Hello my friends! It has been a while! After the conclusion of the 2021 NFL season, I blogged several times about the NBA with my last entry on April 24, 2022. I was hoping to get back in the saddle for the start of the 2022 NFL season but I was preoccupied for a very good reason: my wife and I welcomed our 3rd child into the world! Actually she was born in late October but I had a lot of preparation to do for my real job during the few weeks prior to her arrival just so my colleagues were set up for success for my length paternity leave. I have been away from work for the past 3 months with still 2 more weeks before I head back to work. Lucky me! Yes, I could have blogged while I was home with 3 kids but family comes first and going from man to zone defense presents some unique challenges! For those with 3 or more kids, you can relate!
Enough with the talk about family. Let's get down to business with Wild Card Weekend! As some of you know, I am a diehard 49ers fan so there will be some bias but I will do my best to provide an impartial analysis on the this fun-filled weekend of football. Kudos to the NFL for starting the NFL playoffs on MLK weekend and having the last game featured on MLK Day itself. If you live in Northern California where the weather is going to be wet and windy again, then get cozy by the fire, grab your cup of joe, and enjoy the analysis that follows.
Without further ado, here is my breakdown of each NFL game this weekend followed by predictions for the subsequent weeks.
- Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers
Well ... let the bias begin! If you are thinking that I could potentially pick Seattle to pull off the upset, shame on you! I have occasionally chosen the 49ers opponent to win but that was eons ago when we had some no-name head coaches (Mike Nolan and Jim Tomsula just popped in my head) as well as a couple successful college coaches who had no business coaching in the NFL (Dennis Erickson and Chip Kelly come to mind). Boy were those the dark ages for the 49ers but since Jim Harbaugh's brief, yet fruitful tenure with SF, the 49ers have found themselves in the postseason 5 times in the last 11 seasons with each of those playoff runs resulting in a trip to at least the NFC Championship game. Twice the 49ers got to the Super Bowl only to break our hearts with some questionable playing calling in the 2nd half.
Perhaps the 49ers will finally make it to the promised land. This is a super athletic and talented team that is hungry and battle tested. May I also add that the 49ers are on a 10 game winning streak so they are entering the postseason playing exemplary football. I would also like to add that the 49ers are undefeated since my daughter was born (which was a few hours after the 49ers last loss to KC).
Head Coach Kyle Shanahan has experienced some tough playoff losses so let's hope he has learned from his past mistakes. Fortunately he has the "right" QB for his system. While I am grateful for what Jimmy Garoppolo has accomplished for SF, he never quite had the arm strength to take full advantage of all the vertical weapons the 49ers provided him with. Then came along Trey Lance who comes with a superb skill set but suffered a nasty season ending injury early in the season. However, I question how good he really can be, especially how good his football IQ is. After all, he had just one solid season with North Dakota in 2019, sat out the 2020 NCAA season due to COVID, and was Garoppolo's understudy in 2021. Of course Lance did not see much of the field in 2022 so when he returns in 2023, it will be nearly 4 years since he has played football on a weekly basis.
Even though Brock Purdy has the dubious title of Mr. Irrelevant being the last pick of the 2022 draft, he has played like a pro since he was thrust into the starting QB role in Week 14. Interestingly he played against the GOAT (Tom Brady in case you are new to football!) who also was drafted late more than 20 years ago and needed an injury to a veteran QB to get his chance at stardom. The result was a 35-7 win. Fast forward 4 weeks and Purdy finds himself 5-0 as a starter (and was terrific in relief in Week 13 against Miami). While his passing stats don't jump off the charts like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, or Joe Burrow, he has been very reliable by passing for 13 TDs with just 4 INTs. A completion percentage of 67.1% and a QB rating of 107.3 are impressive and speaks volumes about Purdy's maturity as well as the impressive talent surrounding him.
