Bleacher Report’s Expert Wild Card Weekend NFL Picks
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Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
NFL fans without a team in the playoffs can still add a little sizzle to their Wild Card Weekend viewing experience. Don’t give up on the 2021 campaign; salvage the season with some shrewd wagers.
Last year, four wild-card favorites failed to cover the spread, so tread lightly in the first week of the postseason.
Fortunately, we have six NFL experts—Connor Rogers, Ian Kenyon, Wes O’Donnell, Gary Davenport, Brent Sobleski and Maurice Moton—who will guide you through the pitfalls and straight to the money (responsibly) with game predictions against the spread.
For each playoff game, you’ll get analysis, score predictions and a consensus projection courtesy of our six-man platoon.
Lines are from DraftKings as of Thursday, Jan. 13, at 6 p.m. ET. Information on public betting trends courtesy of the Action Network.
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Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
When: Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET
Where: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati
Referee: Jerome Boger
Line: Cincinnati -5
Fans in attendance: 65,515
Las Vegas Raiders injuries to watch: Darren Waller practiced with limitations this week. He’s on track to play in back-to-back games after missing five consecutive outings with a knee issue. The Raiders designated linebacker Nicholas Morrow (ankle) for return from injured reserve. Johnathan Hankins missed some practice time, which is notable because fellow defensive tackle Darius Philon is out for the rest of the season with a torn patellar tendon.
Cincinnati Bengals injuries to watch: On Wednesday, wide receiver Tee Higgins popped up on the injury report with a foot issue. Typically, new additions to the list in the middle of the week raise some concerns, but he did practice with limitations. The Bengals may lose some bulk on the defensive line with 6’3″, 345-pound tackle Josh Tupou battling a knee injury.
Key Raiders stat: Since Week 15, the Raiders offense has executed efficiently in critical situations, converting 26 of 56 third-down attempts (46 percent) and all five of its fourth-down tries.
Key Bengals stat: Early in the season, quarterback Joe Burrow struggled with turnovers, but since Week 14, he’s tossed 11 touchdown passes without throwing an interception.
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Erick W. Rasco/Getty Images
Moton: The Raiders can outright upset the Bengals because of their ability to win in the trenches. Over the past three weeks, Vegas has averaged 139.7 rushing yards per game with running back Josh Jacobs finding his stride after a sluggish start to the season. The Silver and Black finished the campaign tied for third in quarterback knockdowns (68), which spells trouble for Burrow, who’s taken the most sacks (51). Even if he has a few spectacular throws, the Raiders defense will keep the score close.
Raiders 24, Bengals 23
Davenport: Cincinnati handled the Raiders with ease in Week 11 thanks to 123 yards on the ground and two scores from running back Joe Mixon and a defensive effort in which the Bengals surrendered just 278 total yards and 13 first downs. The Raiders have played better since and have the pass-rushers in Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue to get some pressure on Burrow and keep this second meeting close. But in the end, Mixon’s legs, Burrow’s arm and a loaded Cincy wideout corps led by rookie phenom Ja’Marr Chase are just going to be too much for Vegas.
Bengals 31, Raiders 27
Sobleski: The Raiders are a fantastic story after everything the team endured this season, and their loss to the Bengals during the regular season doesn’t mean quite as much once the postseason begins. With that said, Burrow played at an MVP level down the stretch with a division title on the line. Yes, he’s the game’s most sacked quarterback, and Las Vegas has the horses to get after him. Still, the trio of Chase, Higgins and Tyler Boyd is a big play waiting to happen. The likelihood of the Raiders defense holding them down for an entire game is slim to none.
Bengals 30, Raiders 20
Consensus score prediction: Bengals 30, Raiders 24
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Omar Rawlings/Getty Images
When: Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET
Where: Highmark Stadium, Orchard Park, New York
Referee: Brad Allen
Line: Buffalo -4
Fans in attendance: 71,621
New England Patriots injuries to watch: Keep an eye on linebacker Jamie Collins Sr. and offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn. The former appeared on the injury report Wednesday and didn’t practice because of an ankle issue. The latter is dealing with hip and ankle injuries, which sidelined him Wednesday.
Buffalo Bills injuries to watch: The Bills allowed Cole Beasley to rest Wednesday. Fellow wideout Emmanuel Sanders has logged full practices, which is a positive development for him after missing the last two games with a knee injury.
Key Patriots stat: Since Week 16, the Patriots have averaged 154.7 rushing yards per game, and they’ve scored the second-most rushing touchdowns overall (24). In a low-scoring battle, the Patriots could once again bludgeon the Bills’ run defense en route to victory.
