Just like that, the first ever 17 game/18 week NFL season has come to an end. We've seen so much this year, including a jumpstart of a few careers (Cordarrelle Patterson, Rashaad Penny, Laquon Treadwell), the first Triple Crown winner since Steve Smith in 2005 and only the 4th in NFL history (Cooper Kupp) and plenty more!
Now we are onto what the NFL has been dubbing "Super Wildcard Weekend". We have six exciting games, and I plan on breaking them all down right here, before giving my official predictions.
If you guys enjoy this preview, I'd love to hear about it! Let me know on my Facebook or Twitter! Thank you all for reading and have a great day!
Raiders (10-7) @ Bengals (10-7)
The Raiders are on a roll! Winning four straight against decent-good competition (Browns, Broncos, Colts, Chargers) and doing so in defensive slugfests and overtime shootouts alike.
Vegas is riding high, as Derek Carr just threw his first multi touchdown game since week 10. Josh Jacobs finally got the run game going with 132 yards on the ground in that same game.
Statistically, they are ranked 12th in total offense (6th in passing, 28th in rushing) with an average 14 ranking on defense (13th against the pass, 19th vs the run).
Last week's overtime win was the first time they've allowed 30+ points since their 48-7 obliteration at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs in week 14.
The Bengals should be feeling confident coming into this game, as they enter with arguably the most dynamic young offense in the league. Sure, they technically lost to Cleveland last week, but Cincinnati was playing their backups in that game.
Throughout the season, the AFC North winners went 4-1 against playoff teams (their only loss coming in a close 25-22 defeat against Green Bay in week 5), with a 4-2 divisional record.
Cincinnati is ranked 7th in passing while only 23rd for rushing (despite Joe Mixon going for over 1,200 yards on the ground this year). Their defense is all over the place too, being ranked only 26th against the pass, while a stout 5th versus the running game.
Played in 2021?
Week 11: Bengals 32, Raiders 13
Key Question: Can Joe Burrow keep up the pace?
In weeks 16 and 17, Burrow has been stealing headlines with his performances. He threw 525 yards with 4 scores in a 41-21 smashing of rival Baltimore Ravens. The franchise quarterback followed it up with an incredible 34-31 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, in a game that included another 446 yards and 4 more touchdowns.
However prior to those games, he went from week 9 to week 15 (six games) while only throwing multiple touchdowns once.
Burrow and this offense look great, but I'll be curious to see if he can continue these jaw-dropping statlines.
My Prime Performer:
QB Joe Burrow, Bengals
33/48 312 yards, 3 TDs 1 Int
Spread: Cincinnati, -5.5
My Pick: Bengals by 10
Patriots (10-7) @ Bills (11-6)
We will be treated to the rubber match between hard hitting divisional rivals in two of the six matchups this weekend. Up first will be the 10-7 New England Patriots heading to Buffalo for a rematch with the 11-6 Bills.
Headed by a steady (if unspectacular) rookie quarterback in Mac Jones, this team is defensively focused and the offense simply does what is necessary to get the job done. Jones has solid numbers for his inaugural season, with a 67% completion rate, 22 touchdowns to 13 picks. He has definitely put up the best numbers of this rookie qb class.
New England has a good running attack, with Damien Harris (929 yards and 15 scores) and rookie Rhamondre Stevenson (606 yards and 5 touchdowns). They rank 8th in the league on ground, while averaging 27 points per game.
This defense is a stout #3 on the year in terms of total yards allowed. Despite having their weakness on the ground (22nd), they have the 2nd best defense and only allow 17 points to opposing offenses.
Former Baltimore Raven will have to step up in this game, as he leads the team with 12.5 sacks... although he hasn't recorded a single one since week 13 against Buffalo.
The Bills are one of the more unpredictable teams in the league. I have made my opinion on Josh Allen known many times on a few podcast episodes, calling him "not much more than a mobile Joe Flacco". While I admit that was exaggerating a bit, I still believe he has work to do before becoming a truly elite passer.
It seems as though this offense will absolutely handle their business one week (11 double digit wins), then completely shit the bed when they shouldn't (9-6 loss to Jacksonville in week 9, 41-15 loss to Indianapolis in week 11). If the offense is able to sit down and find a way to keep their offense more consistent, this could be a dangerous team in the AFC.