What I find even more impressive is the 49ers point differential since Purdy took the reins of the 49ers offense. When Purdy stepped in for Garoppolo, the 49ers were down 7-3 to Miami. The 49ers point differential was +72 for those 11.5 games. For the last 5.5 games with Purdy behind center, the 49ers point differential is +101. Of course the 49ers have played some weak teams during that stretch but aren't they supposed to beat the living crap out of those teams?! Not often do you see a team with a championship quality defense put up 30 points as consistently as the 49ers have done recently. Perhaps some of that credit goes to the acquisition of Christian McCaffrey who quickly forged an identity for the 49ers offense and some credit should go to Kyle Shanahan who is starting to win me over even though the jury is still out on how well he calls a game with all the marbles on the line. However, we all know this is a QB's league and Purdy has proven he belongs. After all, he was great in high school playing in one of the toughest divisions in Arizona and was a four year starter for Iowa State which is no joke given that the Big 12 conference is very competitive.
So what about Seattle? Won't they be eager to get their first win against SF this year after losing twice to SF during the regular season? Let's be honest here. Seattle is a decent team at best. Geno Smith will probably be the Comeback Player of the Year and he has solid offensive weapons. However, so do the 49ers with McCaffrey, Elijah Mitchell, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and George Kittle. When it comes to winning the battle in the trenches, Seattle cannot hold a candle to SF. We have the better offensive and defensive lines and that will make all the difference. While Seattle and Pete Carroll know SF well, that won't matter. The wet weather won't matter either. The 49ers have the better personnel for such conditions. SF controls the tempo and shakes off the bad mojo they had against Seattle prior to this season.
Prediction: San Francisco 28 - Seattle 20
- Los Angeles Chargers at Jacksonville Jaguars
Told you I was biased but I think I am right that SF wins. So what about the later game on Saturday? I wonder why the 49ers game wasn't put on prime time but then I must remind myself that there is an East Coast bias with the media and sports (guess I am not the only biased person here!). Trevor Lawrence is the NFL's golden boy and pretty much a reincarnation of Peyton Manning. National champion at Clemson during his freshman year, first overall pick, and quickly has matured in his 2nd season as a starting QB by winning his last 5 games and getting the Jaguars to the postseason after several years of futility. Except for the national championship part, Manning had a similar start to his football career. I am not saying that Lawrence is the next Manning but I would not be surprised should Lawrence have an NFL career as prolific as Manning's.
On the other side, Justin Herbert is not too shabby either. He is the other golden boy for the NFL. I will say that he has experienced some regression in Year 3 but that can also be attributed to the fact that he rarely had WRs Keenan Allen and Mike Williams on the field at the same time. Herbert's numbers were clearly better in 2020 and 2021 when his top two WRs were healthy for most of those seasons. Herbert finally got Allen and Williams back for the final 5 weeks of the NFL season until Chargers head coach Brandon Staley foolishly let his starters play the entire game last week which meant nothing for playoff seeding. The consequence: Mike Williams is injured again but this time with a back injury.
Interestingly, the Chargers are favored by 1.5 points which I think is a total slap in the face to Jacksonville, the host team. The way I see it, there are several things working against the Chargers in addition to Mike Williams' injury. They played last Sunday in high elevation and must play tomorrow night while Jacksonville played last Saturday. Add on cross country travel and the Chargers have two fewer days of preparation compared to Jacksonville. The 3 hour time zone change can't be easy either. Even though the Chargers had a 4 game winning streak from Weeks 14 - 17, they are still 5-4 during the 2nd half of the regular season with two of those losses to Super Bowl contenders. Meanwhile the Jaguars are on a 5 game winning streak with two of those wins against their division rival (Tennessee) and a win against a legit playoff team (Dallas). And don't forget that Jacksonville beat LA 38-10 back in Week 3, and that game was in LA!
I believe this game will be close and will come down to the wire but I am sticking with the more well rested team playing at home.
