The NFL wild-card round for the 2021 season is stacked with great matchups, and we got you covered with what you need to know heading into the six-game weekend. Our NFL Nation reporters bring us the biggest keys to every game, a bold prediction for each matchup and, of course, final score picks.
Additionally, ESPN Stats & Information provides a big stat to know and a betting nugget for each contest, and our Football Power Index (FPI) goes inside the numbers with a matchup rating (on a scale of 1 to 100) and a game projection. Matt Bowen picks out a key matchup to watch for every game, and Kevin Seifert tells us what to know about the officiating. Everything you want to know is here in one spot to help you get ready for a loaded weekend of NFL playoff football.
Let’s get into the full wild-card slate, including Joe Burrow and Derek Carr doing battle on Saturday to kick things off, the Patriots and Bills meeting for a third time, Tom Brady attempting to start yet another run to the Super Bowl against the Eagles, Nick Bosa and Micah Parsons facing off on Sunday afternoon and Ben Roethlisberger trying to keep, what could potentially be his final season, alive against the Chiefs. It all culminates with a Monday Night Football matchup between the Cardinals and the Rams on ESPN.
Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET | NBC
Matchup rating: 46.3 | Spread: CIN -5.5 (48.5)
What to watch for: This game could be decided early. The Raiders need pass-rushers Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue to fluster Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, who is currently in the best form of his young career. If Cincinnati goes up early and Burrow finds his rhythm, it could be a long day for a Raiders’ offense that was tied for 18th in yards per drive during their four-game win streak. Both teams will want this one badly; it’s the first playoff meeting in NFL history between teams who are each at least 18 years removed from their last postseason win, per the Elias Sports Bureau. — Ben Baby
Bold prediction: Raiders receiver Hunter Renfrow will have more catches and more TDs than Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase, whose 1,455 receiving yards were the most by a rookie in the Super Bowl era. Weather will be a factor on Saturday, so the vertical passing game and Chase’s explosiveness could be negatively affected. But that plays into the midrange passing game in which Renfrow — who led Las Vegas in catches (103), receiving yards (1,038) and receiving TDs (9) — excels, especially as the security blanket for quarterback Derek Carr, who is not afraid to check it down. — Paul Gutierrez
Stat to know: Burrow led the NFL in completion percentage (70.4%) and yards per attempt (8.9) this season, the youngest player in NFL history ever to do both in the same season (25). However, he was also sacked 51 times, and of the previous 54 QBs sacked 50 times in a season, none reached the Super Bowl.
Dan Orlovsky believes the Bengals might have trouble vs. the Raiders if Joe Burrow isn’t protected better by the offensive line.
What to know for officiating: This game will feature a matchup of the NFL’s least-penalized team against the third-most penalized team. The Raiders (142) were flagged nearly 70% more frequently than the Bengals (84), and Vegas offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood led the league in false starts (seven). Referee Jerome Boger received his second consecutive playoff assignment after going seven years without one, and his regular-season crew tied for No. 11 in the NFL with an average of 13.3 flags thrown per game. — Kevin Seifert
Betting nugget: Carr is 19-13 against the spread as an underdog over the past three seasons. Read more on E+.
Gutierrez’s pick: Raiders 20, Bengals 17
Baby’s pick: Bengals 31, Raiders 17
FPI prediction: CIN, 67.5% (by an average of 6.0 points)
Matchup must-reads: ‘Job’s not done’: Raiders’ Carr finally gets a playoff start, but wants more … Bengals poised to end ‘Curse of Bo Jackson’ … Inside the chaos and weirdness of the 2021 Raiders season
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET | CBS
Matchup rating: 90.7 | Spread: BUF -4 (44)
What to watch for: Can Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen put on a performance like he did in New England a few weeks ago, or will his recent accuracy issues show up? In the last two games of the regular season, Allen completed 49.3% of passes. The Patriots, meanwhile, held opponents to the second-lowest completion percentage in the league this year, only behind the Bills. Plus, Allen has the second-worst completion percentage in freezing game temperatures over the past 15 seasons (50%), so his ability to put together a more complete game at home will go a long way in the outcome. — Alaina Getzenberg
Bold prediction: Brrrrrr. Here’s a bold prediction: They are going to run out of hot chocolate at Highmark Stadium, with temperatures projected to be around 0 degrees. The coldest game the Patriots ever played was a 17-14 home playoff win over the Titans on Jan. 10, 2004, when it was 4 degrees with a wind chill of minus-10. For the Bills, the coldest game in franchise history was Jan. 15, 1994 — a 29-23 playoff win over the Raiders when it was 0 degrees with a wind chill of minus-32. — Mike Reiss
Stat to know: Bills receiver Stefon Diggs has 15 catches for 233 yards and three touchdowns against Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson since 2020. Jackson has only allowed four touchdowns as the nearest defender to all other players combined over the past two seasons, per NFL’s Next Gen Stats.
