One Big Question for Every NFL Team Playing on Super Wild Card Weekend
Six games will be played on Saturday (two), Sunday (three) and Monday (one) in the opening round of the NFL playoffs
For the first time this season, we’ve arrived at a Tuesday morning without a game having been played on Monday Night Football. The reason? The longest regular season in NFL history, 17 games, is officially over.
Thanks to the new playoff format, which will see the Green Bay Packers and Tennesee Titans sit out the first round of the playoffs as the No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences, there will be six games played on Saturday (two), Sunday (three) and Monday (one) over the course of the upcoming Super Wild Card Weekend.
In advance of that, here are all six of the matchups and the biggest question facing each of the 12 teams taking the field.
Las Vegas Raiders at Cincinnati Bengals (Saturday, 4:30 p.m. EST)
Raiders: Can we consider this season a huge victory already?
Definitely. Due to the nature of the adversity this team went through — and its causes — earlier this season, it’d be very easy to discount what Las Vegas has accomplished on the field. But the Raiders are what their 10-7 record says they are: a scrappy team that has won four games in a row to qualify for the postseason after looking dead in the water in a 48-9 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. They aren’t Super Bowl contenders or a good bet, but the Raiders have battled through a lot this season and wrenched victory from the jaws of defeat more than most teams. They’re playing with house money and they’ve got a veteran quarterback who can make big throws in tough moments. That makes them dangerous, at least this week.
Bengals: How will our kids handle the added pressure of a playoff game?
When the Bengals last won a postseason game, the year was 1991 and Boomer Esiason was the quarterback as Cincinnati knocked off the Houston Oilers (who no longer exist) in a game at Riverfront Stadium (which was demolished in 2002). Thirty years later, the high-flying Bengals offense if led by a cast of players who weren’t even alive then, or even close to it. With Joe Burrow (25, second season) under center and a trio of talented wideouts — Ja’Marr Chase (21, first), Tyler Boyd (27, sixth) and Tee Higgins (22, second) — as well as a pass-catching running back in Joe Mixon (25, fifth) who can also take it between the tackles, the Bengals have a talented offense that can do major damage. But between them, those five players don’t have a single game of NFL playoff experience. Whether they have the killer instinct to put away inferior competition on this big of a stage remains to be seen.
New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills (Saturday, 8:15 p.m.)
Patriots: Do we trust Mac Jones to throw the ball?
When these two teams played in inclement weather in their first matchup of the season, the Patriots only let Jones throw the ball three times — and it worked. In the rematch, Jones had to throw the ball more often and wasn’t quite up to snuff, tossing two picks and no touchdowns in a loss that wasn’t really all that close. The Patriots can run the ball and their defense is solid, but if they can’t throw the ball with some degree of efficiency, they’re going nowhere. It may be asking a lot of Jones, a rookie, but he’ll need to make some throws for New England to win the three-match.
Bills: Can we beat the boogeyman?
Last season, the Bills swept the Patriots for the first time in decades and won the AFC East. Despite a split with the Pats this season, the Bills are once again division champs and have a chance to dispatch their hated rivals by winning a home playoff game. If Buffalo is able to do it, it’ll put some clear distance between the Bills and the Patriots and give Upstate New York’s favorite team some real momentum to build on heading into the later rounds of the postseason. But there’s one fairly intimidating figure standing in their way: six-time Super Bowl-winning head coach Bill Belichick, who has compiled a 36-8 record against the Bills over his superlative stint in New England. The Bills have built a roster full of exciting talent that’s superior to the Patriots on paper. But can they out-scheme the NFL’s greatest tactician? A loss here would be a big setback for a team that has a limited window for success after committing lots of cash to quarterback Josh Allen.
Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sunday, 1 p.m.)
Eagles: Do we sneakily have a big coaching advantage in Nick Sirianni?
His opening press conference didn’t go over all that well, but first-year Philadephia coach Sirianni has quietly presided over an Eagles team that went 4-11-1 last year finishing this one at 9-8. Sure, the Eagles only have one win over a team (New Orleans) with a winning record and are yet to beat a team that made the playoffs this season, but expectations have been exceeded nonetheless. On the other side of the ball, questions have hounded Bucs head coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich all season (Arians for his handling of personnel issues, Leftwich for his ability to scheme players open in an attack that has been hugely depleted by injuries). A loss for Sirianni and his team in this spot is to be expected and won’t really reveal too much about the rookie coach. On the other hand, a win could go a long, long way in establishing him as one of the NFL’s brightest young minds.
Buccaneers: Can Tom Brady make chicken salad out of …?
