Analysis and evaluations only this week—no more ironclad predictions. Out of six games in the Super Wild Card round, I only picked four correctly. Makes me look as if I don’t really know what I’m talking about.
Houston Texans @ Baltimore Ravens
Didn’t see Houston coming. I thought for certain Cleveland’s defense would find ways to frustrate the Texans' first-year passer C. J. Stroud. Dead wrong on that one, football fans! That’s what Houston's defense did to Cleveland’s venerable veteran QB Joe Flacco. The result: a 45-to-14 victory for the Texans and their rookie passer.
Yes, I expected Flacco to force a few passes and throw an interception or two. I also thought he would toss 2-4 TD’s. I certainly didn't anticipate back-to-back third quarter pick-sixes with the outcome still in doubt. Nor did I think DeMeco Ryans’ blitz packages would crumble Joe to the turf with such demoralizing, drive-killing regularity.
C. J. Stroud suffered none of the above. The Ohio State rookie phenom threw a trio of touchdown passes with zero picks. He just missed on a fourth when he overthrew a wide-open Nico Collins. That one would have been a 59-yard score. Stroud’s 157.2 passer rating was just shy of perfection. Good Morning Football posted a graphic comparing C. J. ’s first playoff game numbers with Joe Montana’s. That’s good company!
This week, the upstart Texans travel to Baltimore to take on the Ravens, whose defense ranked as the NFL’s stingiest in 2023, allowing just 16.5 Points per Game. No problem, right? Look what Stroud did to Cleveland’s top-ranked pass defense.
But unlike Flacco, Ravens’ QB Lamar Jackson can move in, around and out of the pass pocket with the best mobile quarterbacks ever. In 2023, Jackson surveyed the field and found open receivers better than he did in 2019, the first time Lamar was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. This year’s Ravens scored 483 points, the fourth most in the league. Jackson averaged 8.0 Yards per Pass Attempt and rushed for 821 yards, accounting for an impressive 29 of the team’s 53 offensive touchdowns.
The likely 2023 NFL MVP can win either way—and probably will, though Stroud clearly won’t go down without a fight. DeMeco Ryans’ blitz packages might force Jackson to run more this Saturday—not necessarily a result the Texans want. Game time temperatures will likely drop below freezing, definitely not a good thing for a dome team playing on the road before a hostile crowd in an open-air stadium.
Hard to see how Houston can win this thing. But that’s what I said last week.
Green Bay Packers @ San Francisco 49ers
Much like C. J. Stroud, Green Bay’s first year starting quarterback Jordan Love played brilliantly in his own postseason debut, orchestrating a resounding and stupefying 48-to-32 win in Dallas over the Cowboys.
While Stroud approached perfection, Love achieved it, posting a 158.3 passer rating—the highest number a QB can hit. In short, Love could not have thrown the ball better. Couple that with 143 Green Bay rush yards, and Dallas simply couldn’t keep pace, losing a home playoff game after winning 16 straight times in AT&T Stadium. The repercussions for this one have yet to be fully realized.
I would expect San Franciso’s defense to offer much more resistance. The 49ers finished 3rd (behind Baltimore & Kansas City) in fewest Points per Game Allowed. They will surrender some pass yards between the twenties, especially when the 49ers offense takes leads—which is most of the time. But the Niners run defense is stout, their pass rush formidable, and their two linebackers intimidating against ball carriers reaching the second level and pass receivers running option routes or crossers over the middle.
Their offense is superior: 4th in passing yards, 3rd in rush yards, 2nd overall. As fantasy football owners will attest, running back Christian McCaffrey gobbles up real estate like no other mortal. His 2345 all-purpose yards once again led the entire NFL. San Francisco receivers specialize in YAC Yards (After the Catch), especially the speedy Deebo Samuel. Quarterback Brock Purdy’s 9.6 Yards per Pass Attempt—an unbelievable number—reflects all these things, as well as the second-year passer’s mastery of head coach Kyle Shanahan’s sophisticated and successful offensive designs.
Green Bay’s defense remains the question mark here. Dak Prescott hit them up for 501 yards in a losing effort, though most of that production came after the Packers had built a commanding lead. In three consecutive December games, Green Bay allowed 24 points to the New York Giants, 34 to Tampa Bay, and 30 to the lowly Carolina Panthers—hardly elite NFL offenses!
