Previewing NFL's 1st-Ever Super Wild Card Weekend

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJanuary 4, 2021

Previewing NFL's 1st-Ever Super Wild Card Weekend

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    Scott Eklund/Associated Press

    Eighteen of the NFL's 32 teams are no longer in contention for the Vince Lombardi Trophy, leaving a uniquely large group of 14 alive entering what will be the busiest Wild Card Weekend in NFL history. 

    In about a 36-hour span Saturday and Sunday, the remaining pool will be sliced nearly in half, and only the elite eight will remain standing in the race to the Super Bowl. 

    With that in mind, we bring you an initial breakdown of the six tilts slated for the inaugural weekend of the 2020 NFL playoffs. 

AFC: (7) Indianapolis Colts at (2) Buffalo Bills

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    John Munson/Associated Press

    In a nutshell: Coming off their first 13-win season since 1991, the Buffalo Bills host their first playoff game in 24 years against a veteran, well-coached and balanced Indianapolis Colts squad that settled for a wild-card spot despite an 11-5 record. 

    Date/time: Saturday, 1:05 p.m. ET

    TV: CBS

    Location: Bills Stadium (Orchard Park, New York)

    Fans in attendance: 6,772

    Early line: Buffalo -7.5

    Early total: 52


    Key Matchups

    Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs vs. Indy's pass defense

    The Buffalo quarterback threw 37 touchdown passes to 10 interceptions in a breakout third season, thanks partly to the star receiver, who led the league with 127 receptions in his first season with the Bills.

    They'll go up against a pass D that ranked seventh in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average at Football Outsiders) entering Week 17.


    Jonathan Taylor vs. Buffalo's run defense

    The rookie running back has exploded down the stretch with 741 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in his last six outings, with the Colts winning five of those games.

    Buffalo's run D entered Week 17 ranked below the league median in DVOA after allowing eight backs to average more than five yards per carry on double-digit attempts.


    Other Potential X-Factors

    Colts: Philip Rivers 

    The 39-year-old quarterback has a playoff record of 5-6, with just two of those victories coming since 2010. He has a career 59.4 completion percentage and 84.2 passer rating in the playoffs, but he's out of San Diego/Los Angeles now, and it's possible a new setting will finally get him over the January hump. 

    Still, it won't be easy to chase away those postseason ghosts against star cornerback Tre'Davious White and a Buffalo defense that surrendered just 17.3 points per game in the final four games of the season, especially with left tackle Anthony Castonzo now out with a major ankle injury.


    Bills: Zack Moss

    The rookie running back averaged 5.5 yards per carry in back-to-back late December blowout victories and could be the key to taking pressure off Allen in his second career playoff start. The task won't be easy for him or Devin Singletary against a defense that hasn't given up more than 90 rushing yards in a game since November. 

    Those two could have their hands full with Julian Blackmon and DeForest Buckner, both of whom‚ÄĒlike Rivers‚ÄĒare newbies in Indy this season.


    Injuries to Watch

    Colts: Khari Willis - Blackmon's safety partner was experiencing a strong sophomore season before suffering a concussion in Week 16. Veteran Tavon Wilson isn't a bad replacement, but the Colts could need all hands on deck against a team that averaged a comical 47.3 points per game in the last three weeks of the regular season. 

    Bills: Cole Beasley - The veteran wide receiver is a safety valve for Allen, but he missed Week 17 because of a knee injury. Diggs is the centerpiece, but without having to worry about Beasley in the slot, tremendous Indy slot cover man Kenny Moore II can branch out and help Xavier Rhodes, T.J. Carrie and Rock Ya-Sin with Diggs and John Brown.

AFC: (6) Cleveland Browns at (3) Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    In a nutshell: The 11-5 Cleveland Browns participate in their first playoff game since meeting the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2002. It's their third consecutive playoff matchup with the AFC North champion Steelers, who finished 12-4 after losing to the Browns while resting multiple key starters Sunday. Once upon a time, Pittsburgh was 11-0.

