nfl wildcard weekend: four things to keep an eye on

By Tayyib Abu

Eighteen weeks of thudding pads, spectacular catches, and dramatic moments have led us to the playoffs. Wildcard Weekend is here, threatening to provide significant moments to thrill fans worldwide.

Spread over three days, 12 teams kickstart their campaign to end the playoffs hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy in Los Angeles. The NFL is providing a feast of elite football to gorge on, and it all kicks off in Cincinnati.

Here are four things to watch on Wildcard Weekend…

Can Mad Maxx And The Raiders Spoil The Bengals' Day?

Maxx Crosby
Credit: FanSided

The Las Vegas Raiders shouldn’t be here; to recap, the Raiders lost their head coach, their star wideout, and Nate Hobbs and Damon Arnette got themselves into trouble too. Despite that, the Raiders have battled their way into the NFL postseason. The Silver and Black sail to Ohio for a showdown against the AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals.

The Bengals’ potent offense powered them to a home playoff game, and an electric atmosphere inside Paul Brown Stadium awaits the home team. However, with that excitement comes pressure. The Bengals’ postseason woes are well-documented, and while this team may exhibit a lot of fearlessness and confidence, nerves will be aplenty in the home locker room.

One of the reasons for the Bengals’ nerves might come from their offensive line. Per ESPN, the Bengals’ offensive line ranked 30th in pass-blocking success. With Joe Burrow nursing a niggle, facing up against a talented Raiders pass-rush tandem featuring Maxx Crosby, and Yannick Ngakoue could cause issues for the home side.

Crosby, in particular, enjoyed a stellar regular season. The former third-round draft pick had more pressures and QB hurries than DPOY favorite TJ Watt. The associated press named Crosby as a second-team All-Pro for 2021. He is the Raiders’ best defensive player, and Las Vegas needs him to have a big game to pull off the upset.

And that is because the Raiders’ secondary is poor. Per Next Gen Stats, the Raiders’ secondary places 29th in wide-open percentage on intermediate passes. An alarming statistic irrespective of the opposition, a horrendous one against the Bengals. Due to Burrow’s special relationship with rookie Ja’Marr Chase, teams are terrified of the deep shot to Chase. The Bengals duo leads the NFL in deep targets and touchdowns.

Opposing defenses are terrified, and most move into a deep shell in the secondary. That allows Burrow to attack the intermediate portion of the field. When throwing between 10-19 yards, Burrow’s completion percentage is a tick over 70%. The Ohio-born signal-caller loves targeting wideouts Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins. Against Raiders’ defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s Cover 3 Seahawks-style defense, Burrow has already demonstrated his ability to manipulate the high safety.

This skill to use his eyes to find isolated matchups within the soft areas of zone coverages allows Burrow to keep his offense moving. Burrow shone when presented with single-high formations; he led the NFL in CPOE, passer rating, and EPA. Backing that up, the Raiders led the league with single-high coverages.

Crosby and company must rattle him and generate pressure for the Raiders to pull off the upset. The occasion won’t deter Burrow. The quarterback has demonstrated superb poise and composure in big games. Tension will be tantamount inside the stadium. Staying calm is vital for the Bengals. They hold the tactical advantages and have already defeated the Raiders this season.

As for the Raiders, it seemed that a playoff game was improbable at various stages. Derek Carr and interim head coach Rich Bisaccia have brilliantly guided the Raiders to the playoff party through all the chaos, drama, and controversy. They shouldn’t be here, and if they want to stay here, the Raiders must channel their desire, aggression, and fearlessness to win on the road.

The first game of Wildcard Weekend offers a massive game with big storylines. All logic points towards the Bengals, but that won’t worry the Raiders. Derek Carr is a tremendous leader, and after repeatedly upsetting the odds, they’ll believe they can leave with the win. The pressure is on as the kings of the AFC North aim to send the Raiders packing from the Queen’s City.

