Before we get started, please allow me to vent.
I’m not particularly fond of only one team from each conference getting a bye after an elongated season, however, if it leads to three straight days of NFL playoffs, I suppose I’ll take the good with the bad.
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Without further ado, here are my breakdowns and predictions of the opening weekend’s NFL playoff slate…
Saturday, 4:30 pm: Las Vegas Raiders (+5 ½) at Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals are frightening. As I’ve stated in the past, if the NFL was a keeper league, the Bengals would be the team I’d keep without question. They start a tough as nails young quarterback who, in one game this season, threw for the fourth most passing yards in the history of the league. Not bad for a 25-year-old. They also feature one of the league’s scariest young wide receivers who tallied two different, 200 yard receiving games and finished fourth in the league overall. Cincy has shored up their running game and their defense is underrated. Already winners of the AFC North, when no one thought that was possible, Cincy’s success does not bode well for the rest of the division for years to come. By virtue of winning that division, they’ll host the Las Vegas Raiders who won an emotional game last Sunday night by bouncing the Chargers out of the post-season. We’ve talked plenty about the season the Raiders have had, losing their head coach to fiery e-mails, losing a star young wide receiver to a fatal automobile accident, and losing an icon associated with the franchise. The Raiders bonded behind their young quarterback Derek Carr (who threw for career highs in attempts, completions, and yards) and a head coach that nobody had ever given a chance despite twenty years in the NFL and another thirty in college. Their pass rush ain’t bad either. On paper, the Bengals are probably the better team and by all accounts, should win this game. They have all the firepower to easily cover a five-and-a-half-point spread. They’ve been waiting a long time to be in this position. I just can’t help but wonder if momentum is on the Raiders’ side. Las Vegas has been through a heckuva lot this season and I doubt they want their season to end now. Josh Jacobs ran like a man possessed last week and their defense ensured there was dirt on the back of on every Chargers’ jersey. I’m taking the Raiders plus the points here because I’m not yet entirely convinced this Bengals team is ready for the position that they’re in, or that they’re considerably better than the red-hot Raiders. Bengals 30, Raiders 27
Saturday, 8:15 pm: New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills (-4)
I have a friend who sent me a text last week before playoff teams were seeded. He asked about a potential future for a specific Super Bowl match-up. He thought Green Bay and New England would meet in the final game. I didn’t look to see what that specific outcome was coming back, and I didn’t place the wager. After discovering that New England would have to travel to Buffalo for their first-round matchup, my friend never contacted me again to see if I placed the wager. I can only guess that he, much like I, don’t like the Patriots’ chances. In early December, the Patriots were the cat’s pajamas. They waltzed into Buffalo and beat the Bills in their own stadium. We started counting the Bills out and anointed the Pats as the next big thing. Less than one month later, the Bills went to New England and reminded them who was the better team. Josh Allen threw for three touchdowns and the Bills looked like who we thought they should be: Super Bowl contenders. Their running game, oft criticized for Allen being their best runner, has played well of late and their defense has been airtight. After getting beaten in Tampa Bay, they’ve allowed fifteen points a game over their last four. It’s supposed to be blustering cold this Saturday night but that shouldn’t bother either team considering where they play. I can’t help but think the Bills are right where they need to be to make a run. Their defense will keep young Mac Jones on his heels all night and ultimately into making some bad decisions. Meanwhile, Josh Allen will do what he does and that’s inspire his team and rabid fan base with solid play. I love the Bills to cover in this one. Bills 27, New England 16.
