NFL Wild Card Weekend Preview
The NFL regular season has finally come to an end, with the top teams now battling it out for that coveted Super Bowl ring. The action kicks off this Saturday and extends through Monday, where the Cowboys and Buccaneers round out this wild card slate. There should be a bunch of high octane showdowns, but impactful injuries have made some of the marquee matchups a little bit less competitive. Either way, it’s playoff football, who can complain? Let’s dive in.
Seahawks @ 49ers
The first game of the wild card features an NFC West rivalry, with the San Francisco 49ers hosting the Seattle Seahawks. Both teams know each other very well, and the 49ers are looking for the season trifecta after successfully defeating the Seahawks twice during the regular season. The 49ers are led by their sturdy defense, currently leading the NFL in points allowed per game (16.3) and yards per game (300.6). After losing both Trey Lance and Jimmy Garropolo to injury earlier this year, the 49ers have turned to Brock Purdy, the “Mr. Irrelevant” of the 2022 draft to lead the scoring attack for San Francisco. Complemented by a stellar coach in Kyle Shannahan, an amazing running-back in Christian McCaffrey, and no shortage of receiver weapons, Purdy has found himself a home this season. Since starting for the 49ers in Week 14, the team has gone 5-0 and has shown no signs of slowing down. On the flip side, the Seahawks rely on a top-10 offense led by Geno Smith. Smith, who saw a starting opportunity after Seattle legend Russell Wilson was dealt to Denver, has surpassed expectations by a mile, surprisingly leading the Hawks to a playoff berth. The 1-2 punch of receivers DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett have troubled opposing secondaries. I don’t project this game to be extremely close, as the 49ers have the more complete team. The stout San Francisco defense should slow down Geno Smith and prevent RB Kenneth Walker III from gaining any ground momentum. Expect an easy 49ers victory.
Chargers @ Jaguars
Saturday’s primetime matchup on NBC could end up being the most competitive game this wild card weekend. The Jaguars returned from a dismal 3-7 record to win the AFC South and enter the playoffs as one of the NFL's hottest teams. 2nd year QB Trevor Lawrence heads their offense. The Jags have a pretty balanced team, ranking in the top 12 in both points per game and points allowed per game. Jacksonville has really clicked defensively to close the regular season, only allowing a miniscule 7.3 points per game. RB Travis Etienne Jr. is having a fantastic season after losing his rookie campaign to a season-ending injury. For the Chargers, they have star Justin Herbert at the helm leading the offense. The 3rd year QB is already looking like a superstar, but currently leads a middle-of-the-road Chargers offense during an injury-ridden regular season. The defense has carried the team down the stretch, holding opponents to a meager 14.7 points per game during LA’s last three contests. The Chargers suffered a significant loss in Week 18, as they will be without leading WR Mike Williams, who suffered a back injury in the loss to the Broncos. On the bright side, they are getting back Pro Bowl OT Rashawn Slater from injured reserve, which will give the Chargers some much-needed help up front. The Jags should be able to run all over the awful LA rush defense (28th), but expect Herbert to dissect the equally atrocious Jacksonville pass defense (28th), even without Mike Williams. It’s a close one, but Los Angeles’ overall defense, despite its rushing weakness, has shown grit over the home stretch of the regular season and can withhold Jacksonville from field goals around the red zone. Give me the Chargers barely squeaking by in a 2-3 point victory.
Dolphins @ Bills
Wow, on paper this game would appear to look like an absolute blast. Two AFC East rivals going at it, Hill v. Diggs, Tua v. Allen, a pure treat. But with Miami missing Tua Tagovailoa and other contributors to injury, this contest seems to be a lot more lopsided. Yes, they have a nasty wideout 1-2 punch, but their potential will be severely hindered with Skylar Thompson under center. The Miami scoring defense has been quite bad this season (especially with a 27th-ranked pass defense), but much like the Chargers, they have locked up towards the end of the regular season, sneaking into the upper half over the past three games. The Bills sport one of the more complete teams in the NFL, ranking 2nd on both offense and defense. Led by sensational QB Josh Allen, many consider them Super Bowl contenders. Now they aren’t perfect, as Josh Allen’s decision-making outside of the pocket and occasional inaccuracy has created an uncomfortable amount of interceptions for the Bills Mafia. Still, nothing leads me to believe he won’t play his cleanest and sharpest on such a large stage. Without Tua, the Dolphins are plainly unmatched in this contest. They can pray to keep it close with a solid defense, but with the injury bug plaguing them at the wrong time, I simply don’t see a Miami victory here. Bills win.
