Photo By: Adrian Curiel from Unsplash
After a thrilling end to a historically long season, we finally have our six playoff matchups for the AFC and NFC. This year’s playoff landscape features a little bit of everything, including underdogs, divisional rivalries, and Big Ben. Here are some brief thoughts on each of the six first round playoff games, ranked from least to most interesting.
6. (7) Pittsburgh Steelers @ (2) Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs, who are the odds-on favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, narrowly missed out on home field advantage throughout the playoffs due to a shaky 3-4 start. Despite this, Mahomes’ squad rallied to win 10 of their last 12 games and vaulted themselves to near the top of the AFC playoff picture for a fourth year in a row. On the other side, the Steelers limped into the playoffs at 9-7-1, and really shouldn’t have even qualified but for an untimely timeout from Chargers coach Brandon Staley, and Trevor Lawrence miraculously remembering that he was the no. 1 pick in the draft.
Big Ben’s last ride is likely to come on Sunday night at Arrowhead Stadium, where the Steelers would be best served to give rookie RB Najee Harris a ton of carries and use rookie TE Pat Freiermuth in the short passing game as much as possible. The Steelers’ lack of a deep threat receiver, coupled with Roethlisberger’s apparent inability to air it out for more than 20 yards, will make it tough to exploit KC’s defensive miscues.
Still, given the Chiefs’ dramatic flair, it wouldn’t be surprising if they let Pittsburgh hang around in this one longer than they should. One thing to watch out for will be the Chiefs’ refurbished offensive line’s ability to protect Mahomes in the pocket against a relentless Steelers pass rush headlined by T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward, which was a major downfall in last year’s playoffs. The Chiefs crushed Pittsburgh just a few weeks ago, and should have enough to get through a mediocre Steelers team, especially one relying on a near-40 year old QB not named Tom Brady and two rookies on offense.
Prediction: Chiefs win in a blowout.
5. (7) Philadelphia Eagles @ (2) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Here’s a fun stat. Career playoff games for Tom Brady: 45. Career playoff games for the entire Eagles starting offense: 17. Those numbers are likely to tell the story in this one. The Eagles have replaced last year’s Bears as the “wait, they actually made the playoffs?” team, and will face off against a Bucs team with way too much pride, and way too much Tom Brady to bow out in the first round.
Despite the obvious gap in experience and talent, the scales tip in Philly’s favor when you look at the injury report on the Tampa Bay side. The Bucs will be missing two of their top three receivers in Chris Godwin (knee) and Antonio Brown (quit), as well as 2021 playoff hero Leonard Fournette (hamstring). On defense, the Bucs are missing studs such as Lavonte David (foot) and have many others dealing with nagging injuries.
What made the Bucs so great last year en route to their Super Bowl win was their ability to spread the offense around to multiple different receivers, and a front seven led by Ndamakong Suh, Shaq Barrett, and Vita Vea that gave opposing o-lines fits. The defense hasn’t quite been the same this season, though they could turn it on in the playoffs. Regardless, offense will be the real test. Can Brady get it done with just Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski? Probably against the Eagles, yes, but past that it may be tough.
Prediction: Bucs win by two scores in a game that is way closer than it should be.
4. (6) San Francisco 49ers @ (3) Dallas Cowboys
Two of the NFL’s most historic franchises will face off in the playoffs for the first time since 1994, in a battle between a couple of teams that have at times looked like contenders, and at other times looked average at best.
Dallas is a bit of a dual threat team; they love to run the ball with Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, but they also have two legitimate all-pro level receivers in Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb. The main thing to watch for here will be which aspect of the game the Cowboys choose to focus on against the Niners. Meanwhile, San Francisco will need a healthy dose of George Kittle and Deebo Samuel to move the chains against a surprisingly strong Dallas defense. Their o-line should be able to protect Jimmy Garoppolo, even against the herculean Micah Parsons, but the ground game doesn’t look like it’ll factor in for Kyle Shanahan’s club outside of some jet sweeps and designed runs for Samuel.
