Ranking the Biggest X-Factors of 2023 NFL Wild-Card Playoffs
The NFL playoffs begin this week with the Wild Card Round. There are some things we know about the 12 teams who will play this weekend—such as the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals, known commodities who aren't new to the postseason.
But for every thing we know, there are two things we don't, and it's those unknowns that will determine to a large extent which teams advance and which ones call it a season.
At least five quarterbacks will make their first postseason start, including at least one rookie. At least two more teams have major injury concerns at the position. There are inconsistent offenses. Porous defenses. X-factors galore that will be the difference between victory and defeat.
Here's a look at the biggest.
8. New York Giants Defense
The New York Giants are one of the biggest surprises of this season's playoff field. And Brian Daboll has gotten his team into the postseason by maximizing the talent on the roster. The G-Men are hardly loaded with star power. The team ranks 18th in the league in total offense and 25th in total defense, but that didn't stop the Giants from advancing to the postseason for the first time since 2016.
That defense could prove a problem when sticking around the postseason is concerned.
Now, coordinator Don Martindale doesn't see his unit as a liability. As a matter of fact, per Bob Brookover of NJ Advance Media, Martindale thinks that Giants defense can be an asset in the postseason.
"The thing that's exciting to me is that we've come here and we've built a playoff defense," Martindale said. "Nobody can argue that, and I think we're starting to really catch our stride."
With that said, the numbers do argue that. The Giants allowed 144.2 yards per game on the ground—sixth-most in the NFL. The Giants were a so-so 17th in points allowed.
The Minnesota Vikings have no shortage of offensive talent, whether it's Dalvin Cook in the backfield, Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen at wide receiver or T.J. Hockenson at tight end. The Vikings are seventh in total offense, sixth in passing offense and eighth in scoring offense.
The New York defense was OK against Minnesota in Week 16, allowing 353 yards. But given that the Giants also surrendered 27 points and lost on a last-second field goal, it's going to take a better performance for Big Blue to pull off a Twin Cities upset.
7. Seattle Seahawks Defense
The Giants aren't the only surprise playoff team. A compelling argument can be made that there isn't a bigger one than the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks entered the regular season seemingly in the opening stages of a rebuild. They left it a nine-win playoff team—one with major questions about the defense.
The Seahawks played one of their best defensive games of the season Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams, limiting them to 269 yards and a touchdown. The Seahawks also sacked Baker Mayfield five times, and edge-rusher Darrell Taylor told Michael-Shawn Dugar of The Athletic what the group has been doing.
"It was just all of our guys working together, communicating when we are coming off the field, what we have seen from the tackles and guards, where they are going to set the protection to and everything like that," Taylor said. "I feel like these last few weeks, we have been hitting on all three cylinders. Everybody up front has been rushing really hard. We've been stopping the run, so they go hand in hand.
"You have to earn the right to rush the passer, and that's what we have been doing."
There's quite a difference, however, between taking on one of the worst offenses in the league and the San Francisco 49ers, who rank fifth in yards per game and sixth in points per game. The Niners may be led by a seventh-round rookie quarterback, but San Francisco hasn't missed a beat with Brock Purdy.
Meanwhile, the Seattle defense has flashed but struggled as a whole. The Seahawks are 26th in yards allowed, 30th in rushing yards allowed and 25th in points allowed.
Seattle also has two losses to the 49ers this season—including a 27-7 blowout in Santa Clara in Week 2.
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Offense
There has been no shortage written and said about the struggles of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense—struggles that played a big part in the NFC South champion heading into the playoffs with a losing record.
But for all the scoring the Bucs haven't done, offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich told reporters that Tampa Bay's demise has been exaggerated.
"I think there's been moments where we really haven't been that bad. I think you guys overexaggerated because we look different. The numbers say that we're not that far off. We're off on third down and red zone," Leftwich said. "It's disappointing, those two things for us as a team, with who we have. But when you really listen to people talk about us, that's emotions talking. That's not really people watching us, watching us get better every week. For some reason, everybody wants to throw dirt on the Bucs. But we're not ready for people to throw dirt on us."
