Best Case NFL Playoff Matchups After Week 18

By Scott Kacsmar

With one full week left in the NFL’s 2022 regular season, there are still a lot of playoff scenarios to play out. The only two seeds that are locked in are in the NFC with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at No. 4 as the NFC South winner and the New York Giants at No. 6 as a second wild card for the NFC East.

We know those teams cannot meet on wild card weekend, but what we did was single out what would be the most interesting wild card matchups for each game in the AFC and NFC: No. 7 at No. 2, No. 6 at No. 3, and No. 5 at No. 4.

Some of them are more likely than not to happen in the wild card round, so think of this as an early preview for the craziness we are about to experience.

It should be noted that this piece was scheduled prior to the tragic events Monday night in Cincinnati when Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin collapsed from cardiac arrest during the game. We wish Hamlin nothing but the best as well as the players on the Bills and Bengals, two of the best Super Bowl contenders in the league. Their stories are far from complete.

Also note that in the requirements to happen for these scenarios, only the most likely scenario is listed. We are going to avoid talking about ties at all costs here.

Dak’s Revenge: No. 5 Dallas Cowboys at No. 4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Requirements to happen:

  • Eagles beat Giants to win NFC East, dropping Dallas to No. 5.

This matchup has seemingly been expected since Week 6 when the Cowboys lost in Philadelphia. Only a two-game losing streak by the Eagles has created some drama that the Cowboys may win the NFC East, but with the Eagles a 14-point home favorite against the Giants, look for this to be Dallas in Tampa Bay after all.

It would be a rematch of the Week 1 opener, a 19-3 Tampa Bay win, which could be bad news for Dak Prescott. That was by far the worst game of his season and the only one where he failed to lead Dallas to at least 24 points. His offensive line has gotten better, and Michael Gallup has returned to action, but the Cowboys need to stop turning the ball over so much.

The Buccaneers have a poor offense, but Tom Brady’s quick release can negate a lot of that Dallas pass rush. Plus, with the way the Cowboys keep turning the ball over at disgusting rates and after blowing 14-point leads in the second half to the Packers and Jaguars, it is a game that is tailor made for a Brady comeback and a Dallas meltdown. In case you forgot, Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has already blown fourth-quarter leads of 10 and 19 points against Brady in Super Bowls with the 2014 Seahawks (defensive coordinator) and 2016 Falcons (head coach).

Not to mention, Mike McCarthy on the road against the LOAT in the playoffs? What could possibly go wrong other than everything?

Herbert vs. Lawrence: No. 5 Los Angeles Chargers at No. 4 Jacksonville Jaguars

Requirements to happen:

  • The Jaguars beat the Titans at home to win the AFC South and No. 4 seed.
  • The Chargers beat the Broncos, or the Ravens lose to the Bengals to lock up the No. 5 seed.

In Week 3, all the focus was on how Justin Herbert’s ribs would react after a cartilage injury suffered in the Kansas City game. The spread fluctuated greatly in this game after Jacksonville also had a 24-0 win over the Colts in Week 2.

Would Herbert miss his first game due to injury? He ended up playing, but the Jaguars blew the Chargers out 38-10 in one of the stunners of the season. Trevor Lawrence had a big game for Jacksonville and James Robinson rushed for 100 yards. Herbert struggled to move the offense, which was missing Keenan Allen.

This would be a great rematch with both teams playing much better football with healthier rosters going into the playoffs. The Chargers have given Herbert more of a defense and run game in recent weeks, and his receivers are healthy. The Jaguars are playing confident offense with Lawrence, who has been great in the second half.

This is the kind of matchup the AFC needs with young blood at quarterback with the high draft picks making their playoff debuts.

Close Game Magic Ends: No. 6 New York Giants at No. 3 Minnesota Vikings

Requirements to happen:

  • The 49ers beat Arizona, or the Vikings lose to Chicago to clinch the No. 3 seed for Minnesota.

The Giants would be a lousy matchup for the 49ers, so let’s hope we get a Week 16 rematch of the Giants in Minnesota. If anyone can end this absurd close-game streak for Kevin O’Connell’s Vikings, it’s the Giants.

They almost did it in Week 16, but the Vikings tied the NFL record with an eighth fourth-quarter comeback win and an eighth game-winning drive. This time it was a 61-yard field goal by Greg Joseph at the buzzer in a 27-24 game.

That game is the only fourth-quarter lead the Giants, who have five game-winning drives themselves, have blown this year.

Beyond the success the Vikings are having this season, O’Connell was the offensive coordinator for the Rams last year when they won the Super Bowl. He was part of the first team ever to win three straight playoff games by three points. Since last year’s divisional round, O’Connell’s teams are 14-0 in close games, 11-0 at game-winning drive opportunities, and they have made 10 fourth-quarter comebacks in their last 19 games.

It is an insane streak, but if any franchise is known for ending insane winning streaks, it is the Giants. Just ask the 1934 Bears (13-0 in championship game), 1998 Broncos (13-0 start), and 2007 Patriots (18-0 in Super Bowl).

