2024 Wildcard Weekend: Picks & Preview

By Chip Bayless (click Howie for more Chip)

 

 

*All matchup stats are based on 2023 regular season data*

 

 

Cleveland Browns @ Houston Texans

C.J. Stroud is probably the best overall player in this game. What he did in just his first NFL season despite starting the year with the majority of his offensive line injured, a rookie head coach in his own right, and a roster and team that was a laughable, bottom of the barrel squad just last year cannot be overstated.

Stroud has the arm strength, accuracy, intelligence, awareness, and timing the likes of which NFL head coaches and GMs have wet dreams about. He also has impressive, underrated mobility which he rarely has to use due to his passing prowess, but he’ll use in clutch moments or to keep the play alive with the expertise of Patrick Mahomes.



Key matchup stats

  • Texans ranked 3rd in completed air yards in 2023
  • Browns ranked 12th in rushing in the regular season
  • Browns defense allowed the fewest yards per game (YPG)
    • Texans allowed the 14th-fewest YPG
  • Browns defense allowed the fewest passing yards per attempt (YPA) among all 2023 teams
    • Texans allowed the third-most passing YPA (per NFL.com)
  • Browns defense ranked 6th in total takeaways
    • Texans ranked 17th (per ESPN)

Although, the Browns are a more complete football team at the moment in terms of their defense and running game, which makes this game somewhat of a toss-up.

But, while one certainly sees C.J. Stroud and their plethora of receivers as the more explosive and productive offense, the Browns actually averaged more points per game than the Texans during the regular season (per ESPN).

Furthermore, the Browns allowed the fewest passing yards per attempt and the fewest total yards per game among all regular season teams, which is an insane stat and a bad matchup for the offensive, passing-dependent Texans.

In the playoffs, it is usually the better defensive team that wins out, so I’ll take the Browns elite defensive line and secondary (plus playoff Joe Flacco) to go into NRG Stadium and come out with the victory.

Prediction: Browns win

 

 

Miami Dolphins @ Kansas City Chiefs

From a fan perspective, this might be the most fun game to watch among the weekend slate.

It should feature two top-tier offenses, albeit the Chiefs 2024 struggles (courtesy of Matt Nagy, former Bears offensive genius and Justin Fields developmental specialist) and record-setting drop numbers (some databases list 35-45 total drops for Kansas City in 2023).

Miami has a ton of devasting defensive injuries, including losing both of their top pass-rushers for the year, and five of Miami’s top LBs have already been ruled out for Saturday at Kansas City.

The game is also supposed to be played in zero-degree weather with 10+ mile-per-hour wind gusts, a combination that arguably hurts an offense like the Dolphins more than the Chiefs since Mahomes has better arms strength than Tua to slice through the wind with his passes and Pacheco is more of a physical, downhill runner than the incredibly talented and explosive Mostert or Achane.

Key matchup stats

  • Chiefs & Dolphins both ranked tied for 3rd in rushing yards before contact per attempt in the regular season (per Pro Football Reference)
  • Chiefs dropped the most passes per target in the NFL
  • Chiefs allowed the 8th-lowest completion % to opposing QBs in 2023
    • Dolphins allowed the 4th-highest completion % (per NFL.com)
  • Dolphins average 50 more total yards per game and eight more points per game than the Chiefs (per ESPN)
  • Tua led the NFL in passing yards in the regular season while Mahomes posted his career-low QBR
  • -3 degrees is the current projected temperature at gametime

While much of 2023’s regular-season stats favor Miami, the issue is the Dolphins have had 3-5 critical injuries on the defensive side of the ball that will simply tilt the scales too far in favor of Kansas City from a pure overall talent perspective.

Due to all of the injuries on the Miami side of the ball, considering the Chiefs also have an elite defense this year, since Patrick Mahomes is the best football player on the planet (and some already debate if possibly ever), and because Rashee Rice has turned into a trustworthy receiving threat who can take the pressure off of Travis Kelce, the Chiefs will likely pull this one out at home.

It will probably come down to the wire and one possession though, much like the regular season matchup between these two teams where the Chiefs came away with a one-score win despite Matt Nagy’s Enron-like management style, drops, and offensive holds on seemingly every positive Chiefs play.

