NFL Playoffs Wild Card Weekend Matchups Breakdown and Early Predictions
We're all set for Wild Card Weekend after a Sunday full of drama with playoff implications.
Locked into the No. 1 seed in the NFC, the Green Bay Packers didn't have to worry about seeding in a contest with the Detroit Lions. On Sunday, the Tennessee Titans had to battle through four quarters with the Houston Texans to secure the top spot in the AFC.
As the Packers and Titans rest for a week, 12 teams will pair off for some intriguing contests in the first round of the playoffs. For a preview of Wild Card Weekend, we'll break down all six matchups, noting strengths and weaknesses for each club, and project a winner for the games.
How many road teams will advance? Who's going to make a strong statement in the first round of the postseason?
Playoff Picture Through 18 Weeks
No. 1 Tennessee Titans (12-5)
No. 2 Kansas City Chiefs (12-5)
No. 3 Buffalo Bills (11-6)
No. 4 Cincinnati Bengals (10-7)
No. 5 Las Vegas Raiders (10-7)
No. 6 New England Patriots (10-7)
No. 7 Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7-1)
No. 1 Green Bay Packers (13-4)
No. 2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4)
No. 3 Dallas Cowboys (12-5)
No. 4 Los Angeles Rams (12-5)
No. 5 Arizona Cardinals (11-6)
No. 6 San Francisco 49ers (10-7)
No. 7 Philadelphia Eagles (9-8)
AFC: No. 2 Kansas City Chiefs vs. No. 7 Pittsburgh Steelers
The Chiefs defense sparked a midseason run after a 3-4 start. Kansas City has won nine of its last 10 games with some balance between on sides of the ball.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes started to heat up in Week 14 against the Las Vegas Raiders. Since that game, he's thrown for 12 touchdowns and just one interception with at least 258 passing yards in each contest. On top of that, Kansas City's defense forces turnovers at a high rate, logging 14 takeaways since Week 13.
The Steelers don't have the offensive firepower or the defense to keep pace with the Chiefs. Going into Week 18, they ranked 21st in scoring and 22nd in points allowed. On Sunday, Pittsburgh scored just 16 points in an overtime battle with the Baltimore Ravens, who had given up the most passing yards heading into the contest.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hasn't thrown for more than 159 yards in an outing since Week 14. He'll likely play his last game for Steelers next week as Pittsburgh goes down in a double-digit loss at Arrowhead Stadium.
The Chiefs will beat the Steelers convincingly for the second time in four weeks.
Prediction: Chiefs 34, Steelers 21
AFC: No. 3 Buffalo Bills vs. No. 6 New England Patriots
The Bills and Patriots split their season series. Barring swirling winds and snowfall, Buffalo has the advantage because of its explosive third-ranked scoring offense.
In Week 16, Buffalo poked holes in New England's stingy No. 1-ranked scoring defense, racking up 33 points and 428 yards at Gillette Stadium. Quarterback Josh Allen threw for 314 yards and three touchdowns, and the Bills rushed for 114 yards plus a score.
Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones has performed at an efficient level, throwing for 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, but he's not a high-volume passer equipped to match Allen and the Bills' high-powered offense.
Allen has thrown for two touchdowns and three interceptions in his last two games against the Atlanta Falcons and New York Jets, which raises some concerns, but he'll break out of his funk against the Patriots, who yielded 5.7 yards per play in the previous matchup between these teams.
Allen can use his legs to lure an extra defender in the box or challenge the Patriots' 22nd-ranked run defense. Either way, Buffalo will move the ball and come away with the victory.
Prediction: Bills 28, Patriots 21
AFC: No. 4 Cincinnati Bengals vs. No. 5 Las Vegas Raiders
Don't overlook the Raiders in this matchup. They've allowed an average of 19.8 points per game over the last four weeks. Vegas has also found some balance on offense. While quarterback Derek Carr has made clutch plays late in games, he's had complementary help from the ground attack that's averaged 139.7 rushing yards over the last three outings.