    Date/time: Sunday, 8:15 p.m. ET

    TV: NBC

    Location: Heinz Field (Pittsburgh)

    Fans in attendance: A limited number

    Early line: Pittsburgh -4.5

    Early total: 46.5


    Key Matchups

    Pittsburgh's passing game vs. Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward

    Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his receivers haven't enjoyed consistent support from the running game all season, while Garrett (Cleveland's top pass-rusher) and Ward (the Browns' top cornerback) have done much of the heavy lifting for a defense that entered Week 17 ranked in the bottom 10 in DVOA.

    If those two are flashing, Big Ben isn't on his game or a Steelers receiving corps that led the league this year in dropped passes isn't clicking, the Browns could pull off the upset.


    Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt vs. Pittsburgh's run defense

    Thanks to that two-headed monster, Cleveland's running game entered Week 17 ranked fourth in the NFL. And while the Steelers had a top-five rushing defense in DVOA on paper, that unit missed injured front-seven starters Devin Bush Jr. and Bud Dupree down the stretch.

    Chubb and Hunt combined for 145 yards on the ground against Pittsburgh on Sunday, and the Steelers surrendered a pedestrian 4.5 yards per carry between Week 8 and Week 16.


    Other Potential X-Factors

    Browns: Baker Mayfield

    To earn his first-ever playoff win, the third-year quarterback likely won't be able to just sit back and let Chubb and Hunt do all of the work. Against one of the league's top all-around defenses, he'll eventually have to make a play or two. There's no telling if that'll happen, or if Mayfield will wilt under the pressure.

    A bad omen? Quarterbacks making their first playoff start on Wild Card Weekend are just 9-30 since 2002.


    Steelers: T.J. Watt

    The edge-defender might be the X-factor in this game. He might also be the Defensive Player of the Year, and with Dupree down, he's doing a lot of the heavy lifting for a pass rush that continues to be wildly effective (they had five sacks against the Colts in Week 16 and four more against Cleveland on Sunday). 

    Mayfield and rookie left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. are going to have their hands full. And even if Wills and veteran right tackle Jack Conklin handle Watt well, any help head coach Kevin Stefanski decides they need could free things up for Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt to dominate inside. 


    Injuries to Watch

    Browns: Donovan Peoples-Jones - The rookie wide receiver had 221 yards in the first three weeks of December before spending Week 16 on the reserve/COVID-19 list and then suffering a concussion in Sunday's game against Pittsburgh. Against the league's top-rated D in DVOA entering Week 17, they'll need everybody they can get.

    Steelers: Robert Spillane and Matt Feiler - The starting linebacker can help soften the blow they were dealt when losing Bush and then Dupree if he can return from a knee injury, while the starting guard has a chance at getting back from a pectoral injury. That could be huge for Roethlisberger, who enters the postseason with an 83.2 passer rating in his last six games.

AFC: (5) Baltimore Ravens at (4) Tennessee Titans

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    In a nutshell: In a rematch of last year's divisional-round upset for the Titans, Tennessee is at home this time after winning the AFC South with an 11-5 record. The 11-5 Baltimore Ravens weren't as strong on paper in 2020 as they were in 2019, but they're peaking with a five-game winning streak during which they averaged 37.2 points per game. 

    Date/time: Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET


    Location: Nissan Stadium (Nashville)

    Fans in attendance: Unknown but likely in limited fashion

    Early line: Baltimore -4

    Early total: 54.5


    Key Matchups

    Lamar Jackson vs. the kitchen sink

    Or whatever Mike Vrabel throws at one of the sport's most dynamic players. It was a team effort in last year's playoff win as well as this year's regular-season victory over Baltimore, and the reigning MVP posted a sub-75 passer rating and failed to run for a touchdown in both outings.

    The 23-year-old has struggled in critical spots and has yet to win a playoff game, but he's thrown 11 touchdown passes to three picks during Baltimore's five-game win streak. Maybe this is his moment. 


    Derrick Henry vs. Baltimore's run defense

    Henry vs. (fill in the blank) will be the key matchup in every game the Titans play the rest of the year. He might be the Offensive Player of the Year after rushing for more than 2,000 yards in 2020, and the Titans will undoubtedly try to ride him again Sunday afternoon.

