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Super Saturday: Previewing Day 1 of an NFL Wild-Card Round Like No Other

By: Jon Reeve

Following a regular season that will surely go down as one of the strangest in NFL history, featuring games played in empty stadiums on every day of the week after having been moved, often at short notice, it’s fitting that the postseason is different too.

But the changes to the playoffs were entirely intended by the NFL, which wanted more bang for its buck. And so, we are about to witness the first Super Wild Card Weekend, featuring three games on Saturday and three on Sunday for the first time.

With only the top seeds in both the AFC and NFC benefitting from a bye, and a seventh team in each conference getting to join the party, it promises plenty. So let’s take a look at what’s in store on Saturday… 

No. 7 Indianapolis Colts (11-5) AT No. 2 Buffalo Bills (13-3)
1:05 p.m. ET

It goes without saying a lot has changed in the last 12 months, but ignoring the global pandemic and any geopolitics, how they’ve circled the wagons in western New York is nothing short of a revolution.

Yes, the Buffalo Bills made the NFL playoffs last season, but it felt as if they were there as a bit of a novelty, in spite of their offense and particularly raw quarterback Josh Allen, whose eccentric play on wild card weekend was a big reason why the Bills fell short against the Houston Texans.

Fast forward a year, and Allen and the Buffalo offense are as supercharged as the first round of the playoffs. Behind offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, the third-year QB has reinvented himself as Mr. Consistent. He has set franchise records this season in completion percentage (69.2), passing yards (4,544), touchdown passes (37) and passer rating (107.2; for QBs with at least 14 attempts per team game).

The Bills are the AFC’s hottest team going into the playoffs. In claiming their first East division title since 1995, they’ve outscored everyone in the conference (501 points) and enter the postseason with a six-game win streak that is their longest ever to finish a season. This past Sunday, they dropped 56 points on Miami – a game the Dolphins needed to win, not Buffalo.

Is it time for Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs to make a deep postseason run for the Bills? (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Even though Allen sat out the second half of the Week 17 rout, he’s still completed more than 70% of his passes and thrown for multiple touchdowns (nine overall) in each of his last three games. Jim Kelly is the only other Buffalo QB to have such a three-game streak.

Allen has been helped by one of the best free agent signings last offseason. Stefon Diggs has been everything the Bills could’ve hoped for and more, setting franchise records with 127 receptions and 1,535 receiving yards. Never before has a Buffalo player led the NFL in either category, and both stat lines are the highest by a player in his first season on a new team.

Still, airing it out might be a risk against Indianapolis. No NFL defense has more interception return yards than the Colts’ 266 (the Los Angeles Rams matched the total) and their four pick-sixes were the league high.

That said, the Colts also ranked No. 2 against the run, having held opponents under 100 rushing yards in each of their last five games and to 90.5 on average. If they extend the sub-100 streak on Saturday, it will be the first time for the franchise since a seven-game run in 1968.

It’s on the ground that Indy’s offense has found its breakout star this season: Jonathan Taylor, who pounded his way to a Colts-record 253 yards in Sunday’s vital win over Jacksonville. The second-round pick finished the regular season with 1,169 yards. Only two Colts’ rookies have ever managed more – Hall of Famer Edgerrin James and former league MVP Marshall Faulk.

Buffalo and its fans are full of confidence on the back of a season of success. But considering their 24-year wait for a playoff win – the NFL’s third-longest active streak – are the Bills ready to overcome a history of disappointment and show a new era has finally arrived?

No. 6 Los Angeles Rams (106) AT No. 3 Seattle Seahawks (124)
4:40 p.m. ET 

At the start of the 2020 campaign, Russell Wilson seemed to be cooking his way to the sort of season worthy of a Michelin star, or at the very least an MVP awardBut somewhere along the way the offensive ingredients didn’t seem to be blending together properly anymore, and the Seahawks appeared to be choking on something after a 5-0 start. 

Despite all that, only Aaron Rodgers threw more touchdown passes than Wilson’s 40. But equally, just two players – Drew Lock and Carson Wentz – put up more interceptions than his 13. And worryingly for those 12th-man fans, the bad side for their QB came very much in the second half of the season.

In the opening eight games, the eight-time Pro Bowler averaged 317.6 passing yards and threw 28 TDs. In the last eight games, those numbers plummeted to just 208.9 and 12. That said, Seattle went 6-2 in both halves of the season. 

