NFL 2020 Wild Card Saturday Previews and Predictions

This weekend should be quite the experience in the NFL. For the first time ever, we will have over 18 hours of live, playoff football in the form of six games spread out over two days. Now it’s not the most playoff games ever played in one weekend. That record still belongs to the 1982 strike season, which offered this disappointing slate of games that no one remembers or revels over:

That was not 18+ hours because it was not eight island games. It was four blocks of two games going on at the same time, and basically none of them were worth a damn besides the Chargers beating the Steelers 31-28 in Pittsburgh.

I am going to break this slate in half and start with the Saturday games before posting the three Sunday game previews on Friday. At the very least, I’ll give the NFL credit for not making us suffer through the NFC East and the Bears on the same day or as back-to-back games.

Note: I’ve already done two long-form previews for these games (links below), so I’ll just follow up with some additional thoughts here and a full preview of TB-WFT.

Click here for my preview of the three Sunday games.

Colts at Bills (-7)

See my full preview for this game at SBR.

To summarize my preview, the Colts are a good but not great team. The Bills have a great offense led by a quarterback who had a breakout year, and the team is hot coming into the playoffs.

My only big concern for Buffalo in this matchup is the health of the wide receivers with three of them nursing leg injuries. If Cole Beasley is out again, it sucks for Buffalo, but it’s not like Isaiah McKenzie, who scored three touchdowns on Sunday against Miami, can’t play in the slot. They’re still fine. John Brown is back and rookie Gabriel Davis is solid too. Alas, McKenzie is battling an ankle issue of his own, so that’s worth looking at if Beasley in fact misses the game.

However, if Stefon Diggs is out or more of a decoy than the guy who led the league in catches and yards, then we have some serious problems. Buffalo is very dependent on the pass and specifically passes to wide receivers. The backs are nothing special and tight end Dawson Knox isn’t carrying your offense against the Colts, a solid defense.

We only have a sample size of one game on Josh Allen in the playoffs, but if he’s going to be a guy who panics and lacks patience in these games, then I can only see that exacerbated if he has to win this game without Diggs, Beasley, and with a hobbled McKenzie.

Fortunately, despite missing practice again on Wednesday, Diggs has indicated that he will be fine. So we’ll just have to assume that he’s good to go Saturday. Boy, wasn’t it nice when 13-3 and the No. 2 seed earned you a bye week so you could play a home game like this (with a big crowd) with guys rested? But I’ll try to limit my dislike of this new format or depression over COVID.

Finally, I want to expand on a stat I shared in my preview at SBR.

The 2020 Bills are the 22nd team since the merger to win six straight games by double digits. This puts them in impressive company. Think 1985 Bears, 2007 Patriots, 1998 Vikings, 2009 Saints, 1996 and 1997 Packers, etc. The 1999 Rams actually had two such streaks (six and seven games) in the same season, so it’s 21 different teams in total. Of the previous 20 teams, only one missed the playoffs and that was (coincidentally) the 2004 Bills, who choked in Week 17 against Pittsburgh’s backups with a playoff berth on the line. Also, the Colts and Steelers both achieved this in 1976 and met each other in their first playoff game. The Steelers won 40-14, so there had to be a winner and loser of that game.

So if we exclude the Bills and the 1976 Colts/Steelers, that leaves 17 playoff teams. As it turns out, 14 of those 17 teams won their first playoff game by double digits. The other three teams went one-and-done (1973 Rams, 1987 49ers, 2005 Colts). Nine of those 17 teams also won the Super Bowl, though some of them did not get their streak up to six games until the following season opener.

Either way, the Bills are on an impressive streak we don’t see that often in the NFL where it is hard to consistently win games by multiple scores. I’m not sold the Bills are going all the way to the Super Bowl or winning by double digits this weekend, but I am confident enough to pick them against the spread.

Final: Bills 28, Colts 20

Rams at Seahawks (-3.5)

See my full preview for this game at SBR.

I wrote my preview for this Monday night when the spread was Seattle -4.5, it was Seattle -4 by the time I turned it in, and it’s now down to Seattle -3.5 as I write this. Apparently, Jared Goff is getting closer to playing, or the Rams may play both quarterbacks. Either way, I don’t think it’s a huge deal. I like the Seahawks in an ugly, low-scoring game much like their recent matchups (that’s with the Rams and virtually all other teams).

