We made it! The NFL regular season is over, we no longer have to pay attention to irrelevant teams, and we can now turn our full attention to the playoffs.
During wild-card weekend, we get three games with relatively large point spreads (more than a touchdown), and three that are projected to be close (a field goal or less). What surprises are in store? Which big underdog has the best chance to win? Who will be left standing in the divisional round? On to the picks!
Lines are from FanDuel as of Thursday night. Stats are from TruMedia/Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.
Week 18 record: 9-7
Season record: 138-126-7
Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers (-9.5)
On paper, this game looks like a major mismatch. The Seahawks needed overtime to get past the Rams in Week 18 and then snuck into the playoffs thanks to the Lions beating the Packers on Sunday night. Seattle went 3-5 in its final eight games during the regular season. Of the Seahawks’ three losses by more than seven points this season, two came against the 49ers. The Seahawks scored just one offensive touchdown on 20 possessions in those two losses.
The 49ers, meanwhile, finished the regular season on a 10-game win streak, and their plus-173 point differential was tops in the NFL. They have the league’s best defense, and the offense didn’t miss a beat when Jimmy Garoppolo went down and Brock Purdy replaced him. If we were to extend the 49ers’ performance with Purdy to the entire season, they would rank as the second-best offense in the NFL in expected points added (EPA) per play, behind only the Chiefs. Purdy’s EPA per pass play has been nearly identical to Garoppolo’s.
So what’s the case for the Seahawks? One, their coaching staff will be ready. Pete Carroll has the Seahawks in the playoffs for the 10th time in 13 seasons, and that’s with three different starting quarterbacks. They’ve never gone back-to-back seasons without making it during Carroll’s tenure. Carroll has proved people wrong all year, showing that Seattle could still be competitive without Russell Wilson. Expect the Seahawks to play loose and embrace the underdog role.
Having said that, they’ll need to find a way to gain an edge and steal possessions and field position, because it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the Seahawks consistently move the ball against this Niners defense. I see two possibilities: One, Purdy turns the ball over. That hasn’t been an issue so far, but he’s still a rookie making his first playoff start. He’s got to make mistakes at some point (I think?). And two, special teams. The Seahawks finished the regular season fourth in special teams DVOA, while the 49ers were 15th.
I think the 49ers win, but it looks likely that this is going to be a messy-weather game with rain falling in Santa Clara. Kyle Shanahan is generally conservative with his in-game decision-making, and I think he could be a little cautious early on with Purdy. A 49ers blowout would not surprise me. They’re the far superior team. But I’m banking on the Seahawks’ feistiness to keep it relatively competitive.
The pick: Seahawks (+9.5)
Los Angeles Chargers at Jacksonville Jaguars (+2.5)
During this week’s Extra Point Taken, I had to take the Chargers to task for how they handled Week 18. They knew before kickoff that they had the fifth seed locked up, yet Brandon Staley decided to still play his starters deep into the game. Wide receiver Mike Williams suffered a back injury during the game. He missed practice Wednesday and Thursday, and is questionable for Saturday’s game. Staley pointed to roster limitations as the reason he played Williams, Justin Herbert, Keenan Allen, and others. It’s true that you can’t sit everyone. But it’s false that you can’t sit your most important players. Just look at what Brian Daboll did with the Giants in Week 18. It was just such an avoidable mistake that could end up costing the Chargers in a game that matters.
There are reasons to be enamored of this Chargers team as a potential sleeper. First, Staley has shown he can produce impressive opponent-specific defensive game plans. Second, they have Herbert. But I just can’t get there with this team. They went 1-5 with a minus-48 point differential against playoff teams during the regular season. Given what we’ve seen this year—both with the offensive scheme and some of Staley’s decision-making—I have questions about their ability to position Herbert for success.
As for the Jaguars, their win over the Titans last week wasn’t all that impressive, but their body of work is pretty good. The Jaguars finished the regular season ninth in offensive DVOA and seventh overall in point differential. The job Doug Pederson did this season was underrated. The Jaguars had won more than six games just once in the previous 11 seasons! Pederson got them to 9-8 and won the division. Also, don’t sleep on Jacksonville’s crowd. I thought the fans there were terrific last week.
There’s a chance I end up looking like a dummy for this pick. I’m a big believer in Herbert, and the Chargers are the more talented team. But the Jaguars have had the better season, they beat the Chargers 38-10 in Week 3, and I like Pederson and Trevor Lawrence in the underdog role.
The pick: Jaguars (+2.5)
Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills (-13.5)
I picked the Bills to win the Super Bowl before the season, but I will admit there have been a bunch of times this year when I’ve watched them and thought, “They don’t look quite right to me.” Then I’d go to the numbers, which suggest they’re exactly the team a lot of people expected them to be. Some examples:
- They’re first in DVOA and the only team to rank in the top five in offense, defense, and special teams.
- Their plus-169 point differential is second in the NFL and first in the AFC.
- Their three losses have been by a combined eight points.
- No team has beaten them by more than a field goal.
