What To Watch For In The NFL’s Wild-Card Weekend

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After an exhilarating week of games closed out the NFL’s extra-long 2021 regular season, the playoff bracket could deliver another helping of chaos. Most (though not all) of the teams left standing have a decent shot at the Super Bowl, and everyone but the respective No. 1 seeds in each conference will be in action right away. 

So for each of the games this weekend, in chronological order, let’s dive into what our forecast model sees ahead, as well as the numbers behind why either team could engineer the victory.

AFC No. 4 Cincinnati vs. No. 5 Las Vegas

4:30 p.m. ET Saturday, NBC

Elo favorite: Cincinnati -7½ (74 percent)

Why the Bengals are favorites: On paper, Cincinnati is clearly the better team. The Bengals outrank Las Vegas in Elo, Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), Pro Football Focus’s power rating, Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System (SRS), point differential, passer rating differential and probably any other holistic metric you can conceive of. Stylistically too, Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase and Cincy’s dangerous aerial attack is a poor matchup for a Raiders pass defense that ranked among the NFL’s worst during the regular season, according to expected points added (EPA). And it’s worth noting that the Bengals had plenty of success in the running game and on defense in their 32-13 win over Vegas back in November. Despite ending with the same record as Cincinnati, Las Vegas is probably lucky to be in the playoffs at all, given that it was outscored by nearly 4 points per game and had a worse scoring margin than 11 teams that failed to make the postseason.

Why the Raiders can pull the upset: Having said all that, the Raiders are here regardless of what the stats think about them. And they have shown a remarkable amount of resiliency — battling back from a rough midseason stretch that saw former coach Jon Gruden resign over the unearthing of offensive emails, while the team was also busy losing seven of 10 games. At their best, QB Derek Carr and the Las Vegas offense are certainly capable of explosive performances, and on the other side of the coin, the Bengals were one of the league’s most inconsistent teams this year. If the Raiders have one last upswing in them and catch the Bengals at the right time, Las Vegas has a shot at handing Cincinnati its ninth straight postseason loss. But given the two teams’ overall resumes, that seems unlikely.

AFC No. 3 Buffalo vs. No. 6 New England

8:15 p.m. ET Saturday, CBS

Elo favorite: Buffalo -6 (70 percent)

Why the Bills are favorites: After losing to the Patriots’ current and former quarterbacks in back-to-back weeks, Buffalo rebounded to close out the season winning four straight. Now the Bills enter the playoffs looking like one of the league’s strongest statistical squads: Along with the Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo is one of just two teams to finish among the top six in schedule-adjusted EPA on both offense and defense. With Josh Allen leading the way, the Bills also have the all-important edge at QB against most teams (including the Pats). And although the concept of late-season momentum is somewhat dubious, Buffalo is taking on a New England team that dropped three of its last four games to finish the season, with uneven performances on defense and special teams — areas that are theoretically the Patriots’ strengths.

Why the Patriots can pull the upset: Though the Pats finished behind Buffalo in Elo, DVOA, SRS and EPA, it was generally by a thin margin. New England’s stats are legit; the team overcame a 2-4 start this season to eventually establish itself among the league’s best by the numbers, with the particularly imposing combination of a top-10 EPA passing offense and passing defense. Throwing against New England is tough — and just like in the Pats’ clinical 14-10 win over the Bills in early December, weather could help make it even tougher. For this week’s showdown in Buffalo, forecasts call for breezy winds and temperatures in the single-digits. That may mean an increased focus on the running game, and while the Bills’ defense improved a lot in 2021, its weak point remains a mediocre run D, which New England exploited for 186 rushing yards per head-to-head game this season. 

NFC No. 2 Tampa Bay vs. No. 7 Philadelphia

1 p.m. ET Sunday, Fox

Elo favorite: Tampa Bay -10 (81 percent)

Why the Buccaneers are favorites: Last year’s champs — and our preseason Super Bowl favorites this season — were roughly as good this go-round, too, though Tampa Bay is currently down some offensive weapons with Chris Godwin on injured reserve and Antonio Brown … well, you know. But even without all of his targets, Tom Brady and the league’s No. 1 EPA offense still ought to feast on a Philadelphia defense that ranked 21st against the pass and 23rd on D overall. Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts has held his own this season, ranking 11th among current starters in our Elo QB ratings, but the 23-year-old would be the youngest ever to knock off the defending champions in the playoffs if Philly wins, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. Instead of that happening, the veteran Bucs are more likely to take full advantage of Hurts’s inexperience on the postseason stage, particularly when considering the Eagles went 0-6 against eventual playoff teams during the regular season.

