The NFL’s new playoff format means there will be two more wild-card games. Is more football a good thing? The Ringer’s NFL writers answer that question and also pick the players and matchups they’re most interested in this weekend.
What’s your verdict on the expanded playoff format?
Danny Heifetz: I love it. People hate change, and then they get used to it. I remember when they changed the layout of Facebook and everyone rebelled against “New Facebook.” You know what happened? Everyone got over it. People don’t like change, but people also don’t know what they want. Luckily, the NFL knows what people want: more football.
I also don’t want to hear any whinging about two extra teams diluting the field. The team who is diluting the field is 7-9 Washington, who was getting in no matter what. The NBA lets more than half of its teams into the playoffs. The NFL isn’t even at half yet. Fourteen is the right number.
Kaelen Jones: It’s fine. I like it, don’t hate it. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Danny Kelly: Not a huge fan. I don’t know how we benefit by watering down the playoff field, and with only one team from each conference getting a first-round bye, the fight for the no. 2 seeds is far less interesting.
Riley McAtee: I don’t think I’ll ever come around to it. The smaller playoff field—12 teams in a 32-team league—ensured a compelling regular season in which every game matters a great deal. As the NFL expands the playoff field (and I believe it’s only a matter of time before they expand again), it dilutes the regular season. As for this year, it’s not a bad thing that the Colts made it in, but no one needed the 8-8 Bears in these playoffs. Also, the 13-3 Bills and 12-4 Saints deserved first-round byes—the league is making the path to the Super Bowl more difficult for some of the league’s best teams, and that’s a change I dislike.
Nora Princiotti: It’s bad. The 11-5 Colts deserved to have made it, but the only word to describe the 8-8 Bears squeaking in after losing Week 17 is—and this is a technical term—lamesauce. The playoffs should feel exciting, like a special-occasion wine. [Cut to this writer pounding Franzia on Sunday at 4:40 p.m. ET.]
Rodger Sherman: I’m going to watch 18 hours of football this weekend instead of 12.
What game are you most excited to watch?
Heifetz: The Browns have not won a playoff game since Bill Belichick led Cleveland to a win over the New England Patriots in January 1995. Baker Mayfield was born in April 1995. Cleveland making the playoffs was fun, but beating the Steelers in back-to-back weeks to get their first postseason win since the year Baker was born would be joyous. Their COVID-19 issues would make a Browns win only more surreal.
Jones: Ravens-Titans has me feeling very conflicted. On the one hand, we’ve seen what Tennessee can do against Baltimore in the playoffs already, and while coach Mike Vrabel’s defense isn’t all that, his offense—orchestrated by offensive coordinator Arthur Smith—has once again been among the league’s most efficient. But the Ravens are starting to look like the Ravens again. I know Lamar Jackson has found his groove against underwhelming opponents, but that’s the type of dangerous momentum I can see carrying over into wild-card weekend and delivering the Ravens their revenge.
Kelly: The Titans-Ravens tilt, and it’s not really that close for me. I know he had a rough patch in the middle of the season, but Lamar Jackson has his swagger back and has rejoined the ranks of the most fun players in the NFL. The revenge-game narrative adds a rivalry factor (Baltimore is surely still smarting over last year’s divisional-round defeat), and honestly who doesn’t want to watch A.J. Brown trample a poor, wretched cornerback or see Derrick Henry stiff-arm some hapless defender into oblivion?
McAtee: It’s a shame the Titans-Ravens rematch isn’t the prime-time game on Sunday night. Lamar Jackson’s teams have sputtered in both of his postseason appearances, and a victory against the Titans would allow him to shake some demons he badly needs to rid himself of.
Princiotti: Ravens-Titans is the most interesting wild-card matchup, but presuming that the Buccaneers make it past the Washington Football Team, a Bucs-Packers rematch would be especially juicy.
Sherman: Rams-Seahawks. It’s not only the best matchup, it’s also our chance to see the Legend of John Wolford grow.
Which quarterback playing this weekend do you trust the most?
Heifetz: It’s wild to say this, but I trust Drew Brees. Yes, he is almost 42 years old. Yes, he broke almost half of his ribs in November. But he is playing against the Bears and Mitchell Trubisky. That is enough for me.
Jones: Tom Brady has won six Super Bowls. There are very few playoff games in which Brady doesn’t channel his vintage form, even if it’s only for a limited stretch. There are even a handful of postseason games when Brady has looked mortal and has still won. The Bucs are rolling and Brady has been one of the NFL’s best QBs over the past few weeks. I trust him more than any other QB in the wild-card round.
