by Eric Fulton & Julian Spivey
*This conversation has been edited for grammar and clarity.
**Since the publication of this the NFL has moved the Steelers @ Bills game to Monday @ 3:30 p.m. (CST) due to severe weather in Buffalo. The game will still be seen on CBS.
JS: The NFL Playoffs kick off on Saturday, January 13 with the Wild Card weekend. The no. 1 seed in both the AFC and NFC conferences gets the bye week, which means they don’t have to worry about a thing this weekend other than who they’ll be playing in the Divisional Round the following week. Those teams are the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC and the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC.
The first playoff game on Saturday will see the no. 5 seed Cleveland Browns travel to Houston to take on the AFC South champion Texans. That game will begin at 3:30 p.m. (CST) on NBC. It’s one of those matchups where the 10-7 Texans have home-field advantage for winning its division but the Browns at 11-6 had the better season. Eric, how do you see this first game playing out?
EF: The Browns and Texans just met on Christmas Eve with Cleveland winning that game. The biggest difference was quarterback C.J. Stroud did not play for Houston because of injury. Browns receiver Amari Cooper had a big game with over 200 yards. Cleveland is making the playoffs with four different starting quarterbacks. Joe Flacco is going to get the start and he does have a Super Bowl ring and Super Bowl MVP on his resume. I think the Texans will play much better than they did on Christmas Eve. But with the Browns defense and Flacco's experience in the playoffs, Cleveland will win this game.
JS: Joe Flacco, whose career seemed done, has been a huge surprise for the Browns this season and rejuvenated their season when he joined the team. Thirteen touchdown passes in just five games is remarkable. I only halfway joke wondered if a guy could win Comeback Player of the Year based on only five games. I will add that his eight interceptions in just five games are quite a lot. But he does have veteran experience. It wasn’t all that long ago that some people were discussing C.J. Stroud in the MVP talk but with him being hurt that kind of fell by the wayside. This should be a good game. I think it’ll be a close one - maybe even one of the better ones of the weekend - but I’ll agree with your Browns prediction.
JS: The second game on Saturday will be streaming on Peacock only (which plenty of people are bitching about nonstop this week - but come on people just shell out a few bucks for a month and then get rid of it if you don’t want it - this is how a lot of sports might be broadcast going forward so you might as well get with the picture). Anyway. That game sees the 11-6 Miami Dolphins travel to Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City to take on the defending champion Chiefs, also an 11-6 team. These two teams met up in week nine in early November with the Chiefs winning 21-14. How do you think this one plays out?
EF: The weather is going to be brutal Saturday night in Kansas City. Temperatures will be in the single digits possibly in the negatives. I do not think it will bode well for the Dolphins. They had a chance to win the AFC East and get the two seed playing the first round at home. Now they go on the road at a loud stadium at Arrowhead with a ton of injuries. I think this will be the blowout of the first round. The Chiefs didn't play most of their star players in Week 18 and they will be ready to go. I’m predicting Kansas City in a rout.
JS: I thought that this could be a tight, hard-fought game like their meeting in the regular season but that was before seeing the forecast. As a fan, I enjoy seeing the elements come into play in the games - but as someone who wants to believe in fairness, it’s kind of sad to see it impact one team or another. The Chiefs appear to be the most beatable they’ve been in the last half-decade this season - especially with the weakest receiving corps they seem to have had during that span. That’s put a lot of focus from opposing defenses on tight end Travis Kelce and it’s shown as Kelce hasn’t had a touchdown since week 11 and only had five this season, which is quite a drop off from the last few seasons. The Chiefs do have experience, which could be a huge factor. The Dolphins haven’t won a playoff game since 2000 but I don’t see that streak ending on Saturday.
JS: There are three games on Sunday. The first of those sees the Pittsburgh Steelers, the last team into the AFC side of the playoffs, traveling to Buffalo to take on the Bills, who won the AFC East on Sunday night with a win over the Dolphins to end the season with an 11-6 record. The game will be on CBS at noon (CST). I understand that weather could play a major factor in this game as well, Eric.
EF: Yes, but I do think the Bills will win this game because they have the better quarterback in the game with Josh Allen. Mason Rudolph is starting his first playoff game for Pittsburgh and star linebacker T.J. Watt won’t play due to a knee injury he suffered in Week 18. I thought the Steelers were done when they lost to the New England Patriots on a Thursday night but once again they found a way to have another winning season in the Mike Tomlin Era, now 17 straight seasons. Having said that, Buffalo is the better team. The Bills came back from a 6-6 record. There was a lot of tension but they found a way to win the final five games and they are a dangerous team going into the playoffs. It will be a closer game than people expect even without Watt in the lineup. The Bills will pull away late in this one.
JS: The Bills finished the year on a hot streak coming all the way from being a .500 team that looked like it might not make the postseason to winning its division. The playoffs are old hat for the Bills at this point but they haven’t been able to get over the hump that is the AFC Championship game. I’m not sure they’ll make it even that far this postseason but I do agree they should beat Pittsburgh.
