NFL Wild Card Weekend: Picks and preview

By Chris Mueller | Last updated 1/7/21

The NFL made it through their 256-game regular season without any cancellations – just ask them – but not without plenty of COVID-related headaches, and games that were closer to farce than football as a result of the virus. Nevertheless, the playoffs are here, and for the first time in league history, the Wild Card round will feature three games from each conference, and not two. The Chiefs look like the obvious favorites, and Vegas agrees, but they and the Packers get to cool their heels for a week. Cleveland is back in the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season, but they’ll be without their head coach, Pro Bowl left guard and a handful of other coaches and players. The Rams might not have Jared Goff, while the Ravens and Buccaneers both look dangerous. Buffalo and Baltimore come in on torrid streaks, while the Seahawks and Colts, respectively, have been laying in the weeds, not receiving much attention. Oh, and the Bears are in the playoffs, too. Let’s take a look at this weekend’s games.

Point spreads are from and are current as of 4 p.m. ET Thursday.

Pick with spread is in bold.

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INDIANAPOLIS (11-5) AT BUFFALO (13-3) (Saturday, 1:05 p.m. ET)

TV: CBS        LINE: Buffalo -6

What you need to know: The Colts are an interesting bunch, possessing both a solid offense and defense, but no distinctive calling card. That may have changed over the final quarter of the season, one that saw the team go 3-1, with a second-half collapse against Pittsburgh standing between them and 4-0. The Colts started to run the ball with aplomb, topping 125 yards in all four games and going for 212 and 273 against the Raiders and Jaguars, respectively. When Indianapolis can achieve balance like that, they become very difficult to beat. The Bills look like the best team in the AFC at the moment. The Bills have won six games in a row, all of them by at least 10 points, and have beaten their last three opponents by 29, 29, and 30 points. Since the calendar turned to December, Josh Allen has completed 70 percent of his passes, tossed 15 touchdowns, run for two more, thrown just two interceptions, and posted a passer rating of 117.5. One point of concern for the Bills is the injury status of Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley; the team’s top two receivers didn’t practice Wednesday, which might cause some issues. That said, while the Colts should provide a test if Buffalo plays the way they have been, it shouldn’t matter.

On the spot: Colts LB Darius Leonard. The Bills are tough enough to beat even when most everything goes right for their opponents; they’re nearly impossible to stop if defenses miss tackles. Leonard has to try to contain Allen when things go off-script, and can’t allow the Bills’ receivers to roam free across the middle.

Bills WR Gabriel Davis: With several of Buffalo’s receivers banged up in one form or fashion, Davis could take on a significantly expanded role in this game; that wouldn’t be a bad thing, necessarily – his seven touchdowns are second on the team, trailing only Diggs.

The pick: Bills 31 Colts 23

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LA RAMS (10-6) AT SEATTLE (12-4) (Saturday, 4:40 p.m. ET)

TV: FOX        LINE: Seattle -3.5

What you need to know: No one has any idea whether or not Jared Goff is going to start for the Rams in this game. Sean McVay is keeping that information close to the vest, though John Wolford played with aggressive abandon in his first-ever NFL game. Wolford’s legs were an issue for Arizona; he ran for 56 yards and kept the Cardinals off-balance. No matter which quarterback starts, the real story for the Rams’ offense, as it always is, is McVay. If he can dial up some mismatches, he should be able to create a handful of big-play opportunities against a much-improved but still suspect Seahawks defense. Los Angeles’ best play is to try to turn the game into a defensive battle and run the ball effectively to keep the ball away from Russell Wilson. For their part, the Seahawks will luck out again if Goff doesn’t play, because their defensive resurgence has been built largely against bad teams and bad quarterbacks. Since stifling Kyler Murray, they’ve faced Colt McCoy (who beat them), Sam Darnold, Dwayne Haskins, Goff, and C.J. Beathard. Are their vastly improved numbers really a byproduct of better play, or worse competition?

On the spot: Rams CB Jalen Ramsey. If Los Angeles is going to win, it is going to be with defense, and Ramsey’s ability to shut down whoever lines up across from him is integral to that effort. Aaron Donald should be able to take care of the pressure, but Ramsey must ensure that Wilson can’t hit any plays over the top.

