Wild Card Weekend Preview
Raiders @ Bengals
It has been a while since we have seen either the Raiders or Bengals win a playoff game. The last time the Raiders won a playoff game was in 2002 and the last time the Bengals won a playoff game was in 1990. To put that in perspective, I was born in 2003 and I am 18 years old. That means that I have never witnessed either the Bengals or the Raiders win a playoff game. It is a drought that is destined to end for one of these teams come Saturday.
Both of these teams have overcome odds all season long and nobody saw either of these squads making the playoffs before the season started. Starting with the Bengals, people, including me, were skeptical of them selecting Ja'Marr Chase over an offensive lineman. People thought that Chase couldn't catch a football and couldn't separate. People also thought Joe Burrow wasn't going to be able to recover from his torn ACL or that Trey Hendrickson wasn't going to be able to fill Carl Lawson's shoes; those people were wrong. Ja'Marr Chase is the best rookie in football and Joe Burrow is the favorite for comeback player of the year. This team has defied odds, just like the Raiders.
The Raiders have overcome more controversy this year than any team has had to overcome in a decade. With all that being said, both of these teams are here now and this game will be much better than the week 11 matchup where the Bengals won 32 to 13. People can look at the box score of that game and say the Bengals dominated the Raiders, but in reality, this was a three-point game until six minutes left in the fourth quarter. This game happened in the middle of the Raiders' slump, something that they have overcome after winning four straight games to close out the season. The Raiders' two biggest strengths are their pass rush and their all-pro tight end, Darren Waller. The Bengals' two biggest weaknesses are their ability to stop tight ends and their offensive line. Matchup-wise, this game lines up perfectly for the Raiders.
With that being said, this game is going to be cold weather and Joe Burrow has had an extra week to rest. The Raiders held Ja'Marr Chase to only three catches, 33 yards, and one touchdown in their meeting earlier this season. I expect Rich Bissacia to once again devote all of his assets to stopping Chase from having a performance as he had against the Chiefs. That means that Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd could be in for huge games from Joey Burrow.
Defensively for Cincinnati, it should be about stopping Darren Waller. The Bengals have one of the worst defenses when it comes to defending tight ends. While Waller only had two catches in his return against the Chargers, he did have nine targets and was guarded by Derwin James. Derek Carr is going to try and get the ball to Waller, so the Bengals will need to make sure Jessie Bates and Logan Wilson are able to limit him on all areas of the field. One matchup to watch in this game is going to be Hunter Renfrow against Chidobe Awuzie. I believe Renfrow is going to give Awuzie and the Bengals defense some problems. This should be a relatively high-scoring game, but I believe the Raiders will make the proper adjustments to limit Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase from going off. The Bengals have had a historic season, but I think this historic season comes to an end against the Raiders.
Raiders Key to Victory: Get Pressure on Joe Burrow with just a four-man rush
Bengals Key to Victory: Feed Tee Higgins and Limit Darren Waller
Matchup to Watch: Darren Waller vs Jessie Bates and Logan Wilson
Player of the Game: Darren Waller TE Raiders
Final Score: Raiders 27 Bengals 24
Patriots @ Bills
Temperatures near freezing, a rookie quarterback who has proven everybody wrong, a team that seems to be on the edge of greatness every year, a heated division rivalry, and the greatest football coach of all time; this game has an old school feel to it and could be a game for the ages. The Patriots run an old-school, run-first offense led by Mac Jones and Damien Harris. While Jones has never played in an NFL playoff game, he is no stranger to the big stage. At Alabama, Jones "stunted" on everybody last year and won the National Championship for the Roll Tide. In that game, Jones was throwing the ball to Devonta Smith all over the field; I anticipate this game will be very different. With temperatures approaching 0 degrees, this game will be freezing cold; however, this game will be very different from the Patriots and Bills' first matchup.
