NFL playoff picture: Breaking down each ‘super’ wild-card matchup

By Sam Farmer

Good news for the Arizona Cardinals — they don’t have a playoff game at home.

The Cardinals, who have lost four of their last five games, will take any silver lining they can get. And they went 8-1 on the road this season — compared with 3-5 at home — so maybe they’re a little relieved to be heading to Los Angeles for next Monday night’s playoff game against the Rams.

The Rams, meanwhile, are looking to pick up where they left off before Sunday’s loss to San Francisco, when they were riding their first five-game winning streak since 2018.

Yes, the Rams won the NFC West, but only because the Cardinals lost at home to Seattle.

In an all-or-nothing showdown between AFC West rivals Sunday night, the Las Vegas Raiders secured a spot in the postseason with a 35-32 overtime victory over the Chargers.

So it’s Cardinals-Rams for the third time this season, with each posting victories in the home stadium of the other.

Whereas the Rams are working recuperating running back Cam Akers back into the fold — he made his season debut Sunday after tearing his Achilles tendon before training camp — the Cardinals are hoping to have defensive lineman J.J. Watt back. Watt hasn’t played since suffering a shoulder injury Oct.24 against his former team, the Houston Texans. He returned to practice last week.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford has a chance to collect the first playoff victory of his career. The Cardinals are back in the postseason for the first time since 2015.

In what the NFL has dubbed “Super Wild Card Weekend,” each conference will stage three first-round games, with No.1 seeds Green Bay and Tennessee getting a week off to rest.

A look at the matchups:

NFC

Philadelphia at Tampa Bay

The last time quarterback Tom Brady faced the Eagles in the postseason was in the 2017 season, when his New England Patriots lost the Super Bowl to them.

That said, the last time Philadelphia faced Tampa Bay in the playoffs was in the 2002 wild-card round — the final game at Veterans Stadium — when the Buccaneers won and took a step closer to their eventual Super Bowl victory.

More relevant was the game these teams played in Philadelphia on Thursday in Week6, when Brady threw for two touchdowns and Leonard Fournette rushed for two in a 28-22 victory.

Since then, the Eagles have rounded into the NFL’s best rushing team. The defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers have the NFC’s best rush defense, anchored by sun-blotting defensive tackle Vita Vea.

On one side is Brady, 44, the league’s oldest active player, and on the other is Philadelphia quarterback Jalen Hurts, 23, who hasn’t been a great passer so far but converts a lot of third downs, many with his feet.

San Francisco at Dallas

This is a classic postseason matchup from a bygone era, and this version could be an epic ground battle.

Both teams like to pound the ball the way the 49ers did in their victory over the Rams, with San Francisco bashing its way into the playoffs.

Dallas has a fantastic centerpiece in linebacker Micah Parsons, who is not only the favorite for defensive rookie of the year but has played his way into the conversation for defensive player of the year.

Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott is looking more explosive after suffering a tweaked knee earlier in the season, and teammate Tony Pollard should be back after missing the finale because of a foot injury.

Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott has been inconsistent of late, although he looked terrific in the finale against a Philadelphia defense that rested its starters.

His 49ers counterpart, Jimmy Garoppolo, is playing with a bad thumb on his throwing hand, but that didn’t seem to bother him much against the Rams. He made the clutch throws when needed.

The X factor for the 49ers is versatile wide receiver Deebo Samuel.

AFC

Pittsburgh at Kansas City

Don’t have to look back too far to see how these teams compare. Two weeks ago, the Chiefs throttled the Steelers in Kansas City 36-10, building a 30-0 lead through the first 21/2 quarters.

Pittsburgh has a porous offensive line that neither opens the running lanes nor does a good job of protecting 39-year-old Ben Roethlisberger, who is in his final season. The Steelers have a promising young back in rookie Najee Harris, but it was wideout Chase Claypool who led Pittsburgh in rushing in Sunday’s finale with 33 yards.

The Chiefs — who have reached the Super Bowl the last two seasons, winning one — are led by dynamic quarterback Patrick Mahomes and a host of receiving playmakers.

Kansas City sputtered out of the gate, losing four of its first seven games, but regained its equilibrium and wound up scoring more than 30 points in seven of its victories.

When these Steelers have pulled off big wins — including ones over Buffalo, Tennessee and Baltimore (twice) — they have tended to feast on turnovers. Pittsburgh surrendered more than 200 yards rushing four times this season yet went 2-1-1 in those games.

New England at Buffalo

The Patriots and Bills split their season series, with each team winning on the other’s home field. Both games were in December, and the first — a 14-10 win by New England — featured whipping winds and just three passes by the Patriots.

Bill Belichick collected his 19th away win against Buffalo, one short of the all-time coaching record against a single opponent. George Halas of the Chicago Bears beat the Green Bay Packers 20 times on the road.

When most people think of the Bills, they think offense, and specifically fantasy football stars such as quarterback Josh Allen and wide receiver Stefon Diggs. But it’s Buffalo’s defense that has carried this team, especially in recent weeks.

Buffalo finished the regular season first in scoring defense, passing defense and total defense.

Allen has struggled at times recently, but when he’s on top of his game, he is an incredibly dangerous dual threat.

Las Vegas at Cincinnati

Considering the season Las Vegas has had — including the departure of disgraced coach Jon Gruden — it’s almost miraculous the Raiders are in the playoffs. But they reached the postseason for the first time since the 2016 season and are looking for their first playoff win since 2002.

The Raiders have a seasoned leader in quarterback Derek Carr and have a defense that can apply a lot of heat on quarterbacks with four rushers, dropping seven defenders into coverage.

The Bengals, who are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2015, haven’t won a postseason game since the 1990 season. They have lost eight playoff games in a row.

Cincinnati is led on offense by quarterback Joe Burrow and two tremendous wide receivers in Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase.

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