From left: Sports Editor Karl Winter, Assistant Sports Editor Paxton Ritchey, Staff Writer Kyle McCabe, Photo Editor Ali Levens, Sports Assistant Justin Touhey and Staff Writer Austin Hall. This group of six made its picks for the Wild Card round of the NFL playoffs in the first season of the expanded NFL playoff format. Art by Madeline Duvall
The National Football League completed its entire regular season schedule, despite various postponements, mid-season firings and players missing games due to illness or injury.
The reward is what the league coined “Super Wild Card Weekend,” a playoff slate featuring six games because of an expanded playoff format.
The Cleveland Browns reached the tournament for the first time since 2002, the Washington Football Team won the NFC East with a 7–9 record and the Miami Dolphins missed the playoffs despite a surprising 10-win season.
The 2021 NFL draft order is finalized for the non-playoff teams, but the other 14 teams have their sights set on a Lombardi Trophy.
Though some matchups seem to heavily favor one team or the other in this Super Wild Card Weekend, precedent tells us that anything can happen in a single-elimination tournament. The road to the Super Bowl in Miami begins today.
Staff Writer Kyle McCabe, due in part to his ill-founded loyalty to his hometown Broncos throughout the season, is eliminated from the chance to win the picks competition. Everyone else is running out of games to chase co-leaders Karl Winter and Paxton Ritchey, who will remain tied after this week.
Without further ado, allow Staff Writers McCabe and Austin Hall, Sports Assistant Justin Touhey, Ritchey, Photo Editor Ali Levens and Winter to make their selections, starting with a three-game Saturday slate.
For the playoffs, our format including quotes from each staff member about every game, last used in Week 9, will return.
AFC No. 7 Indianapolis Colts (11–5) at No. 2 Buffalo Bills (13–3) (Saturday, Jan. 9 at 10:05 a.m., PST)
“The Bills mafia is real; Governor Cuomo is banned from going to the Bills game because of how much he is hated in New York. The real football team of New York is ready for a deep playoff run.” — Justin
“There were a lot of doubters over whether putting seven teams per conference in the playoffs would dilute the playoffs. […] Then in the first year that it happens, we have an 11-win team as the No. 7 seed. That was really the best thing that could possibly happened for people who were in support of this change. The Colts are a good team, and they deserve to be in the playoffs, so it’s good that they are, but the Bills are just the hottest team in the NFL, and they didn’t even slow down when they’d wrapped up their division. I don’t think that’s going to come to a screeching halt in just a week. The Colts are a solid team; there are other teams in the playoffs that I think they can beat, but the Bills are just a buzzsaw right now. They’re firing on all cylinders, and the Colts are a high-floor, low-ceiling team. I don’t think they can raise their game quite to the level that a playoff matchup against a top-three, top-five team in the NFL.” — Paxton
“This is probably the third-easiest pick, in my opinion. […] I’m happy for the Colts — I’m glad that Rivers was able to prove that he could still be a more than competent quarterback in this league. This appears to be his swan song, as they say. I think [the Colts are] going to be awesome moving forward, but the Bills are the clear-cut second-best team in the AFC right now. I don’t think they’re going to be stopped quite yet.” — Austin
“Josh Allen is leading the Bills to a hopefully very successful playoff run. It is a really good opportunity for them and I look forward to seeing them play. I don’t think the Colts are good enough to beat the Bills. […] They have to play a really good team right off the bat.” — Ali
“I haven’t really ever seen anything from a playoff Philip Rivers that would give me much confidence in picking with him, but then again, I’ve made fun of Philip Rivers the whole year and he’s proved me wrong by leading his team to the playoffs. I’m also in a tough position since I mathematically can’t win this; I probably won’t even get out of the last place, so I might as well make picks that I don’t really believe in. But I’m just gonna stay with the crowd and pick the Bills because that’s who I would want to win this game.” — Kyle
