NFL Wild Card Weekend Preview

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Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Will Tom Brady be able to lead the Bucs to the Super Bowl this year? First, he and his Tampa Bay teammates need to get past the Chicago Bears.

After 17 weeks, the NFL’s 32-team field has been whittled down to 14. It’s playoff time, so let’s take a look at the new format and the wild card matchups. 

The new wild card rule was changed from last year where the #1 and #2 seeded teams had a first-round bye. Now, only the #1 seed in each conference has a bye, and another wild card team was added to each conference, increasing the total number of teams in the postseason from 12 to 14.

“The wild card rule is more fun than last year’s rule since it involves more teams, but there are some disadvantages to it,” said seventh grader Ryan Smith. “[For example], the 8-8 Bears made the playoffs, but the 10-6 Dolphins did not.”

Yes, the playoffs don’t always reward the best teams, but now there are at least more playoff games. Wild Card Weekend has expanded to six games played instead of four with the #2 seed in each conference playing the #7 seed, the #3 seed facing the #6 seed, and the #4 seed taking on the #5 seed. 

The 1-4 seeds are the teams that win each of their respective divisions, and the 5-7 seeds are the wild card teams – those that have the best records outside of the division winners. After Wild Card Weekend, the lowest remaining seeds play the highest remaining seeds until a champion is crowned on Super Bowl Sunday. 

Let’s take a look at this year’s playoffs starting with the wild card round in the NFC. The New Orleans Saints (#2) and the Chicago Bears (#7) square off in The Big Easy. Earlier in the season when these two teams played each other, a fight broke out, and Javon Wims, wide receiver for the Bears, got ejected from the game for intentionally punching a player on the Saints’ defense. Will there be more fireworks this weekend?  More importantly, who has the upper hand?

The Bears’ QB Mitch Trubisky hopes to prove the haters wrong by winning his first career playoff game. (Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/AP.)

In terms of the Bears’ offense, some people say that quarterback Mitch Trubisky is their guy, but others disagree. With Super Bowl champion and back-up quarterback Nick Foles in the mix, there is a little bit of a competition at the position. Whoever is under center, though, may not make a difference according to seventh grader Tommy Errico.

“I see the Bears pulling off an upset over the Saints’ defense, [which] has not been the greatest defense,” said Errico, a Bears fan. “The Bears have the ability to protect their quarterback very well the last couple of games and can move on in the playoffs against the Saints.”

New Orleans’ offense was one of the best in the league, but after losing their star receiver, Michael Thomas, who is now questionable for this weekend’s game with an ankle injury that lingered throughout the season, it may take a turn. Their offense has had many obstacles this season with their RBs being quarantined, Michael Thomas not being 100% healthy most of the time, and QB Drew Brees being injured for a few weeks. It has been a rough year, but they can pull it off if they play well.

Elsewhere, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (#5) against the Washington Football Team (#4) is a matchup few saw coming. The Bucs are in the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, and Washington last made the playoffs five years ago. However, it hasn’t won a playoff game in 15 years. 

Washington’s defense is one of the best in the league according to ESPN’s stats, ranking second in total yards allowed per game. In addition, they rank fourth in points allowed per game. 

QB Tom Brady and the rest of the Bucs’ offense may have a problem with that since they may have one of their star receivers, Mike Evans, out with a hyper-extended knee. They need to figure out a plan to overcome the Washington defense, but the Bucs have the firepower to do it. Along with Brady, the offense is stacked with receivers Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin, future Hall of Fame TE Rob Gronkowski, and running backs Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones II.   

Seahawks’ QB Russell Wilson will need to get past division rival Los Angeles in order to add to his postseason resume. (Photo courtesy of https://www.sportingnews.com.)

The Seattle Seahawks (#3) and the Los Angeles Rams (#6) round out the NFC. These two teams are a divisional rival, and playing each other in the first round of the playoffs will only add to the intensity. Both teams are well-rounded. Early this season, the Seahawks seemed like a Super Bowl-caliber team, then they fell off a little bit. Their star quarterback, Russell Wilson, was a clear MVP candidate throughout the first few weeks, but he dropped off, too. As he goes, so does Seattle. The Seahawks’ dynamic duo, receivers DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, were immense assets, and if Wilson did not have those weapons, the Seahawks would have probably not made the playoffs.

