Congratulations, Chiefs Kingdom. It wasn’t just your team that earned a bye week; you got one as well — allowing you to sit back and simply enjoy the six games that make up the NFL’s Wild Card weekend.
Every AFC matchup could potentially send its winner to Kansas City for the Divisional round. However, both the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals are overwhelming favorites in their games — pointing to the Chiefs’ most likely future opponent being the winner between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Los Angeles Chargers.
That prepares you for the expected, but the postseason is full of surprising results. It all starts with the Wild Card games; I have five things to pay attention to as you enjoy the first weekend of the NFL Playoffs:
1. The Chargers’ pass rush
With starting edge rushers Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack healthy, the Chargers have the most dangerous duo of edge rushers in the AFC playoffs.
It’s the greatest reason why the Chiefs’ ideal path includes avoiding a matchup with Los Angeles in the Divisional round. It’s also a huge factor in their game down in Jacksonville, where they have the chance to rattle second-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence in his first-ever playoff game.
According to ESPN’s Team pass block win rate metric, the Jaguars have the league’s 31st-ranked pass protection. Yet, left tackle Walker Little and right tackle Jawaan Taylor have done enough to help out in wins over vaunted pass-rushing teams like the Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets.
One of the most significant factors in Saturday night’s game is how impactful Bosa and Mack can be.
2. Which prodigal quarterback wins their playoff debut
Speaking of Lawrence’s postseason debut, he’ll be sharing that experience with the third-year quarterback across the sideline: Los Angeles Chargers’ quarterback Justin Herbert.
Each signal caller has shown flashes of what made them such highly-sought after prospects in the draft — but that doesn’t mean anything until this moment. Lawrence is used to big-time games, like playing in two national championships and winning one while at Clemson. Herbert won a Rose Bowl at Oregon, earning the game’s MVP.
That would give Lawrence the edge in big-game experience — but Herbert may have the better supporting cast around him for this specific matchup. Either way, one young quarterback will begin their playoff legacy on the right foot by the game’s conclusion.
Their likely reward? A trip to Kansas City for the following weekend.
3. How much the Ravens’ defense can do
With the confirmed report that Ravens’ starting quarterback Lamar Jackson will miss this game, the Baltimore defense (and special teams) has a lot of weight on its shoulders.
They’ve gotten used to carrying a Jackson-less team since the electric quarterback hasn’t played since Week 13. They didn’t allow over 16 points in any of the four games following Jackson’s injury, which helped bring their season ranking in points allowed to third.
However, the fifth game was Week 18 — where their Wild Card opponent beat them 27-16 without much of a contest. It’ll be up to defenders like edge rusher Justin Houston, who leads the team with 9.5 sacks this season, to flip the script this time and hold down Cincinnati’s offense more, although one of their touchdowns came from their defense.
In the back end, Ravens’ cornerback Marlon Humphrey will be the most essential part of slowing down the Bengals’ elite receivers.
4. The Bills’ pass offense
Even with the Bills finishing on a seven-game win streak, Buffalo — similar to Kansas City — had some victories that were too close for comfort. It felt like their pass game struggled to get into as good a rhythm as we’ve seen them get into in the past — like last year’s two-game run in the postseason.
Well, Buffalo didn’t exactly enter last year’s playoffs with the pass game on fire either — and the unit was able to turn it up when it was needed. That will be the thing to watch here: does Buffalo jump out and demolish their Wild Card opponent as they did to the New England Patriots last season?
Or will they let Miami hang around by not scoring at a high enough volume? While they did so the last time these two met, the first matchup was a 21-19 dog fight that Miami pulled out; the Dolphins sacked Allen four times and forced a turnover to help earn the upset.
5. Can any of these NFC teams beat the Eagles?
While the AFC side is what all Chiefs fans should pay attention to in the immediate future, we love the entire football landscape — and the NFC playoffs have plenty of storylines.
In my opinion, no team in that conference can handle a fully-healthy Philadelphia Eagles team — who earned the one seed this postseason and are awaiting an opponent just like the Chiefs. If the Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers can take care of business, it would put the winner of Monday night’s contest between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Dallas Cowboys in Philly for Divisional-round weekend.
While Dallas has stumbled into the postseason, I believe their best game can push the Eagles to the limit — while I can’t honestly say that about the Bucs. However, Tom Brady is hard to bet against. He didn’t finish the game in Week 18 — but in Week 17, he racked up 432 yards and three touchdowns with no turnovers — most likely his best game of the season.
Brady could spoil one of the NFC’s best chances at taking out the Eagles.