I just wanted to expand on this crazy scoring split for Seattle over the first eight games vs. last eight games.

  • In the first eight games, Seattle allowed 243 points (third most in 2020)
  • In the last eight games, Seattle allowed 128 points (fewest in 2020)

There have been 1,241 teams to play a 16-game season since 1978 (strike years excluded). Seattle’s difference of 115 fewer points allowed in the second half of the season ranks fourth out of those 1,241 teams. Only the 1988 Falcons (-125), 1981 Jets (-117), and 2012 Bengals (-116) had bigger declines. The Falcons were already out of things that year, but the Jets and Bengals both went one-and-done in the playoffs.

Again, you can cite the change in schedule like I did in the article to explain a lot of this improvement. This is likely going to come back to hurt the Seahawks should they play Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees in the later rounds. But for Saturday’s game against the Rams and a QB like Goff or John Wolford? It’s right in this defense’s wheelhouse to perform adequately against an offense that hasn’t topped 20 offensive points in over a month.

But wait, let’s not make this all about the Seattle defense. What about the drop in Seattle’s offensive scoring over the last eight games? That decline was 89 points, which ranks as the 13th steepest out of 1,241 games. Seattle is the only team since 1978 to decline by at least 80 points on both sides of the ball.

When you plot the change in scoring over the last eight games compared to the first eight for all 1,241 teams since 1978, the 2020 Seahawks really stick out. I also highlighted the 2020 Bears, who had the most positive change over the last eight games this year.

When you combine the declines on both sides of the ball for Seattle (-115 on defense, -89 on offense), you get a total change of 204 points. That is the largest drop for any team since 1978, easily beating out the 2002 Bills (-168). It’s the biggest change in either direction too since the largest increase was +180 by 1978 Browns.

So congratulations, Seattle. In the (likely) final year of the 16-game season, you just had the biggest second-half scoring change of any team in NFL history. Now can you make Russ cook a good enough meal to beat the Rams and make these NFC playoffs a bit more interesting?

Final: Seahawks 20, Rams 16

Buccaneers at Football Team (+7.5)

When I said Bill Belichick was Faust and Tom Brady was Dorian Gray, I guess I was wrong. They are both Faust, except Belichick made his deal with the devil for 20 seasons while Brady was able to afford a Dorian Gray mirror once he got access to Gisele’s money.

Brady left the AFC East at the perfect time as Buffalo was on the rise and the Patriots are well on a decline that started after the loss to the Ravens in 2019. The AFC is also looking pretty stacked this year with arguably five of the top six (at worst seven) teams in the league. The NFC is an easier path to the Super Bowl, which is played in Tampa Bay this year, by the way.

However, it has not been the smoothest ride so far. For once in his career, Brady had to win a division that had another Hall of Fame quarterback (Drew Brees) and 12-win team. So for the first time in his career, Brady has to start a playoff run on the road after playing terribly in both games against the Saints.

But in true Brady fashion, he still gets a nice gift from the football gods. By getting the No. 5 seed in a weak NFC, Brady gets to play the winner of the worst division in NFL history: a team with no name, a 7-9 record, a quarterback who can’t move, and in prime time in an empty stadium in the easiest season ever to throw touchdowns and play on the road.

How does he do it, folks?

No player in the history of sports has a bigger disconnect between his team’s postseason success and his individual performance.

My favorite part here is that Brady’s grade (not listed of course) would be even lower if they ever charted 2001-05.

I am not even going to give my full Tampa Bay thoughts because I expect this team will be playing next week, likely in Green Bay where they can prove if their only quality win of the season was legitimate or not. Tampa Bay was 1-4 against teams with a winning record this season. Make that 1-5 if you throw in the 8-8 Bears, who made the playoffs after all. The Jets (2) beat more teams with a winning record than this Tampa Bay team did this year.