Leftwich's protestations aside, there's no denying the Tampa Bay offense isn't what it was a year ago. In 2021, the Buccaneers ranked second in yards and points per game. In 2022, with essentially the same skill-position talent, the Bucs have dropped to 15th in yards per game and 25th in points per game.
There have been glimpses of the potent offense. In Week 17, the Buccaneers gouged the Carolina Panthers for 478 yards and 30 points.
But consistent production has been hard to come by. And without it, Tampa Bay won't be long for the playoffs.
5. The Jekyll-and-Hyde Dallas Cowboys
Will the real Dallas Cowboys please stand up?
When the Cowboys are good, they are very good. On Nov. 20, they annihilated the Vikings 40-3 in Minneapolis. Dallas has a two-time Pro Bowl quarterback in Dak Prescott. An excellent one-two punch in the backfield in Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. Receiving talent. A stout offensive line. And a defense spearheaded by young cornerstones in edge-rusher Micah Parsons and cornerback Trevon Diggs.
If the Cowboys are at their best, they are capable of making it all the way to the Super Bowl. Winning it, even.
But when Dallas is bad, it can be very bad. With the No. 1 seed in the NFC potentially on the line Sunday, an out-of-sorts team was blown out by the Washington Commanders. Prescott threw a pick-six, marking his seventh straight contest with an interception, and he led the league in that category with 15.
"It's a fine line, and I've got to get better at it," Prescott said. "Simple as that. This won't continue."
Team owner Jerry Jones was blunt in his assessment.
"We get to suck on that all week," Jones said. "And if that doesn't make you want to get ready to go in six to seven days, nothing else will.
"That was as thorough a butt-kicking as we've had this year. And we're going to find out if that will get you ready or not. It should.
"... We didn't rest anybody, so everybody got to bite this apple."
On paper, the Cowboys are a fair bit better than the Buccaneers. But just as Tampa Bay has struggled offensively, consistency and turnovers have plagued Dallas.
And if the Cowboys make another quick exit from the postseason, things could get really uncomfortable really quickly.
4. Minnesota Vikings Defense
By many measures, the Vikings had a successful season. Their 13 wins tied for the second-most in franchise history. Minnesota won 11 one-score games, an NFL record.
But as good as the offense was, the defense was just as bad. The Vikings ranked 30th in total defense, 28th against the pass, 26th against the run and 24th in scoring defense.
None of those numbers screams "Super Bowl contender." But head coach Kevin O'Connell told reporters there are things the team can do in the postseason to tighten things up.
"There's a lot of things on the table. Whether it be personnel-based, whether it be schematics-based; changing things up, changing some looks, being a little bit more aggressive at times. Just picking our spots defensively to put our players in situations to be aggressive and try to make some plays," he said. "I think we've thrived this year when we've been able to turn the football over and be around the football, try to affect the quarterback with our rush. Finding ways to do that, different ways to do that is something we've got to take a long look at, as well as how we're deploying some of our players and schematically.
In Week 16, the Vikings edged the Giants 27-24 on Greg Joseph's last-second 61-yard field goal at U.S. Bank Stadium. But New York amassed 445 yards.
And NFL teams aren't going to win many postseason games if they allow 445 yards.
3. First-Time Playoff QB Duels
There will be no shortage of new faces behind center in the Wild Card Round, as five of the 12 starters will make their playoff debuts.
Four of them will play against one another.
Over the last seven weeks, Trevor Lawrence of the Jacksonville Jaguars has looked more like the generational prospect the Jaguars thought they were getting with the No. 1 pick in 2021. Over that span, he has 12 touchdown passes against just two interceptions.
