Win….or Go Home! Super Wild Card Weekend Kicks Off The NFL Playoffs!
Las Vegas Raiders @ Cincinnati Bengals (Bengals -5.5)
It’s said that the playoffs are all about which teams are hot and which teams are not. Well both these teams head into the post season in tremendous form. The Raiders are riding a 4 game winning streak while the Bengals (if you overlook last week’s season finale defeat when they rested many starters) had won 3 straight – including a statement win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
Cincinnati’s offense has been humming in the last few weeks. QB Joe Burrow has been winging the ball all over the field – throwing for a combined 971 yards and 8 TDs in his last 2 appearances.
Meanwhile Vegas played a significant role in ending the post season hopes of Cleveland, Denver, Indianapolis, and the Chargers in their current unbeaten run while QB Derek Carr’s performances have been nothing short of impressive – making clutch throws in critical situations.
This matchup could well be an air show. Then Raiders and Bengals are the 6th and 7th ranked passing offenses respectively this season. However, red zone offense was an issue last week for the Raiders and putting points on the board has been problematic for them throughout the year. They average just 22 points per game. Against Cincinnati, that’s likely to be a real concern. The Bengals have scored a full 5 points more per game over the course of the season and are the 7th ranked scoring offense in the league.
This was never more apparent than in the week 11 meeting when the game was tight for a half and then the Bengals ran out comfortable 32-13 winners in Vegas.
This time they meet in Cincinnati and although the Raiders have won both of the previous 2 playoff meetings between these two franchises, it feels like history is ready to be rewritten. The Bengals have a trio of receiving threats, led by rookie Ja’Marr Chase. Pro Bowl bound, Joe Mixon is one of the better running backs in the league – they have the more explosive offense!
The 1990 season was the last time Bengals fans tasted playoff success – that run ends on Saturday, and they do it, covering the spread!
New England Patriots @ Buffalo Bills (Bills -4)
The Buffalo Bills offense has found its swagger again down the regular season stretch. In their last 5 games, they never scored fewer than 27 points in a game – and won 4 straight to close out the season.
In contrast, the Patriots somewhat stumbled into the post season with 3 defeats in their last 4 games – including a 31-21 loss to Buffalo in week 16.
That game was at Foxborough, this is on Buffalo’s home turf. Even though New England have already won here this season – forget that game! That took place in extreme weather conditions. The wind that night made it almost impossible to throw the ball and the Patriots reacted better – attempting just 3 passes on the night. Buffalo couldn’t stop the run and the Patriots were 14-10 winners.
Unfortunately for New England, similar conditions are not expected on Saturday. They face a Bills team who are the only team this season to have a top 5 ranked offense and defense. They’re averaging 28.4 points per game on offense – 3rd in the league – and have the number 1 ranked scoring defense, giving up just 17 points per game.
New England’s defense has been good this year – ranked 4th overall. They have 23 interceptions – only Dallas has more, and they’re coached by a man in Bill Belichick who’s been in more playoff games than any other head coach in playoff history and won more Super Bowls. However, quarterback is the most important position on the field and right now, the Bills have the QB. Mac Jones has played well in his rookie season for New England but Josh Allen has a cannon for an arm and makes plays with his legs. He threw for over 4000 yards and scored 6 rushing TDs in 2021 – he’s scored 31 in his 4 year NFL career! He also has 8 TDs and no interceptions in his last 3 games against New England.
In short, Buffalo look like a team primed for a playoff run right now, while New England look to be running out of steam. The Bills pull away at the end to win this.
Philadelphia Eagles @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Buccaneers Total Points +28.5)
The defending Super Bowl champions have the most successful quarterback in NFL history at the helm and they’re looking to become the first team to win back to back Super Bowls since their QB, Tom Brady did it with the 2004 Patriots at Super Bowl XXXIX.
Last week, the Eagles rested many of their starters but were 6-1 in the 7 games leading up to it. The problem is, that run included 2 wins over Washington and wins over the Giants, Jets, Broncos and a Saints team who were playing badly in week 11 – they also lost a game in that stretch to the Giants. My point is, who have they beaten? Certainly no one of the calibre of the Buccaneers. Don’t forget, they have already played and lost to the Bucs – albeit in week 6 – this season. That was in Philadelphia, this weekend’s game takes place in Tampa.
In their favour, the Eagles boast the number 1 rushing attack in the NFL. However, their leading rusher is QB Jalen Hurts with 784 yards and the Buccaneers boast the number 3 ranked defense against the run.
This is a first playoff appearance for both Hurts and Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni. Like this season, it’s likely to be a steep learning curve on Sunday. The Buccaneers have scored at least 28 points in 7 of their last 8 games. They scored 28 in their win over the Eagles earlier this season and hold the number 2 scoring offense in the NFL this year – averaging just over 30 points per game.
If the Eagles can’t run the ball effectively, this game could get out of hand. Eagles’ fans will point to a defense which has only given up more than 27 points twice since the week 7 loss to the Raiders but when you consider the opposition, it doesn’t turn heads. Tampa are in a different class and the scoreboard will reflect it
Buccaneers Total Points +28.5
San Francisco 49ers @ Dallas Cowboys (Total Points -50.5)
This might be the game of the weekend – it certainly has the history! Be it Dwight Clark’s catch in NFC Championship game in the early 80s or the 90s teams trading blows in memorable encounters. These are two teams, and two fan bases, starved of Super Bowl success over the last 3 decades.