The coaching matchup will be interesting to watch here too. Both coaches are pretty aggressive on fourth downs, which could lead to some high drama in big spots throughout this one.
Prediction: Cowboys win a nailbiter low scoring game.
3. (6) New England Patriots @ (3) Buffalo Bills
The third matchup between these foes will be the rubber match, after the Pats won ugly in Buffalo, (where rookie QB Mac Jones infamously threw just three passes), and then gave up 33 points in a loss to the Bills just two weeks later. The Patriots appear to have peaked somewhere around mid-November, and have had some questionable losses as of late. The Bills, while they haven’t been the juggernaut that some were expecting, are still loaded with talent, and have the home field advantage in a game that forecasts snowy and bitterly cold conditions.
What sometimes gets lost in Mac Jones’ impressive rookie campaign is that he is in fact still a rookie, and coach Bill Bellichick has not put him in positions to fail very often, if at all, this whole year. A cold weather playoff game against a hostile Buffalo crowd is a quintessential example of a situation that Bellichick would not want Jones in. It will be a great experience for the young QB, but you can definitely expect to see plenty of running plays for Damien Harris in this one on the New England side. What separates these teams is that Buffalo has a go-to weapon on offense in Stefon Diggs, something that the Pats don’t possess, despite their solid receiving core. When they need a big play, who will Bellichick turn to?
On the other side, the Bills are plagued by their lack of a running threat, but QB Josh Allen has used his legs more in recent weeks, and that just may be their answer come playoff time.
Prediction: Bills win in a blowout.
2. (5) Las Vegas Raiders @ (4) Cincinnati Bengals
This is the game that has the greatest potential to be a complete offensive blowout, with massive yardage numbers on both sides. Both the Raiders and Bengals have played in nail biters all season long, with a combined seven overtime games. This matchup is also a clash of two teams riding momentum coming into the playoffs, with the Bengals narrow dispatching of the Chiefs last week and the Raiders clinging on to beat the Chargers in one of the most memorable regular season games of all time on Sunday night.
Both quarterbacks are likely to air it out for some deep plays in this one, and the offenses on either side are likely to be firing on all cylinders. If there is a defensive edge here, it would be given to the Raiders, who are spurred on by Maxx Crosby up front and will likely get to Joe Burrow through the Bengals weak o-line. Regardless of the outcome, you can be sure that both Burrow and Derek Carr will be motivated to show out in both of their first playoff games.
Prediction: Raiders steal the win on a game-winning field goal (again).
1. (5) Arizona Cardinals @ (4) Los Angeles Rams
It somehow felt like these teams were destined to clash in the playoffs ever since the beginning of the season, and here we are, with the divisional rivals set to face off on Monday night at So-Fi Stadium. There have been questions on both sides about their statuses as legitimate contenders, but there is no denying the star power on both sides.
This, more than any other game, will be the true test of youth vs. experience, namely at the quarterback spot. This will be 24-year-old Kyler Murray’s first playoff appearance, a number which pales in comparison to 33-year-old Matt Stafford’s (checks notes) third playoff appearance? Oh right, he played 12 years with the Lions. The status of DeAndre Hopkins will be huge for Arizona. If he’s a full go, then there’s a chance they can eclipse the passing attack of the Rams, but it remains to be seen at the time of writing this if he’ll even be able to play. Arizona does have the advantage in the running game however, as both James Conner and Chase Edmonds are bigger threats than what the Rams can offer in Sony Michel and a rehabbing Cam Akers.
On defense is where the game will be won or lost for either side. There are stars all over the field on both defenses, but despite that, neither has lived up to the expectations some have for them just yet. I would predict the Rams as more likely to find that extra playoff gear, but as we’ve seen this year, it’s a fool’s errand to predict either of these teams, or any team in the NFL in general. Instead, just enjoy the ride.
Prediction: Both QBs throw three interceptions but also 400+ passing yards and the Rams win by 12.