This defensive unit is ranked #1 overall in yards per game. They have not allowed more than 21 points since week 14 against Tampa Bay. I believe this trend will continue through Wildcard Weekend, as I fully expect this to be a low scoring game in Buffalo.
Played in 2021?
Week 13: Patriots 14, Bills 10
Week 16: Bills 33, Patriots 21
Key Question: Will Buffalo have a running game to lean on?
One of the biggest issues with the offense of the Bills (over the last two seasons) has been their lack of a running game. For the longest time they repeatedly bounced between Devin Singletary and Zack Moss as their primary ball carrier, and neither player has been particularly effective.
However, we have seen Singletary get more touches over the last four weeks. He hasn't been a stud, but Singletary has played pretty well. He has rushed for at least one score in each of those games, and 86+ yards in 3 of those 4. It may be a sign of things to come that the game in which he failed to reach that 86 yard mark came against the Patriots (12 carries for 39 yards and a score), but only time will tell.
RB Devin Singletary, Bills
24 rushes 117 yards, 2 TDs
Spread: Buffalo, -4.0
My Pick: Bills by 3
Eagles (9-8) @ Buccaneers (13-4)
This game is by far the most difficult one for me to decide. Both of these teams have strengths but also have more than a few question marks. Many people are claiming this to be a "revenge game " for Tom Brady after losing Super Bowl 52 to Philadelphia. It's a silly concept, as I'm sure Brady isn't thinking about that... but it is always fun to consider.
Philadelphia has been on a bit of a hot streak at the end of the season (not counting their back ups being destroyed by Dallas in week 18). Before that loss to Dallas, the Eagles won 6 of 7 games - including three games against division rivals. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has been very volatile this season. As a second year passer, Hurts needs to limit his mistakes. His 16:9 touchdown-interception ratio may not look great, but his rushing ability (784 yards, 10 scores on the ground) can break a game open at any moment.
The Eagles have taken over the league when it comes to the ground game. Between Hurts, Miles Sanders, Boston Scott, Kenny Gainwell and even Jordan Howard, Philadelphia leads the league in rushing. Their 26th ranked passing attack may suffer from it, but they can control a football game if their elite rushing attack and 9th ranked defense can get going early.
While Philadelphia thrives on the ground, Tom Brady and the Bucs do most of their damage through the air. The 44 year old Hall of Fame quarterback is neck and neck with Aaron Rodgers in the MVP race, and deserves an immense amount of respect for what he has done in 2021. His 5,316 yards ranks 3rd all time, and his completion percentage (67.5%), 43 touchdowns and 12 interceptions are an incredible feat - even without taking his age into account.
It was a heavy blow when Tampa lost Chris Godwin to his ACL tear in week 15 and everything that happened with Antonio Brown, but I'm sure Brady will be just fine throwing the ball to Mike Evans, Breshad Perriman, Tyler Johnson and Rob Gronkowski. Running back Leonard Fournette should be able to return from his hamstring injury. In 14/17 games, "Playoff Lenny" rushed for 812 yards and 8 scores to go along with 69 receptions. He has proven to be a good all-around running back.
This top ranked rushing defense will be put to the test for sure, as I don't believe the passing defense (which ranks 21st in the league) will play a major factor in the outcome. It will undoubtedly come down to the front seven against the Philadelphia offense.
Played in 2021?
Week 6: Buccaneers 28, Eagles 22
Key Question: Can Philadelphia run on this Tampa defense?
I mentioned this a second ago, but the outcome of this game will come down to whether or not the Eagles can get production out of their rushing attack.
Tampa Bay's defense has only allowed an opposing 100 yard rusher twice this season (100 to Khalil Herbert in week 7 and 109 to Josh Allen in week 14). That's a 0.117 batting average for opposing rushing attacks... so not a great sign for the visiting team.
I don't believe the Eagles have the offensive firepower to hang with Brady and the Bucs through the air, but if Philly can establish the ground game early and contain Tampa Bay's offense, we could see an upset in the making.
