The Ringer’s NFL writers answer the pressing questions ahead of this weekend’s wild-card round.
1. Which game are you most excited to watch?
Lindsay Jones: Chargers at Jaguars, and it’s not particularly close. I’m sure this will be a popular choice among my colleagues—and it should be. Justin Herbert! Trevor Lawrence! The chance that Brandon Staley will make a bonkers decision (or decisions). An opportunistic and scrappy Jaguars defense. Derwin James Jr. and (hopefully) Joey Bosa. There is a high chance of elite QB play in this game, but also, it’s the Chargers, so we should expect things to get weird. That makes this my must-watch game.
Nora Princiotti: Since it doesn’t seem like Lamar Jackson is going to play this weekend, I’ll take Chargers-Jaguars.
Steven Ruiz: Give me the game with generational quarterbacks who have arms capable of just about anything. I don’t know whether their teams are good enough to advance beyond the next round, so I want to enjoy Herbert and Lawrence as much as I can right now. In the first Jags-Chargers game, the two combined to make about 10 unreal throws … and that was while Herbert was nursing busted ribs and Lawrence was working through early-season issues. If both guys play to their potential, this could be a value-brand version of the Patrick Mahomes–Josh Allen shoot-out we saw last January.
Sheil Kapadia: Bucs-Cowboys. The takes will fly one way or another after that one. If the Bucs win, we’ll immediately get Mike McCarthy and Sean Payton speculation in Dallas, and it’ll be a celebration for the Dak Prescott haters. If the Cowboys win, everyone can come out with their top-five lists for where Tom Brady will play next season (OK, fine, that’s already happening).
Danny Kelly: Look, I know I’m biased as one of The Ringer’s resident Seattle fans, and I know San Francisco is favored by a ton, but who doesn’t love a good old-fashioned 49ers-Seahawks playoff tilt? On the Niners side, Brock Purdy is an awesome story, the literal Mr. Irrelevant who came on in relief late in the season and has played like one of the best quarterbacks in the league. On the Seahawks side, it’s hard not to appreciate Geno Smith and his late-career renaissance. This used to be one of the best rivalries in the NFL, and this game could rekindle that dynamic.
Austin Gayle: Chargers-Jaguars. Two phenomenal quarterback talents are going head-to-head in their first NFL playoff game. Both Herbert and Lawrence will start to write what should be illustrious NFL legacies with their performances on Saturday night. And Staley will seek revenge after being completely outclassed by Doug Pederson in the Jags’ 38-10 win over the Chargers in Week 3. Get your popcorn ready.
Danny Heifetz: Herbert vs. Lawrence for the quarterbacking, Bills vs. Dolphins for the pregame emotions, Brady vs. the Cowboys for the schadenfreude.
2. Which QB playing this weekend do you trust most?
Ruiz: The one with seven rings feels like the obvious choice, but the Cowboys’ pass rush is nasty and Brady has been doing all he can to avoid getting hit. I don’t blame him—but for Brady this game could be about self-preservation more than winning. If that’s the case, I’d trust Josh Allen more this weekend. It’s playoff time, which means the Bills will be incentivized to unleash Allen as a runner, and that in turn could unlock an evolved version of this football-throwing Kaiju. Allen might commit a slapstick turnover against Miami, but there is no way he’ll let Buffalo lose this weekend.
Jones: Tight call between Allen and Joe Burrow here. And yes, it feels a bit odd to pick Allen, because loving Allen the quarterback means coming to terms with the fact that he’s going to take some big chances with his body and the ball. Could he throw a pick or lose a goal-line fumble? Sure. But I trust that he’ll do every single thing he possibly can to help the Bills win every single game.
Kelly: This is a close one between a handful of stars, but I’ll go with Allen. He just has too many ways to beat you. Whether he’s throwing 50-yard touchdown bombs to Stefon Diggs or using his legs to create a backbreaking score, Allen is the closest thing the NFL has to a superhero in pads.
Kapadia: It’s a two-horse race between Allen and Burrow, but I’ll roll with Burrow here. He’s shown the special skill that all great quarterbacks have: an ability to problem solve. Last year, he tore defenses apart by chucking the ball downfield. This year, he’s shown that he can execute the “take what the defense gives you” approach. I’m concerned about the Bengals’ offensive line injuries, and they’re going up against a tough Ravens defense. But there’s never any panic with Burrow. I trust him to figure it out.
Gayle: Burrow by a significant margin. He put on an absolute show in the second half of the season to lead the Bengals to 10 wins in their last 11 games. The Bengals are better Super Bowl contenders now than they were a year ago because of how much he and the offense have improved. As he puts it, the championship window is “always open” as long as he’s under center in Cincinnati.
