So, 256 games are in the books; now the important 13 are all that is left in the NFL season. We are treated to three on Saturday and Sunday of this week as the Chiefs and Packers rest up and watch the Wild Card matches from the comfort of their sofas. Read on below for all the info you need for the games hitting your screen on Saturday evening. If you want to skip to a game, then hit the relevant link. Or if you are searching for the Sunday games, our previews will follow soon (click here).
Indianapolis Colts @ Buffalo Bills
SkySports/Gamepass – 6.05pm GMT – Saturday
First up, we have the winners of the AFC East the
New England Patriots Buffalo Bills hosting the #7 Indianapolis Colts.
The Colts are in by virtue of their win over Jacksonville in Week 17, coupled with the Miami Dolphins loss to the Buffalo Bills. In their current vein of form, I don’t think MVP candidate Josh Allen particularly cared which of the teams they faced in the play-offs and the team will be able to welcome 6,000+ of the Bills Mafia at home on Wild Card Weekend.
The Bills were one Hail Murray away from recording 10 straight victories to end the season but looking back at the Bills’ schedule, they have only played five games against opponents in this year’s play-offs and have gone 3-2 in those games.
*****5 STAR IMPORTS*****
Get your American Sports merchandise and memorabilia direct from US with low shipping! Join their FB group or follow @5_Star_Imports on Twitter
However, it’s “more of the same please” as this team has not scored fewer than 25 points since Week 8 and no team has put up 30 since Week 10. They are the best in the league at 3rd down and 4th down conversions, allowing them to be top 5 in terms of average points and yards per drive. That being said, they have not been that great in the red zone, ranking middle of the pack when it comes to converting red zone trips to TDs (61%).
The Bills match up OK against the Colts’ zone defence, whilst the Colts are stifling opposing offences on the ground, the Bills are not that effective rushing the ball and do all of their damage through the air. The Colts defence is susceptible through the air and Josh Allen has not been afraid to just obliterate opposing defences over the past month. In only one of his last four full games has he gone under 300 yards passing per game and we all remember the white-hot start he had through the air to begin the season.
There are two main reasons why the Bills are 13-3. Josh Allen’s upward trajectory from last year is phenomenal. HC Sean McDermott, OC Brian Daboll and QB Coach Ken Dorsey have done a fabulous job with Allen, who came in to the league often bashed and belittled at his arm power but lack of accuracy. 2019 saw his completion percent at 58, which was still a 10% increase from his rookie year. But 2020 saw him elevate a full 10% and change, to edge close to 70% completions on almost 400 attempts. Quite remarkable.
The catalyst for the consequent MVP-type Josh Allen season was the off-season acquisition of Stefon Diggs. Diggs led the league in targets, receptions and receiving yards in his first season with Buffalo after a trade that has worked out well for both he and Minnesota (the Vikings selected Justin Jefferson with the pick the Bills traded). Diggs had a career high in catch percentage and has been an absolute god-send for this Bills team. The signs where there when John Brown joined a few season ago, giving this Bills team speed and production.
Add in a spice of maturity, a mix of better decision making and experience and you have the perfect nurturing of raw quarterback talent in the NFL (and we haven’t even mentioned his ground game capabilities).
For the visitors, Philip Rivers will be playing only his 12th play-off game, and his first of course for the Indianapolis Colts. While the Colts were not really in any danger against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Philip Rivers did not enthuse any thoughts in my head that he is going to carry this team if they need him. He himself has a history of playing down or also playing himself into trouble by making stupid throws with one of the worst throwing mechanics ever to be seen.
He has a 5-6 record in the playoffs and a 14-10 TD/INT split BUT does have a favourable record historically against the Bills (6-1 record and a 13-1 TD/INT split) and has won his only previous match-up against Josh Allen (in Allen’s rookie season).
If the Colts are to win the game, there will be a heavy dosage of rookie running back Jonathan Taylor, who has come into his own the past few weeks. He has seen double-digit carries over the last six weeks, totaling 741 rushing yards. This included a season-high of 30 carries in Week 17 against the Jags and breaking the Colts’ franchise record with 253 yards on the ground. Eat your heart out, Derrick Henry.
Nyheim Hines is a perfect compliment to the rushing attack and short passing game, and has been effective and productive with the touches he has gotten this year. His 152 touches have garnered 862 yards and 7 TDs on the season for the 24-year-old out of North Carolina State in his third year in the NFL.
In the passing game, TY Hilton has seen a “back nine” resurgence scoring 5 TDs since Week 12, after struggling to get going or connecting with Rivers in the first half of the season.
The combination of Zach Pascal, Michael Pittman and the tight ends have all played their part too as there isn’t an “Alpha” or WR1 on this team. This may actually help the Colts as spreading it around to numerous people can nullify Buffalo’s stingey secondary.
