Previewing NFL Wild Card Weekend

You know what time it is.

Wild Card Weekend.

Win or go home.

Playoff football baby.

Let’s not waste time any more time with the intro and get into the matchups.

Saturday Games (1/15)

4:30 EST: #5 Raiders @ #4 Bengals

Our first game is a matchup no one could have seen coming just a few short weeks ago.

After a roller coaster of a season, the Las Vegas Raiders find themselves traveling to Cincinnati in round one to try and slow down a red-hot Bengals’ passing attack. Before resting their starters in week 18, Cincinnati was getting hot at exactly the right time as they posted 41 and 34 points in their last two games at full strength.

A large part of their success has been due to some exceptional quarterbacking from Joe Burrow. Burrow’s played like a superstar in recent weeks, and it’ll be exciting to see how he and his explosive group of playmakers fare in the young quarterback’s first dose of playoff action.

While the Bengals have been fantastic offensively this year, they do have one glaring weakness on that side of the ball — keeping Burrow upright.

Burrow’s been sacked a league-high 51 times this year, and the pass rush he’s going up against on Sunday is no joke. Las Vegas houses one of the league’s premier edge rushing duos in Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue. These two are surely licking their chops thinking about a matchup with a pass-happy offense that struggles in pass protection.

No team in the league blitzes less than the Raiders (just 12.1% of dropbacks), so it’ll be entirely up to the front four to get after Burrow and try to wreck the game on their own. They were able to take him down 3 times in their matchup with Cincinnati back in week 11, but it wasn’t enough in a game where the Bengals won handily. If someone along the Raiders’ defensive front can step up and make a play that turns the tide of the entire game, I think Vegas can squeak out a victory in this one.

The Bengals are a better team, but the matchup in this one is scary. Give me the Raiders in a round one upset.

Score Prediction: Las Vegas 27 Cincinnati 24

6:15 EST: #6 Patriots @ #3 Bills

Our first divisional matchup is a game of opposites.

Old Guard vs. New Kid on the Block.

Smash-Mouth Run Game vs. Wide-Open Passing Attack.

Immovable Object vs. Unstoppable Force.

After splitting their two matchups in the regular season, the Patriots and Bills will look to break the tie in Upstate New York on Saturday night.

Bill Belichick will bring an impressive Patriots defense to Orchard Park and hope to shut down Josh Allen and the Bills’ electrifying offense. The first time these two teams met this year, the Pats (with some help from Mother Nature) stymied the Bills’ offense and held them to just 10 points en route to a victory.

Round two however told a different story. Josh Allen and the Bills’ offense put up 33 points against this Patriots’ defense and walked away with a definitive victory that helped them claim the AFC East crown for the second straight year.

New England’s defense has carried this team to 10 wins this season, but in recent weeks they’ve started to show some vulnerabilities. Over their last four games, they’ve given up 27, 33 (to Buffalo), 10, and 33 points. For a team who needs to lean on defense to find postseason success, this is a potential recipe for disaster.

Luckily for Patriots fans, they still have the best defensive mind in the game running the show. We’ve all seen Bill Belichick come up with some crafty game plans over the course of his career, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if he finds a way to shut down Allen and the Bills in this one. It certainly won’t be easy though, as this Bills’ offense provides an extremely stiff test.

Since that loss to New England in week 13, Buffalo has scored an average of 30.6 points per game and led the team to a 4–1 record over that 5 game span. Allen has been completely taking over games, and the Bills run game has even come alive and provided this offense with some much-needed balance.

It’s never easy to score points against a Bill Belichick defense in January, but the Bills championship window is open right now. This team is built to score points in bunches regardless of who their opponent is, and while the Pats might be capable of slowing this offense down for portions of this game, keeping them in check for a full 60 minutes feels like too tall of an order.

Score Prediction: New England 16 Buffalo 20

Sunday Games (1/16)

1:00 EST: #7 Eagles @ # 2 Buccaneers

The Eagles made the most of a soft schedule during the second half of the season.

Excluding their week 18 matchup with Dallas when they were resting their starters, they’ve gone 7–2 in their last 9 games. This impressive stretch was largely fueled by a dominant rushing attack that helped snag the last playoff spot in the NFC, but their defense has stepped up in recent weeks as well.

On the season, the Eagles defense is a top 10 unit measured by yards allowed, but their numbers over the second half of the season indicate they’re even better than that. Over that same 9 game stretch, the Eagles are allowing just 16.5 points per game — a mark that would be best in the league if it spanned the entire season.

However, soft matchups are a large reason for this perceived turnaround in Philadelphia, and the Eagles have yet to win a game against a playoff team all season. Their defense has gotten gashed by every good quarterback they’ve squared off against, and traveling to Tampa to take on the GOAT this Sunday could spell trouble.

44 year old Tom Brady is still playing at an elite level, and he might just have a field day against what appears to be an overrated defense. He’s leading a Bucs offense that’s second in the league in points scored (30.1 per game) and first in passing yards (307.6).

It’ll be a bit of an uphill battle as Brady will be without two of his favorite targets — Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown — but he’ll still have Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski in the passing game, and Leonard Fournette appears ready to return from injury to provide this run game with a boost as well.

Brady’s the exact type of quarterback this Eagles team matches up horribly against. He should be able to take advantage of a below average back seven and light up the scoreboard with ease. If the Eagles can manage to get a few key stops in the red zone, their rushing attack may be able to keep things close and pull off the upset. At the end of the day though… we’re still talking about Tom Brady in the playoffs.