Although, it is very possible the Dolphins’ offensive creativity and key Chiefs drops cost the Chiefs their Super Bowl aspirations for this season, finally forcing them to find Tyreek Hill’s replacement whilst firing Kadarius Toney and MVS out of a cannon.

It is mind-blowing that it took the Chiefs almost until 75% of the season to figure out that Rashee Rice might be the best overall receiving threat on their offense, including Travis Kelce. But now the Chiefs are using Rice’s elite after-the-catch skills and consistently targeting him in clutch situations.

Among all 2023 WRs, Rice ranked 2nd to only Deebo Samuel in YAC per reception (per Next Gen Stats).

Prediction: Chiefs win

 

 

Pittsburgh Steelers @ Buffalo Bills

The only way the Bills lose this game is if Josh Allen has approximately one more turnover than he had last week and the Steelers play one of their best offensive games of the season.

The Steelers absolutely sharted their way into the playoffs and were a completely dead team for much of the season.

But in classic Steeler fashion, Mike Tomlin cooked up the best barely-over .500 he could come up with this roster and unlocked a winning combination thanks to targeting George Pickens and starting … Mason Rudolph.

Key matchup stats

  • Bills scored the 5th-most PPG during 2023
    • Steelers scored the 5th-fewest PPG (per ESPN)
  • Bills allowed the 9th-fewest YPG this season
    • Steelers allowed the 12-most YPG this season (per ESPN)
  • Steelers have allowed the 9th-highest pressure % in 2023
    • Bills allowed the 10th-lowest pressure %
  • Bills were tied for 8th-most completed air yards per attempt
    • Steelers had the 9th-lowest completed air yards per attempt

The Steelers have a nice defense, and George Pickens, Diontae Johnson, Najee Harris, and Jaylen Warren are talented players, but without T.J. Watt their core is no match for Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs, James Cook, Dalton Kincaid, and the vaunted Bills defense.



Given most of these teams’ stats are almost the reverse of each other, its almost impossible for anyone who’s not a Steelers fan to truly believe they have any chance of winning this game.

Josh Allen is one of the undisputed top-5 QBs in the league, Stefon Diggs is an undisputed top-5 WR, and Khalil Shakir is no name to scoff at as he led the NFL in yards per target during the regular season (per Pro Football Reference).

Then all James Cook did this year was rush for the 3rd-most yards, trailing only CMC and Kyren Williams, while displaying elite receiving talent for an RB as he also finished 6th in total scrimmage yards (per Pro Football Reference) – trailing Nacua, Breece Hall, Lamb, Tyreek, and CMC.

James Cooks’ breakout year has been crucial for the Bills’ run and their win streak down the stretch. He’s showing the acceleration, agility, vision, toughness, and pass-catching skills required of a true every-down NFL back, and it has been a beautiful sight to see.

Among all 2023 RBs, Cook ranked: 5th in rushing success rate (per Pro Football Reference), 2nd in receiving success rate (per Pro Football Reference), 4th in scrimmage yards per touch (per Pro Football Reference), 8th in total rush yards over expected (per Next Gen Stats), 7th in yards after contact (per Pro Football Reference), 8th in YPC (per Next Gen Stats), 9th in rush yards over expected per attempt (per Next Gen Stats), and 8th in rush % over expected (per Next Gen Stats).

Furthermore, the Bills ranked 2nd to only the Baltimore Ravens in point differential in 2023 (per Pro Football Reference).

Once more, I could see this game getting interesting with some classic Josh Allen arm punts, but throughout the course of 60 minutes I think the Bills’ better offense and defense wears down the Steelers both on the field and on the scoreboard.

Prediction: Bills win

 

Green Bay Packers @ Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys blow the Packers away in the vast majority of stats and rankings from the 2023 season, and CeeDee Lamb is playing like possibly the best receiver in the NFL.

Prescott also had an MVP case for much of the season, and the Cowboys defense straight up dominated some matchups to the point where the offense almost didn’t have to do anything.

In the face of those facts, the Packers are a bad matchup for the Cowboys considering how both teams have been playing lately, and in the sense that the Packers offense has the necessary components to make this interesting in terms of a mobile QB who rarely gets sacked, a talented trio of WRs, and a top-10 RB when healthy.

