2020-21 NFL Playoffs preview: Wild Card Round

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 NFL season was one unlike any other with all stadiums being either empty or having limited capacity and positive tests forcing teams to play shorthanded with games getting postponed altogether. Despite the unique circumstances, the NFL made it through all 256 regular-season games without a single cancellation.

In 1990, the NFL moved from 10 to 12 playoff teams, adding a second wild card game for each conference. 30 years later, the NFL increased the playoff teams from 12 to 14, adding a third wild card game in each conference, meaning only the top-seeded teams in the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs have a bye week this weekend. Here is a breakdown of all six games on wild card weekend.

1/9/2021: Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills @ 1:05 p.m. EST on CBS

Kicking off the NFL postseason is a matchup between two franchises which have never squared off in the playoffs previously. The Colts come into the playoffs after a Week 17 which saw them clinch their spot with a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars 28-14 and a Bills’ 56-26 win over the Miami Dolphins. This may be the last chance for 39-year-old quarterback Philip Rivers to make a Super Bowl run as he signed a one-year deal this offseason. Supporting him is rookie running back Jonathan Taylor, who gained 97.6 yards per game in the team’s last five games, and the NFL’s second-ranked rush defense. However, their pass defense is a concern, ranking 20th.

The Colts will face the Bills’ juggernaut offense, who finished as the top-ranked offense in December. The Bills finished 13-3, their best regular season record since 1991. QB Josh Allen earned himself MVP consideration with an incredible season which saw him break Jim Kelly’s franchise record of touchdown passes and Drew Bledsoe’s record of passing yards. Allen finished with 4,544 yards and 46 total touchdowns. He also improved his completion percentage from 58.8% in 2019 to 69.2% in 2020. Helping Allen is offseason acquisition in wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who finished as the NFL’s leading receiver with 127 receptions and 1,535 yards. While the defense took a step back from their elite totals a season ago, they are healthy at the right time and have the talent to stop teams when needed, indicated by the Bills’ six-game winning streak to end the season with every win coming by at least 10 points.

The Bills come into the postseason red-hot and one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl. The Colts will have their hands full as they try to pull off the upset. The Colts will keep the game close for a half as Taylor should have his way with the Bills’ 17th-ranked rush defense. However, the Bills’ passing game will exploit the Colts’ 20th-ranked pass defense, pulling away in the second half to win their first playoff game since 1995.

Prediction: Bills 34 Colts 20

1/9/2021: Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks @ 4:40 p.m. EST on FOX

The Rams and Seahawks are two teams who are very familiar with one another as these two division rivals will square off for the third time this season and the second time in three weeks. Back in Week 10, the Rams defeated the Seahawks 23-16, but six weeks later, the Seahawks defeated the Rams 20-9 at home to clinch the NFC West title. The last time these two teams squared off in the playoffs was 2004 when the St. Louis Rams won at Seattle 27-20.

The Rams, who enter the playoffs 10-6, bolster the NFL’s top-ranked defense with superstars such as cornerback Jalen Ramsey and defensive tackle Aaron Donald. However, the offense is inconsistent as they are tied with the Jaguars for the seventh-most giveaways. One week, QB Jared Goff can light up the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for 376 yards, and the next against the San Francisco 49ers, he throws for 198 yards and two interceptions. With Goff’s status uncertain for Saturday’s game with a thumb injury, the Rams may need to rely on backup QB John Wolford, who started last week against the Arizona Cardinals, and their running game. Rookie RB Cam Akers looks to give the Rams a dependable running game after missing the game at Seattle two weeks ago.

The Seahawks’ season has been a tale of two halves. The first half saw Russell Wilson carry a porous Seahawks’ defense to a 6-2 record as the offense scored more than 30 points in seven of their first eight games while the defense allowed 25 or more points in seven of those eight games. During the second half which saw the Seahawks go 6-2 once again, with the addition of edge rusher Carlos Dunlap at the trade deadline and the increasing health of offseason acquisition in safety Jamal Adams, the defense held opponents to under 20 points in six of their last eight games. However, the offense struggled, scoring over 30 points only once in their final eight games.

This game will be a slugfest and the lowest-scoring game of the weekend. Points will be at a premium, much like their matchup two weeks ago. The game will come down to whichever quarterback can make enough plays to give their team the edge. The Seahawks have the better QB, regardless of whomever the Rams start, and because of the clutch play of Wilson, the Seahawks will come out on top.

