The NFL concluded its longest regular season to date this past Sunday with a dramatic Week 18 rounding off the 17-game schedule, and now the league looks towards the playoffs.
In the AFC, the Pittsburgh Steelers won an overtime thriller against their fierce rivals Baltimore, before watching the Las Vegas Raiders defeat the Los Angeles Chargers 35-32 – again in overtime. That kick earned both Las Vegas and Pittsburgh a play-off berth with the final kick of the season
In the NFC, the San Francisco 49ers also survived overtime to punch their ticket to the playoffs, with just the single play-off spot remaining heading into Week 18 – at the expense of the New Orleans Saints.
In total, 14 teams have emerged from the regular season to fight for the coveted Vince Lombardi Trophy. This weekend the play-offs begin with Wildcard Weekend.
How the wildcard round works
After last year’s successful expansion to 14 teams (seven in each conference), the NFL has opted to double down and keep the expanded format. For 2021/22, the NFL has coined the phrase, ‘Super Wildcard Weekend.’
Six teams from the NFC and six teams from the AFC enter the fray. The top seeds in each conference get to enjoy a first-round bye – the Green Bay Packers and Tennessee Titans will grab their snacks and watch the rest battle it out.
The NFL decides the rest of the fixtures through seeding. The second seed will play the seventh seed; number six takes on the third seed, and seed four plays number five. That format is the same across both conferences.
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Wildcard Weekend Schedule
The Raiders rounded out the NFL regular season by playing the last game of the season. Now the schedule makers have handed them the playoff curtain-raiser. Las Vegas will travel to the Queen’s City of Cincinnati to take on the Bengals. This is followed by an AFC East matchup as Buffalo and New England do battle for a third time this season.
Sunday offers three games on the menu, starting with Philadelphia’s visit to Tampa Bay. Dallas and San Francisco then lock horns in Texas a 1990s throwback, before Ben Roethlisberger visits Arrowhead Stadium for what could be his last NFL game. The weekend ends under the bright lights of Hollywood as the Rams entertain Kliff Kingsbury’s Arizona Cardinals.
Full Wildcard Weekend Schedule:
*All times are GMT/UK
Saturday, 15 January
|9:30PM||Bengals vs Raiders||Paul Brown Stadium|
Sunday, 16 January
|1:15AM||Bills vs Patriots||Bills Stadium|
|6:00PM||Buccaneers vs Eagles||Raymond James Stadium|
|9:30PM||Cowboys vs 49ers||AT&T Stadium|
Monday, 17 January
|1:15AM||Chiefs vs Steelers||Arrowhead Stadium|
Tuesday, 18 January
|1:15AM||Rams vs Cardinals||SoFi Stadium|
Perils of a Wildcard team
The unique nature of the NFL divisional structure can create opportunities for wildcard teams. It was evident in 2020, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ran the table as a wildcard side to win the Super Bowl. Tampa finished second in the NFC South with an 11-5 record, but secured a vital wildcard berth.
In the 21st century, five wildcard teams have gone on to win the Super Bowl. The 2000 Baltimore Ravens, 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers, 2007 New York Giants, 2010 Green Bay Packers, and last year’s Buccaneers. Since the NFL introduced wildcard entrants in 1970, eleven wildcards have reached the Super Bowl, with seven teams going home clutching the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
The advantage some wildcard teams may harness is fearlessness. The format stacks the odds against them, which hands teams the underdog moniker with nothing to lose.
The Giants exhibited this in the 2007 season. Tom Coughlin’s team knew they needed to win three away games to reach the Super Bowl. No one gave them a chance. The Giants exuded fearlessness as they defeated Tampa, Dallas, and Green Bay to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
As a wildcard entrant, the Titans recently defeated the Patriots and Ravens on the road before they lost to Kansas City. Following the inception of the wildcard format, only four teams have won three consecutive road games to make the Super Bowl.
The history book suggests that the chances of a wildcard side qualifying for the Super Bowl are relatively small – but history is littered with exceptions.
Most Likely Upsets
The first game of Wildcard Weekend offers a significant chance for an upset. The Raiders take on a Bengals side which makes the play-offs for the first time in six years. Despite many off-field issues, interim head coach Rich Bisaccia and quarterback Derek Carr have superbly led the organisation into the playoffs. Momentum and belief will be sky-high after Sunday night’s dramatic win over the Chargers.
The Bengals opted to rest their starters against the Browns on Sunday. Star quarterback Joe Burrow is nursing an injury, and the Raiders possess two talented pass-rushers in Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue. Cincinnati’s offensive line is a significant weakness. Therefore, if Vegas can pressure Burrow, it may create opportunities for them.
Moreover, expectation and the weight of history could sit heavily on the Bengals’ shoulders. Cincinnati hasn’t won a playoff game since 1992, and the fans’ nervousness could impact the players. If Derek Carr and his team can keep the game close into the late stages, the final minutes could shred everyone’s nerves.
Another fanbase desperate to end a drought is the Dallas Cowboys’ faithful. Mike McCarthy’s team is attempting to end a 26-year championship drought, but they’ll need to avoid falling to the San Francisco 49ers. The Niners snatched a playoff spot in Week 18, and they are more than capable of playing spoiler in Dallas.
Kyle Shanahan’s team endured a topsy-turvy season; however, they can beat anyone when they play at their best. San Francisco will require big performances from star players Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and Nick Bosa. The Cowboys fans may exhibit nerves, so may the players. Nerves may fray if this is a tight one in the fourth quarter. If the Niners can compete and hang in, the pressure to the hosts, both McCarthy and Dallas have a history of dramatic playoff losses.
Cincinnati and Dallas are both divisional winners that could get upset. It is tough to envisage an upset from Pittsburgh in Kansas City in one of the other games. Likewise for Philadelphia in Tampa Bay. LA, Arizona, New England, and Buffalo should all contest tight games. The divisional rivals know each other inside out, and both games should go to the wire.
Wildcard Weekend is here, and it promises more drama, chaos, and world-class athletes delivering world-class action. It is arguably the most exciting week of the NFL playoffs, and this year could provide us with more exciting moments.