Key matchup stats

  • Packers allowed the 3rd-fewest sacks in 2023
    • Cowboys allowed the 12-fewest (per NFL.com)
  • Cowboys allowed the 7th-fewest yards per play this season
  • Cowboys led the NFL in PPG in 2023
    • Packers ranked 12th (per ESPN)
  • Both teams averaged 112 rushing YPG in the regular season (per ESPN)
  • Cowboys CB Daron Bland led the NFL in INTs with 9, over half of which he returned for TDs

One of the few upsets on the list, there’s few reasons for this pick. It mainly boils down to the fact that the Cowboys have shown their Achilles heel is a physical team that can both run the ball at them and mitigate Micah Parsons’ impact.

When the Cowboys defense can’t get sacks and pick sixes, and when their forced to consistently defend a good rushing team, the game looks very different and the Cowboys look far less dominant in all phases.

Teams started to figure this formula out later in the season.

While Dallas dominated the dumpster fire in the depths of a black hole that is the Washington franchise to the tune of  38-10 in the final game of the season, the Cowboys failed to score more than 20 points in all three games prior to that contest, including losing 31-10 to the Bills and stealing a one-point win on a controversial call against the Lions.

Unfortunately for the Cowboys, the Packers have allowed one of the lowest sack rates in the NFL (gave up the 3rd-fewest sacks during the regular season), and Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon are both capable of being physical, relentless runners.

Over the last three weeks, no RB has rushed for more yards than Aaron Jones. The Cowboys are also dead last in the league in rush yard success rate for outside runs.

Throw in the fact that Jordan Love shows remarkable poise under pressure and scary escapability, and it’s easy to see the Packers stealing this Wild Card game on the road with some Love magic and effective play action if Aaron Jones continues running well.

After all, since Week 9 Jordan Love has thrown for a league-high 912 yards off of play action. Throwing on the move, Love is also 1st in yards per play 2nd in EPA per play. He has a 68 QBR outside of the pocket since Week 11, which ranks 9th in the NFL.

Prediction: Packers win

 

 

Los Angeles Rams @ Detroit Lions

Both of these teams should be insanely excited about the current state and future of their franchises, and both fan bases should be equally hyped for this matchup.

I’ll discuss the offensive side in a second, but let me just say that Aiden Hutchinson is one of the top-5 defensive ends in the NFL and will present some problems for the Rams’ below-average (but massively improved) pass-blocking, and the Lions as a whole have an underrated defense.

This game features star-studded players on almost all sides of the ball.

On one side, you have Matt Stafford, Cooper Kupp, Kyren Williams, Puka Nacua, and Aaron Donald.

On the other sideline stands David Montgomery (5th in rush % over expected, per Next Gen Stats), Jahmyr Gibbs (11th in rush yards over expected per attempt, per Next Gen Stats), Amon-Ra St. Brown, Aiden Hutchinson, and the speedy Jameson Williams (8th among all WRs in ADOT in 2023, per Pro Football Reference) so there’s no shortage of talented, healthy players for either team and this should be a must-watch for any NFL fan.

Amon-Ra St. Brown especially is a game-breaker to keep your eye on in this one, as it seems like you know he’s going to score once he catches a medium/deep pass with any space to work with. His burst off the line of scrimmage and change of direction skills are as elite as they come at the receiver position.

St. Brown’s creative ability to set up defenders for his moves and use their pursuit angles against them is unique, and his overall playing style should give the Rams fits throughout this game considering they also have to gameplan for the Lions’ scary-dominant offensive line and pair of top-10 RBs, both of which have the speed to blaze down the sideline at any time if their lineman do their jobs, which they usually do.

Key matchup stats

  • Lions ranked 2nd in pass yards off play action in 2023
  • Both teams ranked in the top-1o in PPG during the regular season (per ESPN)
  • Lions ranked 2nd in total plays on offense in 2023
    • Rams ranked 12th
  • Lions defense allowed the 2nd-most yards per passing attempt in 2023
    • Rams allowed the 14th-fewest YPA
  • Kyren Williams led all RBs in YPG with 95 during the regular season

While both teams ranked among the top-10 highest-scoring NFL teams in 2023, it will likely be the Rams that come out on top as they are more deadly than a post-Chipotle bathroom movement when Stafford, Kupp, and Nacua are all healthy and on a hot streak, and that is certainly the case right now.

