Buying or Selling NFL Wild-Card Teams as Super Bowl Contenders

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJanuary 12, 2022

Buying or Selling NFL Wild-Card Teams as Super Bowl Contenders

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    The NFL's Super Wild Card Weekend is nearly upon us. With a Monday night showdown between the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams stretching the opening round to three days, fans should have plenty of chances to get their football fix.

    Do any of the six wild-card teams have a legitimate chance to go the distance and win the Super Bowl? The short answer is yes. A year ago, four wild-card teams went on to the divisional round, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won it all as a fifth seed.

    It would be foolish to think that things couldn't play out similarly this year.

    Here, you'll find a look at each wild-card team and whether it can be this year's version of Tampa Bay. Factors like past production, roster health, talent, the playoff field and any relevant recent trends will be considered.

    Teams are listed in alphabetical order.

Arizona Cardinals: Buy

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    John McCoy/Associated Press

    The Cardinals limped into the postseason losing four of their final five games. That's a big momentum problem exacerbated by the fact that top receiver DeAndre Hopkins may or may not return during the playoffs.

    Hopkins had surgery to repair a torn MCL and isn't expected back until late January at the earliest, according to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport. With Hopkins out of the lineup, the Cardinals lost to the Detroit Lions, Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks down the stretch.

    It would be foolish to count Arizona out of the NFC race, though. The Cardinals have already beaten the Rams, Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers (twice) this season. They narrowly lost to the Green Bay Packers when a Kyler Murray pass intended for A.J. Green was picked off in the end zone near the end of regulation.

    Tampa Bay and the Philadelphia Eagles are the only teams in the NFC field that Arizona hasn't already faced. Experience can go a long way in the postseason, and the fifth-seeded Cardinals already know how to battle most of the teams they'll run up against.

    Of course, the familiarity works both ways, and the division-rival Rams may present the biggest challenge—one Arizona will meet in the opening round.

    With a dynamic quarterback in Murray and the 11th-ranked scoring offense and 11th-ranked scoring dense, though, Arizona has the talent and the firepower needed to push its way to Super Bowl LVI.

    If the Cardinals can regain the form they showed earlier in the season—they were 10-2 in early December—they can take home the Lombardi Trophy.

Las Vegas Raiders: Sell

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    Ellen Schmidt/Associated Press

    The Las Vegas Raiders are on the opposite end of the momentum spectrum from Arizona. They've overcome multiple on- and off-field obstacles and have emerged as one of the grittiest wild-card teams in the field.

    A four-game winning streak catapulted Las Vegas into the postseason, and the AFC's fifth seed cannot be taken lightly.

    The issue for Las Vegas is that its underwhelming defense—ranked 19th against the run and 26th in points allowed—doesn't match up well with the AFC field.

    Las Vegas' wild-card opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals, ran over the Raiders in Week 11. Cincinnati rushed for 159 yards en route to a decisive 32-13 road victory. With the rematch in Cincinnati, the Raiders' storybook season may come to an end on Saturday.

    Even if Las Vegas pulls the upset against Cincinnati, other teams are likely to keep the Raiders out of the Super Bowl. Should the Raiders meet the Kansas City Chiefs, it could be disastrous. Kansas City won its two games against Las Vegas by a combined score of 89-23.

    To say that the Chiefs have the Raiders' number this year would be an understatement.

    Then, there's the top-seeded Tennessee Titans. With star running back Derrick Henry (foot) set to return in the postseason, the Titans represent a daunting mismatch for the Raiders and their inconsistent run defense.

    It's hard to envision the Raiders getting past the proverbial cream of the AFC playoff crop this year.

New England Patriots: Buy

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    Doug Murray/Associated Press

    It's never smart to completely discount a Bill Belichick-coached New England Patriots team in the playoffs. With a defense ranked fourth overall and second in points allowed and a potent eighth-ranked rushing attack, this squad is built for January football.

    A lot, however, is going to hinge on rookie quarterback Mac Jones and his ability to push past the poor play late in the season. Over the last four weeks, Jones threw only six touchdown passes and committed six turnovers.

    "It's super embarrassing, honestly, just from my point, just how I played—wasn't good enough," Jones said after the Week 18 loss to the Miami Dolphins, per ESPN's Mike Reiss

    If Jones cannot return to the form he showcased in the middle of the season, New England may not make it past the opening round. The sixth-seeded Patriots open with the rival Buffalo Bills, who won the second of two meetings rather decisively.

