Super Wild Card Sunday

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 Sunday evening. If you want to skip to a game, then hit the relevant link. Or if you are searching for the Saturday games, click here.

BAL/TENCHI/NO CLE/PIT


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Baltimore Ravens @ Tennessee Titans

SkySports/Gamepass – 6.05pm GMT – Sunday

The first game on Sunday of the Super Wild Card Weekend sees a rematch of last year’s AFC Divisional play-off match-up. The Baltimore Ravens are back in the post-season, this time travelling to Tennessee to play the same Titans team that swept them aside last year. This is such a tasty match-up for several reasons: the contrasting run games, the takeover-efficient defences, the lacklustre passing offences. There are many angles to this game, not least the fact this will be their third meeting in the last 12 months. The Titans have taken the last two, but can Jim Harbaugh finally get the W against a team that have plagued Baltimore in recent times?

There is nowhere else to start other than the place where this game will be dominated: the run game. Tennessee posses the man-machine himself, Derrick Henry. In last year’s Divisional Round, he ran for 195 yards, averaging 6.5 YPC. However, as everyone knows, it wasn’t just last off-season where Henry dominated. The 2020 rushing leader ran for over 2,000 yards in the regular season, becoming only the 8th RB in league history to surpass 2,000 yards in the regular season. Baltimore tried to beef up their rush defence in the off-season, adding Calais Campbell, Justin Ellis and Jihad Ward but it just doesn’t seem to have worked. Their run defence is allowing 4.6 YPC (26th in the NFL) and 108.8 YPG (a more respectable 8th), and when they met in the regular season in November, Henry rushed for another 133 yards. If Baltimore cannot find an answer for the Titans poster-boy, this game could get out of hand.

John Glennon – The Athletic

However, Baltimore’s run game should not be sniffed at either. They are just as good at moving the rock on the ground, they just do it a different way. They had the best run offence in the league with 5.5 YPC (1st in NFL) and 191.9 YPG (also 1st) averages. The Ravens employ a run-by-committee approach, using their ‘three-headed monster’ attack to great effectiveness. JK Dobbins has 805 yards, 6.0 YPC and 9 TDs, Gus Edwards has 723 yards, 5.0 YPC and 6 TDs, then of course there’s the modern-day Michael Vick himself, Lamar Jackson, with 1,005 yards, 6.3 YPC and 7 TDs on the ground. Interestingly, in their Week 11 OT loss to Tennessee, Jackson was relatively quiet, with only 51 yards from 13 carries. Something to raise the eyebrows though. Tennessee’s defence really hasn’t played the run all that well in their other games outside of the Ravens meeting, averaging 4.5 YPC (18th in NFL) and 120.8 YPG (19th). If Baltimore can scheme their run into the game, then they might be able to have some success.

Come to mention it, the Titans’ defence isn’t all that great in the air either. They allowed an average of 277.4 passing YPG (29th) and a QB passer rating of 97.5 (24th). It’s really difficult to get your secondary playing well when the front line aren’t provider any pressure too. What Tennessee really lacks is a dominant pass-rush and it showed this year, with only 19 sacks (30th in NFL) and 70 QB hits (29th). Lamar Jackson will have a tonne of time in the pocket to find his receivers. However, Baltimore are dead bottom of average passing YPG with a measly 171.2. They had no receivers get over 800 yards and only Marquise Brown and TE Mark Andrews eclipsed 500 yards on the season.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens
Evan Habeeb – USA TODAY Sports

You only have to look at the last-ditch bomb to AJ Brown to set up the game-winning field-goal last week to see what the Tennessee passing offence is capable of. Tannehill has had another fantastic year in Nashville, with 33 TDs and only 7 INTs, and a rating of 106.5 (5th in NFL). And it isn’t just the QB that Baltimore is going to have to worry about. The hero of last week’s game has been the hero in plenty of other games too. AJ Brown has 70 receptions, 1,075 yards (14th in NFL among WRs) and 11 TDs (T-5th). Fourth-year receiver Corey Davis was only 16 total yards shy of a 1,000-yard season too, with 5 TDs of his own. Baltimore’s pass defence has been very good all year though, allowing a passer rating of 87.2 (7th in NFL), 217 YPG (7th) and 10.0 yards per completion (2nd). They won’t be lying down easily.

