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NFL playoffs first look: What to like, dislike about 12 teams playing on Super Wild Card Weekend

The NFL playoffs are finally upon us, and this much we know for sure: There are plenty of surprises involved in this wild-card round. The Jacksonville Jaguars are here as the AFC South champions, despite selecting first overall in the draft back in April. Tom Brady and Geno Smith are playing this coming weekend, as well, even though both are quarterbacking teams that were .500 entering Week 18. The New York Giants and Miami Dolphins also joined the party, and those teams each went a month in the second half without a win.

These are just some of the intriguing stories that will comprise the opening weekend of this postseason. We already knew a wild ride was coming, as the top seeds in both conferences weren't decided until the final weekend of the regular season. That speaks to how closely matched all the contenders are at this stage, as there isn't a single dominant team in the bunch. Everybody has their strengths, and even the most flawed squads have the capability of pulling an upset or two.

We also can't talk about the postseason beginning without mentioning Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin. The league spent this weekend honoring him after numerous doctors and medical staffers helped him survive a cardiac arrest sustained in a game at Cincinnati last Monday night. Hamlin's health continues to improve while the league prepares to deal with an adjusted playoff format that resulted from the cancellation of that Week 17 contest. If the Bills and Chiefs end up playing in this year's AFC Championship Game, that event will be held at a neutral site for the first time in history.

That's a lot to unpack, which is why the wild-card edition of The First Read is here for you. The Chiefs (No. 1 seed in the AFC) and Eagles (No. 1 seed in the NFC) get the next week off, but here's a breakdown of all the playoff teams playing on Super Wild Card Weekend:


Buffalo Bills

What's to like: The Bills were a formidable contender before the final week of the season, but now they have the emotional lift of knowing Hamlin is continually improving. Buffalo already had a lot of strengths as a championship contender -- including star quarterback Josh Allen and a supporting cast that helped this team win 13 games -- but it's buoyed by Hamlin's energy as the playoffs ensue. Bet against that at your own peril.

What's not to like: This team has a nagging penchant for sloppiness. The Bills committed 27 turnovers this season -- putting them in the same neighborhood as bottom-feeders like the Colts, Texans and Bears -- with three giveaways coming in Sunday's win over New England. Allen has been especially careless in the red zone, and he threw a huge interception deep in Patriots territory in the first half of that contest. Buffalo simply doesn't have the margin for error to live with those mistakes against great teams. These Bills have lost key defenders like edge rusher Von Miller and safety Micah Hyde, and giving away possessions and points won't help.

Bottom line: Heading into last Monday night, the Bills were in position to claim the AFC's top seed by winning out. Let's not forget that, even with the possibility removed by the cancellation of the game against the Bengals in the wake of Hamlin's injury. This is still the same team that lost three games by a combined total of eight points. The Bills are good enough to win the Super Bowl and have an extra emotional boost to make that happen. They'll beat the Dolphins in the wild-card round.

Cincinnati Bengals

What's to like: The Bengals are the hottest team in the AFC. They've won eight straight games, and there was an outside shot that they could've snagged the top playoff seed if that canceled Monday night game had gone in their favor. It's obvious that Cincinnati has the most explosive collection of offensive talent in the conference, with quarterback Joe Burrow, running back Joe Mixon and wide receivers Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. What makes the Bengals even scarier is an underrated defense and a reliable kicking game. They won the conference last season because of all those strengths. They're even better this season.

What's not to like: Cincinnati is so good throwing the football that its running game can sputter at times. The Bengals are at their best when balanced, and that showed during a three-game stretch when they beat the Titans, Chiefs and Browns in consecutive weeks. Those victories proved the Bengals had the commitment to the ground game to make life even harder on opposing defenses. This team also has a couple of injuries that could be detrimental at this time of year. Both right tackle La'el Collins and cornerback Chidobe Awuzie are done, with season-ending injuries.

Bottom line: The Bengals are as talented as any team in the league. They're also playing better than any team in this conference. They should handle the Ravens once again, especially given that Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson's status remains uncertain.

