The Ringer’s NFL writers answer the pressing questions ahead of this weekend’s wild-card round.
1. What game are you most excited to watch?
Kevin Clark: If you are my age—and I hope for your sake you aren’t—Niners-Cowboys is the classic matchup. The colors, the stadium light trickling in—it’s perfect. This is made more so by the style of these two teams: legitimate NFC contenders (the Cowboys far more than the Niners) with interesting offenses and superstar players. I’m in.
Danny Heifetz: Patriots-Bills Part 3—one for every Mac Jones throw in the game.
Kaelen Jones: Rams-Cardinals. It’s on Monday night (which is stupid!), it’s an NFC West matchup, and it involves two very talented teams that have had a hard time getting out of their own way this season. What I’m trying to say is that this will be entertaining, either because of a comedy of errors or fantastic football.
Danny Kelly: Cowboys-49ers is gonna be a banger. Dallas is always fun to watch, on both sides of the ball, and I especially love Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb, and “He Who Can Scoot” Tony Pollard. On defense, Micah Parsons has been one of the most exciting rookie breakouts this year and when they give him the opportunity to rush the passer, it’s appointment viewing. And as for San Francisco, the George Kittle–Deebo Samuel combo is pure football nirvana. Deebo might be the most unique player in the league.
Nora Princiotti: 49ers at Cowboys. Watching Kyle Shanahan and his band of movable chess pieces try to disrupt Dallas’s big-play defense should be appointment television. Micah Parsons has taken the NFL by storm this season, but Shanahan will do everything he can to stall Parsons’s get-offs and get him moving in the wrong directions. I still like Dallas, but this should be a close one.
Steven Ruiz: The rubber match between New England and Buffalo is fascinating because of the quarterback matchup alone. Josh Allen and Mac Jones are on opposite ends of the quarterback spectrum, and they’re both taking on defense-oriented head coaches who are known for crafting smart gameplans. From an X’s and O’s standpoint, this is an easy pick for game of the week.
Rodger Sherman: Patriots-Bills. It’ll be under 10 degrees in Buffalo at kickoff. I think the Bills are the better team, but there’s a chance that Bill Belichick will harness the power of extremely bad weather to once again turn the game into a beautiful slop that closely resembles football from before television was invented and emerge victorious due to his knowledge of arcane strategies employed by the 1923 Canton Bulldogs.
Ben Solak: It’s Eagles-Buccaneers, but that’s for personal reasons. (Go Birds.) From an objective point of view, I think the most evenly matched game with the biggest ramifications is Niners-Cowboys. Every game from here on out could be the last game the 49ers play with Jimmy Garoppolo—and yet, it feels like they are back to where they were when they made the Super Bowl run with him: great offensive line powering a sick running game, great defensive line wreaking havoc on the opposite side, and an offense that runs through really cool players in Deebo Samuel and George Kittle. But the Cowboys, when they’re firing on all cylinders, have been as good as the Packers, Bucs, Bills, and Chiefs. Every week they go deeper into the playoffs is another week they could finally get the offense and defense working at the same time.
2. Which QB playing this weekend do you trust the most?
Clark: Joe Burrow is one of the more unflappable players I’ve ever met in my life. There’s a reason he’s chomping on division-title cigars in year two: He’s already changed the Bengals’ culture and he has one of the most dangerous receivers in the sport in Ja’Marr Chase. There are better quarterbacks but very few young ones have more control over the moment.
Jones: Either Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes is probably the correct answer here, but that’s boring. I’m going with Joe Burrow. Where is the NFL scout who specializes in measuring “it” factor? Burrow oozes “it” and I’m not betting against him showing out in his first playoff game, especially against a Raiders secondary that finished 26th in pass EPA allowed.
Kelly: The league’s young superstar quarterbacks group is well-represented with Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray, and Joe Burrow all playing this weekend, but how could I not pick Tom Brady here?
Princiotti: Mahomes, for obvious reasons, though he does have his work cut out for him in attacking the Pittsburgh defense. This game will probably be over quickly but, if the Steelers put up a fight, it will be because T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick rose to the occasion.
Ruiz: There’s only one correct answer here, and it’s Patrick Mahomes. He’s the best quarterback in the world and he’s going up against a defense he already dunked on last month without the help of Travis Kelce. Tom Brady obviously has the longer playoff track record, but his supporting cast doesn’t look nearly as formidable now that Chris Godwin is out and Antonio Brown is hanging out with Kanye.
