Aaron Donald, Alex Smith, Chase Young, Cole Beasley, Darius Leonard, DeForest Buckner, Indianapolis Colts, Jalen Ramsey, Jared Goff, Jocobt Brissett, John Wolford, Josh Allen, Kansas City Chiefs, LA Rams, New York Jets, NFC East, NFL, Philip Rivers, Playoffs, Ron Rivera, Russell Wilson, Sean McVay, Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tom Brady, Washington Football Team
The expanded Wildcard Weekend is here, that unsurprisingly throws up a couple of tasty games, but thanks to the structure of the playoffs we have a lopsided road favourite, but we shall get to them in a bit.
Indianapolis Colts (7th) @ Buffalo Bills (2nd)
The play-offs start with a cracking matchup that sees the Colts take their seventh ranked defence by DVOA to Buffalo to see if they can stifle the Bills and their fifth ranked offence who have look as good as anyone in the league. The Bills come into this game having scored 48, 39, and 56 points in the last three weeks but the loss of slot receiver Cole Beasley could well cause this offence some problems as could the Colts defence. The addition of DeForest Buckner this off-season has helped the Colts’ pass rush and Darius Leonard continues to impress as a linebacker up there with any in the league. This Colts offence might be outside the top ten by DVOA, but Philip Rivers has added veteran leadership and has been splitting red-zone and short yardage snaps with Jacoby Brissett as the younger QB being better able or more willing to be his body on the line. In truth this is not your average play-off seventh seed given that the Colts won eleven games but with the Bills defence playing better in recent weeks and a perfect 6-0 following their bye week the Bills look like the team best placed to test the Chiefs in the play-offs. The improvement from Josh Allen in his third season is remarkable, with the ten point leap in completion precentage jumping out at you and I would expect him to lead the Bills to a first play-off win since the 1995 season. Anything else will be a disappointment for the Bills.
LA Rams (6th) @ Seattle Seahawks (3rd)
The second of the Saturday matchups is a game that is intriguing rather than one promising fireworks, but it is a divisional matchup that has potential. The LA Rams lost in a head scratching manner to the New York Jets of all teams in week fifteen, before losing to the Seahawks in a game that saw Jared Goff dislocate the thumb in his throwing hand although he finished the game. There were stretches of the season where Goff looked really good, but towards the end of the season the quarterback had a couple of bad games and after surgery on his thumb had to watch the Rams eek out an 18-7 win without an offensive touchdown in week seventeen for the Rams to secure their play-off spot. There is talk that Goff could be back for this game, but the Rams have not named the starter yet so it could be that John Wolford gets to start his second NFL game, and in the play-offs. Wolford offers more with his legs both on designed runs and scrambling to make plays than Goff, but does not have the potential to match Goff when he is playing well. The good news is the Rams are much more balanced than the year they went to the Super Bowl thanks to a defence that ranks fourth in the league by DVOA this season, anchored around the other worldly talents of defensive tackle Aaron Donald and corner Jalen Ramsey. The offence also welcomes back Andrew Whitworth from IR who barring setbacks is set to start at left tackle but it seems they will need to dig deep into head coach Sean McVay’s excellent playbook to get the win.
The Seattle Seahawks have been in contention all season, which is hardly a surprising statement given their 12-4 record, but I confess that it feels a little flattering to me. The Seahawks started the season strongly on offence with Russell Wilson throwing the ball all over the field, but as the season wore on and defences adjusted to the new attack the Seahawks faltered, losing two games in a row. The Seahawks traded for veteran pass-rusher Carlos Dunlap and as the Seahawks defence improved they also reverted to running more on early downs. This has brought them the 12-40record and the division, but I am concerned that Russell Wilson might have to find some truly special performances when he has not looked as good as he did to start the year if the Seahawks are to go deep into the playoffs. With the situation at quarterback, it is hard not to give the edge to the Seahawks, even if McVay has a good coaching record against them, but it wouldn’t be the shock of the century if the Rams were to find a way.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5th) @ Washington Football Team (4th)
Thanks to the state of the NFC East, the final game on Saturday sees a 7-9 fourth seed hosting an eleven-win fifth seed. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are appearing in their first play-off game in thirteen seasons and will be looking for their first play-off win since the 2002 Super Bowl win. The addition of Tom Brady clearly helped the Bucs improve and with his playoff experience and their opposition the Bucs are favourites to win on the road, but might not have everything all their own way. The Bucs have at times looked as good as anyone in the league, with a plethora of pass catching options for Brady and a defence than can be truly scary. Any team who has a top five offence and defence should feel confident and the Bucs have definitely looked better towards the end of the season as Brady adjusted to the new team and scheme and got over the disrupted pre-season. However, the Washington Football Team made the play-offs thanks to their defence and in particular their defensive line. This is not to say that the Football Team will win, but with impressive rookie defensive end Chase Young leading the way you can see their pass rush getting pressure on Brady and as impressive as the veteran quarterback is, he was very quick to get rid of the ball even before he turned forty-three. The problem that Washington will have in this game is even if their defence can disrupt the Bucs and Brady on offence, there has been genuine discussion of a quarterback rotation as Alex Smith deals with a calf strain that has hampered the veteran quarterback in recent weeks. It takes nothing away from Smith’s incredible comeback from a horrific injury and post-surgery complications that nearly cost him his leg, but with Taylor Heinicke and his one career start being next in line it is hard to feel confident in Washington’s chances. This is still a season of progress for Washington who have not been to the play-offs since the 2015 season or won a play-off game since the 2005 season, and they had a record of 3-13 last year. In fact given the turmoil off the field, Ron Rivera’s transformation of the franchise is pretty remarkable and let us not forget that he has managed all this whilst undergoing treatment for cancer. There are no participation trophies in the NFL, but if you look at both quarterbacks and Rivera it is a remarkable achievement just to be involved in this game, but you know that Brady will see anything other than a win as a disappointed and I think I would be genuinely shocked if he didn’t get one more win tonight.
DVOA is Football Outsiders statistic for measuring a team’s success on every play versus the league average and you can read more about it and other football topics at https://footballoutsiders.com.