(CBS Pittsburgh) — The NFL made it through the regular season without missing a game. Some were delayed or rescheduled. Many didn’t include players who tested positive for COVID or were exposed to people who tested positive. But, in the end, it was a full season. Let’s hope the league continues its run in the playoffs.
Wild Card weekend offers an expanded lineup of games. With the field changed to seven teams in each conference, and only the top seed receiving a bye, there are six games. In the AFC at least, that results in three stellar matchups. The Indianapolis Colts (11-5) meet the red-hot Buffalo Bills (13-3). The Baltimore Ravens (11-5) and Tennessee Titans (11-5) face off in a rematch of last year’s divisional game. And the Cleveland Browns (11-5) play the Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) for the second time in two weeks. (The Kansas City Chiefs (14-2) automatically advance to the divisional round.)
CBS Pittsburgh sports anchor Bob Pompeani breaks down the AFC matchups for Wild Card weekend.
All times listed are Eastern.
Indianapolis Colts vs. Buffalo Bills, Saturday, January 9 @ 1:05 p.m. (CBS)
The Bills enter the playoffs on a six-game win streak. In that time, they’ve averaged over 38 points per game, boosting their season average to 31.3 points per game. That’s second only to the Green Bay Packers. Their 396.4 yards per game is second only the Kansas City Chiefs. And Josh Allen deserves a lot of the credit.
“I just think Josh Allen is operating on a totally different arc right now, when you look at his season, all his touchdown passes plus the rushing touchdowns,” says Pompeani. “He’s developed more and more confidence. I think he’s got some great receivers. Stefon Diggs is going to be hard for Indianapolis to contain.”
Allen completed over 69 percent of his passes in the regular season, averaging 284 yards per game with 37 touchdowns on the season. Those stats put him in elite company, particularly since that’s not the complete story. Allen has eight rushing touchdowns and is always a threat to run. One thing he doesn’t have is a wealth of playoff experience.
His Colts counterpart, Philip Rivers, has been here multiple times, albeit without much success. He never advanced past the divisional round with this former team, the Chargers. Could this be his year? “Philip Rivers is the veteran,” notes Pompeani. “He understands this. He hasn’t won a lot in the postseason. But when you got Jonathan Taylor running the ball the way he’s running the ball, coming off a 200+ performance day, this could be trouble for Buffalo.”
Taylor is coming off a 253-yard rushing performance against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars. However, it was only his third 100+-yard game of the season. And the Bills’ defense is a big step up from the Jaguars’.
The Bills are riding high, having seemingly taken over the AFC East from the New England Patriots. Still, this is all new to them. “They haven’t had a lot of experience with this,” Pompeani points out. “But they’re winning winning playoff spots three the last four years has helped them. This is their first division title since 1995. I think it all looks like a Buffalo win.”
Baltimore Ravens vs. Tennessee Titans, Saturday, January 9 @ 1:05 p.m. (ESPN)
Last season’s Ravens looked Super Bowl-bound at the end of the season. And then they met Derrick Henry and a Titans team with different ideas. Baltimore has had its struggles this season, including a three-game losing streak and an offense that seemed off its game at times. They won’t be looking past Tennessee this time.
“A rematch of last year, when Baltimore thought they had an easy road maybe to the Super Bowl,” says Pompeani. “14-2, bye week and then boom, Tennessee comes in and they run the ball right down their throats, with a good defensive performance against Lamar Jackson, who wasn’t all that good in that game. So I expect Baltimore to be better.”
They’ll have to be, with Henry picking up this season right where he left off. The Titans’ titan of a running back rushed for 2,027 yards this season, almost 500 yards more than anyone else. He also averaged over 5.3 yards per carry and over 126 yards per game.
Baltimore’s defense will have their work cut out for them. But so will Tennessee’s. The Ravens actually led all teams in rushing yards this season with 3,071. And while Lamar Jackson had his fair share (1,005 yards to be exact), he had help. J.K. Dobbins picked up 805 yards on the ground, and Gus Edwards chipped in another 723 yards. Dobbins has at least one touchdown in six straight games.
“I expect Baltimore to win this game, they are a better team,” says Pompeani. “I think Baltimore has a lot of revenge on their mind. I think the Ravens will take down the Titans.”
Cleveland Browns vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, January 10 @ 8:15 p.m. (NBC)
The Browns finally made it back to the playoffs after an 18-year drought. But they will have to play on at a decided disadvantage. Their head coach recently tested positive for COVID and will miss the game. Multiple players have been moved to the Reserve/COVID-19 list and could miss the game as well. Exactly who remains to be seen, but the list will certainly include Kevin Stefanski.
“Kevin Stefanski is not just the head coach, he’s the play caller on offense,” Pompeani points out. “He’s a guy who does a lot more than most head coaches do. So his absence is going to make it harder on Alex Van Pelt, who I suspect will call the plays. They got the special teams coach, (Mike) Priefer, as their head coach, or at least acting head coach. There’s a lot of stuff there. Plus they’ve lost Olivier Vernon. They’ve lost their best offensive lineman in Joel Bitonio.”
Stefanski’s absence will make it that much harder on a Browns team that barely punched its ticket in Week 17 against a Steelers team resting Ben Roethlisberger and other key starters. The Steelers haven’t looked that sharp of late themselves. After winning their first 11 games, they lost four of five games to close the season. The running game, in particular, was close to nonexistent during that stretch.
“I like Pittsburgh to win this game,” says Pompeani. “I think all the pressure, however, is on the Steelers. Cleveland comes in with no expectations now. So I look for the Steelers to win this rather impressively, rather handily, and they will then go on to take on Buffalo, based on how I see it.”