Super Wild Card Weekend
Four Thoughts on the 2020 NFL Season
The NFL continued to dominate the TV ratings in 2020. In fact, 48 of the top 50 most-watched sports events in 2020 were NFL games. The other two were pre-COVID college football games. The NBA, NHL and MLB had record-low ratings this year, which is probably because their playoffs and seasons were not in their traditional months. The Masters, played for the first time in November, also saw record low ratings. But the NFL was on during its fall/winter regular Sunday afternoon time slots, so people continued to watch and follow their favorite teams.
I am thrilled that the Browns and Bills did so well this year. Every team’s fan base deserves to have a winning team, but these two fanbases have suffered more than most. The Bills were in the playoffs last year and a few times before, but they haven’t won a playoff game since 1995. The Browns haven’t been to the playoffs at all since 2002. Imagine the excitement in those two cities right now. I can’t wait to see them play this weekend. The NFL is better when all its teams have a chance to win the Super Bowl at the beginning of the season.
It is truly remarkable that the season finished without a single canceled game. Of course, many players tested positive for COVID and weren’t able to play. Some teams also had outbreaks, but overall the players seemed to take the precautions seriously and did as much as they could to stay safe. Some of the games weren’t exactly fair—Denver had to play New Orleans without a QB and predictably lost 31-3. Many players, including rising superstars Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley, suffered season-ending injuries that may have resulted from a lack of offseason training and preseason games. But overall the best and most resilient teams rose to the top. It is no surprise that Kansas City and Green Bay earned the #1 seeds in the AFC and NFC; they were considered two of the best teams before the season started.
Before the season, I predicted that the Seahawks would be 11-5. I usually think they will end up 10-6 or 9-5, so this was a bold statement. They were pretty good on paper and had a favorable schedule, so I bumped up my optimism. I am thrilled that they completed the season and ended up with an outstanding 12-4 record. The season had it all: A historically bad defense for half the year, a great defense for the other half, a historically good offense for half the year, a mediocre offense for the other half, and great special teams. Our kicker didn’t miss a field goal all season! Jason Myers joining the team might be the most underrated Seahawks free agent signing since Michael Bennett came over from the Bucs. They ended up beating the Rams last week to become NFC West Champions for the first time since 2016. It’s never easy with the Seahawks, but it’s always interesting.
Wild Card Games, Ranked by Watchability
My Christmas present came late this year: A playoff triple-header on Saturday and Sunday! With 7 playoff seeds this year instead of the traditional 6, we are treated to 6 playoff games this weekend. Only the #1 seeds (Kansas City and Green Bay) get a bye. If you need me, I’ll be on my couch from 10 am to 9 pm this weekend. Ok, it’s the same place I am from 10 am to 9 pm every Sunday, but now I’ll be there on Saturday too!
6. The least watchable game is Chicago vs. New Orleans. I honestly don’t know how the Bears made the playoffs, and I’m not that interested in finding out. They have been one of the most forgettable teams this year, and I think their time in the postseason will be short. The Saints have been great, almost earning the #1 seed, and they will easily defeat the Bears in the most lopsided and boring game of Wild Card Weekend (Certified Hot Take).
5. Number 5 on our list gets a little tricky. All the teams besides the Bears have intriguing storylines and are generally entertaining to watch. But rank the games we must, so the game I will still watch but not be as interested in is Baltimore at Tennessee. Baltimore has been on a roll after their rough start, but Tennessee has been pretty good as well. This game will obviously come down to the star player on each team: Lamar Jackson and Derrick Henry. I think Derrick Henry will have a monster game and the Titans will upset the Ravens in the playoffs for the second time in two years (Certified Medium Take).
4. Tompa Bay at Washington has many interesting subplots. Of course, 43-year-old Tom Brady taking the Bucs to the playoffs (their first appearance since 2007) in his first year as a non-Patriot is the content sportswriters dream about, but the focus should be on the Team and its unlikely playoff appearance. The NFC Least was really bad this year, and the Team is just the third team during a non-strike season to win their division with a sub-.500 record (H/T Sunday Night Football for the helpful graphic that I actually remembered).