Baltimore is a lot better up front than Tennessee. With 39 sacks on the season and 116 QB hits (T-2nd in NFL), they bring a lot of pressure and they bring it fast. That pressure comes from a lot of blitzing. The Ravens are the most blitz-heavy team in football, opting to send several rushers at the QB on 44% of defensive snaps in 2020. That could create some pressure for Tannehill and if they can get to him, they could have some joy with forcing turnovers. Interestingly Tannehill, although sacked 24 times, only gave up a single fumble on the season.

Ryan Tannehill, the Titans' unlikely savior, is one upset away from  starting the Super Bowl - The Washington Post
Julio Cortez – AP

With the potential to be the game of the weekend, Baltimore will be out for revenge. They’ve surely had enough of Tennessee and Derrick Henry. Meanwhile Tannehill and the Titans will be looking to continue their resurgence and go one step further than they were able to last year.

An incredible stat to finish with: when Baltimore and Tennessee play on Sunday, it’ll mark the first time the top two rushing teams meet in the play-offs in 31 years since the 49ers and Bengals played out Super Bowl XXIII.


Writer’s Pick – Steve Tough (@SteTough)

I think this could be the game of the weekend. Tennessee has the passing offence, Baltimore has the passing defence. The Ravens have the supreme pass-rush but the Titans don’t cough the ball up at all. Tennessee doesn’t have the greatest pass defence, yet the Ravens barely throw the ball, and both teams rule the NFL when it comes to the ground game, yet neither have the best run defence. I can’t wait, it’s going to be a belter!

Baltimore Ravens 31 – 33 Tennessee Titans

Chicago Bears @ New Orleans Saints

SkySports/Gamepass – 9:40pm GMT – Sunday

The topic du jour this week has been a 7-9 team winning a division while a 4-11-1 team decided to tank. Nobody is really giving a second thought to another team that also reached the play-offs, a team that took a Week 17 beating bringing their losses to eight for the season.

Despite ditching a Super Bowl winning quarterback after he provided as much spark as an ice cube, and despite suffering a six-game losing streak after a 5-1 start, we will all witness the Chicago Bears in the play-offs for only the second time in a decade.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is ct-spt-bears-chicago-hope-mitch-trubisky-20171214-1500x1000.jpg
numberfire.com

Facing the Bears is arguably the single team that should have had one, if not two, additional Vince Lombardi trophies from the past three seasons to add to the one they picked up in 2009. The Saints have now won 49 regular season games since 2017, alongside a pedestrian 2-3 play-off record. New Orleans took 21 seasons from their inception to even reach the play-offs, and an additional 14 to win a post-season contest.

Both teams have failed to keep the same quarterback under centre for the season. Chicago started 2020 with Mitch Trubisky for two weeks, then ditched him for Nick Foles who started 3-1 but faded, ending his season 3-5. With Trubisky reinstalled, the Bears managed a three-game win streak but suffered three more losses too.

The Saints lost Drew Brees for a month following a Week 10 game against the current NFC champions the 49ers, and do-it-all muscle-man Taysom Hill managed a respectable 3-1 record during his deputisation. In addition, the NFL single-season record holder for receptions, Michael Thomas, has only managed seven games.

The good news here is that Thomas should be back on Sunday for this Wild Card game, along with Alvin ‘six-pack’ Kamara, the multi-faceted RB who was forced to sit out Week 17 with COVID-19. Even without Kamara, the Saints managed a 100-yard rushing game from a converted WR Ty Montgomery to end the regular season.

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AP

So what are some of the key match-ups?

  • Bears pass rusher supreme Khalil Mack will line up on both Saints tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk, putting the NFC’s best edge against the NFC’s best tackle duo.
  • Saints LB Demario Davis faces the league’s best second-half back, second year stud David Montgomery. After a slow start, Montgomery has shouldered a great amount of responsibility and without his stellar Winer performances, there would be no Windy City play-off hopes whatsoever.
  • Bears WR Allen Robinson remains one of the most underrated performers, with 102 catches for a Chicago team that is not known for any kind of passing quality. The battle between CB Marshon Lattimore and Robinson will be one to watch closely.

There will be no doubt the Saints will want to come off the blocks fast, as the Bears are simply not a team that can come back from a 14- to 17-point deficit without some defensive miracles. We know Drew Brees is nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career, but this is not time for sentiment. The Saints need four consecutive wins to lift their second Super Bowl, and as it stands, the situation is exactly the same for the Chicago Bears. The Saints’ bogey team has been the Minnesota Vikings, who are watching this season’s play-offs at home, so it really is a now-or-never situation for New Orleans.

For the Bears there is little pressure, so they will go in to this contest feeling much looser than the Saints. A rare play-off win would keep Matt Nagy his job.