Sherman: From a football perspective, Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady are playing this weekend. They’re pretty trustworthy. From a non-football perspective, I gotta say I think I would trust Jalen Hurts the most. I feel like I could lend him my car and he’d return it in good condition, or he’d personally vow to make it up to me if anything happened to the car.
Solak: Tom Brady. Sure, I’m going out on a limb trusting the winningest postseason quarterback of all time. But there’s some uncertainty surrounding his skill-position players, and I think that’s not necessary. Brady’s a surgeon against zone coverage no matter who he’s throwing the ball to, and I think Jon Gannon’s defense will give him far too much space to operate. I don’t see the Bucs scoring less than 28 points.
3. Which non-QB will have the biggest impact this weekend?
Clark: See above. It’s Chase. If the Raiders pass rush can’t get home on Burrow, Chase will do what he does best: hit 20- or even 50-yard passes better than anyone in football. He is a true home-run hitter. This team rules.
Heifetz: Dallas’s Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs can single-handedly wreck opposing teams’ gameplans. But 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan may target their aggressiveness and try to trick them into giving up big plays.
Jones: Aaron Donald. He had three sacks and seven QB pressures against Arizona in Week 14. Easy answer. And while I’m here, let me add that he should probably win Defensive Player of the Year again, too.
Kelly: Aaron Donald is so good, and so dominant, that it almost feels like we take him for granted. I think if he can do his typical thing on the Rams’ interior defensive line, it will make life hard for the Cardinals.
Princiotti: 49ers do-it-all playmaker Deebo Samuel. He can slow down Dallas’s defense and keep things simple for Jimmy Garoppolo.
Ruiz: If Maxx Crosby doesn’t dominate the Bengals offensive line in the same way he did against the Chargers in the season finale, the Raiders don’t stand a chance. Las Vegas needs to put pressure on Joe Burrow; otherwise, he’ll dissect Gus Bradley’s predictable defense and we’ll see a repeat of Cincinnati’s 19-point win over the Raiders in November.
Sherman: Deebo Samuel, who is the Niners’ best wide receiver, best running back, and after a passing TD last week, potentially their best quarterback too. What, you think Jimmy Garoppolo is better?
Solak: Maxx Crosby. Crosby almost beat the Chargers all by his lonesome to get the Raiders into the playoffs—now he gets the most-sacked QB in the league in Joe Burrow. The Raiders’ entire defensive line should, and must, dominate the Bengals’ offensive line if they are to advance, and Crosby is their star player. It’s been an incredible season for Crosby, but January is the month that counts.
4. Which coach has the most to prove?
Clark: Mike McCarthy is the coach with a legit contender who has the most questions being asked of him. The Cowboys are stacked, Dan Quinn has led the defense admirably, Kellen Moore calls plays well—the Cowboys’ success comes down to McCarthy’s in-game decisions and his ability to inject some juice into this team. I wish they had a different coach.
Heifetz: Mike McCarthy. If the Cowboys lose in the first round of the playoffs, they’ll be an exceptionally talented team that is underperforming in the playoffs—which will give Cowboys fans flashbacks to the last decade under Jason Garrett. It will also reinforce every criticism of McCarthy from his time in Green Bay.
Jones: Zac Taylor. I know I’m bullish on Burrow and the Bengals showing up, but if they were to lose, I’m not sure how it would be due to anything other than mismanagement on the coaching end. There’s a chance this game doesn’t hinge on a singular Taylor decision, but if it does, it will be fascinating to see how it goes.
Kelly: It’s going to be a rough offseason narrative-wise for Kliff Kingsbury if the Cardinals lose to the Rams. After starting off 7-0, his team has faded badly over the second half of the season―something that’s become a yearly occurrence. He needs to prove he can jump-start Arizona’s flailing offense or questions might be asked about his future in the desert.
Princiotti: Raiders interim coach Rich Bisaccia. Zac Taylor, Kliff Kingsbury, and Nick Sirianni can add a lot to their résumés with a playoff win, but Bisaccia is the only coach who might earn himself a permanent gig in the postseason. If I had to guess, I’d say Bisaccia, who has served as Las Vegas’s interim head coach since Jon Gruden resigned midseason, probably won’t stay on beyond this season. Playoff wins could change that, though.
Ruiz: If the Cowboys fall behind early, Jerry Jones might take the headset away from Mike McCarthy midgame. Dallas brought him in because of his playoff experience, so if it doesn’t help him avoid game-management mistakes, there might be some awkward conversations during the offseason.
