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Wild Card Weekend Preview and Predictions

Beginning Saturday and ending Monday Night, the NFL has staged three days of post-season football. The Wild Card weekend is the opening salvo for the Chase to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in Las Vegas a month from now.

Saturday Cleveland Browns (5) vs. Houston Texans (4) – 3:30 pm CST NBC/Peacock

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Somehow, Houston, Texas, defied all odds and won the AFC South. Now, it helped the Jacksonville Jaguars end the season on a four-game losing streak but give the Texans credit. Behind a rookie head coach, DeMecco Ryans, and a rookie quarterback, C.J. Stroud. That combination is the most shocking revelation from the 2023 NFL season.

Considering the Texans liked Bryce Young, who was horrible this season for the Panthers, they showed early on, winning week three at Jacksonville, that they would win games. The fact they won the division reflects the job Ryans has done with this young team.

The Cleveland Browns, on the other hand, are led by veteran Super Bowl Champion Quarterback Joe Flacco. He came off his recliner and led the Browns to the fifth seed. Head Coach Kevin Stefanski, my first coach to be fired this season, somehow maneuvered a great defense, the debacle of DeShawn Watson, and held it together with glue and duct tape.

It wasn’t easy, but Flacco enters the postseason, in my view, as the second-best quarterback in the AFC playoffs, just behind the Chiefs Patrick Mahomes.  If the Browns upset the Texans in their building, they’ll lean on defensive stud Myles Garrett. Cleveland has a top-three defense, and they can certainly make life difficult for Stroud.

Score: Browns 31 – Texans 23

Saturday Miami Dolphins (6) vs. Kansas City Chiefs (3) – 7:00 pm CST Peacock

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The Miami Dolphins’ cold weather record isn’t excellent, with temperatures below the Arctic line. It’s bad enough they play poorly against teams with a winning record, so sub-freezing temperatures aren’t helpful in their upset chances. The Dolphins enter this game with nearly two-thirds of their defense on injured reserve.

If there is a silver lining for the Dolphins, they should be at full strength in the backfield. Both Raheem Mostert and De’Von Achane will be available. Mostert sat out the last two games, and he won’t be near full strength, but with the season on the line, he will try to get on the field. Still, this game boils down to Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. He went into the fish tank at the end of the season.

The Chiefs are the better team. They have the better defense, quarterback, and head coach and are home for the Wild Card matchup. Yet, they must deal with the cold temperatures as well. Kansas City started to figure things out in the Bengals game, and a Marty Ball-type offense could do wonders for their chance to defeat Miami.

Isiah Pacheco is the team’s most valuable commodity. If he delivers a big game, the Chiefs are going to win. That running attack should open opportunities for Mahomes to get the ball to Travis Kelce, Rashee Rice, Justin Watson, and Mecole Hardman.  With KC’s defense ranked second in points allowed this season, Mahomes can rely on them to keep the Dolphins offense grounded.

Score: Chiefs 27 – Dolphins 13

Sunday Pittsburgh Steelers (7) vs. Buffalo Bills (2) – Noon CST CBS/Paramount+

With snow, wind, and cold temperatures, this game takes on a new element.  Rudolph Mason has come off the bench and guided Pittsburgh to three straight wins. They did their part and needed help to make the wild card round. They’ll face the up-and-down Bills, who unusually won their last six games. They weren’t dominating and required significant luck but are AFC East Champs.

The Steelers, though, will be without TJ Watts, but they still have a formidable defense. Strong Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick returns to the Pittsburgh secondary, and he loves playing in big games. Veteran Patrick Peterson has played safety this season, and Mike Tomlin has his troops fired up to play the Bills.  The key will be the running duo of Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. If they can’t be stopped, the upset is possible.

The Bills, as mentioned, were fortunate even to make the playoffs. They had to run the table after their 5-6 start. Quarterback Josh Allen has played his usual up-and-down self. At times, he looks unbeatable, but other times, he’s a turnover machine.

It’s anyone’s guess which Allen shows up, and he’s struggled in weather games, most notably last year in the division round at home against the Cincinnati Bengals.  The key for Allen, who likely won’t run the ball as effectively because of the weather,  will be James Cook’s ability to peel off some big runs against the Steelers. Wide Receiver Stefon Diggs has yet to show he can play elite football this season, so there’s much pressure on him with Gabe Davis out for this game.

