Guide to NFL wild-card games: Predictions, key matchups, more

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The NFL playoffs have arrived. We're previewing wild-card weekend with a rundown for each game from Dan Graziano, score predictions from our Nation reporters and Football Power Index projections from ESPN Stats & Information.

Plus: Key matchups to watch from Matt Bowen, what to know from a sports betting perspective by Rob Nelson of ESPN Stats & Information, officiating nuggets from Kevin Seifert and more.

First-round byes: NO, KC, LAR, NE

Jump to a matchup:


(5) Chargers at (4) Ravens: 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS

Point spread: BAL -3 | Matchup quality: 81.0 (of 100)

These teams met just a couple of weeks ago, and Baltimore got the better of the matchup in the Chargers' building. Now the Chargers, being a 12-4 wild-card team, have to travel the length of the country for an early-window Sunday start and try to solve a Ravens running game that baffled them and everyone else over the second half of the season. Will it help the Chargers that they're the first team to see this Lamar Jackson offense up close twice? Perhaps, and the road hasn't bothered the Chargers, who went 7-1 away from home, including big conference wins in Pittsburgh and Kansas City, en route to their second playoff appearance in the past nine years. -- Graziano

FPI win projection: LAC, 50.8 percent. When these two teams met in Los Angeles in Week 16, Philip Rivers had his worst Total QBR in a game this season (30.0). However, Rivers has been much better on the road this season, posting an 81.3 Total QBR (second best in the league) compared with 58.9 at home. Though the Ravens' defense finished second in points allowed and first in yards allowed this season, it actually ranked seventh in defensive efficiency, according to the FPI -- below the fifth-ranked Chargers.

Matchup to watch: Rivers vs. Baltimore's pressure packages. In the Ravens' Week 16 win over the Chargers, the Baltimore defense racked up four sacks and eight quarterback hits on Rivers. And we know Baltimore is going to dress up the defensive front to manipulate protection schemes. It's on Rivers to identify blitz situations and find open windows on second-level throws when Baltimore brings its five-man zone pressure. -- Bowen

Betting nuggets: The Ravens have covered in seven straight playoff games since the 2011 season. And the total has gone under in all five of their home playoff games in Baltimore. -- Nelson

Officiating scouting report: The Chargers (7.7 per game) and Ravens (8.3) ranked in the middle of the pack in total penalties, and the Chargers were called for the second-fewest total of defensive pass interference, illegal contact and defensive holding fouls (14) and the fewest offensive pass interference penalties (one). The Ravens, on the other hand, have been called for an NFL-high 10 offensive pass interference fouls. Referee Clete Blakeman's crew threw eight offensive pass interference flags, tied for sixth most. -- Seifert


Woodson: Ravens won't beat Chargers for second time

Darren Woodson says the Chargers will be more prepared for Lamar Jackson in their AFC wild-card game, but Tedy Bruschi disagrees and picks the Ravens.

Eric D. Williams' pick: The Chargers are 8-0 when boarding a plane for a game this season, including wins at Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Seattle, so they've played well on the road in hostile environments. The Bolts also did a decent job of handling Baltimore's potent running game in the last matchup, limiting Jackson to a season-low 39 rushing yards. They should somewhat contain Baltimore's explosive running plays and will do a better job protecting Rivers against a formidable Ravens defensive front. Also, Melvin Gordon is healthier and should be more effective running the football in the rematch. Chargers 24, Ravens 20

Jamison Hensley's pick: John Harbaugh is 5-0 in the wild-card playoffs with the Ravens, who have outscored teams 144-56. That's an average margin of 17.6 points. Considering the roll Jackson and the Ravens are on right now, expect that winning trend to continue. Ravens 20, Chargers 17

In case you missed it: How Derwin James can impact games in many ways ... Jackson set to become youngest playoff starting QB ... Road warrior Chargers on facing Ravens again: 'Any squad, any place'

(6) Eagles at (3) Bears: 4:40 p.m. ET, NBC

Point spread: CHI -6 | Matchup quality: 64.8 (of 100)

Opposing quarterbacks posted a league-low 50.8 Total QBR against the Bears this season, but this is Nick Foles in January, and a year ago that was pure magic. The defending Super Bowl champs were left for dead six weeks ago, but they won five of their last six games to snag the final NFC playoff spot. More than any team playing this weekend (except certain pockets of Seattle's roster), the Eagles know how to win playoff games. It will be a far tougher road from the No. 6 seed than the one they took from the No. 1 spot a year ago, but everybody knows it's not easy to knock out a champion. -- Graziano

FPI win projection: CHI, 69.1 percent. The Bears are FPI's biggest favorite of the weekend thanks mainly to the best defense in the league this season, ranking first in defensive efficiency (77.9), according to FPI, and first in opponent Total QBR allowed (50.5). But don't sleep on the Bears' offense, either. Mitchell Trubisky ranked third in the league in Total QBR (72.8), and the Bears ranked 10th in offensive efficiency this season.

