1 Key Advantage for Every Underdog in 2023 NFL Wild Card Round
Although better-seeded teams tend to win the Super Bowl, upsets regularly happen in early rounds of the NFL playoffs.
Wild Card Weekend, the initial slate of postseason games, includes six matchups. Because the league is so filled with parity, however, at least a couple of underdogs will likely emerge victorious.
Randomness will happen. One fumble, tipped ball or penalty can substantially alter a result. But after 17 regular-season games for each, we know the most compelling reason these underdogs are capable of pulling off an upset and advancing to the divisional round.
The teams are ordered chronologically based on kickoff time. Betting lines are from DraftKings.
Seattle Seahawks: It's Not a Talent Issue
When: Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET (Fox)
Spread: 49ers (-9.5)
You could point to the inexperience of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy as an edge for the Seattle Seahawks. Will the rookie handle the pressure of the moment? However, this is also the first playoff start for Seahawks' signal-caller Geno Smith.
Besides, the Niners have an overpowering defense. They can suffocate offenses on a weekly basis, giving Purdy—or Jimmy Garoppolo, if he returns from a foot injury—a huge margin for error in the process.
Seattle has not fared well against San Francisco this season, failing to surpass 300 yards and totaling just 20 points in two losses.
The talent is there on offense, though.
Smith can be a highly efficient passer with top receivers Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf at his disposal. Rookie running back Ken Walker III rattled off three straight 100-yard efforts to close the regular season. Factor in tight end Noah Fant, a key red-zone threat in December, and Seattle has a well-rounded group of playmakers on offense.
San Francisco's defensive coaches have consistently bossed Seattle, a major issue entering the matchup. But with the right game plan, the Seahawks have the individual talent to challenge the NFL's best defense.
Jacksonville Jaguars: They've Done It Before
When: Saturday at 8:15 p.m. ET (NBC)
Spread: Chargers (-1)
Back in Week 3, the Jacksonville Jaguars went on the road and hammered the Los Angeles Chargers 38-10.
Yes, the Chargers were without wide receiver Keenan Allen. Yes, quarterback Justin Herbert was playing through a recent rib injury. Yes, running back Austin Ekeler hadn't yet broken out of his early-season slump.
But a 28-point margin is not a fluke. Jacksonville dominated that afternoon in Los Angeles.
This time around, the Jags host the matchup. They're still the underdog—which is reasonable—given the overall strength of the Chargers offense and potential of a defense with edge-rusher Joey Bosa back after a groin injury kept him out most of the season. Jacksonville's seven turnovers in the last four contests are a concern, even as the Jags managed to win each one.
Despite all of those circumstances, Jacksonville has already proved it can topple the Chargers.
Miami Dolphins: The Receiver Duo
When: Sunday at 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
Spread: Bills (-10.5)
The same weekend Jacksonville crushed the Chargers, the Miami Dolphins clipped the Buffalo Bills 21-19.
However, the situation will be much different Sunday afternoon. Rather than playing in the South Florida humidity, the longtime rivals will be battling in wintry Western New York. During the last decade, the Dolphins have managed a single victory in Buffalo.
But the Fins have never boasted a receiving duo like Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle until this season—or an offensive play-caller as competent as Mike McDaniel, for that matter.
McDaniel knows Miami needs to manufacture touches for the speedsters. In two regular-season meetings with the Bills, Waddle turned seven receptions into 216 yards and a touchdown, with Hill at a respectable 11 catches for 102 yards and a score.
The major concern for the Dolphins is the QB situation. Because of injuries, it's possible the Fins are rolling with third-stringer Skylar Thompson over Tua Tagovailoa (concussion) and Teddy Bridgewater (knee/finger).
No matter who's behind center, Waddle and Hill's collective ability to create yards after the catch will be vital against a solid defense.
New York Giants: The Rushing Attack
When: Sunday at 4:30 p.m. ET (Fox)
Spread: Vikings (-3)
On the Minnesota Vikings' side, the challenge is continuing a season-long trend of one-possession wins. One such victory happened against the New York Giants in Week 16, a 27-24 result when Minnesota kicker Greg Joseph blasted a 61-yard field goal as time expired.
That recent contest should be relatively reassuring for the Giants, who are built to lean on a versatile rushing attack.
Saquon Barkley is the featured player, scurrying for 1,312 yards and 10 touchdowns during the regular season. Daniel Jones is a low-upside thrower but has become a dynamic runner, especially in scrambling situations. He scampered for 708 yards and seven scores.
That one-two punch carried the Giants to the NFL's fifth-most yards per carry (4.8) and will test a vulnerable Minnesota defense. Since the beginning of December, the Vikings have ceded 4.5 yards per rush in five of their six outings.
Even on tight fourth-quarter drives, New York is comfortable sticking to the ground game. Whether the Vikes can contain Barkley and Jones is a decisive piece of this matchup.
Baltimore Ravens: Lamar Jackson, Hopefully
When: Sunday at 8:15 p.m. ET (NBC)
Spread: Bengals (-6.5)
The simple truth is the Baltimore Ravens are exceedingly unlikely to beat the Cincinnati Bengals without quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Tyler Huntley struggled in his four starts, and rookie Anthony Brown probably isn't ready for a game of this magnitude. But if Jackson—who's effectively missed the last six weeks because of a knee injury—is available to play, he'll provide a much-needed jolt to the offense.
Jackson is 6-2 against the Bengals in his young career, defeating them in October this season. He's rushed for 88-plus yards in four of those matchups, as well.
Again, the Ravens absolutely must have Lamar on the field for there to be any confidence here. The offense has not been effective enough with Huntley or Brown leading the way.
Cincinnati, though, will be on upset alert if Jackson is back.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Tom Freakin' Brady
When: Monday at 8:15 p.m. ET (ABC/ESPN)
Spread: Cowboys (-2.5)
He looked flawed throughout the regular season. Uncomfortable, uncertain, even distrusting at times. After all, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers managed to win a bad NFC South despite finishing 8-9.
But he, nevertheless, is seven-time NFL champion Tom Brady.
Plus, it's not wrong to say Tampa's offense leans entirely on him. The rushing attack, if you can label it that, finished last in the NFL with a measly 3.4 yards per carry on a league-low 22.7 carries per game.
Brady is responsible for distributing the ball quickly to mitigate a shaky offensive line, which the Dallas Cowboys are built to overrun. If it can, though, the Bucs will avoid unfavorable situations in which Dallas doesn't even need to consider respecting Tampa's mediocre run game. Reduce the pressure the Cowboys may send, and the Bucs have a shot.
For good measure, Brady is 7-0 in his career against the Cowboys. Results from 15 years ago don't really matter Monday night, but the point is Brady won't be lacking confidence in this showdown.
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