2021 NFL Super Wildcard Weekend/Super Bowl LVI Predictions
After the longest regular season in history with 17 games, the NFL playoffs are finally here, starting today, and won’t end until the day before Valentine’s Day. (Talk about inconsiderate.)
This year is also the second season of the expanded postseason with seven teams and 14 teams combined. (I’m proud to say I had nine of the 14 teams predicted correctly.) And with how crazy the regular season was, there’s no telling what might happen. So let’s break down every matchup along with an expanded Dallas Cowboys preview.
AFC: (5th) Las Vegas Raiders (10–7) at (4th) Cincinnati Bengals (10–7); 3:30 CT on NBC
After playing what was arguably the best win-and-in finale in NFL history and possibly game of the season, the Raiders are coming off an emotional high after outlasting the Los Angeles Chargers, 35–32, in overtime. Not to mention, everything they’ve been through this year: their head coach Jon Gruden resigned in October after email allegations of racist, homophobic and sexist language; receiver Henry Ruggs was charged with manslaughter weeks later along with a host of other player arrests. Their quarterback, Derek Carr, is what has brought them here, throwing for 4,804 yards and 23 touchdowns with fearless leadership, helping them end their regular season on four straight wins. They also have quite the knack for late-game heroics, winning six games on the final play while their clutch kicker, Daniel Carlson, was responsible for five of them.
The Bengals became the team this year to go from worst to first in their division, capturing the AFC North for the first time since 2015 when they last went to the playoffs. Second-year quarterback Joe Burrow can be thanked for that, throwing for 4,611 yards and 34 touchdowns. The receiver he threw to a lot who wowed even more was his LSU teammate, rookie JaMarr Chase, who had an astounding 1,455 yards, the most ever for a rookie and in franchise history with the same records for a game with 266 to go along with 13 touchdowns.
One thing both of these teams have in common is they haven’t won a playoff game in a long time — which will end. The Raiders haven’t won one since 2002 when they made it to the Super Bowl and only have one other appearance. The Bengals haven’t won one since 1990 (before I was born) despite having seven appearances since with the head coach who could never win one, Marvin Lewis. But now Zac Taylor is here and his team has made the jump. Even though their pass rush is better than the Bengals’ offensive line, I expect a tired Raiders team who almost played five quarters of football Sunday night not able to pull it off against a QB-WR tandem who are playing out of their minds. Bengals 27, Raiders 24
(6th) New England Patriots (10–7) at (3rd) Buffalo Bills (11–6); 7:15 CT on CBS
This AFC East rivalry has been interesting the last two of three years with both teams making the postseason last time (rare for the Bills) when New England won the division that year. This year, it’s the Bills with the division and expectations as they’ve won four straight. Star quarterback Josh Allen has thrown for 4,406 yards and 36 touchdowns while adding 763 yards with his legs and six TDs. The problem is he’s thrown 15 interceptions and hasn’t played up to last year’s standards at times. And while Buffalo has the best passing and scoring defense, their running game has looked inept at times on both sides of the ball excluding Allen.
Bill Belichick may have had his finest working as a coach this season with a rookie quarterback without many great receivers and a young defense without many big names. Despite it, New England was able to go on a seven-game winning streak at one point after a rough 2–4 start before losing their last three of four. They’re right behind Buffalo, being second in pass defense with a three-headed rushing attack that can be machine-like at times. Quarterback Mac Jones has had ups and downs but might be the best at his position from this draft class despite being the fifth taken.
In the first game in Buffalo, Jones threw the ball just three times, completing two for 19 yards. (Yes, you read that right.) The Patriots won 14–10 behind a dominant rushing attack that Buffalo couldn’t stop with 222 yards. The Bills controlled the second game up in Foxborough, winning 33–21 as Allen threw for 314 yards and three touchdowns. I know Belichick could pull off the win in Buffalo as it’s going to be around 3 degrees with a wind chill below zero, but the Bills got the hot hand and Jones isn’t playing great. I expect it to be close. Buffalo just has too much talent. Bills 20, Patriots 16
NFC: (7th) Philadelphia Eagles (9–8) at (2nd) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13–4); 12:00 CT on FOX
The Eagles are a team not many thought would be here. The Buccaneers are a team people knew would be here. This game has that kind of feel to it. Tampa held on for a 28–22 win when these teams met in Week 6 and Tom Brady threw for 297 yards and two touchdowns. Philadelphia was 4–12 last season before parting ways with Doug Pederson, who helped them to their only Super Bowl win, and bringing in Nick Sirianni. While his team had a rough 2–5 start, including the Bucs game, they’ve turned it around with the best running game in the league behind second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts and Miles Sanders, winning seven of their next nine games before resting their starters last week.