Writer’s Pick – Tim Monk (@Tim_MonkF10Y)
For the Colts to win, their defence will have to make a statement and try to somehow limit the Bills to under 25 points. I personally cannot see them stopping the Josh Allen train and the Bills have too much momentum off the back of the first AFC East division title since 1995.
The Colts are good at stopping the run, which isn’t the Bills forte. Josh Allen has too many good options and the Bills have too much variety in the receiving options for the Colts to be able to handle through the air. However, if Jonathan Taylor can squeak the Colts into a lead early on, it will be fascinating to see if Allen can pull the Bills back into it, considering his capitulation at points from the play-offs like we saw last year against Houston.
If the Colts do take a lead, even a double-digit lead, I just cannot trust Philip Rivers not to throw it all down the drain. Give me the Bills at home by the 6.5pt margin and give me the under 51 as historically, this game is a low-scoring one. You have to go back all the way to 2001 for the total going over the current line (there are no weather problems looming for this game).
Indianapolis Colts 21 – 28 Buffalo Bills
Los Angeles Rams @ Seattle Seahawks
SkySports/Gamepass – 9:40pm GMT – Saturday
As the saying goes, I’m getting deja-vu all over again…
Being divisional rivals, these two NFC West outfits know each other very well and have clashed twice already. They split the series 1-1 so this, their third meeting in eight weeks, will decide bragging rights for 2020, as well as who progresses to the Divisional Round of the play-offs.
Back in Week 10, the 10-6 Rams (the NFC’s sixth seed) saw off their fellow West coast foes with a 23-16 victory but just a fortnight ago, the 12-4 Seahawks (third seed) got their revenge with a 20-9 win. The Rams then lost QB Jared Goff to a fractured and dislocated thumb, and he missed last week’s game against the Cardinals after undergoing surgery.
Nonetheless, they won that one 18-7, even with NFL debutant John Wolford – last seen in 2019 playing in the AAF for the Arizona Hotshots – under centre. (To be fair, he was up against another unknown back-up in Chris Streveler for some of the game). Wolford surprised a few people with his mobility, accuracy and anticipation, throwing 23-of-38 for 231 yards and scrambling for 56 more, although his 0 TD/1 INT ratio was less impressive.
Wolford’s exploits actually sparked a quarterback debate in the Los Angeles Times, but there’s no way HC Sean McVay is benching Goff in a play-off game if he’s fit. Is he? Well, the fifth-year QB was hardly on fire before the injury, throwing 20 TDs and 13 INTs. In fact, the former No.1 draft pick has 3 TDs and 3 INTs in his previous three starts, including a poor 0 TD/1 INT performance in that aforementioned loss to Seattle just a fortnight ago.
As for the rest of the Rams offence, there’s plenty to work with for whoever suits up at QB. Top wideout Cooper Kupp (974 yards) should play after testing positive for COVID-19 and sitting out last week, while Roberts Woods (936 yards) is also closing in on the 1,000-yard milestone. On the ground, rookie RB Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson Jr have been steady, racking up almost identical yardage (625 and 624 respectively).
Another area of concern for the Rams (other than who plays quaterback) is their anything-but-special teams unit. They have gone through three kickers this season (the incumbent Matt Gay is arguably the ‘least worst’), missing extra points and field goals galore, and seeing punts blocked. They have also given up a punt return touchdown and their own return game has been feeble.
That means, for LA, it’s all about the league’s best defence (#1 for YPG, YPA and overall rating) making up for their other deficiencies. They feature one of the best cornerback pairings in the league in Jalen Ramsey and Darious Williams and, of course, DPOY candidate Aaron Donald is always a nuisance, with only TJ Watt logging more than his 13.5 sacks this season across the league. As a defensive group, they’ve allowed the third fewest rushing yards per game and conceded under 20 points in half their games, good for second best in the NFL. Seattle will need to be at their best to break them down.
That’s the cue to turn our attention to the hosts of Saturday night’s game. Russell Wilson gets another shot at overcoming a Rams defence that has given him a hard time in 2020. He threw two interceptions and lost a fumble in the Week 10 loss and got sacked 11 times across both meetings this year (five of which came at the hands of Leonard Floyd). Dange’Russ was definitely cooking early in the year but by midseason, he’d gone off the boil and has fallen away in the MVP race. Despite getting sacked 48 times, he’s thrown for 4,212 yards (9th in the NFL) and 40 touchdowns (equal second) so far, and he’s still one of the best QBs under pressure.
Last week, the Seahawks scraped a 26-23 victory over the 49ers in a game that was too close for comfort. Wilson’s stat line (20-of-36 for 181 yards and 2 TDs) was far from his best and the 100-odd yards of total offence halfway through the third quarter was also worrying. Still, his blossiming relationship with DK Metcalf has brought the muscular WR 1,303 receiving yards (7th in the league) while their other 1,000-yard man Tyler Lockett has 100 receptions; both are single-season franchise records. The two wideouts are also tied at 10 touchdowns apiece. Chris Carson (681 yards, 5 TDs) remains the backfield star, although his mobile quarterback has also chipped in with more than 500 yards on the ground himself.