Matchup to watch: Vic Fangio's defense vs. Zach Ertz in the red zone. The Eagles' tight end had 116 receptions this season, including seven touchdowns inside the red zone. What's the answer for the Bears' No. 1-ranked defense? Based on past opponents, I anticipate the Bears using outside linebackers Khalil Mack and Leonard Floyd to disrupt the release of Ertz with a linebacker or safety catching over the top to limit the tight end's production in scoring position. -- Bowen


Bruschi, Woodson say Bears' defense will be too much for Foles

Tedy Bruschi and Darren Woodson tab the Bears to defend home field in the NFC wild-card game against a rejuvenated Eagles team led by Nick Foles.

Betting nuggets: The Bears are a league-best 12-4 ATS this season, which is two games better than any other team. They face an Eagles team that hasn't covered in consecutive games all season (covered last week at Redskins). -- Nelson

Officiating scouting report: Between referee Tony Corrente's regular-season crew tying for the sixth-fewest flags (14.6 per game), the Eagles' average of seven flags per game (No. 6) and the Bears' average of 7.1 (No. 9), you can see a path toward a relatively flag-free game. The Bears and Eagles are tied for the third-fewest total of defensive pass interference, illegal contact and defensive holding calls (15). -- Seifert

Tim McManus' pick: The Bears' defense is a tough draw for any team, but the Eagles match up pretty well. They are strong along the offensive line, and Foles is getting the ball out about as quickly as anyone over the past three games (2.46 seconds), which should help neutralize Mack and that nasty Chicago pass rush. Philly's defense has been coming on strong of late and will be eager to take advantage of any missteps Trubisky makes in his postseason debut. Eagles 20, Bears 17

Jeff Dickerson's pick: The Eagles have the clear edge in postseason experience, but the Bears went 7-1 at Soldier Field in the regular season. Chicago won nine of its last 10 games to finish the year 12-4, the most wins for the franchise since 2006. The Bears' defense has been virtually unstoppable, leading the league in takeaways (36) and interceptions (27). Philadelphia is a worthy first-round opponent, but the Bears have too much momentum to be one-and-done in the postseason. Bears 25, Eagles 20

In case you missed it: How Trubisky took control of his team - and his mindset ...'He can crush food': Stories that shaped the Doug Pederson-Matt Nagy friendship ... From selling homes to the NFL: How an 'angel' helped Matt Nagy


Cowboys 24, Seahawks 22

Point spread: DAL -2.5 | Matchup quality: 68.9 (of 100)

Everybody knows the Cowboys like to run the ball, but the Seahawks really like to run the ball. Seattle's 2,560 regular-season rushing yards led the NFL and made the Cowboys' 1,963 (still a top-10 number) look pedestrian. Seattle is even averaging 2.77 rushing yards per carry before first contact, which is better than the 2.65 Dallas and its vaunted offensive line put up. Ezekiel Elliott comes in rested, though, and the Cowboys were 7-1 at home this season while Seattle was 4-4 on the road. -- Graziano

FPI win projection: DAL, 57.3 percent. The Cowboys are the favorites in this game, according to FPI, and their play at home this season has something to do with it. Dallas ranked in the top 10 in both offensive (ninth) and defensive (seventh) efficiency in home games this season. The Cowboys also ranked in the top 10 in opponent Total QBR at home this season (50.3), though Russell Wilson actually had a higher QBR on the road (67.4) than at home (63.7).

Matchup to watch: Dak Prescott vs. Seattle's third-down pass rush. The Seahawks registered the lowest blitz rate of any defense in the league this season, but this unit led the NFL with 27 third-down sacks. This is a combination of an athletic defensive front and a physical back seven who play with technique in the Seahawks' core coverages. Watch for Seattle to stick in its single-high safety looks while utilizing twist stunts on the defensive line to create pressure on Prescott. -- Bowen

Betting nuggets: The Seahawks are 5-0 ATS with three outright wins in their past five games as an underdog. They face a Cowboys team that is 0-2 ATS in two home playoff games under Jason Garrett. -- Nelson

Officiating scouting report: Referee Walt Anderson's regular-season crew threw the second-most flags (17.7 per game), but penalties were not a problem for either team this season. However, Anderson did throw 10 flags for roughing the passer -- tied for third most in the league -- and the Cowboys were flagged five times for it during the regular season, tied for the third most. -- Seifert


Bruschi, Woodson say Bears' defense will be too much for Foles

Tedy Bruschi and Darren Woodson tab the Bears to defend home field in the NFC wild-card game against a rejuvenated Eagles team led by Nick Foles.