“The Colts, on paper, are a lot better than what you’d think a No. 7 seed would be. They’re top 10 in the league in scoring offense, scoring defense, and total offense and defense. If they could control the tempo of the game, that could be a stiff challenge. But their failure to win their division has put them in a tough position against arguably the hottest team in the league, arguably the best team in the league. The Bills — they have something to prove, and if they’re going to make the Super Bowl and lose, it starts with chalking up their first playoff win since 1995.” — Karl
NFC No. 6 Los Angeles Rams (10–6) at No. 3 Seattle Seahawks (12–4) (Saturday, Jan. 9 at 1:40 p.m., PST)
“Seattle is a bit of a sleeper, and I haven’t trusted the Rams all season long. In Russ we trust, especially at home. The Rams’ inconsistency will catch up with them.” — Justin
“John Wolford did his job. He got the Rams in the playoffs. I was the only person to pick the Rams last week, just saying. I said they were going to win because of their defense, and their defense actually tied their offense in scoring that game. That’s going to be a little bit harder to do against the Seattle Seahawks. John Wolford didn’t get in his own way, but I also didn’t see him hit a receiver in the chest that entire game against Arizona. The Seahawks are just on different level. With their improved defense and with their healthy running game and their one-two punch at wide receiver, we saw what they did to the Rams just two weeks ago. […] If the Rams want to throw a 50% Jared Goff out there, honestly, it’ll probably be an easier game. Aaron Donald could cause some problems for Seattle — this could be another really ugly, low-scoring win — but the Seahawks are just more of a complete team. They’re a healthier team, and overall, they’re a better team.” — Paxton
“As interesting as this game is, even if Jared Goff was 100%, I still just don’t know if this Rams team has the wherewithal to score with Seattle if that’s how the game goes. It could obviously be super low-scoring and be under under 40 points like it was last time. Seattle could definitely play down and not get off to a super hot star. I could see it still being a game at halftime. As impressive as the Rams’ defense was under Brandon Staley in his first year as a [defensive] coordinator, and as decent as the offense was without Todd Gurley for the first time, there’s something missing from this Rams team. I don’t think the playoffs is the time to figure that out or to try and fix that. The Rams are like the Colts; they definitely exceeded my expectations season-wide, but they’re just running into a little bit of a tough matchup.” — Austin
“I did not have much faith in the LA Rams for the last couple of weeks. I will also not have faith in them again. Russell Wilson definitely knows how to play playoff games. He knows how to navigate this part of the season. […] I don’t think they’ll go all the way to the Super Bowl, but I think they’ll make it past at least the first couple of rounds.” — Ali
“I didn’t believe the Rams could beat the Cardinals with a backup quarterback. They did, but that still doesn’t give me any reason to believe they’ll beat the Seahawks with a backup quarterback. […] Looking back at Seattle’s last couple of games, when they lost to the Rams in their first matchup, they’ve gone 6–1 since then. Even though there were some concerns about that defense earlier this year, it seems like they’ve really stepped it up, and the team’s been playing some good complementary football.” — Kyle
“I would like to thank John Wolford and the Rams for getting the Bears into the playoffs. They were helped a little bit by the fact Kyler Murray was hobbled and then pulled. I agree; I think this rubber match is going to go to the Seahawks. The inconsistency and uncertainty surrounding the quarterback position for the Rams does not bode well. We still don’t know if Jared Goff plays, but when it’s your throwing hand thumb, that doesn’t bode well at all. Another cause for concern for the Rams last week was that Wolford was their leading rusher, meaning they couldn’t get Cam Akers going at all. If they’re not able to establish the run, they’re going to have some struggles. The game two weeks ago — this could be something like that. The Rams might be able to hold it down early with a strong defensive effort, but they’re going to wilt because their defense is just going to be on the field too much. The Seahawks are undefeated at home in the playoffs under Pete Carroll, so I like them to pull this one out.” — Karl
NFC No. 5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11–5) at No. 4 Washington Football Team (7–9) (Saturday, Jan. 9 at 5:15 p.m., PST)
Kyle: Football Team
“Screw it, we ball. Washington.” — Kyle
“Time for Brady to go on his first playoff run without the Pats. He’s playing a lousy team in Washington, so I see them having no real issue. Also, Chase Young will eat those words he said.” — Justin
