The 2020 NFL playoffs are upon us, and we take a hard look at the six Wild Card weekend matchups, along with what lies ahead.
We made it. The 2020 NFL playoffs.
After 256 games and ample COVID hurdles, 14 teams remain in their quest for Super Bowl glory. In the new playoff format, we have six Wild Card games to chew on. Here’s a 30,000-foot view for each one, in order of the schedule.
(7) Indianapolis Colts at (2) Buffalo Bills – Saturday, 1 p.m. ET
Buffalo is incredibly hot. The Bills have won their last six games, outscoring their opponents 229-110. However, only one of those teams is in the playoffs (Pittsburgh). The Colts come in with a dominating offensive line and rookie running back Jonathan Taylor, who has rushed for 741 yards and seven touchdowns in his last six games.
Of course, Indianapolis needs to stay close enough to run. Bills quarterback is a top-three MVP candidate and wideout Stefon Diggs led the league in receiving yardage. Buffalo will have to contend with defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, however, who is a Cover 2 guru with three pass-rushers up front in tackles DeForest Buckner and Denico Autry, and outside linebacker Justin Houston.
(6) Los Angeles Rams at (3) Seattle Seahawks – Saturday, 4:40 p.m. ET
For my money, the best of the NFC matchups. Los Angeles and Seattle split their matchups in the regular season, both holding serve at home. It’s easy to go deep into analysis over Sean McVay scheming up Ken Norton Jr.’s defense, but this game is easy to analyze:
Do the Seahawks get consistent pressure on Jared Goff?
Assuming Goff is back from his broken thumb, Seattle needs to rattle him with blitzes and winning the occasional one-on-one matchup. Carlos Dunlap and Jamal Adams have combined for 14.5 sacks this year, and they harassed Goff throughout their Week 16 tilt. If they do so again, they win. If not, it could be a quick exit.
(5) Tampa Bay Buccaneers at (4) Washington Football Team – Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET
The ultimate underdog against the underwhelming paper tiger. Tampa Bay has stepped up since its bye, winning four straight. However, all the opponents were nonsense. Washington is 7-9, but any team led by head coach Ron Rivera and quarterback Alex Smith won’t give up and go quietly.
We’ve already heard tons about the Football Team needing to pressure Tom Brady, and that’s accurate. However, keep an eye on Washington receiver Terry McLaurin and running back Antonio Gibson when Tampa Bay blitzes (which it does more than any other NFC team). If they get the ball in space, big plays could happen.
(5) Baltimore Ravens at (4) Tennessee Titans – Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
Maybe the most evenly-matched game of the weekend. Baltimore is trying to avoid losing a third game to Tennessee in the last calendar year. This affair takes place in Tennessee, where the Ravens attempt to finally win a postseason game in the Lamar Jackson era.
No team has a worst pass rush than Tennessee, both in pressure rate and sacks. However, the Ravens pass fewer than any team in the postseason, so how much does it matter? The Titans are also dead-last in third down defense, though, which does matter. If Baltimore can get into 3rd and short, it likely wins. Tennessee must limit Lamar and Co. on the ground in early downs.
(7) Chicago Bears at (2) New Orleans Saints – Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET
And now to the most lopsided affair. On Sunday, the Bears lost to the Green Bay Packers while Chicago head coach Matt Nagy played scared. Mitch Trubisky threw one short pass after the next for the Bears, resulting in a boring, tired offense. Against the Saints, the pass-rush duo of Trey Hendrickson and Cam Jordan will crush Trubisky if New Orleans gets a lead and can tee off.
If Chicago wants to spring the upset, running back David Montgomery needs to go for 100+ rushing yards and win consistently on third and short. If that doesn’t happen, the Saints will find enough points, even with quarterback Drew Brees playing in perhaps his final season.
(6) Cleveland Browns at (3) Pittsburgh Steelers – Sunday, 8:15 p.m. ET
The Browns and Steelers are age-old rivals, dating back to the 1950s. This is only the third time they’ve met in postseason play, the last time being the 2002 AFC Wild Card round at Heinz Field. History repeats 19 years later, and it’s Cleveland first trip back to the playoffs since that fateful afternoon.
If the Browns are to win, they need Baker Mayfield to throw well without the benefit of constant play action. Pittsburgh will stack the box and limit running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. In the postseason, it’s about having multiple ways to win. If Mayfield can beat the blitz on third down, Cleveland has a shot. If not, it’ll be blown out.
