NFL Wild-Card playoffs: Road to Super Bowl begins with six games — and one big upset. Our picks

·9 min read



The Dolphins this week are doing exactly what they have done 18 times in the past 20 seasons: Watching the playoffs on TV. Now, for the sixth and most surprising time in that span, they’re also shopping for a new head coach because Stephen Ross decided consecutive winning seasons weren’t enough to keep Brian Flores. Meanwhile tired-of-it Dolphins fans everywhere are represented by a shake-my-head emoji.


No. 5 seed RAIDERS (10-7) at No. 4 BENGALS (10-7)

Line: CIN by 5 1/2.

Cote’s pick: CIN, 27-20.

TV: 4:30 p.m. Saturday, NBC.

Raiders are after their first postseason victory since 2002, while Bengals last won a playoff game in 1990. Cincy is AFC North champ for first time since 2016 but Vegas is the unlikelier to be here after a tumultuous season that included the resignation of coach Jon Gruden over an email scandal, the arrest of top receiver Henry Ruggs III over a deadly crash, and the Raiders winning six games on the final play of the game — most of by any team in any season since the 1970 merger. Road teams have won 10 of past 14 Wild-Card Round games; can Vegas continue the trend? I give them a big shot, best of any underdog this weekend, especially if RB Josh Jacobs (ribs) and TE Darren Waller (knee) both play as expected. Raiders have won six of past eight outright as road dogs and come in on four-game win streak including Sunday night’s epic winner-take-all over Chargers. Despite that I like still Bengals for their first playoff W in 31 years. Vegas is worst of 14 playoff teams based on point differential (minus 65), and got handled 32-13 by Cincy in November. Joe Burrow has clear edge in weapons if it gets into a pointfest.

No. 6 PATRIOTS (10-7) at No. 3 BILLS (11-6)

Line: BUF by 4.

Cote’s pick: BUF, 23-16.

TV: 8:15 p.m. Saturday, CBS.

New England has won nine of its past 10 trips to Orchard Park, including this season, when the division rivals split games, each winning at the other’s house. That trend, and the continuing life in Bill Belichick’s genius card, make you think Patriots may have an upset in ‘em. Don’t overthink that, though. Buffalo won the AFC East on the wing of four straight wins to close it out, and because the Pats and rookie QB Mac Jones faded pretty badly down the stretch, ending on a 1-3 skid. I like Josh Allen — and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, a top candidate to be the Dolphins’ next coach — to outscore a struggling Jones. It won’t take much, though, with the scoreboard in the grip of two strong defenses. A key for the Buffs will be run D, because Pats ground out 372 yards rushing vs. Bills in the two regular-season meetings. Also, watch the first quarter as a barometer. Bills are 8-0 when they score a touchdown on their first possession, and that early momentum would be accentuated before a rabid crowd enjoying only Buffalo’s third home playoff game since 1996.

No. 7 STEELERS (9-7-1) at No. 2 CHIEFS (12-5)

Line: KC by 12 1/2.

Cote’s pick: KC, 28-17.

TV: 8:15 p.m. Sunday, NBC.

Pittsburgh won its last two games to earn a playoff curtain call for Ben Roethlisberger, but the career road ends here for the retiring, Hall of Fame-headed QB. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who admitted he “dozed off” during Sunday night’s Raiders-Chargers game despite it being epic exciting, will have plenty of nap time after this game. This is the one of six opening-round games where I give the underdog the least chance to win, partly because Pittsburgh hasn’t been a good road team (3-5) and Arrowhead can be especially tough on visitors. AFC West champion KC crushed Pitt 36-10 the day after Christmas, and Steelers’ only or best prayer in the rematch will be a heavy dose of RB Najee Harris (elbow, questionable) to keep Patrick Mahomes off the field, and heavy pressure from NFL sacks leader T.J. Watt when Mahomes is out there. (Watt didn’t play in the earlier meeting). Though another rout by Chiefs would not surprise, I expect a valiant effort by Tomlin’s guys in Big Ben’s farewell game to keep Steelers inside a big betting number.

BYE: No. 1 TITANS (12-5): No respect? AFC South champion Tennessee is third betting fave in AFC after Chiefs and Bills despite top seed and lone bye. But Titans could get RB Derrick Henry back next week for first time since Week 8. Next week: Vs. lowest-seeded wild-card survivor. Would be Bengals if all favorites advance.


No. 7 seed EAGLES (9-8) at No. 2 BUCCANEERS (13-4)

Line: TB by 9.