TE Rob Gronkowski, Bucs
12 receptions 112 yards, 2 TDs
Spread: Tampa Bay, -8.5
My Pick: Bucs by 8
49ers (10-7) @ Cowboys (12-5)
Eagles/Bucs may have been my toughest pick, this game is my most anticipated. Much like the Eagles, San Francisco went on a late-season surge to claim the 6th seed in the NFC. Kyle Shanahan turned this team from a 3-5 team who couldn't wait to get to the offseason (while the Cardinals and Rams looked like they were the only teams in the NFC West), to a unit who charged into the playoffs, while winning 7 of their final 9 games.
The 49ers look explosive on both sides of the ball. While Jimmy Garoppolo isn't a top ten quarterback, he has solid, safe offensive stats (68% completion, 20 touchdowns with 12 interceptions on 3,800 yards passing). Between Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Elijah Mitchell, Jeff Wilson and Brandon Aiyuk, all Garoppolo needs to do is get the ball into the hands of a playmaker, and let him do the rest. Jimmy G does not need to be a hero, he only needs to avoid becoming the villain.
San Francisco is ranked inside the top ten when it comes to total defense (5th), passing defense (6th) and rushing defense (7th). This is an elite unit. From week 10 (the start of their hot streak), they have allowed 30 points by the opposing team just once. They are constantly finishing games with a score at least in the 20's (8 games of 20+ points by the 49ers in their last 9 games), so Dallas will likely have to aim for 30.
The Cowboys have looked like an elite team in stretches, but usually rely on their defense to give them an edge. There's nothing wrong with that, as long as the offense can be productive when they need to be (similar to San Fran's passing offense). The Cowboys do have a high powered offense, with weapons such as CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper, Dalton Schultz, Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard and Cedric Wilson. Dak Prescott has thrown for over 4,400 yards this season, with 37 touchdowns to 10 interceptions. In his last four games, Dak has passed for over 1,00 yards with 13 touchdowns and no picks (although 295 yards and 5 scores came against those Philadelphia backups).
Zeke has not been very effective on the ground as of late (only one 80+ yard rushing performance in their last 12 games), so Prescott will likely need to "shoulder" the load this weekend.
The defense will need to make plays like they have been all season long. Rookie Micah Parsons has been an absolute game changer in 2021, racking up 13 sacks and forcing three fumbles. He has not only wrapped up the defensive rookie of the year award (by a mile), but he is in the conversation for overall defensive player of the year as well. In order for Dallas to take control of this contest, Parsons will need to be fully recovered from COVID and cornerback Trevon Diggs will have to be his playmaking self as well.
Played in 2021?
Key Question: Can Dak Prescott carry the Dallas offense?
Like I said, if we follow the trends of Ezekiel Elliott this season, it is highly likely that he will not be a game changer in this one. I'd be willing to bet the passing offense will dictate much of this game rather than what the Cowboys do on the ground.
CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper will have their hands full, battling with the 6th ranked pass defense. Losing Michael Gallup for the season was a big blow in week 17, but slot receiver Cedrick Wilson and tight end Dalton Schultz are more than capable of picking up the slack.
In the end it will be on Dak Prescott to get move the football down the field, as well as the offensive line to protect him from Nick Bosa (15.5 sacks this year) and the rest of the San Francisco pass rush.
WR CeeDee Lamb, Cowboys
9 receptions 141 yards, 2 TDs
Spread: Dallas, -3.0
My Pick: Cowboys by 3
Steelers (9-7-1) @ Chiefs (12-5)
It was shocking to learn that Pittsburgh made the postseason when the Raiders beat the Chargers. I infamously predicted Mike Tomlin would have his first ever losing season in 2021 on a podcast of preseason predictions. Around week 12 I thought my prediction was coming true when Pittsburgh sat at 6-6-1, coming off of a 41-10 molly-whopping by the Cincinnati Bengals. However, they went on a 4-2 run from week 13 on, not only finishing with a winning record, but sneaking into the playoffs as the AFC's 7 seed.
Ben Roethlisberger has had a pretty pedestrian 18th season, throwing for 3,700 yards with 22 touchdowns and 10 picks. Big Ben only has two 3 touchdown games this year, with 11 games of a single passing score or fewer.