Top 10 Wild Card games of all time
1. Buffalo Bills 41, Houston Oilers 38 (OT) (1992) – Bills overcome 35-3 deficit2. Tennessee Titans 22, Buffalo Bills 16 (1999) – Music City Miracle3. Indianapolis Colts 45, Kansas City Chiefs 44 (2013) – Colts overcome 38-10 deficit4. San Francisco 49ers 30, Green Bay Packers 27 – The Catch II5. San Francisco 49ers 39, New York Giants 38 – Niners overcome 38-14 deficit6. Arizona Cardinals 51, Green Bay Packers 45 (0T) (2009) – Most points in WC round7. Kansas City Chiefs 27, Pittsburgh Steelers (OT) (1993) – Joe Montana’s final playoff comeback8. Green Bay Packers 33, Seattle Seahawks 27 (OT (2003) – Matt Hasselbeck says he’ll score9. Seattle Seahawks 21, Dallas Cowboys 20 (2006) – Tony Romo drops the ball10. Philadelphia Eagles 16, Chicago Bears 15 (2018) – Cody Parkey’s double doink
“I’m very happy the season’s over” — #49ers coach Kyle Shanahan.
— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoNBCS) January 4, 2021
Tough to blame him. One of the more impressive 6-10 campaigns ever considering the challenges ranging from injuries to stars and relocation. Now, he’s about to lose his star defensive coordinator.
The longest span between playoff victories is owned by the Arizona Cardinals, who went 50 seasons (1948-97) without winning a postseason game.
Another way to think about it? The Cardinals were known as Chicago, St. Louis, Phoenix and Arizona during the stretch.
Info learned this week1. Head coaching vacancies aplenty as many teams enter offseason
Few years have provided so many intriguing head-coaching candidates as this one. Let’s go situation-by-situation and break it down:
Atlanta Falcons: While interim head coach Raheem Morris is a candidate, it’s tough seeing owner Arthur Blank retain a staff which finished 4-12. Atlanta has a veteran team compared to the other openings, especially with older stars in Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.
After going defensive in their last hire with Dan Quinn, keep an eye on a tandem of Eric Bieniemy and John Dorsey for the head coach and general manager positions. Sources tell FanSided’s Matt Lombardo and myself to watch for this duo in Atlanta or Houston, as both spot are viewed favorably.
Detroit Lions: It seems to be Robert Saleh or bust here. The 49ers defensive coordinator is universally regarded as a terrific young coach with tremendous upside. He has deep Michigan ties between growing up in the area and attending school at Northern Michigan, so this would be a great story for the 41-year-old. If it’s not Saleh, the Lions may have to work down the list. Keep tabs on Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus.
Houston Texans: This is a terrific landing spot for a young, offensive coach. Even without their first and second-round choices in this draft, the Texans have a 25-year-old superstar quarterback in Deshaun Watson. Coupled with a middling division and a patient owner (plus no state income tax) and it’s a great place to be. Again, keep an eye on Bieniemy here.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Urban Meyer is the hot name to replace Doug Marrone with the Jaguars, despite the latter not officially having been fired yet. Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated was the first to report the connection, and considering Meyer’s deep ties to Florida, it makes for a perfect marriage on paper. Considering his resumè, one imagines Meyer would have full control in that building.
Los Angeles Chargers: This one remains murky, with head coach Anthony Lynn reportedly slated to meet with ownership on Monday to discuss his future. If Lynn is ousted, the Chargers have the league’s most attractive opening. Justin Herbert threw for more than 4,000 yards and a rookie record 31 touchdowns.
Tough to imagine the Chargers not going with an offensive mind known to work with quarterbacks. Bills’ offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and Carolina Panthers’ OC Joe Brady would both be ideal fits.
New York Jets: The Jets must look on the offensive side, whether they draft a quarterback or run it back with Sam Darnold. Will Bieniemy or Daboll — the latter who already spent time with New York — go there with other options? Hard to say, but the performance we saw from Justin Fields against Clemson doesn’t hurt. Ownership has to sell the idea of Fields, cap space and working with general manager Joe Douglas.
2. Dolphins must consider all options after Tua’s disaster
The Miami Dolphins find themselves in a fascinating spot. They finished 10-6 and have the No. 3 overall pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.
General manager Chris Grier owes it to everyone in the organization to consider all options, including another quarterback.
After watching Tua Tagovailoa this year, it’s tough to be convinced his future is beaming. While the Alabama product finished with 11 touchdown passes, he also tossed five interceptions including three in a hideous 56-26 loss on Sunday to the Bills.
Now, it’s important not to be a prisoner of the moment. But it’s also important to be honest with ones self. The Dolphins twice benched Tagovailoa for Ryan Fitzpatrick, and if the veteran was available on Sunday, it would have been thrice. He was every bit the stat line in Buffalo.