The defending Super Bowl champions had everything going for them into this season, returning all 22 starters. While they have mostly played at a high level with Tom Brady throwing a career-high 5,316 yards and 43 touchdowns, they have also dropped inexcusable games. Along the way, they’ve suffered many injuries, primarily on defense in the secondary. And in recent weeks, they’ve had some key receivers gone. Chris Godwin, possibly their best receiver tore his ACL to his knee. Two weeks ago, the troubled-Antonio Brown, who had been mostly quiet since arriving in Tampa last season, finally exploded, leaving in the middle of a game, taking everything except his pants and shoes off before being cut. All of which took place with conflicting sides after head coach Bruce Arians told him to “get the (bleep) out of here” when he wouldn’t get back in the game. The defense is still shutting down the run, being third overall.
With two of their top three receivers gone, it’ll be interesting to see how Brady and this passing attack do. They did fine the last game-and-a-half, but that was against inferior opponents. I expect their defense to have some success against the run, forcing some Hurts interceptions while the Eagles will have a hard time catching up to Tampa. Buccaneers 30, Eagles 20
(6th) San Francisco 49ers (10–7) at (3rd) Dallas Cowboys (12–5); 3:30 CT on CBS
An old playoff rivalry is being renewed for the first time in 27 years. Dallas owns the 5–2 edge with the last three meetings coming all in a row in the NFC Championship Game. Of course, things haven’t been the same since then and this is only a wild-card game. The Niners have won four in a row and seven of their last nine after starting 3–5. (7th against the run, 6th against the pass). Their running game is stout as always and their passing game has benefited from the emergence of Deebo Samuel who has 1,405 receiving yards and six touchdowns to go along with 365 yards and an impressive eight touchdowns rushing. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is still maintaining his starting position while third-overall pick Trey Lance has spelled him a few games due to injury.
Picking up from the last time I talked about the Cowboys, things haven’t been quite the same, at least on offense. Dak Prescott has been inconsistent even though he says his calf is fine. Since my last post, they’ve had two great offensive games and those were against teams without key players.
They had an ugly 19–9 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs without receivers Amari Cooper (COVID) and CeeDee Lamb (concussion) for a half. They weren’t consistent against the Las Vegas Raiders on Thanksgiving without those two, playing catchup and losing in overtime, 36–33. They won all three games on their road trip, but that was mainly because of their defense, which has made quite the turnaround from last season, being top-10 overall (NO 27–20, WAS 27–24, NYG 21–6). Then they came home and destroyed Washington, 56–14, but the Football Team was decimated COVID issues and injuries. Against the Arizona Cardinals, a real playoff team, the offense took too long to get going, losing 25–22. Then at Philadelphia, they played against a lot of backups, winning 51–26.
Prescott looks great at times as he threw for 4,449 yards and a franchise-high 37 touchdowns, breaking Tony Romo’s 36 in 2007, to go along with 10 interceptions. But he’s going to need to play as he did before the injury as he’s only done three times if you include the Atlanta thrashing. Plus, the running game needs to get going again as they haven’t been consistent since his return. I might also add that receiver Michael Gallup tore his ACL against Arizona on a TD, but he already missed nine weeks earlier in the season when Cedrick Wilson took his spot and the offense was at their best.
I think this will be a good game. San Francisco has a great chance to win with how they run the ball and play defense, and I know Garoppolo can make plays as he did in last week’s comeback to get them into the postseason, but ultimately, I think the Cowboys will wake up with the opportunity and season they have like they’ve done in similar years. Plus, Jimmy G likes to turn it over sometimes. Trevon Diggs, who tied the franchise record with 11 picks, might grab one on a defense that leads the league in turnovers with 34. Cowboys 26, 49ers 23
AFC: (7th) Pittsburgh Steelers (9–7–1) at (2nd) Kansas City Chiefs (12–5); 7:15 CT on NBC
It’s a miracle the Steelers even made the playoffs. Ben Roethlisberger, who more than likely is making his swan song, has not been great (which is why he’s retiring). Pittsburgh doesn’t have anyone else they can go to, but like the old Steelers, he just makes the plays and they win (enough) games. Even though he has the worst QBR of his career at 35.8, his team has won their last two games, including an old-school, tough overtime win against division rival-Baltimore last week along with a surprise upset of Indianapolis by Jacksonville. On defense, they have one of the best pass-rushers in the league with TJ Watt, who tied Michael Strahan for most sacks in a season with 22.5.