Kelly: I’m rolling with Josh Allen here. I know he lacks postseason experience (with just one appearance, last year), but the dude is absolutely locked in right now. Allen’s done what many of us thought he’d never do this season, pairing his elite athleticism and arm strength with newfound consistency in both accuracy and decision-making. He’s elite! I know the Colts defense is good, but I’m not going to be betting against Allen this week.
McAtee: Russell Wilson was much better in the first half of the season (when he threw for 2,541 yards and 28 touchdowns and eight interceptions) than the second half (1,671 yards, 12 touchdowns, and five picks), but I still think he’s the best QB in the wild-card round. With the Seahawks defense finding new life in the past couple of months, a resurgence for Wilson could turn Seattle into a juggernaut.
Princiotti: It’s Joshua Patrick Allen for me, the only MVP-caliber quarterback playing in the wild-card round. Yeah, I said it.
Sherman: Josh Allen. The Bills went 5-0 with five double-digit wins in the last five games of the season, and Allen threw 15 TDs and two picks in those games. I thought Josh Allen would be terrible in the NFL, but now he’s an incredibly accurate rocket-armed mountain of a man, and I have no choice but to stan.
Which non-quarterback will have the biggest impact this weekend?
Heifetz: Aaron Donald is always the correct answer here.
Jones: Derrick Henry, and I guess the more accurate word I’d use to describe him would be “consequential.” The Titans offense flows through what he’s able to do on the ground. In his past two meetings against the Ravens, Henry has averaged 164 yards per game and 5.7 yards per carry. The Ravens defense must find a way to slow him down or Tennessee will have its explosive play-action passing game at its disposal.
Kelly: This one’s kind of a gimme but there is a moderate to strong chance that Aaron Donald just ruins everything Seattle tries to do on offense on Saturday. The Seahawks have struggled to move the ball with any consistency over the past two months, and Donald always gives them trouble. If the penetrating defensive tackle can keep Russell Wilson uncomfortable in the pocket, it will be a long day for Seattle’s offense.
McAtee: Chase Young will run away with Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, recording 7.5 sacks and 12 QB hits to go along with three fumble recoveries. Washington has a ferocious defensive front, and the book on beating Tom Brady begins with getting pressure on him. I don’t think the Football Team will actually pull off the upset, but if they do, it will begin with Young.
Princiotti: Bills receiver Stefon Diggs. Diggs’s matchup with Colts cornerback Xavier Rhodes will be one to watch this weekend. Diggs has been deadly on comeback routes this season and will test an Indianapolis secondary that’s been zone-heavy this year. If the NFL’s leading receiver continues to take advantage of those pockets of space, Buffalo should keep rolling.
Sherman: The Ravens have been waiting all year long to avenge their deaths at the hands of Derrick Henry. Hopefully they got taller or stronger or faster!
Which coach has the most to prove?
Heifetz: Chicago’s Matt Nagy might get fired if the Bears don’t beat the Saints. He might get fired even if they do.
Jones: Bruce Arians. Great coaches adapt their system to benefit their players. Arians appeared to do the opposite with Tom Brady, as the 43-year-old dramatically increased his deep pass attempts upon joining Tampa Bay. In 2019, Brady attempted 67 throws of 20 yards or more, completing 38.8 percent while averaging 11.2 yards per attempt, according to Pro Football Focus. This season, Brady has attempted 91 throws of 20 yards or more, completing 39.6 percent while averaging 13.5 yards per attempt. Still, for all the questions surrounding Brady’s fit within Arians’s system, Brady’s looked pretty comfy as of late. The Bucs are built to win the Super Bowl. Getting bounced in the first round by a 7-9 Washington Football Team would be quite a disappointment.
Kelly: It feels like a big game for Baltimore’s John Harbaugh, whose team hasn’t won a playoff game since January 2015. Expectations aren’t as high this year as they were last season, when the Ravens got upset by the Titans in a wacky divisional-round game. Harbaugh has a chance to not only get a little revenge against Titans coach Mike Vrabel, but to get his squad over the hump and back into real Super Bowl contention.
McAtee: No one’s job is on the line this weekend—there is no Mike Mularkey on the sideline. But Sean McDermott is 0-2 in the playoffs, and a loss to the seventh-seeded Colts would be tough. It doesn’t take much for the “Can he win in the playoffs?” narrative to take hold. McDermott has already done an incredible job in Buffalo, as evidenced by his team’s stellar 13-3 season. A deep playoff run would help cement him as one of the league’s best coaches.
Princiotti: It is technically Matt Nagy, but realistically, the coach who has the best chance to change his narrative in the postseason is Bruce Arians. The Bucs have been sloppy and inconsistent this season. A postseason win or two would quiet that narrative.