Miami has a really good coach in Brian Flores. The roster is in need of reinforcements, but is ascending. The Dolphins, with a really good quarterback, could be a contender in 2021. If they don’t believe Tagovailoa is that guy, they should seriously consider following the Arizona blueprint of flipping the incumbent and drafting a signal-caller in the first round.
This class is loaded at the position, with Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance all touted as potential top-10 picks. If the Dolphins believe one of them is significantly more gifted than Tagovailoa, and he’s on the board when they pick, it must happen.
3. Raiders have long, challenging offseason ahead
Normally, a team fresh off two disastrous conclusions to seasons is making wholesale changes. Not the Las Vegas Raiders.
Owner Mark Davis isn’t firing head coach Jon Gruden with seven years and $70 million remaining on his deal. He’s also not swallowing money on general manager Mike Mayock, even if his first two drafts have been underwhelming thus far.
In short, the Raiders are letting the same people endeavor for different results. You know what they say about insanity.
In fairness, Las Vegas seems to have the offense right. The front is one of the best, Derek Carr is a top-12 quarterback, Josh Jacobs is a terrific running back and Darren Waller is an elite tight end. Factor in Nelson Agholor and the maturation of Henry Ruggs III on the outside, and the unit is a quality one.
However, the defense is a mess. Clelin Ferrell was the No. 4 overall pick two years ago, and he’s verging on bust territory with 6.5 sacks over his career. Safety Johnathan Abram is talented, but he’s good for a few big missed tackles every game. Maxx Crosby is the one find, but six sacks in 2020 after 10 as a rookie is a step back.
Mayock and Gruden must find defensive help on all three levels. If they don’t, the Raiders are relegated to purgatory once more in 2021.
4. Kingsbury quietly on hot seat after Cardinals’ collapse
In April, Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury was the cool kid with the sweet draft setup. In October, he was the dashing young guru with a 6-3 team. On Monday, he woke up 8-8.
Arizona was eliminated by John Wolford and the Rams on Sunday at SoFi Stadium, completing a full-blown collapse. The Cards went 2-5 down the stretch with losses to the New England Patriots and 49ers, two teams well out of contention.
Kingsbury deserves ample blame, mostly for his situational decisions. A few examples include a 3rd and 18 sprint option play in the fourth quarter against Los Angeles, down 18-7. Last week, he called a bizarre two-point conversion play against San Francisco, costing the Cardinals a chance to tie. He also had gaffes in New England and against Seattle in their first meeting, forcing overtime before Arizona prevailed.
Nobody is calling for Kingsbury to be canned. He’s turned around a bad team and made it competitive, along with quarterback Kyler Murray and the heist of DeAndre Hopkins. However, with legitimate talent on the roster and certain expectations to follow in 2021, the desert will feel a bit hotter for Kingsbury if he doesn’t improve.
5. The NFL was right in their handling of COVID
Over the summer, the NFL set out to play its regular season without major interruption by the deadline pandemic gripping our nation. The league brought in medical experts and consulted. It decided against a bubble. It had fans in some stadiums, and none in many depending on state regulations.
While it wasn’t perfect, the NFL attempted to play all 256 regular-season games and did so. It’s an incredible feat, considering what we’ve seen around the American sports landscape over the past 10 months. Yes, it meant playing games on Wednesday, Tuesday and Friday. It meant the Denver Broncos playing without a quarterback, and it meant the Patriots taking a COVID plane to Kansas City in Week 4.
Again, we can talk about morals and your personal stance on how far is too far. We can banter about how much of this was for money — a lot, as always — and how much was about carrying on because we need to carry on.
Ultimately, the NFL pulled off a complete regular season without having to add weeks and in the opinion of this reporter, did an admirable job. Now, onto the playoffs.
Take Pittsburgh. Take the Steelers right now.
The line opened at PIT -4.5, and while Mike Tomlin’s club has lost four of its last five, this is a great matchup. The Steelers get pressure more than any team in football, leads the circuit in sacks, and can choke off the run game. The Browns deserve respect at 11-5, but Baker Mayfield in Heinz Field in January? Seems like a stretch.
For 20 years, this is when Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots rise to power. Now, it’s a time to clean out lockers.
After finishing third in the AFC East, major questions loom over the Patriots. For starters, who is under center come 2021? Jimmy Garoppolo, a rookie, or the man behind Door No. 3?
Furthermore, how does New England address its lack fo weaponry? The Patriots have an intriguing running back in rookie Damien Harris. Beyond him, there isn’t a single bright spot at the skill positions.