In the infamous "Mac Jones three completions" game, winds were blowing extremely hard and played a crucial role when it came to throwing the football. The wind won't be blowing nearly as hard in this game, but it is still going to be cold so it will hurt to catch the football. In cold weather, the Patriots will find success running the football with Damien Harris. Running for 15 touchdowns this season, Harris will win with his physicality against the less aggressive Bills secondary. I could see Harris ripping a long one against Buffalo's defense if he can get to the second level. As for Jones, I could see him struggling to get the ball into tight windows as a result of the freezing temperatures. He already doesn't have the strongest arm and if the Patriots plan on running the ball 30+ times in this game, then his arm will get cold.
The key for the Bills to win this game is to get out to an early lead. They need to force the rookie to beat them by throwing the ball on their top-rated secondary. I don't expect the cold weather to have too great of an impact on Josh Allen's ability to throw the football. He has proven that cold weather doesn't affect his arm strength and I could see him winning some battles through his physicality as a runner. The Patriots need to keep this game close so they can lean on their run game and hard-nosed defense. That defense is led by JC Jackson who will be tasked with guarding Stefon Diggs, one of the best route runners in the NFL. Both players will win their battles here and there, but I'm looking to see which player is going to win the war.
The Patriots and Bills have each won one battle this season, and this game decides who wins the war. I have been going back and forth, but I believe the Bills will win this battle. Josh Allen is built for these big moments and Buffalo has all the momentum and a healthier roster. Brian Daboll will need to find a way to neutralize Matt Judon who is capable of blowing the entire Bills gameplan up. With Devin Singletary starting to get his legs churning and the Bills' run game heating up; I believe the Bills will be able to put long drives together. This is a pivotal game in Mac Jones' young career, but I believe the loss of Isaiah Wynn will play a huge part in the result of this game. The Bills' depth on their defensive line gives Leslie Frazier the freedom to play with different looks. Another fun part of this game is the battle of x's and o's: Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, and OJ Mayo vs Sean McDermott, Brian Daboll, and Leslie Frazier. Two great head coaches and four head-coaching candidates. This game is going to be awesome, but I think the combination of health and momentum will help lead the Bills to a narrow victory.
Patriots Key to Victory: Keep the game close and win in the trenches
Bills Key to Victory: Jump out to an early lead and show different defensive fronts
What to Watch For: Stefon Diggs vs JC Jackson
Player of the Game: Josh Allen QB Bills
Final Score: Patriots 22 Bills 27
Eagles @ Buccaneers
Imagine this; it is November 28th, the Eagles just dropped to 5-7 on the year after losing to the New York Giants 13-7. Now, what if I told you that Jalen Hurts would be making his NFL playoff debut as an Eagle in January. You'd think I'm crazy, but I'm not. The Eagles are here with Hurts leading the way.
Hurts is exactly the player that I thought he could be coming out of Oklahoma. He is an alpha on the field and a natural-born leader; the perfect quarterback to lead the Philadelphia Eagles. While Hurts may not be the most refined quarterback, he is still young. At just 23 years old, Hurts has led his team to the playoffs in his first complete season as a starter. If we are looking back at his draft class, he and Burrow made the playoffs before Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa. People ruled out the Eagles before this season even started; some even said they'll be in contention for the first overall pick. I love the way that Nick Sirianni has been able to bring the Eagles' locker room together despite the way that the Eagles' season started this year and ended last year. He has done everything that a coach should do; he's adjusted his offense to fit his personnel and has rallied his team together. There were a lot of people critical of the Sirianni hire before the season started, but I don't think his first season could have gone any better. To start the year, Sirianni chose to install a pass-first offense. After starting the season 5-7, Siranni readjusted his offense to be run-first.
The Eagles finished the season with the number one-run game in the NFL by utilizing Hurts' mobility and their four-headed running back workhorse: Miles Sanders, Jordan Howard, Kenny Gainwell, and Boston Scott. While the Eagles are major underdogs in this game, there is a game plan that could lead to the upset. It starts with using the rain in their favor; the Eagles are built for sloppy weather conditions. They'll need to penetrate the Buccaneers' defense by utilizing their variety of running backs. The Eagles have depth offensively and they can use their fresh legs to tire out the Buccaneers' defense. Another way that they'll be able to tire the Buccaneers' defense out is by using lots of no-huddle offense to keep Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh on the field in passing situations. The Eagles will need to pitch the perfect game in order to upset the Buccaneers. The last time these two teams faced off, the Buccaneers' defense struggled to contain Jalen Hurts as a runner. If Todd Bowles doesn't adjust his defense to slow down Hurts' athletic ability, the Buccaneers' defense could be in for a long day.
