The NFL regular season has finished, despite dozens of COVID cases and postponements. Regardless, the league has proceeded with its expanded playoff format, with fourteen teams compete for the Lombardi Trophy instead of the typical twelve. As such, an additional two games will be played on Wildcard Weekend, one from each conference. These are my predictions for the six wildcard games this weekend.
Colts at Bills
Saturday, 1:05 p.m., CBS Line: Bills -6.5
Whether or not they are the best team in the league, the Bills have played like it. Since Week 14, they have outscored opponents 168-69 and, excluding a fluke Hail Mary, haven’t lost since Week 6 against the Chiefs.
Indianapolis, on the other hand, ranks top-ten in scoring offense and defense yet only squeaked into the playoffs. They performed well against better teams, including wins against Green Bay and Tennessee, but had trouble nailing the coffin shut against teams like Jacksonville and Houston.
On paper, the Colts should at least compete with Buffalo. But given the Bills’ exponentially upward momentum and below-freezing temps expected for kickoff, the dome-hailing Colts stand little chance.
Prediction: Bills 33-24 Colts
Rams at Seahawks
Saturday, 4:40 p.m., Fox Line: Seahawks -3.5
Seattle and LA split the season series, despite the former being the worse team. The Rams’ defense kept Russell Wilson and Co. to a mere 18 points per game, 10 points lower than their season average. Keeping that defensive stoutness against one of the league’s most prolific offenses will be the key to victory, and Seattle has seemed to figure out the LA offense; the Rams scored just nine points in their most recent matchup.
Seattle may be without Jamal Adams and Jarran Reed, weakening what is already an abysmal defense. Even if backup John Wolford plays the entire game, he won’t be facing what was formerly known as the Legion of Boom. Expect a bitter in-division rivalry game, with scores more akin to youth basketball than pro football.
Prediction: Seahawks 24-23 Rams
Buccaneers at Football Team
Saturday, 8:15 p.m., NBC Line: Buccaneers -8.5
It is an affront to football that the Washington Football Team scored a playoff spot; and at least one guaranteed home game, at that. With that said, watch out for an upset in this one.
Yes, Washington is 7-9 and no sub-.500 team deserves a playoff berth. But in games where Alex Smith acted as the full-time QB, the Football Team went 4-2. The defense is incredible, and the offense scores enough points under Smith to win.
Montez Sweat and Chase Young will terrorize Tom Brady all night; expect them to combine for at least 3.5 sacks. Brady and the Bucs’ offense have been clicking over the past week, albeit against weak opponents. They’ve averaged 37 points per game since their Week 13 bye, but none of those four games were against teams with more than seven wins.
Neither Bruce Arians nor Ron Rivera has won a playoff game since 2015, but one will need to prevail. And despite the line, the pressure is on Arians to step up. The game will be decided, frankly, when Tampa Bay has the ball. If they can bust the Washington defense, they will easily outscore the Football Team. If they can’t get the ball moving, however, Washington will slip through the cracks and advance.
Prediction: Football Team 21-17 Buccaneers
Ravens at Titans
Sunday, 1:05 p.m., ABC & ESPN Line: Ravens -3.5
The Ravens are one of two road teams favored in their Wildcard Game (the other being Tampa Bay), but undeservedly so. Despite a five-game win streak to end the season, hasn’t comfortably won a game against a playoff team since Week 9.
Derrick Henry had the fifth-best rushing season ever, making him the only active player not named Adrian Peterson to even break the top-30. Pair that ground superiority with Ryan Tannahill’s competency as a game manager, and you’ve got a terrifying smashmouth offense.
The Titans and Ravens met earlier this season. That game was a 30-24 victory for Tennessee. Both teams played ruthlessly efficiently, with only seven possessions not ending with a score.
If Baltimore wants to win this game, they will need to contain Henry. On his career, he’s won three playoff games, all of which he rushed for at least 150 yards. In his two playoff losses, he’s rushed for under 70. There is no reason for this game to not follow suit.
Prediction: Titans 27-20 Ravens
Bears at Saints
Sunday, 4:40 p.m., CBS & Nickelodeon Line: Saints -9.5
The Bears have been sneaky good all year, but don’t let that fool you into thinking they could make a playoff run. In Week 8 these teams went to overtime, with the Saint coming out on top. However, that was with Nick Foles; Mitch Trubisky is the starter now, and he stands no chance.
While Trubisky may be the better regular-season option, he holds no chance against one of the scariest defenses in the NFL. New Orleans has a unique combination of a menacing pass rush and one of the league’s best pass defenses, neither of which Trubisky is ready for. If Nick Foles were under center, Chicago could at least have a chance to make it a game. With Trubisky, they’re asking to be decimated.
Prediction: Saints 41-17 Bears
Browns at Steelers
Sunday, 8:15 p.m., NBC Line: Steelers -6.5
For a while there, Pittsburgh looked like they could go 16-0. But then they lost to Washington. Since that game, the Steelers have not looked remotely the same. They beat only the Colts between the loss at home to the Football Team, including a Week 17 defeat against the Browns.
That said, be ready for the early-season Steelers to reappear. They lost to Cleveland last week, but that was with many a heavily rotated squad. At full strength, Pittsburgh beat the Browns 38-7. Expect much of the same come Sunday.
To add even more salt to the wounds, Cleveland will be without head coach Kevin Stefanski due to COVID protocol. It’s unclear what negative impact his absence will have if any, but the Browns are definitely not getting better because of it.
Prediction: Steelers 31-20 Browns
Predictions. Predictions. Predictions. Predictions. Predictions.