The NFL is in full playoff mode as everyone gears up for the first-ever “Super Wild Card” round. That just means that an extra team has been added to each conference’s playoff field, making it seven teams each from the AFC and NFC and 14 in total. But the additional entrants won’t be diluting the on-field product as we have a slew of great matchups ahead this weekend.
Previewing Super Wild Card Matchups
Indianapolis Colts @ Buffalo Bills
There’s a new sheriff running the AFC East and it’s the Buffalo Bills who won the division for the first time since 1995. Led by MVP-candidate Josh Allen at quarterback, the Bills unlocked their offense with the acquisition of Stefon Diggs in the offseason. Buffalo is second in points and yards this season; their highest marks since the 1992 season.
If “building from the trenches out” was a team, it would be the Indianapolis Colts. Aside from their heavy (and wise) investment in their offensive line, they also traded a first-round pick for DeForest Buckner to bolster their run defense. They then supplemented that with drafting players like Johnathan Taylor and Darius Leonard. Philip Rivers just has to take care of the football most of the time.
This is a matchup of the fourth (Buffalo) and 10th-ranked (Indianapolis) teams in DVOA, per Football Outsiders with Buffalo obviously having the edge. But the Colts defense, ranked seventh to the Bills 12th, could be the equalizer here. Buffalo is extremely reliant on the passing game and the Colts are top-10 in both pass and rush defense DVOA, with their pass defense ranking slightly higher. Meanwhile, Buffalo can check Rivers but could struggle with Taylor who ran for 253 yards in Week 17.
Prediction: Colts 24-21
Los Angeles Rams @ Seattle Seahawks
It’s always a thriller when division opponents face off. Knowing your opponent well levels the playing field or completely making it no contest. It’s the former for these teams as the Los Angeles Rams have been playing Seattle tough since before they were a good team themselves. Now, after John Wolford got them into the playoffs in Jared Goff’s stead in Week 17, they get the chance to make it count for something.
The Seattle Seahawks are riding a heater. After starting the year 5-0, they hit a bump in the road, going 3-4 over their next seven and losing to two playoff teams in the process. But they’ve won four straight and will host this game, for whatever that’s worth with no fans in attendance. And the addition of Carlos Dunlap has added teeth to the pass rush that was led by safety Jamal Adams. They’ve also turned from letting Russell Wilson “cook” to a more balanced attack.
L.A. is the only team in the NFC West Wilson has a losing record against (8-10) which includes being 3-5 against the Sean McVay-led version. But Seattle won the last meeting between the two in Week 16 20-6, in Los Angeles. Perhaps they’ve figured something out between the added juice to the pass rush that neutralizes Goff. They’ll need to in order to come away with a win.
Prediction: Rams 31-27
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Washington Football Team
In our first “David vs Goliath” matchup of the weekend, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers travel to Washington to face the team with no name. It’s Tampa’s first playoff berth since 2007 and, given where the differences between this year’s roster and last year’s, is in no small thanks to Tom Brady. Of course, adding Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown to Mike Evans and Chris Godwin doesn’t hurt either.
The Washington Football Team shouldn’t be here, and that’s not in reference to them having a losing record. A team that has gone through four different starting quarterbacks and settled on the one that had 17 surgeries to his leg isn’t supposed to be in the playoffs. But, led by a defense ranked third in DVOA, they present an interesting challenge. Not in the secondary as the Bucs are loaded. But the Washington pass rush is third in Pass Rush Win Rate, per ESPN whereas Tampa is just 17th in Pass Block Win Rate, per ESPN.
As much as it would be a cool story for the Football Team to pull off the monumental upset, we have to be realistic. Tampa is far more talented and has much more leeway for the slow starts and mistakes that have plagued them throughout the year. But they need to remember what happened to the Steelers. Dawdling too long will see Washinton walk away victorious.
