It will not be business as usual in the NFL playoffs this weekend. Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s on-field cardiac arrest earlier this month will haunt proceedings, despite his near-miraculous recovery. How could it not? If there’s one thing we should take away from the last few weeks, it’s that the league is populated by human beings, not abstract figures on stats sheets. The playoffs will continue as scheduled but expect the atmosphere to be more subdued than in years past. And let’s hope that the drama remains entirely football-related.
Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers (Saturday, 4.30pm EST/9.30pm GMT)
What the Seahawks need to do to win: The Seahawks have to act like a team playing with house money, because they are. Seattle squeaked into the playoffs thanks to a Green Bay Packers collapse and have already been beaten by the 49ers twice this season. Maybe that will work for the best: we’ve seen “nobody believed in us” teams pull off big upsets in the past.
What the 49ers need to do to win: Brock Purdy must remain relevant. The 49ers are built to succeed no matter who is plugged in at quarterback – and have successfully juggled Trey Lance, Jimmy Garoppolo and now Purdy. Their 10-game winning streak, however, doesn’t really matter now that the playoffs have begun. With the stakes higher, Purdy does not have to step up for San Francisco to win, but he can’t regress.
Key player: Nick Bosa, DE, 49ers. Possibly the best defensive player in the league, Bosa is a major reason why the 49ers feel confident no matter who is running the offense. Bosa led the league with 18.5 sacks and is the type of player who can bring a painful end to Seahawks QB Geno Smith’s comeback.
Prediction: 49ers over Seahawks.
Los Angeles Chargers at Jacksonville Jaguars (Saturday, 8.15 pm EST/Sunday, 1.15am GMT)
What the Chargers need to do to win: Look at whatever they did the last time these two teams met and do the exact opposite. The Jaguars beat the Chargers 38-10 back in Week 3 and have been the most improved team since then. A healthy Justin Herbert, who was nursing a rib injury that game, should help with any uptick for LA.
What the Jaguars need to do to win: Jacksonville, meanwhile, need to forget that win altogether. Trevor Lawrence has emerged as one of the game’s great talents, but he can’t afford to get in a shootout with Herbert if the Chargers QB is making his usual number of big throws. It’s not an easy task, but the Jags defense is going to have to minimize the number of huge-yardage passing plays.
Key player: Keenan Allen, WR, Chargers. Another reason the Chargers didn’t stand much of a chance against the Jaguars the last time they played? Allen wasn’t available. Now, he’s back and straight off a 100-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Denver Broncos.
Prediction: Jaguars over Chargers.
Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills (Sunday, 1pm EST/6pm GMT)
What the Dolphins need to do to win: The Dolphins’ best chance to win went out the window with the news that Tua Tagovailoa will remain in the concussion protocols, with rookie Skylar Thompson likely to start in his place. That probably means that the Dolphins are going to live or die by their rushing attack. A giant game from them could lead to the upset of the year.
What the Bills need to do to win: The Bills are the better team, particularly with Tagovailoa out. They will just need to play their normal game in order to get a win. Will, however, their first nationally televised game since Hamlin’s collapse really count as “normal”? This is a Bills team playing under extraordinary circumstances and no one should blame them if it affects their on-field performance (although they acquitted themselves well last week against the Patriots).
Key player: Tre’Davious White, CB, Buffalo Bills. It’s always tempting to go on the offensive side of the ball in Buffalo, but an interesting wrinkle emerged against the Patriots. White put in his best performance since his return from an ACL injury, particularly when he forced a gamechanging third-quarter interception. He looks healthy enough to be a difference-maker.
Prediction: Bills over Dolphins.
New York Giants at Minnesota Vikings (Sunday, 4.30pm EST/9.30pm GMT)
What the Giants need to do to win: The Giants should be able to take advantage of Minnesota’s defense, which allowed 25.1 points and 388.7 yards a game in the regular season. The Giants don’t necessarily have a world-beating offense, despite running back Saquon Barkley’s great year, but they should be able to put up some points against the Vikings.
What the Vikings need to do to win: Kirk Cousins needs to take care of the ball. Yes, the Vikings had a 14-3 regular season record, but their starting QB has thrown 14 interceptions on the year. Minnesota are playing at home and have the most talented offensive player on either team. Cousins just has to remember that it isn’t him and he doesn’t have to be the hero.
Key player: Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota Vikings. One of the most prolific receivers in the league, Jefferson ended the season with 128 receptions, 1,809 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. He broke records held by the likes of Cris Carter and Randy Moss. He may be the Offensive Player of the Year. There’s no doubting his importance in this game.
Prediction: Giants over Vikings.
Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals (Sunday, 8.15pm EST/Monday, 1.15am GMT)
What the Ravens need to do to win: Baltimore must create a gameplan that doesn’t involve on Lamar Jackson, who tweeted on Thursday that he won’t be able to play due to a left knee injury, leaving either Tyler Huntley or Anthony Brown as the starter. If Baltimore pull off a win, a huge amount of credit will be owed to offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
What the Bengals need to do to win: The Bengals have a clear advantage here with Jackson sidelined. However, quarterback Joe Burrow was sacked 41 times during the regular season and has a banged-up offensive line. Burrow and the o-line need to show heightened in-game awareness to prevent a Baltimore upset.
Key player: Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Bengals. The reason that Burrow always thinks he has time to throw may be because he’s used to playing with Chase. Despite only playing 12 games this season due to injury, Chase scored nine touchdowns and picked up 1,046 yards. It’s impossible to imagine that the Bengals will bow out of the postseason without giving us at least one jaw-dropping Burrow-to-Chase completion.
Prediction: Bengals over Ravens.
Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Monday, 8.15pm EST/Tuesday, 1.15am GMT)
What the Cowboys need to do to win: Not look back. The Cowboys are 0-7 against Tom Brady-led teams and are on an eight-game losing streak in road playoff games. The Cowboys are a better team on paper, but that doesn’t matter if they fail to maintain their composure and remember they are playing Old Brady and not the Brady-of-Old.
What the Buccaneers need to do to win: The Buccaneers can keep the Cowboys’ curse alive simply by forcing them to make mistakes. Dak Prescott managed to surpass Cousins with his league-leading 15 interceptions (tied with Davis Mills), while Dallas have been turnover-happy for much of the season. If the Bucs defense capitalizes on Dallas’ mistakes, Brady won’t have to do much more than rely on his veteran savvy to guide them to a win.
Key player: Tom Brady, QB, Buccaneers. As long as Brady keeps playing, he’s the key player. For most of his career, that’s been a good thing. This year? He’s been inconsistent and his offensive line has left him vulnerable. Prepare yourselves now for the “is this the last game of Brady’s career?” chatter.
Prediction: Cowboys over Buccaneers