NFL column: Picking the wild card winners

Associated PressSeattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) during an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Glendale, Ariz.

Welcome to Super Wild Card Weekend, which is the NFL marketing arm’s way of letting you know they added an extra team to the playoffs in each conference this year.

It’s worth celebrating the fact all 256 regular-season games were played during this pandemic-stricken season, and it’s a blessing to have playoff football to look forward to.

So let’s get down to business and pick the first six winners of the postseason:

SATURDAY

Indianapolis (11-5) at Buffalo (13-3), 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS: The Bills, seeking their first playoff win since 1996, enter as a seven-point favorite. That makes a ton of sense for the hottest team in the NFL. Buffalo has won nine of its last 10 games and is averaging 47.3 points over its last three outings. That’s not a typo. The Bills are putting up numbers reminiscent of a Power 5 college football team playing a weak non-conference schedule.

The Colts have played well at times but haven’t been consistent. Indianapolis also will play this game without left tackle Anthony Castonzo, a factor that historically has limited its offensive production. THE PICK: Bills, 34-27.

L.A. Rams (10-6) at Seattle (12-4). 4:40 p.m., FOX: The Seahawks are favored by four but won’t have the usual overwhelming home-field advantage without fans in attendance. The teams split the season series, with each winning at home. The Rams took a 23-16 decision on Nov. 15, and Seattle returned the favor with a 20-9 victory on Dec. 27 that clinched the NFC West.

The Seahawks offense has dropped off precipitously in the second half of the season, but the defense has greatly improved. That should be enough to get past the Rams and injured quarterback Jared Goff. THE PICK: Seahawks, 26-21.

Tampa Bay (11-5) at Washington (7-9), 8:15 p.m., NBC: Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady is in the playoffs as a wild card for the first time, and his reward is the third team to make the postseason with a losing record after a full 16-game regular season. The Football Team has fought through significant adversity with head coach Ron Rivera winning a battle against cancer and quarterback Alex Smith returning from a gruesome leg injury that threatened his career.

But it’s doubtful Washington, an eight-point underdog, will have any on-field answers in this one, and Tampa Bay is motivated to be the first team to play the Super Bowl on its home field. THE PICK: Bucs, 28-17.

SUNDAY

Baltimore (11-5) at Tennessee (11-5), 1:05 p.m., ABC/ESPN: Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has rediscovered his mojo, and Baltimore has a grudge to resolve. As the No. 1 seed in the AFC a year ago, the Ravens lost at home to the Titans. Now Baltimore is favored by 3.5 points to return the favor in Tennessee.

Titans running back Derrick Henry has been a juggernaut with 2,027 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground this season, ensuring nothing will come easily for the Ravens. THE PICK: Ravens, 34-31.

Chicago (8-8) at New Orleans (12-4), 4:40 p.m., CBS: Yes, the Bears backed into the postseason when Arizona lost Sunday, and they did suffer through a six-game midseason losing streak. But these teams went to overtime Nov. 1 at Soldier Field, with New Orleans winning 26-23. This one will be at the Superdome, but again the crowd is unlikely to be a significant factor.

The Saints are the biggest favorite of the weekend at 9.5 points, but my guess is this game is slightly closer than expected. THE PICK: Saints, 28-20.

Cleveland (11-5) at Pittsburgh (12-4), 8:15 p.m., NBC: This should at least be more fun than last week’s Sunday Night Football slog. The Browns are back in the playoffs for the first time in 18 years, and they meet their long-time rival in the first round. The Steelers rested several starters – and had others out due to COVID – in last week’s 24-22 loss, but they won 38-7 at Cleveland on Oct. 18 and are six-point favorites in this one.

The Browns will be without head coach Kevin Stefanski and left guard Joel Bitonio because of the coronavirus and have been battling the pandemic for much of the past two weeks. THE PICK: Steelers, 27-21.

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