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NFL playoffs resume with a rematch of the game canceled after Damar Hamlin's collapse

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The NFL playoffs resume tomorrow without Tom Brady but still with plenty of star power and intrigue, including a dramatic rematch between Cincinnati and Buffalo. Their regular season game a couple weeks ago, of course, ended abruptly after Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed. His recovery continues while the traumatic event has given new life to questions about player care. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman joins us now. Hey, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hi. OK, so big weekend coming up, right? We got eight teams left. Two of them, Philadelphia and Kansas City, got byes last week because they're the top seeds in their conferences. So I guess, like, should we just pencil them in to win?

GOLDMAN: Oh, now, Ailsa, why would you do that? You as an NFL expert know...

CHANG: Oh, yes.

GOLDMAN: ...Pro football can be quite unpredictable. I mean, look at the team Kansas City...

CHANG: Indeed.

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) Look at the team Kansas City plays tomorrow, Jacksonville. Last weekend the Jaguars came back and won after falling behind 27 to nothing, reminding everyone no lead is safe. Now, that all said, Kansas City is the No. 1 seed for a reason. The Chiefs have lots of postseason experience, the NFL's best quarterback in Patrick Mahomes. So they are a good bet in this one - now, as are the Philadelphia Eagles in their game against the New York Giants, although the Giants had a good win over Minnesota last weekend in a wild card playoff game and may be generating some nice momentum.

CHANG: OK, let's also talk about the tough game on Monday for the Dallas Cowboys, right? Like, their kicker missed out on four extra points. I mean, what do you think? Do you think his team can trust him enough this Sunday against my former hometown team, the San Francisco 49ers?

GOLDMAN: And a red-hot 49ers team. Dallas coaches and players say they do trust kicker Brett Maher. He's been one of the NFL's best this season. And, you know, who knows what got into his head Monday when he missed those four kicks? But he has to clear his mind. He has to let his body do what it knows how to do. And if he doesn't and he struggles again, the Cowboys did sign another kicker this week. And they won't hesitate to use him. It is, after all, the playoffs. No fooling around.

CHANG: No pressure. OK, and then, as we mentioned, of course, Cincinnati plays Buffalo on Sunday. I mean, what do you think? Do you think it's going to be a pretty emotional meeting for the two teams?

GOLDMAN: Well, you can imagine they will both be fighting flashbacks to when they played earlier this month. Cincinnati was leading when Damar Hamlin went down and the game was cancelled. So this, in a way, will be the finish of that game. It's in Buffalo. Damar Hamlin, who's been hanging out a lot at the Bills' facility this week - if he's at this game, it will ramp up the emotion for sure.

CHANG: I mean, it's been well-documented that Hamlin got outstanding emergency medical care that saved his life, but that - all of that has also reignited this conversation about long-term care for NFL players. What are you hearing on that front?

GOLDMAN: Well, you're hearing renewed questions about why players don't have health care for life. I mean, that's wishful thinking in this country. But pro football is one of those jobs where physical injury, often serious injury, is inevitable. Now, the NFL does provide five years' health care after players finish playing but only if they've played at least three years. And a lot of players don't last that long in their careers. We're also hearing again about the many obstacles players face when they file disability claims and about how they still don't have fully guaranteed contracts, which is an anomaly in major U.S. sports.

CHANG: Wait. But didn't the players' union and the league just agree to a contract pretty recently? Like, why didn't the players get these issues resolved then?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, exactly. That's a good point. The contract was agreed to in 2020. Domonique Foxworth, a former player and union president, was just on the Mina Kimes podcast. He said players haven't had the leverage they need in recent negotiations with team owners, partly because they didn't have much public support.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE MINA KIMES SHOW FEATURING LENNY")

DOMONIQUE FOXWORTH: Our players would then hear - and it influenced them. They would hear from the outside world, you guys make enough money. You're greedy. Hurry up. Get back to work. And media members say the same thing. And that, like, impacts the leverage in the negotiations.

GOLDMAN: Now, Foxworth thinks players could get more leverage to secure better policies with the kind of support that's poured out recently for Damar Hamlin. He'd love to see that support extend to players not in the headlines who are struggling with health issues and who need longer-term health care.

CHANG: That is NPR's Tom Goldman. Thank you so much, Tom.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.