Super Wild Card Weekend is upon us, and with it comes the first-ever Monday Night Football playoff game. Of course, that’s not the only juicy story. The Cincinnati Bengals, champions of the AFC North and recent victors over the Chiefs, look to earn their first playoff victory in over 31 years when they take on the Raiders. New England and Buffalo meet in a grudge match, with the Bills looking to gain an extra measure of revenge for the Patriots’ win in Buffalo earlier this year. Tampa Bay’s quest to repeat begins with a tricky matchup against Jalen Hurts and the Eagles, while the 49ers and Cowboys meet in the playoffs for the first time since their 1994 NFC Championship Game battle. Kansas City looks to begin its march to a fourth-straight AFC Championship Game and third-straight Super Bowl appearance against the zombie Steelers, and the Cardinals and Rams meet in an NFC West showdown on Monday night. The playoffs are here, so let’s get to the games.
Point spreads are from DraftKings.com and are current as of 11 a.m. ET Friday.
NOTE: Pick with spread is in bold.
Last Week: 10-6 (Season: 129-142-1)
LAS VEGAS (10-7) AT CINCINNATI (10-7), Saturday, 4:30 p.m.
TV: NBC Line: Cincinnati -5
Can the Bengals finally exorcise 30-plus years of playoff demons? They have the quarterback for it in Joe Burrow, the receivers for it in Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd, and the running back for it in Joe Mixon. More important, perhaps, is what they don’t have; namely, a Vontaze Burfict or Pacman Jones to lose their cool at an inopportune time and cost Cincinnati the game. Cincinnati’s defense swooned in the middle of the season, and they’ve struggled to stop better competition, but overall this is a team that can score with anyone and should be brimming with confidence, seeing as they went to Las Vegas and used a strong fourth quarter to pull away from the Raiders not even two months ago. Las Vegas certainly made the Pittsburgh Steelers sweat, blowing a 15-point lead to the Chargers, then operating with only minimal urgency before kicking a winning field goal on the final play of overtime to punch their (and Pittsburgh’s) playoff ticket. The Raiders are a curious team; they’re in the top half of the league in both total offense and total defense, but in the bottom half in scoring offense and scoring defense. If you’re thinking, “Chris, the answer is obvious, they stink in the red zone,” then congratulations, you’re exactly right. Las Vegas is 26th in the league in red-zone offense, scoring touchdowns on just 31 of 60 trips, and dead-last in red zone defense, with opponents cashing in for touchdowns on 35 of 43 trips. If Las Vegas finds a way to remedy that stat, they could score the upset.
Look smart to your friends:
-Derek Carr is regularly labeled a “good, not great” quarterback, but he is one of just four quarterbacks (Peyton Manning, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson) with 3,000+ pass yards in each of his first eight seasons.
-Chase had a spectacular rookie season in every sense, and his 1,455 receiving yards were the second-most by a rookie all-time, behind (drumroll, please) Houston’s Bill Groman, who had 1,473 in 1960.
The pick: Bengals 31 Raiders 27
NEW ENGLAND (10-7) AT BUFFALO (11-6), Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
TV: CBS Line: Buffalo -4
It was a real knee-slapper, the Patriots going into Buffalo earlier this season and beating the Bills with only three pass attempts from Mac Jones. You could see the obituaries being written for Buffalo, while Bill Belichick’s genius was heralded yet again. A funny thing happened after that; New England went 1-3 down the stretch, getting soundly thumped by the Colts, then handed a taste of their own medicine from the Bills in Foxborough, before stumbling around in a sloppy loss to the Dolphins in Week 18. While Jones only throwing three passes was indeed funny, it was a pretty clear sign that Belichick doesn’t yet have much trust in him, particularly in bad weather. Is bitter cold bad weather? That’s what’s in the forecast for Buffalo on Saturday night. Can Jones cut it loose if need be? Will Belichick even let him? Hey, speaking of the Bills, what happened to them after that humiliating loss? Well, they had a near-miss against the Bucs, complete with a furious second-half rally, then ripped off four straight wins to close the season, including a Josh Allen-fueled thrashing of the Patriots to take back control of the division. Buffalo’s defense looks stingy, Allen is playing with loads of confidence, and suddenly Devin Singletary is providing some semblance of a traditional running game. Add it all up and what’s that spell for the Patriots? From this vantage point, a world of trouble. The Patriots might be able to take away one or two of Buffalo’s offensive options, but they can’t take away all of them particularly with Christian Barmore’s health a concern, and Allen’s versatility makes him almost impossible to stop.
