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NFL Wildcard Weekend Preview

By: Sam Bennett

AFC

(7) Steelers at (2) Chiefs

Sunday, January 16

8:15 pm (NBC)

Line: Chiefs (-13)

This two-seven AFC matchup sees the Kansas City Chiefs come in as 13 point favorites over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Off of a spectacular final ten games of the season, winning nine with the only blemish being a close loss to the Bengals, after a slow start, this appears to be a Chiefs team that can hold its own with any team in the NFL, and improved from the team that made the Superbowl last year, both on the defensive and offensive sides (4th in offense, 8th in defense vs 6th in offense, 10th in defense last year). Most notably is their additions along the offensive line, which proved their downfall against Tampa Bay in last years’ championship game. Patrick Mahomes has flown under the radar when it comes to awards races, likely due to his worse-than-usual start, but picked it up down the stretch and seems to have fixed the turnover issues that plagued him early in the season. Armed with the ever-dangerous weapons of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, along with speedsters Mecole Hardman and Byron Pringle, the Chiefs should be able to display the high flying offense that fans are used to.

On the other side of the ball, the Steelers enter the playoffs coming off a hard fought victory against the short handed Baltimore Ravens in OT. A team that seemed dead in the water for most of the season, they were able to somehow limp into the postseason despite a less than league average offense (21st) and defense (20th). Offensively, starting with the positive, the Steelers do have some good weapons, with Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool at receiver and the impressive rookies, Najee Harris in the backfield and Pat Friermuth at tight end. However, with the good comes the bad, and unfortunately that bad is the veteran zombie under center, Ben Roethlisberger. A shell of his former self, Roethlisberger has had difficulty at all levels of the field, but especially down the field, as well as staying upright and moving in the pocket, the attributes that helped bring him fame as Big Ben. On the defensive side of the ball, the Steelers boast the NFL’s season sack record holder, with TJ Watt breaking Michael Strahan’s record last week.

With all this said, the Chiefs shouldn’t have much difficulty with this Pittsburgh crew. The Steelers, while having a positive passing defense, will likely not be a match for the Chiefs attack, as they showed in their Week sixteen matchup against these same Chiefs, giving up thirty six points. Additionally in this game, they only scored ten points, with Roethlisberger only being able to muster 159 yards with an interception. Hopefully Big Ben’s final game won’t be as ugly as that, but it is very possible.

Pick: Chiefs 38, Steelers 17

(6) New England Patriots at (3) Buffalo Bills

Saturday, January 15

8:15 pm (CBS)

Line: Bills (-4.5)

The three-six game is between the new look Patriots and their divisional opponent, the Buffalo Bills. On the Patriots side of the ball, they have cooled off after winning seven straight in the middle of the season, dropping three of their final four games, including one to the Bills. Nonetheless, the Patriots have been undeniably impressive this year, sixth in offense and second on defense. An old school ground and pound team, their identity has been on the ground, with Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson serving as a dangerous one two punch in the backfield, with their offensive line and two solid tight ends from free agency leading the way. With rookie Mac Jones leading their passing attack, the Pats offense isn’t so much explosive as solid and consistent. However, the real star of the show (beside Bill Belichick) is their defense, often holding teams to below twenty. But coach Belichick will need to make some key adjustments to stop an offense that put up thirty three against them just a few weeks ago.

Lining up on the other side of the ball is the number three offense and number one defense in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills. There is nowhere else to start in this game except the play caller Josh Allen, who once again had a phenomenal season, passing for 4400 yards and 36 touchdowns, adding nearly 800 and six on the ground. This is an offense that hasn’t been too changed from last year, although one key difference is their reliance on one weapon. Last season, Stephon Diggs and Cole Beasley were really the only two threats at the receiver position, with John Brown sometimes adding a deep touchdown. However, this season, Diggs has been less of a focus, though still clearly their number one, with Beasley, Dawson Knox, Emmanuel Sanders, and especially Gabriel Davis, who turned it on late in the season to become more of a second option for Allen. This will likely be especially helpful against the Pats, who have been known to take away their opponent’s number one weapons on offense. The Buffalo rushing attack has been predictably subpar, but that is no change from last year, and they have been able to and should continue to be able to play through that in the future. Incredibly, Buffalo has been able to maintain their stellar defense without star corner Tre’Davious White, and this well rounded defense should be able to at least contain the Patriots attack.

