This weekend’s NFL Divisional Round playoff schedule may just have the matchups to top last weekend’s thrilling wild card slate.
The Chiefs and Eagles come off their farewells with a chance to validate their No. 1 seeds, but they each face a pair of foes – the Jaguars and Giants – who have exceeded expectations and proven themselves to be tough outs.
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The Sunday clutches feature four teams with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.
“These are four great matchups,” noted an assistant coach. “All four games can go either way.”
Last week, The athletic anonymously polled coaches and executives to make their wild-card picks, and they teamed up to accurately predict five of six matchups, with the Vikings’ upset at the Giants being the outlier.
It’s time to bring them back for another ballot – two executives and three assistant coaches. They were all given anonymity so they could give their candid opinions. This is how they see the weekend shake out.
No. 1 Chiefs (14-3) vs. No. 4 Jaguars (9-8, 1-0)
Kick-off: 4:30 p.m. Saturday.
Expert Picks: Chiefs 5, Jaguars 0
One voter kept the logic very simple.
“Patrick Mahomes,” said one executive.
Make no mistake, the panelists respect what the Jaguars have done, but they’re not going to question the top-ranked Chiefs.
Two coaches actually repeated to each other, “Too much firepower.”
One also pointed to Chiefs coach Andy Reid’s famous ability to schedule an extra week.
“They will play fast and confidently,” said the coach.
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The Jaguars have won eight of their past 10 games – the Chiefs handed them one of those two losses, 27-17 at Arrowhead in Week 10 – including big comebacks against the Raiders (17 points), Ravens (9 points), Cowboys ( 10 points), Titans (10 points) and Chargers (27 points).
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence opened the wild card win against the Chargers with interceptions on four of six possessions. He had a passer rating of 0.0 for seven series before lighting up in the third-biggest comeback in playoff history.
“If Jacksonville starts fast, it could be a game,” noted one coach with a sense the Jaguars would like to put into practice.
“The Jaguars are definitely growing and moving in the right direction,” said a director. “But Arrowhead, Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes, that’s a big problem to overcome. (Jaguars head coach) Doug Pederson is a savvy stage actor. Trevor Lawrence can’t make the same mistakes he made in the first half against the Chargers. The Jaguars definitely have the talent to disrupt Mahomes.”
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The overwhelming number is no small feat for the Jaguars. It’s just respect for the Chiefs.
“Undoubtedly the best team in football,” said one manager.
No. 1 Eagles (14-3) vs. No. 6 Giants (9-7-1, 1-0)
Kick-off: Saturday 8.15 pm.
Expert Picks: Eagles 4, Giants 1
This was almost unanimous – until one of the executives talked himself out of the Eagles and into the Giants.
“(Giants quarterback) Daniel Jones has shown more lately and against the Vikings than he did earlier this season,” the manager said. (Giants coach Brian) Daboll will balance the Giants, and the big tying point is the Eagles may not be as healthy. If the Giants are able to establish the point and take an early lead, it will put more pressure on (Eagles QB Jalen) Hurts and his injured shoulder.
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Hurts missed two games in Weeks 16-17 due to a right shoulder sprain, but he was eventually removed from the injury report this week.
All five voters believed it would be a close game.
“It will be closer than people think,” said another director. “The Giants will make it interesting, but the Eagles receivers have the advantage over the Giants defensive backs.”
The Eagles have won three in a row against the Giants, including a 48-22 win in Week 14 and a 22-16 win against many Giants backups in Week 18. Hurts was 20-of-35 for 229 yards and a interception along with nine runs for 13 yards in his return from injury in that Week 18 game.
“The Eagles are tough,” said one coach. “But it’s hard to beat a team three times (in one season), and the Giants wouldn’t surprise me if they showed up with an upset.”
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Jones was stellar in his playoff debut against the Vikings, completing 24 of 35 passes for 301 yards and two touchdowns along with 78 rushing yards. But the Vikings’ defense allowed the fourth most points and second most yards in the league, while the Eagles allowed the eighth fewest points, second fewest yards and fewest passing yards in the regular season.
