NFL playoff predictions: Our picks in the wild-card round
By Emmanuel Morgan
The NFL playoffs are here and with them comes the added theater of the first Monday night wild-card game and two matchups of teams meeting for the third time this season that will anchor the postseason’s opening weekend.
Saturday night’s Patriots-Bills III and Monday’s third contest between the NFC West-rival Cardinals and Rams sandwich a weekend where parity — and familiarity — should be on display. A rematch between the Raiders and Bengals, and a contest between the Cowboys and the 49ers, two of the NFL’s most-storied franchises, should also ramp up the drama after Las Vegas and San Francisco both needed overtime to claim their playoff spots.
This weekend, though, the NFL’s sudden-death overtime rules will apply: The length of the extra period stretches to 15 minutes from 10, and there won’t be any question of whether to kneel since the games will continue until someone scores.
Here’s a look at the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs, with all picks made against the spread.
Last week’s record: 6-10
Regular-season record: 129-143
All times are Eastern.
Las Vegas Raiders at Cincinnati Bengals, 4:30 p.m., NBC
Line: Bengals -5.5 | Total: 49.5
There are few stories this postseason more interesting than the Raiders (10-7), a team once considered out of playoff contention until it closed the regular season by winning four consecutive one-score games to earn a wild-card spot. They face a Bengals (10-7) offense that has thrived under Joe Burrow, who enters the game on a tear, having thrown for over 300 yards in three of his last four starts.
Burrow could exploit the Raiders’ secondary, the most-vulnerable unit of Las Vegas’ defense, which has allowed over 300 passing yards four times this season. The Pro Bowl defensive end Maxx Crosby and other lineman can generate pressure against a Bengals front that’s given up 55 sacks. But the Bengals have a Plan B in Joe Mixon, who finished third in the league in rushing yards (1,205), and could thrive as a receiver on check-down routes against the Raiders’ zone-based defense. Cincinnati beat Las Vegas comfortably in Week 11, and there’s little reason to think it will not happen again. Pick: Bengals -5.5
New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills, 8:15 p.m., CBS
Line: Bills -4 | Total: 42.5
Round 3, anyone?
Every good fight needs a third installment, and this meeting between the Bills (11-6) and Patriots (10-7) could be similar to the first, in Week 13, when New England let Mac Jones attempt only three passes in its win over Buffalo. Forecasts in Orchard Park, New York, on Saturday call for temperatures that hover around 0 degrees and a 30% chance of snow, an outlook that again favors a heavy reliance on the running game.
The Bills’ defense allowed league lows in yards and points in the regular season, but it has been susceptible to the run. In the teams’ late-December meeting, a Buffalo win, the Bills forced Jones into a 14 of 32 passing performance with no touchdown throws and two interceptions. Assuming more of the offensive load in recent weeks, Jones has looked like the rookie he is, and trusting a first-year passer to overcome the spread, on the road, in the cold, against an ascending team isn’t really a safe bet. Pick: Bills -4
Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1 p.m., Fox
Line: Buccaneers -8.5 | Total: 49
Tom Brady will have to endure mentions of the 2018 Super Bowl and the Philly Special as he prepares for the Eagles (9-8), who pivoted their season by focusing on the run to such an extent that Philadelphia finished with the league’s highest rushing average (159.7 yards per game). The Eagles’ salvation plays right into a major strength of Tampa Bay’s, since they give up only 92.5 running yards per game, third-fewest in the league.
And the Buccaneers’ (13-4) injured starters are trickling back into the lineup. Coach Bruce Arians said Monday that he expected running back Leonard Fournette (hamstring), linebacker Shaquil Barrett (knee) and edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul (shoulder) to play Sunday. That bodes well as they attempt to defend their Super Bowl championship, not revisit Brady’s nightmares. Pick: Buccaneers -8.5
San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys, 4:30 p.m., CBS
Line: Cowboys -3 | Total: 50.5
This is the closest spread of wild-card weekend, and for good reason: The 49ers (10-7) can counter everything Dallas does well defensively. The short drop backs and rushing attacks that are staples of coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense negate linebacker Micah Parsons’ ability to generate pressure and sacks (he has 13 this season). San Francisco doesn’t rely on deep throws, which could neutralize Trevon Diggs, the Dallas cornerback who led the league in interceptions (11).
Despite the thrashing Dallas (12-5) gave to Philadelphia’s backups last week, the Cowboys’ offense has more often suffered from miscommunications between Dak Prescott and his receivers and an inconsistent run game. Behind the versatile receiver Deebo Samuel and a defense that allowed an average of only 260 yards over its final four regular season games, the 49ers could look to secure an upset, or at least keep the score uncomfortably close. Pick: 49ers +3
Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs, 8:15 p.m., NBC
Line: Kansas City -12.5 | Total: 46
One could argue that the Steelers (9-7-1) are the luckiest team in the postseason, as they benefited from the Colts’ inexplicable Week 18 breakdown against the Jaguars to sneak into the playoffs. That magic — and Ben Roethlisberger’s NFL career — should end against Kansas City (12-5), which blew out Pittsburgh by 26 points in Week 16.
Kansas City coach Andy Reid anticipates Tyreek Hill (heel), and running backs Darrel Williams (toe) and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (shoulder) to all play. Sure, the Chiefs underwhelmed in its season-ending win against the Broncos, but nothing in Pittsburgh’s recent performances points to the Steelers being more than a bump in the road. Pick: Kansas City -12.5
Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams, 8:15 p.m., ESPN
Line: Rams -4 | Total: 49.5
The best team in the NFL through October, the Cardinals (11-6) have lost four of their last five games and relinquished home-field advantage, and they now must travel to face the division-rival Rams (12-5). Arizona may get some much-needed help if J.J. Watt, who returned to practice this week after a three-month absence, is available, though his status is still uncertain. Receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who has a knee injury and hasn’t played since Week 14, will not be available.
Matthew Stafford finished the season tied for first in the league in interceptions (17), and his decision-making will be examined with microscopic scrutiny as the playoffs progress, given the draft capital general manager Les Snead gave up to Detroit to trade for him. But at least for the first round, he can count on the Cardinals’ errors to be more damaging: Arizona has been flagged for at least six penalties in each game during a five-game stretch, and has fumbled an egregious 17 center-quarterback snaps this season. Pick: Rams -4