Prediction: Buccaneers 31-14
Baltimore Ravens @ Tennessee Titans
Sunday’s first game is a bit of a throwback. These are the first and second-ranked teams in rushing this season even though they go about it in a different way. The Baltimore Ravens focus in the ground game is quarterback Lamar Jackson who became the first quarterback in the NFL with multiple 1000-yard rushing seasons. Baltimore is having a “down” year compared to last, but they are still averaging 37-plus points per game over their last five.
This season, Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans became just the eighth person in NFL history to rush for 2000 yards. H also was the first to do so without a Pro Bowl offensive lineman. In a league that constantly reminds you why you don’t pay running backs, Henry is bucking the trend and proving you can still build around the position. You need a Ryan Tannehill to fill in the appropriate gaps, though, and the work the Titans have done there might be their best.
These teams met back in Week 11; a game the Titans won in overtime 30-24. Added to Jackson’s postseason struggles and it’s easy to see a path to a Titans win. Their biggest defensive weakness is also Jackson’s: the passing game. If they can manage to keep him in the pocket they can make short order of the Ravens. But the Tennessee pass rush is mediocre at best. If they are forced to rely on Tannehill this game will play right into Baltimore’s hands.
Prediction: Titans 31-28
Chicago Bears @ New Orleans Saints
Make no mistake about it, the Chicago Bears are a playoff team only because the NFL expanded the field. But that isn’t to say they haven’t done their best to rebound from a mid-season skid that saw them lose six straight games. They were 3-1 over the final of the season and were among the top-scoring teams in that span. In control of their own destiny entering Week 17, they failed to take out the “big brother” Green Bay Packers.
The New Orleans Saints are a powerhouse. So much so they went 3-1 in the four games Drew Brees missed with cracked ribs. And they’ve done it without Michael Thomas for most of the season. Thomas should rejoin the team for this one as the Saints look to give Brees the chance to go out on top if reports that this could be the last hurrah for the surefire Hall of Famer prove to be accurate.
Chicago hasn’t beaten the Saints since 2008 and hasn’t won in the Superdome since 2002. They’ve played each of the last two seasons, including back in Week 8. New Orleans has won both meetings by an average of 31-24 and is fifth in scoring, offensively and defensively, this season. The Bears are also dealing with injuries to key players like Roquan Smith and Jaylon Johnson. Does Chicago have a chance to pull the upset? Yes, but it isn’t a good one.
Prediction: Saints 34-17
Cleveland Browns @ Pittsburgh Steelers
The Cleveland Browns are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and they got there by beating the team they’ll face in the Super Wild Card round; albeit with a bunch of backups playing. Their 11-5 record is their best since 1994, Bill Belichick’s second to last year at the helm. Nick Chubb will have to find whatever cracks he can in the defense because bad things tend to happen when they rely on Baker Mayfield.
Many people called the Pittsburgh Steelers the most fraudulent 11-0 in history. A three-game skid that began with a loss to the Football Team reinforced that notion. Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to a comeback victory in Week 16 over the Colts, at least pausing the doubters. But questions about this offense still remain. Such as, can they effectively run the football? Their rushing attack ranked 32nd in the regular season.
These two technically split their regular-season matchups but, as mentioned, the Steelers played backups in Week 17. Pittsburgh will need to come out of the gates fast or they could find themselves playing catchup on a team that specializes in ball control. The Steelers defense is first in DVOA and third in both points and yards. If they get the lead it’s almost certainly a wrap for this young Browns squad that ranked about average in counting stats and was 18th in DVOA. It’s just hard to see the former scenario playing out over the latter.
Prediction: Steelers 28-17
Super Wild Card Weekend Set to Excite
It’s a first in NFL history and there’s a chance this won’t be the only season with an expanded field. It was on the table well before COVID was a thing so that’s why it has staying power. They’ve avoided adding extra regular-season weeks (for now) and it’s hard to argue this is a bad thing when you look at some of the games we’re getting on Super Wild Card Weekend.