The Bills are not perfect. No team is. I wish their offensive line was a little better. I wish they had more weapons besides Stefon Diggs. I wish they were a little more stable at cornerback. I wish Von Miller didn’t get injured. But you know what? They’re still really, really good. Josh Allen’s A-plus game is as good as that of any quarterback in the NFL. And when Allen makes mistakes, he usually finds a way to make up for them.
When these two teams last faced each other, in Week 15, the Bills produced 446 yards of offense and 29 first downs on a cold and snowy night. I don’t think Miami’s defense is good enough to stop Buffalo. And offensively, it looks like the Dolphins are preparing to roll with Skylar Thompson at quarterback.
I usually hate going with a side that it feels like everyone’s going to be on. There’s a scenario in which the Bills turn the ball over, and the Dolphins stay within striking distance. But Buffalo generally plays with an aggressive, “step on their throat” mentality. That stadium’s going to be electric. I like the Bills in a blowout.
The pick: Bills (-13.5)
New York Giants at Minnesota Vikings (-3)
When I first saw the schedule for this weekend, I looked at this game and knew I was going to hate myself regardless of which team I picked.
In one corner, we have the New York Giants—a plucky, well-coached team that found a way to win games despite being short on talent. There are two specific matchups that I like here for the Giants. One is their pass rush against the Vikings offensive line, especially when you consider that Minnesota is dealing with injuries at center and right tackle. The other is the Giants’ offensive scheming against Minnesota’s defensive scheming. The Giants, almost miraculously, finished 10th in offensive DVOA in the regular season. They found a way to do more with less. The Vikings finished 27th in defensive DVOA. They were one of the easiest groups to move the ball against all season. The Giants put up 445 yards on the Vikings when the teams faced each other in Week 16.
The Vikings, meanwhile, are the only team since at least 2000 to finish with 13 or more wins and a negative (minus-3) point differential. No other team with 13 or more wins during that stretch finished worse than a plus-63. They’re banged up on the offensive line. Their defense isn’t very good. And they finished 30th in special teams DVOA. Then again, they have Justin Jefferson, who is the only player capable of just taking this game over.
These teams are pretty evenly matched. Just because the Vikings had luck on their side for most of the season doesn’t mean it’s necessarily going to continue or revert in this game. I’m going to go ahead and take the points, knowing full well that come Sunday evening there’s a strong possibility that I’m kicking myself for not having the foresight to predict a one-score, last-minute Vikings win.
The pick: Giants (+3)
Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals (-9.5)
For the Ravens, this has to be close to the worst-case scenario. Lamar Jackson tweeted an update Thursday, saying his knee is unstable and he’s out for this game. Tyler Huntley, who is dealing with shoulder and wrist injuries, was limited in Thursday’s practice. So the Ravens will either ride with third-string QB Anthony Brown or a less-than-100-percent version of Huntley. Not good.
The Bengals’ injury issues are nowhere near as dire, but they still have some concerns. They lost both right guard Alex Cappa and right tackle La’el Collins to injuries down the stretch. That means they’ll be starting two backup offensive linemen next to each on the right side in this game.
The 2022 Bengals are better than last year’s version that made the Super Bowl. They went 12-4, won eight straight games late this season (and had their Week 17 game canceled), and lost just one game by more than three points. But those offensive line injuries could be tough to overcome.
As for the Ravens, there’s no real reason to think they can win this game. They’re just so limited offensively without Jackson. Baltimore failed to score more than 17 points in each of its last six games. They’re going to have to lean all the way into the strengths of the team: defense and special teams. But the Ravens have a coach in John Harbaugh who will come up with a specific game plan to try to maximize the team’s strengths and mask its weaknesses.
In the end, I don’t think it’s going to be enough to win. But I’m leaning into the Ravens’ infrastructure here and taking the points.
The pick: Ravens (+9.5)
Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+2.5)
I can’t wait to listen to the takes after this one. There will be so many ripple effects, depending on the outcome. If the Cowboys win, the conversation will immediately shift to where Tom Brady is going to play next season. If the Bucs win, then the focus turns to whether Jerry Jones is willing to stick with head coach Mike McCarthy for another year, or whether Dallas becomes a viable destination for Sean Payton.
Last week was ugly for the Cowboys. Dak Prescott completed 14 of 37 passes for 128 yards against the Commanders. Dallas managed just 10 first downs and 182 yards. But it’s important to not let recency bias seep in here. If we isolate the Cowboys’ snaps with Prescott this season, they performed like the NFL’s sixth-best offense in terms of EPA per play.
For the Bucs, in many ways, it’s the opposite. They needed a Week 17 win to get in, and Brady lit the Panthers up for 432 yards. They looked like the team we saw the previous two years. But overall? This was mostly a dreadful team to watch. The Bucs finished 16th in offensive DVOA, and have not beaten a team by more than six points since Week 2.
The Cowboys are not the same team on defense that they were early in the season, in large part due to injuries at cornerback. There’s a scenario here in which Brady carves them up downfield and suddenly the Bucs look dangerous. But I can’t unsee how sloppy Tampa Bay looked all season. I think the Cowboys are clearly the superior team and will take care of business.
The pick: Cowboys (-2.5)