Bowen’s game-plan key: In the Week 16 win over the Patriots, the Bills played man on 61% of coverage snaps against Patriots QB Mac Jones, while also using late rotation from the safeties. Jones was 14-of-32 for 145 yards and two interceptions. Read more on E+.
What to know for officiating: The Bills were the NFL’s fourth-most penalized team (139), led by offensive linemen tackle Dion Dawkins (nine) and Spencer Brown (eight). The Patriots ranked No. 8 (105). And referee Brad Allen’s regular season ranked No. 10 in the NFL with an average of 13.4 flags thrown per game. — Kevin Seifert
Betting nugget: Rookie quarterbacks are 0-6 outright in the postseason since 2010 (2-4 against the spread). The past three rookie QBs to reach the playoffs went 0-3 against the spread and outright. Read more on E+.
Reiss’ pick: Bills 20, Patriots 17
Getzenberg’s pick: Bills 17, Patriots 13
FPI prediction: BUF, 61.6% (by an average of 3.9 points)
Matchup must-reads: Is this Belichick’s best coaching job with the Patriots? … Brothers Stefon and Trevon continue to push each other to further heights … Jones’ play sparks questions about rookie wall as Patriots enter playoffs … Top moments from the Patriots-Bills rivalry … Bills, Patriots enter their first playoff matchup in 58 years on different paths
Sunday, 1 p.m. ET | FOX
Matchup rating: 68.8 | Spread: TB -8.5 (46)
What to watch for: The Buccaneers have boasted the league’s top-ranked run defense the past two years but have looked vulnerable in that department the past two weeks, giving up over 100 yards on the ground in each of the last two regular-season games. Pay close attention to the perimeter, where Eagles running back Miles Sanders is dangerous with his lateral quickness. The Eagles average 6.0 yards per carry, and the Bucs have given up 4.6 yards a pop. They also had issues defending run-pass options last week, and coach Bruce Arians acknowledged that Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts “is a lot faster than Sam Darnold.” Much will depend on how much Tampa Bay can get out of defensive starters Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and Lavonte David. — Jenna Laine
Bold prediction: It will take a late scoring drive by Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady for the Bucs to survive and advance. Sure, this is Hurts’ first playoff start and Brady’s 46th (Hurts was just three years old when Brady made his postseason debut during the 2001 season). And yes, the defending champion Bucs are heavy favorites. But Tampa Bay doesn’t have the same firepower on offense as it did in a Week 6 win over Philly, while the Eagles have established a new run-heavy identity (league-high 159.7 rush yards per game). The underdog Eagles will play loose, physical and inspired football and put a scare into the GOAT. — Tim McManus
Stat to know: According to ESPN tracking, Brady was pressured on 16.8% of his dropbacks this season, his lowest since 2011, and has averaged 2.5 seconds from snap to release. The Eagles have blitzed 19% of the time (lowest in the NFL), sacked opponents 4.5% of the time (third-worst) and pressured opponents 27% of the time (seventh-worst).
Bowen’s game-plan key: The Buccaneers have been Cover 3-heavy this season (31.2% of coverage snaps), but will they match up in passing situations or use a linebacker to re-route Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert — who has five or more receptions in four of his past six games — at the line of scrimmage? Read more on E+.
Jeff Saturday and Domonique Foxworth break down whether the Eagles have any advantage against the Buccaneers in Sunday’s wild-card matchup.
