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The Keys to Every NFL Wild-Card Game

The playoffs are finally here, and the expanded format means back-to-back tripleheaders this weekend. Does Washington stand a chance against Tom Brady? Can the Browns win a playoff game? That and more in our wild-card preview.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We made it. The NFL playoffs are here. This is the first wild-card weekend under the league’s expanded postseason format, meaning 14 teams made the playoffs this season (up from 12) and just two got first-round byes (Kansas City and Green Bay). The result is back-to-back tripleheader days of playoff football on Saturday and Sunday, which the NFL insists on calling “Super Wild-Card Weekend.” The name needs work, but the slate looks fun.

There are six games this weekend, but the most important matchup is between old quarterbacks and Father Time. Six quarterbacks in these playoffs are 36 or older—Tom Brady (43), Drew Brees (41), Philip Rivers (39), Ben Roethlisberger (38), Aaron Rodgers (37), and Alex Smith (36). Aside from Brady and Rodgers, all of them could be in their final postseason run. Or maybe “light jog” is more apt.

Let’s get to the games, which we will not be referring to as “Super Wild-Card Weekend,” no matter how many times the TV networks try to force that name upon us.

Saturday Games

Indianapolis Colts (11-5) @ Buffalo Bills (13-3)

Time: 1:05 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Opening point spread: Bills -6.5
Over/under: 52.5
Key to the Game: Buffalo’s Passing vs. Indy’s Rushing

There may not be a single NFL player who has earned more on-field respect in the past 12 months than Bills quarterback Josh Allen. In the wild-card round against Houston last year, Allen was doing things like this:

That play perfectly encapsulated Allen at the time. He was often trying (and failing) to turn a good play into a great one. But while that loss to the Texans was Allen’s meltdown, he’s since reforged himself into one of the league’s best players.

This season, Allen has led the Bills to a 13-3 record and their first AFC East title since 1995—which was before Allen was born. Following an offseason of training with Jordan Palmer (and a little advice from Tony Romo), Allen has turned flashes of brilliance into a sustained fire. He became the first player in NFL history with 4,500 passing yards, 35 passing touchdowns, and five rushing scores in a single season. The only players who ranked ahead of Allen in ESPN’s total quarterback rating this season were Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes. After years of criticism that Allen was an athletic marvel with no knack for football’s nuances, he’s proved everyone—including us here are The Ringer—wrong.

“I feel like I’m night and day compared to what I was last year,” Allen told The Athletic this week. “I feel like I still have the same confidence when I step on the field, but just understanding this offense better, understanding my players better.”

Now the Colts have to figure out how to stop him. It won’t be easy. Receiver Stefon Diggs led the NFL in catches and receiving yards this season, becoming the first Buffalo player to ever lead either category. Slot receiver and aspiring rapper Cole Beasley also set career highs in catches and yards, though he is questionable for this game with a knee injury.

The Bills have averaged more than 47 points per game through the past three weeks, and Allen has been shredding man coverage all season. So Indy will probably have to turn to zone coverage for this matchup.

  • Josh Allen against man coverage: 25 touchdowns, two interceptions
  • Josh Allen against zone coverage: 11 touchdowns, eight interceptions

This is nothing new for Indianapolis. The Colts were one of the most zone-heavy defenses in the NFL this year. But recently, that hasn’t been working quite so well for them. Since Week 11, the Colts are allowing 297 passing yards per game, the second-worst mark in the league in that period.

If the defense can’t get stops, Indy’s offense will have to rely on rookie running back Jonathan Taylor to help the team keep pace with Buffalo. Taylor had a terrible start to his season but has been carrying Indy’s offense for the past two months. In the first 10 weeks of the season, Taylor ranked tied for 23rd in rushing yards (428) and 48th in yards per carry (3.8, minimum 50 carries). Between weeks 11-17, though, Taylor ranked second in rushing yards (741) and third in yards per carry (6.2). Taylor capped Week 17 with 253 rushing yards, the most any player had the entire regular season, and tied for the ninth most in a single game in NFL history. Buffalo’s run defense is relatively weak, meaning Taylor could be Indy’s best hope of controlling the game.