Writer’s Pick – Lawrence Vos (@F10YRetro)

The Bears have some very strong individual parts but collectively, they are, as it states in their record, an average team, and one that has zero play-off pedigree of recent note. If the Saints are going to make it all the way to Tampa in February, they are going to do it the hard way, starting with a Wild Card game that they could have avoided if Michael Thomas had played all 16 games. The Saints need to make light work of Chicago, rattling Mitch Trubisky for four quarters. They are capable of bigger and better things, but they need to get this step taken before their focus goes anywhere else.

Chicago Bears 20 – 39 New Orleans

Cleveland Browns @ Pittsburgh Steelers

SkySports/Gamepass – 1:15am GMT – Monday

The Cleveland Browns will return to Heinz Field for the second time this year as they attempt to mark their first post-season appearance in 18 years with their second win over the Pittsburgh Steelers this week.

The Browns confirmed their position in the play-offs in Week 17 with a victory over their vicious rivals, who rested Big Ben, TJ Watt and a bunch of their other starters in preparation for the post-season run.

Despite the missing pieces, the stat lines for both teams looked similar to what we have come to expect from them over the course of the regular season. Nick Chubb controlled proceedings for the Browns with 108 rush yards and a touchdown as he continues to improve as a pure runner.

Joshua Gunter – cleveland.com

Baker Mayfield himself had a sturdy, solid day with 196 yards and a passing touchdown against the Steelers’ weakened defence but he will be more harmed by the news on Monday that Head Coach and offensive guru Kevin Stefanski will miss the tie with a positive COVID-19 test.

Tired of that sort of story, Browns fans?

In reality, the miss is unlikely to alter the Browns’ game plan, with the football expected to get used to seeing the belly of Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Cleveland continue to grow in time of possession and ball control, increasing by seven minutes between the Week 6 match-up and last week.

Defensively, the Browns rank near the middle in most categories. It’s been a tale of ‘not bad, not great’ over the course of the year for a unit headed by Myles Garett and following a growing game-plan of how to limit the Steelers offence.

The combination of James Conner and Benny Snell were held to just 47 yards on the ground by the Browns defence, a stat line that has become scarily regular for Steelers fans and has become bulletin board material for any team that has to face them.

In terms of injury news for the Browns, only Donovan Peoples-Jones missed practice on Wednesday, with Jack Conklin and JC Tretter as the noticeable “limited” participants.

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As for the Steelers, they will have all their major moving parts back in full action for the first time in over two weeks, having last played a full squad in the impressive come-back win against the play-off chasing Indianapolis Colts in Week 16.

The pre-mentioned concerns in the running game will be once again on the minds of those involved in the Pittsburgh offence. They might struggle to get a ground game into high gear for the first time since their crushing win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, where Conner managed 89 rushing yards.

As a result, the passing game will have to continue its own personal renaissance, with receiver Diontae Johnson emerging over the course of the 2020 season to threaten the status currently held by Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Early season question marks over the health and fitness of an aging Big Ben have been answered as the season progressed. Number 7 has proved once more that he is able to shoulder the weight of the entire offence time after time.

Brandon Wade – AP

Defensively, what was once the best unit in the league, both on paper and on the field, have been hurt badly by the injuries to Devin Bush at inside linebacker and Bud Dupree at the opposite pass rushing slot to potential league DPOY TJ Watt. They still stand near the top three of total yards allowed and all the major categories, but some concern remains for a unit that looks very different to the first eight weeks of the year.

The game plan or the Steelers will have to focus on stopping the rushing game, which they will hope to do by controlling the line of scrimmage through Cameron Hayward and Stephon Tuitt, who have both had impressive years.

Injury-wise for the Steelers, a “limited” delegation for Chris Boswell is the major news, with Pittsburgh looking to have the benefit of their trusty kicker back in time for the game.


Writer’s Pick – Alex Lewis (@alexlewis226)

Overall, this is a tough game to pick, not least because they have played so recently and left it so close even with Steelers being rested. Big Ben’s performance has been wildly impressive at times with a focus on rescuing the team from a struggling running game, but I expect that luck to run out in the first round of the play-offs.

The defeat will likely cause some debate given that the team would usually have had a bye but that’s for them to complain about after the fact. Even with the COVID issues, I think the Browns have enough in their offence to keep Big Ben off the field and grind out a monumental, memorable victory.

Cleveland Browns 20 – 17 Pittsburgh Steelers

Featured image credit: Nick Cammett – Diamond Images via Getty Images

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