Key Bills stat: While the Patriots garner a ton of praise for their defense, the Bills have ceded the fewest yards per play this season (4.6). They’ve also allowed the fewest first downs. New England’s offensive success could come at a premium.
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Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Moton: New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can only do so much with a rookie quarterback who doesn’t have a big-play pass-catcher. Mac Jones averages 5.8 air yards per completion, which ranks 17th leaguewide. However, the Patriots and Bills will play in sub-zero wind chill with gusts up to 14 miles per hour, which likely limits Buffalo’s explosive third-ranked scoring attack. The Bills win with a game plan that features Josh Allen’s legs and the short passing game, but they beat the Patriots by a narrow margin.
Bills 20, Patriots 17
Rogers: It’s a fool’s game to pick against Bill Belichick, especially in the playoffs, but here we are. This is everything Buffalo has been building for, and Allen is ready. New England’s run game and tough defense will allow it to hang around, but this is too much for a rookie in Jones to keep up with on offense. Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll won’t hold anything back in this one, opening up the potential for a big rushing day from Allen. Buffalo wins and covers, but it will go down to the wire.
Bills 24, Patriots 17
Kenyon: I’m not betting against Belichick covering a four-point spread in the postseason. It’s been a rough month for the Patriots, but there’s no coach better prepared in the playoffs than Belichick. The Bills should win this game, but the Patriots have proved to be a tough out all year and should be able to keep this contest within a field goal.
Bills 24, Patriots 21
Consensus score prediction: Bills 24, Patriots 20
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Matt Rourke/Associated Press
When: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida
Referee: Craig Wrolstad
Line: Tampa Bay -9.5
Fans in attendance: 65,828
Philadelphia Eagles injuries to watch: The Eagles activated several players from the reserve/COVID-19 list, including tight end Dallas Goedert, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, cornerback Avonte Maddox, safety Rodney McLeod and linebacker Alex Singleton. After missing two games with a broken hand, Miles Sanders has practiced with limitations. Center Jason Kelce and tackle Lane Johnson (knee) rested Wednesday. Quarterback Jalen Hurts (ankle) went through full practices.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers injuries to watch: The ailing Buccaneers designated linebacker Lavonte David (foot) along with running backs Leonard Fournette (hamstring) and Giovani Bernard (MCL/hip) for return from injured reserve. The club also activated edge-rusher Shaquil Barrett from the reserve/COVID-19 list. Head coach Bruce Arians expects edge-rusher Jason Pierre-Paul (torn rotator cuff) to rejoin the team after a three-game absence. On the flip side, the Bucs skipper is doubtful about running back Ronald Jones II (ankle) and wide receiver Cyril Grayson Jr. (hamstring) playing Sunday.
Key Eagles stat: The Eagles have two clear offensive staples: the ground game and run-pass option. They field the No. 1-ranked rushing offense. Out of RPO play designs, Hurts leads the league in pass attempts (95) and ranks second in yards (819).
Key Buccaneers stat: The Buccaneers field the third-ranked run defense, so they can neutralize the Eagles’ strength on the ground. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will likely load the box and dare Hurts to beat his unit over the top.
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Icon Sportswire/Getty Images
O’Donnell: At home, the Bucs have lost once in their last 10 games (and that’s not including their Super Bowl win last February). Some might point to the Eagles’ run game, which finished as the league’s best in 2021, being able to keep Tom Brady’s offense off the field and the game close. Not me. I think we’ll see a thorough domination by the defending champions over an inferior opponent. The Eagles will probably score meaningless late points that make the scoreline look more competitive than the game really was, but the Bucs still cover.
Bucs 31, Eagles 17
Sobleski: This particular contest is less about the Eagles actually pulling off an upset and far more about their capabilities of keeping it close and covering the spread. Of course, the Buccaneers are the reigning Super Bowl champions and the more talented team. But Philadelphia found its identity this season as the league’s top rushing offense with Hurts leading the way. By running the ball somewhat effectively, the Eagles have a good chance to stay within striking distance, even if they don’t necessarily threaten Tampa Bay at any point during the contest.
Bucs 24, Eagles 17
Rogers: The Eagles come into the postseason as a polarizing opponent. There aren’t many marquee wins from their regular season, but they’ve established a top-flight rushing attack built for playoff success. On the other side, the Bucs have taken a lot of blows between injuries and the Antonio Brown saga. Brady has been through enough adversity where it’s not enough to pick against them, but 9.5 points? That’s way too much. Philadelphia won’t get run out of the building in this one.