Prediction: Jacksonville 25 - LA Chargers 24
- Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills
Before I share my prediction for this game, I have a prediction that is not related to the game's outcome but could have an impact. Damar Hamlin will make an appearance at Orchard Park in front of a fired-up crowd. Emotions will be running high should that happen, and I have learned during my 34 years of following sports that and you can't underestimate the magnitude of something so dramatic as a fallen player showing up to the field to support his team. Even if that doesn't happen, this Bills team has a renewed sense of optimism. They kind of remind me of the 2004 Boston Red Sox and 2016 Chicago Cubs. The Bills have never won a Super Bowl and for those who are my age or older know full well the heartbreak Buffalo fans have had to endure when the Bills lost four consecutive Super Bowls from 1990 - 1993. There is not much to do in Buffalo so football is life for them and they are chomping at the bit to finally win the big one. This could be their year and as a 49ers fan, I would be OK losing to the Bills because it is the Bills, the NFL's version of the Cubs/Red Sox.
Sports has a weird way of letting destiny take its course and the Bills could be the team of destiny after their Super Bowl train wrecks in the early 90s, the Music City Miracle in 1999, a 17-year playoff drought from 2000 - 2016, and then losing to KC last year in what was arguably the craziest ending to an NFL game. Damar Hamlin's collapse two weeks ago is probably the last spark the Bills need to finally bring the Lombardi trophy to Buffalo.
Of course this journey all starts by trying to beat a division rival for the 3rd time in one season. It may seem hard to do but most of us have now heard that beating a team 3 times in one season happens more often than you think (good news for the 49ers!). Even though Miami has played Buffalo tight this year, this Dolphins team is limping into the playoffs and probably shouldn't be there. They are down to their 3rd string QB and must travel north to frigid conditions. Miami doesn't have a good track record playing on the road at cold weather stadiums in the winter. Plus, this is Miami's head coach Mike McDaniels first playoff game as a head coach in what will be a very raucous environment. Don't be surprised if this game is over by halftime.
Prediction: Buffalo 38 - Miami 14
- New York Giants at Minnesota Vikings
So far I have picked the home teams to win. I am going to flip the script here! Minnesota has to be one of the most overrated teams I have seen in a long time. I don't have the time to do the research but I am pretty sure the Vikings have the best NFL regular season record for a team with a negative point differential. For comparison purposes, the New England Patriots went 8-9 and had a +17 point differential while Minnesota was 13-4 with a -3 point differential. The Vikings keep winning these close games and when they lose, they pretty much get their asses kicked. Ultimately things regress to the mean and there is no way the Vikings keep eking out close victories. Just like how a fan can say his team could be better when they lose several games by a TD or less, the same can be said that a team could be worse when they win several games by a slim margin.
I think the Vikings' luck runs out on Sunday. While the Giants are a far cry from being a legit Super Bowl contender and have not played well going 2-5-1 since a 7-2 start, there is still talent on this Giants squad and at least they have regressed towards the mean at the appropriate time. The Giants lost by just 3 to Minnesota on Christmas Eve but were able to destroy the Colts a week later (38-10). However, the Vikings were down 33-0 to the Colts at half time when they played them during Week 15! Of course the Vikings pulled off the biggest comeback in NFL history in that game but I don't think the Vikings can keep pulling another rabbit out of their ass again. This is the playoffs so I expect their luck will run dry, especially given how bad their pass defense has been. Don't underestimate Daniel Jones, Saquon Barkely, and the no-name WRs who actually have done well lately and should be well rested.
Prediction: NY Giants 27 - Minnesota 23
- Baltimore Ravens - Cincinnati Bengals
Can we see three teams pull of a 3-0 sweep of a division rival all in one weekend! I say yes. After all, the team that swept the regular season series is the better team so shouldn't they win for a 3rd time in a higher stakes game? As much as I respect John Harbaugh as a coach and the tenacity Baltimore has shown all season with myriad injuries to key positions and playing a fairly tough schedule (Cincinnati twice and Buffalo), there is not much gas left in the tank for the Ravens. Before their bye week in Week 10, the Ravens averaged 26.11 points per game. Since then, they have averaged 14.38 points per game which has pretty much coincided with Lamar Jackson's injury. Jackson is a superb QB who is the identity of the Ravens' offense. He was just ruled OUT earlier this morning so it's probably the Tyler Huntley show again and even he is hobbled. Someone needs to take this team out of its misery.
