However you feel about playoff expansion and the worthiness of the No. 7 seeds, here we are with a six-game wild-card weekend. In past years, the No. 2 seed Bills and Saints would be joining the Chiefs and Packers on bye this weekend, but both teams will get no such respite (though the soaring Bills, who were bopping along to “U Can’t Touch This” at practice Thursday, don’t seem to want one). As we prepare to enter two weekend days of playoff football from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET, here are six story lines to watch in the six wild-card games.
1. Will home field advantage be a thing?
Saints head coach Sean Payton was not entirely joking when he said he suggested testing and quarantining 50,000 fans so they could pack the Superdome for the playoffs. Thankfully, that idea went nowhere. The Superdome, which usually has one of the league’s most raucous home crowds, will have only a few thousand fans in the building for Sunday afternoon’s game against the Bears. The Bills were given special permission from state officials to host about 6,700 fans for their Saturday afternoon game against Indianapolis, with all fans required to test negative for COVID-19 in advance and participate in contact tracing afterward. Despite the familiarities of playing at your home stadium and the lack of travel, home field advantage has not existed during this pandemic season. According to the Associated Press, road teams went 128-127-1 during the 2020 regular season, the first time since the AFL-NFL merger that the visitors had a winning record. Will that trend continue in the postseason?
2. The Browns’ COVID-19 outbreak
As COVID-19 cases continue to surge throughout the country, they are also surging in Berea—leading into the franchise’s first playoff game in 18 years. The team’s facility was closed down on Tuesday, scuttling the week of practices, while head coach and offensive play-caller Kevin Stefanski and Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio are among those who will miss Sunday night’s game against the Steelers. (League rules do not permit Stefanski to remotely communicate with his team during the game.) The NFL does not have the same flexibility to move games that it did for most of the regular season, so as of Friday morning it still planned to forge ahead with the contest. QB Baker Mayfield put on a good face and told reporters “it won’t have an impact” if the team cannot practice before its trip to Pittsburgh, but the scenario the league and all its teams were hoping to avoid in the postseason has been playing out in Ohio.
3. Brady vs. the pass rush
Most of us may cringe at the thought of publicly shouting, “I want Tom!” days before facing a QB who owns six Super Bowl rings, but most of us are also not capable of sacking Tom Brady. Chase Young is a person who is very capable of sacking Tom Brady, and the rookie’s youthful boast isn’t going to affect his precocious ability to get to the opposing QB. It’s this matchup—Washington’s entire front vs. Brady—that will liven up the Bucs’ meeting with the champion of the lowly NFC East. Brady’s passer rating when under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus, dropped to 54.5—ranking him 42nd among all QBs who played this season, according to the website’s analysis. But, per PFF, Brady was also kept clean on more dropbacks than any QB but Ben Roethlisberger. The Bucs’ excellent offensive line yielded only 22 sacks this season, fourth-fewest in the league. Washington’s defense, on the other hand, amassed the sixth-most sacks leaguewide. We’ll find out Saturday night if the presumptive Defensive Rookie of the Year can, in fact, get Brady.
4. Jared Goff’s thumb
Jared Goff’s thumb has not generated quite the degree of intrigue Tom Brady’s thumb did three years ago, but it’s always dicey anytime the viability of a digit on a QB’s throwing hand is in question before a postseason game. Goff, who underwent surgery two weeks ago after breaking and dislocating his right thumb, was listed as questionable for Saturday’s game against Seattle—encouraging news for Los Angeles, though back-up John Wolford did play capably in the Week 17 win against Arizona. This also means we must brace for endless pregame close-ups on Goff’s hand and a potential marketing blitz from whatever product he may happen to use to support his thumb.
5. A Ravens re-do?
Perhaps the greatest stunner last postseason was the top-seeded Ravens being knocked out at home by the Titans after finishing the regular season with 12 straight wins. Afterward, the Ravens players talked about getting “our a-- whipped” and said the loss felt like “one big dream, and it was not really happening.” Now, the teams meet again in January, under different circumstances. The Ravens are a wild card, instead of the No. 1 seed, and will be traveling to Nashville. This season was not as effortless for Lamar Jackson as his 2019 MVP campaign, but he and the offense found their groove to end the regular season on a five-game win streak. The main takeaway from last January’s loss was that the Ravens felt like they got out of their element too quickly, neglecting the run after falling into a 14–0 deficit, resulting in Jackson passing the ball 59 times in 92 offensive plays. It’s fair to expect they will try to guard against making that same mistake again as Jackson tries to win his first playoff game.
6. Seven seed scrutiny
The expanded playoff field isn’t going anywhere—nothing that is a cash cow ever does, after all. But will the No. 7 seeds—this year, the Colts and the Bears—prove to be a good addition? A single season is not a meaningful sample size, of course, but the NFL is certainly hoping the two added games this weekend prove to be worthwhile ones.