Bucs 31, Eagles 27
Consensus score prediction: Bucs 28, Eagles 19
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Julio Cortez/Associated Press
When: Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET
Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Referee: Alex Kemp
Line: Dallas -3
Fans in attendance: 100,000
San Francisco 49ers injuries to watch: According to ESPN’s Ed Werder, Trent Williams intends to suit up Sunday after he missed the previous contest with an elbow injury. Elijah Mitchell continues to battle a knee issue, but head coach Kyle Shanahan foresees a limited practice plan for his lead running back. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who returned from a thumb injury last week, has practiced with limitations.
Dallas Cowboys injuries to watch: The Cowboys activated left tackle Tyron Smith and linebacker Micah Parsons from the reserve/COVID-19 list. With knee and ankle issues, the former logged a limited practice session Wednesday. Versatile safety Jayron Kearse was activated Thursday after a one-week stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Key 49ers stat: If any team can stop a high-powered offense, it’s the 49ers, who rank seventh in rushing and ninth in defensive scoring. With ball control and a stout defense, San Francisco can keep a hot-hand quarterback on the sideline and force three-and-outs with fresh defenders.
Key Cowboys stat: Bettors, take note, the Cowboys have a 13-4 record against the spread, covering 76.5 percent of the lines this season, per Team Rankings.
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Joe Scarnici/Getty Images
O’Donnell: The 49ers are probably the one team no division winner wants to see this year, hence only a home-team three-point spread for Jerry’s club. The 49ers will be a popular pick not just to cover, but win outright. I’m well on the other side of that, believing Dallas could be the team representing the NFC in the Super Bowl this year. It’ll be a hard-fought game, but I’ve got the Cowboys by double digits as Dak Prescott continues to roll and the defense gets in on the action, too.
Cowboys 27, 49ers 17
Rogers: It really doesn’t get better than this. Two historic, old-school franchises squaring off with two contradicting styles of play. Shanahan and offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel will be able to scheme up a strong ground game to control possession, but San Francisco’s secondary has its hands full against the Cowboys’ receiving threats. Expect haymakers followed by big counter punches in a tight Dallas win, but a 49ers cover.
Cowboys 21, 49ers 20
Kenyon: Dallas is favored by three, but I’m taking San Francisco to win outright. This is an old rivalry game and should be a close battle either way, but the 49ers have played their best football over the past month and come surging into the playoffs ready to upend the NFC East champs. The 49ers are 7-2 in their last nine games with two wins over the Rams and a road victory over the Bengals. This isn’t the same team that dropped five of six in the first half of the season. I’m having a hard time getting the stink out of my mouth from Dallas’ home loss to the Cardinals two weeks ago when the entire team looked flat.
49ers 24, Cowboys 20
Consensus score prediction: Cowboys 25, 49ers 22
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Terrance Williams/Associated Press
When: Sunday, 8:15 p.m. ET
Where: GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Missouri
Referee: Shawn Smith
Line: Kansas City -12.5
Fans in attendance: 72,936
Pittsburgh Steelers injuries to watch: Najee Harris didn’t practice Wednesday or Thursday, though head coach Mike Tomlin said the team will monitor the rookie running back’s practice participation and how he feels leading up to the game. Wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster, who’s recovering from shoulder surgery on injured reserve, returned to practice Thursday. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has pectoral and right shoulder issues, but he’s only missed one game while on the reserve/COVID-19 list this season.
Kansas City Chiefs injuries to watch: Early in the week, head coach Andy Reid shared positive news about Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s recovery from a shoulder injury, telling reporters the second-year running back is “making great progress.” Fellow tailback Darrel Williams, who’s limited with a toe issue, could still play a solid role out of the backfield. The Chiefs’ skipper believes wideout Tyreek Hill will be “OK to go” after he aggravated a heel injury during pregame warm-ups last week.
Key Steelers stat: Though the Steelers rank 20th and 24th in points and yards allowed, respectively, they tighten up in key moments. Pittsburgh’s defense ranks seventh in third-down conversion percentage (37.1) and fifth in (touchdown) red-zone percentage (50.8). The unit bends but rarely breaks when it needs a critical stop.
Key Chiefs stat: In the first half of the season, skeptics wondered if defenses finally “figured out” Patrick Mahomes, forcing him to drive the length of the field against two-high safety looks. Over the past three weeks, he’s thrown for seven touchdowns and zero interceptions. Furthermore, the Chiefs offense has topped 30 points in four of the last five weeks.