    If the Patriots can get the good version of Jones back, however, and can handle Buffalo as they did in Week 13, they could go the distance.

    New England's formula of tough running and even tougher defense matches up well with teams in the AFC playoff field. The Patriots can avoid engaging in shootouts with teams like Cincinnati, Kansas City and Tennessee while placing emphasis on football fundamentals and coaching.

    No team in the AFC field is simply going to out-coach Belichick in an elimination game. The Patriots will have to avoid mistakes and get reliable play from their rookie signal-caller, but they can beat any foe in the AFC bracket.

Philadelphia Eagles: Sell

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    I like what the Philadelphia Eagles have become this season. Philadelphia has embraced the dual-threat ability of quarterback Jalen Hurts and paired a physical defense with the league's top-ranked rushing attack to become a tough team to handle.

    The Eagles rested Hurts in the season finale, so their dynamic signal-caller should be ready to go against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.

    "He has done a really good job these last three games playing within the pocket, and we have done a little bit less with running with him and everything like that," head coach Nick Sirianni said, per Reuben Frank of NBC Sports Philadelphia. "We just thought this was an opportunity to get him back to 100 percent."

    Teams that can run the ball and play tough defense are usually going to be a factor in the postseason. However, the Eagles haven't had much success this season against quality opponents, which makes it difficult to buy into them as title contenders.

    Philadelphia beat only one team that finished with a winning record this season, the New Orleans Saints. Even discounting the Week 18 game against Dallas—when several Eagles starters sat—Philly was 0-5 against eventual playoff teams.

    The Eagles simply have not passed the battle test against other quality teams this season. This team lacks experience at quarterback and at the head coaching spot. That could present an early issue against Tom Brady, Bruce Arians and the Bucs—not to mention an NFC field littered with veteran coaches and quarterbacks.

    The seventh-seeded Eagles may pull off an upset this year, but they seem to be a year away from being a true title contender.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Sell

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    Terrance Williams/Associated Press

    The seventh-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers narrowly squeaked into the postseason. Had the Raiders tied the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday night—and Las Vegas only won with a field goal at the end of overtime—Pittsburgh wouldn't even be on this list.

    Making the playoffs is a great way to punctuate what appears to be Ben Roethlisberger's final season. However, Pittsburgh's foray into the dance isn't likely to have a storybook ending.

    The issue for Pittsburgh is that its defense can play well at times but is incredibly inconsistent. It finished the year ranked 24th in yards allowed and 20th in points allowed. With Roethlisberger no longer capable of carrying the team as he once did, the Steelers simply aren't built for a deep postseason run.

    Yes, Big Ben can still make the occasional big play, but the Steelers have not fared well in shootout scenarios. They open in Kansas City, where they lost 36-10 in Week 16.

    It's hard to envision Pittsburgh even getting out of the Wild Card Round.

    If the Steelers somehow shock the Chiefs, they'll then face the top-seeded Titans in the divisional round. While Pittsburgh did outlast Tennessee 19-13 in Week 15, that game was at home and did not feature Henry in the lineup for the Titans.

    Pittsburgh went just 3-5 in road games this season and ranked dead-last in rushing yards allowed and yards per attempt allowed. The Steelers are not taking a road route to the Super Bowl this year.

San Francisco 49ers: Buy

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The San Francisco 49ers are as battle-tested as any team in the NFC field. They won four of their last five games (twice in overtime) to clinch the No. 6 seed and have seen the return of a championship-caliber defense down the stretch.

    San Francisco finished the year ranked third in total defense and tied for ninth in points allowed.

    The 49ers have been battling for their playoff lives since mid-December, so a wild-card matchup with the Cowboys isn't going to intimidate them. With a smothering defense and the league's seventh-ranked offense, San Francisco matches up well with Dallas and most of the NFC playoff bracket.

    San Francisco beat the Rams twice during the regular season and lost to the top-seeded Green Bay Packers by only two points. The Cardinals are the one team that might worry San Francisco, as Arizona won both regular-season matchups by a combined 48-27 score.

    The 49ers are a different team than the one that faced Arizona twice in the first half of the season, though. Coach Kyle Shanahan has since unlocked the rushing potential of Deebo Samuel and opened up what has become a dynamic offense.

    If—and it is admittedly a big if—San Francisco can get relatively mistake-free play from injured quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (thumb), the 49ers can go head-to-head with anyone.

    This isn't the same squad that went 13-3 and reached the Super Bowl two years ago, but it's similarly built, similarly coached and is fully capable of pulling off multiple upsets en route to a championship appearance.