The Winter Chill Awaits In Buffalo

Credit: CBS Boston

The final matchup between the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots will take place amidst bitterly cold conditions. The mercury may plumb to -10 tonight as these bitter rivals clash over a place in the Divisional Round. Bill Belichick’s Patriots triumphed in the first meeting as they outfoxed the Bills in awful playing conditions. Sean McDermott’s Bills exacted revenge in Foxborough in what proved to be a divisional title decider.

The beauty of this game is that these teams know each other inside out. There isn’t a hidden element within each team’s playbooks. It all comes down to which side executes better. Bills quarterback Josh Allen did precisely that in the Week 16 matchup as he enjoyed a 314 yard, three-touchdown day. Belichick is a defensive guru, and he will formulate a plan to nullify Allen, and it may hinge on All-Pro corner JC Jackson.

While the Patriots love mixing and matching defensive formations, Cover 1 is their staple, and Jackson excels. Jackson led the NFL in passes defended, allowed the lowest passer rating of any cornerback, and has more interceptions than anyone else when defending in single coverage. In the pre-game press conference, Jackson eluded that he would follow Bills star wideout, Stefon Diggs.

Diggs averaged 3.5 yards of separation in the last matchup, although the Bills lined him up all over the formation, and Jackson didn’t follow him. If Jackson can quieten Diggs, the Patriots will give themselves a chance of keeping the Bills’ offense in check.

On the other side of the ball, running through the Bills is arguably the best plan for the Pats. Damien Harris racked up over 100 yards in the most recent game, and if the Bills’ defense has one weakness, it may be against the run.

The Patriots must protect Mac Jones and establish the run. A strong running game can hold a pass-rush at bay. During the regular season, the Bills topped the NFL in pressure percentages. Following their bye week, the Patriots are 1-3, and Jones hasn’t played well. His average QBR in those three defeats was 35.8, that’d place him amongst his rookie classmates.

The key for defenses has been pressure and changing formations in the backfield. Jones hasn’t looked after the ball since the bye week, and a Bill secondary that is number one against the pass will latch onto any opportunities.

Belichick may opt to take the ball out of his rookie quarterback’s hands if the conditions are as advertised. In the wind-affected first game, Jones threw three passes as the Patriots ran over the Bills.

Despite his rookie status, Jones does hold big-game experience from his time in Alabama. Nevertheless, Belichick and McDaniels will know that they don’t want to find themselves in a position relying on their rookie to make plays against the number one pass defense in the NFL.

The weather in Western New York may play into the Patriots’ hands. But a hostile atmosphere and a team in red-hot form won’t add to the list of positives. The Bills are more than talented enough to get the job done. Can they withstand the conditions and defeat their most hated rivals once and for all.

The cold air will mask the white-hot tension that exists between these teams. The Bills and Patriots settle it tonight, and both teams will be primed by their head coaches for the job ahead.

Dallas Expects, So Does Jerry Jones.

Dallas Cowboys 2020
Credit: ESPN

Jerral Wayne Jones made the biggest gamble of his business life in 1989. The oil magnate bought the Dallas Cowboys for $140 million and enjoyed a golden decade as the Cowboys won three Super Bowls and dominated the NFL. The success helped the Cowboys become the most famous team in the NFL, and the franchise has grown exponentially every year since. Today, the Dallas Cowboys are the most valuable franchise in sports. Jones’ speculative punt has paid off.

However, there is one thing eluding Jones and the Cowboys. America’s Team hasn’t won a Super Bowl since 1995. That is an incredible amount of time for a team like the Cowboys to go trophyless. And in the buildup to this game, Jones piled the pressure onto Mike McCarthy’s team after saying that he would deem the season a failure if the ‘Boys go home in the wildcard round.

The task got even more challenging when the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Rams last week to punch their field-level tickets for AT&T Stadium. The Niners finished sixth in total DVOA per Football Outsiders; they are a solid side. Kyle Shanahan’s side deserves to be here.

The key for Shanahan and his team is offensive output. The Cowboys’ defense is arguably the most talented unit in the NFL, and coordinator Dan Quinn is utilizing his weapons at every level to devastating effect. This game offers a fascinating tactical battle, because Dan Quinn was head coach in Atlanta when Kyle Shanahan was his offensive coordinator. They will understand their respective playbooks inside out.

