NFL Wild Card Weekend: AFI’s analysis and predictions

After 18 weeks, the NFL’s regular season has finally come to a close.  Seven teams in each conference have clinched postseason berths, and all but the top seeds in each conference will be in action this weekend in the Wild Card round.  While the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs will be resting up for the divisional round, let us take a look at the first round matchups.

Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers, January 14th, 4:30 PM EST.

At the beginning of the regular season, almost nobody would have predicted the Seattle Seahawks to be in a playoff game.  Yet here they are, earning the last seed in the NFC following a win over the Rams and a Packers loss to the Lions on Sunday.  The unexpected resurrection of quarterback Geno Smith’s career has been fun to watch, and you can’t help but feel happy for a guy and a team that so many people had written off.  They must travel to the Bay Area to take on a formidable team in the 49ers that has a ton of talent on both sides of the ball.  However, San Francisco’s quarterback, Brock Purdy, is a rookie who has only started a handful of games, so it is hard to say how well the 49ers offense will perform in such a high-stakes game, even with all of their weapons.  I expect that Kyle Shanahan will rely on his team’s strong run game to gash the Seahawks defense and wear them down all game long.  While I think Seattle will put up a fight, their comparative lack of talent on both sides of the ball will be too much to overcome.

Prediction: San Francisco 20, Seattle 17

Los Angeles Chargers at Jacksonville Jaguars, January 14th, 8:15 PM EST.

The Chargers and the Jaguars face off in Jacksonville on Saturday night in a battle of two upstart teams with exciting young quarterbacks.  After starting their season 4-8, the Jags rallied to win their last five games and take advantage of a weak AFC South in order to earn a division title and a home playoff game.  The 2021 first overall pick Trevor Lawrence has been playing better than he ever has in his NFL career to this point, revitalizing Jacksonville’s offense.  On the other side, Chargers star quarterback Justin Herbert will be making his playoff debut.  In their regular season finale against Denver, the Chargers saw a pair of star players in receiver Mike Williams and pass rusher Joey Bosa go down with injuries, and their status for Saturday night is to be determined.  In a matchup of two teams with exciting young talent but limited playoff experience, this game should be a fun one to watch.  For me, it is hard to pick against the healthier team playing at home.

Prediction: Jacksonville 27, Los Angeles 24

Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills, January 15th, 1:00 PM EST.

The competitiveness of this game took a turn unfortunately with the announcement that Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa will remain in concussion protocol.  The third-year signal caller has had the best season of his professional career this year, but a pair of concussions have kept him off the field and will make him a no-go for this one as well. Backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has also been banged up, leaving rookie quarterback Skylar Thompson to start last week and potentially this week.  No matter who starts at quarterback for Miami, they will have a monumental task ahead of them in winning at Buffalo.  The Bills have been an elite team on both sides of the ball all season, and as the team has endured heartbreaking playoff exits in the past two seasons, it feels like this is their year.  With the recent great news that safety Damar Hamlin, who suffered a near-fatal injury in a Monday Night Football game last week, has been released from the hospital, the Bills have to be filled with positive energy.  I do not expect this one to be close.

Prediction: Buffalo 34, Miami 10

New York Giants at Minnesota Vikings, January 15th, 4:30 PM EST.

Though they finished with a record of 13-4, the Vikings have been subject to allegations of being fraudulent all season.  The combination of a multitude of close wins and blowout losses has allowed them to finish their season with a negative point differential despite their impressive record.  However, there is no doubt that they have earned their position of hosting a playoff game thanks to their ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.  On the other hand, the Giants were not expected to make the playoffs at the start of this season, but first-year head coach Brian Daboll has managed to lead his team here.  With the solid play of quarterback Daniel Jones, the dynamic ability of running back Saquon Barkley, and a sturdy defense, the Giants will not be an easy out these playoffs.  These two teams faced off on Christmas Eve, and the Vikings came away with a 27-24 victory thanks to a game winning kick from Greg Joseph.  I think we are in for another nail-biter here, but I predict Minnesota’s luck runs out and the upstart Giants move on.

Prediction: New York 23, Minnesota 21

Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals, January 15th, 8:15 PM EST.

These teams played each other this past Sunday in Cincinnati and will meet again in the same place a week later.  With Ravens star quarterback Lamar Jackson out with a knee injury, the Ravens never stood a chance last week in a 27-16 defeat.  The former MVP’s status is still up in the air for this Sunday’s game, and backup Tyler Huntley, who has started the last five games, will play in his place.  The Bengals have been on a hot streak as of late, winning their last eight games, excluding the canceled contest against the Bills.  In their quest to return to the Super Bowl, it is hard to pick against them in this spot, especially considering Baltimore’s questionable quarterback situation.  I see Cincinnati taking care of business in this game.

Prediction: Cincinnati 31, Baltimore 17

Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, January 16th, 8:15 PM EST.

The Cowboys have been an interesting team all season, as they have had a mix of dominant wins and confusing losses.  They are coming off a defeat to the Washington Commanders in which, though the game was essentially meaningless, quarterback Dak Prescott and the supposedly high-powered offense looked terrible.  It was certainly not the type of performance you look to see from a team heading into a road playoff game.  While the Buccaneers probably do not deserve to be in the playoffs on account of their 8-9 record, they managed to come out on top of the lowly NFC South and have thus earned the right to host a playoff game.  Though the Cowboys are the better team on paper, you can never out Tom Brady and his playoff magic.  However, I cannot see this banged-up Bucs team making any noise in these playoffs.  Though Brady is Brady, even he cannot take this team to the promised land at 45 years of age.

Prediction: Dallas 27, Tampa Bay 17

A current student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Carter played football in high school and has been a lifelong avid football fan.