Cote’s pick: TB, 31-13.

TV: 1 p.m. Sunday, Fox.

Fun fact: Tom Brady has started more postseason games (45) than this weekend’s 11 other starting quarterbacks combined (43). Five QBs (including Jalen Hurts) will be making their maiden playoff start. Four of them were either 2 or 3 years old during Brady’s NFL rookie season. Now, Tom Brady and NFC South champion Tampa Bay aim to be the first repeat Super Bowl winner in 17 years. And write them off at your own risk. Philly, with the same season record as the Dolphins, is the NFC interloper in this postseason, but the Birds will be one and done. Tampa Bay only won by 28-22 on the road in these teams’ Week 6 regular-season meeting, but expect a much more comfortable TB win this time. Playoff-steeled Buccaneers are on a 7-0 run in January and have been great at home (7-1). Philly’s nine wins were against teams with a combined record of 53-99-1 have been. That’s an awful lot of feasting on a lot of awful teams. Brady’s Bucs ain’t one of those.

No. 6 49ERS (10-7) at No. 3 COWBOYS (12-5)

Line: DAL by 3.

Cote’s pick: DAL, 30-24.

TV: 4:30 p.m. Sunday, CBS.

This is the only one of six Wild-Card Round matchups in which the teams did not meet during the season, yet it has a familiar, traditional feel because these two have met seven previous times in the playoffs, though not since the 1994 season. Both teams enter this one in good form, and are comparably strong on defense. But Cowboys have a clear edge in scoring firepower, and Niners QB Jimmy Garoppolo playing through a thumb injury only magnifies that offensive disparity. I give San Fran a medium outright upset shot — the betting line somewhat disrespects NFC East winner Dallas — but ultimately I trust Dak Prescott and all his weaponry. He has had only a 1-2 career record in postseason, but this is the best squad he has had. And the best Dallas iteration Jerry Jones has had maybe since the America’s Team glory days ebbed in the mid-’90s. This also has been a solid matchup lately for ‘Boys, who are on a 6-1 run in series including three straight wins.

No. 5 CARDINALS (11-6) at No. 4 RAMS (12-5)

Line: LAR by 4.

Cote’s pick: ARI, 27-24.

TV: 8:15 p.m. Monday, ABC/ESPN.

No team had ever won a Super Bowl in its home stadium until Tampa Bay did last year. Can the NFC West champion Rams make it two in a row with the SB set for their place? We begin to find out, although my pick here — upset! — says don’t bet on it. This is NFL’s first Monday night playoff game since December 26, 1998, and it pits division rivals who split their season series, each winning on the other’s turf. Arizona stumbles into the playoffs on a 1-4 skid, but they have been a great road team (8-1), and L.A.’s 9-1 run in this rivalry feels like a trend due to end. Also of note: Rams QB Matthew Stafford has had an NFL-high 11 interceptions since Week 9, four of them pick-6’s, and now is playing through a toe injury that could limit his mobility. And the Cardinals hope to finally have back pass rusher J.J. Watt, out the past 10 games with a shoulder injury. Watt’s return would provide a spiritual as much as literal spark. Zona this season is 7-0 when Watt starts, and 4-6 without him. [Note: This prediction initially had the wrong winning team by mistake in the earliest online version, since corrected to Arizona).

BYE: No. 1 PACKERS (13-4): Aaron Rodgers. Lambeau Field in January. An 8-0 record at home. (Did I mention Aaron Rodgers?) And you wonder why NFC North champion Green Bay is the Super Bowl favorite at most sportsbooks? Next week: Vs. lowest-seeded wild-card survivor. Would be Rams if all favorites advance.

[Note: Betting lines are courtesy Caesars Sportsbook as of mid-afternoon Thursday].


Had four dog-with-points covers — by the Dolphins, Broncos, Bengals and Seahawks — to close the regular season, but still a poor Week 18 overall that left us with a .635 winning percentage overall and .519 (10 games over) against the spread. I’m not throwing a party, but neither am I bemoaning those numbers in what was a tough NFL season that saw a record 34 games decided on the final play. We enjoyed an especially strong year on our Upset of the Week picks, going 11-7 straight-up and 13-4-1 ATS on upset specials. Now, unlike 18 unfortunate teams including Miami ... we’re on to the playoffs!

Week 18: 8-8, .500 overall; 7-9, .438 vs. spread.

Final Season: 172-99-1, .635 overall; 140-130-2, .519 vs. spread.

Final 2020: 166-89-1, .651 overall; 130-120-6, .520 vs. spread.