Updated: Jan 10
The wait is over, finally. The NFL “super wild card” round – as the league refers to its expanded playoff format for 2020-21 – is upon us, and six games in two days would definitely constitute a gridiron football lover’s paradise.
So let’s cut to the nitty-gritty, even as the likes of ESPN and others have likely over-analysed each game, from the X’s and O’s outwards, taking a brief look at who wins, and why…
The case for the Rams: Wasn’t coach Sean McVay’s team playing in a Super Bowl just two years ago? You don’t forget how to win that quickly. That said, the leadership and arm of quarterback Jared Goff (if healthy from recent thumb surgery) will be needed to complement an Aaron Donald-led defence.
The case for the Seahawks: With Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf in fine form by themselves, and even if Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey shuts down one side of the field with tight coverage, Russell Wilson has no shortage of other options to throw the ball downfield to. And failing that, Chris Carson can run the ball all day.
Who wins: Seahawks 28, Rams 10.
The case for the Buccaneers: Quite simply, they are loaded offensively. Whether or not you think Tom Brady is the GOAT among NFL quarterbacks all-time, having a host of different receivers such as Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Scotty Miller, and Antonio Brown – and throwing in the enthusiasm and influence of Rob Gronkowski for good measure – will keep Chase Young and Washington’s defence honest all game long. Only the Bucs’ defence, although improved on a week-to-week basis throughout the season, can cast any doubt on what should be an easy win.
The case for Washington: Emotion. Between head coach Ron Rivera’s victorious cancer battle earlier in the season, and quarterback Alex Smith’s comeback from a broken leg that kept him out of football for close to two years, enough courageous stories exist on the field for Washington where the casual fans want to see them win.
Who wins: Buccaneers 38, Washington 16.
The case for the Bears: If quarterback Mitchell Trubisky sticks to coach Matt Nagy’s game plan of short-to-medium-range passes, play-action passing, and letting a running attack by committee control the clock, then these heavy underdogs have a chance.
The case for the Saints: For an offence which has been firing on all cylinders all season long, particularly when future Hall Of Fame quarterback Drew Brees is healthy, between Michael Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook, plus Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray running the ball, the Saints should have no issues moving the ball down the field and likely scoring at will.
Who wins: Saints 42, Bears 20.
The case for the Colts: There’s an incentive to give veteran quarterback Phillip Rivers a legitimate shot at a Super Bowl. And to do that, they must keep the Buffalo offence off the field – but finding running-game support alongside Jonathan Taylor will be a challenge in order to achieve a dent in the time of possession battles. Rivers’ accuracy to receivers T.Y. Hilton and Michael Pittman will have to be near-perfect.
The case for the Bills: Dominant at home, especially if bad weather occurs (this is January in Buffalo, after all). Quarterback Josh Allen shouldn’t have many worries getting passes downfield to Stefon Diggs, Dawson Knox or Cole Beasley, or even Devin Singletary coming out of the backfield.
Who wins: Bills 35, Colts 24.
The case for the Ravens: Decisions by quarterback Lamar Jackson – running and passing on his own alike – will have to be as mentally incisive as they are physically superior, against a Titans defence at the top of its game. And as mentioned in this space some weeks ago, Jackson will have to get the ball downfield, deep, only this time to keep the Titans honest. The fact that Dez Bryant is now getting more in tuned with the Ravens’ offence to complement Marquise “Hollywood” Brown can only help.
The case for the Titans: Two words – Derrick Henry. Henry ran for over 2000 yards this season, and if he carries the ball more than 30 times, the Titans will win, regardless of whatever Ryan Tannehill can do via the air. And it will be fun watching Henry run the ball, run around the Ravens’ defence, run over defenders, and stiff-arm whoever he wants.
Who wins: Titans 24, Ravens 21.
The case for the Browns: Partaking in its first playoff game since 2002, coach Kevin Stefanski’s staff will have to get Baker Mayfield and his teammates primed for the occasion – even if Stefanski himself won’t be able to roam the sidelines at Heinz Field due to COVID-19 protocols. And in a game that is expected to be a ground game battle, Mayfield will likely make Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt as the focal points of the attack, even with medium passes and play-action tactics coming out of the backfield.
The case for the Steelers: Mike Tomlin will have this side ready to play, even if that means getting over the late-season hoodoo which saw Pittsburgh win the AFC North despite losing four of its last five games, including a 24-22 decision against the Browns last week. While quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will fire timely passes downfield to Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Shuster, the success with which James Connor can gain yardage against Myles Garrett and the Browns defence will determine the Steelers’ fate.
Who wins: Browns 27, Steelers 24.
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