The tournament is set
Who'll be meeting in Las Vegas for Super Bowl LVIII? Your first look at a wide-open field.
This may be the scriptwriters’ finest work yet. Wild-card weekend is full of reunions.
Tyreek Hill heads back to Arrowhead. Matthew Stafford visits the stadium he called home for 12 seasons. Mike McCarthy faces his former team, the Green Bay Packers. And for good measure the Houston Texans will host the Cleveland Browns. You know, the team that traded for Deshaun Watson.
No. 1-seeded Baltimore and San Francisco have the bye weeks.
To recap, here’s the first round of matchups:
5-Cleveland at 4-Houston, 4:30 p.m. (EST)
6-Miami at 3-Kansas City, 8 p.m.
7-Pittsburgh at 2-Buffalo, 1 p.m.
7-Green Bay at 2-Dallas, 4:30 p.m.
6-Los Angeles Rams at 3-Detroit, 8 p.m.
5-Philadelphia at 4-Tampa Bay, 8:15 p.m.
We’ve got a lot planned at Go Long this month. First, let’s take a quick look at the field.
Baltimore Ravens (13-4)
Boom: The NFL’s most complete team has shellacked playoff teams. The Ravens bring a different level of physicality on both sides of the ball and there’s no way to truly prepare for Lamar Jackson, the presumptive league MVP. All 11 defenders must respect Jackson as a runner, and then he’s fully capable of dicing you up as a passer. Especially in Todd Monken’s new offense.
Bust: The Ravens have lost four of their last five playoff games. It remains be seen if he can win consistently with his arm in January.
Buffalo Bills (11-6)
Boom: After a rough first half, Josh Allen proved again he’s capable of leading the Bills as far as he damn well pleases with 359 passing yards, 67 rushing yards and two touchdowns last night. You need to take his game in full — and that’ll include a turnover or two — but 2021 Allen made his grand reappearance in the second half of that Miami win. Sean McDermott has been managing games with more aggressiveness and it seems as if a different playmaker steps up each game on defense: Ed Oliver, Rasul Douglas to Taylor Rapp.
Bust: The stakes have been raised. It’s been Super Bowl or Bust in Orchard Park since McDermott hoisted a banner of the Lombardi Trophy in the fieldhouse. For four straight postseasons, a tight coach has created a tight team. Will the 2023 edition produce a different result?
Kansas City Chiefs (11-6)
Boom: Patrick Mahomes is still Patrick Mahomes. No quarterback has his track record in big games. He’ll also have the support of his best Chiefs defense to date. If KC can get a lead late, this is a group that can sink its teeth into teams. Defensive tackle Chris Jones remains a dominant force.
Bust: No, this has not been the same Chiefs offense. Poor wide receiver play has cost the Chiefs repeatedly, be it a dropped pass deep or Kadarius Toney lining up offsides. Mistakes almost feel inevitable. With age starting to catch up with Travis Kelce — the tight end finished with a career-low 10.6 yards per catch — who gets separation on crucial third downs? Windows close faster this time of year.
Houston Texans (10-7)
Boom: They’ve been playing with house money all season. C.J. Stroud led the Texans to a win over the Bengals when Joe Burrow was healthy, so Houston won’t be scared of anyone. While the Texans did lose Tank Dell for the season, clearly Stroud has a special rapport growing with rising star Nico Collins.
Bust: The Texans’ defense was beaten badly by Joe Flacco and the Browns, their first opponent, just three weeks ago. It’s hard to predict which unit shows up on a week-to-week basis. There’s also no telling how any rookie quarterback will respond in his first playoff appearance.
Cleveland Browns (11-6)
Boom: The Browns bring the NFL’s best defense to the dance. The pressure of Myles Garrett (14 sacks, four FF, 30 QB hits) perfectly complements a secondary capable of shutting down opposing receivers. Joe Flacco has also been enjoying quite the magic carpet ride. Oh, he also authored one of the best postseason runs for any quarterback in NFL history: 1,140 yards, 11 touchdowns, zero picks, Super Bowl MVP. He will feel zero pressue.
Bust: Fun as this ride has been for Flacco, he’s still a quarterback that turns 39 years old next week. That Ravens run was 11 years ago. Cleveland also has turned the ball over 37 times, more than any team in the NFL.
Miami Dolphins (11-6)
Boom: If Jaylen Waddle and Raheem Mostert are back in the lineup, the Dolphins can state their case as the most explosive offense in the league. Between these two, Tyreek Hill and De’Von Achane, Miami has four players capable of busting loose any given play.
Bust: It’s been a while since the Dolphins offense operated at such a high gear. This hasn’t looked like the crew that scored 70 on Denver in a while. The biggest problem, however, is the defense. Losing Bradley Chubb and Jaelan Phillips for the season may be a knockout blow. Vic Fangio will have no choice but to blitz, and that’s a problem against guys like Allen and Mahomes.
Pittsburgh Steelers (10-7)
Boom: A Mike Tomlin-led team is always capable of mucking up a game and winning with a blocked punt. Mason Rudolph was the shot in the arm this stagnant passing game. Najee Harris (1,035 yards, eight touchdowns) and Jaylen Warren (784 yards, six touchdowns) may be the best 1-2 punch at running in the league. Suddenly, this is an offense fully capable of moving the ball and scoring points.