Bonus points if the NFL schedules this one on a Monday night to screw with Kirk Cousins.

Lamar vs. Allen II: No. 6 Baltimore Ravens at No. 3 Buffalo Bills

Requirements to happen:

  • Chargers (11-6) beat Denver to stay ahead of Ravens for No. 5 seed.
  • Ravens (10-7) lose to Cincinnati to clinch No. 6 seed.
  • Bills (13-4) fall to No. 3 seed by losing head-to-head tie-breaker with Cincinnati (13-4).
  • Kansas City (14-3) beats Raiders for No. 1 seed.

Any scenario involving Baltimore, which has clinched a spot, is only going to be interesting if Lamar Jackson can return from his PCL injury. This team has not scored more than 17 points since Jackson was injured against Denver.

If Jackson can return in Buffalo, it would be a rematch of his last playoff game in the 2020 divisional round in Buffalo. He threw a pick-six in that 17-3 loss and was injured trying to recover a fumble on a freak play.

These teams met in Week 4 this year and the Ravens blew a 20-3 lead, the biggest comeback of the Josh Allen era in Buffalo. Jackson threw a crucial interception late in the game with the score tied, and the Bills drove down the field for the game-winning field goal in a 23-20 final.

This is kind of the forgotten potential rivalry in the AFC with everyone flocking towards Joe Burrow in Cincinnati or Justin Herbert with the Chargers to challenge the likes of Mahomes and Allen.

But the Ravens have the defense to keep these games interesting, and that includes blowing five double-digit leads after halftime this year. But we desperately need to see Lamar back in action as Tyler Huntley is just not the same.

Rodgers vs. 49ers Again: No. 7 Green Bay Packers at No. 2 San Francisco 49ers

Requirements to happen:

  • The 49ers beat Arizona for the No. 2 seed.
  • The Packers beat Detroit at home for the No. 7 seed.

Frankly, the Detroit Lions sneaking in at 9-8 might be the most interesting, but there is not much faith in the Rams beating the Seahawks and the Lions winning in Lambeau, which are the two scenarios we would need for the Lions.

Instead, it could be another game of Aaron Rodgers against the 49ers, the team he felt spurned him on draft day in 2005, but it’s also the team he is 0-4 against in the postseason, including a 13-10 loss last year as the No. 1 seed.

This one could be another mismatch, but the wild card is Brock Purdy, who will try to become the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to start a Super Bowl. You never know how a rookie will react in the playoffs, but history shows it is rarely good. Purdy is also still inexperienced, but he hasn’t had a bad game yet.

But the 49ers have left us scratching our heads again after getting shredded for well over 300 yards by Jarrett Stidham in his first NFL start for the Raiders last week. The 49ers have already lost an 11-10 game to Russell Wilson in Denver, a 19-10 monsoon with Justin Fields and the Bears, and they were down quickly in a loss to Marcus Mariota and the Falcons.

The 49ers have played much better since, but the Packers are also playing better complementary football down the stretch. It could be an interesting one if only to see if Rodgers could avoid going 0-5 against the 49ers in the playoffs.

Burrow vs. Watt: No. 7 Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 2 Cincinnati Bengals

Requirements to happen:

  • A lot.
  • The Bengals must win out to get to 13-4, edging out 13-4 Buffalo for the No. 2 seed thanks to head-to-head win.
  • The Chiefs beat the Raiders to get to 14-3 and claim the No. 1 seed.
  • The Steelers have to beat Cleveland at home as a 3-point favorite.
  • Buffalo has to beat the Patriots at home.
  • The Jets have to beat the Dolphins, who are unlikely to have Tua Tagovailoa again.
  • If this all happens, the Steelers edge out the Patriots and Dolphins for the No. 7 seed.

A longshot for several reasons, it is hard to think of a more interesting No. 7 vs. No. 2 game in the AFC this year. The Patriots just lack the offense to deal with any of these teams. The Dolphins have the Tua Tagovailoa concussion problem and are fading down the stretch.

That makes the Steelers the most intriguing of the three 8-8 teams vying for that last spot. They overcame longer odds to make it in Week 18 last year only to get blasted by the Chiefs in Ben Roethlisberger’s final game.

Sending Pittsburgh to Buffalo or Kansas City again would be awful, but the Bengals are interesting since it is a division game and Pittsburgh already won there in Week 1 in an insanely dramatic overtime game. The Bengals would have won if they did not badly botch the kicking procedure on an extra point and 29-yard field goal in overtime. The rare game where the emergency long snapper becomes the story.

Joe Burrow threw four picks and took seven sacks in that game. In the rematch, he was much calmer and effective, but it was also the only game this season where the Steelers scored 30 points before the offense faded in the second half. It could be the best matchup we get for these seeds, but it is certainly a longshot with the NFL needing to figure out how to handle this Buffalo-Cincinnati situation.

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