Wild Card Weekend Preview of the NFL Playoff Matchups

Since the NFL ushered in Wild Card Weekend in 1970, 11 of those wild-card teams made it all the way to the Super Bowl, and seven of those 11 have won the Super Bowl. The last five wild-card teams to get to the Super Bowl have won it. 

The first Super Bowl at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1967.
Jimberg13/Wikipedia

In other words there’s plenty of high-stakes sports action beginning Saturday and carrying through to Monday night. Let’s check out how the teams match up. (All times ET.)

Saturday Games

(5) Las Vegas Raiders at (4) Cincinnati Bengals, 4:30 p.m. (NBC) at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati

With the NFL powers that be looming, Las Vegas and Cincinnati have long odds to break back through the sport’s powers-that-be. ESPN references the Elias Bureau in stating that this will be the first playoff meeting between two teams at least 18 years past their last playoff win in NFL history. It’s been a long time for each suffering fanbase, but only one team will be able to advance.

The Raiders are the playoffs’ big surprise, sneaking their way in after an Indianapolis Colts no-show against the Jags and an instant-classic Sunday-night upset of their rival Chargers. The Raiders will be leaning on their defensive line to pressure rookie Joe Burrow before he can exploit a secondary that’s allowed over 300 passing yards four times this season. 

The Bengals also have running back Joe Mixon, who will attack the edges of the defense set on getting home to rookie Burrow, one of the hottest quarterbacks in the league after throwing for over 300 yards in three of his last four starts.

If they’re close, the Raiders can control the ball with running back Josh Jacobs. The Raiders are tied for 18th in yards per drive, however, during their four-game win streak. If they fall behind, it might be lights out for the black and silver. 

(6) New England Patriots at (3) Buffalo Bills, 8:15 p.m. (CBS) at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York

It’s a return to the ring for the Pats and the Bills with a heavyweight collision on Saturday night in freezing Buffalo, New York. With the forecast calling for sub-zero temperatures, this will be an old-school frozen NFL battle.

Though the division came down to the wire in Week 18 and the teams split their regular-season matchup, the Bills come into the game with momentum on their side. After stumbling through the mid-season, Buffalo has won four games in a row to protect its division crown and enter the playoffs looking like an expected Super Bowl contender. New England, after appearing like it might just return to the top ahead of schedule with a fierce defense, has stumbled to the finish line behind its rookie QB Mac Jones.

These two teams split the season series, with both clubs pulling out road victories. Now, the two teams face each other in the playoffs for the first time since 1963. With a slugfest in order, the Bills have to feel confident having the league’s best dual-threat quarterback, Josh Allen, on their side. 

The Bills’ defense has been susceptible to the run, despite allowing league lows in yards and points in the regular season. This allowed the Pats to throw only three passes in an early December win. If the Patriots pull off an upset, Jones would become just the 10th NFL rookie quarterback to win a playoff game. 

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Sunday Games

(7) Philadelphia Eagles at (2) Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1 p.m. (Fox) at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida

Philly heads to Tampa, winners of six of eight of its last games. This playoff run was marked by new head coach Nick Sirianni’s incredible midseason offensive philosophy change. Instead of continuing to lean on a passing game that wasn’t working, the team embraced its running quarterback Jalen Hurts and trio of talented running backs to become one of the most dominant rushing teams in the NFL, averaging 6.0 yards per carry. The Bucs have given up 4.6 yards a tote. The Eagles defense, however, might be their undoing, especially against the greatest quarterback of all time.

Despite being without top targets Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown for parts of the season, Tom Brady led one of the league’s most efficient offenses. The Bucs should be able to feast on a Philadelphia front that ranked only 21st against the pass and 23rd defensively overall. 

Tampa did have issues defending run-pass options last week, however, as noted by head coach Bruce Arians. Much will depend on what the team can get out of defensive stalwarts like Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Lavonte David, who will be looking to carry the Bucs back to the Super Bowl again. 

This could be a closer matchup than it looks like on paper. 