Now playing without Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, Brady will likely have to turn to players who aren’t his top targets and aren’t named Rob Gronkowski in order for the Bucs to have success. As should be obvious by now, he can do it. Whether he will is another matter entirely, as this Tampa team doesn’t seem to have the late-season cohesiveness that made the reigning Super Bowl champs so tough to beat last season. That said, betting against Brady now or any time he steps on the field has never paid off. The Bucs are flawed — but so is the rest of the league. And the rest of the league doesn’t have No. 12.
San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys (Sunday, 4:30 p.m.)
Niners: Is this Jimmy Garoppolo’s last stand?
With the drafting of Trey Lance in the first round prior to this season, it certainly looked as if Garoppolo was on notice. Whether that’s the case or not, Garoppolo has answered the bell with wins, if not eye-popping stats. With a talented roster around him that boasts a strong defense, good running game and playmaking pass-catchers in George Kittle and Deebo Samuel, Garoppolo doesn’t have to be the star for the San Fran to win. The 30-year-old, who is huge reason the Niner have gone 7-3 in their last 10 games, just has to be solid. But if he can’t do that much, and the Niners fall short of anything but a deep playoff push, his time is likely over in San Francisco.
Cowboys: Can we finally take care of business?
Since winning the Super Bowl in 1995, the Cowboys have made the playoffs 10 times and won just four games. This year feels different. Coming off an injury that kept him out of the majority of last season, quarterback Dak Prescott has been impressive and looks like one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL when he is hitting on all cylinders. That has become more difficult as the Dallas offense continues to lose playmakers due to injury, but Prescott appears equipped to do more with less. On the other side of the ball, first-year defensive coordinator Dan Quinn his piloted one of the league’s most improved units, as the Cowboys led the league in takeaways (34) and interceptions (26) and have allowed an average of just 18 points over the team’s last six games. A turnover-creating defense and elite quarterback play have been a recipe for success for many Super Bowl champs. But the Cowboys will have to shake some demons to make good on that promise.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday, 8:15 p.m.)
Steelers: Does Ben Roethlisberger have anything left, at all?
Somehow, against all odds, Roethlisberger and the Steelers are alive after winning back-to-back divisional games. Pittsburgh had every reason to quit this season — and they didn’t. Head coach Mike Tomlin, and perhaps Roethlisberger, deserve a lot of credit for getting some (at times) above-average play out of an average roster. The problem for the Steelers is Roethlisberger needs to make throws and score against the Chiefs, who pasted Pittsburgh by more than 20 points just three weeks back. To win, Roethlisberger will need to score at least 30; the Steelers have done that once this season.
Chiefs: Can we avoid self-inflicted wounds?
Following a rough start to the year filled with erratic play from Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs have been the top team in the NFL to close out the season, winning nine of their last 10 games. Kansas City has made it to the Super Bowl in two consecutive seasons and has only lost two games in the playoffs since Mahomes became the starter, one of which was last year’s Super Bowl. Kansas City has the coaching, roster and pedigree to make it to the final Sunday of the season for the third straight time. Frankly, the only biggest opponent standing in their way in the AFC is themselves. During their rocky 3-4 start, the Chiefs lost the turnover battle in five straight games. In their last 10 games, they’ve lost it only once. If the Chiefs want to play for it all again, they need to maintain that formula.
Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams (Monday 8:15 p.m.)
Cardinals: Who are we, really?
After getting off to a 7-0 start, the Cardinals were the last team in the NFL with an undefeated record. The Cards then lost in Week 8 to the Packers and were a sub-.500 team for the rest of the season, going 4-6 to finish at 11-6. Some of those losses in the second half of the year came with franchise quarterback Kyler Murray watching from the sidelines, but far too many of them, including an ugly defeat to the Lions, came with the 24-year-old under center taking snaps. So which team will show up this weekend? The one that blitzed the Rams 37-20 back in October, or the one that sputtered to the finish line? If Murray and the Cards are for real, now’s the time to prove it.
Rams: Was it all worth it?
The Rams, for all intents and purposes, have been all-in since the offseason, trading away nearly every valuable draft pick they have over the next few years to acquire players like Matthew Stafford, Von Miller and Odell Beckham. For the Rams, it is not an exaggeration to say it is Super Bowl or bust. Obviously a loss here would be a bust. Unfortunately for LA, a win isn’t really a victory either unless it is followed up by at least two more of them — and maybe a third in the Super Bowl. The Rams split with the Cardinals this season and absolutely need to win their third game over Arizona. If they don’t, it’ll be a loss that could lead to some fundamental (Sean McVay?) organizational changes.
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