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