Score: Steelers 17 – Bills 13

Green Bay Packers (7) – Dallas Cowboys (2) – 3:30 pm CST FOX

The Dallas Cowboys have yet to lose a home game this year. They are a perfect 8-0 and when matched against inferior teams, they generally roll past their opponents like a scrimmage. Dak Prescott has done a terrific job guiding the Cowboy’s offense this year.  Thanks to the outstanding play of Wide Receiver Cee Dee Lamb and Running back Tony Pollard, they’ve carried the Cowboys offensively.

On the flip side, the defense has been elite. Micah Parsons and Demarcus Lawrence have been a terrific duo. They can come off opposite ends and have shown the ability to take over games this season. Still, Head Coach Mike McCarthy must show Owner Jerry Jones he can get this talented team to the Super Bowl. If not, Bill Belichick could become the next Head Coach.

Quarterback Jordan Love leads the Green Bay Packers. Since he beat the Chiefs five weeks ago, he’s played the best football of his career. He’s elevated his game because of the offensive line rotation that Head Coach Matt LaFleur uses. Love has had time to make big plays.

Running Back Aaron Jones is back, and wide receiver Christian Watson is expected to play Sunday afternoon. The Big question for the Packers will come from their defense. Joe Barry has been brilliant at dialing up blitzes and disguising his coverages so Prescott could make mistakes.  The committee unit works the Packers’ defense, and they can shut down Dallas.

Score: Cowboys 33 – Packers 24

Sunday Los Angeles Rams (6) – Detroit Lions (3) – 7:00 pm CST – NBC/Peacock

This is the most delicious game of the weekend. Matt Stafford is back in Detroit. Jarrod Goff is facing the team that traded him away to Detroit. I’d say the deal has worked out well for both teams. However, Head Coach Dan Campbell might be the true wild card in this game. He’s not known for his conservative coaching, and against top shelf defensive teams, he’s been known to gamble on fourth downs.

The Lions haven’t had a home playoff game since 1994. My math is bad but that’s a LONG time. However, the Lions are a complete team. Offensively Amon Ra St. Brown is their biggest playmakeer. Running Backs, Jahmyr Gibbs and David Montgomery are a touch matchup for the Rams defense. If Tight End, Sam LaPorta can play that will help the Lions offense.

Stafford has been lights out the second half of the season. His only blemish was a road loss at Baltimore that ended in overtime. With the emergence of rookie wide recevier, Puka Nacua and journeyman DeMarcus Robinson, has opened up more room for Cooper Cupp to create his magic.

Still, this is a challenging game to read because the Ram’s Defense is steller, and the Rams are ed by All-World Defensive Tackle Aaron Donald, who just gets better with age; I’m not sure Detroit can overcome the Rams attacking defense.

Score: Lions 23 – Rams 21

Monday Philadelphia Eagles vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 7:00 CST ESPN/ABC/ESPN+

This might be the game of the wild card round. The Philadelphia Eagles are in complete shambles. Head Coach. Nick Sirianni had his team in the Super Bowl a year ago, but after a 10-1 start, his team has fallen far from contention.  According to reports, infighting and a lack of respect for Sirianni in the locker room tells me that should they fail to beat Tampa Bay, he will lose his job.

Quarterback Jalen Hurts has yet to play well in the last third of the season. He’s also dealt with multiple injuries, including an injured finger on his throwing hand. He’s had very little practice this week. A.J. Brown is also struggling with injuries, and he’s been pointing fingers. It’s so bad that Brown removed all mention of the Eagles from some of his social media platforms. Adding to their demise this season, the Eagle’s defense has been near the bottom in every category.

Even with the woes of the Eagles, the Bucs have done a terrific job getting into the playoffs. Baker Mayfield hasn’t been stellar, but good enough to win the horrific NFC South. He’s also battling injuries, but he will start Monday night.   Mayfield has made the most of his time with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Richard White has been solid running the ball, and that’s been a massive benefit to Mayfield.

The key will be the Bucs defense. Defensive Tackle Vit Vea will match up against Eagles Center Jason Kelce. If Vea can return to his old form, it could be a rough night for Hurts. If the Buc’s secondary, led by Carlton Davis III and Antoine Winfield, Jr., takes away the passing game, it will be a long night for the Eagles.

Score: Bucs 13 – Eagles 7

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