JS: The second game on Sunday will have the Green Bay Packers traveling to Dallas to face the Cowboys. That game will be on Fox at 3:30 pm (CST). The Packers and Cowboys have played some memorable playoff games throughout NFL history and the Packers always seem to be a thorn in the Cowboys' side when it comes to playoff games. But this isn’t quite the same Packers team we’ve seen in the past led by guys like Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre and the Cowboys haven’t lost at home this season. Eric, will there be an upset here or do the Cowboys have this one in hand?
EF: It wouldn't surprise me or anyone else if the Packers upset the Cowboys on Sunday. In fact, I’m going to say Green Bay will win on Sunday. I just don't think the Cowboys will handle the pressure. Yes, they have 16 straight wins at home and yes Jordan Love is starting his first playoff game for Green Bay but all of it doesn't matter. The playoffs are always about anything goes. The Packers are playing with confidence and they won't be afraid of going to Dallas.
JS: The NFC and the whole league feels wide-open this postseason. So, if the Cowboys can’t get it done this year I don’t know when they will. A loss to the Packers should be one of those moments where change is necessary. But I think the Cowboys will at least pull out this win on Sunday. The team has been too good this season to blow this opportunity but then again it’s the same team that lost to the Arizona Cardinals this season.
JS: The final game on Sunday sees the Los Angeles Rams traveling to Detroit to take on the Lions at 7 pm (CST) on NBC. This is a genuinely interesting matchup in that the QBs for these teams were once traded for one another by these very teams. It, of course, worked out well for the Rams with Matthew Stafford, one of the greatest QBs in Lions franchise history, leading them to a Super Bowl title. Jared Goff has seemingly found new life in Detroit and led the team to one of the best seasons in the league this year. You know Goff is going to want to stick it to L.A. this weekend. How do you think it’ll play out, Eric?
EF: The greatest quarterback in Lions' history is making his return in Stafford. To me, this is the best game of the weekend. It’s Detroit's first home playoff game in 30 years and Ford Field will be electric on Sunday night. I agree that Goff wants to stick it to the Rams this weekend. I think the Lions have their focus off a bit after the controversy at the end of the game in Dallas a couple of weeks ago. Plus, Sam LaPorta, their young impressive tight end was injured in Week 18. That is a huge loss for the Lions. I would love it for the Lions to make the Super Bowl but I am picking the Rams in this one. They will win it late.
JS: It’s unlikely LaPorta will play this week due to that injury, which is a huge loss for the Lions offense, but I feel like they should still have enough weapons to get past the Rams. I honestly haven’t heard a whole lot about the Rams this season so maybe I’m sleeping on them too much though?
EF: The Rams had a slow start to the season but they have been one of the hottest teams in the NFL over the last two months. They played the Ravens really tough on the road and they can be really dangerous with their experience in big games. Puka Nacua was a fifth round pick and he has become their best option at wide receiver outside of Cooper Kupp. Look for him to have a big game. Nocua is the favorite to win the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
JS: And the final playoff game of Wild Card weekend is the Monday Night Football game between the Philadelphia Eagles, who choked away the NFC East division late in the season, against the NFC South division champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That game will be on both ESPN and ABC at 7:15 pm (CST) and I don’t really care because I’ll be watching the Emmy Awards over on Fox at the same time. The Emmys will need all the ratings help they can get. Who’s going to win this one, Eric?
EF: I don't know which team I trust more. The Eagles have lost six of their last seven after starting 10-1 and most of their wins have been close. Their defense has regressed. Now, quarterback Jalen Hurts has hurt his middle finger in his throwing hand. They are limping to Tampa Bay against a team that has won their third straight NFC South title. But Tampa only won 9-0 in Week 18 against an awful Carolina Panthers team. This is a tough choice because the winner would have to possibly go to San Francisco in the next round to take on a well-rested 49ers team or Dallas if the Rams beat the Lions because the lowest seed would take on the highest seed. The way Philly has collapsed the last several weeks I think they will make a ton of moves this offseason. Tampa has at least most of its immediate future set up. Part of me wants to trust Philly for just this one game, but I am going with the healthier team in the Buccaneers. I feel the least confident about the pic because Tampa Bay quarterback Baker Mayfield can have really bad games. Yes, he has a playoff win in his career, but the winner of the game will have their season end in the Divisional Round next weekend.
JS: I feel like the Eagles have too much talent to lose in the first round even with the struggles they have had over the last couple of months. So, I will pick them to win this game just based on that fact. But I do agree with what you said about whoever wins this game likely not making it past the Divisional Round, which if you had said that about the Eagles when they were 10-1 I would've thought you were insane. One question I have if the Eagles do lose to the Buccs in the first round after starting the season 10-1 is do they fire head coach Nick Sirianni?
EF: It would not surprise me if they did. If they win, he will return next season. If the Eagles lose, things will be interesting in Philadelphia. Think about the fact they fired Doug Pedersen a couple of years after winning the Super Bowl. So, if things go south, Eagles fans will turn on the coach really quickly. I think he is safe for now, but Sirianni's and Mike McCarthy's seats are the hottest of all the coaches in the playoffs.