Score Prediction: Philadelphia 17 Tampa Bay 30

4:30 EST: #6 49ers @ # 3 Cowboys

This might be the most exciting matchup of the entire weekend.

The Cowboys are always talking a big game, but in recent years the talent on their roster has not translated to postseason success. This year however, they’ve got a group that might just be impressive enough to buck that trend.

Their offense ranks best in the league in both points scored and yards gained, and they’ve been atop the offensive leaderboards almost all year long. This wasn’t a huge surprise to anyone, but the turnaround this defense has experienced under Dan Quinn has been a welcome surprise.

Trevon Diggs has played at an All Pro level at cornerback, as he’s picked off just about every passer he’s faced this year (11 interceptions on the year). In this matchup though, it’s going to be the guys in the front seven who will need to step up if Dallas wants to slow down this San Fransisco offense.

The 49ers boast one of the most dynamic rushing offenses in the entire NFL. They’ve got a slew of playmakers who can make an impact in the run game from just about any spot on the field, and Deebo Samuel in particular has been been an absolute monster. He’s essentially become a positionless player who’s just as capable of gashing defenses in on the ground as he is through the air, and his versatility has given defenses fits all year long. However, the Cowboys’ have an equally versatile chess piece on their defense in their star rookie linebacker — Micah Parsons.

Parsons has elite skills in the passing game, but in this matchup it’ll be his ability to stop the run that becomes paramount for this Cowboys’ defense. He’ll have his hands full trying to sniff out the complex 49ers run game, and it’ll be interesting to see how he and the rest of the Cowboys’ defense hold up in this one.

While Dallas has been a disappointment in the postseason in recent years, I think they’ve got enough talent to win a close one at home.

Score Prediction: San Fransisco 23 Dallas 24

8:15 EST: #7 Steelers @ #2 Chiefs

These teams met back in week 16 when we saw the Chiefs shellack the Steelers by a score of 36–10. Kansas City started out hot, never left their foot off the gas pedal, and dominated this game from start to finish. In their playoff matchup coming up on Sunday night, I see no reason to expect anything different

The Chiefs are looking like the Super Bowl team we all know them to be, and their offense has been on fire in recent weeks as they’ve averaged 35.4 points over their last 5 games. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh has only eclipsed 35 points once this year (in a 41–37 loss to the Chargers), and their defense hasn’t been playing at a level that indicates they can slow down the offensive juggernaut in Kansas City.

The one glimmer of hope for Pittsburgh is they have a pass rush that can absolutely wreck games. The Steelers rank first in the league in sacks (55), and TJ Watt just tied Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record (22.5) en route to what will likely be a Defensive Player of the Year nod for Watt. We saw what the Bucs pass rush was able to do to Mahomes in last year’s Super Bowl, and if the Steelers want any shot at success in this one, they’ll need an equally dominant performance from their front four.

Unfortunately when all is said and done, I think the Chiefs will ultimately prove too stiff of a test in this one.

Patrick Mahomes is still Patrick Mahomes, and the Chiefs defense shouldn’t have much of a problem slowing down a Ben Roethlisberger-led offense in January. It’d be nice to see Pittsburgh pull a rabbit out of a hat in what will likely be Roethlisberger’s final NFL game, but the Chiefs are simply too talented to slip up here.

Score Prediction: Pittsburgh 17 Kansas City 34

Monday Game (1/17)

8:15 EST: #5 Cardinals @ #4 Rams

Neither the Cardinals nor the Rams have been trending in the right direction in recent weeks.

The Cardinals have dropped 4 of their last 5 games, and Rams’ quarterback Matthew Stafford has thrown multiple interceptions in each of his last three outings. Despite their recent slumps, these are still two of the most impressive offenses in the league, and in their previous two matchups these teams combined for 57 and 53 points respectively. I see no reason to believe the third outing should be any different, and for fans of high-scoring football, this should be considered must-watch TV.

While the offenses for these teams have been impressive, we’ve yet to see playoff success out of either of these two quarterbacks. Stafford and Kyler Murray both received MVP buzz early in the season, but it’s time for each of them to prove they deserve to be playing in January.

For Stafford, winning playoff games is exactly why the Rams sent a plethora of draft picks to the Lions to bring him to L.A. this offseason. While Stafford’s play in recent weeks hasn’t been inspiring, he’s certainly been an upgrade over the Rams’ former quarterback — Jared Goff. The Rams’ offense is averaging 27.1 points per game this year, a noticeable uptick from the 24.0 they averaged over their last two seasons with Goff.

While the Rams went all-in on Stafford this offseason, the Cardinals have spent the past three seasons building an offensive juggernaut around Kyler Murray.

Murray provides an explosive element to this Cardinals’ offense that’s been an absolute nightmare for opposing defenses all season long. What he brings to the quarterback position is a large reason why Arizona is averaging 26.4 points per game this year, and he may need an MVP-caliber performance in this one against a Rams’ defense headlined by Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey.

This matchup will likely come down to which of these two quarterbacks can play the better game, and it’s tough to predict which one that’ll be. In what should be a close, high-scoring game, give me the team who’s playing at home and has made the playoffs four out of the last five years.

Score Prediction: Arizona 30 Los Angeles 31

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store