Giants @ Vikings
The Giants have finally made the playoffs after a couple of seasons of doubting Daniel Jones’ ability in New York. They’ve been pretty solid this year, starting out strong and leveling out towards the end of the year. New York has shown up on both sides of the ball, ranking around the middle of the pack in both offense and defense. Saquon Barkley is having a great year, rushing for 1000+ yards and 10+ TDs for the first time since his rookie season back in 2018. The Vikings have been insanely good this season, as HC Kevin O’Connell led Minnesota to an impressive 13-4 record in his first year. Superstar wideout Justin Jefferson has torn up virtually every secondary he’s faced, leading the league in yards and receptions. You may be thinking, “Oh! This is easy! Minnesota should definitely win! Right?” Well, despite the record difference, this game will be much closer than many think. The Vikings are notorious for playing in heart attack, come from behind, one score games, and it will probably be another close one in Minneapolis. The Vikings have the 2nd worst rushing defense in the league, meaning Saquon should have no problem grinding it out on the ground. Kirk Cousins is also infamous for stinking it up on primetime, so I wouldn’t be shocked to see the New York defense lock up when it counts. I’m taking New York barely edging out the NFC North champion.
Ravens @ Bengals
Man, another mouthwatering matchup on paper turned dry after injuries plagued the Ravens, much like the Dolphins. Star QB Lamar Jackson will be unavailable for the Sunday Night Football matchup, leaving the Ravens with a dim hope of upsetting their AFC North rivals. This game is an exact rematch from the last week of the regular season, where Cincinnati quickly handled the Ravens, defeating them 27-16. This Ravens defense is tough, allowing just 18.5 points per game (3rd) this season. However, right behind them is the Bengals, ranking 6th. The Bengals started the year slow, but led behind stellar QB Joe Burrow, they caught fire towards the middle and end of the year, closing out the campaign on an 8-game win streak. Burrow is having an amazing 3rd year season, posting over 4,000 pass yards and a 35-12 TD-INT ratio. This team is dangerous. Similar to the MIA @ BUF game, the Ravens just seem outmatched here. Winning on the road without their superstar QB is too tall of a task to overcome. Both teams have trended in the opposite direction to end the year, at the Ravens demise. Give me the Bengals to cruise to victory.
Cowboys @ Buccaneers
Everyone has been calling this game the largest trap on the wild card slate, as it appears to be a perfect situation for the Cowboys to fail once again to win a Super Bowl and send HC Mike McCarthy on the first flight out of Dallas. Tom Brady seems to be the Cowboy's kryptonite, failing to lose in his last eight matchups against them. Now hear me out. I can totally see this happening. It’s almost like you can feel it. But…I’m not buying it. The Bucs have been a shell of their unstoppable form from their Super Bowl season. They won the division despite finishing 8-9, and it seemed like TB12 was throwing temper tantrums, and Microsoft Surfaces more than an angry 4-year-old. This Dallas team has clicked offensively for most of the year, even impressing at the onset of the season with Cooper Rush under center. Their 4th best-scoring offense will pressure the Bucs on all defensive fronts, and their top-8 passing defense should trouble Tom Brady under the big lights. The Bucs have failed to find their footing offensively the whole season, averaging a tiny 18.4 points per game. Sure, go off on me if I’m completely wrong and Dallas gets destroyed by 20. I’ll deserve it. But for now, I’m trusting the Cowboys to at the very least, sneak through the wild card round and live another day.
There it is, every wild card matchup wrapped up into a quick summary. There should be some absolute heat out on the field over the next couple of days, and I’ll definitely be soaking it all in. These teams got to prove their worth and earn their right to stay alive. Who’s your favorite team, who are you rooting for? No matter if you’re a Cowboys fan or loyal member of Bills Mafia, we can all agree on one thing. We’re all ready for football.