WILDCARD WEEKEND: After a strange, difficult season for all involved, we’ve reached the promised land: the playoffs. No more irrelevant games, no more bad teams (well, the NFC East does have a representative, sooo…), no more talk of “tanking” or resting players. All that matters now is winning, and this is the time of year when players’ reputations are forged, for better or worse. It’s time for some real football.
I’ve decided to deviate from the usual strategy of picking my favorite games and have instead included my thoughts on all six of this weekend’s games. Without further ado, here’s what I’m thinking:
Indianapolis Colts @ Buffalo Bills- Saturday, 18:05 GMT
Line: Buffalo -6.5, 51.5
The Bills went on a tear over the second half of the season, winning 9 of their final 10 games, and they’ve become a trendy Super Bowl pick. No longer a team carried by the defense, Buffalo ranked second in the NFL in both total yards and points scored this season, and Josh Allen has developed into one of the league’s premier quarterbacks. That being said, Allen faces a difficult task on Saturday, as the Indianapolis defense has been absolutely terrific, particularly when both Darius Leonard and DeForest Buckner have been on the field, as they will be this week. The Colts finished the season ranked in the top-10 in both yards allowed and points allowed but they’re really a top-3 defense when healthy, and with Allen not getting much support from the running game, the world will be on his shoulders here. For a young guy without much playoff experience, it’s a tough spot. His counterpart, Indianapolis’s Philip Rivers, has considerable postseason experience, of course, and he also has the advantage of a potent rushing attack– Jonathan Taylor has rushed for 741 in the team’s last six games and should find room to operate against a Buffalo front seven that was softer than expected this season. I think the Bills will likely come out on top here, but the game will be tighter than most expect.
Prediction: Buffalo 28, Indianapolis 24
Los Angeles Rams @ Seattle Seahawks- Saturday, 21:40 GMT
Line: Seattle -3, 42
These division rivals split their two meeting this season, and the uncertainty surrounding Rams QB Jared Goff, who was forced to miss last week’s game with a thumb injury and has been limited in practice throughout this week, makes this the toughest game of the weekend to predict in my opinion. The Seahawks shifted their identity as the season progressed, transitioning from a pass-first offense that had Russell Wilson looking like an MVP candidate to a more conservative, traditional approach. At the same time, the defense made vast improvement, transforming into one of the stingiest units in the league after allowing record yardage over the season’s first few games. The Rams have a great defense themselves, which is why we see such a low total here, and if the first two games these teams played this season are any indication, the total isn’t low enough. It’s tough to trust Jon Wolford or a banged-up Goff in this situation, especially when the quarterback on the other side, Wilson, is so capable of magic, but something’s been amiss with the Seattle offense lately, and this is a really tough matchup for them considering how well these teams know one another.
Prediction: Los Angeles 20, Seattle 17
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Washington Football Team- Saturday (early Sun., technically), 01:15 GMT
Line: Tampa Bay -7.5, 44.5
This line held firm at TB -8.5 for most of the week before moving in the Washington direction over the last 24-48 hours, and you get the sense that a lot of people think an upset is a very real possibility here. The Washington defense has been tremendous this season, ranking second in the league in yards allowed and holding each of their last seven opponents to 20 points or fewer, and Alex Smith is more than just a great story: he’s the reliable caretaker and game manager that he’s always been, and the steadying presence that he gave the offense absolutely turned WFT’s season around. That said, the Washington offense is still quite limited, scoring more than 23 points just once in Smith’s six starts this season, and making things happen against a stout Tampa defense will be a real chore. The Bucs lead the NFL in both rushing yards allowed (80.6 ypg) and yards per attempt (3.6 ypc), so Smith may be forced to air it out more than he or the coaches are comfortable with. If this game turns into anything resembling a shootout it’s bad news for WFT, because the Tampa offense has loads of firepower and some guy named Brady at the controls. While I do expect the Washington defense to keep this one respectable, it’s hard to pick against the more talented team with the better quarterback.