With all of that in mind, I have a hard time seeing Tom Brady losing in the first round of the playoffs this year. Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Leonard Fournette all have an uncoachable gene where they just turn things up in the playoffs. As Thanos says, it is inevitable. While Playoff Lenny isn't back yet, I still anticipate the Buccaneers using Keshaun Vaughn, Le'Veon Bell, and Giovanni Bernad a lot due to the sloppy weather. With Antonio Brown no longer on the team and Chris Godwin out for the season, the Buccaneers don't have as strong as a team as they had last year. I'm curious to see which player steps up on the other side of Mike Evans. Will it be Jaelon Darden? Tyler Johnson? Cameron Brate? Rob Gronkowski? With Darius Slay following Evans around the field, a different receiver will need to step up. Brady knows how to exploit favorable matchups and I expect him to target Stephen Nelson's side all game long.
Defensively for Tampa Bay, the biggest matchup is Shaq Barrett vs Jordan Mailata. While Mailata has quietly put together a career year, I could see Barrett's speed-to-power rush giving him some problems. The Buccaneers' defense also needs to make adjustments from the last time these two teams faced off. Hurts' legs gashed this defense due so I could see Bowles sticking with a more athletic defensive line or a quarterback spy. While there is a way the Eagles can pull off this upset, the Buccaneers are a team that is built for the playoffs. Tom Brady is recognized as the G.O.A.T for a reason and I believe Gronk will be his favorite target today. The Eagles' defense is in for a long day no matter who is in for the Buccaneers.
Eagles Key to Victory: Play with tempo and use a no-huddle offense
Buccaneers Key to Victory: Pick on Stephen Nelson and control the speed of the game
Matchup to Watch: Jordan Mailata vs Shaq Barrett
Player of the Game: Leonard Fournette RB Buccaneers
Final Score: Eagles 23 Buccaneers 33
49ers @ Cowboys
Looking back in NFL history, there are very few matchups with more historical context than the Cowboys vs 49ers rivalries. The 49ers dominated the 80's while the Cowboys ruled the 90's. Both the 49ers and the Cowboys are two teams that can beat any of the remaining teams on any given day. I believe this will be the best game of the weekend. Both teams are relatively healthy and there are no weather implications due to it being played in AT&T stadium. One thing that I'll be curious about is how the stadium looks from a fan perspective; the 49ers faithful is one of the most well-traveled fanbases. Last week the game in SoFi stadium felt like a 49ers home game; given the history between these two franchises, I anticipate the atmosphere of this game to be electric.
Looking at the Cowboys' offense; it is important to keep the momentum going. Dallas has scored 50 points in two of the past three games and Amari Cooper is re-establishing himself as a number one receiver. I'm curious to see how Kellen Moore attacks the well coached 49ers defense. While Demeco Ryans' defense ranks number six in the league against the pass and number seven against the run; this defense can get got. The 49ers' defense leads the league in pass interference calls; which means Cooper's crisp route-running can come into play especially with double-moves. CeeDee Lamb will most likely be matched up against rookie cornerback, Ambry Thomas. While Thomas has improved significantly throughout the season; he has struggled against physicality. Lamb is near the top of the league when it comes to his ball skills; he needs to be aggresive at the point of catch against Thomas. The Cowboys should also use misdirection and screen plays to throw the 49ers' pass rush off rhythm. While the 49ers have one of the best defenses in the NFL, the Cowboys offense is filled with firepower between Cooper, Lamb, Tony Pollard, and Ezekiel Elliott.