The Bengals will bring some sizzle thanks to quarterback Joe Burrow and the electric duo Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, who will have their first taste of playoff action. Nonetheless, running back Joe Mixon may hold the key to victory against the Raiders' 20th-ranked run defense.
According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Mixon tested positive for COVID-19 this week, which is something to monitor going to this contest.
Vegas fields the ninth-ranked pass defense, which will make it difficult for Burrow, Chase and Higgins on the back end. Coupled with solid coverage, edge-rushers Yannick Ngakoue and Maxx Crosby should be able to consistently collapse the pocket.
Burrow has taken the most sacks (51) this season. Under constant duress, he'll make a couple of mistakes, allowing the Raiders to score off turnovers.
Prediction: Raiders 26, Bengals 24
NFC: No. 2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. No. 7 Philadelphia Eagles
The Buccaneers never trailed in their Week 6 victory over the Eagles, but both teams will look different on offense on Wild Card Weekend.
Philadelphia found an identity on offense, using quarterback Jalen Hurts in run-pass option designs. He leads the league in RPO pass attempts (95) and passing yards (819). The Eagles also field the No. 1-ranked ground attack that features Hurts, who leads the team in rushing with 784 yards, and multiple running backs.
As for the Buccaneers, they've lost two of their top three wide receivers in Chris Godwin (torn ACL) and Antonio Brown, the latter of whom the team waived this week as the result of a dispute that started on the sidelines in Week 17.
Quarterback Tom Brady won't have a bevy of weapons to carve up the Eagles defense, but he still has three-time Pro Bowl wideout Mike Evans and tight end Rob Gronkowski, which is enough to beat a pass defense that's allowed 28 touchdowns (ranked 21st) this season.
The Buccaneers' third-ranked run defense should slow down the Eagles' run-heavy offense.
Prediction: Buccaneers 26, Eagles 17
NFC: No. 3 Dallas Cowboys vs. No. 6 San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers have to find a way to slow down the Cowboys' No. 1-ranked scoring offense, and their playing style could turn this into a low-scoring matchup.
The 49ers defense ranks fifth in passing yards allowed and eighth against the run, so the Cowboys cannot focus on a glaring weakness, which may lead to a slow start.
Meanwhile, head coach Kyle Shanahan's staple ground attack can puncture the Cowboys defense, which gives up 4.5 yards per carry (24th). After a one-game absence because of a hand injury, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw two interceptions but moved the ball up and down the field for 316 yards against the Rams on Sunday.
More importantly, the 49ers may have an emerging playmaker in wideout Jauan Jennings, who caught six passes for 94 yards and two touchdowns Sunday.
Unlike San Francisco's defense, which doesn't have a noticeable soft spot, Dallas ranks 21st in passing yards allowed and 16th against the run. The 49ers can dominate time of possession if they avoid turnovers—something that's feasible with the seventh-ranked ground attack.
The 49ers will keep quarterback Dak Prescott on the sideline while running back Elijah Mitchell and wideout Deebo Samuel gain chunks of yardage in the run game.
Prediction: 49ers 23, Cowboys 20
NFC: No. 4 Los Angeles Rams vs. No. 5 Arizona Cardinals
The Rams and Cardinals split the season series, with each club winning on the road. Also, both teams won those games amid a hot streak.
Arizona started the season 7-0, knocking off Los Angeles in Week 4. Before Sunday's loss to the 49ers, the Rams won five consecutive contests, which included a victory over the Cardinals. Both teams will try to bounce back from a Week 18 loss.
On one hand, Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford pushes the ball downfield, but he's struggled with turnovers late in the season, throwing for eight touchdowns and eight interceptions over his last four games.
Despite Stafford's mistakes, the Rams can outscore the Cardinals. Arizona averaged 20.8 points per game between Weeks 15 and 18 without wideout DeAndre Hopkins, who's on injured reserve with a torn MCL.
The Rams will win this contest, but they'll give the Cardinals a few chances to steal another game on the road with some careless giveaways in the passing game. Los Angeles squeaks one out at home.
Prediction: Rams 28, Cardinals 24