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A Closer Look at the NFL Wild Card Matchups: Key Players and Predictions

Updated: Jan 24

5. Cleveland Browns @ 4. Houston Texans

Saturday, 4:30 EST on NBC

These two teams met in Week 16, where the Browns walked away with the win. Joe Flacco threw for 368 yards, and Amari Cooper had 265 receiving yards. However, that matchup featured Case Keenum at quarterback. This time around, CJ Stroud will be available.

The star rookie has had an unbelievable amount of success, leading the Texans to an AFC South division title and making Houston a dynamic team when he's healthy.

Stats to know

The Browns' defense generates a ton of turnovers; they lead the league in turnovers created, with a staggering 37 takeaways on that end. The Texans offense has committed only 14 turnovers, the lowest in the league. The Browns are 7th in pressure rate (23.8%). The Texans are 6-3 at home.

How do the Browns win?

Pressure and turnovers, and Amari Cooper. With the Browns leading the league in turnovers, the defensive line will need to come up big, especially Myles Garrett, who is in the race for Defensive Player of the Year. On the other hand, Cooper will be back from a heel injury and has been truly exceptional. Flacco gets the most out of Cooper and tight end David Njoku, whose star has blossomed week over week since Flacco took the reins in Week 13.

How do the Texans win?

CJ Stroud and the pass rush, shutting down Cooper. The Texans will need a game plan around Cooper, who had 265 yards on their head — in Houston, on Christmas Eve. Limiting Cooper will be key. CJ Stroud will need to continue to be careful with the ball and limit turnovers, as is his M.O. The offensive line will be tested once again versus Garrett and Za'Darius Smith.


Cleveland Browns. A top defensive side that can wreak havoc in the front while also allowing the fewest passing yards and completion percentage (2,800 yards and 57%) in the league. The Browns offense has been revelatory since Flacco stepped in off the hammock. He just had four consecutive games of 300 yards, and expect Cooper to come back hot and ready like a Little Caesars pizza.


Miami Dolphins @ Kansas City Chiefs

Saturday, 8:00 EST on Peacock

A rematch of the Frankfurt, Germany game this season where the Chiefs won 21-14. Mahomes threw two touchdowns, Tua threw one, and Mostert rushed for one. Mahomes will be looking for more playoff success, and Tua will be looking to lead the Dolphins to greatness in his first career playoff game (Skylar Thompson started Miami's Wild Card loss at Buffalo last season).

Stats to know 

The Dolphins have one win (Cowboys) and five losses against playoff teams this year (Bills 2x, Ravens, Chiefs, Eagles). The Chiefs allow the second-fewest yards in the league (289.8). The Dolphins are 0-10 when games kick off 40 degrees or below since 2017, while the Chiefs are 9-1 in their last ten such games.

How do the Chiefs win?

Defense and limiting turnovers. The Chiefs have one of the worst turnover differentials in the league, ranking 28th. They’ve given up 28 total interceptions and fumbles. Limiting turnovers and not taking risks with the offense will be key. Trusting the defense to make plays and dominate, the Chiefs are allowing the second-fewest yards, so shutting down Tyreel Hill and (if cleared) Jaylen Waddle will be a big task.

How do the Dolphins win?

Offense. Hill, Waddle, DeVon' Achane, and Raheem Mostert. Waddle and Mostert are questionable, but most likely to play. Hill will return to Arrowhead for the first time since he was traded to Miami for five draft picks — 2022 first-, second-, and fourth-round picks as well as 2023 fourth- and sixth-round picks — in the 2022 offseason. He will look to put on a show.

Hill, being familiar with the K.C. cold weather, will also be able to adapt quickly. Head coach Mike McDaniel's play calling will need to be aggressive from the get-go to set the tone.


Kansas City Chiefs. It’s hard to bet against Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes, despite the offense not being as good as in recent years and Travis Kelce not looking the same. However, Steve Spagnuolo's defense has been incredible. First-Team All-Pro selection Chris Jones and sophomore George Karlaftis have been doing damage upfront, while First-Team slot corner Trent McDuffie is lights out in the defensive backfield. This is the best defense of Patrick Mahomes' career. The Dolphins are just too hurt, with so many injuries to key players such as Bradley Chubb, Xavien Howard, Jaelan Phillips, Jerome Baker, and Andrew Van Ginkel just on the defensive side of the ball. Add in guys like Waddle and Mostert being questionable, and Tyreek Hill's production taking a dip since an ankle injury in Week 14.