Defensively for the Cowboys, this is a huge test for their young stars, Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs. Parsons will be lined up against Trent Williams, the best offensive lineman in the NFL. This game will either be a rude awakening for Parsons or it will be his explosion on to the scene. Parsons does a phenomenal job at getting up field as a pass rusher and run defender, but against the 49ers he'll have to adjust his play style. The 49ers run a ton of misdirection; if Parsons gets upfield too much he'll leave open running lanes for Elijah Mitchell to burst through. Parsons has to be smart and intentional with his rushes against Williams because otherwise he'll open the game up for the 49ers offense. As for Trevon Diggs, he'll need to step up as a tackler when facing Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk. The 49ers passing game is built on getting the ball to their playmakers with room to run. If Diggs is soft as a tackler, one of those guys is going to run through him. With that being said, if Jimmy Garoppolo tests him I could see Diggs snagging one on the perimeter. Garoppolo will need to be careful throwing the ball in Diggs' direction. This game is exciting for so many reasons, but seeing Diggs and Parsons in the playoffs for the first time is one of the biggest reasons.
As for the 49ers' offense, they just need to play their game. The way Kyle Shanahan's offense operates matches up very well against Dan Quinn's defense. Shanahan knows Dan Quinn's defense to a tee; I'm excited to see how Shanahan decides to attack the high powered Cowboy's D. It is no secret that Trevon Diggs gives up a lot of yards in coverage. Shanahan's offense involves so many moving pieces pre and post snap; I believe the 49ers will be able to take advantage of Diggs' aggressive nature. The same goes for Micah Parsons; while Parsons may blow a few of the 49ers plays up in the backfield, I can see the 49ers having quite a few explosive runs due to how far upfield Parsons gets on his rushes. I believe Elijah Mitchell is in for a huge game on the ground against this aggressive defense. In the passing game, I'm curious to see how the 49ers plan to slow down the eventual rookie of the year, Micah Parsons. There are certain defensive players that Kyle Shanahan will key in on while calling plays. Shanahan devotes his entire gameplan into confusing opposing star defensive players: Bobby Wagner, Luke Kuechly, Aaron Donald. I believe he will put all his willpower into ruining Parsons' NFL playoff debut. Elijah Mitchell and Deebo Samuel are the two players that will benefit the most from Shanahan's creative gameplan.
The 49ers' defense is in for a big day against the Cowboys' offense. The Cowboys run a vertical passing game which Demeco Ryans' cover three scheme is meant to stop. This is the game where Emmanuel Mosely and Ambry Thomas become grown men. Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb is one of the best receiver duos in the NFL; both Thomas and Moseley will need to make big-boy plays on an island against these two stars. Having watched every 49ers game this year, I believe these two young corners are up for the task. With that being said, I still anticipate Demeco Ryans bringing help in obvious passing situations. If the 49ers' pass rush is able to get home on Dak Prescott, which I believe they will, the 49ers' secondary will have opportunities for turnovers. While I anticipate the Cowboys connecting on a few deep balls this game; I believe San Francisco's defense will step up when the team needs them the most. I believe Jaquiski Tartt will be the unsung hero in this matchup. Tartt has quietly had his best season of his career and he's been so close to quite a few interceptions this year. The big thing for the 49ers' secondary is that they can't get discouraged if the Cowboys connect on a long pass or two. That is what the Cowboys' offense does; it is all about their response to big plays. This 49ers teams is resilient and I believe they are capable of pulling off this upset. They will need to come together and put together their best performance of the season.
This game is filled with phenomenal matchups: Parsons vs Williams, Diggs vs Samuel, Prescott vs Warner, Bosa vs Smith, the list goes on. I believe the key to this game comes in the every players' responses to big plays. Parsons and Bosa are going to get pressure, Diggs and Samuel are both going to make plays, Williams and Smith are going to throw down big blocks; it is about each players' response. As I mentioned in a previous game preview, the entire game is a war, but each play is a battle. It is about winning one battle at a time, and I believe the 49ers are the more resilient team. The more resilient team wins the war. This game should be reminiscent of the old-school 1980's and 1990's matchups, but I think the 49ers finish victorious in this one.
