After a long, hard-fought season, the NFL playoffs have arrived. In one of the most unique seasons in NFL history, only one team per conference earns a bye, which means that there are six exciting matchups. The AFC seeks to cut some pretenders from the collection of Super Bowl hopefuls. Meanwhile, the NFC could see an interesting shakeup—with the possibility of two teams .500 or below taking down some of the top contenders.
In short, this next week will move the better teams one step closer to the coveted Lombardi Trophy. And it all starts with Wild Card Weekend.
Game Picks for Wild Card Weekend
Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills (-6.5)
Mitch: A battle between two elite teams of very different styles, this game should be very entertaining. The Colts have been playing a much cleaner brand of football than they did at the beginning of the season. However, there are still some questions about Philip Rivers’ ability to lead a team at his age. The Bills are the hottest team in the NFL right now; they’re 9-1 in their last 10 games, with the one loss coming to the Cardinals on a last-second Hail Mary to DeAndre Hopkins. This game will be tight throughout, but the Bills will pull away at the end.
Pick: 37-27 Buffalo
Jack: This game pits two potential Super Bowl teams against one another. The Indianapolis Colts may be the 7th seed, but they have a fierce defense and strong rushing attack. They’re also led by veteran quarterback Philip Rivers, who might be able to lead his team to a late victory. That is going to be extremely difficult, however, with quarterback Josh Allen playing the best football of his career alongside a rolling Bills team. The game will be close and come down to the wire, but Josh Allen’s explosiveness will lead to a Bills win.
Pick: 31-28 Buffalo
Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks (-4.5)
Mitch: Russell Wilson has received a lot of slander after cooling down significantly from his MVP-caliber start. And while a lot of this rhetoric has been warranted, he should be able to elevate his level of play in the playoffs. That said, the Rams’ defense seems to have Seattle’s number, as the two prior matchups of these division rivals resulted in 2 of the 4 lowest scoring outputs for Seattle all season. This game will likely hinge on the play of the Seahawks’ cornerbacks after the pass has been completed; if they can limit significant yards after catch (the Rams have the second most of any playoff team) they will likely stymie the Rams offensively.
Pick: 23-20 Seattle
Jack: Like most games Seattle plays, this one is going to be close. Russell Wilson plays well in the playoffs, and Seattle’s running backs, Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny, are healthy and ready to go. The LA Rams will have starting quarterback Jared Goff back for this game (even if he doesn’t end up being the starter over John Wolford), but if they are going to win, their team’s defense will have to lead the way. The Rams’ defense can certainly lead to a win over Seattle, but there are questions about containing Russell Wilson and his receiving corps. In close games, the team with the more experienced and better quarterback usually wins—and in this case that’s Russell Wilson’s Seahawks.
Pick: 27-24 Seattle
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-8.5) at Washington Football Team
Mitch: While the Washington Football Team could make this close (especially with a heavy dose of pressure from Montez Sweat and Chase Young), the reality is that the team doesn’t have the firepower to keep up. Sure, they may be 5-1 with Alex Smith as the starter, but of those wins, the only one of much quality was the one over Pittsburgh. Expect a slow start from Tom Brady and his weapons, only for them to adjust and win handily.
Pick: 34-17 Tampa Bay
Jack: This game is not as lopsided as reported. In recent weeks, Tampa Bay has looked like a Super Bowl team, and quarterback Tom Brady has been lighting up opposing defenses since his bye week. Admittedly, with a fierce rushing defense and a solid back end, the Bucs’ defense is not to be forgotten either. However, the Washington Football Team has reason for optimism. When starting Alex Smith at quarterback, Washington is a winning football team, and the Washington defense is ready to face anything. This game will be closer than expected, but Washington just lacks the dynamism to win.
Pick: 31-24 Tampa Bay
Baltimore Ravens (-3.5) at Tennessee Titans
Mitch: The Titans sure are the intriguing pick to make a deep playoff run, especially considering the damage they did last postseason. Derrick Henry will have a fantastic performance, but this game will ultimately look different than Tennessee’s upset victory of Baltimore last season. From one year to the next, Tennessee’s defense went from the 14th most sacks in the league (43) to the 3rd fewest (19). To have any pass rush, the Titans will need to blitz frequently and effectively, which is a tall order when playing against Lamar Jackson—the quarterback who spent the least percentage of his time on dropbacks inside the tackle box as of Week 14 (93.1 percent). Expect a game that comes down to the wire, but the Ravens will pull this out.
Pick: 33-31 Baltimore
Jack: In a rematch game from last year’s playoffs, Baltimore looks to end a two-game losing streak to the Tennessee Titans. The Ravens’ defense is ready to go, and their offense should make the plays to win. The Titans have the ability to make a run in the playoffs this year, with rushing champion Derrick Henry and quarterback Ryan Tannehill playing the best ball of his career. In this game, however, the team that can make the most explosive plays will win. And the Ravens’ quarterback Lamar Jackson is built to make those types of plays.
Pick: 35-31 Baltimore
Chicago Bears at New Orleans Saints (-4.0)
Mitch: The Chicago Bears are essentially a tale of three seasons, starting off with a surprising 5-1 record, then going an inexcusable 0-6 over the next stretch, only to make a surprising 3-1 rebound to skate into the playoffs at 8-8 with momentum on their side. Unfortunately, health could be a problem for them this game, as they may be without defensive standouts Roquan Smith, Jaylon Johnson, and Buster Skrine, possessing no backups of comparable ability at these positions. The Bears will get out to an early lead, but their handicapped defense will be unable to thwart a comeback effort.
Pick: 30-20 New Orleans
Jack: This game is the best defensive matchup of the wild card round, so the win is going to come down to offense. The New Orleans Saints boast a division title, as well as an efficient playstyle on the offensive side of the football. Quarterback Drew Brees is capable of beating any defense he plays with his efficiency. Yet, the Bears’ recent offensive success provides hope for an upset. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky and running back David Montgomery have been the cause of improvement, and they will have to play well for the Bears to have a chance at victory. Unfortunately for them, however, the Saints are likely to just prove too efficient to lose.
Pick: 27-21 New Orleans
Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers (-5.0)
Mitch: This game is going to be interesting. The Browns are ailing significantly, as they’ll be without head coach and play caller Kevin Stefanski, elite cornerback Denzel Ward, and Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio. Their only recipe for success is establishing a strong run game, controlling the clock, and minimizing the possessions for each side. Something to look out for: dropped passes. Despite having an incredibly talented receiving corps, Pittsburgh is tied for the lead league with the Dallas Cowboys in this statistic (31). If Baker Mayfield is forced to carry the Browns’ offense, they will lose by a wide margin, but if they stick to what most presume to be their gameplan, they can beat the odds and pull out a win.
Pick: 23-20 Cleveland
Jack: If there is a game that could get ugly, it’s this one. The Cleveland Browns may have made the playoffs by beating the Steelers in Week 17, but they certainly cut it close with the backups. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield played essentially even with Steelers backup Mason Rudolph. And without Ben Roethlisberger playing in Week 17, the team’s run game was underwhelming. Now, Big Ben’s return means the Browns must deal with a better offensive play from the Steelers. This offensive gain combined with the Steelers’ potent defense will result in a lead that the Steelers simply will not relinquish.
Pick: 31-17 Pittsburgh