Pittsburgh Steelers @ Buffalo Bills

Sunday, 1:00 EST on CBS


Another winning season for coach Mike Tomlin. The Steelers have been great each week, and the defense has looked impressive. Josh Allen and the Bills ended the season strong, finishing 11-6 and winning five games in a row. After a 6-6 start that culminated in the firing of offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, they stormed back to secure the 2-seed in the AFC.

Stats to know - The Steelers are 1-10 without TJ Watt, who won't play this week. In their last five head-to-head matchups, the Bills lead 3-2. Buffalo is 8th in the league in passing with 244.4 yards per game, and 7th in rushing with 130.1 yards per game.

How do the Steelers win? 

Playmakers and the defense minus Watt. As we know, TJ Watt, the 2023 (and 2020, and 2021) NFL sacks king, is out. He is the focal point of the defense and generates the turnovers that help the offense thrive. However, three-time First Team All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, Mike Linebacker Elandon Roberts, and starting safety Damontae Kazee are all expected to return and play, so the defense is still strong.

Mason Rudolph will need to continue his hot streak, retaining the starting nod even with QB1 Kenny Pickett back healthy. Najee Harris is expected to be back, who rushed for 1k yards. George Pickens and Diontae Johnson out wide are dynamic playmakers who will need to be ready to attack.

How do the Bills win? 

Josh Allen and the defense. Stat-wise, the Bills are in the top 10 in fewest yards allowed, top 10 in pressure rate, and top 5 in team sacks. Micah Hyde is expected to return, but Taylor Rapp will be ruled out. Josh Allen will be without Gabe Davis; however, first-rounder Dalton Kincaid has really stepped up and has been an incredible TE down the stretch. Stefon Diggs, the consistent and elite playmaker, will be there for Allen.


Buffalo Bills. While Big Game Gabe was out, he was Allen's 3rd most targeted receiver. I believe Allen and the Bills are in a better situation offensively, and their statistically good defense plus TJ Watt's absence will be very noticeable. While the 3-0 Rudolph is hot, we have yet to see him take a snap in the postseason, and he was third-string on the Steelers depth chart at year's start. The Bills ended the season on a really good note, beating Miami in Miami for the AFC East crown, and I think it only gets better from here.


Green Bay Packers @ Dallas Cowboys

Sunday, 4:30 EST on FOX


Jordan Love has the keys to the Green Bay offense, and in year one he drove it to the playoffs, something neither Aaron Rodgers nor Brett Favre did. Dak Prescott has been receiving NFL MVP shouts from the media, and this has been an impressive year from both sides.

Stats to know

Two very good offensive sides, the Cowboys are 1st in passing touchdowns (36) and the Packers are 3rd (32). The Cowboys are 3rd in passing yards per game (258.6), and the Packers are 12th (233.4).

How do the Cowboys win?

A strong defense and the electric passing of Dak. Dak has played like an MVP, and the stats reflect it. CeeDee Lamb ended the year with 135 receptions and 1749 yards, both storied franchise records. Tight end Jake Ferguson had 71 receptions, 768 yards, and 5 touchdowns and Brandin Cooks posted 54-657-8. Prescott will need to continue the hot streak here, as the Tony Pollard-led run game has been below average. For the defense, Micah Parsons generates pressure and draws double teams like no other, DeMarcus Lawrence is still a threat, and Stephon Gilmore and Malik Hooker are expected to be back in the secondary.

How do the Packers win?

Jordan Love, hot hands, and running backs. Love holds the keys to the offense and will need to continue the hot streak he’s had this year. Matt LaFleur is a genius and has gotten the most out of Love. Aaron Jones and AJ Dillion rushed for 600 yards each, including three straight 100-yard outings for Jones to end the regular season. They are a dynamic duo who can cause real damage with the run game. Rookie 2nd rounder Jayden Reed provided 64 receptions, 793 yards, 8 touchdowns, and sophomore Romeo Doubs dropped 59-674-8. They will need to turn up for Jordan Love if they want to win.


Dallas Cowboys. While both offenses are exceptional, and Jordan Love has been incredible with the second-most touchdowns in the league, the Dallas defense is just better. With Jaire Alexander out, it’ll be tougher to match up against CeeDee Lamb. I believe in the Dallas secondary; this will be a good test for the Green Bay offense.