49ers Key to Victory: Play their game on offense and be resilient on defense
Cowboys Key to Victory: Test the 49ers' cornerbacks and don't be overly aggressive on defense
Matchup to Watch: Micah Parsons vs Trent Williams
Player of the Game: Jaquiski Tartt S 49ers
Final Score: 49ers 31 Cowboys 27
Steelers @ Chiefs
There is no need to sugarcoat this game; the Chiefs are the better team and will most likely blow the Steelers at. Everybody knows this, including the Steelers, which means that the Steelers are playing with nothing to lose. When a team has nothing to lose, they can be dangerous. While I don't anticipate the Steelers pulling off this upset, I would love to see them make this game competitive in Ben Roethlisberger's final game as a Steeler.
Since this is probably going to be Roethlisberger's final game in the NFL, I expect him to leave everything on the field. With JuJu Smith-Schuster back in the lineup, Najee Harris active, and Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool on the field, I anticipate Roethlisberger slinging the ball all over the field. The Chiefs have the 27th ranked pass defense in the NFL; if the Steelers have a shot in this game they'll need to throw the ball. Whether or not this game ends up close, I advise Steelers' fans to just appreciate their final moments with Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger is a legendary quarterback and will end up in Canton. These are your final moments with number seven behind center; soak it all in and be happy for how long he has been your quarterback.
As for the Steelers' defense, I anticipate them bringing pressure on Patrick Mahomes all game long. Whether it be TJ Watt and the Steelers front-four or Tre Norwood and players in the Steelers' secondary; the goal for the Steelers in this game is to make Patrick Mahomes as uncomfortable as possible. Watt has had arguably the greatest season by a pass rusher in NFL history; I anticipate him having at least one sack today. I believe the Steelers' defense will bring a ton of exotic pressure with linebackers and defensive backs. While Steelers' defensive coordinator, Keith Butler, is going to try and confuse Mahomes, I don't anticipate it working. I believe Patrick Mahomes is going to put the Steelers' defense through the wringer.
It feels like FOREVER since we last saw a game where Tyreek Hill takes over. In this game, I believe Hill will prove once again why he is one of the best weapons in football. The Chiefs' offense has been very, very good this year, but it hasn't looked like what it was the past two years. Today, I anticipate seeing a vintage Patrick Mahomes performance. While all the talk is about Joe Burrow and Josh Allen being "the future of the AFC", I don't think people realize Mahomes is just one year older than them. Patrick Mahomes is a different animal in the playoffs, and I expect his inner beast to come out tonight against the Black and Gold.
The Chiefs' defense has been inconsistent this year. It feels like they are either great or terrible; no in-between. Tyrann Mathieu is the leader in this game, and like Mahomes, Mathieu is a different animal in the playoffs. I expect Mathieu to be all over the field in this game; he is going to make Big Ben want to retire. The Chiefs' defense needs to build momentum for the rest of their playoff run; this is a great test for them. If they can limit Najee Harris to under 100 rushing yards and not give up any deep balls; the Chiefs' defense will be in good shape for their game against the Bills.
I don't really see a scenario where the Steelers upset the Chiefs, but the beautiful thing about football is that anything can happen on any given Sunday. I'm looking forward to seeing the Steelers honoring Ben Roethlisberger and attempting to pull off this upset.
Steelers Key to Victory: Play with nothing to lose
Chiefs Key to Victory: Get the defense in rhythm and air it out to Tyreek Hill
Matchup to Watch: TJ Watt vs Orlando Brown Jr.
Player of the Game: Tyrann Mathieu FS Chiefs
Final Score: Steelers 20 Chiefs 29
Cardinals @ Rams
When it comes to significance to legacy; this game arguably has the most at stake. There is a whopping sense of disbelief surrounding the Cardinals; it feels like everybody believes they are pretenders. There is a feeling of imposter syndrome when talking about the Cardinals; nobody thinks Kyler Murray or Kliff Kingsbury can do it. When it comes to the Rams, there is a sense of disappointment. Despite acquiring Matthew Stafford in the offseason along with Odell Beckham Jr. and Von Miller mid-season; the Rams couldn't seem to beat the 49ers. On paper, this team should be the number one seed, but they can't get over the hump. Sean McVay is an offensive genius, but there is a cloud of uncertainty that surrounds him heading into the playoffs. Neither Matthew Stafford nor Kyler Murray has ever won a playoff game. This is Murray's first-ever playoff game compared to Stafford's fourth. This game will be pivotal in the history of both these coaches and quarterbacks.
