NFL 2021 NFC Wild Card Previews

Much like the AFC playoffs, rematches are a big deal in the NFC this week. The only “new” game over Super Wild Card Weekend is 49ers-Cowboys. We get a third meeting of Cardinals-Rams after the road team won the first two, and a venue switch with the No. 2 seed Buccaneers trying to sweep No. 7 Philadelphia.

Scroll to the bottom if you want to see my predictions on who wins the Super Bowl this year.

Eagles at Buccaneers (-8.5)

See my early preview for this game at BMR.

Tampa Bay is trying to end the longest drought in NFL history without a repeat champion. Like last year, they start this playoff run with the weakest team in the NFC field from everyone’s favorite NFC division to criticize. It looks like a good matchup for Tampa Bay as the Eagles are a run-heavy offense going up against a stout defense led by Vita Vea that hopes you run the ball instead of throwing against their injured secondary. The Eagles also have a rookie coach, inexperienced quarterback, and a pass defense that allows a generous 69.4% completion percentage.

The Eagles allowed five quarterbacks, including Tom Brady, to complete 80% of their passes this year, an NFL record. Not only do the Eagles allow a lot of easy completions, but the defense ranks 20th in points per drive allowed, 23rd in third-down conversion rate, 25th in takeaways per drive, and 28th in red zone touchdown rate. Guess who once again has a defense that ranks 6th in points per drive, 7th in takeaways per drive, 10th in red zone touchdown rate, and 12th on third down? Brady, the LOAT.

But you don’t actually need a big passing performance to beat the Buccaneers this season. Sure, Matthew Stafford and the Rams did it that way in Week 3 with a game that had zero turnovers, but the Saints swept the Buccaneers, and Washington beat them by playing smart, safe football. The Buccaneers were minus-6 in the turnover department in those games (seven giveaways to one takeaway). That’s Trevor Siemian, Taylor Heinicke, and Taysom Hill, or an unholy trinity of quarterbacks not as good as Jalen Hurts. The Giants forced Hurts into three interceptions in that horrific loss but Hurts only had eight turnovers in the other 14 games combined this year.

But as I said, the Eagles aren’t very good at taking the ball away. Each team one had giveaway in the Week 6 matchup, won 28-22 by the Buccaneers after leading 28-7. Things should look a bit different this week. Lane Johnson is back at tackle and both teams get their best tight end (Dallas Goedert and Rob Gronkowski) back. The Buccaneers no longer have Antonio Brown, the star that night, and Chris Godwin is out with a torn ACL. Leonard Fournette should be back from IR this week and he had two touchdowns in that game. Linebacker Lavonte David is also returning from IR just in time for the postseason.

The Eagles were still a work in progress in Week 6. They infamously handed the ball off three times to a running back in Dallas. They only had nine handoffs for 56 yards to Miles Sanders in Week 6 with Hurts rushing 10 times for 44 yards and two touchdowns. Since then, Nick Sirianni’s bunch have developed a running identity and should not be so afraid to run on the Buccaneers, who are not as elite as they were at stopping the run in 2020. Tampa has already allowed eight teams, including Philadelphia, to rush for 100 yards in 17 games this year after doing so six times in 20 games last year. Tampa has also gone from 3.6 yards per rush allowed (No. 1) in 2020 to 4.3 yards per rush allowed (No. 15) in 2021. Sanders, despite not having a touchdown this year on 163 touches, is the team’s best back and he has a broken hand. But they still have some capable backups in Boston Scott and Jordan Howard. There is optimism that Sanders can play on Sunday.

Whether Sanders plays or not, Hurts needs to channel his inner Colin Kaepernick and run wild this week. It’s the playoffs and you’re the underdog. Let it all hang out. The Eagles were also 3-of-10 on third down in Week 6 in a game where Hurts passed for 115 yards and had 4.42 YPA. On the season, Philadelphia converts 45.7% of third downs, good for fourth in the league with Tampa Bay at No. 2 (47.1%). These are also two of the top eight offenses at scoring touchdowns in the red zone where Hurts is a major threat with 10 rushing scores.

These are the only two defenses that allow an average depth of target under 7.0 yards this season. We know Brady will stay very patient and take the easy throws against the second-least likely defense to blitz (16.4%). But will Hurts do the same against the only defense that blitzes over 40% of the time this year? Only the Bills get a higher pressure rate on the QB this year than Tampa Bay. That could be the game right there.