Sherman: We’ve primarily criticized Dwayne Haskins for the fact that Dwayne Haskins got cut by Washington ahead of the playoffs, but if the Football Team has to play Taylor Heinicke at QB (which seems likely, he’s taking QB1 reps in practice), and he’s bad (which seems likely, because he’s Taylor Heinicke), I’ll wonder why Ron Rivera never really seemed interested in working with the guy drafted in the first round by the team he agreed to coach.
If you had to pick a team playing this weekend to reach the Super Bowl, who would it be?
Heifetz: The Ravens. Baltimore looked awful for the first three months of the season, but they’ve looked great in recent weeks. It would take exactly one impressive win against Tennessee for everyone to declare them a contender again.
Jones: The Bucs. As I mentioned earlier, general manager Jason Licht built Tampa Bay’s roster to win now. The team is good enough to accomplish that feat, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they do.
Kelly: The Bills. They’re an absolute buzz-saw group right now and it wouldn’t be a big surprise if they represent the AFC in the big game.
McAtee: The Buccaneers have been inconsistent this season, but they are as balanced a squad as there is in this postseason. They rank no. 2 in overall DVOA, and are the only squad that ranks in the top five on both offense (no. 3) and defense (no. 5). When you add Tom Brady in the offseason, expectations are going to be understandably high. Tampa Bay didn’t win the NFC South, but it looks plenty good enough for a deep postseason run.
Princiotti: If Tom Brady gets the Bucs to the Super Bowl, would anyone really be surprised?
Sherman: The unstoppable Buffalo Bills. I have bought 100 percent in.
Bears-Saints will be broadcast on Nickelodeon. What was/is your favorite Nickelodeon show?
Heifetz: Spongebob has permeated the culture and yet The Fairly OddParents has been forgotten. This is a travesty. Wanda, Cosmo, and Doug Dimmadome deserve better.
Jones: From the O.G. era: Rugrats and Hey Arnold!, because both were impactful on me when I was a toddler/young child and were legitimately ahead of their time. I could sit here and type all day about Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. Those shows are complex, witty, progressive, thoughtful, and the concept of elements absolutely kicks ass. Read this from Vice’s Nicole Clark to understand why the Avatar universe has such a cult-like following. It’s a timeless series.
Kelly: Hey Dude was a real banger. I have almost no memory of it, to be honest, other than the theme song. So let’s go with that.
McAtee: I was a Cartoon Network kid growing up, but I’d flip channels when The Fairly OddParents came on. Speaking of which, the Bears will probably need some fairy-godparent-fueled magic to overcome the Saints on Sunday. Keep your eyes out for any conspicuous neon green and pink on the Chicago sideline.
Princiotti: Drake and Josh. My best friend Sammy and I still yell, “HUG ME, BROTHER!” and run toward each other when we see each other after being apart for a while.
Sherman: All That. I don’t know how “SNL, but for kids” got green-lit, but it ruled. It was also more diverse and had better musical guests than actual SNL! If you don’t believe me, here’s Pierre Escargot introducing Blackstreet’s performance of “No Diggity.”
Pick an upset.
Heifetz: Washington beating the Bucs is tempting, with Tom Brady facing a strong pass rush, but I’m going with the Rams beating Seattle. The Seahawks are superior but have reverted to their brand of football that keeps every game close until the final five minutes. There is little reason the John Wolford–led Rams should hang with Russell Wilson and the Seahawks. And yet, they will.
Jones: Rams over the Seahawks. Look, I know John Wolford, a former accountant, might start for the second straight week. But I trust Sean McVay to once devise a game plan that maximizes the offense. In the Rams’ Week 17 victory against the Cardinals, Wolford, a former AAF signal-caller, showed moxie and athleticism that McVay weaponized on a handful of occasions. The Seahawks defense has been very good over the past month, but it will be a big loss if safety Jamal Adams can’t play. And the Rams defense has been amazing all season, finishing first in expected points added (89.5) by a large margin. If Russell Wilson is still struggling, the Rams could very well pull off an ugly win.
Kelly: Rams over Seattle. Weird shit always happens in intradivisional matchups.
McAtee: The Titans are three-point underdogs to the Ravens, even though that game will be played in Nashville and Tennessee just beat Baltimore last postseason. I have big questions about the Titans defense, but I have many questions about the Ravens offense, as well. This one feels like a toss-up.
Princiotti: I think the Ravens are peaking at the right time and are a particularly bad matchup for Tennessee.
Sherman: Browns > Steelers. Pittsburgh started 11-0 and finished 12-4. Cleveland might end up without a head coach, but it doesn’t need great coaching to give Nick Chubb the ball against an injury-depleted Pittsburgh front that got consistently worse at stopping the run as the season went on (and allowed the Browns to run for nearly 200 yards on Sunday).