The NFL playoff bracket is set, with both the NFC and AFC schedules decided within minutes of the final game. NFL fans can put away their flowcharts and rooting guides. Now, every team is once again in control of their destiny in the most volatile playoff format in professional sports.
We’ve put together a quick snapshot of every game this weekend.
NFL Wild Card Round Previews
NFC Playoff Preview
Philadelphia Eagles (1) BYE
For much of the season, the Eagles were the top team in the NFL and carried an undefeated record until a loss to the divisional rival Washington Commanders in Week 10. They were unimpressive the week after that against a Colts team that had just fired their head coach and finished the season with two losses in the final three games.
Nevertheless, they seem like the team to beat in the NFC and have quality on both sides of the ball. Philly can throw the ball, run the ball, and stop the pass. And, as time passes, they’ve gotten better at stopping the run.
Getting C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Robert Quinn back will help them address some of the issues that have plagued them in the second half of the season. If they can keep Jordan Davis active in the rotation, they might be able to attack or defend against anybody in the league.
San Francisco 49ers (2) vs. Seattle Seahawks (7)
Detroit Lions fans were cheering for the Los Angeles Rams in the early game of the slate. The Seattle Seahawks decided they wouldn’t let the Rams win and then had the audacity to ask the Lions to give them the favor they wouldn’t provide in return. In true Dan Campbell fashion, they obliged.
Only the Lions could make a win worth nothing feel like it meant everything — and for the Seahawks, it actually did. They may have also done a favor to the Packers, allowing them to avoid their ritual loss to the 49ers in the playoffs. Now, it’s another divisional rivalry matchup in the postseason, one of several in this year’s Wild Card round.
Both teams will be entering the game without a quarterback anyone expected to see in the postseason, but both have wildly exceeded expectations. Brock Purdy, a rookie selected dead last in the draft, has made quick decisions and peppered the ball to a cadre of playmakers who know what to do with it, making the most of Kyle Shanahan’s system.
MORE: NFL Schedule Wild Card Round
Geno Smith, who played like that in college, is instead making the plays himself. His ability to throw deep and intermediate has made the most of Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf. He’s really come into his own.
The difference in this game will be the defense. Seattle has had a lot of success with their young defenders, with Jordyn Brooks, Tariq Woolen, and Coby Bryant all playing far better than many expected. Having Quandre Diggs back there has been huge as well. But it’s not been consistent, and the Seattle defense sometimes finds itself picked apart.
The 49ers’ defense is a different story. Instead of having some good players who have surprised, they have elite players at every level of the defense, with Talanoa Hufanga, Fred Warner, and Nick Bosa anchoring units already stocked with talent — they have the best defense in the NFL. The 49ers have taken apart every type of offense in the NFL — including the Seahawks, who have scored 20 points total in their two matchups.
Minnesota Vikings (3) vs. New York Giants (6)
The Vikings and the Giants have already played each other once this season, and it was pretty recent — Week 16, in fact. It turned out to be a close Vikings win at home. This time around, the Vikings will hope for a little bit more cushion in the game. But that’s asking a lot for a team that’s played in 11 one-score games. They’ve won all of them, which is how they got to the third seed, but it’ll be tough to rely on them to always pull it out when needed.
The Giants were able to generate pressure in that game, resulting in a fairly uneven passing-game performance. However, they couldn’t keep it up as the Vikings’ offensive talent won out against the Giants’ injured defense. The Vikings will continue to have issues protecting Cousins in this game, as they’re out both their starting center and right tackle. With Kayvon Thibodeaux on a tear, that will be a big problem. And with how polarizing he’s become, the Vikings will be made aware of it as soon as possible.
"I don't know who [Jeff Saturday] is. Anybody who comments on it, unless I know who they are, it doesn't really affect me."
Kayvon Thibodeaux on his snow angel celebration after sacking Nick Foles: pic.twitter.com/OQZAayKKoY
— Giants Videos (@SNYGiants) January 4, 2023
They will likely repeat their screen-dependent performance against New York as a result. We should see high reception totals with low yardages for T.J. Hockenson, Justin Jefferson, and anyone else capable of catching screens. The Vikings will still find some deep shots thanks to several potential injuries on the Giants’ defensive line and secondary, so it’s possible Jefferson lights it up deep.