These two teams are well matched and both extremely well coached, so I don’t see a blow out like with the previous matchup. As good as the Bills have been, and their loss to the Patriots earlier in the year being possibly a bit of a fluke due to the blizzard conditions, it’s never smart to count Bill Belichick and his team out. If there is an upset in the AFC, this is the game it will probably be in. However, I can’t pick that upset against the talent of the Bills and what they have shown this season.

Pick: Bills 28, Patriots 24

(5) Raiders at (4) Bengals

Saturday, January 15

4:30 pm (NBC)

Line: Bengals (-6)

The first matchup scheduled for this weekend features the five seed Raiders, after an overtime thriller to make it in, against the Cincinnati Bengals. Beginning with the Bengals, Cincinnati comes off a very impressive stretch (not counting the loss last week in which they benched almost every key player). In Week 16 they dismantled the division rival Ravens, with Joe Burrow setting the franchise record with 525 passing yards, and in Week 17 they were able to scratch out a high scoring victory against the AFC favorite Chiefs, with rookie Ja’Marr Chase going for 266 receiving yards. The Borrow-Chase connection has been on fire the entire season, with the former LSU teammates putting up top years at their respective positions, especially impressive as Burrow is coming off a gruesome leg injury, and Chase entering the season as a rookie who hadn’t played competitive football in over a year. Adding to this passing attack is Tee Higgins, one of the best young receivers in the league, and the dependable slot option Tyler Boyd. Then adding in the rushing attack with one of the best pure runners in the league, Joe Mixon, you have one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. The one thing that could possibly be their downfall is their defense, but this unit is only slightly below average, at 17th in the league.

The Raiders are probably the most impressive team to make the playoffs this year, and possibly in recent memory. Not because of their record or skill, but because of what they had to go through to get here. From the scandal of Jon Gruden to the tragedy involving Henry Ruggs, I can’t remember a team that has fought through as much adversity as this year’s Raiders. It is commendable beyond any other team to have even made it to this point. Unfortunately however, this team does not carry the talent that their opponent does. While they are coming off of four straight wins, two against real playoff contenders (Colts and Chargers), they were all remarkably close and could have easily gone in the other direction. On the offensive side, the Raiders do have some underrated skill players, with Derek Carr, one of the most disrespected players in football, leading an offense headlined by the great tight end Darren Waller, receiver Hunter Renfrow, and halfback Josh Jacobs. Zay Jones and Bryan Edwards are solid options at wideout, however aren’t the options that you would hope to see on a playoff contender. Defensively, Vegas has been one of the worst defenses in the league, allowing the 6th most points on the season.

A matchup that should be close, between a four and a five, is not the outcome to expect for this game. The Bengals have proved their ability to score points and beat down on this same team, winning 32-13 in Week 11. So, as Bengals fans would say, who dey think gon’ beat them Bengals? Not the Raiders.

Pick: Bengals 34, Raiders 20

NFC

(7) Philadelphia Eagles at (2) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Sunday, January 16

1:00 pm (Fox)

Line: Buccaneers (-7)