Sunday, 1:00 pm: Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-8 ½)
A lot has been made about the health of the Buccaneers. This veteran team has been carefully coached, all the while understanding that the best ability is availability. This Sunday, they’re getting back some key players including Leonard Fournette, Giovanni Bernard, Lavonte David and JPP. They’ll need all the offense they can get with multiple wide receivers down. They’ll also need their defense back against the best rushing attack in the league. If you like battles in the trenches, look no further than this early Sunday game as we have the league’s best running attack against the team that’s been one of the best in stopping the run for two years straight. The Eagles aren’t your traditional running team either as their quarterback, Jalen Hurts, is their leading rusher. Speaking of rushing, the Bucs should look plenty to the fresh legs of Leonard Fournette who hasn’t played in a month. The Bucs still aren’t 100% (neither is Philadelphia) but they should be good enough to handle the Eagles and cover this spread at home. Bucs cover the eight. Bucs 33, Eagles 16.
Sunday, 4:30 pm: San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys (-3)
Recency bias does funny things to us all, including even the most experienced gambler. All the Niners have done lately is assure themselves a playoff spot by beating the Rams in Los Angeles last week. I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t give them a chance in hell of winning that game. Jimmy G is playing with a thumb that’s barely attached. I even read one article lately that called him the most clutch quarterback in the league. I’m not sure how they measured that statistic but he’s clearly all the rave right now. We tend to forget that the Dallas Cowboys were lights out for the better part of this season and that Dak Prescott rehabbed all off-season for this very moment. Despite an aging Ezekiel Elliott, America’s team led the league in total yards per game, but this team is far from just an offensive powerhouse. Did you know that the Cowboys lead the league in turnover differential? This is the most complete Dallas team we’ve seen in years. And while I know Dallas has a well-deserved reputation for coming up short in the playoffs, these are not those Cowboys. As enjoyable as it would be to see Jerry Jones leave his owners box early, hunched over wondering who he’s going to fire next, I don’t see that happening. Dallas handles their business and covers the three at home. Cowboys 36, 49ers 27
Sunday, 8:15 pm: Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs (-12 ½)
Steelers fans waited with bated breath to ensure the Chargers-Raiders game didn’t end in a tie, allowing the Steelers to grab the seventh seed in the AFC playoffs. Their reward: travel to Kansas City to play the team that has represented the conference in the Super Bowl the last two seasons. KC got off to a rough start but have won nine of their last ten, right on time and primed for a deep playoff run. One of those nine wins came at home to Pittsburgh. That game ended 36-10 in a game that wasn’t as close as that score indicates. At this point, the Steelers are playing with house money. You’d be hard-pressed to find even the most ardent Steelers fan giving their team a chance to steal a victory in Arrowhead but it’s the playoffs and anything can happen. It’s tough to embarrass a team twice in the same season. Don’t think for one second that the Steelers don’t remember what happened to them Christmas weekend. The Steelers haven’t lost since, beating both Cleveland and Baltimore to clinch a playoff spot. The Chiefs, however, are neither Cleveland nor Baltimore. I’m not ready to call for an upset. There’s certainly no shame in Ben Roethlisberger ending his career at the hands of the team that appears ready to own the conference he played in for the short side of two decades. But I can’t see Mike Tomlin’s team not giving it all they got. The talent is there. If the Steelers can manage this game with a healthy dose of Najee Harris and Benny Snell, they might be able to keep this one close with the hopes of a miracle. That’s why I’m taking Pittsburgh plus the twelve-and-a-half. Chiefs 37, Steelers 33
Monday, 8:15 pm: Arizona Cardinals (+4) at Los Angeles Rams
I’m not going so far as to say the Rams are limping into the playoffs, even though they did lose four of their last nine games. Suffice to say I’m not as impressed with them as I once was. By virtue of losing their final game of the season, at home, to the San Francisco 49ers, they’re graced with the good luck of hosting their divisional rival, the Arizona Cardinals, once considered the best team in the league. I’m still not sold on Los Angeles’ rushing attack and while Cooper Kupp had himself a bionic season, the hole Robert Wood’s injury left behind is still evident. No team has more closely followed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ blueprint, but it hasn’t resulted in the same success, at least not yet. I don’t see this team gelling like Tampa did last year when they won their four games to end the regular season and then four more including the Super Bowl. This might be the most entertaining game of the weekend which is why the NFL schedulers saved it for last. I’d like to say that the Rams on paper are the better team, but I’m not even entirely convinced of that. We’ve seen what Arizona can do to opponents. The Cards are also a considerably better road team (8-1) than Los Angeles is at home (5-3) which must worry Los Angeles faithful. The good news for Rams fans is that ‘Zona has lost four of its last five, including bad losses to Detroit, Indy, Seattle and these very same Rams. But they did just beat Dallas and won in Los Angeles earlier in the season. I see another high scoring affair here, higher than Las Vegas’ over/under would indicate. In an evenly matched game, I’m going to take the Cards plus the points thinking the Rams will be fortunate to escape from L.A. with a win. Rams 31, Cardinals 28
Cards and Steelers cover the plus. Cards might win outright. The favorites in the other games all cover comfortably.