Sherman: Kliff Kingsbury. His Cardinals teams have developed a reputation for starting out hot (like their handsome coach), before petering out over the course of the year, with some speculating that Kingsbury’s playcalling becomes predictable and he isn’t willing to make in-season adaptations. This year’s squad started out 7-0 and went 4-6 from that point on, with no answers once DeAndre Hopkins got hurt. If the Cardinals quickly exit the postseason with a meek loss to the Rams, it’ll confirm many people’s priors on Kliff.
Solak: Mike McCarthy. This is Round 2 with an elite quarterback, a great offensive support system, and a defense that handles itself. Just take good timeouts, throw good challenge flags, go for some fourth downs and two-point conversions, and please, keep your hands off of the offense in critical situations. If the rehabilitation is real, McCarthy’s team should be good enough to earn a repeat appearance in Lambeau for the NFC title game—he’ll just be on the opposite sideline.
5. If you had to pick one team playing this weekend to reach the Super Bowl, who would it be?
Clark: The Chiefs. This seems like cheating, since I’m picking them to make the Super Bowl. It’s a talented team which has improved as the season has gone along. Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid occupy the same spot Belichick and Brady did for me for years: I’m picking them to make the Super Bowl until they stop making the Super Bowl. All the ingredients are there.
Heifetz: The one Tom Brady is on.
Jones: The Chiefs. I know the defense has been creaky lately and the offense is nicked up, but Patrick Lavon Mahomes II is still Kansas City’s QB.
Kelly: I know it’s boring, and I know they haven’t exactly been their dominant selves this year, but I still basically expect the Chiefs to go to the Super Bowl again. It’s Mahomes! What can I say?
Princiotti: Kansas City, because the path through the AFC is simpler. I just have a hard time believing that any of the NFC teams playing this weekend can go to Green Bay and win a conference championship.
Ruiz: Can I pick more than one? If not, I’ll take the Chiefs, but I could really see five teams playing this weekend—Kansas City, Tampa Bay, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Buffalo-–making it. Hell, throw the Bengals in there, too. They’re wins over the Raiders and Titans away from playing for their spot.
Sherman: Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes are playing this weekend! If I had to pick one, it would be the Chiefs, who have an easier road ahead.
Solak: The Buffalo Bills. New England might even be their toughest matchup of the entire postseason, depending on how the cards fall. The AFC is a total mess, so whichever team gets hot for three games will find its way out. Tough to bet on any of them accordingly, but nobody gets hotter when they’re hot than Josh Allen does—and he isn’t the sort of player for whom there’s a schematic answer.
6. Who is your MVP pick for this season?
Clark: Aaron Rodgers by a good margin.
Heifetz: Despite all the mishegas, it is Aaron Rodgers. MVP was too close to call in early December, but in the last month of the season, Rodgers completed almost 75 percent of his passes and threw for 10 touchdowns and zero interceptions. That gave him the highest touchdown rate and the lowest interception rate for the second straight season. He also led in a bunch of other fancy stats (QBR, ANY/A) that confirm what anyone can see with their eyeballs: Rodgers is the most consistently great quarterback. Maybe he’ll even get Hub Arkush’s vote.
Jones: Rodgers. It’s pretty wild that the race came down to a 44-year-old and a 38-year-old. But Rodgers should win because he was the best QB in the NFL this season on the league’s best team. Simple as that.
Kelly: If I had a vote, it’d go to Aaron Rodgers. The dude has just been so incredibly efficient in the way he orchestrates that Green Bay offense. If he wasn’t there, it’d be hard to see the Packers as anything but a middling team.
Princiotti: Tom Brady. It’s close between him and Aaron Rodgers (the most likely pick), but Brady has thrown for more yards and more touchdowns while facing defenses devoting more resources to coverage. Given the balance of the Packers’ offense and the injuries Tampa Bay has piled up at receiver, I’d say he’s done it with slightly less help, too.
Ruiz: It’s Aaron Rodgers. He’s been one of the three best quarterbacks this season and plays for the best team. I also don’t want him to call me a bum. Getting called a bum by a guy in a dirty Star Wars T-shirt would be a low point, for sure.
Sherman: I’d go with Brady, who led the NFL in passing yardage and touchdowns, even though Rodgers had better rate stats and threw fewer interceptions. It’s definitely a tough call for me, even though it seems likely to be an easy win for Rodgers.
Solak: Aaron Rodgers. The way the Packers run offense—the versatility, the flexibility—is only possible with an offensive coordinator on the field. That guy just happens to have a 65-yard arm, to boot.