Behind Hurts’ breakout campaign, the Eagles had the third-highest scoring offense this season.
“The Eagles offense will eventually get there,” said one coach.
No. 2 Bills (13-3, 1-0) vs. No. 3 Bengals (12-4, 1-0)
Kick-off: 3 p.m. Sunday.
Expert choices: Bills 3, Bengal 2
The Bills and Bengals will face off after their Week 17 game was canceled when Bills safety Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest on the field.
The Bengals, who won 13 of their last 15 games, had a 7-3 first quarter lead when the game was initially halted. One of the voters gave the Bengals the advantage because of the quarterbacks.
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“The Bengals have won nine straight games,” said one coach. “Joe Burrow is a little bit more clutch than Josh Allen.”
The Bills’ turnover is certainly a concern. They’ve given it away three times in each of their last three games, and the Bengals have 11 takeaways in their past four games.
The Bills’ 27 turnovers in the regular season were the third most in the NFL and four more than any team still standing. Allen’s 14 interceptions tied for third in the league.
“I think the Bills are holding tight and have had too many close calls lately letting teams hang around,” said a coach who picked the Bengals.
The Bills had to escape in shock fashion with a wild card win against the Dolphins and clung on to a 34-31 win in the closing moments. The Dolphins, who started QB Skylar Thompson of the third series, had lost five in a row before cresting into the playoffs with an 11-6 win against the Jets in Week 18.
“Maybe that was their wake-up call,” said one manager picking the accounts. “Allen has to play to himself. The bills haven’t been generating the same pressure since (linebacker) Von Miller went down.”
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The Bengals have the second-longest win streak in the league, and Burrow was hot enough on the stretch to earn his first MVP. But even considering all of these factors, the panel slanted toward Buffalo.
“If you just look at the wild card games, I’d take the Bengals,” said one manager. “But the Bills will win late. The Bills defense is very solid and will eliminate the big plays.
No. 4 49ers (13-4, 1-0) vs. No. 5 Cowboys (12-5, 1-0)
Kick-off: Sunday 6:30 p.m.
Expert Picks: 49ers 3, Cowboys 2
Evoke some 20th century nostalgia.
The Cowboys are 5-3 in playoff matchups with the 49ers, though the Niners knocked them out 23-17 last year. The other seven matchups took place long before 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy was even born.
Purdy racked up huge numbers in the playoff victory against the Seahawks, completing 18 of 30 passes for 332 yards and three touchdowns plus a rushing score. The Niners averaged a league-leading 33.6 points since Purdy’s first start in Week 14, and gained 41 points last week to race away from the Seahawks.
However, the rookie missed some early pitches in his playoff debut, and it caught the eye of a manager who picked the Cowboys.
“The Cowboys have the ability to apply the kind of pressure that allows Purdy to look like a rookie and make mistakes,” said the director. “It’s about whether Brock takes care of the football.”
Purdy has thrown just two interceptions in his six starts. While he has definitely played really well, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan also deserves a lot of credit.
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One subplot: Shanahan used to work for Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn when he was the Falcons head coach, so they know each other well.
“Dallas will make life difficult, but there are too many guns for the San Francisco attack,” the other director said.
The Niners have won 11 straight games and allowed the fewest points and yards allowed in the regular season.
“The defense will come through for San Fran,” said one coach.
Purdy has scooped up its fair share of the spotlight, but the bigger factor could be Dak Prescott’s performance. Prescott threw a league-high 15 interceptions despite starting only 12 games, and the 49ers led the NFL with 20 regular season interceptions.
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Prescott snapped a seven-game interception streak with an almost flawless performance in the 31-14 win against the Bucs in the wild card round. He was 25-of-33 for 305 yards, four touchdowns and a rushing score.
“Cowboys very upset,” said one coach. “The Cowboys defense will stop the run and confuse the rookie QB.”
There could be more talent on the field this weekend than the other three.
“The Cowboys are explosive,” said a coach who picked the 49ers. “I think Kyle will know how to attack Dan’s defense and make plays.”
(Top photo: Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)