Now that we’ve said goodbye to more than half of the league’s teams, it’s time for the remaining 14 to prove that they should advance in the playoffs. This week, 12 are competing. Kansas City and Philadelphia earned the byes in their respective conferences, getting the week off. Mistakes are amplified in the postseason because there are no do-overs. One loss, and your season ends. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how each (2) through (7) seed did in my wild card takeaways. The games are sorted based on when they occurred (earliest first), separated by conference.
(2) San Francisco 49ers 41, (7) Seattle Seahawks 23
Unsurprisingly, the 49ers got off to a fast 10-0 start in the first quarter. The intriguing part was how the Seahawks bounced back. It was a mostly flawless first half for Seattle, with Geno Smith and DK Metcalf carving up the SF defense. Smith hit Metcalf (10/136/2; he was excellent all game) on a 50-yard deep shot. The ball was perfectly placed over Charvarious Ward and injected life into the team. Pete Carroll’s squad took a 14-13 lead before SF finally got another FG. However, with just 9 seconds, Smith ran the ball up the middle and slid but took a shot. After the 15-yard penalty, Jason Myers converted his 56-yard FG for a 17-16 halftime lead. SF QB Brock Purdy seemed a bit off to start the game. Perhaps he was nervous about his first playoff action. Whatever throws he missed in the first half though, he made them after the break.
Purdy seemed dialed in, hitting all of his weapons including WRs Deebo Samuel (6/133/1, 32 rushing yards) and Brandon Aiyuk (3/73). RB Christian McCaffrey was a beast, racking up 119 rushing yards along with 17 yards and a TD through the air. Purdy finished 18/30 for 332 yards and 3 TDs plus a rushing score on a sneak. Still, it was the defense that changed the game. After SF retook the lead to start the 3rd quarter with a long drive, Seattle was marching, but Charles Omenihu strip sacked Smith in the red zone, and Nick Bosa recovered the ball. Two drives later, Smith (25/35, 253 yards, 2 TDs) threw a pick, and the game quickly got out of hand. Other than a garbage-time score, SF won the second half 25-0. The talent disparity was just too great, but give Carroll credit for taking an afterthought and even getting to this point. I consider the 49ers the NFC favorites. Now that Purdy has gotten his feet wet, he can focus on just playing like he did in the second half. This talented roster is just getting started.
(6) New York Giants 31, (3) Minnesota Vikings 24
Minnesota came into this game on upset alert. When you have a great record but a negative point differential, that happens. You just knew that the Viking defense was going to cost them at some point. The Vikings were 11-0 in 1-score games during the regular season, and this was a bad time to pick up a loss. Both teams started fast, as the high-powered Viking offense did well against the decent NYG defense. Conversely, the mid-range NYG offense bested the league-worst Minnesota defense. Both QBs put up great numbers, with Kirk Cousins (31/39, 273 yards, 2 TDs) and Daniel Jones (24/35, 301 yards, 2 TDs, 17/78 on the ground) earning their money. For Minnesota, midseason acquisition TJ Hockenson (10/129) was the star as NYG made it a point to lock down Justin Jefferson (7/47). Giants RB Saquon Barkley (9/53/2, 5/56 through the air) didn’t run often, but he was special when he did. WR Isaiah Hodgins (8/105/1) did the most in the passing game.
The Vikings scored first, but NYG scored the next 2 times and never trailed again. Minnesota closed the gap to 17-14 at the half and then 24-24 in the 4th quarter. Jones then led another 75-yard TD drive (all of their TD drives were 75+ yards long) to take the lead for good. He used his arm well on that drive, and it was his finest outing of the season, but his running was most damaging. Jones led the team in yards, and he consistently moved the chains with his legs. The defense did just enough to keep Cousins from mounting one last comeback, and the G-Men booked their ticket to Philadelphia. It’s been a good first season for new Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell, but this was a sour way for it to end. The rookie coach on the other sideline, Brian Daboll, has now done even more with less, and his efforts are likely to earn the coach of the year award in a few weeks.
