The first ever 18-week regular season in the National Football League has concluded, and man – what a finish it was. The Colts lost to the last-place Jaguars to get eliminated, the Steelers edged past the Ravens in overtime to stay alive and the season ended on an overtime thriller between the Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers—two teams that needed a win to enter the playoffs.
We now enter year two of the expanded playoffs, where seven teams from each conference earn a playoff spot, the top seed getting a first round bye (AFC – Tennessee Titans, NFC – Green Bay Packers). This weekend the NFL is calling it “Super Wild Card Weekend” with six games spread across three action-packed days of football.
Genius Sports Report takes a data-led approach to the Wild Card games.
Las Vegas Raiders (10-7) @ Cincinnati Bengals[ -5.5](10-7):
Kick off time: Saturday 16:30 EST
These two storied AFC franchises kick off the weekend on Saturday. Despite their even records, the Bengals host as the winner of the AFC North and the Raiders needed an overtime victory in week 18 to secure a spot in the playoffs. Both teams are excited to be back in the playoffs after significant droughts. The Raiders’ last playoff appearance was in 2016 when they lost in the first round. While current QB Derek Carr was on the team then, he injured his leg before the playoffs, making this his first postseason appearance for the team. The Raiders haven’t won a playoff game since 2002 when they lost in the Super Bowl. The Bengals have had even tougher luck, last appearing in the playoffs in 2015 but not recording a playoff win since the 1990 season.
The Bengals boast one of the most dynamic offensive duos in all of the NFL. Second year quarterback Joe Burrow is the front runner (and all-but lock) for comeback player of the year after tearing his ACL his rookie year. Burrow is paired with his former LSU teammate, rookie WR Ja’marr Chase. The Chase/Burrow connection has accounted for 1,455 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. Chase set the rookie franchise record for receiving yards in a season and fourth most in the NFL. Burrow returned to form this year and is squarely in the MVP race, as well. He finished the season with the highest completion percentage, 70% among qualifying quarterbacks, and his passer rating of 108.3 is second only to Aaron Rodgers. The Raiders have been about average against the pass, giving up the 14th fewest yards per game, but will have their hands full with this pair.
The Raiders have struggled to put together complete games on a consistent basis, but have won enough close games to get them into the playoffs. A big reason for their success has been the resurgence of DE Maxx Crosby. Earning his first Pro-Bowl appearance this year, Crosby led the league with over 100 quarterback pressures and 8 sacks. Crosby and fellow DE Yannick Ngakoue have been a force for opposing offensive linemen to stop. The off-season debate came down to whether the Bengals should draft Chase or foundational offensive tackle Penei Sewell. Bengals fans have been happy with Chase so far, but failing to stop a fierce Raiders defensive line may reopen the debate.
New England Patriots (10-7) @ Buffalo Bills[-4.0] (11-6):
Kick off time: Saturday 20:15 EST
The Bills and Patriots meet for the third time this season after splitting their regular season series 1-1. Buffalo ended up winning the division after closing out the season with a win and Bill Belichick and the Patriots enter the playoffs as a Wild Card team for the first time in his tenure. All 17 of Belichick’s playoff appearances with New England have been as division winners. The Bills last won the division in 1995 – they’ve now won it in back-to-back seasons.
The New England Patriots missed the playoffs last year and finished with a 7-9 record. The rough season, however, set them up to draft rookie quarterback Mac Jones, the best rookie quarterback of his class so far and sure to be a finalist for offensive rookie of the year. Jones famously led the Patriots to their first win over the Bills this season by only passing the ball 3 times and completing twice. The weather didn’t support a heavier passing attack and the Patriots ground game kept them ahead of Buffalo. With some calls for snow in this match-up, we may see more of the same.
Josh Allen was a pre-season MVP favorite for the Buffalo Bills, but didn’t quite live up to expectations. He threw for nearly the same amount of yards this year as he did in 2020 and only one less touchdown. However, he threw five more interceptions and his passer rating this season was 92.2 compared to 107.2 last season. Allen did set a career high in rushing yards this season with 763 and 6.3 yards per carry along with six touchdowns. The Bills need to have a balanced approach to beating the Patriots and a combination of Allen running when necessary may help elevate the team.
