It’s for the best that there’s less time than ever before to wait for playoff football. The ugly, bizarre ending to Game 256 of the regular season between the Washington Football Team and Philadelphia Eagles left a bad aftertaste following an otherwise-delicious final Sunday in this unprecedented NFL campaign.
Next weekend is unprecedented, too. The six-game slate is being dubbed Super Wild Card Weekend, with the AFC matchups looking especially inviting. Let’s take a first look ahead by asking one big question about each matchup.
SATURDAY, JAN. 9
1:05 p.m. ET (CBS) | Bills Stadium (Orchard Park, N.Y.)
Can any defense slow down the Bills?
It’s remarkable how far the Bills have come over the last year. While the NFL stuck them in the early-Saturday wild-card slot again — which is even earlier this year — this Buffalo team could not be any more different than its 2019 edition. When I did this exercise a year ago, I asked if the Bills’ defense was enough because Josh Allen was so erratic. Now the Bills’ offense is good enough to put up 56 against a terrific Dolphins defense despite Allen being benched at halftime.
The Colts have a well-coached, playmaking defense led by DeForest Buckner and Darius Leonard that is up for a challenge, but that’s unlikely to be enough. The return of Buffalo speedster John Brown on Sunday added another dimension for Allen, who finished the season playing better than any quarterback. (Even MVP-to-be Aaron Rodgers.) The Bills’ defense has performed like a top-10 unit since Week 7, which will make it harder for a Colts offense without left tackle Anthony Castonzo to try to keep up.
Bills coach Sean McDermott is the rare defensive coordinator-turned-head coach who has embraced an aggressive offensive philosophy because he saw that a sound defense and running game would only take him so far. The Colts may learn a similar lesson Saturday.
4:40 p.m. ET (FOX) | Lumen Field (Seattle)
Can Jared Goff salvage his disappointing season?
Backup quarterback John Wolford’s mobility added a lot to the Rams’ offense Sunday in their 18-7 win over the Cardinals. We knew Wolford was fast, but his ability to go through reads, find holes in the defense and throw with anticipation was more surprising. Wolford played well enough to start a quarterback controversy in the Los Angeles Times, but there’s no way Rams coach Sean McVay will bench Goff if he’s available to play. Having seen the video of Goff throwing the ball well in warmups Sunday coming off his thumb surgery, I’ll be shocked if he isn’t the starter in Seattle.
This is a matchup the Rams should embrace. It’s likely to be a defensive battle, and the Rams have the better defense, possibly the best in football. Sean McVay is 5-3 lifetime against Pete Carroll, with one of those losses coming two Sundays ago. These teams know each other so well and there isn’t much separating them, except at quarterback. Goff has held his team back in key spots throughout the season, with McVay appearing to call plays in an effort to coach around his quarterback. That somehow wasn’t the case Sunday with Wolford on the field. If Goff struggles again in Seattle, it’s going to be a messy offseason for the Rams.
8:15 p.m. ET (NBC) | FedExField (Landover, Md.)
Will tougher competition slow down Tom Brady?
Tampa’s Brady-led offense was close to perfect for its last 10 quarters against the Falcons, Lions and Falcons again. The fundamentally sound Washington defense, led by Chase Young and a rugged defensive line, will provide a much tougher test.
Brady is playing like a top-five quarterback when he’s protected and like a 43-year-old at times when he’s not. Washington will have to hit him and make the Bucs go on long field goal drives to shorten this game, but it’s hard to imagine Alex Smith putting many points on the board after this offense could only muster 248 yards at a meager 4.0 yards per play against the Zombie Eagles on Sunday night.
Brady is playing with plenty of margin for error. He won’t need a 40-point effort to win, but another dominant offensive performance will be a sign this fascinating Bucs team could still play a home game in the Super Bowl.
SUNDAY, JAN. 10
1:05 p.m. ET (ESPN) | Nissan Stadium (Nashville, Tenn.)
Is this the start of the Ravens’ revenge tour?
The Ravens are not your average wild-card team. They led the NFL in point differential entering Week 17, only adding to their margin after beating the Bengals 38-3. They have won five in a row and are led by 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson, who is putting up MVP numbers over the last month. Baltimore is the proverbial Team No One Wants to Face.
The Titans were that team last year, when they rudely ended the 2019 Ravens’ dream season. And then Tennessee appeared to knock John Harbaugh’s 2020 squad down for the count in Week 11, overcoming a 21-10 road deficit to win in overtime, the low point in this Baltimore campaign. In short: Nashville would be an amazing spot for the Ravens to earn the first playoff win of the Lamar era.
Tennessee’s offense ranks with the explosive units in Kansas City and Buffalo, but the Titans’ defense falls among the sieves in Jacksonville and Detroit. If the Ravens were to win, they could possibly be headed to Kansas City in the Divisional Round for another revenge game. Did I mention how good these AFC playoffs look?
4:40 p.m. ET (CBS) | Mercedes-Benz Superdome (New Orleans)
Will the Saints’ offensive line take over?
The Saints ran for 264 yards and seven touchdowns while eating a 50-burger on Christmas. They ran for another 156 yards in a 33-7 win over the Panthers in Week 17 despite the entire running back room being on the COVID-19 list. That is a sign of an offensive line eating well.
While the Bears’ defensive front presents a much more challenging matchup, Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk are the best tackle combination in the NFL. If Drew Brees is protected, coach Sean Payton will scheme enough guys open, especially with Michael Thomas returning. (Alvin Kamara’s return from the COVID-19 list is a bit foggier.) Saints fans won’t let their guard down after losing as heavy favorites against the second-place NFC North team a year ago, but this 8-8 Bears outfit led by Mitchell Trubisky is only in the playoffs because the league expanded the format. Brees can’t go out like this, can he?
8:15 p.m. ET (NBC) | Heinz Field (Pittsburgh)
Did Ben Roethlisberger flip a switch in Week 16?
It’s annoying when teams play in back-to-back weeks, but so much will be different about both of these two on Sunday that I don’t mind it this time.
The return of rested versions of Roethlisberger, T.J. Watt, Maurkice Pouncey and Cameron Heyward buoy the Steelers. The potential return of six Browns players from the COVID-19 list, with Denzel Ward being one of four key defensive backs out in Week 17, is almost as huge.
The back end of Cleveland’s defense is probably the weakest group in this game, and it’s up to Roethlisberger to take advantage. Is he the aging gunslinger turned pop-gunner from most of the second half of the season or is he the guy drawing deep shots in the dirt to end the Steelers slide in Week 16? After years of Big Ben and the Steelers bullying the Browns in this rivalry, an upset by Baker Mayfield and the Fighting Stefanskis would represent a changing of the guard.
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