Brady Henderson's pick: In two career games against the Seahawks (both losses), Prescott has thrown one touchdown pass to four interceptions, and his 52.9 passer rating is his worst against any opponent. The key for Seattle's defense against Prescott, according to Bobby Wagner, has been the pressure they've put on him. Seattle sacked Prescott five times in Week 3, and it had six sacks last week against Josh Rosen and Arizona. The Seahawks have won at least one game in all six of their playoff appearances under Pete Carroll. They'll make it 7-for-7 by getting to Prescott and forcing him into a costly mistake. Seahawks 21, Cowboys 20

Todd Archer's pick: If the Cowboys are to advance to the divisional round, they will need much more than what they've produced against the Seahawks recently. In losses to Seattle in 2015, 2017 and September of this season, the Cowboys have scored one touchdown in 33 drives. Still, in their past two games, they've scored touchdowns on five of their past seven red zone trips. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants do not have defenses like Seattle, but the Cowboys believe they have some momentum offensively. Cowboys 23, Seahawks 16

In case you missed it: Cowboys' win over Giants might not be meaningless after all ... Seahawks rely on a Polish kicker, Australian punter and Harvard grad

Colts 21, Texans 7

Point spread: HOU -1 | Matchup quality: 68.4 (of 100)

How close is this matchup? These teams played each other twice this season and the combined score of the games was 58-58. One area where these teams are very different is in how they protect their quarterbacks. Indy's Andrew Luck was sacked just 18 times this season, and Houston's Deshaun Watson was sacked 62 times. If Houston can solve the Colts' offensive line, or if the Colts struggle to get to Watson, the game could swing hard in the Texans' favor. -- Graziano

FPI win projection: HOU, 61.3 percent. The first-ever playoff matchup between AFC South teams features two of the hottest teams in the league. Since Week 7, the Colts have gone 9-1 and the Texans are 8-2, and both teams rank in the top five in offensive efficiency and the top 10 in defensive efficiency in that span, according to FPI.

Matchup to watch: Luck vs. Texans' two-deep coverage. In the two regular-season meetings, the Texans rolled to Cover 2 out of their dime personnel in third-down situations. Look for Colts coach Frank Reich to dial up some zone-beaters for his quarterback. The idea here is to occupy defenders and create open windows for Luck to target T.Y. Hilton and Eric Ebron on middle-of-the-field throws to move the sticks and extend drives. -- Bowen

Betting nuggets: The Colts are 5-0-1 against the spread and 5-1 straight up in the past six meetings in Houston. This includes a 24-21 win over the Texans as 4.5-point underdogs in Week 14. -- Nelson

Officiating scouting report: Referee Bill Vinovich's regular-season crew threw the least flags (13.1 per game), including a league-low 27 offensive holding fouls. That's good news for the Colts. Their average of 8.8 flags per game was the league's third most, and the Colts' young offensive line was vulnerable to holding fouls (33, fifth most). But Vinovich's crew was notably vigilant about pre-snap fouls, and the Texans were flagged an NFL-high 36 times for false start or encroachment. -- Seifert


Woodson: Ravens won't beat Chargers for second time

Darren Woodson says the Chargers will be more prepared for Lamar Jackson in their AFC wild-card game, but Tedy Bruschi disagrees and picks the Ravens.

Mike Wells' pick: The Colts will have their starting offensive line together for the first time since the Nov. 18 game against Tennessee. They'll need the continuity against Houston's pass rush, which had 43 sacks this season. The Colts accounted for 12 of Watson's 62 sacks this season. I would give the Colts the edge if Hilton, who has 933 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in seven career games in Houston, were healthy, but the receiver reinjured an ankle against Tennessee in Week 17 and it's uncertain how effective he'll be despite resting it and getting treatment all week. Texans 27, Colts 21

Jeff Legwold's pick: In two regular-season games against Houston this season, Luck has thrown for 863 yards and six touchdowns. Plenty of that damage was done on throws to Hilton, who might not be at full speed for Saturday's game. Two of Hilton's five 100-yard games this season were against the Texans. So, if Houston can keep Watson protected, Houston could have just enough offense to outlast Luck and give the franchise its fourth playoff win. Texans 27, Colts 24

In case you missed it: With experience, Bill O'Brien ready to face ghosts of playoffs past ... Watt happy, healthy, eager for playoff football ... Colts' Hilton limping to his 'second home' in Houston