In the most anticipated game for many in Garnet Valley, the Philadelphia Eagles head to Tampa Bay to take on Tom Brady and his Buccaneers. Let’s start with the hometown Eagles, who have quite the task in front of them. Led by their rushing attack, the Eagles offense has been able to shock the NFL landscape, bringing a team that was picked by many to be selecting high in the draft into the postseason. Much props must be given to rookie coach Nick Sirianni, who has created a tough, rush first, beat you up team that is frightening to any opponent. Jalen Hurts, though somewhat deficient in the passing game, is scary on the ground, and paired with Miles Sanders, Boston Scott, and Jordan Howard, Philadelphia has one of the most potent rushing attacks in the league. Additionally, rookie Devonta Smith has lived up to the hype and is already touted as one of the best young receivers in the NFL. Defensively, the Eagles have been slightly below average, ranked 18th, but have picked it up recently, not giving up more than 20 points in six of their last eight games. The one thing the Eagles have been unable to do this season, however, is beat the good teams, with an 0-6 record against playoff teams, including these Buccaneers.

On the Bucs side, Tom Brady leads his beat up squad into battle, with losses at wide receiver of Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown (not due to injury), and a Leonard Fournette who may not be at full strength. However, Brady did lead the second most potent offense in the NFL, and hasp proven not to need much to secure victories and do the offense’s part in winning football games, especially in the postseason. Defensively, Tampa Bay boasts the fifth best defensive unit in the league, characterized best by their fearsome front seven, among if not the best in the NFL. Known for stopping the run, the unit’s issues have been in stopping the passing game, and Bruce Arians will have to scheme a way around this weakness when he is preparing for the game against Philly.

Unfortunately for Garnet Valley, I don’t really see a way that the Eagles win this game. Their strength on offense, the run game, is what Tampa is known for stifling, and Jalen Hurts’s lack of accuracy could be a great detriment to their abilities to move the ball and keep up with Tom Brady. While I don’t think this will be too much of a blow out, Brady and Co should be able to handle the Eagles and move on to the Divisional Round of this year’s postseason.

Pick: Buccaneers 31, Eagles 20

(6) San Francisco 49ers at (3) Dallas Cowboys

Sunday, January 16

4:30 pm (CBS)

Line: Cowboys (-3)

In a matchup against two of the most storied franchises in the NFL’s history, the 49ers travel to Dallas to take on Dak Prescott and the Cowboys. Starting with the home Cowboys, their offense is the most potent in the league this year, racking up a leading 31.2 points per game. However, consistency has not been Dallas’s strong suit this season, many questioning whether this unit can keep it up over the entirety of a playoff run. Nevertheless, it is difficult to question the offensive threats on this team, beginning with Dak Prescott, a quarterback that has more than proven himself this year after his horrifying injury last season. In the passing game, he has a very talented wide receiver trio, though maybe now more of a quartet, with Amari Cooper, Ceedee Lamb, Michael Gallup, and Cedric Wilson, along with the always dependable Dalton Schultz at tight end. The main part of their offense that has been questionable this year is their running game, with Ezekiel Elliot appearing to be slowing down compared to previous years, but Tony Pollard usually being able to pick up the slack. But this duo has been unable to produce consistent results, so it is right to question what they have going into the playoffs. What has been consistently great and surprising is the Dallas defense, which was one of the worst in the league last year and has become one of the best. Led by Micah Parsons and the ballhawking corner Tre’von Diggs, Dallas has become the seventh best defense in the NFL, and one of the best when it comes to getting turnovers. One problem has been big plays, which will be interesting to watch as Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and Elijah Mitchell roll into town.

For the 49ers, they ended off the season with a very impressive comeback win against the rival Los Angeles Rams. In fact, in the last eleven games of the season, San Francisco went 8-3 after a very disappointing start. This is a team that has flown under the radar, and had it not been for that bad start, would likely not be a wild card team as it is now. Starting with the offense, Jimmy G’s unit was slightly above average, at thirteenth in the league. But what they are not only slightly better than average at is their skill positions. Deebo Samuel is probably the most dangerous player in the NFL when he gets the ball in his hands, rarely being tackled where he is first hit and often dragging defenders for extra yards. Adding to that, George Kittle seems to be back to his old self, the top 3 tight end that we have come to expect over the past few years. Add to that receiver Brandon Aiyuk, Elijah Mitchell, and one of the best offensive lines in the league and you have an offense with top 5 potential. What could hold them back is their quarterback, as Garoppolo has continued to show why the Niners traded up for Trey Lance. He’s by no means awful, but a below average, average at best quarterback is not going to be able to bring San Francisco to where it wants to go. Defensively, the 49ers have been solid, ninth in the league, led by Nick Bosa, one of the best rush ends in the league, and Fred Warner, who has caught the attention of many in the NFL as one of if not the best linebacker today.

