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NFL Wildcard Preview: Matchups, Predictions For First Round of Playoffs

It's playoff time in the NFL. Who is on upset alert, and who is in prime position to make a run to the Super Bowl?
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Buckle up folks, it’s playoff time in the NFL.

The 2021 regular season is officially over, and 14 teams remain. The expanded playoffs give us an extra team in each conference, setting up a six-game slate for the first round.

Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers secured the top seed in the NFC for the second straight year, giving them a first-round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Over in the AFC, Ryan Tannehill and the Tennessee Titans hold the number one seed, giving them the bye and home field advantage as well.

The Titans are expected to have a healthy Derrick Henry, who has been out the last 10 weeks, ready to go for the divisional round. Meanwhile, the Packers look to keep rolling as they have all year behind another MVP-caliber season from Rodgers.

With the bye-teams out of the way, lets focus on the squads squaring up this weekend.

Las Vegas Raiders vs. Cincinnati Bengals

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Wildcard Weekend starts off with a bang, as the Raiders head to The Jungle in Cincinnati to take on the Bengals.

The Raiders are one of the hottest teams in the NFL, winning their last four games to end the season. They just came off a Sunday Night Football overtime win against the Los Angeles Chargers in an all-time classic.

The Raiders were full of drama and controversy earlier in the season, so it’s nice to see them put together a little run to sneak into the playoffs. This is the first playoff game for quarterback Derek Carr and Interim Head Coach Rich Bisaccia.

The Raiders are a scrappy team. Receiver Hunter Renfrow just had a historic season, putting himself alongside franchise legends. Carr has proven he and the Raiders are never out of a game, and the defense led by Maxx Crosby is a very underrated unit.

But here come the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Bengals did the famous “worst to first” route in the AFC North this season, led by second-year quarterback Joe Burrow and rookie sensation Ja’Marr Chase. The former LSU teammates picked up right where they left off in college, showing the entire country that this is going to be a deadly combination in the NFL for so many years to come. With Joe Mixon in the backfield and Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins alongside Chase, this Bengals offense stacks up with the best of them.

And that is what’s going to be the difference in this one.

This game has the potential to be a shootout Saturday afternoon. If that is the case, I don’t know if Vegas can keep up with Cincinnati for a full 60 minutes. Expect Burrow, Chase and company to pick up the Bengals first playoff win in 30 years and move onto the divisional round.

Prediction: Bengals 31, Raiders 27

New England Patriots vs. Buffalo Bills

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This is arguably the best matchup of the first round. Division rivals, Bill Belichick, Bills Mafia, all in primetime.

The Patriots and Bills split their two meetings this season. The Pats took the first one on a windy Monday Night in Buffalo when Mac Jones only threw the ball three times. Buffalo righted the ship in New England week 16, winning the second matchup to take the AFC East lead and they never looked back.

Mac Jones has been an overall success this season, playing well above and beyond the other rookie quarterbacks taken in the 2021 draft. The Patriots prioritized a run-first, high percentage passing offense for Jones, and the offense seemed to thrive immediately.

This will, however, be Jones’ first NFL playoff game. We have seen him win the National Championship with Alabama, but the atmosphere up in Buffalo will be a different beast.

Josh Allen and the Bills look to make another run in the playoffs after falling to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship last year. They are fully capable of doing so, but topping Belichick in a playoff game is historically no easy task.

The story here says to take Buffalo, but the Patriots were 6-2 on the road this season, best in the AFC. For some reason, even with a rookie quarterback, Belichick has this team ready to play on the road. They run the ball well, and Jones won’t make those mistakes in the fourth quarter that cost you the game.

Wildcard Saturday will end strong, with Mac Jones and New England pulling off the upset in Buffalo with a potential rematch against Tennessee on deck.

Prediction: Patriots 27, Bills 24

Philadelphia Eagles vs. Tampa Bay Bucs

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The second day of wildcard weekend starts with Tom Brady and the Bucs facing an NFC East opponent for the second year in a row.

This Philadelphia team is truly an enigma. First year head coach, uncertainty at quarterback and question marks all over the roster. Nevertheless, here they are. Another scrappy team that looks amazing one week and terrible the next. It will be interesting to see Jalen Hurts make his first NFL playoff start down in Tampa on Sunday.

While the Bucs brought back the same 22 starters as last season’s Super Bowl team, most of them aren’t available this weekend. Chris Godwin is done for the year with a torn ACL, Leonard Fournette and Lavonte David are on IR, and Antonio Brown took off his gear and ran off the field against the Jets two weeks ago. He is no longer on the team.