The Los Angeles Chargers' Justin Herbert has posted better stats over the past two years, including more than 5,000 passing yards a year ago. This season, success as a team has followed.
"The offensive line, the receivers, running backs, they have done an incredible job all year," Herbert said. "If I can just keep getting them the ball, limit turnovers, convert on third down, do the same thing week in and week out, we feel like we have gotten a lot better this year."
When last these teams met in Week 3, however, Lawrence and the Jaguars crushed the Chargers 38-10 in Inglewood. It will be a battle of two ascending young passers that could be one of the most exciting contests of the weekend.
Meanwhile, in Santa Clara, the unlikeliest playoff quarterback of all will lead the 49ers against the Seahawks. Brock Purdy started the season as "Mr. Irrelevant"—the final pick in the 2022 draft. He ended the regular season as the starting quarterback for the NFC West champions after throwing 13 touchdown passes against just four interceptions, posting a passer rating of 107.3 and winning all five of his starts.
Geno Smith is one of the leading candidates to be named Comeback Player of the Year after setting several Seahawks single-season records, including most passing yards. But as the 32-year-old prepares to make his first career playoff start, he does so next to that shaky defense mentioned earlier and against a team that sports arguably the best defense in the NFL.
San Francisco won both regular-season meetings, and it will take a far better effort from Smith than his two-interception performance against the Rams to avoid a three-game sweep—and being eliminated from the playoffs.
2. Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins Quarterbacks
By virtue of the New England Patriots' loss to the Bills and the Miami Dolphins' squeaker over the New York Jets, the Dolphins reached the playoffs.
Whether they spend much time there is another matter.
With Tua Tagovailoa in the concussion protocol and Teddy Bridgewater sidelined by a finger injury, rookie Skylar Thompson started Sunday. After the game, Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel said the team is ready for Tagovailoa or Bridgewater to start at Buffalo on Sunday.
"We'll continue to take it day by day, and I will not even think about any sort of game, whether that's this year or next year, until he's fully ready to do so, and that comes with medical clearance," McDaniel told reporters. "That's why the procedure is in place. Haven't even thought about that."
In fact, McDaniel said he isn't sure who will start.
"Ready for either quarterback against the Bills. There's a lot of things that have to—we have to get through the training room first," he said. "Teddy was battling to be available and we think that he was in a spot that he could have come through in an emergency situation, and Skylar got twisted up a couple times, too, so we'll have to see how all that shapes out."
With Tagovailoa, the Dolphins beat the Bills in Week 3 and gave Buffalo all it could handle in Week 15. But his absence played a role in the team's five-game skid, and the Miami offense just isn't the same with Tagovailoa on the sideline.
Without him, Miami has next to shot of winning this rubber match with Buffalo.
1. Lamar Jackson's Injured Knee
There's no question about the biggest X-factor. The biggest unknown. The most pressing issue that looms large over a franchise's chances of making it to the divisional round.
If Lamar Jackson plays for the Baltimore Ravens, they have a chance to knock off the rival Bengals in Cincinnati. Without him, their season will all but surely end Sunday night.
On Monday, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh told reporters that Jackson is eager to rejoin his teammates on the field. But Harbaugh also acknowledged that it's not yet known if Jackson's injured knee will allow him to play.
"Lamar's been in great spirits. He has been. He's been working super hard," Harbaugh said. "He's out there again today. I mean, I don't watch the workouts—he's with the trainers and hopefully has progressed to the point where he can practice sometime soon. I mean, that's what we're all hoping for, for sure. When we have something to report on that, we will. That's just the truth of it."
Jackson might well be the most valuable single player in the NFL, in that the Baltimore offense looks completely different with him on the field. Since Jackson went down early in Week 13 against the Denver Broncos, Baltimore hasn't scored 20 points. Just once in six weeks did the Ravens hit 17 points. And the team is 3-3—including three losses in the last four weeks.
The Ravens can't take out the defending AFC champions without their best player.