(5) Dallas Cowboys 31, (4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers 14
Did we just witness Tom Brady’s final NFL game? If so, what a terrible way to go out. I think we’ve at least seen the end of his time with Tampa Bay. This team has shown us time and again this season that they’re simply not good. A lot of it is the switch from Bruce Arians to Todd Bowles. Bowles is a good DC, but he’s not an adequate head coach. Neither of these teams looked very good to start the game. We began with 4 straight punts, and Dak Prescott threw 3 consecutive incompletions on his first drive. After that though, Prescott was sensational, authoring his best game of the season. He completed his next 11 passes on the way to a 25/33, 305-yard, 4-TD line; he ran for 24 yards and a TD as well. RB Tony Pollard (15/77) provided the initial spark, and TE Dalton Schultz (7/95/2) was uncoverable all night. The defense was swarming, too. I can only complain about one thing with Dallas: 4 consecutive missed PATs??? Brett Maher missed 3 all year! I have to believe that was a blip and not a trend.
Tom Brady finished with an unfathomable 66 pass attempts, completing 35 of them for 351 yards, 2 TDs, and an INT. Most of those numbers were garbage time production. The game was 24-0 before TB finally scored late in the 3rd quarter. This team still can’t run the ball, they can’t pass protect, and they can’t earn separation on routes. Brady even threw his first red zone INT since 2019, short circuiting a long drive that might have given them a lead. From there, the game spiraled out of control as the defense tired out and the offense continuously shot themselves in the foot. Brady’s future will be an interesting topic, but expect him to take some time before deciding on anything. Dallas now earns a trip to SF, the team that knocked them out last year. This 49er team is much better, but so are the Cowboys. I can’t wait to see what Stephen A. Smith has to say about them this week.
(4) Jacksonville Jaguars 31, (5) Los Angeles Chargers 30
Talk about a meltdown of a first half. This game didn’t resemble the week 3 contest between these teams one bit. Jacksonville got punched in the mouth early and didn’t respond. On the opening drive of the game, Trevor Lawrence threw a low pass that was tipped twice, first by Sebastian Joseph-Day and then by Joey Bosa, before finally being picked off by Drue Tranquill. Lawrence had never thrown a first-quarter INT in his career; 15 minutes into this game, he had 3. If the first was unfortunate, the second was completely unjustified. CB Asante Samuel Jr. committed clear PI, but it went uncalled. You could also argue that Doug Pederson should have attempted a 51-yard FG instead of going on 4th down, but that’s a moot point. Lawrence (28/47, 288 yards) added another INT (Samuel’s 3rd) in the second quarter. The referees might have been paid off by LAC based on their refusal to flag the Chargers, but Jacksonville did themselves no favors by face planting every chance they got.
The defense didn’t do its part to clean up the mess, allowing the Bolts to score on 4 of their first 5 drives. Chargers’ RB Austin Ekeler (13/35) had 2 TDs, which is expected from the league’s two-time reigning TD leader. TE Gerald Everett caught 6 passes for 109 yards and a TD. On special teams, a punt even bounced off a Jaguar’s head and gave LAC a first and goal. Then, something interesting happened. Jacksonville scored a TD just before halftime, cutting the deficit to 27-7. Rather than snuffing that spark out in the 3rd quarter, talk about a meltdown of a second half. LA allowed Lawrence to throw 3 more TDs for a total of 4, while only adding an FG of their own. TE Evan Engram (7/93/1), WRs Christian Kirk (8/78/1) and Zay Jones (8/74/1), and RB Travis Etienne (20/109) all contributed to the effort. At 30-26, Joey Bosa committed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and the Jags opted to take it on their PAT and go for 2. They converted, and after another stop, their subsequent FG drive was to win, not to tie.