Since penalties are a topic that seems to come up with Tampa Bay more than most teams, I had a few stats to share here. No defenses were penalized pre-snap more this year than the Buccaneers (18) and Eagles (15). Both defenses were top five in penalties, but on offense, the Buccaneers (33) had the second-fewest penalties while the Eagles (49) were 16th. After drawing a record 27 DPI flags last year, Tampa Bay’s offense only was the beneficiary of 11 such calls this season (tied for eighth). Tampa Bay’s defense however was flagged for the second-most DPI flags (14). Philadelphia’s offense only drew six DPI flags all year, but two of them were in Week 6 as they got the Buccaneers for gains of 45 and 50 yards. That adds some context to Hurts only passing for 115 yards. Tampa Bay’s 120 penalty yards that night is the most for the team in a game since 2015.

Tampa Bay started the year with the most loaded receiving corps in the NFL. Now that big four has been reduced to two without Brown and Godwin. I think if you had to pick the weakest version of the Buccaneers with two of those four players, it might be the Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski combo they have now. Gronk is still awesome, and Evans is a special talent, but AB and Godwin are much more of the prototype for a Brady receiver. Guys who can get open from anywhere, especially in the slot, and they run smooth routes and can be dangerous with the ball in their hands. Evans is much more of a height advantage/catch radius receiver you can throw it up to and let him get it. Brady does that with him, but it’s not his main strength.

Still, I think Evans and Gronk with the running backs back, including Gio Bernard as a receiving option, and a top-tier offensive line are plenty to get past the Eagles again. Let’s not act like the Eagles aren’t the beneficiary of a seventh playoff seed. In past years, this 9-8 team would not have been good enough to make the playoffs.

In fact, the 2021 Eagles are a historic team for the wrong reasons. The 2021 Eagles are 0-6 against playoff teams, joining the 2011 Bengals (0-7) as the only playoff teams in NFL history to go 0-6 or worse against playoff teams in the regular season. Those Bengals lost a wild card game 31-10 to Houston too. The 2021 Eagles are also 1-7 against teams with a winning record, only getting a win over the Saints, who only got their ninth win in Week 18. That 1-7 record against winning teams is the worst for a playoff team since the 2011 Lions were 0-5, a feat only matched by the 1969 Oilers and 1991 Jets. None of those teams won a playoff game.

It’s nice that the Eagles got into the tournament in Sirianni’s first year, but I think quickly into Sunday’s game, we’re going to be looking at them like this:

Final: Buccaneers 27, Eagles 17

49ers at Cowboys (-3)

The smallest spread this weekend is likely related to this being the only non-rematch. There is that angle of uncertainty and it doesn’t help that Dallas has been so up-and-down this year. These teams met last December in a 41-33 game that saw 16 points scored in the final 40 seconds in a game that wouldn’t die.

But that game was also pretty meaningless. The starting quarterbacks were Andy Dalton and Nick Mullens instead of Dak Prescott and Jimmy Garoppolo. Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Nick Bosa, and Ezekiel Elliott were inactive, among others.

I feel like Kyle Shanahan has gotten the best of Mike McCarthy over their careers. There was a 2018 game where the 49ers lost 33-30 in Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers had to bail out McCarthy with a 400-yard game as the 49ers nearly pulled that one off with C.J. Beathard as quarterback. As offensive coordinator, Shanahan’s 2016 Atlanta offense destroyed the Packers twice, including the NFC Championship Game.

Jimmy Garoppolo’s thrown four picks in his last two starts, but he had the 49ers tied late with the Titans on the road, and he led the team back from a 17-0 deficit to win in Los Angeles. Clutch touchdown drive to end the fourth quarter and finished it off in overtime. Garoppolo is 10-10 at GWD opportunities, one of the best records in the league. He also finished off the Bengals in Cincinnati this year. He just needs to be careful with the picks against a Dallas defense that feasts on turnovers.

The Cowboys have had a successful defensive turnaround with coordinator Dan Quinn and top draft pick Micah Parsons this year. They not only have the league-high 34 takeaways, but Dallas is sixth in yards per drive allowed, fifth in points allowed, and second in third-down conversion rate. Dallas (59.5%) is one of three defenses to allow under 60% completions while the 49ers (68.3%) allow the third-highest completion rate.