Prediction: Tampa Bay 27, Washington 17
Baltimore Ravens @ Tennessee Titans- Sunday, 18:05 GMT
Line: Baltimore -3.5, 54.5
The Lamar Jackson era in Baltimore has been both exciting and successful thus far, but Jackson has yet to win a playoff game, and defenses have developed a simple formula for slowing down the Ravens offense: over-commit to stopping the run, and force Jackson to air it out. Perhaps no team has been more brazen with this strategy than Tennessee, and the plan has worked, as the Titans upset the Ravens in last year’s Divisional Round and silenced all the “revenge” talk by beating them in Week 11 of this season. In those games, Baltimore players not named Jackson had just 29 combined rushing attempts, and we can expect Tennessee to try the same thing in this game: suffocate everyone else, make Jackson beat them himself. While the line and general consensus regarding this game seems to indicate that most like Jackson’s chances, I’m not so sure. For the Ravens to win here it’s going to take more than moderate offensive success, because the Titans offense has been rolling, putting up 30+ points in 6 of the team’s last 7 games, and Baltimore has had a world of difficulty slowing down Derrick Henry in the past two matchups, as the NFL’s leading rusher rumbled for 195 yards in last year’s Divisional Round and 139 more in Week 11 of this season. And just when defenses get too focused on Henry, Ryan Tannehill burns them with the play-action game. The Ravens have seen it all before, and they’re surely motivated to stop it, but I have a hunch they’ll get another dose of kryptonite, courtesy of their arch-nemesis.
Prediction: Tennessee 34, Baltimore 30
Chicago Bears @ New Orleans Saints- Sunday, 21:40 GMT
Line: New Orleans -9.5, 47.5
We’re going to have some close, exciting games this weekend… but this will not be one of them. What we have here is a textbook mismatch, with one team having the edge on offense, defense, special teams, and in the coaching department. That team, of course, is New Orleans: the Saints are one of the NFL’s most balanced teams this season, ranking 4th in the league in total defense while putting up 30.1 points per game on offense. Drew Brees seems to have shaken off the rust after missing multiple games, and the Saints finally have Brees, Alvin Kamara, and Michael Thomas all healthy and ready to roll again. The Chicago defense struggled mightily over the last month of the season, surrendering 34 points or more in each of the team’s past three losses, and it looks like they might be without Roquan Smith, their best coverage linebacker and a player who is absolutely essential against the Saints attack, after he sustained an elbow injury last week. The Bears have had trouble pressuring the quarterback all season, and if Smith can’t play, Drew Brees is going to be able to sit back and dink-and-dunk them to death. On the other side of the ball, we’ve got the inconsistent, turnover-prone Mitch Trubisky facing a top-5 defense on the road. What could possibly go wrong?
Prediction: New Orleans 34, Chicago 13
Cleveland Browns @ Pittsburgh Steelers- Monday, 01:15 GMT
Line: Pittsburgh -5.5, 46.5
The Browns wrapped up their first playoff berth since 2002 with a win over these Steelers in Week 17, but it wasn’t really “these” Steelers, as Pittsburgh was resting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and several other starters. And in typical Browns fashion, the playoff celebration was soon followed by the sobering news of a COVID outbreak: head coach and play-caller Kevin Stefanski, along with four players that include Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio and starting safety Ronnie Harrison, have been placed on the virus list and ruled out for this game. Cleveland hopes it can still ride a dominant rushing attack and the play-action brilliance of Baker Mayfield to victory, but the Steelers will be getting linebacker Robert Spillane back, a key cog in their run defense, and Mayfield has been awfully shaky against Pittsburgh in 5 career starts, throwing for fewer than 200 yards on each occasion. But I think Pittsburgh’s real edge here is on the other side of the ball, where Roethlisberger should be able to take advantage of Cleveland’s subpar safety group (particularly without Harrison) and make some things happen downfield. This game will have a very familiar feel for long-suffering Browns fans.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 24, Cleveland 17