#5 CLE (11-6) @ #4 HOU (10-7)
Saturday, January 13 | 4:30 PM ET | NBC
The Texans always seem to be the first playoff game every time they are in, but the difference this year is that the team feels like a real threat with DeMeco Ryans and C.J. Stroud—despite being the only rookie head coach and quarterback to make the postseason. On the other side, Cleveland has a former Super Bowl MVP in Joe Flacco, and the soon-to-be 39-year-old—who has been at his best in January throughout his career—had little issue with Houston on Christmas Eve with a 36-22 victory that wasn’t as close as the final score suggests (36-7 in the fourth quarter). Stroud didn’t play in the first matchup due to a concussion, but the cornerback trio of Denzel Ward, Martin Emerson Jr., and Greg Newsome II could present problems for the Texans, and left tackle Laremy Tunsil needs to be on his game versus Myles Garrett after some issues in the Week 18 win. Overall, I believe Nico Collins won’t go crazy like he did versus the Colts, and Cleveland has top weapons in Amari Cooper and David Njoku that have played perhaps their best football with Flacco under center.
Winner: Cleveland Browns
#6 MIA (11-6) @ #3 KC (11-6)
Saturday, January 13 | 8:00 PM ET | Peacock
A lack of success versus top teams and another late-season collapse in the division has the Dolphins down to the No. 6 seed in the AFC—and their reward is a trip to Arrowhead for what is set to be one of the coldest playoff games in NFL history (wind chill below zero degrees). The case could be made that the weather will even things out if the Miami speed has them moving a bit faster than the Chiefs, but a timing-based passing attack could be off with the cold slowing everyone down, so the key will be Mike McDaniel remaining committed to the running game (which didn’t happen in the loss to Buffalo). For the Kansas City offense, Patrick Mahomes has a 6:5 touchdown-interception ratio since the start of December, and the Dolphins still have elite players on the backend despite the injuries that have hit their defense. Rashee Rice is unlikely to face shadow coverage from Jalen Ramsey, though, and Isiah Pacheco will not be fun to tackle in frigid temperatures. If the Chiefs win, the rest of the conference will be hoping it doesn’t lead to them getting their mojo back heading into the Divisional Round.
Winner: Kansas City Chiefs
#7 PIT (10-7) @ #2 BUF (11-6)
Sunday, January 14 | 1:00 PM ET | CBS
The Bills were written off by many in the middle of November, but they went 6-1 down the stretch—with the only loss being in overtime to the Eagles when Josh Allen totaled 420 yards and four touchdowns. Pittsburgh also seemed done following three consecutive crushing losses (including to the Cardinals and Patriots), but Mason Rudolph went 3-0 as the starter to finish out the regular season, and Najee Harris led the offense on 25.7 touches and 111.0 total yards per game during that stretch. The Steelers will be without their best player in T.J. Watt (knee) for a trip to Buffalo, but shutdown rookie cornerback Joey Porter Jr. will probably be requesting a shadow assignment on Stefon Diggs, and Gabe Davis (knee) could be out to put the pressure on Trent Sherfield and Khalil Shakir behind Diggs at wide receiver. Fortunately, Allen has high confidence and suggested he found a groove last week after cleaning up his passing mechanics, and I get the feeling that Sunday might be a very balanced attack with James Cook and Leonard Fournette doing damage on the ground.
Winner: Buffalo Bills
#7 GB (9-8) @ #2 DAL (12-5)
Sunday, January 14 | 4:30 PM ET | FOX
Jordan Love is another quarterback with high confidence, and he’s been sensational since the week before Thanksgiving by completing 70.3% of his passes for 268.8 yards per game and an 18:1 touchdown-interception ratio (6-2 record). The Packers not having a clear No. 1 target makes the offense very difficult to defend with all their young weapons making plays, but the hopeful return of Christian Watson (hamstring) is notable after he had a breakout game in the win over Dallas last year with three touchdowns. For me, the concern about Green Bay’s offense on Sunday is the ability of Rasheed Walker (a seventh-round gem in 2022) to hold up at left tackle versus Micah Parsons—who might be due for a monster game in the postseason. Also, facing Dak Prescott will be a bigger challenge than Nick Mullens and Justin Fields over the past two weeks for anyone believing the Packers have figured things out defensively, and CeeDee Lamb has been close to unstoppable down the stretch. Pressure is higher in Dallas and the Packers have shown an ability to win in big spots, but I’m going with the Cowboys to at least extend their season for another week.
Winner: Dallas Cowboys
#6 LAR (10-7) @ #3 DET (12-5)
Sunday, January 14 | 8:00 PM ET | NBC
Sean McVay deserves credit for admitting Jared Goff “deserved better” than he got—after five years with the team and plenty of success—when the team traded him away for Matthew Stafford, but you can be sure that Goff still has a massive chip on his shoulder heading into Sunday night. While many remain skeptical about the former No. 1 overall pick being a championship-caliber quarterback, he went into the Superdome to lead a comeback win over the Saints in the NFC Championship Game as a 24-year-old and won a playoff game off the bench with a broken thumb two years after that, so no moment is too big for him. Stafford is the second part of the storyline as he returns to Detroit, and he could have a monster game if the Lions cannot create a consistent pass rush considering their issues in coverage and the firepower for Los Angeles. I expect a down-to-the-wire finish with Goff making enough big-time throws and Aidan Hutchinson getting to Stafford late.
Winner: Detroit Lions
#5 PHI (11-6) @ #4 TB (9-8)
Monday, January 15 | 8:00 PM ET | ESPN/ABC/ESPN2
Philadelphia is ice cold entering the postseason, and if they are out or not themselves this week, the injuries to A.J. Brown (knee) and DeVonta Smith (ankle, who says he’s playing) could doom the franchise’s hopes of a surprising playoff run before it even gets started. The opponent might not matter based on how the Eagles have looked in recent weeks, but I will say that Tampa Bay is arguably the best team in the playoffs for Philly to face—as they won by two touchdowns in the regular season matchup despite Jalen Hurts not playing his best with two interceptions. Defensively, the Birds getting Darius Slay (knee) back at cornerback should help, but rust could be a factor versus Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and long-standing issues at linebacker should be attacked by featuring Rachaad White in the passing game. In general, coaching and personnel missteps for the Eagles might cloud the future, but I have more faith in Hurts than Baker Mayfield on Monday night.
Winner: Philadelphia Eagles