Rookie running back Najee Harris has been a great contributor both on the ground (1,200 yards, 7 scores) and in the air (74 catches for 467 yards and 3 scores). This entire offense (25th overall, 15th passing, 29th rushing) has been limited by an awful offensive line and an extremely limited 39 year old quarterback.
The defense has been a major letdown from a season ago as well. Following a 2020 season where Pittsburgh was lead by their 3rd ranked defensive unit, 2021 saw that production drop off big time. The Steelers ended the season at 26th overall. While their 9th ranked pass defense is still good, it's the run defense that is a major hole. They are dead last against the run, allowing 146 yards per game on the ground. That front seven has a major bullseye on it . This unit has allowed six 100 yard rushers, including four of 130 yards or more.
Coach Andy Reid and the Chiefs theoretically should be gameplanning to run Darrel Williams and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (assuming he's good to go from his shoulder injury) down the throats of the Steelers defense, but Reid has a proven track record of abandoning the running back in favor of an aggressive passing attack (this mindset goes back to his Philadelphia days with Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook in the early 2000's). With a quarterback as hyper-talented as Patrick Mahomes, I expect to see this trend continue.
Despite all the talk of Mahomes struggling this season, he has still put up fantastic numbers in 2021 (over 4,800 yards with 37 touchdowns to 13 picks). Sure, these aren't the unbelievable numbers he was putting up in 2018, but he was still 4th in yardage and tied with Aaron Rodgers and Dak Prescott for 4th in touchdown passes.
The running game has never really been featured in this offense. Running back Darrel Williams will have a decent game here and there, but Kansas City's bread and butter is Mahomes throwing to Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Hill hasn't been himself lately (9 catches on 15 targets for 61 yards and no scores in the last three games). It has also been awhile since Hill has been a consistent gamebreaker in this offense (only one 100 yard game in the last 13 games and just three 100 yard games for the entire season). Kelce seems to be back, but in order for this offense to be utilized to it's full potential, Hill will need to be back and make plays... or Kansas City could just... you know... run the football.
The Chiefs have had a second half resurgence of sorts on defense. for a stretch, this unit allowed a measly 65 points in six games from week 8 through week 14 (that's an average of 11 points per game). Now, since then they have allowed a bit more than that (24 points per game over the last four games) but it's much improved from the beginning of the season, regardless.
Statistically, they look like a below average at best defense (27th overall, 27th vs the pass, 21st vs the run) but they have been playing at a level above what the stats are showing. Still not a "good" defensive unit, but they are opportunistic and can hold their own at times.
Played in 2021?
Week 16: Chiefs 36, Steelers 10
Key Question: Can Pittsburgh get anything going offensively?
39 year old Ben Roethlisberger will likely have his final NFL game this weekend in Arrowhead. If the Steelers hope to move on to the Divisional round, they will have to move the ball downfield. This offensive line is pure trash, and their quarterback is very limited in how far he can stretch the field. They will need to rely on short passes to receivers Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, as well as establishing a running game with Najee Harris.
Unfortunately, I just can't see it working out for the visiting team. They will not only need to get a running game going, but Big Ben will have to play productive, mistake-free football, the offensive line will have to actually play well and dominate Kansas City at the line of scrimmage (something they're not accustomed to), and hope to keep Patrick Mahomes and the offense from getting into a rhythm.
I just don't think it's going to work out.
QB Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
35/45 346 yards, 3 TDs
Spread: Kansas City, -12.5
My Pick: Chiefs by 14
Cardinals (11-6) @ Rams (12-5)
The other divisional rivalry game of the weekend is also the first ever Monday Night Playoff game, Cardinals vs Rams. The entire NFC West has been a slugfest all season. The Cardinals began the season 7-0, and by week 13 they sat at 10-2. After that, they fell off dramatically. Arizona finished the season 1-4 in their final 5 games, including an embarrassing 30-12 stomping at the hands of the lowly Detroit Lions.
Kyler Murray has been banged up all season, and the stats show it - almost 3,800 yards, 24 scores with 10 picks and 400 yards on the ground with 5 more scores. If he were fully healthy this season, I believe would be among the top passers in the league, but I can't put my full faith in him until he can put on a great performance.