On the other side of the ball, the Giants are healthy but lack receiving talent. Going up against the Vikings’ defense — one that has given up the most adjusted points per play in the NFL — might help, however. That’s how Richie James, Isaiah Hodgins, and Darius Slayton all recorded more than receiving 75 yards.
Daniel Jones has been playing well enough, especially as a runner and scrambler, and those situations tend to be deadly for the Vikings. If they can get the most out of Danielle Hunter (also on a late-season tear) and Za’Darius Smith, they may not have to worry about it, but this looks like a tough matchup.
The game will likely revolve around each team’s respective pass rushes and offensive lines, which would be bad news for the Vikings. Still, they’ve demonstrated higher quality play overall this year than New York and beat them head-to-head — even if it took a record-long field goal to do it.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4) vs. Dallas Cowboys (5)
Perhaps the two most disappointing playoff teams this season, the Dallas Cowboys and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers both entered the season with high expectations and failed to meet them. The Cowboys had an excuse — Dak Prescott’s injury — but even when the excuse ran out, the Cowboys underperformed. The Prescott interception problem turned from a meme about receiver-caused picks to a reality that will need to be solved.
The Buccaneers have backed into the playoffs with a losing record and the comfort of knowing that everyone else in the division was worse — by one win. Both teams have a good defense, but they have both underperformed in key moments.
Tampa Bay was quietly excellent early in the season, perhaps people were fooled by the 41-point clunker they gave up to Kansas City. But both defenses have questions to answer about their performance down the stretch.
Still, Dallas has given up 27.2 points per game in the last five games and only allowed 17.2 points per game in the previous 12. Similarly, the Buccaneers have turned an 18.3 points-per-game defense to a 27.8 points-per-game defense in the last five games.
Both have good excuses. The Buccaneers were playing backups when giving 30 points up to Atlanta, and the Dallas defense has suffered from bad field position and bad turnover luck from their offense. Nonetheless, both teams certainly look weaker on defense than they started the season with.
If either team’s quarterbacks play up to their reputations, they’ll almost certainly win the game with the support of their respective defenses. But it’s a tough ask for two shockingly similar squads.
AFC Playoff Preview
Kansas City Chiefs (1) BYE
After the Chiefs beat the Raiders on Saturday, they ensured the No. 1 seed and the only bye in the AFC playoffs. With the most explosive and consistent offense in the NFL, all they would need is an average defense to be terrifying to any team hoping to take the Super Bowl spot away from them.
The defense is just about there. In the past few weeks, they’ve been able to see some growth in their pass rush as George Karlaftis has continued to develop — a nice complement to the young players in the secondary that’ve improved over the course of the season as well. If Frank Clark is healthy enough to play in the Divisional Round, the Chiefs’ defense should be able to make life difficult for any offense hoping to keep pace with Patrick Mahomes.
Buffalo Bills (2) vs. Miami Dolphins (7)
This game will hinge on the health of Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and whether or not he’s cleared to play. If so, this should be an exciting matchup that doesn’t do justice to the nominal seeds. Nothing demonstrates that better than splitting their series, with Tagovailoa playing in both games. The Dolphins and the Bills, when healthy, are some of the most explosive offenses in the NFL and have tools on defense to make the game dynamic.
Defensively, the two teams are a study in opposites. The Bills are one of the least-likely teams in the NFL to blitz and are comfortable mixing in different types of coverage, playing different coverage shells, and mixing up man and zone coverage from down to down. They don’t have a particular coverage tendency, in part because they trust their front four to get pressure.
MORE: Miami Dolphins’ Plan For Tua Tagovailoa and Teddy Bridgewater Ahead of Bills Playoff Game
On the other hand, the Dolphins are a blitz-heavy, man-coverage-heavy team. When not in man coverage, they play Cover 3, the most common zone blitz coverage and one that often resembles man coverage anyway.
