First-round playoff predictions

Following an exciting NFL season that featured an extra game for each team across the board, an entertaining first round of the playoffs will kick off this weekend.

The opening weekend of the NFL playoffs is always one of the best weekends of the year. This year is nothing short of that so let’s take a look at my picks for wildcard weekend.

(4) Cincinnati Bengals 10-7 vs (5) Las Vegas Raiders 10-7

After a thrilling end to the regular season in the Sunday night contest between the Raiders and the Chargers, Las Vegas has clinched a playoff spot. Coming into this contest the Raiders are winners of four straight games and are peaking at the right time. Derek Carr will have the opportunity to play in his first playoff game for the Raiders and will have a tall task taking on the Cincinnati Bengals.

Another team that is playing its best football at the right time, following a 34-31 win over the Chiefs, is the Bengals. Joe Burrow is hitting his stride despite the Bengals losing their season finale without him leading the charge. He should be back under center to start the playoffs against a familiar foe. The Bengals took a trip to Las Vegas in Week 11 which resulted in a 32-13 win for Cincinnati.

I don’t think the Raiders will let Cincinnati run away with this matchup. They will be able to break down the film and realize what worked/didn’t work in the first matchup. Ultimately, I think the Bengals will come out on top in this rematch with the Raiders.

27-20 Bengals

(3) Buffalo Bills 11-6 vs (6) New England Patriots 10-7

Following the first meetings between these two sides, it seemed that this matchup could be the other way around. Since the Patriots’ 14-10 win over the Bills, they’ve just won a single game, dropping matchups vs the Bills, Colts, and Dolphins. However, this team is still dangerous as ever with Bill Belichick leading the charge. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones will need to play mistake-free football in his first playoff game to advance the Patriots to the divisional round.

The Bills, on the other hand, are winners of four straight games coming into the playoffs. Running Back Devin Singletary is finally beginning to hit his stride in the backfield. They still boast one of the best defenses in the National Football League and Josh Allen will need to put behind his 2-2 playoff record in this one.

I think the Patriots could be a wildcard team that makes some noise in the playoffs but they need to get past Buffalo first. They are peaking at the right time. I don’t think Mac Jones can keep up with Josh Allen and the Bills offense in this one.

30-24 Bills

(2) Tampa Bay Buccaneers 13-4 vs (7) Philadelphia Eagles 9-8

I’m not sure if anybody is giving the Eagles a chance in this game. They’ve been too up and down all season long. They’re the only team in the playoff field with just one win vs a team with a winning record. Defeating the Saints in Week 11, they have a couple of embarrassing losses to the Cowboys and the Chiefs.

Tampa Bay will come into the playoffs missing some key pieces across the board. Without offensive weapons Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, there is hope with Leonard Fournette returning. Along with Shaq Barrett and Lavonte David, who are both being designated to return this week, the Bucs have two defensive weapons back in the game.

Tom Brady will come out fired up with hopes of making it back to yet another Super Bowl. Regaining weapons for their offense and defense will continue to bolster the strength of this team. Jalen Hurts will be dealt with a tall task as he heads into his first playoff game. This should be a fun game to watch on Sunday.

33-21 Bucs

(3) Dallas Cowboys 12-5 vs (6) San Francisco 49ers 10-7

I think this matchup has the potential to be the best game this weekend. The Cowboys’ offense has shown they have life, especially as of late scoring 50+ points in two of their last three games. The outlier was a matchup vs the Cardinals, where the offense was held in check throughout the game in the loss. Dak Prescott looks like he is back to his old self following his injury but it will be challenging against a stifling 49ers defense.

San Francisco is another team that is playing its best football at the right time. They’ve overcome a couple of early-season losses to hit their stride. As much as Jimmy Garropolo is testing the patience of the Niner faithfuls, he seems to just always get it done when it matters most. Deebo Samuel is still making his case for why he should be considered one of the best weapons in all of football. Along with Brandon Aiyuk, George Kittle, and Eli Mitchell, the 49ers’ offense is full of threats top to bottom.

As good as Dak and the Cowboys have been this season, I think the Niners present an interesting matchup for their offense. San Francisco might start off slow, but they always bounce back in the second half of games. If the Cowboys don’t jump out to an early lead big and bury them, the 49ers have a chance to win this game. I like the upset in this one in Arlington.

27-24 49ers

(4) Los Angeles Rams 12-5 vs (5) Arizona Cardinals 11-6

Another wild card matchup between two teams in the same division, Monday night should be a good game. These teams are very familiar with each other. After splitting the season series, it all comes down to this matchup. The Cardinals have lost four of their last five coming into the playoffs after presumably having the division on lock. James Conner seems to be the only consent within this offense. He just keeps finding the endzone. They will still be without their top receiver Deandre Hopkins for this matchup forcing Kyler Murray to continue to rely on other veteran weapons like Zach Ertz and A.J. Green.

Matthew Stafford had a troublesome ending to his first season in the blue and gold throwing eight interceptions in his final four games. In spite of his struggles, the Rams have found ways to win behind their amazing defense headlined by Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald. Cam Akers making a quick turnaround from his Achilles injury could prove to be a difference-maker down the stretch if the Rams are going to make a deep playoff run.

This matchup could go either way in my opinion. It all comes down to the play of Matthew Stafford. If he is put in situations where he has to force passes and makes mistakes, then it could be the Cardinals’ game to lose.

26-19 Rams