Why the Eagles can pull the upset: This matchup does favor Philadelphia in one sense: The Eagles are one of the best rushing teams in the league, going up against a defense that was merely in the middle of the pack at stopping the run. A balanced approach — with runs punctuated by Hurts making big plays through the air — worked as Philly was mounting a comeback on Tampa Bay late before losing in Week 6, and that figures to be the blueprint for the upset here as well.

NFC No. 3 Dallas vs. No. 6 San Francisco

4:30 p.m. ET Sunday, CBS

Elo favorite: Dallas -5½ (69 percent)

Why the Cowboys are favorites: It’s hard to find a team with a scarier statistical profile this season than Dallas, which ranked No. 1 in SRS, EPA, DVOA, passer rating differential and scoring offense. With a combination of an elite passing attack, led by Dak Prescott, and one of the game’s top passing defenses as well, the Cowboys seem as poised as ever for their long-awaited postseason breakthrough. The 49ers might be an especially favorable matchup for Dallas, since San Francisco’s pass D left something to be desired this season, and an opportunistic Cowboys defense (which led the league in takeaways) will get to face the interception-prone Jimmy Garoppolo on the other side of the ball.

Why the 49ers can pull the upset: Much like the Eagles’s potential path to toppling the Bucs, the Niners’ best hopes rest in using the league’s sixth-best EPA rushing offense to punish a Dallas run defense that ranked just 28th. With that mismatch as a starting point to build from, Garoppolo can better command an efficient San Francisco passing attack that easily led the league in net yards per attempt. If the 49ers can run effectively and avoid turnovers, they’ll have a chance to hang with the Cowboys in a game that could end up reminding us of classics from the past.

AFC No. 2 Kansas City vs. No. 7 Pittsburgh

8:15 p.m. ET Sunday, NBC

Elo favorite: Kansas City -12½ (86 percent)

Why the Chiefs are favorites: As much as Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense scared us with a midseason slump, Kansas City finished with a fairly business-as-usual season by its recent standards. (Another year of outscoring opponents by a touchdown per game, ho-hum.) While K.C. isn’t without flaws — ones which might be exposed by another opponent later on — the Steelers fall into the same camp as the Raiders: teams that are lucky to be in the playoffs at all considering their resumes. Pittsburgh’s -3.2 points-per-game differential was only better than Las Vegas’s (-3.8) among playoff teams, and the Steelers ranked last among postseason entrants in scoring. Add in the fact that soon-to-retire QB Ben Roethlisberger’s best days are well behind him, and Pittsburgh is probably the wrong team to test whether Kansas City’s midseason turnabout on defense is for real.

Why the Steelers can pull the upset: The one area in which Pittsburgh matches up fairly well with K.C. is on pass defense, where the unit ranked sixth in EPA during the regular season. In theory, if the Steelers defense slows down Mahomes and company enough, it could buy the offense a chance to squeak out the win. But Pittsburgh has failed to score more than 20 points in five of its past seven games, while K.C. is averaging 33.2 points per game since its bye in Week 12 … a sample that includes a 36-10 walloping of Pittsburgh that was somehow even more lopsided than the final score indicated.

NFC No. 4 L.A. Rams vs. No. 5 Arizona

8:15 p.m. ET Monday, ESPN/ABC

Elo favorite: Los Angeles -6 (70 percent)

Why the Rams are favorites: Although both teams dropped their regular-season finales, this matchup is a tale of teams mostly trending in different directions. The Rams won five of their last six games to finish 12-5, while the Cardinals lost four of their last five to end up at 11-6. That, along with a preseason prior that placed the Rams far above the Cardinals, helps explain why our Elo ratings rank L.A. sixth in the NFL and Arizona just 15th. It also matters that in early December, when last we saw these teams line up, the Rams held off the Cardinals in Arizona with an impressive performance on both sides of the ball. In that meeting, Matthew Stafford had one of his best games of the season, while the Rams defense held Kyler Murray to one of his worst. A repeat of that is likely if the Rams are to finish off the Cardinals once and for all Monday night.

Why the Cardinals can pull the upset: As much as Elo thinks there is a large gap between these two teams, the data across the entire 2021 season points to a much closer matchup: The Rams were No. 6 in EPA and SRS; the Cardinals were No. 7 in each rating. The Rams were No. 6 in scoring margin; the Cardinals were No. 9. The Rams were No. 5 in DVOA; the Cardinals were No. 10. (And that’s with Murray missing three starts in the middle of the season.) Over the whole season series, Arizona outscored L.A. 60-50. So while the Rams have a meaningful edge by being at home, and the overall body of evidence suggests that they are the slightly better team, it would be by no means a shocking upset if Arizona wins. And that means we could be in for a great one when we tune in for the rubber match in this rivalry.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.



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