The Torch’s NFL Playoffs Wild Card Weekend Predictions: Expect the favorites all to move on

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Tom Brady will be playing in his record-setting 42nd playoff game on Saturday, but it will be his first not as a New England Patriot and his first on a wild card team.

The NFL regular season has quickly come and gone, and the annual winter football tournament known as the NFL Playoffs is finally upon us, this year with an extra team in each conference. With seven teams making the playoffs in each conference, the week off in the wild card round that comes with being the #1 seed in the AFC and the NFC becomes even more precious. This year, the wild card round byes belong to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC and the Green Bay Packers in the NFC. Another added bonus of having 14 total playoff teams instead of 12 is that the fans are treated to a “Super Wild Card Weekend” with six win-or-go-home games on national television instead of the usual four. With the first three of these games being played today and the other three on Sunday, The Torch takes a closer look at what each wild-card matchup has to offer, which teams are contenders, and which teams are pretenders.

AFC

#7 Indianapolis Colts vs. #2 Buffalo Bills:  The Indianapolis Colts should be thanking the Buffalo Bills for beating the Miami Dolphins (*sigh*) and clearing their path to the postseason. Ironically, The Torch predicts the Bills will be sending the Colts right back home. However, the Colts are a good football team with one of the league’s best young defenses, specifically the eighth-best in terms of yards allowed per game. Unfortunately for them, the Buffalo Bills placed second in every offensive metric not rushing-related, and they are coming into this game on a six-game winning streak. The chemistry between QB Josh Allen and WR Stefon Diggs is undeniable and the two have been one of the hardest duos to stop all season long, with Diggs leading the NFL in receptions and receiving yards. Not to mention the Colts defense will be shorthanded both on the defensive line and in the secondary with NFL All-Pro DT DeForest Buckner and starting CB Rock Ya-Sin both ruled out for Saturday’s game. This game is going to be too steep a hill for the Colts to climb, but their future is bright.

#6 Cleveland Browns vs. #3 Pittsburgh Steelers:  The drought is over! After 18 long years, the Cleveland Browns are finally back in the postseason, ending what was the longest-running drought in the league. But alas, Browns fans will have to wait a little bit longer to see their team win a playoff game. This is mainly because of the Browns’ COVID-19 outbreak, leaving leading tackler BJ Goodson, Pro Bowl LG Joel Bitonio, and even head coach Kevin Stefanski inactive for the game. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer will serve as acting head coach with offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt calling the plays. The team has been holding virtual practices all week, and being this young and shorthanded, it would be a great surprise if Cleveland manages to go into Pittsburgh and beat playoff veteran and former Super Bowl champion QB Ben Roethlisberger. Browns fans have no reason to hang their heads though, as they, too, have a bright future, and ending their playoff drought was a great first step.

#5 Baltimore Ravens vs. #4 Tennessee Titans:  A rematch of last year’s divisional round showdown, the Ravens and Titans are back at it again, this time in the wild-card round. Last year, breakout superstar RB Derrick Henry not only stiff-armed Earl Thomas III halfway across the globe, but he also bulldozed the Titans all the way to the conference championship where they would ultimately end up losing to the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. This year though, circumstances are much different, and after the Titans won their regular season matchup, the Ravens are now surely going into Tennessee thinking, “Third time’s the charm!” And it just might be. The Ravens are coming into this matchup peaking at the right time. They won their last five regular season games, and Lamar Jackson is playing his best football since last year’s MVP campaign. In those last five wins, Jackson posted an average 110.6 QB rating compared to 86.2 in the first 11 games. The rushing attack also looks much improved with over 230 rushing yards in four of the Ravens’ last five games, and in the one game they had less, Jackson threw for 250 yards. Needless to say, the Ravens have momentum, confidence, and all the motivation in the world to beat the Tennessee Titans early Sunday afternoon.

NFC

#7 Chicago Bears vs. #2 New Orleans Saints:  The Saints ended the season on an 11-2 run, and once again, they look like the best team in the NFC. However, picking the Saints to win in the playoffs can prove to be a daunting task given their playoff resume over the last three years. But, the Bears might be the worst team in this year’s playoffs, finishing 8-8 in a season plagued by inconsistency on both sides of the ball and among the coaching staff. Also, much like the Saints, the Bears’ playoff dreams in 2018 were ended in the wild card round by the Philadelphia Eagles after a heartbreaking game-losing play in the final seconds of the game. This year though, the Saints are fourth in total defense compared to the Bears’ running game being ranked 11th. The Saints seem to improve every year, and they continue to have an elite offense led by future Hall of Fame QB Drew Brees. Much like the other 7-seed team, the Colts, the Bears face a steep uphill battle, one that they won’t be able to overcome.

#6 Los Angeles Rams vs. #3 Seattle Seahawks:  Rams head coach Sean McVay says he won’t name a starting quarterback until game time at 4:40 ET on Saturday, January 10. That’s not a good sign heading into a playoff game. Especially one on the road against Russell Wilson, who was a serious MVP candidate in the first half of the season. Even though the Rams have the best defense in the NFL in terms of yards allowed per game, the offensive question marks are a serious cause for concern. The starting quarterback options for the Rams this weekend are starter Jared Goff or his back-up John Wolford, Goff was, limited in practice all week with a thumb injury on his throwing hand. If he plays, he likely won’t be 100 percent. The last time Jared Goff played in Seattle he was healthy, but the Rams didn’t score a single touchdown. While it’s unlikely that happens again, It is worth noting. The alternative to a banged-up is Wolford, who got his first NFL start in Week 17 against the Cardinals. While he threw for 231 yards in the game, he also had one interception, and once again, the Rams did not score any offensive touchdowns. A backup QB in the playoffs rarely ends well, especially against experienced playoff veterans like Russell Wilson and the Seahawks.

#5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. #4 Washington Football Team:  Fun Fact: This is the first time in his 21 seasons of playing in the NFL in which Tom Brady will be entering the postseason on a wild card team. While a victory for the Bucs is likely, don’t expect the game to be a cakewalk for Brady and the Bucs. Tampa Bay is ranked seventh in total offense and sixth in total defense. Washington ranks second in total defense, all because of that defensive line featuring Defensive Rookie of the Year favorite Chase Young, DaRon Payne, Montez Sweat, and Jonathan Allen. Even though the Football Team went 7-9, this defensive line can never be counted out, and if they can beat a tough Buccaneers offensive line and put pressure on Tom Brady, this game may just be a lot closer than people are expecting.

The Chiefs and Packers will be faced with the lowest remaining seed next weekend in the divisional rounds, and when all is said and done, The Torch believes it will be the two #1 seeds clashing in a rematch of the very first Super Bowl back in 1967. Back then, the Packers, led by Hall of Fame head coach Vince Lombardi, got the better of Kansas City by a score of 35-10. This time around, The Torch has the Chiefs winning a close one and repeating as Super Bowl champions. If that happens, it’ll be the first time a team repeats as Super Bowl champions since the Tom Brady-led New England Patriots went back-to-back in 2003 and 2004.

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