Brandon Staley MUST be fired after this. The coaching disparity between him and Doug Pederson was so obvious that it hurt. You wonder if having WR Mike Williams would’ve helped, but then you remember that Staley playing him in a meaningless game led to Williams fracturing his back. His reckless decision making somehow turned ultra conservative at the worst possible time, throttling his own offense while letting Jacksonville back into the game. Sean Payton might want to keep his phone handy. Pederson, on the other hand, has tutored Lawrence well. Jacksonville doesn’t come close to winning with Urban Meyer. He has his work cut out for him next week in Kansas City though.
(2) Buffalo Bills 34, (7) Miami Dolphins 31
This game started just like we thought it would. Rookie QB Skylar Thompson (18/45, 220 yards, TD, 2 INTs) again appeared overmatched, completing just 1 of his first 7 passes for 8 yards and an INT. He made one good throw that would’ve given him confidence, but Jaylen Waddle dropped the deep shot. Buffalo marched up and down the field, scoring on 3 of their first 4 possessions to take a 17-0 lead. The Bills were cruising to another home playoff game. Then they got sloppy. Miami finally got on the board with an FG, but Josh Allen (23/39, 352 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs) threw an INT on the next drive. That plus another 3 and out gave Miami, who couldn’t reach the end zone, 2 more FGs. Another Allen INT gave Miami one more possession, and this time they scored AND got a tying 2-point conversion. Buffalo added an FG right before the half expired, but it was a new game at that point.
On their first possession of the 3rd quarter, Eric Rowe strip sacked Allen, and Zach Sieler recovered the ball for a TD and Miami’s first lead. However, a Thompson pick on a terrible 3rd and 19 call gave Buffalo the ball at the Miami 33, and they quickly retook the lead. The Bills would hold that lead for the remainder of the game, though Miami did make it close midway through the 4th quarter. The Dolphin’s biggest issue was penalties. Thompson’s inexperience showed, as he took several delay of game and false start penalties, with timeouts used to burn several more. Those timeouts would’ve helped, and their absence prevented Miami from getting one last chance. The team fought valiantly, but I wonder if an injured Teddy Bridgewater would have been an upgrade. Tua Tagovailoa would’ve crushed the Bills. Buffalo made plays when they counted, but they’ll need to be MUCH better to beat the Bengals in what should have been their second meeting.
(3) Cincinnati Bengals 24, (6) Baltimore Ravens 17
Baltimore had no business being in this game, but AFC North matchups are always tough. They’re grindy, hard-fought affairs, and this one was no different. I said earlier that Buffalo can’t beat Cincinnati playing like they did, but Cincinnati can’t beat Buffalo with their Wild Card round play either. They need to hope that this was just a case of playing a divisional opponent and not a real problem. One potential issue that can stick is that LT Jonah Williams hurt his knee and did not return. Williams has not been very good (no tackle has allowed more sacks this year), but his replacement, Jackson Carman, was putrid. He gave up a crippling holding call and a bad sack, short-circuiting drives. Defensively, the Bengals could not stop the run until late, and CB Eli Apple had two bad coverage busts, one of which led to a long TD. Chidobe Awuzie isn’t coming back, so he needs to get that fixed.
Joe Burrow (23/32, 209 yards, TD) played well despite missing 3 starting linemen, and Ja’Marr Chase (9/84/1) was his top target as expected, but this game wasn’t really about them. After jumping out to a 9-0 lead, Baltimore took a 10-9 halftime lead. Cincy bounced back, but the Ravens tied the game at 17 and were driving once again. At the Bengal 1 and a half, QB Tyler Huntley (filling in for Lamar Jackson) attempted to dive over the top of the defense. Logan Williams swatted the ball away, and Sam Hubbard took it 98 yards for an astronomical TD. Instead of falling behind 7, the Bengals took a 7-point lead. Nobody scored in the final 11 minutes as the game came down to Huntley throwing the ball, which was a guaranteed Raven loss. Still, this game shouldn’t have been this close against a backup QB. Zac Taylor has some issues to fix, and he might need to recruit some linemen.