The NFL Playoff picture is finally set. Wild Card Weekend should be madness. We break down all six matchups with plenty else below.
We’ve made it. We’ve arrived. The NFL playoffs are here.
The road has been long, and last Monday it became terrifying. After suffering sudden cardiac arrest, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin needed nine minutes of heroic CPR to save his life. Thanks to the incredible care from first responders, team trainers and millions of prayers, Hamlin survived and appears on the road to a full recovery.
That will remain the backdrop to the postseason, where we have 13 games remaining and six coming in less than a week’s time on Super Wild Card Weekend.
(7) Seattle Seahawks at (2) San Francisco 49ers
Saturday, Jan. 14, 4:30 p.m. ET (FOX)
History says it’s more likely than not that a team who has swept a divisional series wins the third leg. The San Francisco 49ers are looking to uphold said standard by handling the Seattle Seahawks this weekend.
In both of their previous matchups, the 49ers have hammered Seattle with a punishing defense, allowing only three combined non-garbage time points from the Seahawks’ offense. In those games, Seattle has also sported a -4 turnover ratio.
For the Seahawks to pull off ann upset, they must win the turnover battle and find a way to win in the red zone against superior talent on both sides of the ball. Tough chore.
(5) Los Angeles Chargers at (4) Jacksonville Jaguars
Saturday, Jan. 14, 8:15 p.m. ET (NBC)
Two young quarterbacks looking to announce their arrival on the scene. For Trevor Lawrence and Justin Herbert, this marks the first playoff appearance for each, providing a showcase on a national stage unlike anything either has seen since college.
For the Jaguars, it’s been a dream finish to the season, riding a five-game winning streak. The Chargers were about to be the healthiest they’ve been since Week 3, but then edge rusher Joey Bosa and receiver Mike Williams were injured in a meaningless loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday.
As for Jacksonville, the pivotal question will be if it can get pressure on Herbert. The Jaguars only have 35 sacks this year, ranking in the bottom third of the league. If Herbert has time, Jacksonville’s secondary will be under immense pressure.
Lastly, a quick aside on Chargers coach Brandon Staley. There’s no excuse for his decision to play starters all afternoon, already locked into the No. 5 seed. Now, Los Angeles could be down multiple stars. Also, the Chargers’ confidence has to be shaken after giving up 471 yards on 7.6 yard per play to a moribund Denver offense. Just a complete — and avoidable — disaster.
(7) Miami Dolphins at (2) Buffalo Bills
Sunday, Jan. 15, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
A high stakes rubber match for two AFC East foes, the Dolphins and Bills come in to this matchup on very different paths.
In one corner, the Dolphins have no idea who their quarterback will be this weekend. Tua Tagovailoa is yet to be medically cleared from concussion protocol, and Teddy Briodgewater has a broken finger on his throwing hand.
In the other, the Bills have Josh Allen, who looked like an MVP at times this season. The Pro Bowler is also flanked by an elite attack, one which has torched Miami for 943 yards in their two previous tilts. If Miami is going to pull the upset, it needs to come up with a different, and far more effective, defensive gameplan.
(6) New York Giants at (3) Minnesota Vikings
Sunday, Jan. 15, 4:30 p.m. ET (FOX)
Everybody has wondered all year about the Minnesota Vikings. Sure, they’re 13-4, but they’re also 11-0 in one-score games. Are they clutch, frauds or somewhere in between?
One of those 11 victories came in Week 16 over the New York Giants, when Minnesota won 27-24 on a 61-yard field goal from Caleb Joseph at the gun. That day, Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley enjoyed huge days, with Jones throwing for 334 yards while Barkley ran for 84 yards and caught eight balls for another 49 yards. New York moved the ball constantly, but lost because of two turnovers.
For Minnesota to win again, its run defense must step up. In the aforementioned affair, New York ran for 6.0 yards per carry. If that happens again and the Giants hold onto the football, there’s a high probability of an upset.