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Icon Sportswire/Getty Images
O’Donnell: The Steelers were a fun end-of-the-year story as they snuck into the postseason against overwhelming odds. Nevertheless, they’ll lose again in Kansas City, just as they did only a few weeks ago, to a Chiefs team that is simply better and very much a threat to make it to a third straight Super Bowl. The Steelers will put up a better fight than they did in that game but won’t cover the spread.
Chiefs 38, Steelers 24
Davenport: The Steelers have a chance at an upset here—if Kansas City’s bus breaks down and the Chiefs are unable to make it to the game. But the moment Mahomes and Co. come out of the tunnel at Arrowhead Stadium, this one is ov-ah. We saw this movie not that long ago. In Week 16, the Chiefs blasted the Steelers 36-10, and that game wasn’t as close as the final score. The Steelers are just overmatched on both sides of the ball here, and when you throw in the raucous atmosphere of a playoff game at Arrowhead, the stage is set for another blowout.
Chiefs 34, Steelers 13
Sobleski: The Steelers aren’t a playoff-caliber team. They backed into the postseason with some of the most fortunate breaks anyone has ever seen during the final day of the regular season. While this game should be closer than when the two squads last met in Week 16, the Chiefs still feature the superior roster with a quarterback who’s actually capable of making the necessary plays to overcome any opponent. The football gods looked down upon Roethlisberger and granted him an extra week before his career is complete. But there’s very little reason to think this won’t be his final appearance.
Chiefs 35, Steelers 21
Consensus score prediction: Chiefs 34, Steelers 19
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Christian Petersen/Getty Images
When: Monday, 8:15 p.m. ET
Where: SoFi Stadium, Los Angeles
Referee: Clay Martin
Line: Los Angeles -4
Fans in attendance: 71,500
Arizona Cardinals injuries to watch: The Cardinals have a banged-up backfield. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury attached the “day-to-day” label to running backs James Conner (ribs/heel) and Chase Edmonds (ribs/toe). On a positive note, Arizona designated defensive end J.J. Watt (shoulder) for return from injured reserve.
Los Angeles Rams injuries to watch: Last week, the Rams secondary took some hits. Los Angeles lost safety Jordan Fuller (ankle) for the rest of the season. Safety Taylor Rapp entered the concussion protocol. On top of that, cornerback Darious Williams will undergo evaluation for a shoulder injury.
Key Cardinals stat: Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford has to protect the football because the Cardinals have an opportunistic defense, which ranks seventh in takeaways. Lurking in the secondary, Byron Murphy, Budda Baker and Jalen Thompson have logged 10 interceptions combined.
Key Rams stat: Rams head coach Sean McVay is 5-1 against Kingsbury-led Cardinals teams. Los Angeles struggles against San Francisco, but the club has an NFC West stronghold on its rivalry with Arizona.
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Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Moton: Arizona will feel the loss of wideout DeAndre Hopkins (torn MCL) in this matchup. With him, this game comes down to a field goal either way, but the Cardinals don’t have the offensive juice to keep pace with the Rams’ seventh-ranked scoring offense. Sure, Stafford may turn the ball over once or twice, but don’t count on Arizona capitalizing on his mistakes. Since Week 15, without Hopkins, the Cardinals have averaged just 20.8 points per game. They’ll fall behind early and fail to cover the four-point spread.
Rams 30, Cardinals 24
Davenport: This is easily the most difficult game of Wild Card Weekend to get a bead on. The Rams and Cardinals have both looked like the NFC’s best team at times and like also-rans at others. Both clubs are coming off less-than-impressive efforts in Week 18. And these squads split the season series, with both winning on the road. In the end, this comes down to confidence in Stafford—or lack thereof. He’s just committing too many costly turnovers, and another one late in a close game is going to result in an “upset” that drops Stafford to 0-4 in the playoffs, leading to a lot of offseason grumbling about what the Rams gave up to acquire him.
Cardinals 27, Rams 24
Kenyon: The Cardinals look completely lost right now. They’ve dropped four of their last five games and have lost all consistency on both sides of the ball. Traveling on the road to Los Angeles, where they’ll face arguably the league’s best defense and the Stafford-Cooper Kupp connection, I can’t see the Cardinals coming out with a victory. This should be Rams the whole way.
Rams 31, Cardinals 24
Consensus score prediction: Rams 26, Raiders 21
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