Perhaps Belichick drafts another first-round receiver in a loaded class, but he’ll need to buck his historical ineptitude when taking a pass-catcher in the top 60 picks. Here’s his entire history with New England when doing so:
- 2003: Bethel Johnson (No. 45 overall)2006: Chad Jackson (No. 36 overall)2013: Aaron Dobson (No. 59 overall)2019: N’Keal Harry (No. 32 overall)
Those players combined for 141 catches, 1,714 receiving yards and 15 scores with the Patriots. Or, essentially Marvin Harrison’s 2002 with the Colts.
New England also has figure out its path forward with All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore, 30, is entering the final season of a five-year, $65 million contract and the Patriots save $9.5 million by moving on.
It’s a fascinating decision which some in the league believe ends with a ticket out of town, considering his age and New England’s need to accumulate draft picks in order to revamp an aging roster.
Inside the league
Zach Ertz’s brother, Nic, tweeted out a pseudo farewell to Philadelphia on Saturday. This has been a long time coming.
In this space the Monday before the regular season, here’s what I reported:
The Philadelphia Eagles and tight end Zach Ertz are entering their eighth season together. It could well be there last.
According to a source, the two sides have completely broken off contract talks. The conversations have been characterized as dead, and while nothing is impossible, it’s very likely Ertz will play out 2020 on his current deal which runs two more seasons.
Since then, Ertz and the Eagles suffered through a miserable campaign. Philadelphia finished in last place of the pathetic NFC East, while the Stanford product dealt with injuries, finishing the year with 36 catches, 335 yards and one touchdown in 11 games played.
This offseason, Philadelphia is projected to be $71 million over the cap if the threshold is set at $176 million. Even with a best-case scenario, Eagles general manager Howie Roseman will need to shave approximately $50 million off the books.
While some will point to quarterback Carson Wentz, that’s a non-starter. His cap hit is $34 million for 2021, and if he’s traded, that remains true. If he’s released — which he won’t be — it jumps to $54 million.
Ertz, 30, is entering the final year of his pact and carries a cap number of $12.471 million. A release nets Philadelphia $4.7 million (with $7.8 million in dead money). If Roseman does it with a post-June 1 designation, the savings is $8.25 million next year with the dead money spread over two years.
Of course, the Eagles would prefer to trade Ertz and get a draft pick, but teams understand Philadelphia is in a tough spot. Doesn’t mean a trade is impossible, but any suitor has leverage, especially after the injury-plagued year Ertz endured.
Finally, this was coming even if Ertz had another Pro Bowl year. Before the season, a source told FanSided the Eagles remain enamored with fellow tight end and former first-round choice Dallas Goedert. The 26-year-old played well in his third year with 46 receptions, 524 yards and three touchdowns. Going forward, he’ll be given every opportunity to prove his value.
As for Ertz, he could prove one of the more valuable additions any team makes this winter.
The NFL avoided playing Week 18 this year. Once upon a time, though, they gave it a shot.
In 1993, the league experimented with a double-bye system, pushing the regular season into Week 18. While it proved a one-off, it gave us some memorable football.
At Giants Stadium, the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys battled for both the NFC East crown and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Dallas won in overtime, but the game will be forever remembered for Emmitt Smith playing through painful separated shoulder, gaining 178 total yards with a touchdown.
Across the country at the L.A. Coliseum, the Los Angeles Raiders battled the Denver Broncos with the postseason on the line for the hosts. Trailing 30-13 in the third quarter, the Raiders rallied to tie the affair with only seconds remaining before winning in overtime. The next week, Los Angeles hosted Denver and won once more, 42-24.
It was the last postseason win for the Raiders before relocating to Oakland in 1995.
I always enjoy Week 17.
Annually, it provides wacky playoff scenarios and games which mean everything for teams desperately trying to extend their seasons. It’s not quite the postseason, but the desperation is there for a handful of squads.
Then there’s the legends saying goodbye. Sometimes, we get the storybook ending such as Jerome Bettis and John Elway. However, it’s typically a few waves to the crowd in Week 17, as a great player watches the clock tick down one more time.
For the non-playoff contenders, it’s about a disappointing campaign ending, immediately followed with hope as the offseason begins. Who stays, who goes? New coach? Where is the team drafting, and who is available in free agency? Instantly, despair gives way to hope, and the record is once again 0-0.
And for the 14 advancing teams, the best is ahead. Every playoff game is a Game 7. The weather is cold but the action is white-hot, and the best 13 games are about to commence.