The Rams were the opposite this season. Over the first few weeks, they were a complete mess. Their receivers, led by Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, did not play that well, but then they started to heat up as the season wore on. QB Jared Goff also began to play better, and the Rams won a number of important games down the stretch. The Rams also have one of the best defenses in the league as they allowed the fewest yards and points and ranked second in sacks. 

Moving over to the AFC, one of the most intense matchups in this Wild Card Weekend is the Buffalo Bills (#2) and the Indianapolis Colts (#7). Many people say that the obvious winner in this matchup is the Bills due to their dynamic weapons on offense: QB Josh Allen and WR Stephon Diggs. The Colts, however, have a very good rush defense that the Bills may struggle against. That defense is ranked second overall in terms of creating turnovers and rushing yards allowed this season according to ESPN.

Josh Allen has led the Buffalo Bills to their first division title in 25 years. (Photo courtesy of https://buffalowdown.com.)

The Bills have had momentum throughout the season, and the Colts’ QB, Phillip Rivers, has never fared well in cold weather and in the postseason. This matchup will come down to which unit is more effective – the Bills’ offense or the Colts’ defense. 

The Tennessee Titans (#4) and the Baltimore Ravens (#5) are two teams that have the potential to win it all. Both teams have a variety of playmakers on offense that make them dangerous playoff teams.  The Titans pack an explosive punch with RB Derrick Henry, QB Ryan Tannehill, and WR A.J Brown. The Ravens counter with last year’s MVP Lamar Jackson at quarterback, CB Marlon Humphrey, and WR Marquise Brown. 

The Titans have a very strong offense, but not the best defense. The person who stands out on their defense is safety Kevin Byard. Last year he was arguably the best safety in the league, but he took a step backward this season. Their offense is paced by Henry, their bruising running back. He was a monster this year, rushing for more than 2,000 yards – only the eighth player in NFL history to hit that mark. On the receiving side, A.J Brown is one of the best young receivers in the game. He recorded his first 1,000-yard season this year and has great chemistry with Tannehill, the Titans’ QB.  This game will be very close and have a lot of opportunities for both offenses to score. 

Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster and the Steelers will try to continue their domination over the Browns. (Photo courtesy of https://nflspinzone.com.)

Last but not least, the Pittsburgh Steelers (#3) and the Cleveland Browns (#6) are another set of division rivals that have been going at it for decades. Both have great offenses. The Steelers’ attack features wideouts JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Dionte Johnson, running back James Conner, and future Hall of Fame QB Ben Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh is also stout on defense as it is led by linebackers T.J Watt and Avery Williamson, safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrel Edmunds, cornerbacks Mike Hilton and Joe Haden, defensive tackle Cameron Hayward, and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. According to ESPN, this Steelers defense was ranked first in sacks, second in takeaways, and third in points and yards allowed per game.

The Browns also have a well-rounded team, but they have been plagued with many injuries, especially the torn ACL suffered by star wideout Odell Beckham, Jr. Their star players on offense are QB Baker Mayfield, WR Jarvis Landry, TE Austin Hooper, and perhaps the best running back duo in the league with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. On defense, they have some young studs such as defensive end Miles Garret, safety Jabrill Peppers, and cornerback Denzel Ward. Cleveland seems to have the momentum, but they have a long history of losing to Pittsburgh over the past two decades, so it will be an uphill battle for the Browns. 

Now that we’ve laid out the matchups, let’s take a look at our Wild Card Weekend picks:

Reid Waxman’s Playoff Picks

Bills vs Colts – Bills

Seahawks vs Rams – Seahawks

Washington Football Team vs Buccaneers – Buccaneers

Titans vs Ravens – Titans

Saints vs Bears – Saints

Browns vs Steelers – Browns

Jackson Zentner’s Playoff Picks

Bills vs Colts – Bills

Seahawks vs Rams – Seahawks

Washington Football Team vs Buccaneers – Buccaneers

Titans vs Ravens – Ravens

Saints vs Bears – Saints

Browns vs Steelers – Steelers