Philadelphia Eagles (9-8) @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers [-8.5](13-4):
Kick off time: Sunday 13:00 EST
Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers begin their playoff push to defend their Super Bowl Championship. Amazingly, this is Brady’s eighth time defending his Super Bowl. Last year, the Buccaneers made the playoffs as a Wild Card team and won three playoff games on the road before winning the Super Bowl in their home stadium (a scheduling happenstance and first team to ever win the Super Bowl in their home stadium). As winners of the NFC South the Buccaneers secured the #2 seed in the NFC and will host at least two playoff games with a win on Sunday. The Eagles enter as the #7 seed and Wild Card team from the NFC East. The Eagles and first year Head Coach Nick Sirianni started the season 3-6 before ending on a 6-2 run, with one loss coming week 18 while playing backups.
The Buccaneers have persevered through injuries on offense including their top wide receiver and lead running back. Despite the challenges Brady has been unstoppable at age 44. He has set career high marks in passing yards, attempts, and completions while also leading the league in those categories. His 67.5 completion percentage and 43 touchdowns are second only to Brady’s 2007 campaign where he lead the Patriots to a 16-0 regular season record.
Philadelphia entered the season with uncertainty and low expectations. Hurts was entering into his first full year as the starting quarterback and with a new head coach, not many picked them to make the playoffs. Hurts improved in many facets of his game, but his dual-threat capability vaulted the Eagles offense. Hurts became the first quarterback in Eagles history to rush for 10 touchdowns and the first Eagles player to rush for more double digit touchdowns since LeSean McCoy back in 2011. The Eagles bring the League’s number 1 rushing offense to face off against Tampa Bay’s 13th ranked run defense. Fans like to say running the ball in the playoffs is the key to winning, lets see if that’s enough to slow down Brady at MVP level.
San Francisco 49ers (10-7) @ Dallas Cowboys [-3] (12-5):
Kick off time: Sunday 16:30 EST
A huge win for the NFL that the 49ers get paired up with the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs. The 49ers have welcomed more recent success than the Cowboys, playing in two Super Bowls in the past 10 years, but the Cowboys have been in and out of the playoffs nearly every year and are poised to make a run this year. San Francisco and Dallas are tied for the second most Super Bowl wins of any franchise (five, Pittsburgh and New England both have 6) and have faced each other in the playoffs several times. Most (in)famously was their 1981 NFC Championship Game matchup in San Francisco. The 49ers won the game 28-27 with what is known as “The Catch.” For fans who have not heard or seen the story, definitely go look it up now.
The Dallas Cowboys looked at the top of the league during the early stretch of the season. They lost the season opener to Tampa Bay, then strung together six wins in a row and looked good doing it. There defense was revamped under new Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn who unlocked cornerback Trevon Diggs’ potential. Diggs leads the league in interceptions with 11 and has been a ballhawk all season. Though it does come with a warning, as Diggs has given up the most yardage in coverage this season, a clear boom-bust kind of player this season. The other revelation has been rookie LB/DE Micah Parsons. Parsons has played all over the field on defense and has 13.0 sacks, 20 tackles for loss and 84 total tackles. He ranks sixth in the league in sacks and second in tackles for loss making him a lock for defensive rookie of the year and a strong candidate for defensive player of the year. If the defense can make big plays and the offense wins time of possession, the Cowboys should expect to come away with a win.
The 49ers are no fluke to enter the playoffs this year. While their QB play has been troublesome at times, Head Coach Kyle Shanahan has masterminded a dynamic and potent offense that looks to bully teams into submission. Shanahan’s star on offense is wide receiver/running back Deebo Samuel. Samuel is fifth in the league with 1,405 receiving yards and leads the league in yards per reception at 18.2 yards. What makes him special though, is his ability to play running back (and not just in trick plays). Samuel has lined up as running back and rushed for 365 yards and 8 touchdowns, averaging 6.2 yards per carry (he has also thrown a 24 yard touchdown pass this season). There is no doubt Samuel will be heavily used in this matchup and will keep Dallas busy on defense. However, if they focus too much on him, expect All-Pro tight end George Kittle to run free and make big plays.