Can Russell Wilson regain some of his early season form and take the Seahawks back to the Super Bowl for the first time in six years? (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

And while Wilson was regressing, the opposite was happening for the Seahawks’ defense. After starting on pace to set NFL records for most yards allowed, the unit found its identity as the campaign progressed, aided by Jamal Adams visibly growing into his role and the arrival of Carlos Dunlap. Adams’ presence helped Seattle get an NFL-high 9 1/2 sacks from defensive backs in 2020. 

The problem for the Seahawks is that if Saturday’s game is going to be about defenses, they’re up against just about the best in the league. Adams may have just missed out on being in the NFL’s top 10 for sacks, but two Rams were ahead of him, in the form of Leonard Floyd and human wrecking ball Aaron Donald. L.A. gave up fewer total yards (4,511) and fewer points (296) than any other team this year. 

But like his opponent, Sean McVay has offensive concerns to occupy him. Jared Goff threw as many interceptions as Wilson, but his 20 touchdown passes were only 19th in the league and his passer rating of 90.0 ranked 23rd. The fifth-year QB is questionable to play though, having dislocated a thumb in the Week 16 loss to the Seahawks – the second game this season in which Seattle held him without a TD.

If Goff can’t suit up, then John Wolford will again start under center for just the second time in his NFL career. Wolford led the Rams to that vital Week 17 win over Arizona, but in a contest that is likely to be dominated by defenses, an untested quarterback could be a recipe for disaster, no matter what his opponent is serving up. 

No. 5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (115) AT No. 4 Washington Football Team (7-9)
8:15 p.m. ET 

Were it not for Doug Pederson and Nate Sudfield, we would be looking at another potential classic postseason clash between Tom Brady and the New York Giants. Okay, I can’t really keep a straight face while writing that, but the NFC East has been this season’s joke, so instead we have a team without a proper nickname or logo in the playoffs, and less amusingly, also without a winning record. 

There are excellent reasons why Washington is actually the feel-good story of the campaign. Ron Rivera’s personal victory over cancer is far more significant than any his team has achieved this season. And the fact that Alex Smith is willing or able to play, let alone get back to a starting role on a team playing this far into the new year, is bordering on the miraculous.

Smith threw two touchdown passes in last Sunday’s prime time division-clinching win over the Philadelphia Eagles, which was his first game with multiple TD since Week 16 of the 2018 campaign. A LOT has happened in his life since then. The Football Team might be hoping he doesn’t repeat the feat this Sunday though: Despite going 42-16 in his regular season career when throwing more than one touchdown, Smith is just 1-3 in such postseason games. 

Alex Smith has gone 5-1 as a starter since returning to Washington’s lineup after his potential career-ending injury in 2018. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Despite managing a respectable 5-2 run to close out the season and claiming that divisional title it seemed no one really wanted – Washington’s first since 2015 – the Football Team isn’t exactly firing on all cylinders. At least not offensively. They managed to post 30 points just once all year, and that was against the Dallas Cowboys, so feels like it carries an asterisk. Only two teams managed not to reach 30 points all season – the moribund New York Jets and dysfunctional Eagles. 

It’s just as well then that it’s a different story on the other side of the ball. WFT’s defense, powered by No. 2 overall pick Chase Young, has been the driving force behind this team. Washington has allowed the second-fewest total yards in the NFL this season (4,873) and ranks in the top 10 in interceptions (5th), sacks (6th), tackles for loss (7th) and forced fumbles (9th). 

Tom Brady will be making his 42nd postseason appearance, but first for Tampa Bay, which is chasing its first Super Bowl crown since 2002. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Young has made clear his excitement at the prospect of going after Brady, but that might be easier said than done despite the man he described as “the G.O.A.T.” being 43 years old. The Bucs are protecting their prized acquisition to the extent he’s been sacked fewer times this season (21) than any QB starting at least eight games. 

In return, the six-time Super Bowl champ has made a mockery of questions about his arm strength, attempting 22 passes of at least 40 air yards – three more than any other team in the league. Eight of those were completed, which also leads the NFL. 

Tampa Bay has had somewhat of a roller-coaster season, but it won four straight to close out the campaign, which is tied for the team’s longest winning streak since a five-game run in 2016. It was the Giants who ruined Brady’s perfect season with the Patriots in 2007, so at the end of a year where it’s been the butt of all the jokes, could the NFC East have the last laugh over him again?  

 


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