(6) Baltimore Ravens at (3) Cincinnati Bengals
Sunday, Jan. 15, 8:15 p.m. ET (NBC)
Will Lamar Jackson play? The Ravens certainly hope so.
When Jackson plays, Baltimore is 8-4. When he’s inactive, the Ravens are 2-3. More strikingly, Baltimore averaged 25 points per game when Jackson plays the entire game. When he doesn’t, the unit averages half that, at 12.5 points.
For the Bengals, their biggest concern is the right side of their line. Star guard Alex Cappa was carted off with an ankle injury on Sunday, and right tackle La’el Collins is out of the year with torn knee ligaments. How will Cincinnati’s line hold up against a Baltimore front including Justin Houston and Calais Campbell?
Jackson’s availability — and true health — along with Cincinnati’s right side could well determine who advances.
(5) Dallas Cowboys at (4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Monday, Jan. 16, 8:15 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Let’s be real. This is going to be about three men. Mike McCarthy, Dak Prescott, and Tom Brady.
For McCarthy, winning 12 games means nothing if Dallas is one-and-done. And, if Dallas loses to the 8-9 Buccaneers, there will be rampant speculation regarding whether McCarthy gets fired by owner Jerry Jones, who has a very close relationship with Sean Payton.
As for Prescott, he’s been extremely uneven this season. He’s thrown at least one interception in each of the past seven games. Dallas watched as Cooper Rush only lost one game in six starts earlier this season, and while no honest person thinks Rush is Prescott, that stint ratcheted the pressure up.
Then there’s Brady. This could well be Brady’s last game in Tampa Bay before becoming a free agent this offseason. If the Buccaneers lose, the storyline coming out of Florida will be far more about Brady’s next move than the actual defeat. As for the Bucs, it could be an transaction-heavy offseason with an aging roster suddenly sans a quarterback.
Top 10 Wild Card moments of all-time
1. Bills stun Oilers with 32-point comeback victory (1992)
2. Kevin Dyson gives us the Music City Miracle (1999)
3. Andrew Luck rallies Colts from 38-10 deficit to beat Chiefs (2013)
4. Giants crumble against 49ers in Trey Junkin Game (2002)
5. Terrell Owens gives us The Catch II at Candlestick (1998)
6. Cardinals, Packers combine for 96 points in OT thriller (2009)
7. Marshawn Lynch provides the BeastQuake vs. Saints (2010)
8. Tony Romo fumbles the hold in Cowboys-Seahawks (2006)
9. Blair Walsh hooks it to the left vs. Seahawks (2015)
10. “We want the ball, and we’re gonna score” (2003)
"“I can’t wait for him to get back, just like everybody else,” Harbaugh said Friday. “[Jackson] won’t be playing in this game, and we’ll be hopeful next week. We’ll just see where we’re at then.”"
– Ravens head coach John Harbaugh on Lamar Jackson’s eventual return
Reports have Jackson as likely to return for the playoffs. Of course, there were also reports Jackson would play by Week 16, and he’s still AWOL. Without Jackson, the Ravens are a sure bet to be one-and-done, before starting the clock on the subsequent offseason drama.
If we don’t see Jackson this weekend, we may never see him in a Ravens uniform again.
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has been a starter for five seasons, but has already thrown for 24,039 yards in his career, ranking 87th in NFL history.
If he throws for 4,800 yards next year, he’ll pass eight Hall of Fame quarterbacks on the all-time list, including Kansas City great Len Dawson, Terry Bradshaw, Bob Griese, Bart Starr, Bobby Layne, Ken Stabler, Joe Namath and George Blanda.
Info learned this week
1. Damar Hamlin’s recovery serving as league-wide rallying point
On Monday night, the world stopped. As did Damar Hamlin’s heart.
Hamlin, a second-year safety for the Bills, was knocked lifeless on what appeared to be a routine tackle of Bengals receiver Tee Higgins. Hamlin then stood up, went limb and shockingly crashed to the turf.
In the hours that followed, many feared the worst. The Bills-Bengals game was correctly postponed and later cancelled. Millions around the country awaited updates. Thankfully, the updates which eventually came were incredible. Hamlin slowly regaining consciousness, showed full neurological activity and eventually began speaking.