The Team could end up with the Coach of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year, and Defensive Rookie of the Year awards. Coach Ron Rivera battled (and beat) cancer earlier this year without missing a game, QB Alex Smith came back to lead the team after almost lost his leg in a gruesome injury two seasons ago, and DE Chase Young has already been named Captain in his rookie season. The Bucs opened as 4-to-1 favorites to win the game, so the oddsmakers clearly doesn’t think those potential awards will result in a playoff victory, but if the Team’s great defense can frustrate Brady, they definitely have a chance.
3. Los Angeles at Seattle is obviously exciting for me and fans of the Hawks and Rams, but it is not the most exciting matchup of the weekend. With Russell Wilson playing against Aaron Donald, also known as the Best Player in the League, this game could end up being the most entertaining game. The Hawks beat the Rams just nine days ago, so they clearly are capable of winning this weekend, but they have been maddeningly inconsistent on offense lately, so who knows which Seahawks team shows up. It is hard to bet against Playoff Russell, however, even against one of the best defenses in the league.
There will be little room for mistakes against this Rams defense, but the Hawks defense has been just as stout over the past two months. Both teams have recent playoff experience and success, and there will likely be no Seahawk fans pestering the Rams, so this is a very even matchup on paper. But my gut says it will be close because the Hawks have been maddeningly inconsistent throughout the year and will likely struggle at times during the game. I think the Hawks will win but it won’t be easy (Certified Lukewarm Take).
2. Indianapolis at Buffalo is the second-most intriguing Wild Card matchup. The Colts have one of the best offensive lines in football, which is as boring to write as it is to watch, but it is also the key to their success. Setting up the run and giving the QB time to throw are the two most basic functions of an effective offensive line, and Indy’s line more than accomplished both this year. New QB Philip Rivers averaged 7.7 yards per pass attempt and was only sacked 19 times (for comparison, Russell Wilson, a more mobile QB with a lesser O Line, was sacked 47 times). Colts RB Jonathan Taylor had 1,169 rushing yards, third in the league. Both stats are brought to you by a superior offensive line.
The Colts and their O line haven’t faced the vaunted Bills Defense yet, so their biggest test will come this Saturday in Buffalo. The Bills do have a great defense, but their offense is even better. QB Josh Allen is a legitimate MVP candidate, and his connection with star WR Stefon Diggs could be described as magical. Diggs led the league in both receptions and receiving yards and has been a tremendous addition to the Bills in his first season in Buffalo. Bills fans have been understandably giddy about this year’s team, and the team’s first playoff win in 25 years will put their fans in a transcendent state of delirium from which they may never recover.
1. The most watchable matchup of this Wild Card Weekend will happen on Sunday night at 8:15 ET when Cleveland invades Pittsburgh for the Browns’ first playoff game in 18 years. I adopted the Browns as one of my favorite AFC teams last year when they were interesting, relevant, and compelling. They were supposed to be great last year and were hyped up as the next big team, but instead tumbled to a 6-10 record. Ironically, this year they had modest expectations and ended up going 11-5, with the inexplicable loss to the Jets in Week 16 their only recent blemish.
Their win against the Steelers on Sunday punched their ticket to the playoffs, but we shouldn’t read too much into that victory because the Browns were playing for the playoffs while the Steelers didn’t even bring Big Ben on the trip, instead keeping him healthy and safe, as they had already qualified for the postseason. This may not be the most entertaining game; I can see the Steelers easily winning with their superior wide receivers and stout defense. But I do think this game will have the most energy of the weekend and is the most “important” game because of Cleveland’s long-awaited return to the postseason and the energy that will bring to their performance.
Anyone can go 2 of 6 against the spread, like I likely will with my predictions. Let’s see how I do on the Over/Under, a much harder gambling metric because everyone always wants to take the over. Remember that the spread is how much one team is favored to win by. For example, the Seahawks are favored by 3.5 in this week’s game. That means the Seahawks have to win by 4 or more to win the bet. If you think the Rams will win outright or lose by 3 or fewer points, you would pick them. The Over/Under is the total points scored by both teams combined.
All information from Scoresandodds.com
Colts at Bills (-7)
Over/Under (O/U) 51.5
Pick - Bills and Under
Rams at Seahawks (-3.5)
Pick – Seahawks and Under
Bucs (-8.5) at WFT (Team)
Pick – Team and Over
Ravens (-3) at Titans
Pick – Titans and Under
Bears at Saints (-10)
Pick – Saints and Over
Browns at Steelers (-6)
Pick – Steelers and Under
I hope your 2021 is off to a good start. Enjoy the games!