“As a Seahawks fan, I do have a soft spot for the under .500 division winner that everybody writes off and that nobody gives a chance to win a game in the playoffs. When you get teams who have been in winning mode for most of the last month of the season, and you put them at home, anything can happen. With all that being said, the Football Team just does not have enough firepower to compete with Tampa Bay, particularly in their quarterback situation. Alex Smith is literally giving up 85% of his calf to play the last two weeks. If they’re really talking about needing to rotate him and essentially pace him throughout the game, just to make sure he’s in there at the end, they just don’t have enough on that roster to go step for step with a Brady-led offense. The defensive line will keep them in it; maybe they could fluster Brady into throwing a couple of picks, but overall, it’s just a matter of time until Tampa pulls away in the second half. Washington still deserves a lot of credit for their season, […] but their road’s going to end this week.” — Paxton
“What I wouldn’t give to watch Tom Brady, in his first year at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to clobber Daniel Jones and the Giant. I hate the Eagles [for preventing that]. […] It’s not going be close. Everyone knows the NFC East is just the laughingstock of the NFL right now. […] This game is just ridiculous. It should not even be a thing.” — Ali
“Tom Brady might be the worst thing to happen to D.C. this week.” — Austin
“I am angry with the NFC East, particularly the Philadelphia Eagles, for costing me two games last week. The Football Team and Alex Smith are a great story, and I hope Alex Smith wins Comeback Player of the Year — but let’s be real. They’re here because they played in one of the worst divisions in NFL history and their Week 17 opponent threw the game. Chase Young could have four sacks in this game and the Bucs would still win. I hope he does have four sacks in this game. It’s funny that the 21-year-old beast will be chasing the 43-year-old around the field. That Washington offense just doesn’t inspire confidence. […] If the Bucs are in Green Bay in the Divisional round, I think they’ll be in for a rude awakening, despite what happened earlier, but they’ve really figured it out. That Washington defensive front is intimidating, but the offense is not at all. The Bucs have enough weapons to get this one done.” — Karl
AFC No. 5 Baltimore Ravens (11–5) at No. 4 Tennessee Titans (11–5) (Sunday, Jan. 10 at 10:05 a.m., PST)
“I don’t see Lamar Jackson winning his first playoff game against a better team. The Titans are good team and better than the Ravens this season, even though they have the same record. I don’t see Baltimore going into Tennessee and pulling an upset, so I’ll stick with King Henry and the Titans.” — Kyle
“A rematch of last year when the Ravens were bounced by this sleeper team — but I believe the Ravens are more mature and are playing their best football right now, so I expect them to come away with the victory.” — Justin
“I also think Lamar Jackson will get his first playoff win this weekend. The Ravens are playing their best football right now. Lamar had a little bit of a sophomore slump — defenses adjusted to him for a little while, and then he played the Browns and got all the poop out of his system. He’s been playing great since. The multifaceted rushing attack of the Ravens is something that’s going to carry them in this game and keep them fresh. Derrick Henry’s had a large load to carry recently, especially in the second half of the season. The fact that the Titans had everything to play for last week against a team with nothing to play for, and it took them that long and a blown coverage assignment to put that team away when they didn’t even know they were in the playoffs when they took the field — it’s just not a good sign. They’re running into a team that’s really hot in Baltimore. This a Ravens team that’s going to be hungry to avenge those couple of losses.” — Paxton
“Comparing last year to right now, the Titans’ offense is better and the Ravens’ offense is worse. The big curveball for me is the Titans’ defense and how much they struggle. Them being the worst pass rush team in the NFL against a guy like Lamar Jackson is such a tough matchup, knowing that he’s going to be back there all day, extending plays and playing offense on their own terms. If you put the Titans’ defense from last year on their team right now, I would go Titans all day, but they haven’t proven to me all year that they can be consistent and also score at a high volume. […] The Ravens’ running game has the most dimension to it, but the Titans has the best player, and in the playoffs, I would have to lean toward the Ravens, but it’s mostly because of the Titans’ defense and how much they struggle.” — Austin