Personally, I think that the 49ers should be favored in this game. I think that the Cowboys don’t have the personnel to stop Deebo Samuel and George Kittle, and may have to scheme in a way that leaves the front seven susceptible to the run game and Elijah Mitchell. Even playing it safe, the physicality of the Niners receiving options should be able to take advantage of the Cowboys without making Jimmy G do too much and take unnecessary risks. With the Cowboys’ inconsistent offensive play and lack of a solid run game, I think the 49ers should be able to outscore Dallas, and come out of this game with an upset, though likely a close one.

Pick: 49ers 31, Cowboys 23

(5) Arizona Cardinals at (4) Los Angeles Rams

Monday, January 17

8:15 pm (ESPN/NBC)

Line: Rams (-4)

In this NFC West matchup, the 11-6 Cardinals fly into Los Angeles to face off against the 12-5 Los Angeles Rams. Starting with the Cardinals, they had a pretty rough finish to the season, losing four of their last five games including to the Lions, who hold the number two overall pick, and a Seahawks team that dismantled their defense. Starting with their eleventh ranked, fast paced offense, Kyler Murray was tremendous this year, and was an early front runner for MVP, and would have likely been in the conversation had it not been for injury in the middle of the season. Chase Edmonds returned late in the season, and with James Connor, Arizona holds one of the best one-two punches of any backfield. Unfortunately, superstar receiver DeAndre Hopkins was lost to a Week 14 MCL injury, and without him, the likes of Christian Kirk, AJ Green, and Rondale Moore have proved unable to pick up the slack. Defensively, Arizona appears to be getting JJ Watt back, which should help a defense that has struggled in his absence, though his injury may make him more limited than fully returned.

Even though the Los Angeles Rams won their division and finished 12-5, the one word that I would use to describe their season is disappointing. This is a team that on paper is far and away the most talented in the league. Starting on defense this time, the unit that was the best last year has fallen to pretty much league average, something that is very disappointing with all the talent on that side of the ball, with possibly the two best defensive players in the league of Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. It is not clear whether they will be able to pick it up in the playoffs, and in their final regular season game they were torn apart, especially on the ground, in their loss to the 49ers. Moving onto the offense, Matt Stafford has been great, but brutally inconsistent. His huge arm allows him to make throws that few in the NFL could dream of, but has made some poor decisions that led to 17 interceptions in the regular season. Even with the loss of Robert Woods, their receivers are very solid, with Cooper Kupp having possibly the best wide receiver season ever and Odell Beckham Jr returning to a bit of his Giants-self in Los Angeles. Van Jefferson has also proven a pleasant surprise, serving more of the Robert Woods replacement than many expected. Their running game has transitioned over the season from Darrell Henderson to Sony Michel, who has proved effective in the last games of the season. Additionally, Cam Akers returned last week from an injury that almost all thought would end his season, but it will be interesting to see how much he is utilized this week or if he will serve as more of an option should the Rams move on to later rounds. With all this said, when clicking, the mind of Sean McVay combined with the talent on the roster makes this offense one of the most explosive and dangerous in the league.

Earlier in the season, I would have thought the Cardinals could pull this one off. However, with their recent struggles, I think the Rams should be able to win the rubber match after the teams split their season series. Their defense should be able to turn it on and contain Arizona, and their coordinators and coach should be able to draw up a game plan to overcome the Cardinals defense.

Pick: Rams 30, Cardinals 20

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