Prediction: Seahawks 13 Rams 10

1/9/2021: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Washington Football Team @ 8:15 p.m. EST on NBC

Tampa Bay and Washington will square off in the playoffs for the third time as Tampa Bay won in 1999 while Washington defeated the Tampa Bay in 2005. Tampa Bay added six-time Super Bowl champion QB Tom Brady this offseason, which paid off as Tampa Bay went 11-5, breaking Tampa Bay’s 13-year playoff drought. Brady at 43-years old proved he can still play at a high level, throwing for 40 touchdowns and 4,633 yards. Surrounding him is a very talented receiving corp, consisting of Mike Evans, Antonio Brown, Chris Godwin and former New England Patriots’ tight end Rob Gronkowski. Tampa Bay has struggled to run the ball consistently this season, ranking 29th in rush offense. Tampa Bay ranks sixth in total defense, showing the ability to shut down opposing offenses like they did to the Packers in Tampa Bay’s 38-10 win back in Week 6.

Washington has had a strange 2020, highlighted by losing their nickname this past offseason. Also, their 2019 first-round draft pick in QB Dwayne Haskins was shown to be an immature bust, resulting in his benching after Week 4 and his release after Week 16. This gave rise to the feel-good story of the 2020 season in the return of QB Alex Smith, who nearly lost his leg two years ago after a frightening injury, missing nearly two full seasons. His play elevated the team’s fortunes, leading Washington to a 5-1 record with him as the starter. Washington won the NFC East with a 7-9 record, becoming only the third team in NFL history to make the playoffs with a losing record and the first ever team to make the playoffs after starting 2-7. Smith is heavily supported by Washington’s second-ranked total and pass defense that is anchored by 2020 second-overall pick Chase Young and the rest of the stout Washington defensive line.

Washington has the defensive line and young playmakers in RB Antonio Gibson and WR Terry McLaurin, assuming both play through their respective injuries, to make this game competitive. The game will be a defensive battle and will be closer than some may think. Tampa Bay has been prone to be one-dimensional this season, something Washington can exploit. However, Tampa Bay also has a good defense and will frustrate Smith. Brady, even with Evans potentially missing the game with a knee injury, will do just enough to guide Tampa Bay to their first playoff win since Super Bowl XXXVII.

Prediction: Tampa Bay 20 Washington 14

1/10/2021: Baltimore Ravens at Tennessee Titans @ 1:05 p.m. EST on ABC/ESPN

The Ravens and Titans square off for the second year in a row in the postseason as last year, Titans’ running back Derrick Henry torched the top-seeded Ravens in the divisional playoff round for 195 yards. The Titans won 28-12 to reach the AFC Championship game. Back in Week 11, the Titans defeated the Ravens again, winning 30-24 at Baltimore in overtime. This is the fifth time these two teams will square off in the postseason as in 2000 and 2008, the Ravens won at Nashville while in 2003 and 2019, the Titans won at Baltimore.

The Ravens come into the playoffs as one of the NFL’s hottest teams, winning their final five games with four of them by at least 14 points. Since QB Lamar Jackson tested positive for COVID-19 around Thanksgiving and missed the Ravens’ Week 12 game at Pittsburgh, he returned to push the previously 6-5 Ravens to the playoffs. It is clear what the Ravens identity is, run the ball at will and only throw when necessary. The Ravens are first in rush offense and last in pass offense. When combined with rookie RB J.K. Dobbins and 2019 stalwart Gus Edwards, the Ravens form a deadly rushing trio. The Ravens’ defense is dependable, ranking seventh, sixth and eighth in total, pass and rush defense.

The Titans won the AFC South title for the first time since 2008 with an 11-5 record. They were carried by their elite trio of QB Ryan Tannehill, Henry and WR A.J. Brown. Tannehill enjoyed a career year after he signed a long-term contract this offseason, gaining 4,085 total yards and 40 total touchdowns. Henry became the eighth RB in NFL history to gain 2000 yards in a single season, totaling 2,027 yards, which ranks fifth all time. Brown has become a very dependable number one WR with 1,075 yards on 70 receptions and 11 touchdowns. However, the Titans struggled on defense, finishing 28th in total defense and 29th in pass defense. They also finished as the NFL’s worst third-down defense, allowing their opponents to convert over 50% of their third-down attempts.

This game is going to be a shootout and the highest-scoring game of the weekend as the top-two rush offenses square off. The Ravens will take advantage of the Titans’ 19th-ranked rush defense and have a field day offensively. This will force the Titans’ offense to play catch-up the entire game. While the Titans’ offense will stay in the game, the Ravens are just too good on the ground and will hold off the Titans to get sweet revenge for last year’s failure.

