The Biggest Questions for All 6 of the NFL’s Super Wild Card Weekend Games
New Orleans can't possibly choke again, right?
With Week 17 of the season in the books, the NFL playoffs are locked and loaded and will kick off with six games starting Saturday afternoon over the league’s expanded Super Wild Card Weekend.
While the top-seeded Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs relax on their couches after earning first-round byes and home-field advantage throughout the postseason, the Colts will take on the Bills, the Rams will play the Seahawks and the Buccaneers will face the Washington Football Team on Saturday. Then, on Sunday, the Ravens will play the Titans, the Bears will face the Saints and the Browns will take on the Steelers.
Here, in no particular order, are the questions that will likely decide each of this weekend’s six games. Picks about winners and losers will come later this week in Friday’s edition of Best Bets.
Can the Ravens out-Titan the Titans?
The top seed in the AFC last season, the Ravens were upset at home during the second round of the NFL playoffs when the Tennessee Titans rolled into Baltimore and left with a 28-12 victory, the team’s seventh win in nine games.
The Titans were hot as a pistol heading into the playoffs last season and were able to ride that momentum as well as running back Derrick Henry (who became the eighth player to gain 2,000 yards on the ground in a season on Sunday) all the way to the AFC Championship game against the Chiefs. This time around, the Titans (11-5) enter the playoffs as winners of six of their last nine games and face a Baltimore team (11-5) they beat in the playoffs last season as well as earlier this year in overtime.
As the Titans were last season, the Ravens are hot coming into the playoffs, having won five straight. Baltimore has not scored fewer than 27 points during the five-game winning streak and the Raven running game has tallied more than 150 yards in every one of the victories, topping 230 yards four times. Facing the Titans for the third time in 12 months, Baltimore will need to do what Tennessee did to them in the playoffs last season, when Henry gashed them for 195 yards on 30 carries in route to a win.
If the Ravens, who can run the ball with a plethora of running backs as well as quarterback Lamar Jackson, can rush as effectively as they have all season (they’re no. 1 in the NFL in rushing), that should open up the passing game against a Tennessee defense that gives up 277.4 air yards per game, fourth-worst in the NFL.
Though Tennessee and QB Ryan Tannehill can throw the ball better than last season and thus aren’t as reliant on Henry, that may not matter against a Ravens defense that has given up just 30 points combined over the last three weeks and is ranked sixth against the pass and seventh overall.
Baltimore is streaking, stopping opponents and scoring in bunches — exactly what Tennessee was doing last season. For this season not to end the same way for Baltimore, they’ll need to give the Titans a taste of their own medicine on Sunday.
How badly will Tom Brady make Chase Young eat his words?
With Alex Smith under center, the Washington Football Team “earned” a playoff spot by beating the Eagles on Sunday night to finish at 7-9 and win the abysmal NFC East. Though the last three teams to capture division titles without a winning record have pulled off upsets in the wild card round, don’t look for that to happen with the WFT, as they will be taking on the Tampa Buccaneers and an ultra-motivated Tom Brady.
Brady, who will already be looking to stick it to Bill Belichick and the Patriots by winning a playoff game as they watch from home, had more fuel added to his fire by star defensive end Chase Young following Washington’s win over the Eagles on Sunday.
Young, 21, probably isn’t old enough to remember when former Steelers safety Anthony Smith trash-talked Brady and guaranteed Pittsburgh would beat the 12-0 Patriots before a game late in the 2007 season.
In response, the former New England quarterback passed for nearly 400 yards and four scores, repeatedly targeting Smith for yardage and scores.
Following one of the scores in New England’s 34-13 win, Brady found Smith and got in his face to make sure his thoughts about the guaranteed win were understood. “I don’t care to repeat what I said, especially if my mother reads it,” Brady said afterward. “She wouldn’t be very happy.”
At age 43, Brady probably won’t be getting in Young’s grill even if he throws five touchdown passes due to personal safety concerns. But with Tampa Bay (11-5) favored by more than a touchdown despite being the road team, it seems likely Brady and the Bucs will make Young regret opening his yap the same way the veteran quarterback and the Pats did with Smith in ’07.
Can the Browns beat the Steelers two weeks in a row?
After beating the Steelers to clinch a postseason berth for the first time in almost two decades, the Cleveland Browns get the pleasure of taking on Pittsburgh at Heinz Field in the Wild Card round to close out the weekend. The last time the Browns (11-5) made the playoffs in ’02, the team lost 36-33 … at Heinz Field.
Cleveland will look to avenge that loss by getting a win against a Steelers team that beat them by 31 points in Week 6 and nearly beat the Browns with their backups in Week 17.
Though Cleveland’s offense — and particularly their running game — has been strong all season despite losing star wide receiver Odell Beckham early on, the defense of the Browns has been suspect for much of the year, allowing at least 30 points in seven games this season.
But the Steelers (12-4) have not topped 30 points in their last seven games and have lost four out of five while generally looking dysfunctional on offense. While Ben Roethlisberger, who has made 21 playoff starts over the course of his career, has far more experience than his QB counterpart Baker Mayfield, his supporting pieces have been letting him down for much of the second half of the season.
