The NFL regular season is done and dusted, we now head into Wild Card weekend where there are 6 high quality games to sink our teeth into. This is the NFC portion of the preview material for the week, with 3 games played on Monday and Tuesday. We finished the regular season in Week 18 with an 8-8 week, and are now 136-133 on out tips for the season.
Raymond James Stadium, Monday 5:00am AEDT
The reigning Super Bowl champions have made it to the postseason with minimal hiccups once again. Tom Brady continues to look ageless, leading his Buccaneers to a big win over the Panthers last week despite having lost Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown for the season. Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski are the pass-catching focal points, with Breshad Perriman and Tyler Johnson doing their best to fill the remainder of the void left by the two stars. Leonard Fournette hasn’t been playing for the last month, and should be a much needed addition with Ronald Jones and others struggling to fill the void.
The Eagles managed to sneak into the playoffs with a 9-8 record, after being belted by the Cowboys in a fairly meaningless game featuring mostly backups. The teams strength is in rushing, with QB Jalen Hurts most dangerous with his legs and a strong committee of Miles Sanders, Boston Scott, Kenneth Gainwell and Jordan Howard all able to contribute. Hurts can link up with his favourite targets Devonta Smith and Dallas Goedert at times, but it is hit and miss. With the Buccs defensive strength being stopping the run and rushing the passer, Jalen Hurts will need to find a way to do more damage through the air in case the running game is less effective than usual.
This is playoff football and I can see a tight tussle unfolding, but I think the class of Brady and the relative defensive weakness of the Eagles will be enough to see the Buccs with a 10+ point victory.
AT & T Stadium, Monday 8:30am AEDT
The 49ers won 4 of their last 5 games to get into the playoffs with a 10-7 record, putting the cherry on top with a hard fought win over divisional rivals the Rams last week. The signs are good for all of the teams most important weapons, with Jimmy Garropolo having a solid game in particular. Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle have been strong in the second half of the season, while Deebo Samuel has exploded all season and in particular as a hybrid RB/WR in the backend. Rookie RB Eli Mitchell is back from injury and has been great whenever available also. The teams traditional defensive strength is still intact, and you can never right off a group coached by a Shanahan.
The Cowboys also appear to have some monentum, although their only meaningful win in recent times came against the Cardinals two weeks ago. Reasonably hollow (but comprehensive) victories over teams like the Eagles, Washington, Giants and Saints could give a false impression of how they are travelling. One thing going int heir favour is that everyone is seemingly healthy. The offensive group is full of big names, with Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliot, Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb ably backed up by the likes of Tony Pollard, Michael Gallup and Dalton Schultz. The defence has been much better than previous seasons under Dan Quinn, with Trayvon Diggs and Micah Parsons the faces of a unit making a lot more big plays.
Despite the 49ers form line looking to have a little more substance, the power of the Cowboys offense combined with their improved defensive performances is enough for me to back them to overwhelm a strong 49ers unit on their home turf.
SoFi Stadium, Tuesday 12:15pm AEDT
The Cardinals had some struggles to finish the regular season, only winning one of their last 5 games. Some of that can be put down to Kyler Murray being injured and trying to regain form and fitness upon his return, as well as DeAndre Hopkins succumbing to injury. With Murray back in some sort of decent touch, it’s only Hopkins leaving a void. The impact of James Conner and Zach Ertz on the offense in their first season with the team can not be underestimated, with both growing into their roles nicely. Another gaping hole of late has been JJ Watt, who is attempting to return from a serious shoulder injury for this game. All in all the team is likely to be close to fully fit, apart from Hopkins.
The Rams have fared better of late, with the tight loss to the 49ers last week breaking a 5 game win streak. The obvious headline act is Matt Stafford to Cooper Kupp, which continues to be borderline unstoppable. Midseason additions Sony Michel and Odell Beckham Jr have contributed nicely since going the team, and the return of Cam Akers last week from a serious injury is potentially huge for the teams running game if he can get build back to a full workload. Of course the defensive unit is one of the best in the league, led by Aaron Donald who could terrorise Murray if the offensive line can’t keep him in check.
It’s really hard to split these teams. The Cardinals feel a little more banged up, but both teams have a lot of strong pieces who can take control of the game. Despite the Rams having all the momentum, I’m siding with the Cardinals due to a lot of belief in Kyler Murray stepping up on the big stage.
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