    That worked when Henry compiled 328 rushing yards in Tennessee's two victories over Baltimore in the last calendar year, but the Ravens D surrendered a league-low 86.6 rushing yards per game between Week 12 and Week 16.


    Other Potential X-Factors

    Ravens: Yannick Ngakoue

    While Tennessee's pass rush (or lack thereof) is a major issue, the Ravens had turned it on with 11 sacks in their previous two games before coasting in a Week 17 blowout victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. Ngakoue was a huge factor during that run and is quietly up to eight sacks, four forced fumbles and 10 quarterbacks hits on a season that has seen him bounce around from two other teams to Baltimore. 

    He, Calais Campbell and Matt Judon will be tasked with setting the tone with big plays against a Tennessee offensive line that won't have either starter at tackle that it had when these teams met last January (Jack Conklin is in Cleveland, and Taylor Lewan is on injured reserve). 


    Titans: Ryan Tannehill and A.J. Brown 

    Dating back to the start of 2019, Tannehill is the AFC's highest-rated qualified passer. Henry's presence has helped, but Brown's emergence has played a big role as well. The 2019 second-round pick has gone over 1,000 yards with eight-plus touchdowns in each of his first two NFL seasons.

    With Henry, Tannehill and Brown all rolling, Tennessee's high-scoring offense becomes unstoppable. And because the first name on that list is a potential Hall of Famer, cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters might not get much help in coverage for Baltimore.


    Injuries to Watch

    Ravens: Ngakoue, Willie Snead, Jimmy Smith, Patrick Mekari - The aforementioned pass-rusher is dealing with a thigh injury, the veteran slot receiver has an ankle injury, the experienced corner has missed three games in a row because of rib and shoulder injuries, and the starting center missed Week 17 with a back injury. They could be lucky this game isn't taking place Saturday.

    Titans: Rodger Saffold - The veteran guard left Sunday's game against the Houston Texans because of an ankle injury. Henry and the offense didn't miss a beat without him, but that was against a weak defense. With Lewan already out and the margin for error small, they could really use Saffold in this matchup.

NFC: (7) Chicago Bears at (2) New Orleans Saints

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    In a nutshell: After recovering from a six-game midseason losing streak to sneak into a wild-card spot in the top-heavy NFC, the 8-8 Chicago Bears might arguably be happy simply to be here against a 12-4 New Orleans Saints squad that certainly views the playoffs as Super Bowl or bust on the verge of quarterback Drew Brees' 42nd birthday. New Orleans is unsurprisingly the largest favorite of the weekend. 

    Date/time: Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET

    TV: Fox

    Location: Mercedes-Benz Superdome (New Orleans)

    Fans in attendance: Unknown but likely at least 3,000

    Early line: New Orleans -9.5

    Early total: 47.5


    Key Matchups

    David Montgomery vs. the New Orleans run defense

    The sophomore back hadn't yet broken out when he put together 105 scrimmage yards in an overtime loss to the Saints earlier this season. In a five-game span between late November and the end of December, Montgomery compiled 692 scrimmage yards and six touchdowns as the sudden centerpiece of an offense that had a quarterback problem for much of the year.

    Now, he'll likely need a monster performance against the NFL's second-ranked run defense in¬†DVOA¬†(through Week 16)‚ÄĒalbeit one that struggled in matchups with¬†Miles Sanders,¬†Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Le'Veon Bell in December.¬†


    Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray vs. the Chicago run defense

    Kamara is obviously a superstar coming off a 21-touchdown season, while the 30-year-old Murray has proved to be a stellar change-of-pace option between the tackles. But Chicago's run defense ranked fourth in DVOA entering Week 17 before holding Aaron Jones in check against the Green Bay Packers.

    Kamara averaged 5.6 yards per carry and gained 96 yards through the air in their last matchup, but now he's trying to get back from COVID-19, and top Bears defender Khalil Mack is no longer limited by the ankle injury that played a role in that game. 


