By Matt Noonan
The 2021 National Football League’s (NFL) regular season concluded last night.
Now, it is time for the playoffs – are you ready?
The 2021 season came down to the final day, as well as its last matchup between the Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers.
In some way, this season mirrored the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) from the last two seasons (2019 and 2021) where every matchup and week was needed to determine not just divisional winners, but overall seeding for the 14-team playoff.
Saturday cannot come soon enough – I am eager for yesterday’s excitement to continue. Does anyone know how to hit fast forward in the next few days?
Either way, I am excited – and I hope you are, as well – for some playoff football!
Over the next few days and weeks, Noontime Sports will be keeping its focus on football – consider this some “overtime” coverage from last summer and fall. We will have some op-eds and commentary pieces to previews, along with a piece about quarterback progression (I guess I can thank those armchair quarterbacks calling Boston radio stations!) over the next few days.
Let’s jumpstart the week with some early thoughts on all six Wild Card matchups — have a great day, everyone!
AFC Wild Card Matchups
Los Angeles Raiders (10-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (10-7): The Raiders concluded their 2021 campaign by winning four-straight contests, including back-to-back games against the Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Chargers. The Silver and Black have been quite the story this season – sure, there was some negative press over the first few weeks, but somehow, they managed to go on a late run to secure an opening round meeting with the Bengals. Don’t overlook the Raiders in this matchup.
New England Patriots (10-7) at Buffalo Bills (11-6): The Patriots ended their season with a disappointing setback to the Miami Dolphins – they also lost two other games before their divisional meeting with the Buffalo Bills and Indianapolis Colts. But something tells me this was the matchup coach Bill Belichick and his team wanted. They beat Buffalo last month by running the ball and attempting three passes. But a few weeks later, New England struggled to contain quarterback Josh Allen. The rubber match between the Bills and Patriots should be fun!
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7-1) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-5): The Chiefs may not be the explosive offense they once were – in fact, it seems as if their defense has played better, especially down the stretch. But here’s my question: will this unit be able to stop a Steelers squad that has averaged 17.75 points in their last four outings? My initial answer: yes, but I also wonder if the Pittsburgh defense is good enough to stop Patrick Mahomes?
NFC Wild Card Matchups
Philadelphia Eagles (9-8) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4): With a big win on Sunday over the Carolina Panthers, Tom Brady and the Buccaneers were able to move up to the second seed, thanks to some help from the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks. Tampa Bay is not the same team as last year – they have some issues on both sides of the ball, which makes them vulnerable. Yet, the Buccaneers should be able to win this game, however, they must find a way to stop an impressive Eagles rushing attack led by quarterback Jalen Hurts. Hurts concluded the regular season with 784 rushing yards on 139 carries and 10 touchdowns while completing 265 of 432 passes for 3,144 yards and 16 touchdowns.
San Francisco 49ers (10-7) at Dallas Cowboys (12-5): This is a classic matchup – go ahead and break out those Steve Young and Troy Aikman jerseys. Neither signal-caller will be spotted under center next Sunday, but the 49ers’ offense will provide some challenges for a Cowboys defense that struggled initially at slowing down Philadelphia’s Gardner Minshew and Kenneth Gainwell this past weekend. But while the 49ers’ come-from-behind win yesterday against the Los Angeles Rams was impressive, the question I have heading into this contest is can this defense — San Franciscos’s, to be exact — slow down Dak Prescott and the Cowboys’ offense? This game presents some interesting storylines, as well as features two coaches that used to work together: Kyle Shanahan (San Francisco) and Dan Quinn (Dallas).
Arizona Cardinals (11-6) at Los Angeles Rams (12-5): Arizona and Los Angeles both scored one win against each other, so like Buffalo-New England, this is a rubber match. To be honest, I did not anticipate this would be a first-round match-up – in fact, I thought Arizona or Los Angeles would be heading to Dallas this weekend. But instead, the Cardinals and Rams will square off once more this season – I am not confident in the Rams’ defense, which struggled to contain the San Francisco offense yesterday, especially in the final minutes. Additionally, will we see a great or subpar Kyler Murray against the Rams? Similar to Dallas-San Francisco, this game also presents some unique storylines.