What happened between the beginning and end of the aforementioned paragraph, though, was a wonderful story that shouldn’t be forgotten.
On GoFundMe, Hamlin had a 2020 toy drive for his Chasing M’s Foundation with the modest goal of $2,500. It was discovered on Monday night, and by week’s end, had raised more than $8.4 million. Opposing teams and owners donated. Fans of all fandoms gave money, in many cases leaving heartwarming notes. Gifts poured in from every corner of the world, showing support for a man fighting for his life. A man who before Monday’s horror, was largely unknown outside of Pittsburgh and Buffalo.
So often in the world, we see the worst of people. We see the ugliness within all of us.
This past week, we saw humanity rally around a 24-year-old man in a moment of the largest possible crisis. It was a beautiful example of the human spirit.
2. NFL coaching carousel begins in earnest; ranking the openings
Black Monday is upon us. And while we don’t know every firing yet, we likely will come day’s end.
So far, the only official openings are with the Broncos, Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts, who all moved on from their head coaches during the season. After seeing 10 vacancies last year, we won’t have as many this January, but the turnover remains notable.
Let’s look at the definite openings first — from best to worst — before diving into possible openings:
The Panthers are owned by deep-pocketed owner David Tepper, who desperately wants to get his second head-coaching hire right after whiffing on Matt Rhule. Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh has already been linked as a person of interest here, and it makes sense. The Wolverines are under NCAA investigation for misdeeds and could face sanctions.
Meanwhile, for Harbaugh, this is the best situation available. The Panthers have a top-10 pick, along with San Francisco’s first, second, third and fourth-round selections. Carolina can move up if it pleases, nab a top quarterback, and pair him with a roster teeming with young talent.
Additionally, Steve Wilks should get strong consideration. The Panthers were a mess under Rhule, and then played inspired football even after dealing away All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey. Wilks had Carolina in the playoff hunt until Week 18.
Houston botched landing the No. 1 overall pick, but the Texans still have a good long-term picture. They will draft an elite quarterback prospect, and they have extra pieces galore after sending Deshaun Watson to the Browns. Get the right quarterback, and Houston is suddenly set up in a bad division.
Also, any head coach who signs with Houston gets the financial benefit of Texas being an income tax-free state. Not a bad perk when you’re talking about millions of dollars. The downside? If Love Smith is fired as many believe, owner Cal McNair will be on his fourth head coach in as many years.
There’s a strong case to be made this is the worst job. Owner Jim Irsay is overly involved, the Colts don’t have a top weapon on the perimeter, and their best defensive player is Shaq Leonard, who while great, is both massively paid and oft-injured.
However, the Colts also have a high draft pick and a ton of projected cap space. They can also move on from quarterback Matt Ryan and save another $17.2 million. Finally, the division is terrible. Indy could rebound strong if it finally finds a long-term replacement for Andrew Luck.
As for candidates, interim coach Jeff Saturday can’t be a serious one for Irsay. The search should include Harbaugh, 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans and Seahawks offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, among others.
The Broncos are a long climb back, unless their new head coach can help Russell Wilson rediscover his old form. And, even if that happens, Denver’s roster is severely limited all while being locked into Wilson for at least two more years.
While former Saints coach Sean Payton is interviewing, he seems an odd fit. New Orleans, who retains Payton’s rights, will want at least a first-round pick for Payton in a trade. The Broncos have the pick after trading edge rusher Bradley Chubb to the Miami Dolphins, but Denver general manager George Paton direly needs the selection to improve the personnel.
Denver owner Ron Walton has billions and might look to make a splash hire with his first opportunity. Payton would certainly qualify, while also being absurdly expensive in both dollars and draft capital. If Payton isn’t the final choice — and he very well may not be — keep an eye on Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who did well in Denver’s process last year.