Regardless, one thing remains constant: Tom Brady. Brady’s experience this time of year is unmatched. We saw it lead this team last year during the playoffs, and are likely to see it again this year.

People might think an upset may be brewing in this one. The Bucs beat the Eagles 28-22 in week 6, so maybe Philly can keep it close again and squeeze out a win. But are you going to bet against Brady?

I didn’t think so. Brady and the Bucs should control the flow of the game and handle Philly once again.

Prediction: Bucs 28, Eagles 17

San Francisco 49ers vs. Dallas Cowboys

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This has the potential to be the game of the weekend.

The 49ers are arguably the most underrated team in the playoffs. They have the defense, they run the ball well and they have a quarterback who can get them there, as he has shown before.

Deebo Samuel has been one of the pleasant second-half surprises this season. He has shown he can be used all over the field and can score at any given moment.

The Cowboys, in their own right, have everything they need to make a run too.

The offense was built to score, and more often than not, they do. Dallas led the NFL with 31 points per game. With Amari Cooper, Ceedee Lamb, Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Pollard, they can keep up with any team offensively.

On the defensive side, they recorded 33 takeaways, including an NFL-high 25 interceptions.

This game can become a shootout just as easily as it can be a run-first, grinded out game. While a lot of people may expect the Cowboys to roll on to the divisional round, the 49ers are just too appealing as a complete team.

Guys like Samuel and Kittle will keep San Francisco in the game on offense, and this should be a phenomenal game Sunday afternoon.

The 49ers have what it takes to make a Super Bowl run. Expect San Francisco to make the key plays and set up a matchup with Green Bay the following week.

Prediction: 49ers 27, Cowboys 25

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Kansas City Chiefs

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Some people across the NFL community were a little disappointed when this matchup was announced, and they have a point.

The Steelers have underperformed all year. The offense was inconsistent, and aside from the historic year from TJ Watt, the team was a letdown. If the Raiders/Chargers game had ended in a tie, which it almost did, the Steelers wouldn’t be preparing for the Chiefs right now.

Nevertheless, here they are in the playoffs.

The Steelers went into Arrowhead Stadium three weeks ago, and it was bad. Mahomes and the Chiefs dismantled Big Ben and the Steelers 36-10, and the Steelers didn’t score a point until the end of the third quarter.

The playoffs are known to be a different animal, and Roethlisberger might have a little magic left in him before he hangs it up after this season. Don’t expect it though.

The solid Steelers defense won’t be able to contain Mahomes and the Chiefs offense for a full 60 minutes. It is a nice storyline for Big Ben to make the playoffs one last time, but the farewell tour ends at Arrowhead.

Prediction: Chiefs 24, Steelers 13

Arizona Cardinals vs. Los Angeles Rams

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The Wildcard round ends Monday night with the Cardinals heading to So-Fi stadium to battle the Rams.

Arizona came out of So-Fi with a convincing 37-20 win earlier in the year, and finished an NFL-best 8-1 on the road. The Rams won in Arizona week 13 and finished 5-3 at home, setting up another division series split, similar to Buffalo and New England.

Kyler Murray and the Cardinals were a red-hot 7-0 to start the year, but went 4-6 the rest of the season. They lost DeAndre Hopkins, JJ Watt and others to injuries, and haven’t seemed to maintain that rhythm they had those first seven weeks.

The Rams, on the other hand, are essentially fully healthy and appear as a serious threat in the NFC. Cooper Kupp just won the coveted Triple Crown, leading all receivers in receptions, yards and touchdowns. Odell Beckham Jr. has found his groove again since leaving Cleveland, and tight end Tyler Higbee along with Sony Michel in the backfield have been solid complements to round out this Rams offense.

This game comes down to which teams show up. Do the Cardinals play like their 7-0 selves, or the 4-6 version? The Rams have looked unstoppable at times with their top-tier defense too, but have also had their own questionable performances throughout the season.

When push comes to shove, the Rams are the more complete team right now. Expect a back and forth game, but the Rams will inevitably make the stops they need and come out of So-Fi with the victory.

Prediction: Rams 28, Cardinals 20

Author

  • Lifelong sports fan fulfilling a childhood dream. I'll talk sports all day. Passion and hot takes are my thing... there's always a story. Yankees. NY Giants. Knicks. Texas Longhorns.  Yes... being a Knicks fan is rough, but my time will come (hopefully). Senior at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.