While the Seahawks’ offence has been efficient for most of the season, there are more concerns now than there were earlier in the campaign. So we can be pretty sure that they secured the NFC West crown because their defence finally got itself sorted, at just the right time. They were shipping almost 30 points per game in the first 10 weeks and giving up yardage like no tomorrow: not the habits of a title-winning team.
But then a switch was flicked when safety Jamal Adams (the team’s sack leader with 9.5) returned from injury and edge rusher Carlos Dunlap was acquired from Cincinnati, transforming them into the league’s meanest defence. They’ve allowed a meagre 13.7 points per game ever since – maybe the quality of opposition has helped a bit – and climbed into the top 10 for team sacks. It seems their Achilles heel has suddenly become a strength, giving Seattle a more balanced look.
It’s worth noting that Adams left last week’s game with a shoulder injury and might be a game-day decision so keep an eye on the Seattle injury list this week. DT Jarran Reed is also listed as day-to-day.
Writer’s Pick – Sean Tyler (@SeanTylerUK)
The Rams may be the lower seed and have an inferior regular season record but another low-scoring, defensive war of attrition should be right up their street. Talking of low-scoring, McVay – who has delivered a play-off berth in three of his four seasons in LA – has been talking up Wolford this week but maybe that’s a smokescreen to confuse Seattle HC Pete Carroll? It’s ludicrous to think they’d better off with a guy with one NFL game under his belt so if he’s fit, expect Goff to get the thumbs up (sorry).
LA have lurched between impressive and underwhelming all year, and they’ve not won more than two games in a row. Meanwhile, Seattle are on a four-game winning streak and their D is doing its best to emulate the Rams’ defence, holding five of their last six opponents to no more than 20 points. The Rams offence is unlikely to run riot (neither Goff nor Wolford got a TD in their last appearances) so I’d be surprised if the Seahawks didn’t outscore them. Therefore, for me, a combination of homefield advantage, an improved defence and question marks over their opponents’ QB tip the scales in Seattle’s favour.
One final nugget to ponder: the Seahawks have reached the Super Bowl in all three seasons in which they won 11 or more games and secured the NFC West title (2005, 2013 and 2014) so maybe a return to the season finale is written in the stars?
Los Angeles Rams 16 – 24 Seattle Seahawks
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Washington Football Team
SkySports/Gamepass – 1:15am GMT – Sunday
Tom Brady’s quest for yet another ring, with a brand new team and the chance to be the first Super Bowl team to win “at home” begins on the road in the US capital. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Washington Football Team in the late Saturday night Wild Card game.
Tampa Bay finished third in the league in scoring with 492 points. They also finished second in passing yards and second in touchdown passes, and Tom Brady ended with a 102.0 passer rating. However, Washington counters with a defence that finished second in yards allowed, second in passing yards allowed and fourth in points allowed, while holding opponents to an 81.4 passer rating. Talk about strength vs strength!
Washington’s relentless defensive front is a culminations of years of draft strategy paying off. Over the last four years, the Football Team has used a first-round pick on a defensive lineman in each draft. Rewind to 2017 with Alabama’s Jonathan Allen taken with the 17th pick and then another Alabama big man, Da’Ron Payne, 13th overall in 2018. Washington then found a talented edge rusher all the way down at number 26 in Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat in 2019. Ron Rivera arrived as the new head coach this year and put the cherry on the top of that beautiful pass rushing cake with Ohio State’s Chase Young with the second overall selection.
Those four young players are so talented that Ryan Kerrigan, the team’s all-time sack leader, now comes in as a reserve. He has still managed to amass 5.5 sacks. All of that talent allows Washington to rush just four and still get to the quarterback frequently. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Football Team came into the season finale with the seventh-highest pressure rate (26.2%) when only rushing four and then proceeded to get 11 pressures on 21 four-man rushes in its win over Philadelphia.
Young is the likely NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He finished his regular season rookie campaign with 7.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 12 QB hits, 20 pressures, four passes defended, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. After Washington won the NFC East on Sunday night, the talented rookie let it be known that he wanted a shot at Brady. He might have to win one very interesting battle of rookies to get to the Bucs’ passer. The Buccaneers drafted Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs with the 13th pick, 11 spots after Young landed in Washington. The two former Big Ten stars now have a chance to go at it on the professional level after both had marvellous rookie campaigns. Wirfs did not allow a single sack in his last 11 games and only one all year. Young’s pre-snap location heat map from Next Gen Stats shows that he lines up more frequently over the left tackle but has seen plenty of time over the right tackle as well.