Princiotti: I’d say Burrow if he weren’t playing a Ravens defense that’s been his opponent in two of his worst games this season. Since Mike Macdonald seems to thrive against Burrow, I think the answer is Allen.
Ben Solak: Brock Purdy. LOL, just kidding. Allen. Even though he has one or two throws a game that make no sense whatsoever (in a bad way), he still has four or five throws a game that make no sense whatsoever (in a very good way). If the Bills finally make their run through the AFC this year, it’ll be because of him.
Heifetz: It’s a toss-up between Skylar Thompson and Tom Brady.
3. Which non-QB will have the biggest impact this weekend?
Heifetz: Justin Jefferson can single-handedly torch the Giants if New York’s blitzes don’t properly disrupt Kirk Cousins.
Kelly: I’m sure the Giants will try to dream up ways to slow him down, but Jefferson was absolutely unstoppable at times this season—and he’ll need to be on Sunday if the Vikings want to get past this sneaky-good Giants team. After a pair of quiet games to close out the season, I expect Jefferson will explode in Minnesota’s matchup with New York.
Gayle: Does Brian Daboll count? He and coordinators Mike Kafka and Wink Martindale have put on a master class in taking one of the worst rosters in football to the postseason. After resting his starters in a meaningless Week 18 game, Daboll will have his crosshairs firmly set on pulling off the upset over a fraudulent Vikings team on Sunday.
Kapadia: Nick Bosa. He finished the regular season as the NFL’s sack leader with 18.5, and he had 13 (!) more QB hits than any other player. The Seahawks had 20 offensive possessions against the 49ers in two games this season. They scored one touchdown. If this game ends up being a blowout, there’s a pretty good chance Bosa will play a massive role.
Jones: Hello, Nick Bosa. Ballots for Defensive Player of the Year will be submitted before the wild-card games kick off, but I think this is a weekend when Bosa will help reinforce his case for that award. He had three sacks in two games against the Seahawks in the regular season, and he’ll be facing a Seattle offensive line that hasn’t played well in recent weeks.
Ruiz: Nick Bosa might eat Geno Smith on Saturday. Really, I could pick the entire 49ers defense, but I’ll just stick with Bosa, who should have a big day against Seattle’s sketchy O-line.
Princiotti: The 49ers have a half dozen players who fit this category, but since I don’t think their game against Seattle will be very competitive, I’ll go with Dexter Lawrence. The Giants have a real shot against the Vikings if they can get heavy pressure on Cousins, and though Lawrence isn’t the one racking up the sacks, his presence on the interior makes the rest of the front work. The Giants defensive line is the reason they made the playoffs; it can be the reason they win a playoff game, too.
Solak: Joey Bosa. The star Chargers pass rusher left the Week 3 game that Los Angeles lost to the Jaguars with a groin injury, and while the two teams have changed a ton since then, Trevor Lawrence will still dice you up if he has all day in the pocket. For the Chargers to get that elusive first playoff win, they need Bosa—who has yet to play more than 50 percent of a game’s snaps since returning from injury—to stay on the field and dominate.
4. Which coach has the most to prove?
Gayle: Brandon Staley, and I don’t think it’s close. Staley is in only his second year coaching the Chargers, but expectations are through the roof because of Herbert. Staley has proved to be one of the NFL’s best defensive game planners, but his game management has been questionable, as was his decision to play his starters in Week 18. Losing as a favorite in his first playoff game wouldn’t sit well with ownership, especially if Mike Williams—who hurt his back in that Week 18 game against Denver—isn’t 100 percent healthy.
Ruiz: Well. Sean Payton, who figures to be an in-demand coaching candidate this hiring cycle, lives in L.A. now and has been seen at a Chargers game this season, so I’d say there’s a fair amount of pressure on Staley this weekend. If Los Angeles crashes out early after a somewhat disappointing regular season, the front office could pursue the former Saints coach.
Solak: Staley. Every single coach currently in the AFC with an elite or near-elite quarterback has won a playoff game save for him. You cannot have Herbert and not play late-January football. It’s unacceptable.
Jones: Mike McCarthy could really use a win here. His Cowboys team choked in the wild-card round last year against San Francisco, and they didn’t look particularly well coached (on offense, especially) when they played the Bucs back in Week 1. Jerry Jones has publicly supported McCarthy, including this week, when he was asked directly whether McCarthy could be fired if his team loses to the Bucs. But back-to-back wild-card-round losses would be a very bad look.
