#5 LV (10-7) @ #4 CIN (10-7) | SAT 4:30 PM ET | NBC
The Raiders were able to fight their way into the playoffs with a win over the Chargers last Sunday night in large part due to their defensive line taking over the game, and to beat Cincinnati this week, Las Vegas will need to put consistent pressure on Joe Burrow. In a November matchup between these teams, the Bengals were held in check through the air, but staying committed to Joe Mixon (30 carries for 123 yards and two touchdowns) resulted in them eventually wearing the Raiders down by scoring 16 points in the final five minutes of a 32-13 victory. On Saturday, I’m expecting we’ll see Las Vegas try to flip the script on Cincinnati like they did against Los Angeles by establishing the run early, and Josh Jacobs being given another 25+ touches can keep the chains moving while allowing Maxx Crosby and company to stay fresh. Also, Derek Carr has proven he can get the team in position to win a close game, especially with Daniel Carlson turning into one of the game’s most clutch kickers. I went against my gut feeling last week by picking against the Raiders, but my gut feeling this week tells me Mixon and Tee Higgins will be the stars of the game.
Winner: Cincinnati Bengals
#6 NE (10-7) @ #3 BUF (11-6) | SAT 8:15 PM ET | CBS
Wind isn’t expected to be a factor for Patriots-Bills like it was in Round 1 this season, but extreme cold will be, and the more physical team has a good chance of winning the primetime bout between division foes. I’m very interested to see Buffalo’s offensive game plan considering how effective Isaiah McKenzie was in the Week 16 matchup (11 receptions, 125 yards, and a touchdown), as Bill Belichick surely has a counter—but the Bills have five wideouts that can end up being a difference-maker if Josh Allen finds them. Still, Devin Singletary must remain involved as a runner to keep the pressure off Allen, who is averaging 41.5 pass attempts per game in four playoff outings in addition to his contributions on the ground, and that goes for Saturday night and beyond. On the other side of the ball, Damien Harris has dominated Buffalo over the past two seasons (44 carries for 316 yards and five touchdowns), so Sean McDermott’s defense needs to stay disciplined in order to limit the chunk gains that can flip field position in an instant. Overall, another masterful coaching job by Belichick could lead to the Pats taking Round 3, but Allen’s ability to create magic on the field gives his side the edge.
Winner: Buffalo Bills
#7 PHI (9-8) @ #2 TB (13-4) | SUN 1:00 PM ET | FOX
The Eagles are the league’s most unlikely playoff team based on preseason expectations, but the team’s eventual commitment to the running game—opposite of what the front office wanted—makes them an opponent people might not want to face this month. However, I’m not sure Tom Brady would be counted among that group as he hopes for postseason revenge against Philly for Super Bowl LII, and Tampa Bay’s run defense being boosted by linebacker Lavonte David’s return increases the difficulty of the draw for Nick Sirianni’s first playoff appearance. In my opinion, Jordan Howard should be given the bulk of the carries most weeks for the Eagles, but this matchup could play more towards Miles Sanders (hand) and Boston Scott because their acceleration through the hole can help overcome any traffic created by Vita Vea in the trenches. I’d expect an impassioned speech by Jason Kelce to fire his guys up, and I have confidence in Jalen Hurts playing well at quarterback, but Brady could prove to be too much at home with an extra chip on his shoulder based on some of the recent comments made by Antonio Brown.
Winner: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
#6 SF (10-7) @ #3 DAL (12-5) | SUN 4:30 PM ET | CBS
San Francisco is a hot team that nobody will want to face this month, and health—with Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and George Kittle all on the field—allows them to match any team in the NFC as Elijah Mitchell picks up chunk yardage at running back and Jimmy Garoppolo runs the show by accurately distributing the ball to his playmakers. Although it will come down to the players on the field, perhaps the most important matchup of the Wild Card Round is between 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn; Shanahan staying committed to creating balance—and there’s no reason to believe that won’t happen with Mitchell having 21+ carries in each of his past five games—is crucial for San Francisco, and Quinn will hope to disrupt the Niners’ game plan by utilizing Micah Parsons like the game-wrecker he’s been all season (both against the run and pass). For the Dallas offense, we can’t say they are undoubtedly back on track with their explosions coming against a COVID-impacted Washington team and the backups of Philadelphia to close out the season, but Dak Prescott was sharp in Week 18, and the confidence built might be enough to avoid a disappointing end to their season this weekend.
Winner: Dallas Cowboys
#7 PIT (9-7-1) @ #2 KC (12-5) | SUN 8:15 PM ET | NBC
The Steelers crashing the playoff party and having nothing to lose is a scary thought, and the Chiefs cannot go into Sunday night overconfident based on their 36-10 win over Pittsburgh the day after Christmas. Slow starts have dissipated in the two games since then, and the combination of Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger might have one more run in them before Big Ben rides off into the sunset. Of course, being unable to stop Patrick Mahomes and the explosive offense of Kansas City will make it very tough to pull off an upset, and linebacker Devin Bush needs to step up with the game of his career after being out in the first matchup—T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward can’t continue making almost every play for the Pittsburgh front. Tyreek Hill (heel) and Travis Kelce (hip) not being themselves would boost the chances for the Steelers starting an improbable playoff run, but the offensive stars both started the week with a full practice, and Kelce missing Week 16 due to COVID-19 didn’t stop the offense from exploding for 23 points in the first half. While I expect Tomlin and Roethlisberger can find a way to make it close into the fourth quarter, winning at Arrowhead is a tall task.
Winner: Kansas City Chiefs
#5 ARI (11-6) @ #4 LAR (12-5) | MON 8:15 PM ET | ESPN/ESPN2
Arizona and Los Angeles split the regular season matchups, but the Cardinals—even after limping into the playoffs with a 1-4 record down the stretch—should feel good about their chances on Monday night for a few reasons. First of all, Kyler Murray played well in both matchups, and Week 14 could have gone differently if not for a couple of avoidable interceptions (Murray still threw for 383 yards in a 30-23 loss). In the rubber match, Arizona’s offense should be more prepared for the Rams trying to deflect Murray’s passes when they don’t get home, and more draws or inside screens to get James Conner in space can make Los Angeles pay for pushing the edge defenders out too wide. Plus, the Cardinals at 8-1 on the road the season, but most importantly, Matthew Stafford simply hasn’t proven he can beat the best teams on the biggest stage with an 0-3 postseason record. Recently, the Rams have won despite mistakes from Stafford—who has thrown eight interceptions over the past four games—rather than because of him, and there’s nothing to suggest he’ll suddenly stop forcing the ball into coverage as the pressure intensifies. Even getting out to a 17-0 lead last week wasn’t enough for LA to put away San Francisco, and the lack of quality homefield advantage could be a factor against another division rival.
Winner: Arizona Cardinals