Over their last seven weeks, the Rams have put up at least 28 points in 5/7 games (including four 30+ point performances), and are 6-1, with their only loss coming in overtime against the Baltimore Ravens.

On the other hand, over their last seven weeks, the Lions are 4-3, which includes losing to the Bears by two touchdowns and losing to the Packers, who barely squeaked into the playoffs, but that’s a little nitpicky.

Again, either team could come out with the win as result of their explosive playmakers and both franchises should feel phenomenal about their current and future prospects, but the combination of Stafford/Kupp/Nacua/Kyren Williams will likely be too much for the Lions to keep up with over a 60-minute period.



As a reminder, Nacua broke the rookie receiving records for both catches and receiving yards. Plus, Kyren Williams was 2nd in total rush yards in 2023 to only CMC despite being placed on IR and missing a significant chunk of the season.

Throw in the fact that Williams is likely the most complete tailback with the most overall ability Sean McVay has ever thrown into his efficient, RB-friendly offensive system, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster for the Lions as long as the Rams can limit Aiden Hutchinson’s impact with creatively blocking schemes, quick passes, and misdirection runs.

Prediction: Rams win

 

 

Philadelphia Eagles @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Earlier this season, I mentioned how when Swift received at least 12 carries, the Eagles were undefeated as Swift had/has under 11 carries in every single Eagles loss this season, which one could argue is a relatively low bar as far as carries go for a starting NFL running back.

Despite Swift ranking top-5 in rushing yards, in rushes for 20+ yards, broken tackles, and yards per attempt, the Eagles have made absolutely zero effort to design plays and schemes to creatively get Swift the ball in space over the last six weeks.

Swift also sits at 4th in rushing yards in 2023, trailing only CMC, Kyren Williams, and James Cook.

Swift’s ability to plant his foot in the ground and sprint straight to the endzone is unlike any other player on the Eagles’ roster. While the term “home run hitter” can certainly be used for other NFL RBs, Swift is the very definition of one.

His balance, strength, and relentless are  insanely underrated, especially for a back of his stature. Check out this play where he bounces off about three New York Jets and maintains his balance to drive his way into the endzone:

Last season, Swift was also 10th among not just all RBs – but all players – in 2022 scrimmage yards per touch (per Pro Football Reference), trailing Justin Fields and Lamar Jackson in 8th and 9th place.

As far as this season and the current state of the Eagles, either Jalen Hurts has regressed from a passing perspective, or the Eagles refuse to change their scheme and philosophy from the successful formula that led them to a Super Bowl appearance, but is also the same formula that every NFL team has likely caught up on now with multiple years of film.

Key matchup stats

  • Eagles offense ranked 6th in total scoring during the regular season
  • Eagles defense gave up the 2nd-most passing TDs in 2023, trailing only the Commanders
    • Bucs allowed the 15th-most (per NFL.com)
  • Bucs offensive line allowed the 6th-lowest pressure % in 2023
  • Eagles had the 3rd-most throwaways in 2023, trailing only the Panthers and the Commanders
  • Eagles ranked 5th in percentage of drives ending in an offensive score with 43%

Tampa Bay has won five of their last six games while the Eagles have lost five of their last six.

Moreover, Philadelphia has allowed the 2nd-most points in the NFL since week 13.

If the Eagles defense can’t stop the 2023 Arizona Cardinals and their mostly nameless receiving core or the 2023 New York Giants with their backup quarterback, it’s difficult to pick the Eagles to beat a resurgent Baker Mayfield who has Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, and Rachaad White to work with, all of whom are explosive receiving threats and adept at breaking tackles, and the Eagles defense has struggled mightily with pass coverage and tackling over the past six weeks.

It’s possible the return of a healthy Darius Slay helps this defense tremendously as he’s shown the ability to blanket top-WRs and cut the field almost in half during his prime, but one ageing and recently-struggling veteran does not a defense make.

Overall, the defensive unit has underperformed significantly in the face of their talent level and the fact that they basically drafted the Georgia defense over the past few years. This season, the unit has over 20 fewer sacks than it had just a season ago.

So while it pains me to say this (as our website name might indicate, specially as a Philly native), I unfortunately don’t think the Eagles will pull out the win in this one, and this is likely the catalyst for firing Sirianni into the sun.

Prediction: Bucs win

Leave a Reply