Wild-card weekend delivered. We got four one-possession games, an epic comeback, and the best teams advancing to the divisional round. Now we get the best weekend in football, with must-see matchups between the Bengals and Bills and Cowboys and 49ers, the return of an NFC East rivalry in Eagles-Giants, and a plucky Jaguars team trying to take down the Super Bowl–favorite Chiefs.
Which four teams will be left standing come Sunday night? On to the picks!
Lines are from FanDuel as of Thursday night. Stats are from TruMedia/Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.
Wild-card round: 4-2
Season record: 142-128-7
Jacksonville Jaguars at Kansas City Chiefs (-8.5)
The Jaguars were the story of the first round of the playoffs. Their last five drives during an epic comeback against the Chargers: TD, TD, TD, TD, FG. Based on expected points added (EPA) per drive, it was the best second-half performance by a team in a playoff game in TruMedia’s database (which goes back to 2000). There’s so much to love about that game if you’re a Jaguars fan. One, Trevor Lawrence persevered after a disastrous first half (in which he threw four interceptions) and caught fire to lead the Jaguars all the way back. A lot of quarterbacks would have fallen apart after that start.
And two, Doug Pederson was in his bag as a play caller. I loved his call to go for two with the Jaguars down 30-26. Pederson gets killed if the Jaguars fail to convert, but it worked and he looks like a genius. But Pederson also delivered one of the biggest timeouts in recent NFL history on fourth-and-1 during the Jaguars’ game-winning drive. He didn’t like the initial look and got to the officials just in time. Pederson then had the Jaguars line up for a QB sneak, but Lawrence flipped the ball to Travis Etienne for a 25-yard gain. Just a brilliant call.
Having said that, this matchup is going to be different. The Chiefs are at home and coming off of a bye. During the regular season, their offense was first in EPA per drive, and it wasn’t close. The difference between the Chiefs and the second-place Bills was the same as the difference between the Bills and the no. 17 Browns. The fact that Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid got more efficient on offense after trading Tyreek Hill is probably still not receiving enough attention.
These two teams played each other in Week 10. The Jaguars were plus-three in turnovers in that game and recovered an onside kick. They still lost, 27-17. I don’t have much faith in the Jaguars to slow down Mahomes and the Chiefs offense. But I do think the Jaguars will employ a game plan that gives them the best chance to win. Shortening the game is about number of possessions, not time of possession. If the Jaguars can string together long drives and limit the Chiefs’ explosive plays, they’ll have a better chance to capitalize on the randomness associated with NFL games. Plus, Pederson has an edge over Reid in terms of in-game decision-making.
Pederson is 6-0 against the spread as a playoff underdog, and he’s won five of those games outright. I like the Jaguars to keep it close.
The pick: Jaguars (+8.5)
New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles (-7.5)
How good was that Giants offensive performance last week against the Vikings? Not only was it their best offensive game of the season, in terms of EPA per drive, but it was the eighth-best offensive game by any team this season. That’s out of a sample of 554 games! The Giants had 28 first downs and 431 yards. They had seven real possessions and scored on five of them—four touchdowns and a field goal. Overall, the Giants offense is all the way up to seventh in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric. They are the best example in the NFL of a coaching staff doing more with less this season.
The Eagles, however, are not the Vikings. Minnesota was overrated all season and finished the year ranked 27th in DVOA. The Eagles finished the season third in DVOA. And they are a relatively healthy group. When these two teams kick off Saturday night, the Eagles are expected to have 21 of their 22 regular starters available. There are, of course, some caveats. Right tackle Lane Johnson will be trying to play through an adductor tear, and Jalen Hurts is playing through a shoulder injury.
These two teams played twice late in the season. The Eagles dominated a Week 14 matchup, 48-22. They ran for 253 yards in that game, and the defense had seven sacks. The Giants rested their starters during the Eagles’ Week 18 win, and Hurts returned from injury to help the team clinch the no. 1 seed. The Eagles employed a vanilla game plan in that matchup and did not use Hurts in the run game. That seems likely to change on Saturday. It’s impossible to say for sure what version of Hurts we’ll get, but he’ll have had a full five weeks to recover since first hurting his shoulder in Week 15 against the Bears.
