This weekend’s NFL divisional round playoff schedule might just have the matchups to one-up last weekend’s thrilling wild-card slate.
The Chiefs and Eagles are coming off their byes with a chance to validate their No. 1 seeds, but they’re each taking on a pair of foes — the Jaguars and Giants — who have exceeded expectations and proven to be tough outs.
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The Sunday pairings feature four teams harboring legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.
“These are four great matchups,” an assistant coach observed. “All four games could go either way.”
last week, The Athletic anonymously polled coaches and executives to make their wild-card picks, and they teamed up to accurately forecast five of the six matchups, with the Giants’ upset of the Vikings as the outlier.
It’s time to bring them back for another vote — two executives and three assistant coaches. They were each granted anonymity so they could offer their candid opinions. Here’s how they see the weekend shaking out.
No. 1 Chiefs (14-3) vs. No. 4 Jaguars (9-8, 1-0)
Kickoff: 4:30 p.m. Saturday.
Expert picks: Chiefs 5, Jaguars 0
One voter kept the logic very straightforward.
“Patrick Mahomes,” an executive said.
Make no mistake, the panelists respect what the Jaguars have been doing, but they aren’t about to doubt the top-seeded Chiefs.
Two coaches actually echoed one another: “Too much firepower.”
One also pointed toward Chiefs coach Andy Reid’s famous ability to game plan for an extra week.
“They will play fast and confident,” the coach said.
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The Jaguars have won eight of their past 10 games — the Chiefs handed them one of those two losses, 27-17 at Arrowhead in Week 10 — including big comebacks against the Raiders (17 points), Ravens (9 points), Cowboys (10 points), Titans (10 points) and Chargers (27 points).
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence opened the wild-card victory against the Chargers with interceptions on four of six possessions. He had a 0.0 pass rating through seven series before lighting it up in the third-biggest comeback in playoff history.
“If Jacksonville starts fast, it could be a game,” one coach observed with a feeling the Jaguars would like to put into practice.
“The Jaguars are certainly growing and heading in the right direction,” an executive said. “But Arrowhead, Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes, that’s a big deal to overcome. (Jaguars head coach) Doug Pederson is a savvy play caller. Trevor Lawrence can’t make the same mistakes as he did in the first half against the Chargers. The Jaguars definitely have the edge rushing talent to disrupt Mahomes.”
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The overwhelming tally isn’t a slight on the Jaguars. It’s merely respect for the Chiefs.
“Arguably the best team in football,” an executive said.
No. 1 Eagles (14-3) vs. No. 6 Giants (9-7-1, 1-0)
Kickoff: 8:15 p.m. Saturday.
Expert picks: Eagles 4, Giants 1
This was almost unanimous—until one of the executives talked themselves out of the Eagles and into the Giants.
“(Giants quarterback) Daniel Jones showed more lately and against the Vikings than he had earlier in the season,” the executive said. (Giants coach Brian) Daboll will keep the Giants balanced, and the great equalizer is the Eagles might not be as healthy. If the Giants are able to establish the run and get an early lead, it’ll put more pressure on (Eagles QB Jalen) Hurts and his injured shoulder.”
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Hurts missed two games in Weeks 16-17 due to a right shoulder sprain, but he was finally removed from the injury report this week.
All five voters believed it would be a close game.
“It will be closer than people think,” another executive said. “The Giants will make it interesting, but the Eagles receivers have the advantage over the Giants defensive backs.”
The Eagles have won three in a row against the Giants, including a 48-22 victory in Week 14 and a 22-16 win against many Giants backups in Week 18. Hurts was 20-of-35 for 229 yards and an interception along with nine runs for 13 yards in his return from injury in that Week 18 game.
“The Eagles are tough,” a coach said. “But it’s hard to beat a team three times (in one season), and the Giants wouldn’t surprise me if they showed up with an upset.”
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Jones was terrific in his playoff debut against the Vikings, completing 24 of 35 passes for 301 yards and two touchdowns along with 78 rushing yards. But the Vikings defense allowed the fourth most points and second most total yards in the league while the Eagles allowed the eighth fewest points, second fewest yards and the fewest passing yards in the regular season.
