Las Vegas Raiders (10-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (10-7)
The NFL’s marvelous weekend of playoff football kicks off with the red hot Raiders taking on the newly crowned AFC North champion Bengals. While Las Vegas’ 19 point loss at home to Cincinnati back in week 11 suggests that the Bengals are a clear favorite, it’s important to remember that it was a 3 pt game with 11:42 in the 4th quarter – Derek Carr would go on to commit multiple turnovers that proved detrimental. But diving deeper into that game, the Raiders pass rush is what kept them in it. The Raiders had 3 sacks, with critical ones coming on 3rd down, ending drives. This same pattern can be seen in Cincinnati’s game against KC in which Burrow was sacked 4 times, completely stalling the offense in key moments in the game. Nevertheless, the Bengals won as their offense continued to make big plays while KC’s offense fell flat scoring just 3 points in the 2nd half. The script is simple for Las Vegas. Get after Joe Burrow, protect the football, and don’t give up the big play. The Bengals are going to get aggressive, possibly even more so than the Chargers were just a week ago. While what Burrow has done this season despite being the most sacked quarterback in football is remarkable, it’s not a sustainable formula to win.
All of this can surely be tossed out of the window if the Raiders don’t have an answer for Ja’Marr Chase. The Las Vegas secondary’s abysmal showing against Justin Herbert (6/6, 106 yds, 1 TD on 4th down alone) points towards the Bengals offense having a big day. The Raiders are going to have to put up 30+ once again this week. This begs the question: Is Derek Carr THAT Guy???
I guess we’ll find out.
Pick: Las Vegas Raiders
New England Patriots (10-7) at Buffalo Bills (11-6)
The Patriots head into Buffalo for game 3 of this series. Primetime game. 8:15 pm kickoff. Orchard Park, Home of the Buffalo Bills. A temperature low of 1 degree Fahrenheit. All signs point to a repeat of these two teams’ first matchup back on MNF in week 13, right? Au contraire. A major component of the elements on that night were wind gusts of up to 55 mph having a huge effect on the game. What does tonight have in store? Calm 5 mph wind breezes. According to Action Labs, 55.4% of NFL games played in freezing temperatures (32 degrees and below) with average winds below 10 mph have gone over the closing total (Action Network). Translation: The Bills are going to put up points. The first matchup between these teams has to be taken with a grain of salt. In their most recent game at Foxborough in week 16, the Bills offense was in control. Allen took advantage of what Belicheck’s defense was giving him, attacking the soft spots in NE’s 2 high looks. This ultimately frustrated New England into getting into single high man coverage which the Bills offense was able to exploit. It should also be remembered that Mac Jones didn’t have the best of games. In fact, Jones hasn’t looked like himself in his last handful of outings, but he is going to have to show up in a big way in this one. Both of these teams are going to make plays. But if it comes down to Mac Jones or Josh Allen at the end of the game, there’s no doubting the fact that Allen will make the plays that need to be made.
Pick: Buffalo Bills
Philadelphia Eagles (9-8) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4)
The Eagles head down to Tampa getting a 2nd chance against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. These two teams have taken completely different paths since their first matchup. The first game was really a turning point in Philly’s season as they finally began to establish the run in the 2nd half. The Eagles went on to finish the season as the NFL’s #1 rushing attack with a 7-2 record from weeks 8 to 17. On the other hand, the Bucs have had their ups and downs but managed to finish as the NFC’s 2nd seed with a somewhat injury riddled roster. The Eagles are definitely going to give the Bucs a run for their money but it remains to be seen how good the Eagles really are. Despite a great end to the season they haven’t beaten a single team with a winning record all season.
Hurts has shown tremendous strides in his growth and both sides of the ball are starting to click, making the Eagles an appealing 8.5 pt underdog. The Eagles offense is capable of doing their part but the defense is going to have to dominate Brady. Taking a page out of the Saints playbook, they are going to have to find a way to get home with just 4 rushers and play coverage on the back end. Easier said than done. This is still a young team with a lot of guys making their first postseason appearance. It’s a lot to ask for them to go out and dethrone the defending champs, but don’t be shocked if they do.
Pick: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
San Francisco 49ers (10-7) at Dallas Cowboys (12-5)
The San Francisco 49ers find themselves heading into Dallas this week after pulling off a 17 point comeback in LA. Unfortunately, the 49ers won’t have the benefit of playing in front of a sea of red in back to back weeks on the road.
There are certainly reasons to like San Francisco in this one. The 49ers offense looks better each and every week – most recently the emergence of Jauan Jennings (6 catches for 94 yards and 2 TDs against the Rams). Garoppolo’s future with the team may still be up in the air, but there’s no denying the fact that he made the plays that had to be made. On the flip side, the Niners defense is going to have to step up. The Cowboys have struggled against teams that get pressure on the quarterback: Arizona, Las Vegas, Kansas City and Denver. Pressure is going to be the key to the game. Offensively for the Cowboys, they have been able to find the big plays though the air, but running the ball would certainly go a long way in neutralizing the Niners pass rush. If the Cowboys offense can control the game, San Francisco is going to be in trouble. But SF’s strength is their defensive line, giving this game the makings of an upset.
Pick: San Francisco 49ers
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7-1) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-5)
If the last matchup between these two teams is any indication, this one could get ugly. With that said, the Steelers have the advantage of being the underdog. Sometimes the most dangerous teams are the ones that have nothing to lose – just ask the Colts. Despite their barren offensive output for most of the season, the defense has kept the Steelers afloat. In theory, their defense has the blueprint to slow down the Chiefs offense.
The Steelers don’t have to dominate the Chiefs, they just have to hang around till the end at which point it becomes anyone’s game. If they can get pressure and keep it together on the back end in the secondary, they do have a shot. The closest comparison really is the Tennessee game in which Kansas City’s offense was held to just 3 points – a direct result of the pressure they got on Mahomes. But the Chiefs have come a long way since then, and it’s unlikely the Steelers will be able to pull off the upset. But who knows, maybe all it will take is a vintage Big Ben performance.
Pick: Kansas City Chiefs
Arizona Cardinals (11-6) at Los Angeles Rams (12-5)
The final matchup of the weekend will be a Monday night rematch between Arizona and the LA Rams. Given last week’s events, this game is really a question of which team is going to be less disappointing. Kyler Murray has to stop taking sacks and Matthew Stafford needs to stop turning the football over. Although both defenses have been solid throughout the season, they had uncharacteristic showings last week. One of these teams is going to come out victorious. The Rams have had Arizona’s number – 3-1 against AZ over the last couple seasons. With LA’s star power and experience, if Matthew Stafford can play a clean game the Rams should win. Again, the Rams should win.
Pick: Los Angeles Rams