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7-1) @ Kansas City Chiefs [-12.5] (12-5):
Kick off time: Sunday 16:30 EST
I wrote about it last week and nearly manifested the chaotic outcome of a Chargers and Raiders tie to keep the Steelers out of the playoffs. Yet, normalcy won at the end and the Raiders knocked off the Chargers and helped the Steelers match up against the reigning AFC Champion Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs open as a 12.5 point favorite and the only double digit favorite during this first round. The disparity is not lost on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger who addressed the media this week and called for his team to have fun and play as if they have nothing to lose. The Chiefs finished the season hotter than anyone else and will be focused on returning to the AFC Championship match.
Roethlisberger is on his farewell tour and won’t play another home game, but the extended time playing in the NFL is welcomed by all Steelers fans. In a must win game in week 18, Roethlisberger threw for 244 yards on 68.2 percent completion and a touchdown. The Steelers are bolstered on offense by rookie running back Najee Harris who broke 1,000 yards rushing in week 18 and leads the league in touches (381). Pittsburgh has historically been built on stout defense and they are built around arguably the best defensive player in the league, T.J. Watt. The younger brother of 3x Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, T.J. tied Michael Strahan for the single season sack record of 22.5. Despite the extra attention he will get from opposing offenses, Watt will make big plays on defense.
There isn’t much more to say about the Kansas City Chiefs that fans don’t already know. Superstars Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill continued to produce this year and vaulted their team to the #2 overall seed in the AFC. It wasn’t just their performance that got Kansas City where they are today, though. The Chiefs defense allowed 21 points per game over the season while their offense average 28 points per game. The Steelers have scored the fewest points of any playoff team this year, so they will need to be creative in keeping up with Kansas City.
Arizona Cardinals (11-6) @ Los Angeles Rams [-4.0] (12-5):
Kick off time: Monday 20:15 EST
Super Wild Card Weekend concludes with a Monday Night matchup and the second divisional matchup of the weekend. The two teams split the season series with each team winning their road game against the other. The division came down to the wire as both teams lost their season finale matchups, giving the Rams the better overall record and chance to host the Wild Card game. Which may be more of a curse than a gift, as the Cardinals are 8-1 on the road, with their one loss coming to the Detroit Lions.
Last offseason, the Los Angeles Rams went all-in on trying to make the Super Bowl. They traded a 3rd round pick and two future 1st round picks to bring in Matthew Stafford and send Jared Goff to the Detroit Lions. The Rams sent more picks to Denver to acquire Von Miller before the trade deadline and later jumped at the opportunity to sign Odell Beckham, Jr. once he was cut from the Browns. We will see if the moves are enough to get the Rams back to the Super Bowl, but it has certainly helped so far. In his last outing against the Cardinals, Stafford threw for 287 yards and 3 touchdowns, with no interceptions, in the win over Arizona. His 139.2 passer rating in the week 14 matchup was good for second best in the league that week while having a completion percentage 12.0 points higher than expected according to Next Gen Stats.
Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals are getting their first chance in the playoffs with Head Coach Kliff Kingsbury. Murray was the early favorite for MVP as he led his team to a 10-2 record, but a faulty finish and injuries have all but knocked him from the running. Murray and company will hope Pro-Bowl wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins returns from injury to help power the offense. Despite only playing in 10 games this season, Hopkins leads the Cardinals with 8 touchdown receptions. Without Hopkins in the lineup, the Cardinals will lean on running back James Conner. Conner revitalized his career after moving from Pittsburgh and finished second in the league with 18 total touchdowns. If Murray can make plays with his feet and get the ball to his playmakers on offense, the Cardinals will keep it interesting in what may turn out to be one of the most exciting games of the weekend.