The Eagles, behind Hurts’ breakout campaign, had the third-highest-scoring offense this season.
“The Eagles offense will come through in the end,” a coach said.
No. 2 Bills (13-3, 1-0) vs. No. 3 Bengals (12-4, 1-0)
Kickoff: 3 p.m. Sunday.
Expert picks: Bills 3, Bengals 2
The Bills and Bengals will square off after their Week 17 game was canceled when Bills safety Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest on the field.
The Bengals, who have won 13 of their last 15 games, had a 7-3 lead in the first quarter when the game was initially suspended. One of the voters gave the Bengals the advantage due to the quarterbacks.
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“The Bengals have won nine straight,” a coach said. “Joe Burrow is a little more clutch than Josh Allen.”
The Bills’ turnovers are surely a concern. They’ve given it away three times in each of their last three games, and the Bengals have 11 takeaways in their past four games.
The Bills’ 27 turnovers in the regular season were the third most in the NFL and four more than any team still standing. Allen’s 14 interceptions were tied for the third most in the league.
“I think the Bills are holding on tight and have had too many close calls lately with letting teams hang around,” said a coach who picked the Bengals.
The Bills shockingly had to escape with a wild-card victory against the Dolphins, clinging to a 34-31 win in the closing moments. The Dolphins, who were starting third-string QB Skylar Thompson, had lost five in a row before sneaking into the playoffs with an 11-6 win against the Jets in Week 18.
“Maybe that was their wakeup call,” said an executive who picked the Bills. “Allen has to play within himself. The Bills aren’t generating the same amount of pressure since (linebacker) Von Miller went down.”
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The Bengals have the second-longest winning streak in the league, and Burrow was hot enough down the stretch to make a push for his first MVP. But even with all of these factors being considered, the panel leaned toward Buffalo.
“If you just watch the wild-card games, I would take the Bengals,” an executive said. “But the Bills will win a very close one late. The Bills defense is very sound and will eliminate the big plays.”
No. 4 49ers (13-4, 1-0) vs. No. 5 Cowboys (12-5, 1-0)
Kickoff: 6:30 p.m. Sunday.
Expert picks: 49ers 3, Cowboys 2
Crank up some 20th-century nostalgia.
The Cowboys are 5-3 in playoff matchups with the 49ers, although the Niners knocked them out last year, 23-17. The other seven matchups happened long before 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy was even born.
Purdy put up massive numbers in the playoff win against the Seahawks, completing 18 of 30 passes for 332 yards and three touchdowns plus a rushing score. The Niners averaged a league-best 33.6 points since Purdy’s first start in Week 14, then hung 41 points last week to race away from the Seahawks.
However, the rookie did miss some early throws in his playoff debut, and that stuck out to an executive who picked the Cowboys.
“The Cowboys have the ability to generate the type of pressure that can make Purdy look like a rookie and make mistakes,” the executive said. “It’s going to come down to whether Brock takes care of the football.”
Purdy has thrown only two interceptions in his six starts. While he has absolutely played very well, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan deserves a lot of the credit, too.
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One subplot: Shanahan used to work for Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn when he was the Falcons head coach, so they know each other well.
“Dallas will make life difficult, but there are too many weapons for San Francisco offense,” the other executive said.
The Niners have won 11 consecutive games and allowed the fewest points and yards in the regular season.
“The defense will come through for San Fran,” a coach said.
Purdy has corralled much of the spotlight, but the bigger factor could be Dak Prescott’s performance. Prescott threw a league-high 15 interceptions despite starting just 12 games, and the 49ers led the NFL with 20 interceptions in the regular season.
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Prescott snapped a seven-game interception streak with a nearly flawless performance in the 31-14 victory against the Bucs in the wild-card round. He was 25-of-33 for 305 yards, four touchdowns and a rushing score.
“Cowboys in a huge upset,” a coach said. “The Cowboys defense will stop the run and confuse the rookie QB.”
There might be more talent on the field in this game than the other three over the weekend.
“The Cowboys are explosive,” said a coach who picked the 49ers. “I think Kyle will know how to attack Dan’s defense and create plays.”
(Top photo: Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)