The Chiefs, like the Bucs, had all the expectations going into the season with the Super Bowl being the focus. However, they’ve had some troubles, particularly in the first half of the season. Through the first seven games of the season, star quarterback Patrick Mahomes was turnover-prone, throwing nine interceptions and having fumbles, losing two as his team got out to a 3–4 start with one of the worst defenses in the league. Even when they started winning more with their defense, Mahomes and Co. just weren’t the same as the NFL adjusted to his deep throws. But now, the offense has adjusted, mixing things up better with a shorter passing game and big weapons as they’ve now won nine of their last ten.
As Big Ben said himself, his team “doesn’t have a chance” in the big picture. Just three weeks ago, the Steelers got pounded by the Chiefs, 36–10. It might be a little more competitive with Pittsburgh’s spirit, but K.C. takes this one easily. Chiefs 34, Steelers 17
NFC: (5th) Arizona Cardinals (12–5) at (4th) Los Angeles Rams (12–5); 7:15 CT on NBC
The NFC West duel that’s gone on the entire season ended in the last minutes of the 3 o’clock window last Sunday with neither team being happy in losses as Arizona’s clinched the division for L.A. Fittingly, these two teams will go at it again, this time being the playoffs.
The Cardinals were basically the surprise for much of the year, being the last undefeated team in the NFL at 7–0. However, things have changed. They’ve lost four of their last five. Star quarterback Kyler Murray hasn’t been the same, losing five of his last seven starts, including a stinker against the lowly-Detroit Lions with a 7 QBR. (Note: Head coach Kliff Kingsbury doesn’t have a great track record of doing well down the stretch of the season as he also was at Texas Tech.) It doesn’t help that his star receiver, De’Andre Hopkins, tore his MCL in his knee and may not return until a few rounds into the postseason. James Conner has scored 18 touchdowns, including 15 rushing, tied for third-most in the league.
The Rams are the NFL’s prime example of buying talent. They traded their quarterback, Jared Goff, who led them to a Super Bowl, along with a 2021 third-round pick and two first-round picks in 2022 and 2023 for star QB Matthew Stafford, who was been good for the most part, tying his career-high with 41 touchdowns passes but also leads the league in interceptions with 17. (Don’t forget his favorite weapon, Cooper Kupp, who had the second-most receiving yards in a season in league history with 1,947 yards on 145 receptions and 16 touchdowns, winning the triple crown, which hasn’t happened since 2005 with Steve Smith Sr.) They signed troubled star receiver Odell Beckham after he was cut by Cleveland midseason and has five touchdowns in his last seven games. They gave up a second and third-round pick for one of the best pass rushers of all time in Von Miller during November with a defense that already has All-Pros in defensive tackle Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
Before blowing a 17-point lead to the 49ers last Sunday, the Rams had five in a row. They’ve got the hotter hand with more to play more. Rams 31, Cardinals 27
Super Bowl LVI Prediction
As for my Super Bowl pick, it’s going to be a battle in the NFC. The Cardinals were once the best team in football, but injuries and other factors are why I don’t trust them. The Rams are Super Bowl-or-bust, but I think they’re overdoing themselves with a quarterback trade that was overhyped and a defense that isn’t as great as last year despite talent. I really want to see the Cowboys go all the way and there are signs that point to it, but I just can’t pick them because of inconsistency, superstition, etc.
Tampa was my preseason pick, but injuries at receiver make me question. As much as I hate Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, especially with his actions off the field this calendar year, such as lying to the public that was vaccinated, they’re the best team with the №1 seed, getting that bye. I think they get past the NFC Championship Game on a third try and to the Super Bowl in over a decade with what might be Rodgers’ last season there after he held out into training camp wanting a trade.
Unlike the NFC, the AFC has a lack of serious contenders. There’s Buffalo, who doesn’t have a great running game outside of Allen. Tennessee is somehow the №1 seed at 11–5. The last time that happened was 19 years ago when the Raiders made the Super Bowl. Star running back Derrick Henry might come back from injury, but I just don’t think they’re that great with a mediocre quarterback in Ryan Tannehill. The Chiefs are the ones I trust the most as they’re playing their best football. I think they get back for a third-straight year. And I like Mahomes beating Rodgers in which they’ll finally get to play each other on the third try of being a game away in what will be the “State Farm Bowl” in Los Angeles (technically Inglewood), avenging their bad loss from last season.
This season has the been wildest in recent memory. The out-of-nowhere upsets to serious contenders. The number of games decided on the last possession, which broke all-time league TV ratings for the season. It wouldn’t surprise me if some not-as-high seeds made their way in, and maybe, just maybe, the Cowboys will do something magical. Remember previous to 2021, the last time the Milwaukee Bucks won the NBA Finals was 1971 and the Atlanta Braves did it in 1995. Both of which were Cowboys’ banner years. Anything that can happen.