NFL playoffs: 10 players who might play last game with current team on championship weekend

Nate Davis

The NFL is a league in constant flux – players, coaches and front office executives navigate revolving doors to varying degrees in every city – and the widespread comings and goings contribute heavily to the parity that keeps things interesting.

The four teams playing on championship weekend and vying for berths in Super Bowl 56 have made it to the penultimate playoff round by virtue of talent and chemistry that has contributed to a winning formula. But those recipes will inevitably change in the coming weeks, all four clubs soon facing significant offseason dilemmas.

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These 10 key players could be playing for the final time with their current club Sunday:

Cincinnati Bengals

The AFC North champions – still a little hard to believe? – don't typically make huge headlines with copious free agent spending or draft-altering trades. But give the Bengals credit as they've been one of the NFL's better draft-and-develop teams over the past decade and have also shown more willingness to open the vault to add established veterans rather than merely focusing on retention of their players. With roughly $60 million in cap space available this year, per OverTheCap, Cincy should be able to keep the band together ... and maybe add a keyboardist and rhythm guitarist. But might be smart to keep that franchise tag handy.

S Jessie Bates III: He emerged as one of the league's top center fielders in 2020 and reminded the world what he can do by intercepting Titans QB Ryan Tannehill's first pass of last weekend's divisional-round game. Bates made a great break on the ball and set a tone for the day with a play that led to three points. He admitted during the season that his unsettled contract situation might have negatively affected him, but he's back to making an impact ... and perhaps driving up the price on his next deal.

TE C.J. Uzomah: He established career highs in 2021 with 49 catches for 493 yards and five TDs – all while coming back from a torn Achilles that ended his 2020 campaign. Uzomah can catch, block and provides leadership, emerging as an important piece of Cincinnati's puzzle – but one that isn't signed for 2022.

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Kansas City Chiefs

AFC champions the past two years, K.C. will become the first organization to host four consecutive conference championship games Sunday. Obviously a good thing going here and most of the club's core players are locked up ... but a few could be on the move.

LT Orlando Brown Jr.: Acquired from the Baltimore Ravens prior to last year's draft, he manned his preferred spot on the blind side and did a nice job protecting QB Patrick Mahomes this season. Given the Chiefs' investment in Mahomes and scarcity of unemployed capable left tackles in the world, retaining Brown seems to project as the top priority this offseason.

DB Tyrann Mathieu: The three-time All-Pro's arrival in Kansas City coincided with the Chiefs' rise from contender to juggernaut. And the Honey Badger's value was never more apparent than in last weekend's divisional-round matchup with Buffalo, his absence due to a concussion making it easier for Bills QB Josh Allen to shred the K.C. secondary. Mathieu turns 30 in May, and the team has expressed a desire to keep him – but age and money could render him the classic case of an NFL star forced to move on before he's ready.

Los Angeles Rams

No team may have more riding on Sunday's outcome, the Rams seemingly in "win-now" mode the past few years. And it could get a lot harder to compete in 2022 given they project to be in a $6 million salary cap hole and aren't scheduled to select in the first round again until the 2024 draft. (The Rams' last Round 1 pick was former QB Jared Goff, taken first overall in 2016.)

WR Odell Beckham Jr.: He's fit in awfully well with his new team, snaring six TD catches in 10 games, playoffs included. But given the big picture, which includes the expected return of starting WR Robert Woods (torn ACL) next season, reasonable to expect that OBJ is headed back to the free agent pool.

OLB Von Miller: He cost a pretty penny – 2022's second- and third-round picks for a half-season rental (most likely) – but it's paid off lately, the Super Bowl 50 MVP with seven sacks in the last six games. Still, like OBJ, hard to figure how GM Les Snead squeezes a veritable luxury item into LA's 2023 budget.

LT Andrew Whitworth: He's one of the game's best bodyguards, allowing just one sack in 2021, and has a shot to wind up in Canton. Whitworth is also 40, has taken a pounding – the knee injury he suffered in the wild-card win shelved him in the divisional round – and is in a year-to-year mode. Whitworth is due to make about $14 million in 2022, however the Rams can save that money by moving on – and might need to given starting C Brian Allen, RG Austin Corbett and OL Joseph Noteboom, who played capably in Whitworth's stead last Sunday in Tampa, all need new contracts in 2022.

San Francisco 49ers

The 2019 NFC champions are clearly back among the league's elite after an injury-marred 2020 season. But GM John Lynch only has so many resources to improve his roster given he possesses no first-round pick until 2024 and has about $11 million in cap space. Unless...

QB Jimmy Garoppolo has spent the past four-plus seasons with the 49ers.

QB Jimmy Garoppolo: He's on the verge of helping the Niners to a second Super Bowl in a three-season span. Yet it's worth wondering how much of that is because of Garoppolo and how much is in spite of him. He's been generally efficient in 2021, winning 11 of 17 starts and leading the NFL with 12.7 yards per completion while battling through an assortment of injuries. Yet he still commits some ugly turnovers, misses open receivers and hasn't thrown a TD in two playoff games. His passer rating hasn't climbed above 90.0 in his last four outings. And even as much as Lynch and Kyle Shanahan might love the big-picture results, they're also the ones who mortgaged those future Round 1 picks to select Trey Lance with the No. 3 pick of the 2021 draft. Moving on from Garoppolo this offseason would save San Francisco $25.5 million. Even if the 49ers win it all, might be a Trent Dilfer situation afoot here.

DT D.J. Jones: He's been a valuable part of the deep D-line rotation that's become a Niners hallmark in recent years – and likely more important to retain given DT Javon Kinlaw must come back from an ACL reconstruction to play in 2022.

LG Laken Tomlinson: A first-round castoff of the Detroit Lions, he's been a stabilizing force since getting traded to the Bay Area and has played 85 games in a row, including postseason. For a team built to run the ball, losing such a valuable O-line component would hardly be optimal – and Tomlinson might be the first guy Lynch reaches out to with a new contract offer once March rolls around.


Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.