Los Angeles Rams @ Detroit Lions

Sunday, 8:00 EST on NBC

Jared Goff and Matthew Stafford are going up against their old teams. Both QBs have turned it around, with Stafford bouncing back from injury and Goff putting up ridiculous production.

Stats to know

The Lions passing offense is 2nd in yards per game (258.9) and 5th in rushing yards per game (135.9). The Lions have four players with 10 or more touchdowns. Under Sean McVay, the Rams are 3-1 in road playoff games.

How do the Rams win?

Cooper Kupp, Puka Nacua, shutting down the run, and Amon-Ra St. Brown. It's a big task, but if the Rams can put pressure on the interior by shutting down Montgomery and Gibbs, it’ll make a huge difference. Of course, the Lions still have explosive plays and dynamic playmakers, but putting pressure on Goff and shutting down the run is key, as is shutting down the middle of the field. Jahmyr Gibbs and David Montgomery both rushed for over 900 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Rams will need to pressure the Lions IDL with Kyren Williams, who rushed for over a thousand yards, and getting the rookie All-Pro Nacua going. He’s had a hot year with the rookie record 1,486 yards. McVay likes to have Nacua do everything; no doubt he will eat tons of yards.

How do the Lions win?

Run game and blitzes. Stafford and the Rams are not good vs. the blitz. Take the Giants game, for example. DC Wink Martindale threw the kitchen sink at him. Stafford threw two picks and didn’t look great. The Lions lead the league in pressure percentage (28.2%) and QB hurries (11.2%) but are 11th in blitz percentage (28.7%). The Lions will not only have to set up their own run game with Gibbs and Montgomery, one of the NFL's best duos, but they also need to shut down Williams, who is an elusive, shifty back known to break tackles. The Lions will need to be more secure tacklers, but they also need to shut down the air yards too. It’s a big challenge for the DBs.


Lions. This game will be incredibly close. Look at the Cowboys vs. Lions and the Ravens vs. Rams games earlier this season. Both sides can hold up extremely well. The idea of a Goff revenge game is bittersweet (for Los Angeles Goff fans), but the Lions are hosting their first home playoff game in 30 years, and this team is salivating for success. While the defense is suspect and star tight end Sam LaPorta is out, the dynamic RB duo along with Amon-Ra, who had 1.5k yards this year, tilt the scales. One could flip between the two teams. Rams veterans like Cooper Kupp, Stafford, and Aaron Donald could be enough for them to switch, and we can’t forget how much of a genius McVay can be offensively. But ultimately, the Lions will roar.


Philadelphia Eagles @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Monday, 8:15 EST on ESPN and ABC


The Bucs and Baker bounce-back, Mike Evans and Chris Goodwin reminding us why they are great, the run defense showing out, and Todd Bowles sustaining his unscathed record of NFC South titles. Jalen Hurts career-high 3,800 yards, AJ Brown and DeVonta Smith cooking defenses, Philadelphia's second Wild Card date at Raymond James Stadium in three years.

Stats to know 

The Buccaneers' run defense allows the 5th-fewest rushing yards per game (95.3), but on the offensive end, they have the worst rushing attack in the sport (88.8 yards per contest). The Eagles are 7th in rushing yards per game (128.8).

How do the Eagles win? Passing, passing, and more passing, forcing Tampa Bay to run the ball. The Eagles' offense has had its moments of success and failure, but the Buccaneers allow the 4th-most passing yards in the league (248.9). The Eagles O is 16th in passing yards per game. They’ll need to step it up and look more confident riding Hurts' arm if they want to win. Forcing Tampa to run will be impactful as they boast one of the worst ground games in the league.

How do the Buccaneers win? 

The air attack and stopping the run. The Buccaneers might be 4th with the most passing yards per game allowed, but the Eagles are even worse, as they give up the 2nd-most passing yards in the league (252.7). The Buccaneers, like the Eagles, have their moments in the passing game. Their defense's main selling point is the run defense, which allows the 5th-fewest rushing yards in the league.


Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Crazy pick? Maybe. The Eagles are dealing with injuries, even if Hurts, DeVonta Smith and D'Andre Swift are able to play. AJ Brown missed practice. Two safeties, Reed Blankenship and rookie third-rounder Sydney Brown are injured. This game could all come down to who is healthier; Mayfield has practiced but was limited with a rib injury. This game should have a lot more hype, but sadly, with the mediocrity of the offenses and passing defenses, there is not much to get hyped about. This game could be very messy, but it will be a close one.

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