If that happens against the Browns, it will be up to Pittsburgh’s defense and NFL sack leader T.J. Watt to get after Mayfield and make the third-year player complete tough throws under pressure in his first playoff start.
The Browns survived a COVID-19 outbreak that cost them a game against the hapless Jets, but whether they can survive the Steelers two weeks in a row remains to be seen. If they do it, it’ll be an upset, but not a massive one.
Does Ol’ Man Rivers have enough left to win a playoff game?
With a regular-season record of 134-106 (including 11-5 this season) as a starting quarterback, Philip Rivers is one of the winningest active quarterbacks in NFL history.
But with a record of just 5-6 during the postseason, Rivers has never made it to the Super Bowl during his 17-year career. To reverse that trend during his first year with the Colts (11-5), the 39-year-old will have to guide Indianapolis to a road win against the Buffalo Bills (13-3), who have been the league’s most impressive team over the last month.
Though he’s been better in his last four playoff games, Rivers threw eight touchdowns compared to nine interceptions during his first seven postseason contests. He will not have the luxury of doing that against a Buffalo defense that seems to be rounding into form.
That’s to say nothing of a Bills offense that, led by quarterback Josh Allen and star WR Stefon Diggs, has put up 142 combined over the last three weeks. The Bills have won six straight heading into this weekend, and Buffalo’s fanbase is rabid for the franchise’s first postseason win since the 1995 season.
The Colts won a playoff game with Andrew Luck under center in the first round of the playoffs of the 2018 season, head coach Frank Reich’s first with the team.
A backup QB in the NFL, Reich engineered “The Comeback” while playing for the Bills in 1992, leading Buffalo back from a 35-3 deficit for an overtime win in the playoffs against the Houston Oilers while filling in for an injured Jim Kelly.
Reich and Rivers will have to work a similar sort of miracle in Western New York if the Colts are going to beat the Bills, who did collapse and lose 22-19 in overtime after taking a 16-0 lead against the Texans last postseason.
Will Aaron Donald or Russell Wilson take the rubber match?
After splitting their matchups in the regular season, the Seahawks and Rams will meet up for a third go-around in the playoffs.
In LA’s Week 10 victory over the Seahawks, the Rams defense and un-blockable defensive tackle Aaron Donald were able to force Russell Wilson into two interceptions and a fumble. In Week 16, a win for Seattle (12-4), Wilson was turnover-free and the Seahawks were able to win despite only putting up 20 points.
As they often do, this game could come down to turnovers, and whether the Rams and Donald can force Wilson into a few while limiting their own. On balance, it seems entirely possible LA (10-6) will be able to get Wilson to cough up the ball: although he set a career-high in touchdown passes (40) this season, he also finished with a career-high in interceptions (13).
It has been somewhat of a tale of two seasons for Wilson, who started out the year as one of the favorites for MVP but has only thrown more than two touchdowns once in his last eight games (he tossed three TDs or more in six of Seattle’s first eight weeks of play).
While the Rams tentatively expect to have quarterback Jared Goff (thumb surgery) back in the lineup, he has been inconsistent all season, and Los Angeles will need their defense, not their offense, to win the game for them.
For that to happen, the Rams’ defense — which is a top-three unit against both the run and pass based on yards allowed per rush and QBR — must consistently get after Wilson and make him play like the guy who limped to the finish this season for Seattle, not the one who started the year on fire.
Do the Bears even have a chance against the Saints?
Normally, given that Chicago was gifted a playoff spot thanks to an Arizona loss instead of winning a game they needed to have in Week 17, we’d say the answer to the above question is a simple “No.”
And it probably still is. But given the way the Saints have bowed out of the playoffs over the last three seasons, Chicago probably has a puncher’s chance of going on the road and getting a win in New Orleans.
Remember, even though they’ve gone 37-11 over the last three completed seasons, the Saints (12-4) have fallen to the playoffs in the last three seasons thanks to, in order, the Minneapolis Miracle in 2017, a terrible pass interference no-call against the Rams in 2018 run and a dismal showing in the Wild Card round against the Vikings last season.
New Orleans would have to have a meltdown of even greater proportions to lose at home against a Bears team that really doesn’t belong in the playoffs, but thanks to their history of choking in the postseason and the shaky play of soon-to-be-retired franchise quarterback Drew Brees, it is not out of the realm of possibility.
Even if they do implode, the saving grace for the Saints may be that the Bears (8-8) are relying on Mitch Trubisky at quarterback, a player that the New Orleans defense should have little problem pressuring into some big mistakes — they’ve already forced 26 turnovers this season, good for third-most in the league.
Also working in the Saints’ favor? Chicago has not won a road playoff game in 26 years, and have a total of just three road playoff victories in the Super Bowl era.
Do the Bears have a chance of winning? Based on the choke jobs we’ve seen from New Orleans over the past three seasons, you bet. It is large one? We wouldn’t bet on it.
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