Brock Purdy and his skill players are elite! All of them. In fact, the entire 49ers’ roster is dotted with All Pros and Player of the Year candidates. Again, I don’t see how the Packers can outscore the 49ers in California this Saturday. But then, I said similar things about C. J. Stroud against the Browns last week.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Detroit Lions
This game seems much simpler to forecast. The Lions are riding a crest of emotion and a powerful offense to the NFC Championship game next week, right? The Bucs couldn’t possibly muster enough offense to spoil this field good story—or could they?
Quarterback Baker Mayfield’s return to relevance ranks as one of this season’s best stories. Plagued by salary cap issues (a Tom Brady side effect), Tampa Bay needed an affordable fix at QB. The 28-year-old Mayfield signed a three-year, bargain basement deal. Last week, Baker earned a reported $250 bonus thousand for beating the Eagles in the Wild Card round. Another quarter mil sits on the table this week. That’s some real world motivation!
Mayfield is surrounded with weapons. Veteran wide receivers Mike Evans—a 10,000-yard career guy—Chris Godwin, and rookie Trey Palmer will challenge Detroit’s mediocre pass defense. Sophomore runner Rachaad White finished just 5 yards shy of a thousand. These four in conjunction with their offensive colleagues rolled up 426 total yards last week against Philadelphia—which isn’t saying much. But they also contributed mightily during Tampa Bay’s five-wins-in-six-games, NFC South-clinching stretch drive.
They’ll need to play even better in Detroit, because the Lions offense is tearing it up and has been all season. Only Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa threw for more yards than Jared Goff (4575). And Detrtoit’s two stellar rookies—tight end Sam Laporta and RB Jahmyr Gibbs—each contributed 10+ touchdowns to the Lions’ cause. So did wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown. The result, the 3rd most productive and 5th highest scoring offense in the NFL.
Goff’s story is even better than Mayfield’s. Packed off to Detroit after falling into disfavor with Rams head coach Sean McVay, the 29-year-old former first overall draft pick has resurrected his career in grand fashion. Tampa Bay’s run defense may slow down Gibbs and David Montgomery—another good comeback story—but they will not find the Lions offense as easy to shut down as Philadelphia’s, primarily because of Goff.
Both teams will score their points, but the Lions should score enough to win!
Kansas City Chiefs @ Buffalo Bills
For the first time since 2018, Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas Chiefs will play a non-Super Bowl, postseason game on the road. Buffalo QB Josh Allen is standing by!
After a 6-6 start, the Buffalo Bills removed their heads from their collective poop chutes and started winning games—six in a row counting last Monday’s 31-to-17 dismantling of the Pittsburgh Steelers. During this streak, QB Josh Allen found his happy place: safer runs, fewer risky throws, more third down conversions, and, most importantly, success!
Kansas City peaked early, endured a post Daylight Savings skid, then rallied to salvage another AFC West title. Dropped passes terminated numerous possessions, shaky pass protection flushed Mahomes out of the pocket more than he wanted, and Travis Kelce scored just one touchdown over the season’s final two months.
But here they are: Mahomes and Allen, facing off once again in what figures to be another epic postseason battle. Allen comes into it red hot riding a winning streak. Mahomes arrives with a secret weapon that just might tilt the field in KC’s favor:
The Chiefs defense. Yes, this young, talented, tough, up-and-coming unit has allowed opponents more than 20 points just once since Thanksgiving. Second only to Baltimore in QB sacks and Cleveland in fewest Point per Game, Kansas City makes things difficult for opposing passers. Their tight man coverage forces teams to drive the length of the field, and their timely blitz calls create pass protection issues on third down conversion attempts..
That’s, however, where Buffalo excels. Since Joe Brady took over as offensive coordinator, the Bills are running the ball more often with better results, and Josh Allen is checking down to RB’s twice as often on pass plays. The Bills led the NFL in third down conversion percentage, and Allen—with the singular exception of the first half of their Week 18 showdown for the AFC East title in Miami—has thrown no costly, game-changing, red zone interceptions.
In short, Kansas City’s defense holds the keys to victory Sunday night in Buffalo. If the Chiefs can pressure Josh Allen into regression, then the Chiefs could sustain scoring drives of their own against the Bills depleted, injury-riddled defense. But if Allen stays the course, takes what the Chiefs give him underneath, and runs only when necessary, Buffalo could and should emerge with a win.
Nothing is ever certain against Andy Reid’s offense and the magical quarterback who has lifted the Chiefs to 3 Super Bowl appearances in the last 4 seasons. But if Josh Allen is ever going to get there himself, this may be the time. He and his team certainly have momentum.