– L.A. Rams
If Sean McVay steps down as many expect — including yours truly — the Rams are a fascinating destination. On one hand, the Rams don’t have many assets. They’re without a first-round pick this year, and the roster is both expensive and aging on both sides of the ball. This could be a multi-year rebuild without much to lean on going into 2024, ’25 and ’26.
However, this is Los Angeles. And, importantly, the Rams have an owner willing to spend in Stan Kroenke. The franchise will always draw free agents and general manager Les Snead, when he doesn’t hold a coffee mug stating “F*** them picks,” has shown he can utilize them wisely.
If the Cardinals move on from head coach Kliff Kingsbury, they’ll likely try to go cheap. Why? Because Kingsbury signed an extension last offseason, and it could be costly to buy him out of the deal. Beyond that, owner Michael Tidwell has never spent lavishly. Arizona hasn’t hired a coach with previous experience in the top job since 2004, when it tabbed Dennis Green.
Frankly, it’s a bad situation. The roster is poor, the quarterback needed a homework clause in his mega extension, and said quarterback, Kyler Murray, is recovering from a torn ACL which likely keeps him sidelined into the 2023 season. This is both a rebuild and a re-tool, because with Murray signed for at least two more years, the Cardinals must try to win now.
3. The free-agent crop ahead won’t be altering the landscape
If you’re hoping your team spend huge money in free agency, you might want to revise your thought process.
While there are some stars hitting the market, few are going to be changing projected win totals in Vegas. Free agency will be headlined by running backs Josh Jacobs (Las Vegas Raiders) and Saquon Barkley (New York Giants), left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. (Kansas City Chiefs), defensive tackles Javon Hargrave (Philadelphia Eagles) and Da’Ron Payne, and corners Jamel Dean (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (Eagles) and James Bradberry (Eagles).
And, it’s a good bet many of those names don’t see the open market, either because of long-term deals or franchise tag before the tampering window opens on March 13 at noon ET.
If there’s ever a winter to roll money into future cap space and spend to re-sign your own stars, this is the one.
4. Veteran QBs will be headliners over next two months
While free agency won’t be hot, the quarterback movement will be. Again.
For starters, keep an eye on Lamar Jackson. Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece about what people inside the league are saying about Jackson’s situation with Baltimore. It’s tenuous, to be conservative. And if Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta can’t find middle ground with his star quarterback, there’s a chance he declines to pay $45 million on a franchise tag and trades Jackson instead, netting a treasure trove of high-end draft picks.
Then there’s Tom Brady, who will be 46 years old in August. Should Brady continue playing, it’s unlikely he returns to Tampa Bay. The Las Vegas Raiders are the rumored destination, replacing Derek Carr. If Brady doesn’t wind up in Silver and Black, how about teal? The Dolphins don’t have a first-round pick, and if Tua Tagovailoa unfortunately can’t continue his career, Brady makes a ton of sense.
As for Carr, he’ll be a hot commodity. One high-ranking personnel executive told FanSided he sees Carr as worth first- and third-round picks. The Raiders would love to recoup such assets, but Carr has a no-trade clause. Will he waive it, or does he force a release? And, if he does allow for a deal, will he undercut Las Vegas’ leverage by only permitting a trade to one team?
Then there’s the free agents. Carson Wentz (Washington), Jimmy Garoppolo (San Francisco) and Baker Mayfield (Los Angeles Rams) are all hitting the market. There’s little reason to believe any will be returning to their current clubs.
Garoppolo will have the most suitors, and makes sense for the Raiders or New York Jets most considering his ties to the coaching staffs. Wentz and Mayfield could be looking at places where they’re bridges to the future, or they compete for a starting role.
Finally, Geno Smith is slated for free agency, but it would be an upset if he gets there. The Seattle Seahawks have immense respect for Smith, and he’s publicly stated his intention to remain with the team. It makes too much sense for both sides to sign a mid-level deal.
5. J.J. Watt leaves behind one of NFL’s all-time careers
So many of the greats go out meekly, long past their apex. Not J.J. Watt.
Watt, 33, is retiring after 12 years in the arena. His career began as a 2011 first-round pick with the Texans, and ended quietly on a 4-13 Arizona Cardinals team. He never reached the Super Bowl, or even a conference title game.
