BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
It’s the second week of January, and now that the college football title game has been decided, fans of the sport will be riveted to their televisions to track which NFL team will emerge from a group of 14 hopefuls to lay claim to the Super Bowl championship Just 10 days ago, football partisans and the sports world in general forgot all about winners and losers, champions and legacies, and were gobsmacked by the events that took place in Cincinnati where the Bills played the Bengals.
Damar Hamlin, a Buffalo cornerback, made a tackle on Bengals receiver Tee Higgins in the first quarter of their Monday Night Football contest on January 2nd, 2023. After standing up following the play, Hamlin collapsed, motionless. Medical personnel sprang to action, quickly establishing that Hamlin’s heart had stopped, and performed CPR, utilizing an automated external defibrillator (AED) to help revive the player. He was rushed to a local emergency center, where he was in critical condition for several days. The fact that Hamlin survived and seems on his way to recovery provided a pathway to resume games, and the outpouring of support for Hamlin and his family has been ubiquitous throughout the NFL. The heartfelt preamble to this article is that the football games we care so much about-investing our time and emotional energy in their consumption and analysis-are ultimately meaningless when compared to the value of a single player’s life. With full disclosure of that truth established up front, we shall attempt to analyze the contests to come.
The Philadelphia Eagles were the best team in the NFC this season at 14-3, and are the #1 seed in the conference playoff structure. They will get to rest their players for a full two weeks, and will play the the worst seeded team to advance from the NFC Wild Card Round in Philadelphia next weekend. Second year coach Nick Sirianni presides over the third ranked offense and the eighth ranked defense, and has MVP candidate Jalen Hurts ready to play after a late season shoulder injury. Their pass rush combined for 70 sacks, the best in the NFL (15 more than runner up KC) and just two off the all time record set by the 1984 Bears. Hurts and Miles Sanders combined to rush for more than 2,000 yards and 24 TD’s, and DeVonta Smith and AJ Brown caught 181 passes for nearly 2,700 yards and 18 scores, giving the Eagles a balanced and multi-faceted attack that proved difficult for opposing offenses to stop in 2022.
Seattle Seahawks (NFC 7th seed) at San Francisco 49ers (NFC 2nd seed)
In the regular season, the 49ers beat Seattle in both meetings, 27-7 in San Francisco in September, and 21-13 in Seattle a month ago. The 49ers come into the playoffs as the hottest team in football, having won ten straight games. Considering that the franchise lost their starting quarterback (Trey Lance) for the entire season in the second week of the year against these Seahawks, and lost his backup, Jimmy Garappolo to a broken foot in the December 4th game against Miami, that’s borderline ridiculous. The top two players on the depth chart at the sport’s most important position haven’t taken a snap in the past six weeks, leaving the quarterback responsibilities to the third stringer, the very last player picked in the 2022 draft, Iowa State product Brock Purdy. All Purdy has done is go 5-0, throwing 13 TD’s against four interceptions, for a rating of 107.3, which is slightly better than Patrick Mahomes 105.2 level (though in far fewer attempts). Purdy’s performance helped lead the 49ers to a league high 194 points since he stepped in for Garappolo. The midseason addition of Christian McCaffrey has made Kyle Shanahan’s team a nightmare to play against, leading to an NFL best +173 point differential. The Niners defense led by NFL sacks leader Nick Bosa (18.5) and fellow All-Pro’s Fred Warner and Talanoa Hufanga has allowed the fewest points in the league at 277, and are holding teams to a league low 3.4 yards per carry. When Purdy and the sixth best offense (by points scored) has the ball, McCaffrey and friends will be competing against a Seattle run defense that is allowing nearly five yards per attempt, 27th in the league.
In his first year of the post-Russell Wilson era, Pete Carroll was supposed to be rebuilding his team, leaning on stopgap journeyman quarterback Geno Smith to be a bridge until the next franchise signal caller came along. Smith was a second round pick of the Jets in 2013, and had started all of 33 games prior to 2022, with a total of five starts since the 2015 season. At 32, nobody expected greatness, but that’s what Smith delivered, completing a career best 69.8% of his passes to lead the NFL. Smith’s 100.9 passer rating was good for fifth in the league, ahead of both Joe Burrow and Josh Allen, and was the primary reason the Seahawks snuck into the playoffs on the season’s final Sunday. Rookie Kenneth Walker III rushed for 1,050 yards, and the receiving combination of DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett had 21 TD’s and more than 2,000 yards. This contest will feature perhaps the unlikeliest quarterback matchup of the entire playoffs in terms of career accomplishments to date, but reputations are made in the playoffs, and either Purdy or Smith with get at least one more week to add another chapter to their blossoming resumes.