Starting with the Cardinals' offense, Kyler Murray will have to carry this team on his back. Despite his smaller stature, Murray has proven to always step up in the biggest moments. His mobility and ability to make wild throws on the run give defensive coordinators like Raheem Morris nightmares. I anticipate his speed giving Aaron Donald and Von Miller problems. As for the Cardinals' running backs, James Conner is a true game-time decision after suffering a rib injury against the Rams. If Conner is sidelined, Chase Edmunds will get the bulk of the carries. That means the Cardinals' offense will shift from a downhill running attack to a scheme that looks to exploit the perimeter of the Rams' defense. Conner's biggest impact comes in the red zone where he had 13 of his 15 touchdowns this year. Kliff Kingsbury struggles in the red zone without Conner in the game; he'll have to be perfect to upset the Rams tonight. Assuming that Conner isn't a full-go tonight and won't handle the majority of the carries, Murray will need to be special. With that being said, I don't doubt his ability to wreak havoc for the Rams' defense. I believe Murray will have one rushing touchdown in his playoff debut and at least one other passing touchdown.
The Rams' offense needs to run the football. The 49ers shut down the Rams' run game in week 17 which prevented their play-action game from getting going. Sean McVay needs to be patient with the run game and build upon three and four-yard gains. That is how he'll be able to build momentum and scheme up open pass plays. Lined up against Byron Murphy, Cooper Kupp will have to be perfect with his route running. Murphy has quietly been one of the best lockdown cornerbacks in the NFL this season. I believe that if the Rams are able to establish a downhill run game with Sony Michel and Cam Akers; they will win this game. Being able to run the football will calm Matthew Stafford and Odell Beckham Jr.'s nerves down. This is both of their first playoff game in a handful of seasons. The key for Sean McVay is to ask them not to try and do too much.
Just as I said the Rams offense will need to run the football, the Cardinals defense will need to stop the run game. The typical Shanahan/McVay scheme all starts with the run game. The Cardinals defense needs to force the Rams' offense to be one-dimensional and take out the threat of the play-action pass. While Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. will have their wins; the Cardinals defense needs to stand strong. They need to force Matthew Stafford to step up in the biggest moment. The Cardinals will need to find a way to generate pressure with just a four-man rush. That all comes down to Chandler Jones making plays when presented with a one-on-one opportunity. The Cardinals defense needs to be smart with their fundamentals and force Matthew Stafford to leave a few balls up there.
The key for the Rams' defense is to prevent the Cardinals from getting to the perimeter. Kyler Murray will try to scramble and make a throw outside the pocket. Von Miller and Leonard Floyd will need to force Murray into stepping up in the pocket right into Aaron Donald's lap. The Rams also can't let the Cardinals' offense have any explosive plays in the passing game. On third down, Murray is surgical with the deep ball. Christian Kirk and AJ Green are two players that are outstanding downfield. That means Murray will be going after the veteran and new pickup, Eric Weddle. The Rams' defense can't be as aggressive as they usually are because it will cause them to get beat downfield. With that being said, Floyd and Miller are two of the best at their craft. I believe they will swallow Murray in the pocket and force him to make errant throws in his playoff debut.
I anticipate this game being filled with many ups and downs and a lot of big plays. It will be fun to see which quarterback steps up in the moment. I believe the Rams have the better overall team and coaching staff. While Kyler Murray and the Cardinals had a season that they can build on, I believe this game will go in the Rams' favor.
Cardinals Key to Victory: Pick on Eric Weddle and STOP THE RUN
Rams Key to Victory: Defend the perimeter and win in the trenches
Matchup to Watch: Cooper Kupp vs Byron Murphy
Player of the Game: Sony Michel RB Rams
Final Score: Cardinals 24 Rams 27