What's to like: This is a team on the rise. The Jaguars were 4-8 after a 40-14 defeat against the Detroit Lions in Week 13. They haven't lost since, which tells you something about the job head coach Doug Pederson has done and the maturation of the young players on this roster. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence misfired on a couple of potential touchdown passes in a division-clinching win over Tennessee, but he's been stellar for most of the second half of this season. The man has thrown 15 touchdown passes and only two interceptions in his last nine games. Just as encouraging is the play of the Jaguars' defense. Jacksonville has forced 11 turnovers during the win streak that resulted in its AFC South title. Two of those led to game-winning scores

What's not to like: This is easily the youngest team left standing, as the Jaguars haven't qualified for the postseason since 2017. There are a handful of starters with playoff experience -- including wide receivers Zay Jones, Christian Kirk and Marvin Jones Jr. -- and that is going to matter when the intensity heightens. The Jaguars also closed the season against mediocre competition. The Dallas Cowboys were the only opponent in that win streak with a winning record. Much tougher tests are coming. 

Bottom line: The Jaguars are scary in the same way the Bengals were scary last season. They've lost so much in recent years that they don't know enough to be concerned about the gauntlet that is the NFL postseason. This wild-card game also will be a rematch of a Week 3 meeting that ended in a 38-10 Jaguars win in Los Angeles. The Jaguars told the world that they were a far better team than expected that day. It's more likely that their magical run ends in the wild-card round against a Chargers squad that has finally gotten healthy again.

Los Angeles Chargers

What's to like: The Chargers have proven plenty about their toughness. No team in the AFC has watched more star players go down with injuries -- including Pro Bowlers like edge rusher Joey Bosa, left tackle Rashawn Slater and cornerback J.C. Jackson, a prized free-agent acquisition -- and still, Los Angeles endured. This team legitimately could've had two or three more wins if it had stayed healthy. This is why the postseason feels like a huge second chance for Los Angeles. Quarterback Justin Herbert is finally playing games with all his key receivers on the field (although Mike Williams wrenched his back in Sunday's 31-28 loss to the Broncos), and the defense is rounding into form. The Chargers had given up only 44 points to their opponents in the four games prior to the season finale against Denver.

What's not to like: Los Angeles has a history of beating itself in critical moments of big games. The Chargers lost both games to Kansas City this year for exactly that reason. It also feels as if the offense relies too much on Herbert throwing short passes while the run game idles and downfield shots disappear. The Bolts should be far more explosive offensively, and this would be a great time to move in that direction. 

Bottom line: The Chargers are as talented as the Chiefs, Bengals and Bills. This is their opportunity to prove that. They're good enough to beat Jacksonville, but a deep playoff run comes down to consistency and Herbert showing he can play as big at this time of year as the AFC's other star quarterbacks.

Baltimore Ravens

What's to like: The Ravens' defense has only had two tough days since middle linebacker Roquan Smith arrived in a midseason trade with Chicago. One was a 28-27 defeat to Jacksonville in Week 12. The other was Sunday's 27-16 loss to Cincinnati, when Baltimore started third-string quarterback Anthony Brown. The Ravens gave up just 77 points in the other seven games during this span. This defense has veterans, young talent, Pro Bowlers and playmakers at every level. If Baltimore makes a playoff run, this unit will be leading the way.

What's not to like: The offense has been a disaster since Lamar Jackson sustained a knee injury in a Week 13 win over Denver. The Ravens haven't scored more than 17 points in any of their last six games. It's also not clear whether Jackson will be available for this wild-card matchup with the Bengals. Baltimore has enough defense to keep things close with most teams. However, it can't keep pace with more explosive opponents if it falls behind. 

Bottom line: This all comes down to Jackson's availability. If he can't play this weekend, the Ravens are done.