But there are big plays to be had against Dallas. The Cowboys allowed the fourth-most 20-yard pass plays (62) and the third-most 40-yard pass plays (14). Corner Trevon Diggs is a good example of this feast-or-famine style. He had 11 interceptions but also allowed over 900 yards and 8.8 yards per target.

The 49ers score a touchdown two-thirds of the time in the red zone, the highest rate in the league. Garoppolo has had some big turnovers in that area, but overall, the 49ers usually deliver down there.  

Dallas led the NFL in scoring with 530 points, but it sure wasn’t a consistent effort to get to that mark. Dallas loaded up with five games of 41-plus points, including four games against NFC East competition. This same Dallas team was down 30-0 at home to Denver with five minutes to play in Week 9. The Cowboys just recently struggled in a home loss to Arizona in Week 17 before dominating Philadelphia’s backups in a meaningless game a week ago.

Dak Prescott has had a fine season, but I would be shocked if the Cowboys don’t lead the NFL in miscommunication plays. It just seems like Prescott and his receivers are not on the same page as often as you’d expect from a team that leads the NFL in scoring. They will be facing a formidable defense this week. The 49ers are tied for fifth in sacks and lead the NFL in tackles for loss. San Francisco stops the run reasonably well and should have the rushing advantage in this game.

Games with Dallas are no strangers to penalties, especially on offense where the Cowboys have a league-high 62 penalties. The Cowboys have been flagged for a league-high 31 offensive holding penalties, but they also have been the beneficiary of a league-high 30 offensive holding penalties. As for the 49ers, their defense has been flagged 20 times for defensive pass interference, six more than any other defense. The Cowboys may want to take some shots in this one. The 49ers only have nine interceptions on defense.

But the 49ers really impressed me on defense last week. Despite limited blitzing, the 49ers sacked Stafford five times and pressured him 14 times. It was the worst game of the season for the Rams’ pass protection. If Bosa and company can get after Prescott like that, and if Samuel and Kittle can make the elite YAC plays they’re so good at, I like what the 49ers have to win this one on the road.

I didn’t pick an upset on the AFC side. I’m certainly not picking the Eagles to win in Tampa Bay. I think this is the right spot for a road team to pull off the upset. But it all depends on which Dallas team shows up.

Final: 49ers 30, Cowboys 27

Cardinals at Rams (-3.5)

If only I could pick both teams to go one-and-done…

Look, I’m salty that these teams allowed Tampa Bay to get the No. 2 seed. The Cardinals were the last unbeaten at 7-0 and fell off a cliff (or it was always a Kliff). The Rams were 7-1, had that big win over the Buccaneers, but the latest attempt at a super team still backed into a division title after blowing a 17-0 lead on Sunday. Sean McVay is no longer 45-0 when leading at halftime. Matthew Stafford went from MVP to same old Detroit QB.

Now someone has to win the rubber match after the road team won both games this year. Going for the road sweep in the playoffs is a difficult task, but it’s what Arizona is trying to do. Since 2002, the team going for the road sweep is 13-11. There were six successes in a row before the Texans blew a 24-0 lead in Kansas City two years ago.

But what makes this one interesting is that Arizona has sucked at home this season (3-5), finished 7-1 on the road, and the Rams really don’t have a home-field advantage in Los Angeles yet. The “home crowd” on Sunday was actually pro-49ers. While the Arizona fanbase is unlikely to travel or be as loud as the 49ers were on Sunday, it feels safe to assume the Rams won’t have a raucous crowd in their favor on Monday night.

Arizona played one of its best games this year in LA in Week 4, beating the Rams 37-20, a final that included a garbage-time touchdown by the Rams. Arizona was the only defense to hold Cooper Kupp under 90 yards this season. He had just 64 yards on 13 targets that day, a miracle given his latest standards. Kupp did come through for 123 yards and a touchdown in the Week 14 rematch, but at least Arizona can lay claim to having the best game against him this year.

