As the NFL playoffs’ 2021 Wild Card Weekend closes in, which games feature underdogs who are the most capable of pulling off a shocking upset, sending one of the favorites packing early in their pursuit of Super Bowl LV?
Well, it seemed like a fun idea to rank this weekend’s first-round matchups based on which counted-out teams seem to have the best chance of getting the job done.
Continue reading for a breakdown of each contest as we spell out the case — or lack thereof — for each underdog and how they could possibly eke out an improbable victory. Point spreads are courtesy of DraftKings.
NFL playoffs 2021: Ranking Wild Card Weekend games by upset potential
6. Chicago Bears (+10) at New Orleans Saints
Saints defense. Mitch Trubisky. End section.
Just kidding! But seriously, Trubisky is pretty awful. Still. He beat up on bad defenses for a few weeks. Suddenly, Bears general manager Ryan Pace was breathing a little easier.
Pace notoriously passed on Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes for Trubisky, and let’s just say the Bears wouldn’t be wasting Khalil Mack’s prime if either Watson or Mahomes were under center in the Windy City.
The numbers from Pro Football Focus don’t lie.
Anyway, the Saints are at home, and look to be getting All-Planet receiver Michael Thomas back and healthy. Their passing attack triggered by Drew Brees will be more dangerous than it has been of late. Even without Thomas and pass-catching back Alvin Kamara in Week 17, Brees logged a 116.8 passer rating and threw three touchdowns in a 33-7 win over Carolina.
Although Chicago’s defense is nothing to sneeze at, it’s not as good as New Orleans’ elite group. The Saints allowed the fourth-fewest rushing yards and fifth-fewest passing yards during the 2020 campaign.
Trubisky has benefited from the emergence of Bears running back David Montgomery in recent games. The latter will find it far more difficult to pound the rock in the Superdome, that’s for sure.
The Saints tied for the NFL lead with 18 interceptions, and don’t be surprised if they pick off Trubisky at least once, maybe twice this Sunday. In the likely event that happens, Chicago will be too far back to even dream of pulling the upset. It’d take Trubisky’s ultimate masterpiece for the Bears to stay competitive, or historic rushing numbers from Montgomery. Against the Saints, that seems almost impossible.
5. Washington Football Team (+8.5) vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The last time GOAT Bucs quarterback Tom Brady went one-and-done in the playoffs was the 2010 season. Well, that is until his last year with the New England Patriots, and we saw when coach Bill Belichick’s team missed the playoffs this year how bereft of talent that cast of skill position players is.
Brady transitioned to a new offense in Tampa Bay without a preseason or legitimate training camp to get acclimated. Personnel changes abound. Injury-induced absences didn’t help chemistry issues. Head coach Bruce Arians criticized TB12 publicly multiple times. The 43-year-old legend never wavered, and now the Bucs are rolling, entering the playoffs off back-to-back games of scoring 40-plus points.
Look at Washington’s QB situation. Dwayne Haskins, a 2019 first-round pick, got released recently. Comeback Player of the Year Alex Smith has been banged up down the stretch and doesn’t have near the physical skills he once did. Smith may even split snaps with someone named Taylor Heinicke on Saturday.
Formidable as the Football Team’s defensive front is with rookie Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, it may be enough to keep the Buccaneers down early, but not out.
Between Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski among others, Tampa Bay and Brady have too many weapons in the passing game for Washington to account for. And that’s not even mentioning Mike Evans, who’s questionable due to a knee injury.
Brady knows how loaded his supporting cast is, because he had such limited weaponry throughout his time in New England. Whatever threats Young or Washington make toward him prior to the game or during it, he can always get the ball out in space to his playmakers and let them work to neutralize a dangerous pass rush.
In lieu of some revelatory miracle on offense, don’t expect the Football Team to do anything more than cover the spread by a slim margin. Even then, it may be a cover of the backdoor variety.
4. Los Angeles Rams (+3.5) at Seattle Seahawks
The “Let Russ Cook” movement was alive and well in Seattle to begin the season, and it was an absolute necessity. If Russell Wilson wasn’t playing like an MVP for the first half of the schedule or so, the Seahawks wouldn’t have won the NFC West title. Lately, however, it’s been the defense that’s propped up Wilson and Seattle’s struggling offensive attack.
What’s scary about Seattle is the team hasn’t figured out how to put everything together yet. In saying that, the team still finished the regular season with a 12-4 record, including an 8-2 mark in close games, per NFL writer Scott Kacsmar. That proved the Seahawks’ record in tight contests from 2019 wasn’t a fluke.
Allan Bell of CBS Sports made a savvy observation about how the NFC West rival Rams and Seahawks fared when they squared off in 2020:
Well look at that, both of the prior meetings between Los Angeles and Seattle resulted in a covering of the point spread. While that could change on Wild Card Weekend since Wilson is in playoff mode and his counterpart is likely to be John Wolford filling in for an injured Jared Goff, don’t completely deride the Rams’ chances.