    Other Potential X-Factors

    Bears: Mack

    The perennial Pro Bowler can show us right now why he's the third-highest-paid defensive player in the sport by earning his first career playoff victory just a few weeks shy of his 30th birthday. He's coming off back-to-back seasons that weren't as productive as you'd expect, and he's dealt with multiple injuries this year. But you know he'll be gunning for old-man Brees here, and he and that stout defense could benefit from the fact that the Saints haven't had and might still be without Kamara and top receiver Michael Thomas. 

    Obviously Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky will also likely have a tremendous impact on this game, but even though he's performed surprisingly well down the stretch, the key might be for Trubisky to avoid mistakes and let Montgomery, Allen Robinson II and Mack do their thing. 


    Saints: Brees

    Oh yeah, that guy! Much of Kamara's impact comes through the air, and when his future Hall of Fame quarterback was injured for much of the second half of the season, Kamara practically became a non-factor in the passing game and the offense suffered significantly. Those two need each other, and the fact is the Saints are extremely unlikely to go on a deep playoff run without the league's seventh-highest-rated passer. 

    A strong Brees performance becomes even more critical if either Thomas or Kamara can't suit up or aren't 100 percent. 


    Injuries to Watch

    Bears: Jaylon Johnson and Buster Skrine - Brees could benefit from the fact that two of Chicago's top three corners are hurting. Johnson (shoulder) and Skrine (concussion) missed the Week 17 loss to Green Bay, making life easy for Aaron Rodgers. 

    Saints: Thomas, Kamara, Marcus Williams¬†- Thomas was shut down late in the regular season because of an ankle injury with the hope that he'd be healthy in time for the playoffs, Kamara remains on the COVID-19 list for now, and Williams‚ÄĒwho has become one of the game's best safeties‚ÄĒis week-to-week with an ankle injury of his own. The Saints really could have used that first-round bye.¬†

NFC: (6) Los Angeles Rams at (3) Seattle Seahawks

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    In a nutshell: Division rivals with playoff pedigree and Super Bowl-caliber defenses (one that has always been awesome and another that has recently emerged) renew their rivalry just two weeks after the Seattle Seahawks (12-4) beat the Los Angeles Rams (10-6) to lock up the NFC West title. The Rams, however, have won five of their eight matchups since 2017, five of which have been decided by a single score. 

    Date/time: Saturday, 4:40 p.m. ET

    TV: Fox

    Location: Lumen Field (Seattle)

    Fans in attendance: Unknown but unlikely (they haven't had fans all season)

    Early line: Seattle -4.5

    Early total: 42.5


    Key Matchups

    Sean McVay's mind vs. the red-hot Seattle defense

    The offensive-minded Rams head coach may not have quarterback Jared Goff (coming off thumb surgery) or left tackle Andrew Whitworth (trying to make a semi-miraculous return from a knee injury), and top Los Angeles back Cam Akers struggled in Week 17 after returning from a high ankle sprain. His offense hasn't scored more than 20 points since Week 14.

    To hang with a Seahawks team that has surrendered just 14.0 points per game the last six weeks, McVay might need the most creative and effective game plan of his career. 


    Russell Wilson vs. Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey

    Once an MVP front-runner, the Seattle quarterback hasn't been consistently strong since the team's Week 6 bye. The Seahawks have won four in a row but mainly because of the defense, while Wilson and Co. have settled for 20 or fewer points in three of their last five games.

    Now they'll have to deal with a Defensive Player of the Year candidate (again) in Donald, as well as one of the sport's top corners in Ramsey. Before shutting down the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17, the L.A. defense ranked third in DVOA against both the run and pass.


    Other Potential X-Factors

    Rams: Akers 

    Fellow back Darrell Henderson Jr. is also out with a high ankle sprain, and it's hard to imagine a less-than-100-percent Goff or backup John Wolford carrying the Rams as a road underdog in this spot. They'll likely need the rookie Akers to explode the way he did when he ran 29 times for 171 yards in a Week 14 victory over the New England Patriots. 

    For what it's worth, Henderson did average a solid 5.2 yards per carry against the Seahawks two weeks ago. Still, Akers will have his hands full on short rest against a unit led by Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Jamal Adams and Quandre Diggs. 