Meanwhile the Bengals are fully healthy and hungry. Definitely there is a sense that they have some unfinished business after last year's loss to the LA Rams in the Super Bowl and not being able to finish their game against Buffalo in Week 17. The Raven's pass defense is weak and the Bengals' pass offense is one of the best in the NFL. This Bengals team is not your father's Bengals that used to stink up the joint with no playoff appearances from 1991 - 2004 and 7 wild card losses from 2005 - 2015. Much credit goes to the Bengals front office for drafting a winner in Joe Burrow and getting his LSU sidekick Ja'Marr Chase the following year. This is one of the best QB-WR tandems in the NFL and might be for a while.
Even though Cincinnati could hit a brick wall against a highly motivated Buffalo team in Round 2 and potentially a juggernaut offense in KC in the AFC Championship game looking for revenge from last year's loss to Cincinnati in the playoffs, for now the Bengals will make a meal out of the Ravens on Sunday night.
Prediction: Cincinnati 31 - Baltimore 16
- Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Seriously, the NFL Rules Committee needs to do something about the way teams are seeded. No way should an 8-9 team (-45 point differential) host a 12-5 squad (+125 point differential). If the division cannot produce a team with a winning record, then the division winner should go on the road for the Wild Card round. Maybe keep the Bucs as a 4th seed but Dallas should be hosting this game.
As much as it would be nice to see Tom Brady make another run at the Super Bowl and perhaps play the 49ers in Round 2 or Round 3, let's be real here. The Cowboys defense is legit even though they have struggled lately. Keep in mind that Dallas had a flurry of injuries from Weeks 14 - 17 but they were wise to treat Week 18 as a bye week by limiting the snap count for several key players on both offense and defense.
When the Dallas defense is healthy, they are one of the best in the league and probably could rival the 49ers or Eagles as the top defense in the NFL. Dallas defends both the pass and run very well. As we all know, you beat Brady by applying pressure. Dallas can do that. Brady is still good at getting the ball out of his hands quickly but lately those quick decisions have led to more incomplete passes and fewer TDs. What Brady has been able to accomplish as a QB in his mid-40s is remarkable but ultimately father time catches up to you. It just has happened later in life for Brady compared to his peers who seem to hit a brick wall in their late 30s.
When Dallas has the ball, they have just as much talent and depth as the other top offenses in the NFL. Just pick your poison among Elliot, Pollard, Lamb, Gallup, and Schultz. As long as Dak Prescott doesn't force any of his passes in tight windows (he is sometimes his worst enemy), Dallas should be cruise to victory in what could be Brady's last game. Or maybe not should Brady find a new team next season!
Prediction: Dallas 27 - Tampa Bay 20
There you have it! 4 home teams and 2 road teams win with two of the underdogs winning outright and only half of the favored teams covering the spread.
So what will happen after Wild Card Weekend? Here is some more prognostication that of course may need to be altered should any of my Wild Card predictions go awry.
Divisional Round: SF beats Dallas, Philly beats NY Giants, KC beats Jacksonville, and Buffalo beats Cincinnati. A 49ers-Cowboys game at Levi's would be fun and I think I would go even though I could sell my tickets for a good fortune!
Conference Championships: SF beats Philly on the road and Buffalo takes care of business against KC on a neutral field in Atlanta. We finally get the Chris Berman Bowl!
Super Bowl: Ah man, this is tough. Buffalo is very good and this would be one of the coolest Super Bowl storylines of all time with Purdy as Mr. Irrelevant and a rookie and the Damar Hamlin thing. My head tells me Buffalo but my heart tells me San Francisco. Like Tony Bennett, my heart will always be in San Francisco and I am all heart when it comes to talking football. San Francisco wins it but Buffalo wins the year after!