“Lamar Jackson knows how to navigate this part of the season better, since he basically made a meme of himself last season. I don’t think he wants to go through that again. The Titans are the luckiest team in the NFL; if you look at their scoring margins, they’ve hardly ever clobbered a team. It’s always been pretty close no matter who they’re playing, in terms of difficulty. It will be a really good game, but I don’t think the Titans will be able to step up enough to be the Ravens.” — Ali
“The Ravens are on a five-game winning streak while the Titans barely got past the Texans. Yeah, Tennessee beat them earlier and in the playoffs last year, but I do feel better about the Ravens this time around. This is a tough one to pick because we’ve got one of the best running offenses in the league in Baltimore against the best running back in the league in Tennessee [in Derrick Henry]. The difference is that the Titans defense has been a lot worse lately. It doesn’t look anything like the defense that helped them get through the playoffs last year. If there was ever a time for Lamar Jackson to exorcise his playoff demons, it would be against the worst pass rush in the league. I’m going to go with the road upset here and say he will get his first playoff win.” — Karl
Infographic by Inez Kim
NFC No. 7 Chicago Bears (8–8) at No. 2 New Orleans Saints (12–4) (Sunday, Jan. 10 at 1:40 p.m., PST)
“Might as well pick another upset. I’m going to go with the Bears. The Bears and Saints played earlier this year, and the Saints only won by 3 in overtime. […] I don’t know a ton about the styles of play of either of these teams — I don’t get to watch a lot of NFC football in general — but I know that knowing how to play a team can make a huge difference. The Broncos’ defense against the Chiefs this year exposed some weaknesses in that team that I hope other teams take note of, so that they can knock the Chiefs out when they do start playing. So the performance of the Bears against the Saints before gives me at least enough confidence they have a chance. I’ll go ahead and pick them even though they are highly unlikely to win the game.” —Kyle
“Let’s see if the Saints can finally get to the Super Bowl. Against a mediocre Bears team, I anticipate a victory unless somehow fate intervenes with a crazy catch or a missed penalty.” — Justin
“The New Orleans Saints are a good football team. It’s important that they are going to be at full strength with their running backs. [The Bears] probably needed that help if it was going to be their day. The Bears deserve credit for getting to the playoffs; a lot of teams and honestly a lot of franchises probably would have thrown in the towel after that six-game losing streak, but it’s clear they have a definite ceiling as a team. They’re not a Super Bowl contender. This will be a good test for the Saints, because the Bears have been a strong offensive team in the second half of the year. This will be a good barometer for the Saints’ defense — how well they perform against the Bears to get an idea for how they would stack up against the more elite teams like Seattle and Green Bay that they’re going to need to beat to go to the Super Bowl.” — Paxton
“I’ve got to give it to the Bears. They did a masterful job tricking the majority of their fan base back into the possibility that they have a chance this year. Within less than a month, we went from Matt Nagy being on the hot seat and Mitch Trubisky not playing for the Bears after the season to a foregone conclusion that probably both of them are back. […] This could be it for Drew Brees, so I think the Saints could definitely be playing for something extra. Even when they were 5–1, if you would have said, ‘The Bears are going to make the playoffs,’ I still wouldn’t have believed it. So it’s kind of cool to see them in there now, but again, running into a little bit of a tough matchup. The Saints are just playing too well for the Bears to make it.” — Austin
“I thought I understood the playoffs, and I guess I don’t, because I don’t know how the Bears are in there. The Bears are an enigma, for sure. I don’t think this game will be close.” — Ali