    Seahawks: Chris Carson

    But life might not be much easier for Carson against Donald, Michael Brockers and John Johnson III. We know Seattle's top back can be a game-changer when he's rolling, but he hasn't rushed for more than 80 yards in a single game this season. 

    If he can finally break out, that could take a lot of pressure off Wilson, Seattle's two elite receivers and the team's perma-shabby offensive line. 


    Injuries to Watch

    Rams: Goff and Whitworth - McVay said Sunday he's "not sure" if Goff will be healthy enough to return after missing Week 17. Whitworth's return would be a delight amid all the injuries for Los Angeles, and he did at least return to practice last week. 

    Seahawks: Adams - The Seahawks don't appear to have a lot of injury question marks ahead of Saturday's game, but Adams suffered a shoulder injury late in Week 17 and did not return. Head coach Pete Carroll didn't seem too concerned, but that's worth monitoring just because he's such a critical member of that unit. 

NFC: (5) Tampa Bay Buccaneers at (4) Washington Football Team

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    Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

    In a nutshell: They went 11-5 and outscored their opponents by 137 points this season, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are still forced to play on the road against the 7-9 Washington Football Team. Fortunately for 43-year-old Tom Brady's team, home-field advantage has its limitations with heavy restrictions if not full bans on spectators. The Bucs remain a heavy favorite against the default winners of the NFC Least to cap Wild Card Weekend. 

    Date/time: Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET

    TV: NBC

    Location: FedEx Field (Landover, Maryland)

    Fans in attendance: Unknown but unlikely

    Early line: Tampa Bay -8.5

    Early total: 46.5


    Key Matchups

    Brady vs. Washington's stacked defensive front

    NFC East teams with strong pass rushes have gotten the best of Brady in big playoff games over the years, and it's possible it's Washington's turn. Rookie edge defender Chase Young really hit his stride late in the regular season, and he's well-supported by fellow first-round 20-somethings Montez Sweat, Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen up front.

    If that group can get natural pressure on Brady, the WFT might have a chance. Entering Week 17, the Bucs had an NFC-high 69 20-plus-yard plays, but Washington had allowed fewer such plays than everybody except the Rams. Something has to give. 


    Antonio Gibson vs. Tampa's top-ranked run defense

    Washington almost certainly doesn't want to put everything on quarterback Alex Smith against a defensive front that can do serious damage when given the opportunity to pin its ears back. That means Gibson and the running game will have to find a way to keep the Bucs D honest, which won't be an easy task.

    Washington ranks dead last through the air but in the top 10 on the ground in DVOA thanks partly to the rookie Gibson's emergence, but Tampa Bay had surrendered a league-low 3.5 yards per carry ahead of Week 17.


    Other Potential X-Factors

    Buccaneers: Ronald Jones II

    The running back emerged this season with a 5.1 yards-per-attempt average and nearly 1,000 yards on the ground despite missing a pair of games. He returned from a finger injury and played a major role as the Bucs beat the Atlanta Falcons to clinch the No. 5 seed.

    Now, if they're going to keep the pressure off the league's oldest quarterback, they'll need Jones to contribute heavily as both a rusher and a receiver. Washington's run defense isn't bad, but it had some trouble with Boston Scott in Week 17. Jones should have some opportunities. 


    WFT: Kamren Curl

    Smith won't likely win this game with his arm, so let's reach a little deeper in this spot for somebody who could make an impact play as a result of the pressure Washington's defensive front hopes to place on Brady. 

    Curl, who has been a revelation as a rookie seventh-round pick at safety, is seemingly in on every play in place of the injured Landon Collins, and he intercepted two passes in Washington's last four games. Plus, he'll be counted on to play a big role against Jones in the box. And so it's possible that outside of Smith at quarterback, Washington's three key players Sunday could be all be rookies (Young, Gibson, Curl).  


    Injuries to Watch

    Buccaneers: Mike Evans - Tampa Bay's top receiver hyperextended a knee in the finale. That group is deep, but Brady will already be tasked with dealing with Young and Co., so he'd really appreciate Evans' presence. 

    WFT: Kevin Pierre-Louis - The starting linebacker excels in coverage and could come in handy against Tampa's wide variety of targets, but he's missed the last three games with an ankle injury.


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