year after an ankle injury to Kenny Pickett. He failed to impress, though, losing both games he started while throwing 4 touchdowns to 5 picks on 5.9 yards per attempt, before being benched for Mason Rudolph. Rudolph has played pretty well since then, and started Week 18 even with Pickett being named back on the active roster. That’s likely a sign that Trubisky is running third on the quarterback depth chart in Pittsburgh, and might mean his time there is coming to an end after several years of capable backup duty.
1. Houston Texans (AFC 4th Seed)
The Texans are the feel-good story of the NFL this year, turning around in just a season from one of the NFL’s worst teams to a division title winner with a first-time head coach and a rookie quarterback who both look like they’ll be stalwarts in this league for years to come. Behind the headliners like DeMeco Ryans, C.J. Stroud, Tank Dell, Nico Collins, and Laremy Tunsil, though, are a couple of Tar Heels who helped get them here. M.J. Stewart played a lot of defensive snaps at safety in the first part of the season while the Texans’ defensive back rotation was thin due to injury. His snaps declined in the middle part of the season as the room got healthy, and then he unfortunately suffered a fractured shoulder that landed him on injured reserve. On the other side of the ball, Charlie Heck has been huge this year for Houston. He’s been a mainstay as a backup tackle for the team since he was drafted in 2020 and started a few games here and there due to injury, but this year, he was pressed into starting duty longer-term after an injury to left guard George Fant caused then-starting right tackle Tytus Howard into his spot and Heck into the vacant right tackle spot. Now, with Howard hurt and Fant healthy, Heck is still starting at tackle entering the playoffs, and has been playing well protecting both Davis Mills and Stroud. He might be making himself some money if he keeps things up, and it’d be all the sweeter if he could keep it up on the way to adding a ring to the Tar Heel alumni trophy case.