Look smart to your friends:
-The Patriots don’t have a dynamic receiving threat, but Jakobi Meyers has been a remarkably consistent target; he’s one of just four AFC wide receivers with 4+ catches in 15+ games this season.
-Stefon Diggs is one of just two receivers in the NFL (Mike Evans) with 1,000+ receiving yards and 6+ receiving touchdowns in each of the last two seasons and posted a career-high 10 receiving touchdowns this year.
The pick: Bills 27 Patriots 17
PHILADELPHIA (9-8) AT TAMPA BAY (13-4), Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
TV: FOX Line: Tampa Bay -9.5
Bully for the Eagles for getting this far, and for playing well down the stretch – 4-1 in their last five games – to do it. However, there’s a bit of a problem. Philadelphia has a bad habit of losing when they play an actual good football team. Their wins this year have come against the Falcons, Panthers, Lions, Broncos, Saints (okay, there’s one decent victory), Jets, Football Team (twice), and Giants. In six losses against playoff-bound teams, including a Week 6 defeat against the Bucs, Philly has been outscored by 80 points. If you’re scoring at home, that averages out to about a two-touchdown defeat against good competition. Philadelphia’s run game must be its salvation; no team ran for more yards this year, and the Eagles were fourth in yards per carry. Problem: Tampa Bay can still stop the run, and they can more or less completely neutralize the pass, particularly against an inexperienced quarterback like Jalen Hurts. Oh, and Hurts’ ankle is dinged up. Not great! Tampa Bay’s equation is simple; hit the Eagles with a heavy dose of Tom Brady early, get a big lead (they were up 28-7 in the teams’ first meeting), and then salt away the game on the ground. They should be eminently capable of accomplishing all of those tasks. The major complicating factor for Tampa is that Brady doesn’t have Chris Godwin or Antonio Brown at his disposal anymore. In theory, that makes the Buccaneers considerably easier to defend, but Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski are still around, and there’s always the chance that a lesser-known member of Tampa’s supporting cast makes a star turn.
Look smart to your friends:
-Hurts is one of only four quarterbacks (Kyler Murray, Cam Newton, and Daunte Culpepper) to have 3,000+ pass yards, 700+ rush yards, and 10+ rushing touchdowns in a season since 2000.
-Who has the most receiving touchdowns in postseason history? Jerry Rice, with 22. Who has the second-most receiving touchdowns in postseason history? If you said Rob Gronkowski, with 14, you would be correct.
The pick: Buccaneers 30 Eagles 14
SAN FRANCISCO (10-7) AT DALLAS (12-5), Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Line: Dallas -3.5
These teams last did battle in the 1994 NFC Championship Game, which served as a de facto Super Bowl that year (the Chargers were 19-point underdogs to the 49ers in the Super Bowl, in case you forgot). They meet in this game with the Cowboys a trendy pick to make a Super Bowl run, and the 49ers a dangerous spoiler. Trent Williams, San Francisco’s all-world left tackle, should be back for this game, as his recovery from a sprained left elbow is going well. That’s a huge factor for the Niners; Williams is regarded as arguably the best tackle in the entire league, and his presence would go a long way towards blunting Dallas’ dynamic pass rush and making Jimmy Garoppolo’s life much easier. If San Francisco keeps Garoppolo clean, an upset is absolutely within reach. Deebo Samuel is a versatile menace at wide receiver, George Kittle is still very much George Kittle, and Nick Bosa anchors a pass rush that can absolutely get home against Dak Prescott. The Cowboys have sky-high expectations and for good reason. Prescott is one of the best players in the entire league, the offense is brimming with weapons and is relatively healthy, aside from Michael Gallup’s season-ending injury, and the defense has Micah Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Trevon Diggs. Of course, if it was just about personnel, the Cowboys would be fine. There is, of course, the whole “America’s Team” thing, and all the pressure that comes with it. When Dallas is at its best, it can beat anyone in the league, and convincingly. Only one of the Cowboys’ five losses came against a non-playoff team, so there haven’t really been many letdowns, either. Still, there’s that pressure, and the 49ers are a very dangerous wild card…
Look smart to your friends:
-Elijah Mitchell racked up 963 rushing yards this season, a franchise rookie record, and also posted five games with 100+ rush yards, most among all rookies, and tied for second-most in the NFL this season.