What to know for officiating: Referee Craig Wrolstad, whose regular-season crew ranked No. 9 in the NFL with 13.8 flags thrown per game, received his first playoff appearance in five years here. Roughing the passer flags are generally thrown by the referee, and Wrolstad tied for the league’s second-most such calls (12). The Eagles and Buccaneers, however, were only called for three roughing flags apiece during the season. — Kevin Seifert
Betting nugget: Philadelphia is 10-1 against the spread as a postseason underdog since 2001 (6-5 outright), and it covered in five of its past six playoff games. Read more on E+.
McManus’ pick: Buccaneers 31, Eagles 30
Laine’s pick: Buccaneers 31, Eagles 26
FPI prediction: TB, 77.4% (by an average of 9.9 points)
Matchup must-reads: What makes Eagles quarterback Hurts tick? ‘He wants to be so perfect’ … Sherman put on injured reserve, shifts focus to ‘coaching butt off’ for Buccaneers … Brady revisits snub of Foles’ handshake ahead of rematch vs. Eagles, says ‘I try to be a good sport’
Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET | CBS
Matchup rating: 79.5 | Spread: DAL -3 (51)
What to watch for: These storied rivals are meeting in the postseason for the first time since the 1994 NFC Championship — and for the first time in the wild-card round. The Cowboys own a 5-2 advantage in postseason meetings against San Francisco and are 3-0 in wild-card games at AT&T Stadium. They can’t allow the Niners’ run game to control the tempo of the contest and need big plays on offense. San Francisco allowed 51 pass plays of 20 yards or more during the regular season. — Todd Archer
Bold prediction: San Francisco receiver Deebo Samuel will remind everyone that he’s the NFL’s most dangerous multipurpose weapon, going for 200-plus yards from scrimmage. The Cowboys secondary is giving up 6.3 yards after catch per reception this season, second-most in the NFL, while Samuel is first in the league in gaining those yards (10.0). Add in Samuel’s ability to create havoc from the backfield against a Dallas defense susceptible to the run (especially on the perimeter), and Samuel is well-positioned for a big day. — Nick Wagoner
Stat to know: Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is 7-0 when he doesn’t throw an interception this season and 2-6 when he does. Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs led the NFL with 11 interceptions, which was the most by any player since Everson Walls (11) in 1981.
Bowen’s game-plan key: Watch for Dallas to manipulate zone looks by overloading them and creating boundary voids. Cowboys QB Dak Prescott posted 30 explosive play throws against zone coverages during the regular season. Read more on E+.
What to know for officiating: Alex Kemp will be the referee in his second playoff game, and his regular-season crew ranked No. 8 in the NFL with an average of 14.4 flags thrown per game. He could have his hands full with the Cowboys, who were the league’s most penalized team with 153 flags — 10 more than the next-closest team. Among other players, guard Connor Williams led the league in holding calls (13) and was second overall with 15 total penalties. Cornerback Trevon Diggs had 11 total penalties. — Kevin Seifert
Betting nugget: Dallas was 10-3 against the spread as a favorite this season, the best cover percentage in those spots in the NFL. It also went 6-3 against the spread against teams with winning records this season, best among teams playing this weekend. Read more on E+.
Wagoner’s pick: 49ers 30, Cowboys 21
Archer’s pick: Cowboys 31, 49ers 27
FPI prediction: DAL, 64.0% (by an average of 4.7 points)
Matchup must-reads: Why the blocks of 49ers tackle Williams went viral … Brothers Stefon and Trevon continue to push each other to further heights … Garoppolo ‘could have easily tapped out,’ instead he ‘stepped up’ … Can Cowboys’ Parsons follow Kearse’s footsteps all the way to the Super Bowl?
Sunday, 8:15 p.m. ET | NBC
Matchup rating: 61.1 | Spread: KC -13 (46)
What to watch for: Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has a career QBR of 91.9 against the Steelers, higher than against any other opponent. Sure, it’s only two games, including one in 2018. But if the Steelers allow Mahomes to do as he pleases — he has nine TD passes with zero interceptions in the two games — Pittsburgh’s path to victory appears non-existent. The Steelers have lost three straight playoff games, giving up an average of 43.0 points in those games. — Adam Teicher
Bold prediction: The Steelers will make it a one-possession game in the fourth quarter. They got blown out in the regular-season meeting three weeks ago and trailed 23-0 at halftime. This time around, though, the Steelers are playing with house money. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger even said his club probably shouldn’t be in the playoffs and that they’re 14th out of the 14 teams in the playoffs. But even when they can’t get off to a fast start, the Steelers have had success in second-half surges. The Chiefs have more talent, but the Steelers have the momentum after two straight wins and will make this game closer than it should be. — Brooke Pryor
Stat to know: Pittsburgh running back Najee Harris had 1,200 rushing yards this season — a team rookie record — and at least 90 rushing yards in three of his past five games after doing so three total times in the first 12 games of season.
