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NFL playoff preview: First look at the 6 fascinating wild-card matchups, including Matthew Stafford vs. Detroit Lions

NFL playoff preview
Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL playoff field is finally set in both conferences after Sunday’s Week 18 action. And our NFL playoff preview begins with a first look at the matchups for wild-card weekend, which begins Saturday.

The only two playoff teams not in action next weekend will be the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers, the No. 1 seeds in the AFC and the NFC, respectively, who have have first-round byes. They will host the lowest remaining seeds the following week in the divisional round.

Here are the six wild-card matchups:

AFC

No. 7 Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 2 Buffalo Bills

NFL playoff preview
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

WHEN: Sunday at 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

You just can’t kill the Bills (11-6) or the Steelers (9-8), who at points looked almost dead in the water, but rose up at the end of the season to make the playoffs. The Bills, who started 5-5, have won five straight and six of seven, including their AFC East-clinching 20-13 victory over Miami on Sunday. The Steelers were freefalling at 6-8, but won their final three games.

WHY THE STEELERS WILL WIN: Because they’ve finally found a spark in Mason Rudolph. The third-string quarterback, who waited behind starter Kenny Pickett and backup Mitchell Trubisky, took full advantage of his opportunity. He’s been productive and efficient, and the Steelers’ offense hasn’t looked better.

WHY THE BILLS WILL WIN: Because Josh Allen doesn’t turn the ball over. When Allen is taking care of the football, he’s among the best players in the game. One advantage will be that the Steelers won’t have the services of T.J. Watt, the NFL leader in sacks with 19, due to an MCL sprain in his knee.

Related: NFL winners and losers in Week 18, including the Buffalo Bills

No. 6 Miami Dolphins at No. 3 Kansas City Chiefs

NFL playoff preview

WHEN: Saturday at 8 p.m. ET (Peacock)

The Chiefs (11-6) enter the game as the more rested team; they had the luxury of resting Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and others after locking up their playoff berth the previous week. There was no rest for the banged-up Dolphins (11-6), who had the NFL’s toughest schedule over the final three weeks, dropping the final two to Baltimore and Buffalo to lose their grip on the AFC East title and the No. 2 seed.

WHY THE DOLPHINS WILL WIN: Because two of their weapons, receiver Jaylen Waddle and running back Raheem Mostert, return to the lineup and give quarterback Tua Tagovailoa more weapons to work with against the Chiefs, whose offense has struggled at times to score points.

WHY THE CHIEFS WILL WIN: Because Patrick Mahomes is Patrick Mahomes, and his playmaking ability can decimate any defense, particularly a Miami defense without its best pass rusher, Bradley Chubb, who’s out for the season.

No. 5 Cleveland Browns at No. 4 Houston Texans

NFL playoff preview

WHEN: Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET (NBC)

The Browns (11-6) are making their second playoff appearance in four years under head coach Kevin Stefanski, while the Texans (10-7) won the AFC South crown in their first year under DeMeco Ryans. Cleveland beat the Texans in Houston in Week 16, 36-22, but without C.J. Stroud, who missed the game while on concussion protocol.

WHY THE BROWNS WILL WIN: Because of their No. 1 defense, which is also the NFL’s best against the pass. The Browns make a regular practice of making even the best quarterbacks look ordinary, and they’ll win if they can do the same to Stroud.

WHY THE TEXANS WILL WIN: Because of Stroud will have a stellar day. The record-breaking rookie just beat the Indianapolis Colts on the road to secure a playoff berth, and he’s capable of lighting up even the Browns’ defense and elevating his status as one of the game’s best quarterbacks.

NFC

No. 7 Green Bay Packers at No. 2 Dallas Cowboys

NFL playoff preview
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

WHEN: Sunday at 4:30 p.m. ET (FOX)

The Packers (9-8) enter the playoffs as one of the NFL’s hottest teams, winning three straight to earn their way back to the playoffs after missing out in 2022. Head coach Mike McCarthy leads the Cowboys (12-5) against his former team. Dallas is coming off two straight wins and is back at home, where the Cowboys are a perfect 8-0.

WHY THE PACKERS WILL WIN: Because Jordan Love will continue playing like the hottest quarterback in the NFL. Love has thrown 18 touchdown passes to one interception over the past eight weeks, and if he plays that way in Dallas, the Packers might not be denied.

WHY THE COWBOYS WILL WIN: Because, simply, they’re at home. There’s a huge disparity between the Cowboys at home and the Cowboys on the road, especially on defense. Dak Prescott has had an MVP-caliber season overall, but he looks like a Hall of Famer at AT&T Stadium. The connection between him and CeeDee Lamb will be tough to stop on their home field.

No. 6 Los Angeles Rams at No. 3 Detroit Lions

NFL playoff preview
Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

WHEN: Sunday at 8 p.m. ET (NBC)

This is a battle of quarterbacks against their former teams — the Rams’ Matthew Stafford against the Lions, and the Lions’ Jared Goff against the Rams. The Rams (10-7) are the NFL’s hottest teams, as winners of four straight and seven of their past eight, while the Lions (12-5) have been consistently good.

WHY THE RAMS WILL WIN: Few defenses can match up with the Rams’ offensive firepower, with Stafford playing at his highest level and with newfound weapons in running back Kyren Williams and rookie sensation Puka Nacua at receiver to go with Cooper Kupp.

WHY THE LIONS WILL WIN: Their balanced offensive attack can take advantage of a Rams’ defense that isn’t at same level as its offense. The only concern will be the health of tight end Sam LaPorta, who left Sunday’s game with a knee injury, but otherwise they have playmakers in Amon-Ra St. Brown and backs Jahmyr Gibbs and David Montgomery to make up the difference.

No. 5 Philadelphia Eagles at No. 4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

NFL playoff preview
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

WHEN: Monday at 8:15 p.m. ET (ESPN/ABC/ESPN+)

The Eagles (11-6) are in the playoffs, but don’t come close to resembling the 10-1 team they were at the start of December, as losers of five of their past six games. The Bucs (9-8) have been on a roll, with five wins in their past six games to win the NFC South crown.

WHY THE EAGLES WILL WIN: Because they’ve rediscovered the team that went to the Super Bowl a year ago, but suddenly disappeared over the final month. The former Eagles were consistent, confident and effective on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Jalen Hurts needs to lead them, but he could be without star receiver A.J. Brown, who hurt his knee Sunday. Either way, without Hurts guiding the way, the Eagles look one-and-done.

WHY THE BUCCANEERS WILL WIN: Because Baker Mayfield takes advantage of the Eagles’ porous pass defense, especially going liberally to Mike Evans, one of the NFL’s best receivers over the past decade. The Buccaneers might have the worse record, but they are playing like the better team in this matchup.

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