-Diggs’ 11 interceptions were the most in the NFL this season, the most by a player in a single season since 1981, and he was active even when he wasn’t causing a turnover. His 21 passes defensed were tied for second in the NFL.
The pick: 49ers 31 Cowboys 28
PITTSBURGH (9-7-1) AT KANSAS CITY (12-5), Sunday, 8:15 p.m. ET
TV: NBC Line: Kansas City -12.5
These teams met three weeks ago, and the Chiefs humiliated the Steelers 36-10, in a game that wasn’t even that close. What’s more, Kansas City did all of that without the services of Travis Kelce, who was on the reserve/COVID list. So what can the Steelers do differently this time? Not turn the ball over, for one thing. Pittsburgh gave it away three times in the first meeting, making their already anemic offense that much worse. They should be able to rush the passer much more effectively as well; T.J. Watt was trying to play through broken ribs the first time around and should be much closer to 100 percent for this game. J.C. Hassenauer has taken over for Kendrick Green at center and has been a clear improvement. Pat Freiermuth will pay after missing the first meeting, and there are even rumors that JuJu Smith-Schuster might suit up for the Steelers. All of this points to a fairytale continuation of the team’s improbable run, right? Eh, probably not. No road team in wild-card round history has ever won outright as a double-digit underdog. Kansas City will have Kelce and Tyreek Hill, though Hill’s heel injury is still troublesome, as well as Patrick Mahomes, and that alone might be enough. Clyde Edwards-Helaire is banged up, but Darrel Williams might be the better back anyway – assuming he’s able to overcome a toe ailment. Andrew Wylie, tortured by the Bucs in last year’s Super Bowl, is going to have to try and deal with Watt, who tied Michael Strahan’s single-season sacks record, but he’ll have help, and if Watt doesn’t get going, it will be a long day for Pittsburgh.
Look smart to your friends:
-Najee Harris’ 1,667 scrimmage yards were not only the most by any rookie this season but also the most ever by a Steelers rookie. Harris also ranked second among all rookies in total touchdowns, with 10 (7 rush, 3 receiving).
-Kansas City is bidding to become just the fourth team ever to advance to three straight Super Bowls, joining the Miami Dolphins (1971-73), Buffalo Bills (1990-93), and New England Patriots (2016-18).
The pick: Chiefs 36 Steelers 20
ARIZONA (11-6) AT LOS ANGELES RAMS (12-5), Monday, 8:15 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN Line: Los Angeles -4
Arizona comes into this game reeling in a big way. The Cardinals have lost four of their last five after a 10-2 start, though they did pick up an impressive win over the Cowboys in Week 17. The swoon is curious insofar as Arizona played the Rams, Colts, and Seahawks all close, but came up short in one-score games each time, yet got blown out by the Lions in Week 15. In fact, Arizona’s only lopsided losses of the year were the Detroit game, and a thrashing at the hands of the Panthers in Week 10. There won’t be a fear factor here for Kyler Murray and company; they hammered the Rams earlier this season – in Los Angeles, no less – and at their best have looked good enough to beat anyone in the league. Still, their offense has started to sour, and DeAndre Hopkins won’t be playing in this game, on account of an MCL injury. The Rams are a tough evaluation; when Matthew Stafford gets going, Los Angeles looks every bit like the best team in the NFL, one capable of going toe-to-toe with anyone in the league, and doing so with ease. When he starts to falter, it seems to seep into the rest of the team, and Los Angeles looks sloppy and beatable. Stafford was electric in the first half of Los Angeles’ season finale against the 49ers, going 15-of-16 for 153 yards and two touchdowns, but he cooled off dramatically the rest of the way, throwing two interceptions. The Rams are healthier at more key positions and have the best players in this game. That should be enough unless Stafford melts down at the wrong time.
Look smart to your friends:
-The Cardinals will need Chandler Jones to disrupt what the Rams want to do offensively, and he should be up to the task. Jones had 10.5 sacks this season, his seventh season with 10+ sacks.
-Cooper Kupp’s 2021 was jaw-dropping in every way. He totaled 145 receptions, 1,947 yards, and 16 receiving touchdowns, the two former statistics both good for second-best in a single season in NFL history. He is also the third player in league history (Michael Irvin, Calvin Johnson) with 11 100-yard games in a single season.
The pick: Rams 28 Cardinals 23