Louis Riddick breaks down the keys to success for the Steelers to upset the Chiefs on wild-card weekend.
What to know for officiating: Two Steelers — receiver Dionte Johnson and offensive lineman Chukwuma Okorafor — tied for second in the league in false starts (six), but Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones tied for third in the NFL with a total of seven defensive offsides, encroachment or neutral zone infractions. And the Steelers might want to target Chiefs cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, who tied for second in the NFL with five defensive pass interference penalties. Referee Shawn Smith’s regular-season crew tied for No. 11 in the NFL with an average of 13.3 flags thrown per game. — Kevin Seifert
Betting nugget: Ten of Kansas City’s 17 games this season went over the total, tied for the second-highest over percentage in the NFL this season. But only six of Pittsburgh’s games went over the total. Read more on E+.
Pryor’s pick: Chiefs 31, Steelers 24
Teicher’s pick: Chiefs 26, Steelers 16
FPI prediction: KC, 75.9% (by an average of 9.3 points)
Matchup must-reads: Steelers open 21-day window for Smith-Schuster to return from injured reserve … Steadiness of Reid righted the Chiefs’ season … Roethlisberger on Steelers’ long odds against Chiefs: ‘Let’s just go in and play and have fun’ … Chiefs have dominated first quarters, but after that ‘they’re stalling out’
What to watch for: The Rams and Cardinals split the regular-season series, each winning on the road. The Cardinals dominated in Week 4 with a 37-20 win, enabled by a flawless Kyler Murray performance and their defense forcing two turnovers that were converted into touchdowns. In Week 14, Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald wreaked havoc for Murray when he turned in a three-sack outing. So what can be expected in the rubber match? The Cardinals played their best on the road (8-1), while the Rams are coming off a disheartening loss in the regular-season finale and are intent on proving they can not only move on but also remain a Super Bowl-caliber team. Watch for Murray and Matthew Stafford to enter a quarterback dual, with the one who produces the fewest errors advancing to the divisional round. — Lindsey Thiry
Bold prediction: All signs point to Arizona defensive lineman J.J. Watt returning from shoulder surgery for Monday night’s game, and with him will come a major boost for the Cardinals’ defense. He will get two sacks and a fumble recovery to spark the Cardinals into the divisional round with another road win. Arizona’s defense was generating pressure on 31% of opponent dropbacks before Watt’s Week 7 injury, but that dropped to 23% without him over the rest of the regular season. — Josh Weinfuss
Stat to know: Rams running back Sony Michel has 554 rushing yards since Week 12, the third-most in the NFL over that span behind Rashaad Penny and Jonathan Taylor. But on the other sideline, Cardinals running back James Conner scored 18 touchdowns this season, the NFL’s third-most this season.
Bowen’s game-plan key: Can Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury use play designs to get receiver Christian Kirk loose on the deep corners and crossers? Kirk had three receptions for 86 yards in the last meeting with the L.A. defense. Read more on E+.
What to know for officiating: Clay Martin will be appearing in his second playoff game as a referee, and his regular-season crew ranked No. 13 in the NFL with an average of 12.9 flags thrown per game. The Rams finished the season with the NFL’s third-fewest flags (92), while the Cardinals ranked No. 24 with 120. Offensive lineman Josh Jones led the Cardinals will 12 total flags, including five false starts and four holds. — Kevin Seifert
Betting nugget: Four of the past five meetings between these two teams have gone over the total. Read more on E+.
Weinfuss’ pick: Cardinals 34, Rams 24
Thiry’s pick: Rams 28, Cardinals 21
FPI prediction: LAR, 58.0% (by an average of 2.7 points)
Matchup must-reads: Is Murray the best QB from Texas? … Safety Weddle unretires, joins Rams for playoffs … Kingsbury expects Murray to play ‘best game of his career’ … Rams’ NFC West title spoiled by another bitter loss to 49ers
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