Co-written with Tadhg Creedon
Following a grueling 17-week regular season, the NFL Playoffs have finally arrived. Despite a plethora of criticism during a global pandemic which has ripped through the heart of the United States, the NFL, without the Terrible Towels of Pittsburgh or the 12th Man of Seattle, has survived to see the league’s best compete for the ultimate prize. That prize being the Vince Lombardi trophy awarded to the winners of Super Bowl LIV in Tampa Bay, Florida on February 2nd.
From a League that consists of 32 teams, 14 teams remain, seven from the AFC and seven from the NFC, with the winners of each conference meeting in Tampa. This coming weekend, the 14 wins and two losses Kansas City Chiefs (AFC West) and 13-3 Green Bay Packers (NFC North) will sit out the Wildcard Round as the top seed in each conference, having earned a bye. The Wildcard round consists of three knockout games in each conference where the six other division champs host the six teams with the best record that failed to win their division. Below, we will preview each of the six Wildcard Round games and the six teams in the AFC and NFC looking to make it to the Divisional Round, or to put it simply, the Quarter Finals.
AFC Wildcard Round
Indianapolis Colts (11-5) @ Buffalo Bills (13-3): Saturday 9th January, 18.05 at Bills Stadium, Orchard Park, NY
For the Buffalo Bills, Saturday’s meeting with the Indianapolis Colts is more than just a game. It is an opportunity to end 25 years of heartbreak without a playoff win in front of a limited 6,772 fans at Bills Stadium. Buffalo, under the able stewardship of Sean McDermott could not be in a better place having won their first AFC East Division title since 1995 and winning their last six games by a combined 119 points. Having overcome a midseason slump, QB Josh Allen ended the season with 37 passing touchdowns and 4544 yards, 1535 of those to the league’s leading receiver Steffon Diggs. All in all The Bills own the highest scoring offense in the NFL. That offense combined with an excellent special team’s unit and a significantly improved defense make this a tough task for the travelling Colts.
The last time Buffalo finished 13-3, Frank Reich, the Colts Head Coach was the Bills QB. He returns to New York with an extremely organised team, ranking top 10 on offense and defense. His offense is led by veteran 39 year-old QB Phillip Rivers, who may not be what he once was, and in-form rookie Running Back Jonathan Taylor, who racked up 7 TD’s in his last four games. The Colts defence though, spearheaded by playmakers DeForest Buckner and Darius Leonard is where this game will be won and lost. The Colts have not been firing on all cylinders of late, giving up a 24-point lead v The Steelers two weeks ago and sealing victory late against the 1-15 Jaguars.
Predictions – Tadhg: Bills win by 10 plus
Mitchell: Bills by 17
Baltimore Ravens (11-5) @ Tennessee Titans (11-5): Sunday 10 January, 18.05 at Nissan Stadium, Nashville, Tennessee
If you’re about pound the rock, black-eye football, Sunday’s game in Nashville is the one for you. Lamar Jackson and his backfield committee of JK Dobbins and Gus Edwards, which rushed for a remarkable 404 yards last week v The Bengals, face Derrick Henry, the league’s best running back, who became only the eight player in NFL history to reach the 2000 yard plateau last week. The Mike Vrabel coached Titans need only look back to week 11’s overtime victory in Baltimore and a divisional round upset last January v The Ravens for inspiration on Sunday. Despite a first AFC South title in 12 years, the Titans defense has been a shambles this season ranking 27th in yards allowed per game and tallying just 19 sacks.
Without any pressure on the dynamic Jackson, who himself is looking for a first playoff victory, Baltimore can gain revenge on the Titans. Since that week 11 defeat, the Ravens have been rolling winning five of their last six with a barnstorming rushing attack and a stingy defense which has conceded 20 or less points in five of those games. The bottom line is that the Titans have a better offense with less weaknesses and more balance but the Ravens have a far superior defence and a league best special team’s unit. The early goings will be crucial as neither of these teams are built to play from behind.
Predictions – Tadhg : Ravens win by 3-6
Mitchell: Titans by 3
Cleveland Browns (11-5) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4): Monday 11 January, 1.15 at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
The last time the Cleveland Browns were in the playoffs, their leader and former Heisman trophy winner, Baker Mayfield was barely 7 years old. 25 now, and having led the Browns to their first winning season since 2007, Mayfield’s team travel to Heinz Field on Sunday for a second meeting with bitter AFC North rivals the Steelers in the space of a week. The Browns just got over the line at home last Sunday 24-22 in a nail-biting finish. Both teams seem quite evenly matched on either side of the ball with playmakers like Nick Chubb and Myles Garrett for the Kevin Stefanski coached Browns, and Chase Claypool and TJ Watt for Pittsburgh.
