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WILDCARD WEEKEND: It’s playoff time, where the rubber meets the road in the race to Super Bowl LVI. This Wildcard Weekend is more interesting than ever before on account of the NFL expanding the playoff field by one team per conference and eliminating the bye for the 2-seeds, which means we get to see Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady face the Steelers and Eagles respectively this weekend, where in years past they’d be home resting. I’m not sure how Brady and Mahomes feel about the situation, but more action suits me just fine, and I have a feeling that Big Ben won’t mind the opportunity to wake up the echoes and shock the world on Sunday night in Arrowhead (even though it sure feels like the Steelers have no business being in the playoffs, doesn’t it?).

The next three days are a football lover’s dream: two playoff games on Saturday, three on Sunday, and then, for the first time ever, a playoff game on Monday night. The intensity will be jacked up, the players will be putting it all on the line, and we get to take it all in from the comfort of our couch or barstool. Ain’t life grand?

Here are my thoughts on all six games:


Las Vegas Raiders @ Cincinnati Bengals (Saturday 16:30 EST)

Line: Cincinnati -5.5 (48.5)

The Raiders might be the most dangerous first-round matchup on this weekend’s slate: despite being counted out by just about everybody after Jon Gruden’s ugly dismissal and a midseason stretch of 5 losses in 6 games, they managed to win four straight, all against playoff contenders, to earn the 5-seed in the ultra-competitive AFC. But the offense hasn’t been particularly productive, even during the recent winning streak, producing 17 points or fewer in 4 of the team’s past 6 games. Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow has been clicking on all cylinders and this year became the youngest player in NFL history to lead the league in completion percentage and yards per attempt in the same season, and don’t forget about Bengals running back Joe Mixon, who ran all over this Raiders defense (30 car, 123 yds, 2 TDs) in a 32-13 Cincy win back in Week 11. I do believe this Vegas team is better now than it was then, but they simply don’t have the offensive weaponry to outrace the Bengals. Prediction: Bengals 31, Raiders 20


New England Patriots @ Buffalo Bills (Saturday 20:15 EST)

Line: Buffalo -4 (44)

These teams have met twice in the past six weeks, with New England pulling the upset on a frigid night in Buffalo back in Week 13 and the Bills returning the favor in Foxboro 19 days later. The Bills seemingly have everything going for them here: veteran Pro Bowl quarterback, a defense that led the league in yards allowed and points allowed, home field advantage in what is sure to be a raucous atmosphere, and the experience of having convincingly beaten this Patriots team just three weeks ago. But under Bill Belichick the Pats have absolutely owned the Bills, and the confidence of Buffalo fans has to be shaken by the memory of the New England running backs tearing through that Buffalo defense and controlling the game on a sub-freezing night when Patriots quarterback Mac Jones only attempted three passes. The weather will be very similar for this game, with single-digit (Fahrenheit) temperatures expected, and you just know Belichick is going to scheme something up to make life miserable for Josh Allen. That said, I can’t get past the fact that Mac Jones is a rookie playing in his first playoff game, and will be facing the best defense in the league in sub-freezing temps. Prediction: Bills 21, Patriots 13


Philadelphia Eagles @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sunday 13:00 EST)

Line: Tampa Bay -8.5 (46)

Just about everything has fallen into place perfectly for Tom Brady since his arrival in Tampa, and most people expect the Bucs to have no trouble with the 7-seed Eagles this week. This Tampa team has been steadily decimated by injuries, however– first it was the secondary, then the defensive front seven, and now it’s the offense that has been depleted and will be without mainstays Chris Godwin, Ronald Jones, and Antonio Brown, and maybe Leonard Fournette, too. While he still has Mike Evans and Gronk, the cupboard is getting awfully bare for Brady and that Bucs offense, and I don’t expect them to be flying up and down the field on a tough Philly defense that has held 5 of its last 6 opponents below 20 points. And while the issues in the Tampa secondary are well known, what’s been less talked about are the struggles of the Tampa run defense towards the end of the season. They’ll be tested by an Eagles offense that leads the league in rushing and a quarterback in Jalen Hurts who is a tremendous competitor that is always looking to make plays with his legs. I do expect the Bucs to escape this one, but it’s going to be tougher than the 8.5-point number would suggest. Prediction: Buccaneers 24, Eagles 21


San Francisco 49ers @ Dallas Cowboys (Sunday 16:30 EST)

Line: Dallas -3 (51)

Dallas has looked like a better team than San Francisco for the majority of the season but the Niners have caught fire over the past month, winning 4 of their past 5 games by leaning on a fierce defensive front and an offense centered around the talents of do-it-all weapon Deebo Samuel, who may be the single best skill player in the NFL right now. He’ll be a big problem for a Dallas secondary that has allowed the second-most yards after catch (per reception) in the league, but the explosive Cowboys offense should be able to find some success of its own against a 49ers defense that has been vulnerable to the big play, surrendering a whopping 51 passing plays of 20+ yards this season. This should be a very competitive game in which San Francisco’s ability to pull the upset hinges on QB Jimmy Garoppolo protecting the ball. He’s had issues in this area, of course, and the opportunistic Dallas defense has excelled at forcing turnovers all season. Prediction: Cowboys 28, 49ers 27


Pittsburgh Steelers @ Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday 20:15 EST)

Line: Kansas City -12.5 (46)

Everyone who follows the NFL knows it’s an Any Given Sunday league, and nearly every week there are results that just make you shake your head in bewilderment. That said, this game is a clear mismatch of the type we usually don’t see in the postseason, but that’s what you get when you cross a team that has no business being in the playoffs with a 2-time defending AFC champion that happens to have the league’s most unstoppable offense. I’m just really struggling to see a path to victory for Pittsburgh here: when these teams met three weeks ago the Chiefs were dealing with a COVID outbreak and had no Travis Kelce and a limited Tyreek Hill, and yet Patrick Mahomes picked apart the Steelers secondary just the same, leading the Chiefs to a 23-0 halftime lead and an easy 36-10 win. I’m sure Pittsburgh will try to pound the ball with Najee Harris, and Harris had better have the game of his life, because Ben Roethlisberger’s skills have declined to the point that he can no longer be relied upon. Mahomes and the Chiefs are going to send him into retirement, and it ain’t gonna be pretty. Prediction: Chiefs 31, Steelers 13


Arizona Cardinals @ Los Angeles Rams (Monday 20:15 EST)

Line: Los Angeles -4 (49.5)

The Cardinals stumbled badly towards the end of the season, losing 4 of their final 5 games and watching the division title slip away. They get a chance to make things right on Monday night, however, for if they can pull off the upset and wreck the Rams hype train the end-of-season struggles will be but a distant memory. These teams split their two matchups this season, with each team winning on the road, and I guess that shouldn’t be surprising considering Arizona is the NFL’s best road team, posting an impressive 8-1 record away from home. Kyler Murray is healthy and looking like himself again, and the Cards are expecting J.J. Watt to return to the lineup for the first time since October, which should be a big lift for the defense. Call me crazy, but something about this Rams team feels unreliable… the defense is leaky despite all the big names, and Matt Stafford has made a career (and a college career, for that matter) out of coming up short in situations just like this. I smell an upset brewing. Prediction: Cardinals 34, Rams 28