If Brady is given the type of protection he’s become used to, he certainly will be taking a hot hand into the Wild Card game. Since coming back from the team’s Week 13 bye, Brady has compiled a 126.9 passer rating, with 12 touchdown passes and just one interception coming in Week 17 on a play that certainly wasn’t really his fault. So much for the supposed “noodle arm”! In that same four-week span, according to ESPN, Brady is 13-of-25 for 452 yards and six touchdowns on balls thrown more than 20 yards in the air, the best such numbers for any quarterback in the league.
The Buccaneers’ passing attack will be better, obviously, if leading receiver Mike Evans is able to return from his scary knee injury in time. Meanwhile, Chris Godwin is hitting his stride as the play-offs arrive and Antonio Brown, a midseason addition, has looked more comfortable every week. Those two combined for 271 yards and four touchdowns in the season finale, most of it after Evans went down with his injury. With Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Cam Brate all in the mix, the Buccaneers can and do attack opposing defences with an incredible amount of variety. We haven’t even talked about the running game where Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette, along with a sprinkling of LeSean McCoy, have provided a nice combination. In a nutshell, the Bucs are loaded on offence.
So what can the Washington Football team do about it on the other side of the ball? The offence has had its share of issues in recent weeks, and it’s largely related to injury issues. The team’s top passer, Alex Smith, running back Antonio Gibson, and receiving weapon Terry McLaurin are all banged up, so their ability to succeed will depend on the health of those three players. Of the utmost importance is obviously Smith. While he has posted a 5-1 record as a starter on the season, Smith has struggled in recent weeks because of a calf injury in his surgically repaired right leg. He hasn’t been able to move outside the pocket or put much power into his throws, and that could be an issue against this Tampa Bay defence. The Buccaneers have a very good pass rush and their defensive coordinator, Todd Bowles, blitzes frequently. With Smith’s mobility issues, the Bucs figure to have a significant advantage in this area and they could rack up sacks and pressures if Smith is in the game.
This will especially be true with Shaquil Barrett returning from the COVID list and teaming up with Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul. If all three are on the field, Washington’s offensive line will need to bring their A-game to slow them down. That said, Ron Rivera has indicated that the team may consider rotating Taylor Heinicke in at quarterback. Heinicke is a better athlete than Smith at this point in his career, so he could help keep the Bucs defense off-balance. A two-quarterback system could work in keeping the Bucs out of sync, but it would certainly carry with it some risk, especially if Heinicke can’t figure out Tampa’s defence.
In addition to boasting a strong pass rush, the Bucs have the league’s best run defence. They allowed 80.6 yards per game on the ground, good for the best mark in the NFL, and nearly 10 yards better than any other team. Gibson, dealing with a turf toe injury, may have trouble finding some lanes, so he and JD McKissic will have to play bigger roles for the team out of the backfield in this one. Washington could also opt to use more quick screens to get the ball into the hands of their playmakers in this one. McKissic, Gibson, Steven Sims and McLaurin are all candidates to do damage in that aspect of the game. Stretching the Bucs out wide like this could work well, especially with speedy Bucs linebacker Devin White liklely out for this game after a positive COVID test.
The final element of this game will be the performance of the Washington receiving corps against the Bucs secondary, which has proven to be the weakest link of the team’s defence down the stretch. McLaurin may not be 100%, but the team will need him to stretch the field against Tampa Bay’s young cornerback room. Carlton Davis will likely match up against McLaurin if he returns from a groin injury for this game. If not, he may face Jamel Dean. Either way, McLaurin needs to beat either Auburn product for a big gain at some point. If he can, that will open up more opportunities for Cam Sims and Logan Thomas to make plays and find openings. McLaurin, Thomas and McKissic represent Washington’s biggest chances of making plays in this game, so they will be of the utmost importance, no matter who is at quarterback.
Writer’s Pick – Shaun Blundell (@Shaun_F10Y)
Are the stars aligning for another Tom Brady post-season story? The Bucs are red hot right now and they will have been salivating at the seeming inevitability of drawing the NFC East division winner in the Wild Card round over the past several weeks. Don’t be fooled, however; this game isn’t likely to be the cake walk that just looking at the bare records would suggest. Washington have played tough to end the regular season, going 5-2 since opening up 2-7. The Bucs certainly are rightful favourites and will be looking to lay down a marker ahead of a likely trip to Green Bay or New Orleans next weekend. If Washington does win this, it will almost certainly have to be on defence.
It’s an intriguing contest and despite the ridicule of the NFC East all season, it is certainly worthy of a meaningful January date. I’ll take the Bucs to win it, but Washington will play tough and, regardless of the result, the future is seemingly bright in DC.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27 – 17 Washington Football Team
Featured image credit: Jae C. Hong – The Assocated Press