Miami Dolphins

What's to like: The Dolphins still have the most dynamic duo of wide receivers in the league in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. That pair combined for more than 3,000 receiving yards this season and made Miami an incredibly explosive offense. Defenses have learned to be more physical with those two, but it's still difficult to contain one or both in any given game. There's also something to be said for Miami earning a victory in a must-win situation on Sunday. The Dolphins had dropped five straight games before rallying behind third-string quarterback Skylar Thompson to get an 11-6 win over the Jets. It would've been easy for the Fins to blow that game under those circumstances. It says plenty that they got it done.

What's not to like: Miami still cannot say if quarterback Tua Tagovailoa will be available for the wild-card round. He's dealing with his second trip through the concussion protocol this year, and he hasn't played in two weeks. (EDITOR'S UPDATE: Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel announced Wednesday that Tua Tagovailoa remains in the league's concussion protocol and has been ruled out of Sunday's game at Buffalo.) The defense is an even bigger problem. It's been disappointing all season and especially bad against the pass. The Dolphins have a hard time pressuring opposing quarterbacks and preventing big plays. That's a bad combination any time of year, and it's a killer in the playoffs.

Bottom line: The Dolphins have played two games against the Bills. Miami won the first meeting despite Buffalo dominating the yardage and time of possession. The Dolphins then lost the second one on a chilly, snow-filled night in Buffalo, when Josh Allen took over the game. Making the playoffs means it's been a good year in Miami. It won't be as enjoyable after this next trip to Buffalo. 


San Francisco 49ers

What's to like: The 49ers have been rolling. They've won 10 straight games while proving it doesn't even matter who's playing quarterback anymore. Rookie Brock Purdy has started the last five games since Jimmy Garoppolo went down with a broken foot in the beginning of December, and Purdy has been unflappable. Running back Christian McCaffrey has been everything this team hoped for after acquiring him in a midseason trade. Then there's the defense. No unit is better on that side of the football when healthy, and defensive end Nick Bosa should be the Defensive Player of the Year.

What's not to like: It's worth wondering if Purdy will have a tougher time in the postseason. He's played within himself and the scheme, but opposing defensive coordinators usually need about four games of tape to get a feel for how to best attack new quarterbacks. Purdy started his fifth game this past weekend. If you really want to nitpick, you can also look at the 49ers' schedule. Going into Week 18, they'd only played two games against teams that held winning records. They lost to one (Kansas City) and beat the other (Los Angeles Chargers). 

Bottom line: The 49ers are arguably the most complete team in the league. They have a top-10 offense to go along with an elite defense and plenty of players who were around when they reached the Super Bowl in February of 2020. That’s more than enough to get them a third win over Seattle this season.

Minnesota Vikings

What's to like: The Vikings are the most clutch team in the NFL. They've played 11 one-score games this season, winning every last one. As much as observers might want to bash them for not being dominant, that statistic speaks volumes about their ability to handle the tense moments that inevitably arrive in postseason play. Minnesota also has dynamic talent at key positions. Wide receiver Justin Jefferson and running back Dalvin Cook have the potential to take over games at a moment's notice. Just ask the Buffalo Bills about how Jefferson can impact a game. He dominated them in one of the wildest contests of the regular season.

What's not to like: The defense has been a disaster, especially the pass coverage. Prior to Sunday's win over Chicago, the Vikings had allowed at least 20 points in their previous eight games and at least 40 in two of them. Six of Minnesota's opponents in that stretch surpassed the 400-yard mark in total offense. It's hard to keep winning at this time of year with numbers like those.

Bottom line: There's a reason skeptics love to cite Minnesota's point differential -- they've scored 424 and allowed 427, a differential of minus-3 -- as evidence this team won't go deep into the playoffs. It's a reasonable stance, but it won't mean much when the Vikings meet the Giants. The Vikings needed a 61-yard field goal from Greg Joseph to win the most recent clash between these teams, in Week 16 (a 27-24 outcome). They'll find a way to get another victory over New York this weekend.

What's to like: They still have the best quarterback in NFL history in Tom Brady. It remains difficult to bet against a player like that at this time of year, primarily because his game hasn't shown substantial slippage. This easily has been one of the most tumultuous seasons of Brady's career, given all the injuries to his supporting cast. And with free agency on the horizon this offseason, it's quite possible he's playing his last season in Tampa Bay. Those factors might be enough to make the Bucs believe they should make the most of this opportunity. They had a rough regular season, but none of that matters now.

