MADISON – After a wacky seventeen-game season that required teams to navigate COVID-19 from start to finish, the NFL playoffs are finally here. I loath playoff expansion and the third wildcard, but it has given us an additional postseason game to analyze in each conference; let’s break down the AFC.
#5 Las Vegas Raiders at #4 Cincinnati Bengals
The Las Vegas Raiders roll into the first game of wildcard weekend thanks to a completely haywire win on a walk-off field goal in the dying seconds of overtime on Sunday night. It is a minor miracle this team reached this position after the turmoil it experienced during the regular season. It was centered around the firing of former head coach John Gruden following the discovery of racist comments he made in multiple emails and throughout his time as a coach.
After getting blasted by the Kansas City Cheifs in a 48-9 loss in December, Las Vegas bounced back with four straight wins to finish the season and claw its way into the fifth seed. The Raiders are a fun team to watch with a rough-and-tumble offense led by quarterback Derek Carr and running-back Josh Jacobs.
Unfortunately for the late John Madden’s former team, the Cincinnati Bengals will be hosting this wildcard weekend opener, and they boast potentially the best quarterback-wide receiver tandem in the NFL this season; Joe Burrow has developed into a superstar in his second year as an NFL QB, and Ja’Marr Chase – Burrow’s former LSU teammate – is likely going to win rookie-of-the-year for his explosive play at wide receiver.
The Raider defense is not equipped to handle this concoction; Cincinnati will win in a highly entertaining game.
Pick: Cincinnati Bengals, 31-24
#6 New England Patriots at #3 Buffalo Bills
This fascinating Saturday showdown presents a clash between AFC East rivals with highly contrasting styles of play. The high-flying Bills’ aerial attack will be pitted against the stiff defense and rigid structure of the Patriots.
After a very hot start, Bills Mafia saw turbulence throughout the rest of the season before finally clinching the division on the final day of the regular season. Highly talented quarterback Josh Allen deserves most of the credit for that accomplishment.
New England, on the other hand, drafted quarterback Mac Jones fifteenth overall and spent heaps of money in free agency after last year’s 7-9 record. In his rookie season, Jones has far surpassed the expectations of many – myself included – and, under the guidance of mastermind Bill Belichick, led his squad to ten wins and the postseason. In style, the Patriots’ offense resembles that from the days of Tom Brady, focused on precision, timing, and getting the ball out quickly.
The game is in Buffalo, which is an advantage for Allen and the Bills, but the Patriots are no strangers to frigid weather, and Belichick’s defense is looking like its old self. I’ll take the Patriots in a cold, grinding, road win.
Pick: New England Patriots, 16-13
#7 Pittsburgh Steelers at #2 Kansas City Chiefs
I have been calling the two versus seven games the “stupid games”, but in reality, they’re the money games. The playoff expansion was implemented last season for the same reason as this year’s seventeenth game: to generate more revenue for the owners. I can’t truly say that I blame them; who among us doesn’t want more money? Nevertheless, I despise the extra wildcard spot because we are now forced to shove games like this down our throats on a Sunday night.
Pittsburgh has absolutely no business being included under the spotlight of the NFL postseason. It is a violation of the sanctity of this once-highly-exclusive event, where we rolled out the red carpet to welcome the six show-ponies from each conference that were worthy enough for these bright lights. What was once a choice selection of four premium wildcard games with the ultra-elite waiting in the wings has become a weekend of cheap fast-food football whose grease and fat has now spilled into Monday. As a result, the wildcard weekend schedule is now contaminated with inadequate teams like the Steelers that do nothing well, are hopelessly boring, and don’t have a prayer to reach the Super Bowl.
In the end, it doesn’t matter in the slightest; none of us, including myself, will stop watching, and these extra playoff games will rake in more millions for the already bloated NFL. I have to give credit to the league – and I mean this sincerely – for creating, quite simply, the best television product in all of sports. It has gained such popularity that it no longer matters what it does because we will continue to consume its product. The owners are the ones writing the checks and have every right to make decisions that will maximize the success of their business; I only wish they took more pride in the details that make the most powerful and profitable sports league in the world not only popular but great.
Pick: Kansas City Chiefs, Large Number – 0