NFL 2021 Wild Card Weekend Preview

(AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Here at the sports desk located somewhere below decks of the Good Pirate Ship RedState, we are rubbing our hands with glee at the start of the NFL playoffs. Well, most of us are. Hookhand Johnny impaled himself while doing so, and we just put out the fire caused by Pegleg Pete rubbing his hands on his artificial limb instead of together. But we’ll get it sorted out.

Anyway, in order, the games, starting with today’s matchups:

Las Vegas Raiders at Cincinnati Bengals — Quick, what does the year 1991 mean to you. Give up? It was the most recent year the Bengals won a playoff game. Cincinnati didn’t so much as make the playoffs again until 2006. They lost in the first round. Subsequently, the Bengals didn’t make the playoffs until 2010, when they lost in the first round. The team skipped a year, then were in the postseason every year from 2012 to 2016. They lost in the first round each time.

It’s not like their opponents have done much better. Since losing in the Super Bowl in 2003, the Raiders have precisely one playoff appearance, which they lost, before this season. An interesting definition of commitment to excellence, ye of the autumn wind.

However, that was then, and this isn’t. The Bengals feature a high-octane offense led by sophomore quarterback Joe Burrow and his old college buddy Ja’Marr Chase. The Raiders offense has very similar stats to the Bengals except in one minor area. If you consider points scored minor, Las Vegas scored 86 fewer during the season. Defensively, while the Raiders allowed more points (63) during the season, both teams are pretty much middle of the pack.

Cincinnati beat Las Vegas 32-13 last November when the Raiders were slumping, but whether this is any indicator of what we’ll see today is dubious. Raiders quarterback Derek Carr has the skill and the fire, so don’t be surprised if this game goes to the wire and beyond.

New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills — Exactly which sadist thought a Saturday night game in Buffalo in January would be great fun is unknown, but here we are. The Patriots have skillfully used rookie quarterback Mac Jones and a stout defense (second fewest points allowed) to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since Tom Brady went south for the winter. Meanwhile, the Bills have assembled an even more stout defense, leading the league in fewest points allowed. Buffalo is no slouch on offense either, finishing the season third in the NFL in scoring. New England isn’t far behind.

The teams split their two regular-season matchups, with the visiting team victorious. The game promises to be the football equivalent of Yogi Berra’s observation that good pitching will always beat good hitting, or vice versa.

And on to Sunday.

Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Did you know the Eagles had the best rushing offense in the NFL this year? Did you know the Buccaneers had the best passing offense in the NFL this year despite going through approximately 374 different receivers? Apparently, this Tom Brady guy can do some quarterbacking.

Philadelphia has slightly better defensive stats against both the run and the pass than Tampa Bay. However, even with injuries and COVID and the walking train wreck that was Antonio Brown, the Buccaneers still have Brady. Nothing against Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, but this figures to be a tall order for Philadelphia.

San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys — There will be no Joe Montana to Dwight Clark moments in this game. Jimmy Garoppolo to George Kittle, perhaps. But Jimmy G, cute as the ladies consider him to be, ain’t no Super Bowl Joe. On the other hand, Dak Prescott is the real deal and runs the NFL’s best offense. The 49ers have a better defense than the Cowboys, so we’ll see.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs — Although they improved as the season progressed, the Chiefs were not the unstoppable juggernaut of recent years. Defensively, Kansas City was mediocre against both the run and the pass. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh was no great shakes on either side of the ball yet still managed to prolong Ben Roethlisberger’s career at least one more week. This figures to be it for Big Ben, but that’s why they play the games. Because you don’t know. And neither does anyone else.

And finally, the Monday night game.

Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams — Talk about two teams with wrong-way momentum heading into the postseason. The Cardinals were the league’s biggest pleasant surprise during the first half of the season but were dreadful in the second. The Rams also started strong, but wildly inconsistent play by Matthew Stafford and an inability to stop the run dogged them during the season’s concluding stretch. Still, Los Angeles has Cooper Kupp and a rejuvenated Odell Beckham on offense, with Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey on defense. Arizona has … um, a disadvantage.

Enjoy the extended weekend, everyone.