J.J. Watt is practicing again for the Cardinals. His status is unknown, but even if he plays, it won’t make up for the loss of DeAndre Hopkins. The season has not gone as well for Kyler Murray without his stud wideout. In the first eight games, Murray was completing 72.7% of his passes, 8.89 YPA, and a 110.4 passer rating. In the last six games, most of which were played without Hopkins, Murray is down to 65.3% complete, 6.72 YPA, and an 89.3 passer rating. Arizona is 1-5 when allowing more than 22 points this season. The Rams are 0-5 when allowing 27+ points and 12-0 when allowing fewer than 27 points.

My big story coming into the season was Stafford’s career record of 8-68 (.105) against teams with a winning record. In his first year with the Rams, Stafford led the team to a 3-5 record in games against winning teams, the first season in his career where he logged multiple wins. But is 3-5 really that impressive? Ryan Tannehill led the Titans to an 8-3 record against winning teams this season, so he logged as many wins in one season as Stafford had in 12 years with Detroit. Also, Arizona is 5-3 against winning teams.

So, both quarterbacks have stumbled down the stretch, but Stafford really gets you worried with seven interceptions in his last three games. You can squeeze past a Baltimore or Minnesota doing that this year, but the Cardinals are more likely to capitalize on those mistakes. The “let me chuck it up to Odell Beckham Jr.” play has not gone well for Stafford, who may be missing the steadiness of Robert Woods (torn ACL) more than we give credit to after the two had disappointing production together. But an easy first down still beats trying to make a highlight play to Beckham that ends in disaster, such as Sunday’s season-ending pick in overtime.

But the Cardinals played a poor game in the Week 14 rematch. Aaron Donald tipped a pass in the red zone for an interception when it looked like the Cardinals were going up two scores. The Cardinals failed on a couple fourth downs, including a drop by Hopkins and a bad decision to bypass a field goal late in the game. It just looked like the Cardinals lacked common sense and urgency that night. This lingered on in other performances, including a terrible loss in Detroit and making Carson Wentz look like a legit quarterback on Christmas.

If the Cardinals had a healthy Hopkins and Watt, they might be the right pick here. But the fact is this team is shorthanded, 4-6 in the last 10 games, and not playing well going into Monday.

As much as I want to pick the Cardinals to win, I just can’t bring myself to do it. McVay has largely owned this team outside of Week 4, and I can’t see a postseason where we don’t get a rematch between the Rams and Packers and/or Buccaneers. It feels like we were sold all year that this was supposed to be a different outcome for Stafford and the Rams, so let’s see a wild card playoff win on Monday night against a team no one was expecting to be here.

But no matter what happens on Monday night, neither team can be trusted to go on a Super Bowl run this year.

Final: Rams 30, Cardinals 20

Playoff Predictions

So, how do I see this postseason shaking out? My preseason pick was a rematch of last year with Tampa Bay beating Kansas City again. I could still see it happening.

I guess you can start with my six picks this week, but it’s not like I’m certain about these NFC upsets happening this week. In the NFC, I still think it comes down to the Bucs-Packers rematch in the NFC Championship Game. Maybe the Rams toughen up and get it done in Green Bay this year with Stafford, but I still think it comes down to TB-GB and the Packers better get Jaire Alexander on Mike Evans and not let Kevin King ruin the game this time.

On the AFC side, obviously I’d love to see the Chiefs get back to a third straight Super Bowl. But I look at the bracket and it looks like they’ll have to beat two teams, Bills and Titans, that smacked them by three possessions this year. It’s tough to avenge one of those losses, let alone two in a row, and they’d have to go to Tennessee to do it this time, Mahomes’ first road playoff game. So, with the way the Chiefs make mistakes this year, I’m not sure I can trust them to get back to the big one.

I think right now, I’d go with a Bills vs. Packers Super Bowl. A role reversal of 1997 Packers-Broncos with the young gunslinger (Brett Favre/Josh Allen) against the old veteran (John Elway/Aaron Rodgers).

But I’ll literally sign up for any outcome that does not involve Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl. Give me Raiders-Eagles if need be. Maybe I was just a year too early in 2020 on Chiefs-Cowboys too.

Frankly, I just don’t know this year. The Titans are one of the shakiest No. 1 seeds ever, and the Packers do not have the defensive profile of a championship team. Don’t discount a Bills-Buccaneers rematch either.

I just want something different from last year even if my preseason prediction was the same damn thing as last year.