Colts head coach Frank Reich is returning to Buffalo, where he once led one of the biggest comebacks in NFL history. But to win this game, the Colts will need to get ahead early, not come from behind.


Los Angeles Rams (10-6) @ Seattle Seahawks (12-4)

Time: 4:40 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Opening point spread: Seahawks -5
Over/under: 42
Key to the Game: Turnovers

Rams quarterback Jared Goff may be a game-time decision after he broke his thumb on his throwing hand in a game against the Seahawks two weeks ago. Goff had surgery on the thumb in late December and was back at practice this week, but head coach Sean McVay has not revealed whether Goff will play.

If Goff can’t go, the Rams will likely start John Wolford, the former AAF quarterback who started his first NFL game last week against the Cardinals. Wolford threw an interception on his first throw of that game, but looked poised afterward. And while he’s nowhere near Goff as a passer, Wolford is fast. Wolford ran six times for 56 yards in Week 17, and at the very least, he’ll be able to show the Seahawks different plays than usual—including read-options and designed quarterback runs. But Wolford’s primary job is to not turn the ball over and let the Rams defense go to work.

The Rams have perhaps the best defense in football. That stems from 38-year-old defensive coordinator Brandon Staley. Since he was hired as DC last year, Staley has taken a scheme he honed at Division III John Carroll University and applied it to two-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey. It’s worked. The defense gave up the fewest points per game (18.5), yards per game (282), yards per play (4.6), and first downs per game (17.5) in the league this season. They’ve also played particularly well against Seattle.

The Seahawks have been held to 20 or fewer points just four times this season. Two of those four came against the Rams. Los Angeles managed to sack Russell Wilson 11 times through those two games, which accounts for almost a quarter of Wilson’s yearly sack total. Ramsey covered DK Metcalf on 46 routes in those two games, and Metcalf caught just three passes for 28 yards, per ESPN’s Mike Clay. The Rams beat Seattle 23-16 in Week 10 largely because Seattle turned the ball over three times. But Seattle beat Los Angeles in Week 16 and captured the only turnover of that game. Nobody is more aware of that fact than Pete Carroll, who changed the Seahawks’ offensive strategy midseason.

In the first half of this season, the Seahawks let Russell Wilson air the ball out. Wilson had 28 passing touchdowns in his first eight games, putting him on pace to break the NFL’s all-time record of 55 set by Peyton Manning in 2013. But then Wilson started turning the ball over. Carroll is obsessed with turnovers. He went 53-0 at USC when the team had an even or plus turnover ratio, and the Seahawks are 9-0 this season when they’ve won the turnover battle. So when Wilson began giving the ball away, the Seahawks went back into their offensive shell. Rather than airing things out, they played conservative football and eked out wins thanks to the defense and safety Jamal Adams, who will play through a shoulder injury in this game. Ironically, John Wolford’s no. 1 priority is also Russell Wilson’s: Don’t turn the ball over.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5) @ Washington Football Team (7-9)

Time: 8:15 p.m. ET
Channel: NBC
Opening point spread: Bucs -6.5
Over/under: 46.5

Tom Brady going against the league’s best defensive line—what could go wrong? The comparisons between this matchup and Brady’s two Super Bowl losses to the Giants are apt. Brady has had his worst playoff defeats against teams with fast, athletic defensive lines, and he’s struggled under pressure throughout the 2020 regular season: He ranked fifth in QBR without pressure, but tied for 31st in QBR under pressure, according to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell.