Heifetz: If McCarthy and the Cowboys go one-and-done in the playoffs in back-to-back years, it will have a lot of people calling for the team to hire Payton.
Kapadia: The easy answer is probably McCarthy, but I’ll go with Staley. I hated how he handled Week 18. And have serious questions about the Chargers’ leadership and their ability to put Herbert in position to succeed. If they come out and lay an egg, those concerns will only intensify.
Kelly: Staley’s decision to play his starters last weekend was suspect at best, but his choice to play Mike Williams in particular—who’s struggled with injuries all year and predictably got hurt again—was ridiculous. I think he’d benefit greatly in the eyes of the NFL media intelligentsia if he could lead this Chargers team on a deep playoff run.
Princiotti: Staley. After all the drama of this season, he’d be very well served by a postseason win.
5. If you had to pick one team playing this weekend to reach the Super Bowl, who would it be?
Solak: The San Francisco 49ers. The NFC is weak, and the Niners match up very well against the Eagles, who should be their stiffest competition in the conference. They are extremely well coached and über-talented at every position save for quarterback, which sounds like a big deal, until you remember who their head coach is.
Jones: Three really strong contenders here, with the Bills, Bengals, and 49ers. I’ll take San Francisco. I can’t believe I’m taking the team quarterbacked by Brock Purdy over those led by Allen and Burrow. But there’s something about the Eagles that I am having a hard time trusting, and until I see that Jalen Hurts isn’t hampered by that shoulder injury and the Eagles are able to fully unleash him, I am inclined to pick the 49ers to come out of the NFC.
Princiotti: The 49ers. It’s hard to pick an AFC team when they have to go through the Chiefs.
Kapadia: The Bills. They were my pick to win the Super Bowl before the season, and I’m sticking with them now. They finished the regular season 13-3, and their plus-169 point differential was tops in the AFC. Buffalo lost three games by a combined eight points. No team beat the Bills by more than a field goal. I have some concerns about their offensive line and their skill-position players behind Stefon Diggs. Cornerback has been a little shaky, too. But Allen can make up for mistakes and put the team on his back like no other quarterback in the NFL, aside from Patrick Mahomes.
Ruiz: The betting market says it’s Buffalo, and I’m inclined to agree. I am worried about Sean McDermott’s defense, which lost Von Miller for the season last month, but the offense just has so many buttons to push that it may not matter. Only one or two teams can match Buffalo’s firepower when the offense is playing its A-game.
Gayle: The Bills are the obvious choice here. They’re already 13.5-point favorites over a Dolphins team without Tua Tagovailoa, and they’ll be a home favorite over any team they play in the divisional round. Allen has been more careless with the football in the second half of the season, but he’s still one of the league’s best.
Kelly: The Bengals are definitely heating up at the right time, but I’m still going to roll with the Bills, who have the right combination of veteran leadership and playmaking talent.
Do a gif search for "Josh Allen". You can thank me later. pic.twitter.com/76Usbw69TU— Anthony Marino (@AnthMarino) August 17, 2018
6. Who is your MVP pick for this season?
Kapadia: I’ve got Patrick Mahomes. The Chiefs went 14-3, he started all 17 games, and he threw for more than 5,000 yards with 41 touchdowns. Advanced stats had him as the best quarterback in the NFL, and he passed the eye test on a weekly basis. Plus, the Chiefs had the best offense.
Jones: Mahomes, obviously. I don’t even want to pretend to make the case for someone else at this point. He’s the best player—you can see it every time you watch him play, every time you look at a basic box score, every time you run the advanced stats, every time you pull up wild highlights on Twitter, and every time you consider what he and the Chiefs went through this year to reinvent their offense without Tyreek Hill.
Heifetz: Mahomes lost Hill and still led the NFL in almost every significant passing category. Allen made too many boneheaded mistakes early in the season. Hurts missed too much time late. And while Burrow was also great this year—and beat Mahomes head-to-head—Mahomes was far more consistent throughout the season.
Kelly: Mahomes. No one combines physical talent with schematic smarts and out-of-structure genius like the Chiefs signal-caller. He operates on a higher level than all other quarterbacks.
Ruiz: Anyone who doesn’t pick Mahomes is overthinking it. He’s been the NFL’s best player while leading the team that’s favored to win it all in February. The vote should be unanimous.
Gayle: Mahomes. If your vote is for another player, I’m happy you’re enjoying being a contrarian. But you’re wrong. No other quarterback has played remotely close to the level Mahomes has all season, and the Kansas City offense ranks first in expected points added per play at 0.16—the second-place Bills average half that at 0.08.