After the first Week 18 in NFL history ended a topsy-turvy season in suitably dramatic fashion, we’re headed into the first ever Super Wild Card Weekend. The NFL is giving us six games over the next three days and while you can’t predict football – just ask the Indianapolis Colts – we can at least make semi-educated guesses how the following games will go.
Las Vegas Raiders at Cincinnati Bengals (Saturday, 4.30pm EST/9.30pm GMT)
What the Raiders need to do to win: Las Vegas were the last team to qualify for the playoffs and will be road underdogs on Saturday. Oddly enough, they have an identical regular-season record as the 10-7 Bengals. Given Cincinnati’s history of underachieving, all of the pressure is on the other side. If the Raiders can get an early lead, force a key turnover or two with their talented group of pass rushers, that could be enough to plant the seeds of doubt in their opponents.
What the Bengals need to do to win: Quarterback Joe Burrow simply must keep doing what he’s doing, having thrown for 971 yards over the course of the last two games. The last time these two teams met, the Bengals won 32-13, on the road nonetheless. If he plays like this, this could be a laugher (which is what the league obviously expects, since they put this in the Saturday afternoon “ratings death” slot). The world is ready for the first text message ever sent celebrating a Bengals victory, who last won a playoff game in 1991.
Key player: Ja’Marr Chase, wide receiver, Bengals. It was a cute story when the Bengals drafted Chase in last year’s NFL draft, reuniting him with his old college quarterback in Joe Burrow. Instead, it was a stroke of genius. The dynamic duo recently set a franchise record, combining for 266 yards and three touchdowns in an impressive Week 17 win over the Chiefs. The two have an almost psychic connection and it could be something to see this postseason.
Prediction: Bengals over Raiders
New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills (Saturday, 8.15pm EST/Sunday 1.15am GMT)
What the Patriots need to do to win: Run like the wind. In the previous meeting between these two teams, the Patriots altered their game plan to take advantage of extremely windy weather conditions. Quarterback Mac Jones threw for 19 yards as New England relied on a talented running back corps to put together a flat-out hilarious 14-10 victory. Jones will have to do more this time around, but it wouldn’t hurt to go back to this blueprint.
What the Bills need to do to win: The Good Josh Allen is going to have to show up. For Allen’s first few seasons, the Bills QB had serious issues with ball control despite his obvious physical talents. After Tom Brady relocated to Florida, he has emerged as the best QB in the AFC East. However, old habits die hard. In a four-game stretch this season, Allen threw seven interceptions and lost a fumble. He can’t afford that kind of carelessness again against a Patriots team with one of the league’s most opportunistic defenses.
Key player: JC Jackson, cornerback, Patriots. To do so, Buffalo will have to neutralize this guy. Jackson might be their most impactful player on that side. Jackson’s eight interceptions were the second-most in the league this year and he has 25 over the course of his four-year career. The Patriots will desperately need him to work his magic for New England to pull off a road upset.
Prediction: Bills over Patriots
Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sunday, 1pm EST/6pm GMT)
What the Eagles need to do to win: Hope that momentum is still a thing. The Eagles started their season 2-5, seemingly falling out of the playoff mix, but have looked like an entirely different team since. Since losing 28-22 to Tampa Bay back in Week 6, they have even led the league in rushing with 184.8 rushing yards per game. If they keep that up, we should have a competitive ballgame.
What the Buccaneers need to do to win: This actually isn’t the worst time for the Eagles to face the Buccaneers with Tampa Bay still reeling from the fallout of the Antonio Brown situation. Despite his endless deficiencies as a teammate, the team will miss him what with Chris Godwin out for the season with an ACL injury. If Tom Brady’s favorite receiver is the “open receiver”, then the players lower on the depth chart are going to have to do their best to get themselves open.
Key player: Tom Brady, quarterback, Buccaneers. No reason to overthink this one. Brady might just be the greatest player in NFL history. He’s also 44 years old and – despite all available evidence – Father Time will eventually have his say. He says he wants to play until he’s 50, and maybe he will, but he has to know this game could mark the start of his final Super Bowl run.
Prediction: Buccaneers over Eagles
San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys (Sunday, 4.30pm EST/9.30pm GMT)
What the 49ers need to do to win: Limit Dak Prescott’s production. While the Dallas Cowboys quarterback struggled a bit down the stretch, he ended the season with a 295 yard, five-touchdown performance. If he’s even as two-thirds as good on Sunday, that’s probably a wrap for San Francisco – even if their run game is as good as advertised.
What the Cowboys need to do to win: In contrast, Dallas must stop the run. The 49ers, who are basically between quarterbacks, rely on their running game to wear down opposing defenses. If the Cowboys’ defense, particularly recently acquired free agent safety Jayron Kearse, can limit their rushing yards, it could prevent the team from even needing a big game from Prescott.
Key player: Deebo Samuel, wide receiver, 49ers. We’re listing Samuel as a wide receiver here, but he’s a new breed of do-everything offensive player who has picked up a total of 1,845 yards, 365 of those on the ground. In fact, with Jimmy Garoppolo hurt and rookie Trey Lance not quite ready to take the mantle, Samuel has even occasionally performed emergency QB duty, meaning that the 49ers have the luxury of running “trick plays” that are just “plays”.
Prediction: Cowboys over 49ers
Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday, 8.15pm EST/Monday, 1.15am GMT)
What the Steelers need to do to win: Ben Roethlisberger has to have one more great (not just good) game left in his Hall of Fame career. It’s a tall order and even he seems to know it: “Let’s just go in and play and have fun,” he said earlier this week. Still, if he stays upright, at least long enough to make plenty of big plays (either with his arms or with his feet) maybe his Steelers career lasts another week.
What the Chiefs need to do to win: The Steelers are 12.5-point underdogs against the Chiefs for a reason. They are playing against the most talented team in the AFC. One expects that Patrick Mahomes and company will be able to score, meaning the key question is whether or not the team’s much-improved defense turns into a pumpkin come into playoff time. If they can keep getting to Big Ben, the Chiefs win this game.
Key player: Travis Kelce, tight end, Chiefs. Kansas City don’t even need Kelce to crush the Steelers, as they showed the last time these two teams faced each other. Even without the most dangerous tight end in the league, the Chiefs still steamrolled the Steelers. Kelce should be good to go on Sunday and that could be very bad news for this Pittsburgh defense.
Prediction: Chiefs over Steelers
Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams (Monday, 8.15pm EST/Tuesday, 1.15am GMT)
What the Cardinals need to do to win: With Kyler Murray on their side, the Cardinals have a decisive edge at quarterback. However, given how good the Rams have been as a team, it won’t matter if the defense doesn’t do its part. The Rams have a 9-1 record when Matt Stafford is sacked one or fewer times in a game this year, but a 3-4 when he’s sacked multiple times. Correlation is not always causation … except when it is.
What the Rams need to do to win: Well, obviously, the inverse to this is that the Rams will have to keep Stafford upright and Stafford will have to avoid throwing multiple picks. He does, however, have the edge in experience here as this will be Murray’s first postseason start. The win-loss record for quarterbacks making their playoff debut in the wild-card round since 2002: 11-31. May the least-rattled quarterback win.
Key player: Andrew Whitworth, offensive tackle, Rams. There are plenty of players to pick in this matchup, but let’s take this opportunity to praise the most overlooked non-special teamers on the roster: the offensive linemen. Pro Football Focus puts Whitworth, the second-oldest player remaining in the NFL playoffs behind you-know-who, as the best pass blocker among the peers. Stafford’s desperately doing to need him to keep that level of play up.