Prediction: Ravens 37 Titans 35

1/10/2021: Chicago Bears at New Orleans Saints @ 4:40 p.m. EST on CBS

Back in Week 8, the Saints went to Chicago and defeated the Bears 26-23 in overtime after trailing 13-3 in the second quarter. Now, the Bears get a chance at revenge as they face the Saints in the playoffs for the third time in franchise history, defeating the Saints in 1990 and 2006.

Chicago has had a whirlwind of a season, starting 5-1 with QB Nick Foles taking over for Mitchell Trubisky in their Week 3 comeback win at Atlanta. However, Foles unraveled and the Bears lost six-straight games. However, their schedule softened up in Week 14, beating the Houston Texans, Minnesota Vikings and the Jaguars to clinch a playoff spot as the Cardinals faltered down the stretch. Trubisky took back over, starting their final six games to guide the Bears back to the playoffs for the first time since 2018, where the Trubisky-led Bears lost to Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles 16-15. Since Trubisky took over, RB David Montgomery has broken out with 105.8 rushing yards per game over their final six games. WR Allen Robinson II had a marvelous season with 102 receptions, 1,250 yards and six touchdowns. Defensively, the Bears are decent but nothing special, ranking 12th in total and pass defense.

The 12-4 Saints come into the playoffs with the weight of the world on their shoulders as it appears this will be Drew Brees’ final postseason run with the team. Brees has had a challenging year, missing four games with broken ribs. Also, usually stout WR Michael Thomas has missed the majority of the season with an ankle injury and has not caught a receiving touchdown. RB Alvin Kamara has carried the offense as their leading receiver and rusher, gaining 1,688 yards from scrimmage and 21 total touchdowns. Unlike the previous three seasons, defense is the strength of the team as they rank fourth, fifth and fourth in total, pass and rush defense.

The Saints are heavy favorites to win this game and for good reason. Everything the Bears do well, the Saints do much better. The Saints will handle the Bears on Sunday, making it the most lopsided game of the weekend, regardless if somehow Thomas and Kamara are not able to play.

Prediction: Saints 27 Bears 10

1/10/2021: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers @ 8:15 p.m. EST on NBC

The Browns finally reached the playoffs for the first time since 2002, breaking the NFL’s longest playoff drought after an 11-5 season. They will face their divisional rivals in the Steelers for the third time this season. The Steelers crushed the Browns 38-7 back in Week 6 before losing 24-22 to the Browns last week as Pittsburgh rested their best players. This is the third time the Steelers will host the Browns in the playoffs, beating Cleveland in 1994 and 2002.

The Browns enjoyed a quick turnaround after a disastrous 2019 season which saw them go 6-10. They hired Kevin Stefanski to be their head coach, a decision which elevated the Browns’ offense to another level. The Browns finished as the third-best rush offense in the NFL, and QB Baker Mayfield had an efficient season, throwing only eight interceptions compared to his 14 and 21 in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Defensively, they rank 22nd against the pass, but have star defensive end Myles Garrett to pressure opposing QBs. The Browns will come into this postseason shorthanded as Stefanski and guard Joel Bitonio tested positive for COVID-19 while pass rusher Olivier Vernon will miss the playoffs with a torn achilles injury suffered last week.

The Steelers limp into the playoffs, losers of four of their last five games after starting the season 11-0. The main culprit has been a total lack of a running game, ranking last in the NFL in rush offense. QB Ben Roethlisberger has been forced to carry the offense, but has had plenty of weapons to work with. WRs Juju Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool and Dionate Johnson all have at least 800 yards receiving and seven touchdowns. The Steelers led the NFL in sacks with 56 as T.J. Watt led all NFL players with 15 sacks on the season. As a result, the Steelers rank third in total and pass defense.

With the Browns coming into this game shorthanded, many feel like the Steelers should take care of business in this game. However, Sunday night’s game will be competitive as the Browns have too many weapons to be blown out and the Steelers’ offense is still one-dimensional. The running game of the Browns, led by Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, will allow the Browns to stay in the game. In the end though, the Browns’ weak secondary will end up costing them dearly and Mayfield will struggle against the Steelers’ pass rush. The Steelers will once again reign over the Browns.

Prediction: Steelers 31 Browns 24

Published by Sean Clark

I am an aspiring sports journalist at Northern Arizona University. I am very passionate about sports such as football, soccer and basketball and I'm excited to use this platform to write about the sports I love.

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