What's not to like: Let's be honest: This team limped its way to the NFC South title. The Bucs have been plagued by injuries, inconsistency and, at times, ineptitude. They found a way to get a division-clinching win over Carolina in Week 17, as Brady took advantage of an undermanned Panthers secondary -- but there are still obvious flaws with this squad. The Bucs found a way to reach the postseason. Saying they look like a playoff team is a bridge too far.

Bottom line: Tampa Bay may be the No. 4 seed, but this is the least impressive team in the field. The Bucs handled the Cowboys in the season opener. They won't be able to repeat that feat in the postseason.

Dallas Cowboys

What's to like: The Cowboys can be devastating when they play their "A" game. They obliterated the Vikings in Minnesota by a score of 40-3 in Week 11 and dropped 33 points on Indianapolis in the fourth quarter of a 54-19 win in Week 13. They're ranked in the top five in both points scored and points allowed, and that Dallas defense can be downright dominant when offenses have to throw (the Cowboys forced 16 turnovers in the five games heading into their Week 18 loss to Washington, and they added one more on Sunday). You also can't discount this team's resilience. The Cowboys wouldn't be in this position if they hadn't found a way to go 4-1 when starting quarterback Dak Prescott was sidelined with a thumb injury earlier this season.

What's not to like: Prescott has struggled with turnovers in the second half of this season. He's tossed 11 interceptions in his last seven games alone (with Commanders cornerback Kendall Fuller scoring off the latest in that defeat to Washington). The defense hasn't been as disruptive of late. The Cowboys had three sacks against the Commanders but only three in their previous three contests. There's also the annoying question of which Dallas team is going to show up. As great as the 'Boys can be when they're on, they can be equally maddening when they're off. 

Bottom line: The Cowboys can be scary if they stay consistent. Offensive efficiency and predatory defense will be their ticket to success, and it doesn't hurt that they open the postseason with Tampa Bay. As long as Prescott takes care of the football, they should advance to the Divisional Round.

New York Giants

What's to like: This is a scrappy bunch. The Giants jumped out to a 7-2 record to start the season, then went a month without a win before finding a way to earn a couple more victories to cement their hold on the No. 6 seed. They've been exactly the same team throughout all that. The Giants have been one of the best groups in the league in avoiding turnovers, and their defense is opportunistic enough to keep them in games. This is the most blue-collar bunch in the playoffs, by far. They also embrace that, which is part of their charm.

What's not to like: Take away Pro Bowl running back Saquon Barkley, and the offense has no other dynamic elements. Put the G-Men in a position where they're trailing, and they're not built to mount any kind of serious comeback attempt. Quarterback Daniel Jones has been effective as a game manager, but he's not going to take over a contest. The Giants are basically built for a rock fight. They probably won't see many of those against the teams in this postseason.

Bottom line: It's been an impressive first year for head coach Brian Daboll, primarily because nobody expected this much from this team. It's also difficult to see New York advancing to the Divisional Round.

Seattle Seahawks

What's to like: The Seahawks are the team that was supposed to be rebuilding, not reloading. They've gotten here because Geno Smith proved that he's learned a few things about playing quarterback later in his career. Head coach Pete Carroll also dispelled the notion that the game has passed him by. In fact, he built a team around the same formula that won him a championship in the first place, with an opportunistic defense and a ball-control offense. The Seahawks were supposed to be lost without former quarterback Russell Wilson. They learned there's still plenty of other ways for them to win.


What's not to like: The defense may be good at taking the ball away (the Seahawks forced 25 turnovers this season), but stopping the run is a whole different story. Seattle was one of the worst teams in the league in that category, as eight opponents rushed for at least 160 yards against them. That's a rough stat when you're about to face a San Francisco team that loves to pound the rock.


Bottom line: The Seahawks lost twice to the 49ers this year by a combined margin of 48-20. They aren't good enough to pull an upset this time around.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.

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