As for how the Giants defense will try to slow Hurts down, there’s some mystery. Generally, defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s defenses have been blitz-heavy and run a high percentage of man coverage. But Martindale has adjusted down the stretch. In weeks 1 to 14, the Giants played man 46.9 percent of the time. In the last four games (not including Week 18 when they sat their starters), that percentage has dipped all the way to 19.9 percent. The Giants blitzed a league-high 45.5 percent of the time from weeks 1 to 14. In the last four games, that dropped to 31 percent. My sense is Martindale will want to be aggressive and make Hurts feel some heat, but there’s going to be a feeling-out period in this game, and both sides will need to be ready to adjust.
In the end, I like the Eagles here because of two matchups. One, their pass rush against the Giants offensive line. The Eagles have sacked opponents on a league-best 11.2 percent of their pass plays. The difference between them and the second-ranked Cowboys is the same as the difference between the Cowboys and the 28th-ranked Titans. The other matchup: Eagles pass-catching weapons against Giants corners and linebackers. The Eagles have A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, and Dallas Goedert all healthy. You can’t focus on just taking one of them away and feel like you’re OK.
I see a competitive game with the Eagles pulling away late. The Giants have been a really well-coached team, but there’s a significant talent gap here.
The pick: Eagles (-7.5)
Cincinnati Bengals at Buffalo Bills (-5.5)
The matchup between Lou Anarumo’s defense and Josh Allen is going to be fun. I think there’s been some overreaction to how the Bills played last week. It was a bad game. They weren’t crisp. They were in real danger of losing to the Skylar Thompson–led Dolphins. But keep in mind we’re talking about a Bills team that still racked up 423 yards of offense and 25 first downs and scored 34 points. Imagine how different we’d view that game if not for mistakes like a dropped touchdown by Dawson Knox and a Khalil Shakir dropped deep ball. Do they need to be better to win the Super Bowl? Yes. But the beauty of Allen is that he can make multiple mistakes that feel like they’re complete game-changers and still make up for them with spectacular plays.
Anarumo’s approach here will be key. The Bengals have blitzed 23.3 percent of the time this season, which ranks 19th in terms of frequency. But Allen has shown a big discrepancy in performance on plays where he’s blitzed versus plays where opponents rush four or fewer. Against the blitz, he ranks 28th in EPA per pass play. When defenses don’t blitz, he ranks second. It’s obviously not that simple. Allen is a great player and can carve up defenses regardless of scheme. But if the Bengals are focused on creating turnovers and negative plays, there’s a compelling case that they should be aggressive defensively.
On the other side of the ball, it’ll be all about the matchups up front. Bengals left tackle Jonah Williams did not practice Wednesday or Thursday, meaning he could be in danger of missing this game. The Bengals were set up well for a Super Bowl run, but they could be without three starting offensive linemen for this game.
I am sticking with the Bills as my Super Bowl pick, but I can’t say I feel super confident about it. Everyone has to have rules they live by. Three of mine:
- Never tell someone how to raise their kids.
- Never go salad over fries for the included side.
- Never bet against Joe Burrow as a playoff underdog.
The pick: Bengals (+5.5)
Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers (-3.5)
This is the game I’ve gone back and forth on all week. The case for the 49ers is simple. They have now won 11 games in a row and have an NFL-best plus-191 point differential. They’re at home. They have the best defense in the NFL. And they can win even if Brock Purdy is not at his best.
So what’s the case for the Cowboys? They’re also really good and can win in a bunch of different ways. After two punts to start the game last week against Tampa Bay, the Cowboys scored touchdowns on five of their next six possessions. Based on EPA per pass play, Dak Prescott delivered the 10th-best game we’ve seen by any quarterback all season. Has Prescott had some bad games? Sure. But most of the time when he’s on the field, the offense works. If we isolate just the Cowboys’ snaps with Prescott and extend those to the entire season, we’re talking about an offense that would have ranked sixth in the NFL this season in terms of EPA per play.
The 49ers, meanwhile, have too many weapons and are too well-coached to get shut down offensively. For the Cowboys, it will be about producing enough negative plays to give their offense a chance to steal the game in the fourth quarter. If the Cowboys win this game, it feels like we’re going to be talking about a huge Micah Parsons performance on Monday.
It does not feel good going against this 49ers team, but I think the Cowboys (for once) might be a little undervalued. I like their chances of advancing to the NFC championship game.
The pick: Cowboys (+3.5)