(6) San Francisco 49ers at (3) Dallas Cowboys, 4:30 p.m. (CBS and Nickelodeon) at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas

This game features the closest spread of Wild Card Weekend with San Francisco’s experience clashing with Dallas’ inconsistency.

Which Dallas team will show up in the wild card round this Sunday? The one that pummeled its division rival Philadelphia Eagles in Week 18 or the one that stumbled through a loss to the Arizona Cardinals the week before?

Dallas has all the elements of a contender — great quarterback, stout running back, and an attacking defense. The Cowboys just don’t always show up ready to play. Running back Ezekiel Elliott has disappeared for games at a time this year, suggesting a lingering injury. And quarterback Dak Prescott, despite playing at an MVP level at times, is still coming back from a year off after a gruesome ankle injury, and has led to miscommunication with his receivers.

The 49ers can counter Dallas’ rushing linebackers with an offense that relies on counter runs and quick passes. Coach Kyle Shanahan can potentially out-scheme his counterparts with an offense that’s approaching the healthiest it has been all year. 

(7) Pittsburgh Steelers at (2) Kansas City Chiefs, 8:15 p.m. (NBC) at Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Missouri

After early season struggles, the Chiefs are exactly where everyone thought they would be: in the top tier of the AFC and rolling. Winners of nine of their last 10 games, they open up against a Steelers team that snuck into the playoffs thanks to the Colts’ no-show against one of the league’s worst teams.

On paper, this is one of the more lopsided matchups of the playoffs. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes loves playing against Pittsburgh, sporting the highest QBR than against any other opponent, though it’s only over two games, including one in 2018. The Steelers have lost three straight playoff games, giving up an average of 43 points during that streak. This is still the NFL, though, and the surest things can sometimes turn into the most improbable upsets. And Pittsburgh is playing with house money.

The Steelers, as always, feature a stout pass defense that can combat Kansas City’s high-flying offense. And they have a running game that can keep the Chiefs offense off the field. Pittsburgh running back Najee Harris had a team rookie record-breaking 1,200 rushing yards this season and at least 90 rushing yards in three of his past five games.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is playing the possum, publicly saying that his team probably shouldn’t be in the playoffs. And the Steelers are notorious for their unexpected playoff runs. The Chiefs should be wary of sleeping on the Steelers. 

Monday Games

(5) Arizona Cardinals at (4) Los Angeles Rams, 8:15 p.m. (ABC/ESPN) at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California

Monday night’s rubber match against the reeling Cardinals and the Super Bowl-hungry Rams should be a blast.

Each team boasts one of the NFL’s highest-flying offenses, and each has shown off its inconsistencies. Arizona has been hobbled by injuries to its receiving core in the second half of the season, winning only one of its last five games. 

Los Angeles has continued to win, but new quarterback Matthew Stafford continues to combat brilliance with bone-headed throws. Stafford, already 0-3 in his playoff career, will look to establish himself in the postseason.

While each team features an excellent defense, this matchup might just come down to home-field advantage, which is always significant in the NFC West. The teams split their regular season matchup, each protecting home field. The Cardinals dominated in a Week 4 37-20 win, enabled by an almost perfect Kyler Murray performance and two forced defensive turnovers converted into touchdowns. In Week 14, however, Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald created havoc for Arizona, sacking Murray three times. It should be noted that while Stafford threw three touchdowns, he still gave the ball away twice. 

(1) Tennessee Titans — Bye

The Tennessee Titans lurk as the second round opponent for whatever unlucky Wild Card Weekend winner gets to line up against the AFC top seed. 

Featuring a defense that’s only getting better with age, and Derek Henry, the MVP running back who is supposed to return from major injury, the Titans will certainly be lurking in the back of Super Bowl contenders’ minds during Wild Card Weekend. 

(1) Green Bay Packers — Bye

Aaron Rodgers enters the playoffs with 11 wins under his belt, three playoff MVP’s, and only one Super Bowl win, all the way back in 2011. Green Bay enters the playoffs with an already stout defense getting healthier and a power running duo to complement a quick-hitting pass game. If there is a time for the Pack to make it back to the big game, it is now.

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