Brady will have his work cut out for him against Washington’s young front, which is built around five former first-round picks, just like the 49ers unit that made the Super Bowl last year. Defensive end Chase Young, last year’s no. 2 pick, has gone beyond Defensive Rookie of the Year talk and looks like a potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Pressuring Brady is important because the Bucs love to make big plays. The Buccaneers had 67 pass plays that gained 20 or more yards this season. That was the third most in the NFL. But Washington has allowed just 36 plays of 20-plus yards this season, tied with the Rams for the fewest. Brady’s job is made harder by the fact that receiver Mike Evans may not play in this game after hyperextending his knee in Week 17.

There is certainly a path for Washington to win this game, despite its 7-9 record. Bad division champs win in the wild-card round all the time. But first the Football Team will have to make sure they don’t get beaten at their own game.

Brady may be slow, but it’s not like Alex Smith is mobile either. And as good as Washington’s defense is, Tampa Bay’s defense might be even better positioned in this game. The Bucs have the second-highest pressure rate in the NFL after the Steelers. They’ve knocked down quarterbacks at the third-highest rate and rank tied for fourth in sacks. Tampa Bay won’t be at full strength in this game—linebacker Devin White, the team’s best blitzer, went on the COVID-19 list. But the Bucs may not need to be 100 percent to take down Washington.

Washington’s offense has been abysmal this year. Smith ranks 34th out of 35 quarterbacks in QBR (former Washington passer Dwayne Haskins is 35th), 33rd in touchdown rate, and 31st in yards per attempt. Sure, chucking it downfield has never been Smith’s game. But he’s turning the ball over, too. The only QBs with a higher interception rate are Drew Lock, Nick Mullens, and Carson Wentz. If Smith turns the ball over on Saturday, Washington may not have the offensive firepower to recover.

Sunday Games

Baltimore Ravens (11-5) @ Tennessee Titans (11-5)

Time: 1:05 p.m. ET
Channel: ABC/ESPN
Opening point spread: Ravens -4
Over/under: 54.5

A year ago, the 14-2 Ravens entered the playoffs as Super Bowl favorites. But in their divisional-round game against the Titans, they turned the ball over on their first two drives and lost. Now, though, the Ravens are playing their best football in a long time, and they have a chance at revenge this week.

These are the two best rushing teams in the NFL. The Ravens rank first and Tennessee ranks second in total rushing yards and in rushing yards per attempt. Derrick Henry just pulled off the eighth 2,000-yard rushing season in NFL history. The Titans have an elite offense and were one of just five teams to score more than 30 points per game this season. But they also have a terrible defense. They allowed 27.4 points per game this year, the most of any team that made the playoffs. Tennessee is basically a Big 12 team (or should I say an SEC team) that hopes to run up the score faster than its opponent. The Ravens, meanwhile, are on a five-game win streak. They’re averaging more than 37 points per game since Week 13, and while they’ve been playing bad defenses, Tennessee’s isn’t much better.

The key to this game will be what happens on third down. The Ravens offense converted the most third downs in the league this season (101) while Tennessee’s defense allowed an astonishing 52 percent conversion rate on third down, which is the highest in a full season since the stat was first tracked in 1991.

Perhaps the primary reason Tennessee can’t get stops is because they can’t get to the quarterback. Tennessee ranks 30th in sacks (19) and 31st in pressure rate (17 percent) this season. The Titans are just the third team with fewer than 20 sacks to ever make the playoffs, and the other two played in 1982—the year sacks became an official statistic. The Titans have one of the worst pass rushes of any playoff team in the past four decades. Now they have to limit Lamar Jackson.

Both of these offenses are great. But the game will probably be decided by which one of those offenses can stay on the field. That’s Baltimore.

Chicago Bears (8-8) @ New Orleans Saints (12-4)

Time: 4:40 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS (and streaming on Nickelodeon, lol)
Opening point spread: Saints -9.5
Over/under: 48

The Bears are playing for their jobs. Head coach Matt Nagy could very well be fired if his team doesn’t win this game, and Mitchell Trubisky may need a memorable performance to earn a contract extension this offseason. The only reason Chicago even made the playoffs is because Trubisky dunked on some of the league’s worst pass defenses down the stretch. But Chicago’s run of luck is likely coming to an end this week.