One of the keys for San Francisco on offense is how well they can keep the Cowboys’ athletic defense off-balance. The Niners enjoy employing their bunched formations with fullback Kyle Juszczyk on the field. An array of pre-snap shifts and changing alignments provides Jimmy Garoppolo with a more precise read. The Niners aren’t an overly aggressive offense; they aim to use Garoppolo’s quick release and move a defense laterally.
Dallas’ defense must stay alert on all the pre-snap trickery.

Furthermore, the Cowboys need Dak Prescott and the offense to fire. After starting the season so well, they’ve sputtered a little over the last few weeks. Injuries haven’t helped, and the loss of Michael Gallup is significant. Perhaps then, the pressure falls firmly on the shoulders of Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and Kellen Moore. Jones has invested time and money in all three, and they need to deliver tomorrow afternoon.

Moore and Prescott must decipher the 49ers’ heavy zone-coverage defense. Prescott attacks the middle of the field excellently against zone defenses. Amari Cooper and Ceedee Lamb can run in-breaking routes to locate the spots behind the linebackers. All of that stems from Elliott threatening as a downhill runner. Play action could be Prescott’s best friend at keeping the 49ers defense on the back foot.

It’d be fools gold to suggest the 49ers are playing with house money. It is a playoff game, and everyone feels pressure. Nevertheless, for the Cowboys, the pressure may weigh heavily. Twenty-five years of playoff heartbreak can’t go on; the whole world knows that. Nerves will be frayed if the 49ers run them close into the fourth quarter. Can Mike McCarthy, Dak Prescott et al. deal with it? Dallas expects, and they must vanquish a talented, well-coached 49ers team to avoid another year of desolation.

Is Matthew Stafford the Ultimate Wildcard?

USA Today Sports

In pure arm velocity stakes, Matthew Stafford might be the number one quarterback in the NFL. Stafford throws a football like his best friend Clayton Kershaw would throw a baseball. Stafford throws missiles, and the Rams have benefitted from that. Approaching his second playoff game, Stafford is ready for the world’s eyes to watch him in the first-ever Monday night wildcard match.

Stafford is third in the NFL’s passing score metric, only behind Joe Burrow and Aaron Rodgers. Weathering so many beatings in Detroit didn’t extinguish his talent, and former Georgia Bulldog is desperate to show everyone how good he is.

Yet that same drive may concern head coach Sean McVay. Stafford’s unbreakable self-belief is also his biggest downfall. Like Brett Favre, Stafford is a quarterback capable of jaw-dropping throws and head-scratching lows. The Rams experienced the Stafford rollercoaster throughout the regular season. Stafford recorded a passing score above 87 eight times in the regular season, and the Rams won those games by at least two touchdowns.

Conversely, Stafford has endured five games with a passing score below 80. The Rams lost four of those five games. Stafford is a fascinating player. His extraordinary talent also proposes a problem for Sean McVay. McVay wanted a quarterback to take the offense to another level, and he got that. But the caveat with that is Stafford does lack discipline when given more freedom.

McVay will craft a game plan for the Cardinals’ defense. How much leeway Stafford has within that is a big question. Former Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter tempered Stafford’s big arm, but an air of conservatism came with it. McVay must find the fine line between Stafford playing recklessly and conservatively.

Stafford threw ugly interceptions against Baltimore, and he cannot afford to do that again. Sean McVay wanted a quarterback with more talent than Jared Goff, but he must now deal with the opposite side of the coin. Stafford’s gunslinging could cost the Rams. A first-round exit would be unacceptable for a team that made a slew of ‘win-now’ moves in 2021. What Stafford turns up on Monday night may be the biggest wildcard of wildcard weekend.



Tayyib is an avid NFL fan and, as a follower of the detroit lions, is a permanent resident in the honolulu blue heartbreak hotel. writing football articles since 2019, tayyib loves everything about the sport except that wins are not a qb stat. follow him on twitter @TayyibABU1