Seahawks S Jamal Adams: The Rams want to run, and even if Goff plays, they likely won’t try to throw the ball all over the yard, particularly since his thumb isn’t likely 100 percent. That means that Adams’ physicality and blitzing prowess will be even more important. If he wins his battle with Los Angeles’ offense, the Seahawks should win the game.

The pick: Rams 23 Seahawks 21

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TAMPA BAY (11-5) AT WASHINGTON (7-9) (Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET)

TV: NBC        LINE: Tampa Bay -8.5

What you need to know: The Buccaneers look like the team many thought they would be; it just took them over half a season to get there. The Bucs ended the season on a four-game winning streak and averaged 37 points per game in the process. The competition was admittedly weak, but points are points, and moreover, Tom Brady looked razor-sharp. Mike Evans’ status is still up in the air for this game, but considering what it looked like when he got hurt, that he might play at all has to be seen as a win for Tampa. Even if he doesn’t, Brady won’t lack for targets. Antonio Brown has four touchdowns in his last three games and is coming off his first 100-yard game in the season finale against Atlanta. Tampa should also have little trouble stopping Washington on the ground and forcing Alex Smith to try and beat them with a steady short passing game. Washington’s pass rush and secondary are their only chance in this game. They won’t win a shootout with the Bucs – few teams would – but they should be able to get to Brady better than just about any team Tampa has seen all year. Jalen Hurts’ running ability gave Washington problems, but Brady will be stationary by comparison, so that won’t be an issue. The question for the Football Team is simple: Can the secondary hold up long enough for the pass rush to get home?

On the spot: Buccaneers T Tristan Wirfs. Wirfs started every game as a rookie, and if he holds up in pass protection, particularly whenever fellow Big Ten alumnus and first-round draft pick Chase Young is opposite him, Tampa Bay will have a very good chance to win, and win comfortably.

Football Team DE Chase Young: Young said this after Washington clinched the NFC East: “Tom Brady, Tom Brady, I’m coming! I want Tom! I want Tom.” Young is great, a superstar in the making, and he made no apologies for what he said. If he backs up his words, Washington has a chance to pull a stunner. If not? It could get ugly.

The pick: Buccaneers 27 Washington Football Team 10

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NFL Week 17: Picks and preview

Posted 18 hours ago | By Chris Mueller

Week 16 was a wild one in the NFL. The Steelers, specifically Ben Roethlisberger, rediscovered their ability to move the ball and score points just in the nick of time, rallying past the Colts and winning the AFC North as a result. The Browns shot themselves in the foot again, losing to the Jets, but Pittsburgh’s win unexpectedly helped Cleveland; they now need only beat the Steelers, who will sit Roethlisberger, and likely several others, to get into the playoffs. The Dolphins looked dead in the water against the Raiders, until some hideous penalties by Las Vegas, and perhaps the latest, greatest Fitz-magic of all time saved them. Brian Flores is standing by Tua Tagovailoa, but if that choice blows up in his face, there will be plenty of time for second-guessing. The Chiefs barely scraped by a game Falcons team and locked up the AFC’s sole bye in the process. The Rams lost a game and Jared Goff, and now must battle the Cardinals in a crucial finale, while the Packers demolished Tennessee. Oh, and the Ravens won their fourth in a row, in dominant fashion, while the NFC East remains a complete mess, with – appropriately – only the Eagles having been eliminated from contention. Multiple playoff spots are up for grabs in Week 17, and there is a very good chance that, for just the second time in league history, an 11-5 team will not qualify. On the flip side, there’s a very real chance that a 6-10 team wins the NFC East. Life isn’t fair, is it?

Point spreads are from and are current as of 11 a.m. ET Friday.

NOTE: Pick with spread is in bold.