The Saints were the overall no. 1 team in Football Outsiders’ DVOA this season. The Bears ranked 15th. Chicago’s offense was the 25th best by DVOA this season, while New Orleans’s defense ranked second. The Bears did manage to take the Saints to overtime in Week 8, but that was with Nick Foles at quarterback, and the Saints won 26-23.

New Orleans may be getting some important players back for this game. Receivers Michael Thomas (ankle) and Deonte Harris (stinger), plus safety Marcus Williams (ankle) all returned to practice this week and may play. Running back Alvin Kamara is on the COVID-19 list, though he has a chance to play on Sunday if he is asymptomatic and gets medical clearance, including passing a cardiac test. Guard Nick Easton could miss this weekend’s game with a concussion, but the Saints still have one of the league’s best offensive lines, even with rookie Cesar Ruiz filling in for Easton. Plus, Chicago’s defense isn’t healthy either. Bears linebacker and leading tackler Roquan Smith could miss this game with an elbow injury.

The Saints offense has been fantastic since Drew Brees returned from injured reserve. New Orleans nearly beat the Chiefs in Week 15, erupted for 52 points (and six Kamara touchdowns) against the Vikings in Week 16, then manhandled the Panthers 33-7 last week. New Orleans has the edge on Chicago in nearly every facet of this contest, and that will likely show on Sunday.

Cleveland Browns (11-5) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)

Time: 8:15 p.m. ET
Channel: NBC
Opening point spread: Steelers -3.5
Over/under: 47

The Browns beat the Steelers last week to secure their first playoff berth in 18 years, but the feel-good story is already being overshadowed by COVID-19. The Browns will be without head coach Kevin Stefanski plus multiple other assistants for this game because of positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing. Stefanski is the team’s main play-caller, but by NFL rules he is not allowed to communicate with the team during the game (the rules are dumb). So special teams coach Mike Priefer will act as head coach, and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will be calling plays for the first time this season.

That’s just the coaching staff. Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio, Cleveland’s best offensive lineman and longest-tenured member, will also miss this game due to a positive COVID-19 test. In the secondary, starting safety Ronnie Harrison tested positive for the virus this week and will miss Sunday’s game, and Cleveland’s best cornerback, Denzel Ward, is also still on the COVID-19 list after missing Week 17. It’s the same story for cornerback Kevin Johnson, who started six games this season. For the second week in a row, the Browns may have to start cornerback Robert Jackson, who was a special teams player until Johnson was placed on the COVID-19 list.

“Hopefully [Robert Jackson] can make that jump this week,” Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods told reporters this week. “Because I definitely think they’re going to target him.”

The Steelers are looking for a chance to get back on track. Pittsburgh walloped the Browns 38-7 when they played in Week 6, but the game was so long ago it feels almost irrelevant. The Steelers started the season 11-0 but finished 12-4, essentially making them the worst 11-0 team in NFL history. They’ve struggled to catch the ball, run, and throw downfield for most of the season. Ben Roethlisberger is getting the ball out of his hands at a historically fast rate to avoid taking hits. But Pittsburgh seemed to turn a corner in its 17-point rally against the Colts in Week 16. And now this Browns team looks ripe for the Steelers to feast.

Cleveland barely beat the Steelers last week despite Pittsburgh resting Roethlisberger and NFL sack leader T.J. Watt. A lack of practice will make the Browns’ job even harder this week. The team had virtual walk-throughs on Wednesday and Thursday instead of practice. Baker Mayfield mentioned in his press conference Thursday that he hasn’t thrown a ball this week, but said “it won’t have an impact.” But football doesn’t work that way. Practice is more important in football than any other American team sport. There’s a reason football players practice five times more than they play. Cleveland is stacking so many disadvantages entering this game that the X’s and O’s almost seem secondary. The Browns’ drought is over, but the rain may not last long.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Wolford threw a pick-six in his first game. It was an interception.