Here we go:
Bengals -5.5 Over Raiders
Bengals are my favorite AFC team this year. Joe Burrow is a joy to watch. They should win this one fairly easily.
Patriots +4 over Bills
Bill Bellichick in the playoffs against a divisional rival? You son of a bi**h, I’m in!!
Bucs -8.5 over Eagles
At first I thought this was a little too high, then I remembered a small detail: Tom Brady. I’m just scared of betting against him, that’s all.
Cowboys -3 over 49ers
“Don’t try to be a hero, just try to win money”. “Never bet against your favorite team”. Ok, ok!! I’m not a hero. I say a decent game by Dak should be enough, right?…RIGHT?!?!?!
Chiefs -12.5 over Steelers
They can’t make this line high enough. Make it 20. I don’t care. Mahomes will be chilling in the bench by the third quarter. It will be a very sad end for Big Ben’s career.
Cardinals +4 over Rams
This is my upset special. Are we sure Stafford is good? I mean, like…really, really sure? I know the Cardinals are the coldest team in the playoffs (finished 1-4 with that one win in Dallas), but come on…This is the one I’ll be regretting on sunday night when I’m 5-0 and this is the only one standing on my way from an undefeated round…
My picks are up at TWHS and I also emailed them to you, if you wanted to add them here. Since I”m later than usual this week, I added multiple links to your posts on mine, in hopes to drive some others here. If anyone comments on mine prior to kickoff, I will let you know.
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Las Vegas Raiders (+5.5) at Cincinnati Bengals
It’s difficult to beat a team twice in the same season. Back on November 21st, the Bengals trounced the Raiders 32-13 in Vegas. Can history repeat itself? Speaking of history, can Cincinnati finally erase its winless playoff drought? That’s the real question. We know Joe Burrow is a special player. Ja’Marr Chase, too. Heck, the Bengals have a ton of special players on offense. Yet, there’s something scrappy about this Vegas team. Derek Carr is a fighter. This Vegas squad could have folded like cheap laundry following the Gruden debacle. Let’s not forget the Henry Ruggs story, too. Since the Cincy blowout, Vegas was also torched by the Chiefs on December 12th. But LV’s other six games were decided by four points or less. That includes wins over the Cowboys, Browns, Broncos, and Chargers. My gut says this game will be close. Cincy will have added pressure to win. Give me the Raiders and the points.
Bengals 27, Raiders 23
New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills (-4)
Division rivals meet for the third time. They split the series with both games occurring in December. The weather calls for bitter cold conditions (5 degrees), but these teams are used to that. The game features the league’s top two pass defenses during the regular season. The team with the most success on the ground is likely to advance. We all know Belichick’s history and success in the league. Knowing he will be roaming the sideline is enough to consider taking the Pats. Still, this Bills team – while having plenty of up-and-down moments – feels like a special group. More so, Mac Jones has really struggled against Buffalo. Jones is 16 for 35 with 2 INT in two games. Yes, I know one game featured brutal weather. Still, numbers don’t lie. In front of a raucous crowd, I’ll take the Bills to cover in a low scoring game.