What the 49ers have done to get to the post season is nothing short of impressive. Going from a 3-5 record at the midway point of the season to winning 7 of their last 9 games, including sweeping the Rams and getting an overtime win in Cincinnati. In that span they gave up just 17 points per game on defense. As the Rams discovered last weekend, offensively the 49ers run the ball as well at anyone and this is likely to be the key to this game.
The Cowboys have the no. 1 ranked offense in the NFL and they’re the top scoring offense – averaging 31.2 points per game. However, they’ve struggled against physical, well organised teams this year. Defeats to Denver, Kansas City and Arizona highlighted that issue. While posting 50+ points against Washington and an Eagles second string team papered over some of their issues.
No doubt Dallas has playmakers on both sides of the ball. However, there’s a feeling that their defense is a little opportunistic – leading the league with 34 takeaways – and if the 49ers can run the ball effectively, not only will it chew up the clock, but it also keeps the Dallas offense on the sideline.
Linebacker, Micah Parsons has been outstanding in his rookie season and he will have an integral role if Dallas are to defuse the 49ers offense. Equally WR Deebo Samuel is the key chess piece in what San Francisco want to do. If the game ends up being in QB Jimmy Garoppolo’s hands, that’s bad news for San Francisco and likely means the Cowboys’ defensive front is having a big day! However, it should be noted, outside of the NFC East, Dallas has only beaten one team (New England) who’ve gone on to make the playoffs this season. They’re record in those games is just 1-3. This has all the hallmarks of being a tight, tense affair and that will be reflected in the result.
Total Points -50.5
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Kansas City Chiefs (Total Points +46)
These teams last met on this same field in week 16 and that match wasn’t even close! The Chiefs won, taking their foot off the gas 36-10. The Steelers have walked this road before though. Their last playoff win came in Arrowhead stadium over the Chiefs 5 years ago and back in 2005, when QB Ben Roethlisberger was still finding his feet in the NFL, they went into the playoffs as a wild card team and went on to win it all in Super Bowl XL.
The problem is that’s all in the past! Ben Roethlisberger admitted this week that Pittsburgh might be seen as the worst team in this season’s playoffs! He knows the Steelers’ best chance of winning this game is to keep it tight. It’s often said defense wins championships, but the Steelers defense has given up 36 points or more in 4 of their last 8 games! One of those was against the Chiefs whose offense still doesn’t appear to be at it’s best but has still posted 177 points in their last 5 games – that’s a 35.4 points per game average and 3 of those opponents are now in the playoffs!
The bottom line is, Pittsburgh’s playoff win may well have come last weekend against their fierce rivals, Baltimore. Big Ben doesn’t have the arm or mobility he once had, and their defense isn’t playing at the high level previous Steelers’ teams have set. Kansas City has an array of offensive weapons. They’re led by perhaps the most talented quarterback in the NFL, Patrick Mahomes and they are going to score points. That means Pittsburgh are going to have to take chances to keep up with the Chiefs and as a result this maybe a one-sided game but it is likely to be a high scoring game as well.
Total Points +46
Arizona Cardinals @ LA Rams (Rams -4)
At the midway point of the season the Arizona Cardinals had the best record in the NFL at 8-1. The question I often heard asked was “why are we overlooking the Cardinals when we talk about potential Super Bowl winners?” In part it’s because of their dramatic loss of form last season when they started out 5-2 before losing 6 of their final 9 games and didn’t even make the playoffs! In part it’s because people still haven’t quite bought into Kyler Murray, Kliff Kingsbury and the air raid offense. None of those doubts have been eased in the second half of this season. From 8-1, the Cardinals have slumped, losing 5 of their last 8 games and winning just one of their last 5!
Factor into that equation, their best receiver, DeAndre Hopkins is out injured. They haven’t had JJ Watt since mid-season (although he may be in line to make a surprise return on Monday) and their best two running backs are banged up with rib injuries.
In their favour, their form on the road has been outstanding – going 8-1 and scoring at least 25 points in all 8 wins! One of them came at So-Fi stadium in week 4 when they put 37 points on the board. However, a lot has changed since then.
While this is a first post season appearance for head coach Kliff Kingsbury, his Rams counterpart, Sean McVay knows the playoffs well – going all the way to the Super Bowl 3 years ago. The Rams avenged that week 4 loss with a win in Arizona last month and they have a new element to their offense with running back Cam Akers now healthy again.
Without doubt last weekend’s overtime defeat to the San Francisco 49ers was disappointing but through the final month of the season the LA Rams have played well, finishing out with a 5-1 record to land the NFC West title and they’ve scored 161 points in that span. That contrasts sharply with the Cardinals whose drop off in offensive production has been dramatic. Through the first 7 games of the season, only once did they score fewer than 31 points. In their last 7 games they hit that mark just once, averaging 23.1 points per game.
Ultimately, it’s tough to see past, back to back seasons in which Arizona’s form has fallen off so dramatically. Suffering 4 defeats in their last 5 games is not the form you want to be going into the playoffs with and each of those defeats has been by 6 points or more.
Experience and form matter at the business end of the season. Expect the Rams to win on Monday night and cover the spread in the process.