And yet nobody would argue about Watt’s career being anything other than one of the best we’ve ever seen.
Watt walks away in a year with 12.5 sacks, giving him six campaigns with double-digits. All told, Watt notched 112.5 sacks, was named to five Pro Bowls, was a five-time First-Team All-Pro, won three Defensive Player of the Year awards, received recognition on the 2010s Hall of Fame All-Decade Team, and was the 2017 Walter Payton Man of the Year.
In five years, Watt will waltz into Canton on the first ballot. He’s one of the best defensive ends to ever live, racking up obscene numbers despite playing as a 3-4 end. His career was never shrouded in controversy but glory, a shining example both on and off the field.
So many, they go out after they can meaningfully contribute.
Watt, like the best of them, left us wanting more.
Inside the league
The 2023 NFL Draft order is set for the non-playoff qualifiers. Here’s the top 10:
- Chicago Bears
- Houston Texans
- Arizona Cardinals
- Indianapolis Colts
- Seattle Seahawks (via Denver)
- Detroit Lions (via L.A. Rams)
- Las Vegas Raiders
- Atlanta Falcons
- Carolina Panthers
- Philadelphia Eagles (via New Orleans)
The order is fascinating. For starters, three teams are in the top 10 via trades, including the NFC’s No. 1 overall seed. Then there’s what happened Sunday, with the Texans beating the Colts, allowing Chicago to have the first-overall pick for the first time since 1947.
With the Bears’ ascension up the order, there will now be a bidding war. This is a class loaded with high-end quarterback prospects. Chicago doesn’t need a signal-caller. Bears general manager Ryan Poles would be wise to make the selection available and supercharge his rebuild. Based on recent trade-ups for Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and Trey Lance, three first-round picks could be the price.
GOING DEEP: Why the Bears are primed to own the offseason
Elsewhere, look for the Texans to take a quarterback, followed by Seattle and Arizona considering top defensive talents in the following selections. The Colts, sitting at No. 4, are also in dire need of a quarterback.
Overall, most in the NFL believe this draft is terrific at the top for quarterbacks, front-four talent and corners. It’s light on safeties and tight ends in the 30 picks or so.
For now, Chicago is on the clock. For now.
BetSided’s best bet
Jaguars +2.5 vs. Chargers
The Jaguars are one of the best teams against the spread as home dogs this season, going 4-0 against the spread, and they have a ton of momentum entering this playoff game.
The Chargers played their starters and lost in Week 18, potentially losing Mike Williams to injury in the process. Los Angeles ranks 20th in the league in yards per play this season, while the Jaguars slot in ninth.
Given how Trevor Lawrence has come along, I like Jacksonville to at least cover.
The NFL’s first Wild Card weekend took place in 1978, when along with the regular season expanding to 18 games, each conference got a fifth playoff team.
It only took three seasons for a team winning in that round to capture a Super Bowl, with the 1980 Oakland Raiders doing so to make history. They became the first squad to win four playoff games in a single postseason.
Teams who miss the playoffs but finish strong are always notable.
In that vein, watch for the Panthers and Lions next year.
Carolina was a mess early, firing head coach Matt Rhule after five games and going through Baker Mayfield and P.J. Walker under center before settling on Sam Darnold. It led to the Panthers being highly-competitive over the three months, almost winning the NFC South.
Armed with a top-10 pick, Carolina can find its quarterback of the future and add him to an already strong nucleus. If the Panthers can finally get their QB-coach combination right, they have the building blocks of a young contender in a division ripe to be overtaken.
As for the Lions, how many teams start 1-6 and fight for a playoff spot until the final week? Detroit natives don’t want to hear about patience — and who can blame them — but this is a team on the come. The Lions have two first-round picks, including a premium choice from the Rams. They can add to their improving defense or an already-potent offense. It’s a good position to be in.
For Detroit and Carolina, it’s wait until next year. But this time, there’s reason to believe next year will be a special one.