Last Week: 6-10    Season: 118-117-51 of 16

MIAMI (10-5) AT BUFFALO (11-3) (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)

MIAMI (10-5) AT BUFFALO (11-3) (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

TV: CBS       Line: NO LINE

What you need to know:  Brian Flores is playing a dangerous game by publicly declaring Tua Tagovailoa as his starter. Ryan Fitzpatrick saved the Dolphins against the Raiders and possibly saved their season. If Tagovailoa starts slowly against a Bills team that may have nothing of any significance to play for in this game, how quick will Flores be with the hook? Will he give him one at all? Everyone put a happy face on things at the moment, but beyond the Fitzpatrick-Tagovailoa interpersonal dynamic, what does the rest of the locker room think? Buffalo made a statement – and likely delighted the rest of the NFL – with their pummeling of the Patriots on Monday Night Football. The Bills had Bill Belichick throwing phones on the sideline and looking helpless against Josh Allen. Buffalo looks like the principal challenger to the Chiefs in the AFC and might be their best foil in the entire league. There isn’t much to play for in this game, save this: If the Bills win, they have a very good chance of avoiding the Ravens, who look like a buzz-saw at this point. Is that reason enough to play the starters? That’s for Sean McDermott to decide. 

On the spot: Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa . A positive COVID test for Ryan Fitzpatrick means that Miami doesn’t have its “closer,” and Tagovailoa doesn’t have any safety net if he struggles. The fifth overall pick in this year’s draft needs to play like it. 

Bills HC Sean McDermott: The decision for McDermott is simple, but also not. How long should he play Allen? Should he play him at all? Is there any worth in potentially knocking a division rival out of the playoffs?

The pick: Bills 23 Dolphins 16

BALTIMORE (10-5) AT CINCINNATI (4-10-1) (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)

BALTIMORE (10-5) AT CINCINNATI (4-10-1) (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

TV: CBS       Line: Baltimore -13

What you need to know:  The Ravens just keep pummeling opponents into dust, and no AFC team is playing better football at the moment. Baltimore has won by an average of 16.2 points during its four-game winning streak, and most heartening for the Ravens is the fact that Lamar Jackson and the passing game appear to be working in crisp, efficient fashion. Though the Bengals have won two in a row, the Ravens look like a juggernaut, and at least at the moment, just maybe the best team in the AFC. As things stand now, the Bengals look like they’ll end up with between the fifth and seventh pick in the 2021 draft, and their modest two-game winning streak may hurt them in the long run, as it meant nothing for this season, and might impact their ability to draft a stud tackle with their top selection. Everything Cincinnati does needs to be geared towards helping Joe Burrow, and elite pass protection is right now at the top of the list for a line that has allowed 48 sacks so far this season. 

On the spot: Ravens HC John Harbaugh The Ravens can’t afford to take this game lightly, but with the way they’ve been rolling, the result should be academic, and pretty early. If that is the case, when does Harbaugh pull his starters?

Bengals WR Tee Higgins:  Higgins has been a bright spot so far for Cincy, and he should end his season by breaking Cris Collinsworth‘s team rookie record for catches – he only needs two. Now he just needs to find his way to the field to play.

The pick: Ravens 30 Bengals 20

PITTSBURGH (12-3) AT CLEVELAND (10-5) (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)

PITTSBURGH (12-3) AT CLEVELAND (10-5) (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

TV: CBS       Line: NO LINE

What you need to know:  For 30 minutes against Indianapolis, the Steelers looked approximately as offensively inept as they did against the Bengals, with their only touchdown coming courtesy of a turnover that set them up inside the Colts’ 10-yard line. Then, almost miraculously, Ben Roethlisberger came alive, attempting and connecting on a few deep shots, and resuscitating Pittsburgh’s lifeless passing game. The Colts had no answers, and Pittsburgh won a game when trailing by at least 17 in the second half for the first time in Mike Tomlin‘s tenure, securing the AFC North in the process. Oddly enough, Pittsburgh’s rally may have saved Cleveland. The Browns, down their three best receivers and beset by other injuries and absences, laid an egg against the Jets; Baker Mayfield in particular was awful, committing multiple turnovers and missing open receivers, and said as much afterward. That said, the Steelers will start Mason Rudolph, and likely bench other starters, while the Browns should get healthy. Put it all together, and Cleveland has no excuse not to end the league’s longest postseason drought.

On the spot: Steelers QB Mason Rudolph. Rudolph revisits the site of the worst moment of his professional career, and if he can beat the Browns, he’ll knock them out of the playoffs, and perhaps show the Steelers something more positive than what he put on tape last year. 

Browns QB Baker Mayfield:  The Browns are having COVID issues, but they should still beat the Steelers’ jayvee team comfortably. Cleveland drafted Mayfield to come through in situations like this. Will he?

The pick: Browns 31 Steelers 14

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