So even this weekend the Buccaneers will not be able to beat a team with a winning record. Washington is set to be only the third home underdog of more than seven points in playoff history. The last two underdogs won straight up. The 2010 Seahawks (7-9) beat the Saints thanks to Marshawn Lynch’s Beastquake run and a 41-point effort by the offense that day. The 2011 Broncos (8-8) beat the Steelers 29-23 after one snap into overtime.

Those were upsets created by big offensive performances. That’s not the 2020 Redskins Football Team. This is the worst offense in the playoffs and damn near the whole league if you consider they finished 32nd in DVOA and 32nd in passing DVOA.

Now some of that was Dwayne Haskins being a terrible QB before he was released. Washington was 1-5 with Haskins as the starter. His QBR was 30.8, which would have ranked dead last in 2020. This is a better offense with Alex Smith, but isn’t it still marginally better? Smith’s QBR is 34.7. He also ranks dead last in ALEX (-2.6) again, the stat I specifically named after him years ago to show how often he throws short of the sticks on third down. Well, he’s right on brand this year.

Look, this team never beats 11-0 Pittsburgh if Haskins started instead of Smith. Haskins wouldn’t take all those open completions in the flat to J.D. McKissic or keep finding Logan Thomas wide open. But that’s about the only game where Smith pulled his weight recently. The only defenses he could put more than 23 points on were Dallas and Detroit, two of the worst in the league. In fact, Detroit allowed the second-most points in NFL history. Tampa Bay also fattened their stats on the Lions in one of the worst competitive games I’ve ever seen, but again, we’ll save that talk for next week provided the Buccaneers get there. Remember, this overhyped team has trailed by multiple touchdowns in nearly half of the games this season.

But Washington putting up a lot of points on Tampa Bay with Smith barely able to move? I just don’t see it. Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul (injury issue aside) could make this game a nightmare for Smith. Just get pressure on him and it’s over. You know Smith is not that healthy when Ron Rivera is talking about maybe playing Taylor Heinicke in this game.

This Washington offense is not without talent, but the quarterback play just has not been there this season. Throw in Kyle Allen and all three Washington starters had a sack rate around the 7.4-8.0% range this year. Antonio Gibson has had a nice rookie season, but Tampa Bay is the only defense yet to allow 1,000 rushing yards to the running back position this year. This defense is probably the hardest to run on in 2020. On the flip side, Tampa Bay allowed a league-high 101 catches to running backs, so this could be a great game for McKissic (bet the receiving overs) if he plays enough snaps. However, Tampa Bay only allowed the ninth-most yards on those 101 catches. That’s a stat that gets inflated a bit when you play in a division like the NFC South with those receiving backs. Terry McLaurin is the only reliable wide receiver in Washington, but he has an ankle injury and has seen his production plummet over the last month.

Rookie Chase Young can talk about how he’s coming for Brady, but unless he’s getting a strip-sack or his first 2.0-sack game in the NFL, then I don’t see that being a big problem for the Bucs. This Washington defense has been good, but it hasn’t faced many great quarterbacks or passing games in 2020. It has to be great on Saturday night to keep this game winnable for the offense. Brady has torn apart the defenses of coordinator Jack Del Rio in his career. He never seems to get any pressure on him.

Maybe the only question mark for Tampa Bay is if Mike Evans will play in this game. He left Sunday’s game after hyperextending his knee. Evans realistically could sit this one out to be ready for the following week when he’ll be needed more. This team still has Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Scotty Miller, and Gronk at tight end. Isn’t that more than enough to outscore one of the worst offenses in the league?

One last thing to keep your eye on going forward. The Buccaneers set a little modern record by drawing 24 defensive pass interference penalties (23 by Brady, one by Blaine Gabbert). Some were a crock as you’d expect, but that does speak to the danger of defending all these receivers legally. Washington had six DPI flags this year, tied for the fourth-lowest amount.

Alex Smith limping his way onto the field like Shadow from Homeward Bound to start a game-winning drive to quick-exit this overrated Tampa team would be outstanding Saturday night TV, but I just do not see it happening.

Final: Buccaneers 24, Football Team 13

I’ll be back Friday with full previews of Sunday’s three games, including an actual positive stat for Mitchell Trubisky where he finished 2020 ranked No. 1, Patrick Mahomes finished No. 2, and Aaron Rodgers was No. 11. What could that be?

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