AAfter Week 18 in NFL history concluded a turbulent season in appropriately dramatic fashion, we are entering the first-ever Super Wild Card weekend. The NFL gives us six games in the next three days and while you can’t predict football — just ask the Indianapolis Colts — we can at least make a semi-educated guess as to how the next games will play out.
Las Vegas Raiders at Cincinnati Bengals (Saturday, 4:30 PM EST / 9:30 PM GMT)
What the Raiders need to do to win: Las Vegas was the last team to qualify for the playoffs and will be the underdog on Saturday. Oddly enough, they have an identical regular season record as the 10-7 Bengals. Given Cincinnati’s history of underperformance, all the pressure is on the other side. If the Raiders can get an early lead, force a few key changes with their talented group of pass rushers, that could be enough to plant the seed of doubt in their opponents.
What the Bengalis have to do to win: Quarterback Joe Burrow just has to keep doing what he’s doing after throwing 971 yards in the past two games. The last time these two teams met, the Bengals won 32-13, nevertheless on the road. If he plays like that, it could be a joke (which the league expects, of course, as they put this in Saturday afternoon’s “ratings death” slot). The world is ready for the first text message ever sent celebrating a Bengals win, who last won a playoff game in 1991.
Key player: Ja’Marr Chase, wide receiver, Bengals. It was a fun story when the Bengals fielded Chase in the NFL draw last year and reunited him with his longtime college quarterback Joe Burrow. Instead, it was a stroke of genius. The dynamic duo recently set a franchise record, combined 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 watch this postseason.
Forecast: Bengal over Raiders
New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills (Saturday, 8:15 PM EST/Sunday, 1:15 AM GMT)
What the Patriots Must Do to Win: Run like the wind. In the previous meeting between these two teams, the Patriots changed their game plan to take advantage of extremely windy weather conditions. Quarterback Mac Jones threw 19 yards as New England relied on a talented running back corps to take a downright hilarious 14-10 win. Jones will have to do more this time around, but it wouldn’t hurt to go back to this blueprint.
What the accounts have to do to win: The good Josh Allen will have to show up. For the first few seasons of Allen, the Bills QB had serious problems with ball control, despite his obvious physical talents. After Tom Brady moved to Florida, he has emerged as the best QB in the AFC East. However, old habits die hard. In a four game period, Allen threw seven interceptions this season and lost a fumble. He can no longer afford that kind of carelessness against a Patriots team with one of the most opportunistic defenses in the league.
Key player: JC Jackson, cornerback, Patriots. To do this, Buffalo will have to neutralize this man. Jackson is arguably their most influential 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 use his magic for New England to work down a disturbed road.
Forecast: Bills About Patriots
Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sunday, 1:00 PM EST / 6:00 PM GMT)
What the Eagles need to do to win: Hope that momentum is still a thing. The Eagles started their season 2-5 and seemingly dropped out of the playoff mix, but have looked like a completely different team ever since. In fact, since losing 28-22 to Tampa Bay in Week 6, they have led the league with 184.8 rushing yards per game. If they keep that up, we should have a competitive game.
What the Buccaneers must do to win: This is actually not the worst time for the Eagles to face the Buccaneers, while Tampa Bay is still reeling from the effects of the Antonio Brown situation. Despite his endless shortcomings as a teammate, the team will miss him as Chris Godwin is out this season with an ACL injury. If Tom Brady’s favorite receiver is the “open receiver”, then the players lower on the depth map will have to do their best to get themselves open.
Key Player: Tom Brady, Quarterback, Buccaneers. No reason to think about this. Brady is arguably the greatest player in NFL history. He is also 44 years old and – despite all the 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 needs to know that this game could be the start of his last Super Bowl run.
Forecast: Buccaneers about Eagles
San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys (Sunday, 4:30 PM EST/9:30 PM GMT)
What the 49ers need to do to win: Limit Dak Prescott’s production. While the Dallas Cowboys quarterback struggled a bit, he finished the season with a 295-yard, five-touchdown performance. If he’s even two-thirds as good on Sunday, that’s probably a blow to San Francisco — even if their run game is as good as advertised.
What the Cowboys have to do to win: Dallas, on the other hand, has to stop the run. The 49ers, who are basically between quarterbacks, rely on their running game to wear down the opponent’s defenses. If the Cowboys’ defense, especially recently acquired free agent Jayron Kearse, can limit their hasty yards, it could prevent the team from needing even a big game from Prescott.
Key Player: Deebo Samuel, Wide Receiver, 49ers. We’ll list Samuel here as a wide receiver, but he’s a new breed of attacking player who goes all out and has picked up a total of 1,845 yards, 365 of them on the ground. In fact, with Jimmy Garoppolo hurt and rookie Trey Lance not quite ready to take over the mantle, Samuel has even performed the occasional QB emergency shift, meaning the 49ers have the luxury of performing “tricks” that just being “playing”.
Forecast: Cowboys from 49ers
Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday, 8:15 PM EST/Monday, 1:15 AM GMT)
What the Steelers need to do to win: Ben Roethlisberger has yet to have a 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. But if he stays upright, at least long enough to make a lot of big plays (with his arms or with his feet), his Steelers career might last another week.
What the Chiefs must do to win: The Steelers are 12.5-point underdogs against the Chiefs for a reason. They play against the most talented team in the AFC. It is expected that Patrick Mahomes and his company will be able to score, meaning the key question is whether or not the team’s vastly improved defenses will turn into a pumpkin entering playoff time. If they can continue to reach Big Ben, the Chiefs win this game.
Key player: Travis Kelce, tight end, Chiefs. Kansas City doesn’t even need Kelce to beat 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 steamed down the Steelers. Kelce could go well on Sunday and that could be very bad news for this Pittsburgh defense.
Forecast: Chiefs over Steelers
Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams (Monday, 8:15 PM EST/Tuesday, 1:15 AM GMT)
What the Cardinals must do to win: With Kyler Murray on their side, the Cardinals have a decisive lead as quarterback. Given how good the Rams have been as a team, though, it doesn’t matter if the defense doesn’t do their part. The Rams have a 9-1 record when Matt Stafford is fired one or fewer times in a game this year, but a 3-4 when fired multiple times. Correlation isn’t always causation…except when it is.
What the Rams need to do to win: Well, the converse of this, of course, is that the Rams must keep Stafford upright and Stafford must avoid throwing multiple picks. However, he has an edge in experience here as this will be Murray’s first start after the season. The win-loss record for quarterbacks making their playoff debut in the wildcard round since 2002: 11-31. May the least rattled quarterback win.
Key player: Andrew Whitworth, Attacking tackle, Rams. There are plenty of players to choose from in this matchup, but let’s take this opportunity to praise the most overlooked non-specialty teamers on the roster: the offensive linemen. Pro Football Focus puts Whitworth, the second-oldest player left in the NFL playoffs, behind you-know-who, as the best pass-blocker among the peers. Stafford will do anything to need him to maintain that level.
Forecast: Rams about cardinals