Bills 20, Patriots 13
Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-9.5)
Rain and thunderstorms early in the day will pave way to windy conditions. That could impact the game. Tampa Bay has been hard to beat at home, but this is a team that has lost key players on offense. The Bucs had all WR’s in a 28-22 win over the Eagles back in October. Still, there’s that Tom Brady guy. The Eagles led the NFL in rushing offense (159.7 ypg), while the Bucs ranked 3rd against the run (92.5 ypg allowed). The Bucs allowed the fewest sacks in the league this year (23), while the Eagles posted the second fewest sack total for a defense (29). So, while the Eagles had a great second half and ran its way into the playoffs, the odds remain stacked against them. Philly teams have had success against Brady in the past, but this Bucs defense can stop the run. Then, give Brady time to throw – wind or not – and it’s not going to end well. I don’t care who is on the field. Tampa Bay covers at home.
Buccaneers 27, Eagles 14
San Francisco 49ers (+3) at Dallas Cowboys (-3)
The Niners have slipped a bit under the radar. No one was talking about this team at all as the playoffs approached. Now, a long-time rivalry is renewed in what could be the best game of the weekend. Jimmy Garoppolo (20 TD, 12 INT) has had some big-time moments during the season. Yet, so many people have asked when Trey Lance will be the permanent starter. As for the game, we know what Dallas brings to the table. There are explosive playmakers on defense, including Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs. The offense has Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, CeeDee Lamb, and Amari Cooper. But enough about Dallas, because it’s not like the Niners don’t have their share of talent. I’m curious to see how the Dallas pass game performs against San Francisco’s pass defense. That’s the key. Also, turnover differential will be huge, as it almost always is. Dallas posted the NFL’s top turnover margin (+14) during the regular season, while the Niners finished with a -4 mark. That’s the difference. Cowboys cover.
Cowboys 27, 49ers 20
Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs (-12.5)
This could be the swan song for Big Ben. Again, another rematch game. The Chiefs torched the Steelers 36-10 over Christmas weekend and that was without Travis Kelce due to COVID protocols. The Chiefs have allowed 28 sacks (3rd fewest in the NFL), but will have their hands full against a Steelers defense that led the league in sacks (55). Can T.J. Watt and the Pittsburgh defense put forth a better performance against the Chiefs? There’s honestly a part of me that expects Mike Tomlin and the Steelers to rally around Ben, putting up a highly competitive performance. There is also the image of an aging Ben throwing wounded ducks all over the field. Besides everything I’ve said, I’m more so looking to the run game. Pittsburgh needs a big game and a lot of clock eaten by Najee Harris (although he’s questionable to play). On the KC side, CEH is already out and Darrel Williams is questionable. Will the Chiefs have the healthy backs to run against Pittsburgh’s run defense that ranked last in the NFL? I was all KC all week long and while sleep deprivation has pushed me to change the pick, I’m sticking with the Chiefs.
Chiefs 31, Steelers 17
Arizona Cardinals (+4) at Los Angeles Rams
DeAndre Hopkins will not return this week. That is obviously big news, but it doesn’t mean that the Cards don’t have the overall talent to win this game. The teams split the series this season and each has the offensive firepower to take control of this game. Each team has also been a bit inconsistent down the stretch. What does that really mean? Hard to say. Game plan and momentum will matter. Statistically, both teams rank in the top ten in passing offense. The Cards are 7th in pass defense, while the Rams finished 22nd. My gut tells me it comes down to whether Matthew Stafford is on his game. Arizona finished the regular season with a +12 turnover differential. That’s good for fourth in the NFL. The Rams have the talent and the home field, but the numbers have me leaning towards Arizona. Give me the Cards and the points in what should be a highly competitive (and entertaining) game.
Cardinals 27, Rams 24
Everyone is in under the wire, including J-Dub’s picks from the previous post.
I’m showing 11 total participants in the playoff pool. This’ll be a tight one.
Only 6 out of 11 got both Cincy and Buffalo right on Day One.
Be sure to keep checking back for updates and to submit your next weekend’s picks.
Best of luck, all.