Los Angeles coach Sean McVay is a genius play-caller. Few would deny that. That’s not really why the Rams are here, though — it’s more to do with Aaron Donald and the defense. First-year coordinator Brandon Staley has done so well transforming L.A. into the No. 1 scoring and total defense that he’s becoming a hot head coaching candidate.
The silver lining for Seattle is Wilson isn’t intimidated by facing Donald and the Rams’ dynamic front seven, and he has two excellent receivers in DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett who are rare players capable of challenging Jalen Ramsey and LA’s elite secondary.
It’s a fascinating matchup on paper, and the familiarity factor is real. An uncertain quarterback situation is why the Rams’ chances of pulling an upset don’t rank as high.
3. Indianapolis Colts (+6.5) at Buffalo Bills
This might seem a little high based on the point spread, but if the Colts maintain what they’ve been doing of late, they have all the elements to give Buffalo serious trouble.
All the pressure is on the Bills. They’re arguably the hottest team in the NFL entering the playoffs, and thanks to quarterback Josh Allen taking a massive leap forward in Year 3, Buffalo is a trendy Super Bowl pick.
Despite having an aging Philip Rivers under center, Indianapolis saw rookie tailback Jonathan Taylor go off in Week 17, racking up 253 yards rushing on 30 carries with two touchdowns. Granted, it was against Jacksonville, yet Taylor’s recent production can’t be ignored regardless of the opponent.
The Bills are very one-dimensional and reliant on Allen, readying to face a savvy defensive coordinator in Matt Eberflus whose unit yielded the second-fewest rushing yards per game this season.
Meanwhile, Buffalo gave up 4.6 yards per carry — slightly better than the Jaguars’ 4.7 — so it stands to reason Colts coach Frank Reich will pound the rock and play keep-away from Allen and Co.
Hard to trust Rivers in a big spot given his lack of long-term postseason success. Allen is still inexperienced and making only his second playoff start. How will that change him, if at all? Just saying, don’t dismiss Indianapolis so quickly.
2. Cleveland Browns (+6.5) at Pittsburgh Steelers
Missing a head coach in Kevin Stefanski who’s catalyzed an instant turnaround is no small matter for Cleveland. Neither is the fact that the Browns barely beat the Steelers in Week 17 even with Pittsburgh resting key defensive stars and starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
On the flip side of that, let’s remember the Steelers lost to Cincinnati in Week 15, dropped the two games before that Bengals matchup, and needed to overcome a 24-7 deficit to defeat the Colts before the regular-season finale.
T.J. Watt is among the elite edge-rushers in all of football, and Cameron Heyward is among the most underrated, consistent interior defensive linemen the NFL has seen in recent memory. They’ll both be back on the Heinz Field gridiron along with Big Ben this Sunday night.
But pretty much all bets are off for this one. Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield isn’t the type to make excuses, yet he’ll have an easy scapegoat if he loses. In a weird way, that should almost free him up to play loose in his postseason debut, whereas the heavily favored Steelers may be staring down Roethlisberger’s final career game with a loss.
The season is already a success for the Browns. They secured their first playoff berth since 2002, and have been hit with COVID-19 harder than any team down the stretch. An underdog playing with house money against a Super Bowl or bust team is especially dangerous.
Especially if Cleveland’s two-headed backfield monster of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt gets going early, watch out. That’s when you’ll know the Steelers could be in trouble, because they can’t run the ball a lick and will need to rely on Roethlisberger to save the day in obvious passing situations. Not necessarily a winning formula for Wild Card Weekend against these not-same-old Browns.
1. Tennessee Titans (+3.5) at Baltimore Ravens
What are we missing here? Tennessee stunned Baltimore in the AFC Divisional Round last postseason, so the Ravens had an entire offseason to fume over that. They had their crack at the Titans again in Week 11 and lost 30-24 in overtime, as running back Derrick Henry had a walk-off touchdown run.
Henry is a back-to-back NFL rushing champion, and it’s easy to see why.
Is there any particular reason Tennessee is an underdog, particularly at home? Anyone with half a brain understands the Titans lack a pass rush, but that’s their only really fatal flaw. The Henry-led offense is excellent, and signal-caller Ryan Tannehill takes full advantage of how well the rushing attack sets up play-action passes.
An inability to rush the passer doesn’t penalize Tennessee as much as it would against other opponents. That’s because reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson operates the Ravens’ unique offense as only he can, and isn’t a traditional drop-back passer. Jackson can devastate defenses with his legs more than with his arm, and that actually plays into the Titans’ favor.
Unless Jackson magically transforms into a pure pocket passer or Baltimore suddenly fields receivers who are true game-changers, these facts won’t change. Jackson eclipsed 200 yards passing just three times in his last 13 regular-season starts.
Oh, and who’s under more heat to succeed in the entire 2021 NFL playoffs than Jackson? He’s 0-2 in the postseason, and another one-and-done would cause all kinds of chaos and uncertainty for the Ravens.
As long as Henry is rolling — and there’s little reason to think he won’t — all signs point to Tennessee as the underdog with the best chance to pull an upset on Wild Card Weekend.