It’s here. The NFL play-offs begin in earnest this weekend as the top 14 teams begin the postseason tournament to crown the Super Bowl LVI champion.
In amongst the contenders are the reigning champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, last year’s AFC champions the Kansas City Chiefs and a number of the most successful franchises in the league’s history.
Nat Coombs, our NFL expert who’s podcast is in the running for the Best American Football award at the Sports Podcast Awards, rules the roost over this weekend’s six wildcard matchups:
Las Vegas Raiders @ Cincinnati Bengals
I was behind the Raiders to upset the favourites in their play-in game against the Chargers last week, but my rationale was predicated on a few things including key players playing to the fullest of their potential (Josh Jacobs, Maxx Crosby, Daniel Carlson and to a lesser but important extent Derek Carr) – in addition to having homefield advantage fused with the emotion of being underestimated by almost everyone.
They’ll have to upset the odds against a wildly exciting Bengals side, and hope that those key protagonists that didn’t factor as expected – Darren Waller (who has a favourable match up against a D that struggles to defend a Tight End) and the underrated Hunter Renfrow – step up.
Joe Burrow and the Bengals should pound the ball with Joe Mixon and take the deep shots when the time is right, and providing the porous line holds up enough, Cincy should have enough to progress.
New England Patriots @ Buffalo Bills
Pats vs Bills III – the decider. They split one apiece in the regular season and are hard to separate again, despite trending in different directions recently.
Belichick having a third shot a team, in the deep waters of the play-offs where he’s more experienced than anyone else around him, is a dangerous thing to back against, but he’ll need to keep things tight: this Pats team isn’t built to chase.
The emergence of Devin Singletary to bolster the Bills run game hitherto driven by Josh Allen could be key – not just for this game but also the Bills further playoff ambitions. The Bills used Singletary effectively out of the backfield last time out against the Pats.
I backed New England when the haters were out – and I’m fascinated to see how strong they may be next season – but I think their season ends this weekend. And I’m sure I’ll live to regret saying that.
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Philadelphia Eagles @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Eagles offense is all about their ground game, and the Bucs are amongst the best around at shutting that down, though injuries have dulled their usual edge.
The Bucs D will be rebooted for Sunday’s game, and even if Lavonte David, Shaq Barrett & co aren’t at full steam, they’ll represent a stern enough test to force Jalen Hurts to have to air it out a fair amount.
Philly’s defensive front is formidable, but is up against one of the best offensive lines in the game. Play-off Lenny is back right on cue, Tom Brady may not have Chris Godwin (or Antonio Brown) but can feed Gronk, let Mike Evans rip off a few, and I see Scotty Miller arriving at the play-off party – as he did last year against the Packers.
San Francisco 49ers @ Dallas Cowboys
Dan Quinn has rightly been given a lot of credit for a playmaking Dallas’ defense, but they’re up against a strong San Fran O-line this time around that will make life tough for Randy Gregory, Micah Parsons & co to cut through.
The 49ers front seven is similarly stacked, and the secondary re-upped after injury and, as Prop O was spelling out on my podcast this week (The Nat Coombs Show), when George Kittle and Deebo Samuel are both on the field, this is a very different offense to when one (or both) are side-lined.
All that said…. I feel Dallas, who are fighting fit, can establish enough of a ground game, and Dak Prescott will show why he’s a bona fide part of that top tier QB class, despite rarely getting the credit he deserves. This could be the play-offs that we finally fall on Prescott being a Top 5 QB.
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Kansas City Chiefs
Big Ben’s remarkable career deserved one most postseason dance, but the Chiefs are double digit favourites, and shouldn’t have any real problems here.
Injuries on the O-line have affected them lately, so T.J. Watt could achieve some cut through, but Patrick Mahomes is back in his groove, getting use to clock dominating, lengthy drives, slicing and dicing.
Conversely, Roethlisberger and the Steelers are much less multi-dimensional, and they’ll try to grind it out early with Najee Harris and Bennt Snell, but once they fall behind they will find it hard to keep up with that game plan, and they don’t have enough in the passing game to keep up.
Arizona Cardinals @ Los Angeles Rams
The Rams secondary is banged up, but will Kyler Murray be able to exploit it when under duress from Aaron Donald, Von Miller, Gregg Gaines & co?
It’ll be a particularly tall order if running backs James Conner & Chase Edmonds are out – Coach Kingsbury has said they’ll be gametime decisions, which doesn’t bode well and if there’s no run game to establish, Kyler may have too much on his shoulders with a receiving corp that, post D-Hop, isn’t strong enough.
LA have missed Robert Woods, but on my pod the excellent Ollie Connolly broke down how they’re acclimatising Odell Beckham alongside Cooper Kupp, and a returning Cam Akers could add range to an offense that’s been under pressure.
|NFL Wildcard accumulator|
|Full predictions @ 6.59/1 with SkyBet|
|Odds correct at time of publication.
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Nat Coombs is a British writer, broadcaster and NFL expert who has been anchoring live sport across UK TV & radio for over ten years. Nat will be providing Squawka with predictions for the 2021 NFL season.