“I do think this is gonna be a very close game, and I’m excited to watch. [The Bears] have a lot better formula for beating the Saints than we do for beating the Packers.[…] We played [the Saints] earlier this year and lost in overtime. The problem is the Saints play really, really well at home, especially in the playoffs. The Bears have not beaten the Saints in the Superdome since Jim Harbaugh was our quarterback, so that’s a problem. Also, the Saints are fortunate that this game was put on Sunday, because if it was on Saturday, then Alvin Kamara would not be available. Unfortunately, Sunday is the first day he will be available again, so he will more than likely play regardless of whether or he’s practiced. Michael Thomas will probably also be back. The Bears’ offense has gotten better. The game we played on Sunday was closer than the score ended up being. Rodgers is hard to stop, but it wasn’t really a 19-point difference. However, I’m going have to go with the Saints as well. They’ve gotten better since we played them back in Week 8. Their offense has put it together. They’ve shown the few weeks that they’re playing for something. They destroyed Carolina last week. They destroyed Minnesota the week before. So while this is the same team that has been prone to shocking playoff losses early in the playoffs the last three years, I do not have enough confidence in my 8–8 team to get this win.” — Karl
AFC No. 6 Cleveland Browns (11–5) at No. 3 Pittsburgh Steelers (12–4) (Sunday, Jan. 10 at 5:15 p.m., PST)
“Just because the Steelers almost beat them with Mason Rudolph doesn’t mean they’ll kill them with Big Ben. Mason Rudolph threw for more yards than Big Ben has since November 15. I don’t read too much into that. The Browns aren’t without their flaws. Not having Kevin Stefanski is huge. I wanted to pick the Browns until the Stefanski thing. Yeah, I’ll do it. I’ll go Browns. Who cares? Let’s go Browns.” — Austin
“Even with missing most of their starters, Pittsburgh still managed to almost come back [in Week 17 against the Browns]. I expect the inexperienced Browns to get humbled by the much experienced Steelers.” — Justin
“While everybody’s freaking out about the Eagles tanking or whatever, I’m not saying the Steelers totally didn’t care about chasing the No. 2 seed when they came in tied with Buffalo — all I’m going say to say is they knew that if the Browns beat them in Week 17, they would face them again the next week, and they won 38–3 the first time. The Steelers aren’t going to have any trouble with Cleveland. They had the JV team out there and almost stole the game from the Browns, who had 18 years’ worth of frustration on the line. […] The Steelers know who they are as a football team. They don’t feel like they had to build up momentum. They’re a well-coached team, a veteran team, a team that’s comfortable in the playoffs, and they’re going to be in their elements and on their field. The Browns are not. This one will not be too pretty for Cleveland fans, but enjoy the day you have left as a playoff football team.” — Paxton
“I will go with the Steelers, as much as it pains me to say it. The Browns played so hard last week and barely beat them. I don’t think the Steelers are going to lose to the Browns again the next week. […] It’s at Pittsburgh, so that just adds into it.” — Ali
“I’m going pick the Steelers. I picked them last week, and the Browns proved me wrong. I just don’t think they’re gonna do it again. Last week, Ben Roethlisberger did not play, and this week, he is expected to. The Browns winning by two against Mason Rudolph doesn’t give me a lot of confidence in the team. I don’t know the entire Browns roster, but I doubt that they have very much playoff experience at all on that team, considering the franchise hasn’t been there in 18 years. I’m going to go with Mike Tomlin and the Steelers.” — Kyle
“History is against the Browns here. It’s a little misleading to say the Steelers had the JV team out there because they only rested a couple of guys, but one of them was the most important position on the field. The Browns haven’t won in Pittsburgh in a very, very long time. I want to convince myself to go with the Browns, but I just can’t do it, especially with the COVID issues they’ve had. It could help them if the NFL postpones this game, but I don’t really see the league postponing a playoff game. Even if it is postponed a couple of days, I still don’t know if they’ll have their head coach, so that poses a bit of an issue. The Browns have a good running game and they have a good run defense, but the Steelers don’t really run the ball much anyway. They’re not good at it, so they just don’t do it. The game is going to be in the hands of Big Ben, but he came alive against the Colts in his last outing. I don’t see the Browns somehow bucking the trend. Maybe next year they’ll flip the script on the division.” — Karl
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