Bust: This unlikely playoff berth came at a high price. The team’s best player, T.J. Watt, suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain against the Ravens. The team’s second-best player, Minkah Fitzpatrick, has been out since Week 15 with a knee injury. Tomlin wants to lean into the defense, but that may not be an option.
San Francisco 49ers (13-4)
Boom: The loss to Baltimore was ugly. Otherwise? The 49ers offense has been unstoppable since the bye week. Kyle Shanahan supplies answers for every possible defensive look and it’s time for all of us to acknowledge Brock Purdy is legit. He’s a damn good quarterback, who completed 69 percent of his passes for 4,280 yards and 31 touchdowns in 16 games this season.
Bust: This is also fair. If a few bounces go the wrong way and the 49ers fall behind by a couple scores, is Purdy the type of quarterback who can play outside of structure and bring San Francisco back? Playoff games so often boil down to the QB shrugging a free runner off and making an impossible throw. That’s not Purdy’s game.
Dallas Cowboys (12-5)
Boom: The most dangerous QB-WR tandem in the NFL resides in Big D where CeeDee Lamb averaged 102.9 receiving yards per game. Dak Prescott justifiably generated MVP buzz into December. Defensively, the Cowboys are volatile — the Bills certainly damaged this crew’s ego — but they can force turnovers in bunches.
Bust: Is this team any closer to getting past the 49ers, the team that’s eliminated them the last two seasons? Back in October, they embarrassed Dallas (42-10). It’s still hard to trust Mike McCarthy at the end of a half. The Cowboys, the world’s richest sports team, have not reached a conference title game since 1995.
Detroit Lions (12-5)
Boom: Best-coached team in the NFL. Offensively, the Lions rediscovered their mojo after a midseason skid, too. As Josh Reynolds told us, OC Ben Johnson has this unit in the perfect play “80 percent” of the time. Jared Goff took one team to the Super Bowl and — surrounded by weapons — could easily do it again. Help for the pass rush may be on the way in the form of defensive tackle Alim McNeill.
Bust: The Lions have one playoff win since 1957. Dan Campbell’s exorcism has been impressive. Along with GM Brad Holmes, they’ve built a roster of tough-minded people. But the playoffs are different. Outside of Goff, many of the team’s best players have never been in this spot before.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-8)
Boom: I guess Carlton Davis was right. Nobody gave the Bucs a puncher’s chance, but they believed they’d win in 2023. Central to this unlikely NFL South title is the renaissance of Baker Mayfield. Under OC Dave Canales, he turned his career around with a career-high 4,044 yards and 28 touchdowns. Defensively, Tampa Bay still has holdovers from its Super Bowl win over Kansas City three years back.
Bust: Tampa Bay regressed sharply the final two weeks, losing to New Orleans (23-13) and squeaking past Carolina, the NFL’s worst team (9-0). Mayfield is dealing with a rib injury.
Philadelphia Eagles (11-6)
Boom: Well, they did represent the NFC a year ago. There’s no questioning the talent pool. The Eagles, on paper, should be able to score vs. any team with Jalen Hurts, A.J. Brown, De’Vonta Smith and that mammoth offensive line. If it’s fourth and 1, they’re converting.
Bust: No team is limping into the postseason quite like the Eagles, losing five of their last six. Even through a 10-1 start, the defensive concerns were obvious. Shocker: Handing over playcalling duties to Matt Patricia has not helped. This is a team that clearly misses both of its coordinators from 2022: Shane Steichen on offense, Jonathan Gannon on defense.
Los Angeles Rams (10-7)
Boom: Super Bowl experience. Matthew Stafford was just celebrating a title two years ago, and he’s got a shiny new toy in this tournament: rookie sensation Puka Nacua. Offensively, this team has been rolling. They moved the ball vs. two of the NFL’s best defenses, too: Cleveland (36 points, 399 yards) and Baltimore (31 points, 410 yards). Most importantly, this coach and this quarterback have proven experience against the 49ers. McVay and Shanahan know each other better than they know themselves as coaches.
Bust: Playoff games are usually won on the fringes, and L.A. has the worst special teams in the league. The Rams have missed 16 kicks this season. Aaron Donald may be the best defensive player in the sport since Reggie White but this is a green unit all around him on defense.
Green Bay Packers (9-8)
Boom: Jordan Love. The new sheriff in town has matured into everything Brian Gutekunst imagined. And more. Injuries to the line, to his receiving corps, to his backfield have not mattered. Week to week, Love has only gotten better. Unlike Brett Favre, in 1992, he doesn’t have one Sterling Sharpe-level talent at receiver. Unlike Aaron Rodgers, in 2008, he didn’t inherit a team that was one OT away from the Super Bowl. Love has genuinely grown with the youngest roster in the NFL. The Packers might’ve found a run game in the nick of time, too.
Bust: Too often, finding a formula that works on defense has been a game of Whac-A-Mole. One problem’s solved and another crops up. Joe Barry has been under fire most of this season. Of course, the Packers season nearly ended with a total meltdown against the lowly Panthers just a couple weeks ago. This is a tough matchup: The Cowboys’ offense has been a juggernaut at home.