New York Giants (NFC 6th seed) at Minnesota Vikings (NFC 3rd seed)
The Vikings may be the least qualified 13 win team in the history of the game. Consider that the Vikings reached that mark despite allowing more points (427) than they scored (424), and were an NFL record setting 11-0 in games decided by one score (eight points or less). That may indicate that the Vikings, in their first season under rookie coach Kevin O’Connell, were extremely fortunate, or that their veteran players just know how to perform in clutch situations. Led by the best receiver in the NFL, who paced the league in receptions (128) and receiving yards (1,809), Justin Jefferson is the first Viking ever to lead the NFL in receiving yards in a season, and he also paced the league in contested catches, none more jaw-dropping this his acrobatic snag on a fourth and 18 play while horizontal in mid-air against Buffalo in the most entertaining contest of the NFL season to date. O’Connell deploys veteran offensive talent around QB Kirk Cousins, including Adam Thielen, Dalvin Cook, and mid-season acquisition TJ Hockenson, who was acquired from the Lions and has become Cousins safety net on check downs. The Minnesota offensive line has suffered significant injuries in the past month, and the performance of that unit may well tell the tale for the Vikings in the postseason. The Vikings defense, which features Pro Bowler Za’Darius Smith, is less formidable than the offense, and those 427 points they allowed were only better than the woeful Bears and Cardinals. Danielle Hunter and Smith combined for 21 sacks, and veterans Harrison Smith and Patrick Peterson each had five interceptions, but more often than not, the Vikings allowed their opposition to stay close enough to require late rallies.
The Giants, at 9-7-1, had an even worse point differential (-6) than the Vikings, and had offensive and defensive rankings that were in the middle of the pack in 2022. Rookie coach Brian Daboll showed that he was ready for the top spot after 21 previous NFL seasons on the sideline, most recently as the offensive coordinator leading the Josh Allen fueled Buffalo attack that led the NFL in points in 2021. While Daniel Jones is not the same caliber of player (he was the sixth overall pick in the 2019 draft), he led the NFL in interception rate (1.1% of his throws) and had a career best 92.5 passer rating. Saquon Barkley stayed healthy enough to start 16 games, and had a career best 1,312 rushing yards and a team-best 10 TD’s. Barkley was also the Giants best receiving threat, corralling 57 catches, tied for the most on the squad with Richie James. The lone meeting between the clubs this season came down to a game-winning career long 61 yard field goal by Greg Joseph that helped the Vikings win 27-24 in Minnesota on Christmas Eve. These two teams were second and third in terms of penalties committed this season, so there may well be copious amounts of referee face time on the broadcast, but given the predilections of these franchises, the game will likely be decided in its waning moments.
Dallas Cowboys (NFC 5th seed) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (NFC 4th seed)
Even though Dallas is the lower seed, they have a better record (12-5) than Tampa Bay (8-9), and are thus considered three point favorites to win their Wild Card round game in Tampa. These two teams met Opening Week in Dallas, and Tampa Bay throttled the Cowboys 19-3, in a game where Dak Prescott injured his right wrist and required surgery to repair the damage, counting him out of the team’s next five games. Both Brady and Prescott were sacked twice and threw interceptions, and the Bucs leaned on Leonard Fournette, who had 21 carries for 127 yards and a touchdown, to lead them to victory.The Bucs are still led by the ageless Tom Brady, and he alone might be the reason that pundits give his team a puncher’s chance in the race to the Super Bowl. Todd Bowles, in his first year as Tampa’s head coach, did what he needed to do to secure the NFC South Division title despite a losing record and the worst point differential (-45) of any team in the playoffs, by leaning heavily on his 45-year-old legend. Brady, who started all 17 games this year, led the NFL in both attempts and completions, though his passer rating was just 90.7, 18th best in the league. The offense scored only 313 points all season, 25th in the league, and was limited by an offensive line decimated by significant injury. Their rushing attack was dead last in football, and had just five scores on the ground all year. The top receiving duo of Chris Godwin and Mike Evans combined for 181 catches, 2,150 yards and nine TD’s, and will need to get loose to make big plays against a Dallas defense that doesn’t allow many of them.
The Cowboys, helmed by third year coach Mike McCarthy (who has gone 12-5 in back-to-back seasons in Dallas), has Super Bowl aspirations despite disappointing playoff results in their past several bites at the apple. Dallas hasn’t been to the Super Bowl since winning it in 1995, though they’ve been to the playoffs 11 times since. The Cowboys are 4-11 during that span, and franchise leader Dak Prescott is 1-3 in the playoffs with a 61% completion percentage and an 87.9 passer rating, drawing the ire of the Dallas faithful. A deep run into the playoffs for the Cowboys will almost certainly be fueled by their defense, and their superstar linebacker Micah Parsons, whose 13.5 sacks and game-wrecking talent has been the engine for a vicious pass rush in 2022. With Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence on the edges, opposing QB’s are being pressured at a 25.1% rate per passing attempt, the best mark in the league and bad news for a leaky offensive line and a largely immobile pocket passer like Brady. Ex-Cowboys coach Jason Garrett noted that Dallas is only 1-4 playing on natural grass this season, providing some solace to Bucs fans who fear the wrath that may rain down upon Brady Monday night. If the league has learned anything over the course of Brady’s incomparable career, it is that underestimating him or doubting his ability to produce moments of excellence when required often leads to bitter disappointment.
Wild Card Predictions:
San Francisco over Seattle
Minnesota over New York
Dallas over Tampa Bay
Philadelphia over Dallas
San Francisco over Minnesota
Philadelphia over San Francisco
Buffalo over Philadelphia
Statistical research by Matt Vogel