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Ten Thoughts on the NFL - Super Wildcard Edition

Twelve teams, six games, plenty of fun in store for the opening weekend of the playoffs

Kansas City Chiefs v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

1 – 49ers at Cowboys

There’s something throwback about the 49ers and Cowboys playing playoff football. John Madden definitely would’ve called this game.

The 49ers won their way into the postseason by beating their division rival Rams in overtime in Week 18 while the Cowboys coasted to an NFC East title. The 49ers need to play ball control offense to keep Dak Prescott off the field while the Cowboys need to continue making splash plays on both sides of the ball to keep the train moving. The Cowboys lead the league in takeaways and turnover differential and led the league in scoring. At some point, we have to give the Cowboys credit for being a good football team and I think they could make a real run at the NFC.

Prediction: I think this could be a fun game but in the end, I think Dallas has too much talent on both sides of the ball for the 49ers to hang. Look for Prescott to get hot and for Dallas to make a run midway through the game before sitting on the ball late. Cowboys -3.

2 – Eagles at Bucs

The Eagles were never supposed to make the playoffs this year. This was supposed to be a year where the Eagles regrouped and turned their roster over but Jalen Hurts made excellent progress and a top heavy NFC allowed for the Eagles to sneak into the dance. They get the task of traveling down to Tampa to play the defending champs, who are trying to figure out how on the fly how to run the offense without Antonio Brown and, more importantly, Chris Godwin. Tampa’s offense was one of the best in the league but the Saints shut them down and they finished the year out at a mediocre clip. This is not the juggernaut they looked to be mid-year.

Prediction: Eagles have been scrappy the second half of the year while the Bucs are still trying to figure it out. I think the Eagles keep it close but ultimately lose a close one. Eagles +9, Bucs moneyline.

3 – Cardinals at Rams

The Rams couldn’t close out the 49ers after taking a two-score lead in Week 18 but because the Cardinals couldn’t beat the Seahawks, the Rams backed their way into an NFC West division title and a home playoff game against those very Cardinals. The Cardinals seem to be totally and completely figured out as they have lost four of their last five including a 30-23 home loss to the Rams a few weeks ago.

Prediction: The Rams are going to struggle against a team that punches them in the mouth. I’m not sure that’s going to happen with the Cardinals. They’re far too reliant on Kyler Murray making elite plays consistently to think they can win here, but it’s a divisional game and should be close. Rams win, Cardinals cover +4.5.

4 – Steelers at Chiefs

The zombified corpse of Ben Roethlisberger somehow gets a playoff game. No, none of this makes sense to me and this Steelers team is just weird. Ben can’t throw the ball beyond ten yards where Patrick Mahomes can make any throw on the field. With the Chiefs able to score at will on pretty much any defense in the league and the Steelers needing to win games in the 20s, this one feels like it could get out of hand early.

Prediction: Chiefs win and cover the giant 12.5 line. I’d be willing to take an alternate total too. This one feels like it could be over by the second quarter.

5 – Patriots at Bills

The Bills came into the year as the team ready to knock off the Chiefs and run through the AFC. That obviously didn’t go quite to plan but they still managed to get the 3rd seed in the conference after winning the division in back-to-back seasons. Josh Allen needs to play within himself and not try to play hero ball, which could lead to mistakes against this opportunistic defense. The Bills do need to make a run now as Buffalo could lose one or both of their coordinators this offseason and the Patriots are coming back strong. The Patriots had the division lead until late in the season but ran out of steam down the stretch. Still, Bill Belichick and his young quarterback going up against a division rival is exactly the kind of playoff football storyline we can all appreciate.

Prediction: It feels dangerous to bet against Belichick but I think the Bills are the more talented squad so we’ll compromise and say Pats cover +4.5, Bills win.

6 – Raiders at Bengals

The Raiders somehow managed to navigate through tragedy and losing their celebrity head coach to make the playoffs. They’ve been involved in some of the more entertaining games all season and can give anyone a run for their money. Derek Carr isn’t exactly a superstar but he can do enough to win big games and Maxx Crosby has turned into an absolute stud at defensive end. They make for a fascinating matchup against the AFC North champion Bengals who will trot out a great skill position attack of Joe Burrow, Tee Higgins, and Ja’Marr Chase. The Bengals might be “America’s Team” in these playoffs because it will be easy to get behind Burrow and a small market team that hasn’t had a lot of success in their history.

Prediction: The Bengals have a good thing going with their young core and easily handled the Raiders earlier in the year. The Raiders deserve credit for how they’ve closed the regular season, but give me the Bengals -5.5.

7 – Sean Payton and the Saints

I checked in with a Saints writer colleague to see if there was anything to the idea that Sean Payton might want a fresh start somewhere else. Maybe pair up with a young quarterback, possibly come back home to the team he played replacement football for in his youth.

She wasn’t buying it.

Not saying it’s impossible but it sure seems like the biggest pipe dream out there. Payton is an excellent coach and almost dragged the Saints into the postseason despite losing Jameis Winston earlier this year. I’m not sure I see the incentive for the Saints to move him or for Payton to wiggle out of The Big Easy.

8 – Colts Collapse

The Steelers sneaking into the playoffs comes at the expense of the Colts who inexplicably dropped a game to the Jaguars. I like the way that Chris Ballard built this Colts team over the years, but after Andrew Luck unexpectedly retired from the team, he’s been chasing the quarterback position. Carson Wentz’s numbers certainly weren’t bad for the season but couldn’t elevate his team in big situations.

It’s hard to imagine the Colts moving on from Wentz next season after making the move just last offseason, but they could absorb the blow on their books. The question for them will be where do they go from here? I think they run it back with Wentz in 2022.

9 – Bolts Breakdown

The Chargers dropped their finale in a win-and-in game against the division rival Raiders. Such a promising season for the Chargers marred by some unsuccessful 4th down tries and tough losses down the stretch. I think the AFC playoff picture is much more interesting with Justin Herbert in them but that will have to wait until next year to see if they can rebound.

Brandon Staley needs to figure out what he’s missing on defense and add to the personnel in the offseason. Herbert is already a star, no excuse for the Chargers to not field a playoff team regularly.

10 – Justin Freaking Fields

Darnell Mooney said in his postgame press conference that he was heading down to Florida after the game to start working out with Justin Fields immediately. Those two are committed to changing the trajectory of this offense and won’t waste any time. We all need to guard against the off-season hype reports (this guy here is in the best shape of his life!) but I think we can all appreciate the focus and dedication to the craft that both Mooney and Fields bring to the Bears. As it stands right now, Mooney is the only receiver under contract. Let’s see how the offseason shapes this wide receiver room.

As for Fields overall, I’m excited to see what Year 2 brings for him. He entered the year as the backup, took very few reps with the starters at camp, and was thrust into the starter’s role a bit unprepared. He showed marked improvement throughout the year but battled injuries that prevented him from finishing the year. All eyes are on the Bears front office as they start their search for replacements for Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy. If they can somehow get those hires right and build around Fields, 2022 could be a fun year followed by a seriously competitive year in 2023.

What are your thoughts on the NFL this week? Sound off below in the comments and be sure to find me on Twitter @gridironborn.