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NFC Wildcard Preview: Early look at the first round matchups

The NFC playoff seeding is set. How could each game shake out?

Los Angeles Rams v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

The final pieces of the NFC playoffs fell into place Sunday afternoon, and the wildcard weekend matchups are full of intrigue.

The Green Bay Packers secured the top seed in the NFC and a first round bye after defeating the Minnesota Vikings in Week 17, so they will be watching the opening round unfold from their couches. The Packers will host the lowest remaining seed out of the three wildcard games.


#7 Philadelphia Eagles at #2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Sunday - 1 p.m. ET

The Eagles and Buccaneers previously faced off in Week 6 of the regular season and Tampa Bay came out on top 28-22. However, the Philadelphia team that is preparing for the playoffs poses a much more potent threat than the early-season version of the Eagles.

Towards the beginning of the season, the Eagles were among the NFL’s most pass-happy teams, but around the end of October they started to lean into what it does best — running the football. Jalen Hurts has emerged as a dangerous dual threat quarterback and Philadelphia has a number of young pass catchers at his disposal. Rookie DeVonta Smith has been steady after being drafted in the first round this spring, and Dallas Goedert has emerged as the primary tight-end after the team traded Zach Ertz to Arizona.

The Buccaneers’ wealth of experience and seasoned NFL veterans runs antithetical to the promising young talent of the Eagles, which in itself creates an interesting matchup.

Tampa Bay has dealt with recent injuries and drama, but they are hoping the playoffs allow for a fresh start and the return of some key contributors. The Bucs recently released Antonio Brown after an outburst on the sideline in Week 17, and he was playing an important role after the team lost Chris Godwin to injury earlier in the year. The Buccaneers also hope to get back veterans Lavonte David, Shaq Barrett, and Leonard Fournette during the playoffs, but this is something worth keeping an eye on.

Poll

Who do you think will win this matchup?

This poll is closed

  • 23%
    Philadelphia Eagles
    (148 votes)
  • 76%
    Tampa Bay Buccaneers
    (487 votes)
635 votes total Vote Now

#6 San Francisco 49ers at #3 Dallas Cowboys

Sunday - 4:30 p.m. ET

The 49ers extended their winning steak over Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams to six games in order to keep their 2021 season alive — and now they are headed to play the Cowboys in Dallas.

San Francisco was dealing with a quarterback controversy in Week 18, with Jimmy Garoppolo nursing a broken thumb but performing well enough to lead his team to victory late in the fourth quarter. Will the 49ers deploy dynamic rookie Trey Lance in some fashion, whether in the red zone or in short yardage situations? San Francisco is a matchup nightmare on offense with unique personnel such as Deebo Samuel, who lines up pretty much anywhere for the 49ers, Kyle Juszczyk, George Kittle, and Lance. They have a coach that knows how to get the most out of each chess piece, and San Francisco will need to pull out all the stops against a talented Cowboy squad.

Dak Prescott and the Cowboys offense has been streaky at times this season, but they finished the season on a high note by putting up 51 points against mostly the Eagles’ backups. Dallas may also be fielding the best defensive unit that it’s had in recent seasons, led by star rookie Micah Parsons. Cornerback Trevon Diggs recorded an astonishing 11 interceptions during the regular season, and he could be a difference maker against a quarterback like Garoppolo that will give the opposing defense chances for takeaways.

Poll

Which team will come out on top?

This poll is closed

  • 58%
    San Francisco 49ers
    (405 votes)
  • 41%
    Dallas Cowboys
    (288 votes)
693 votes total Vote Now

#5 Arizona Cardinals at #4 Los Angeles Rams

Monday - 8:15 p.m. ET

The Cardinals and Rams met twice during the regular season with the road team coming out on top each time:

  • Week 4 - Cardinals win 37-20 as the Rams turn the ball over twice and the Cards accumulate 216 yards on the ground.
  • Week 14 - Rams win 30-23 as Kyler Murray throws two interceptions against a short-handed LA defense. The Rams overcame a mid-season COVID-19 outbreak to insert themselves back into contention for the NFC West.

These two teams had opposite trajectories to end the season, as the Rams had won five in a row before falling to San Francisco and the Cardinals dropped five of their last eight games.

For the Rams, their turnaround from a mid-season slump can be attributed to contributions by recently acquired players. Von Miller started to emerge as a pass rusher for Los Angeles late in the year, which also allowed Aaron Donald and Greg Gaines to be more effective. Odell Beckham, Jr. has emerged as a dangerous red zone threat. Sony Michel has chewed up yards on the ground and has given a finesse Rams offense a more physical presence.

The Cardinals’ slide is concerning because it follows a trend that dates back to last season when the team started 7-2 but come up short of the playoffs. The offense has lost DeAndre Hopkins and James Conner and Chase Edmonds have been in and out of the lineup recently due to injury. Vance Joseph has the Arizona defense playing pretty well, and they have a number of playmakers that can create turnovers — Budda Baker, Byron Murphy, and Isaiah Simmons to name a few.

There is a lot more on the line in this third matchup, so which team will squeeze out a win?

Poll

Which team will win this game?

This poll is closed

  • 23%
    Arizona Cardinals
    (178 votes)
  • 76%
    Los Angeles Rams
    (565 votes)
743 votes total Vote Now