The NFC Wildcard week is undeniably entertaining
By Chinmay Kulkarni
That was a wild week 18 finish to close out the regular season. The bittersweet crossroads of not watching Scott Hanson on my TV screen and addictive playoff football have arrived. Let’s look at some of the NFC teams and make some predictions.
Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Since the beginning of the season, the recipe to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has been to effectively throw the ball deep to expose their ailing secondary. As the singular worst passing defenses in the league by opponent passes/game, they’ve devoted their efforts to stopping all semblance of a running attack in a very ground-heavy NFC south. The Bucs have a top-3 rushing defense and hold their opponents to the least percentage of running plays per game. Does this sound like a huge problem for the Eagles – YES! The Eagles are the premier running team in the league, using the ground game 51% of the time – the most in the entire league. If the Eagles even stand a semblance of a chance to keep pace with the Bucs’ second-best scoring offense, Jalen Hurts MUST throw the ball. This game will likely be won in the first half, in what should be expected as a game where Tampa scores with ease, and the Eagles struggle to gain momentum on the road.
San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys have been a weird team this year. I compare ‘America’s team’ to the stock market – when the Cowboys stock gets too high, the team struggles mightily – especially in matchups following big wins (i.e. against the Cards after thumping Washington). Everyone thought the Cowboys were Superbowl contenders after beating the WFT, and their recent 50-point performance against the Eagles is extremely reminiscent of a huge upcoming letdown spot. Meanwhile, the Niners have done nothing but exceed all sorts of expectations, being left for dead when they lost their entire backfield, then left for dead when Trey Lance played around the midseason, and then left for dead for a third time when Jimmy G broke his hand. To the dismay of Saints fans everywhere, San Francisco is in the playoffs, with a strong running game, and top-5 defense with respect to limiting total yards. The Cowboys on the other hand, have the most potent offense in the league, and a rested defense with Trevon Diggs and Micah Parsons coming off week 18 rest weeks. The Cowboys should be projected to win this game, but as one of the grittiest teams in the league, don’t be surprised if the Niners keep scoring close to the final whistle.
Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams
The greatest storylines of these division rivals stand on the Cardinals’ sidelines, with the return of J.J. Watt and DeAndre Hopkins (not confirmed but projected to play in the post-season). While key additions to spreading the ball around come for Kyler Murray’s clunky offense, the Cardinals have everything to play for with respect to post-season success with a young quarterback. Arizona prides themselves on their road warrior status, only losing a Week 15 matchup against Detroit in an opponent’s stadium. The Rams on the other side have been the ‘on paper’ darlings. If football were played on a spreadsheet, the Rams would win the Superbowl nine times out of ten. Unfortunately, this is not the case, as the best finesse-team in the league has head scratching losses while securing a top-10 offense and defense by simply throwing draft picks into the trash. Much of the Rams’ success will likely depend on play calling and interceptions thrown by Matt Stafford. Therefore, this game will truly show whether the Rams can grit out playoff wins and stop getting in their own way, for their Superbowl or bust season may end abruptly if they continue playing poorly. I still predict an upset victory from Arizona.
Green Bay Packers (Bye)
Despite the drama in Green Bay, the Packers continue to exert their iron fist on the rest of the NFC with the power of weather. The narrative of ‘going up to Lambeau for a playoff game’ has been beaten since the times of Favre. It’s truly difficult to see success from teams going up to Green Bay and even producing in the frozen tundra. Watching indoor teams like the Rams and the Cardinals seems wrong and borderline torturous for snowbird destination that plays and practices in nice weather. Supremely physical teams like the Niners and Buccaneers seem to stand a better chance in the cold, while the true wild card of Philadelphia are built for the cold if they beat the Bucs in the first round. The Packers maintain one of the best offenses in the league, having a top 10 passing offense and middle of the pack rushing attack. While the defense has been inconsistent, they still hold opponents to some of the least number of points in the league. Going into the playoffs on a loss to the divisional Lions isn’t ideal, but as a very talented team, they own everything for a deep playoffs push.