Experience counts for a lot in playoff football though and there aren’t many current quarterbacks with more than Ben Roethlisberger, who was rested last Sunday. The Super Bowl XLIII winner has also been a thorn in the side of the Browns for many a year compiling a dominant 23-2-1 record. Mike Tomlin’s Steelers may enter the playoffs in worrying form having lost four of their last five, but in one half of football against the Colt’s a fortnight ago, they proved with a 17-point comeback just how lethal their passing attack is. If the Browns are to triumph in Pennsylvania for the first time since 2003, the double pronged rushing attack of Chubb and Kareem Hunt must keep Big Ben and co off the field.
Predictions – Tadhg : Steelers win by 10 plus
Mitchell : Browns by 3
NFC Wildcard Round
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) @ Washington Football Team (7-9) : Sunday 10 January, 1.15 at FedEx Field, Landover, Maryland
You might be forgiven for wondering how Washington are even in the playoffs after a losing season winning the NFL’s weakest division, the NFC East. Theirs is a romantic story though. The main protagonists being a head coach Ron Rivera, who has undergone chemotherapy treatment for cancer this season and a QB, Alex Smith who is lucky to have both legs after a horrific injury in November, 2018. Like Rivera and Smith, Washington are resilient, largely built around an outstanding defense consisting of five first-round draft picks in the front seven.
If there is only one thing Buccaneer’s QB Tom Brady, a six-time Super Bowl winner has struggled with over the years, it’s pressure at the line of scrimmage. Even if Chase Young and co disrupt the former Patriots legend, he still may have too many weapons in his arsenal with the likes of Mike Evans (if passed fit), Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown. Not to mention a defense which led the league against the run this season. Even if Washington’s defense can hold Bruce Arians’ offense to about 20 points, it still may not be enough as their own offense has failed to muster more than 23 points since Thanksgiving and ranked 30th in yards per play.
Prediction – Tadhg : Buccaneers by 14 plus
Mitchell : Buccaneers by 7-10
Chicago Bears (8-8) @ New Orleans Saints (12-4) : Sunday 10 January, 21:40 at Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, Louisiana
For New Orleans this should be a breeze… no pun intended. The Saints bring the 5th highest scoring offense this the NFL to their cozy home confines in the Superdome. Their quarterback Drew Brees missed four weeks with broken ribs, but seems to be hitting his stride again just in time. He has weapons like Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, and Taysom Hill that want to help him to go out on top, with retirement reports running rampant. Chicago brings the 14th ranked defense but their two fierce pass rushers, Robert Quinn and Khalil Mack, combined for just 11 sacks this season. Saints QBs are already the least pressured in the NFL, so some extra pressure might be The Bears only chance.
On offense Chicago is led by Mitchell Trubisky, you could call him the epitome of mediocrity, and that would be a big improvement from last year. The Saints have the 5th best defense in the NFL, their only weakness being ranked 29th in red zone D, allowing touchdowns on 68% of trips inside the 20. The Bears can take advantage of that by running the ball well to shorten the game and punching it in with David Montgomry. Coming off of his first 1,000 yard season Montgomry will have to stay hot.
Prediction – Tadhg : Saints by 17
Mitchell : Saints by 18
Los Angeles Rams (10-6) @ Seattle Seahawks (12-4) : Saturday 9 January, 21:40 at Lumen Field, Seattle, Washington
Division foes will settle a 1-1 season series by playing strength against strength. The Seahawks bring an air attack featuring Russell Wilson with two of the best weapons he’s ever had in Tyler Lockett and DJ Metcalf, who both ended the season over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns. They will go up against the top ranked pass defense in the league featuring one of the best defensive players ever in Aaron Donald. If they can stop him Leonard Floyd will be on the other side looking for his 6th sack of Russel this year alone. The back end will hinge on Jalen Ramsey, one of the only corners to stop Metcalf this year.
The other matchup may come down to injuries. Jamal Adams has been the difference maker for Seattle’s defense when he has been healthy. He says there is no question in his mind that he is playing even though he left last week’s game with a left shoulder injury. However, health may not be on LA’s side either. Quarterback Jared Goff broke his thumb two weeks ago and his replacement, John Wolford, saw his first NFL action. After being intercepted on his first ever throw Wolford recovered to lead The Rams to victory. He also showed off something Goff doesn’t have, his running ability. Wolford carried the ball six times for 56 yards. Head coach Sean McVay no decision will be announced on who will start until 21.39… right before kickoff.
Prediction – Tadhg : Seahawks by 7
Mitchell : Seahawks by 7
For an in depth discussion further previewing all six games check out The Overtime Show Podcast hosted by Sports Gazette writers featuring Sky Sports analyst Jeff Reinebold.