At the time of this writing, both James Conner and Chase Edmonds are dealing with rib injuries, so it's unsure whether or not either back will play. If they don't, the workload will be on Eno Benjamin... which means we will see the ball in Kyler's hands even more often. I can't see a running game emerge, especially against the Rams.
Stud wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is reportedly not expected to return from his MCL sprain until the NFC Championship game, if the Cardinals make it. Personally, I love Christian Kirk as a wide receiver, and their group of Kirk, A.J. Green, Antoine Wesley and tight end Zach Ertz is plenty serviceable for Arizona, but someone needs to emerge as kyler's true #1 guy while Hopkins is out.
Their defense is good, ranked 10th overall, 7th vs the pass but only 20th vs the run. This unit needs to force a couple of turnovers, considering the weapons on the opposing side of the field. They have two players with double digit sacks (Marcus Golden has 11.0 and Chandler Jones has 10.5) and 10 forced fumbles between the both of them. At least one of these guys will need to make a major impact in this one.
Matthew Stafford leads a Rams offense into battle that sits 9th in total offense and 5th in passing offense, yet 26th in the ground game. In his first season in L.A., he has proven to be very high risk, high reward. Stafford has thrown for over 4,800 yards with 41 scores but 17 picks. He has 13 games of double digit touchdowns and five games with double digit interceptions. He will need to focus on not turning the ball over in this one, as Arizona's pass rush can force some turnovers. Stafford is dealing with a toe injury, so time will tell how much this influences his play on Monday night.
Cooper Kupp is the first triple crown winner since 2005 (league leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns). This man has been UNSTOPPABLE in 2021. Kupp has literally put up 90+ yards in every single game except for one (week 4 against Arizona). Kupp is an incredible threat and has demanded at least double coverage on nearly every down. Across is an Odell Beckham Jr. who has been contributing to this offense as much as he's needed. Van Jefferson and tight end Tyler Higbee are both capable of the occasional splash play as well.
Running back Cam Akers is back from his torn Achilles. He only carried the ball 8 times for 13 total yards against the 49ers last week, but I feel like that was simply to warm him up. Former Patriot Sony Michel has been a solid fill-in for this rushing attack. It will be interesting to see how much work Akers gets this week. My guess is Michel will get the majority while they continue to ease Akers back in.
Defensively this unit has been pretty disappointing. A unit who is used to being consistently in the top 5 is 17th overall, while only 22nd against the pass and 6th when defending the run. Last week was the first time in the last six games where this defense has allowed more than 23 points to the opposing team.
Despite making the blockbuster trade to acquire Von Miller in week 8, he has only amassed four sacks in his eight games in a Rams' uniform... but they have occurred in 3 of the last 4 contests. It looks like Miller is adapting to the new defensive scheme, as he has racked up 14 tackles in those four games as well.
If Miller keeps it up this weekend, then he and Aaron Donald should be able to wreak havoc on Kyler and the Arizona offense. This unit should be able to tee off on Murray especially if Conner or Edmonds aren't there to present a threat to run the football.
Played in 2021?
Week 4: Cardinals 37, Rams 20
Week 14: Rams 30, Cardinals
Key Question: Will the Cardinals be able to move the football?
It will likely come down to whether or not Kyler can get the ball out quick enough to offset the L.A. pass rush. Christian Kirk, A.J. Green or Zach Ertz need to show the capability to get open quickly and consistently for their quarterback, as the offensive line holding back Donald, Miller and Leonard Floyd long enough for Murray to get rid of the ball.
I just can't see the Cardinals pulling this off consistently enough. I know I am biased towards Von Miller, but I really do see him making a huge impact on this game, considering you also have Donald and Floyd to worry about.
EDGE Von Miller, Rams
6 tackles, 2 sacks
Spread: Los Angeles, -4.0
My Pick: Rams by 14
Bengals over Raiders, 31-21
Bills over Patriots, 20-17
Bucs over Eagles, 28-20
Cowboys over 49ers, 30-27
Chiefs over Steelers, 34-20
Rams over Cardinals, 31-17