The Bills’ approach has been more successful over the course of the season. The Bills are sixth in defensive EPA — third when adjusting for garbage time or low-frequency, high-impact events like turnovers — while the Dolphins’ defense is 26th.
Most importantly, the deep passing attack is how both offenses win, and the fact that the Dolphins invite more deep passes and are worse on deep passing attempts than the Bills might be the biggest swing on this matchup. Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle are difficult threats to deal with, but the Bills have fielded an excellent group of defensive backs all season despite injuries.
Cincinnati Bengals (3) vs. Baltimore Ravens (6)
Had the seedings been reversed, the NFL would have forced the game’s location to be determined by a coin flip. The Bengals didn’t love this, which is why Joe Mixon rang in Cincinnati’s first touchdown with a coin flip celebration.
They avoided this scenario by winning outright and securing the divisional crown, giving them not just home-field advantage but the comfort of having beaten their upcoming opponents. Entering the game 0-2 against the Ravens would not have been great for confidence.
That said, there’s a good chance that Week 18 won’t resemble the playoff game; Lamar Jackson could be back in the lineup, and that changes everything for the Ravens, who are 2-3 with their backup quarterbacks and 8-4 with Jackson. With Jackson playing the full game, they’ve averaged 25 points a game. Otherwise, they’ve averaged exactly half that (12.5 points per game).
That said, Jackson didn’t play well against Cincinnati in Week 5. Burrow didn’t play well in that game either and didn’t have the strongest showing in the Week 18 matchup. We should expect both teams to do a better job through the air in the playoffs. But the fact that the Bengals have done a better job with their pass protection and have improved their defense in the weeks following their first game might mean a lot.
The Ravens have the worst deep-ball passing defense in the league, a statistic that reflects the loss of Marcus Williams on the back end and the relatively slow development of first-round pick Kyle Hamilton. With Williams back, they’ll be better there than they have been all season. Still, it remains a concern against Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase, two of the best deep-ball receivers in the league.
The biggest worry will be that the Bengals’ defense has been helped more by low-frequency, high-impact events — turnovers, third-down performance, red-zone performance, and so on — than most defenses and may not be quite as good as their numbers. They’ll have to find a way to sustain their success if they want to move on.
Jacksonville Jaguars (4) vs. Los Angeles Chargers (5)
No two fan bases have been the butt of stadium attendance jokes more than the Chargers and the Jaguars have, and in some ways, this could be considered the Battle of Who Could Care Less.
In reality, the Jaguars have a passionate fan base that has made their presence known, while the Chargers definitely have some fans that sometimes attend games.
The Chargers bafflingly played their starters until the middle of the third quarter despite having been locked into the fifth seed before the contest ever began. The cost was potentially Mike Williams, who exited the game with a back injury. That’s going to hurt their chances, given the issues that Justin Herbert has had with a lackluster supporting cast all year — the biggest contributor to which has been injury.
For that to be relevant, the Jaguars must demonstrate enough defensive quality to slow down Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler. Underrated cornerback Tyson Campbell, only in his second year, will likely be a big part of that. The Jaguars’ defensive line has played well — ranking third in pressure rate — especially edge rusher Josh Allen. First overall pick Travon Walker seems to be having the quietest good season of any first-round edge rusher, but he’s been a good run defender and is building on his pass-rushing capability.
That said, the defense isn’t consistent and had trouble despite playing in the relatively weak AFC South. Against Herbert, they’ll also need help from the offense. This year, Trevor Lawrence has come into his own, and he’s helped enable Christian Kirk, Evan Engram, and Zay Jones all hit career highs in receptions and receiving yardage. Lawrence is a good quarterback, but the worry is that he’s up against a great one.
The Chargers’ defense isn’t spectacular and has similar consistency issues. However, getting Joey Bosa back will be huge in the playoffs, especially with Derwin James patrolling the back end. The continued development of Asante Samuel Jr. will help, but the otherwise poor play up front and injuries have made it difficult to take advantage of it.
The 4-5 matchup will pair two relatively unsupported quarterbacks and defenses characterized by stars more than reliability.