(CBS Chicago) — And just like that the NFL regular season is over, and it’s on to the postseason. The playoffs have a slightly different format this time around, with a seventh team added from each conference and only the top seed enjoying a first-round bye. That means the four division winners, along with three wild card teams, from the AFC and NFC each still technically have a shot at the Super Bowl. We’ll see how it plays out in the six games scheduled for this coming weekend.
While the bracket for the AFC is filled with deserving teams, that doesn’t quite look to be the case in the NFC. The Washington Football Team emerged from atrocious NFC East with a 7-9 record and the division title. They will host the 11-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first round, because that’s how the system is set up. The 8-8 Chicago Bears backed into playoffs where they’ll meet a New Orleans Saints team that could be without its top two running backs. The Los Angeles Rams, at 10-6, and possibly without their starting quarterback, will meet the division rival Seattle Seahawks, at 12-4.
All times listed are Eastern.
Los Angeles Rams @ Seattle Seahawks, Saturday, January 9, 4:40 p.m. (FOX)
With Rams quarterback Jared Goff recovering from a thumb injury on his throwing hand, the inexperienced John Wolford was given the start in Week 17. He did enough against the Arizona Cardinals to help his team to a win, or enough to not lose at least. A stat line of 22-38 for 231 yards and an interception is perfectly acceptable for a debut. But can a Wolford-led Rams team advance in the postseason?
“John Wolford made his first NFL start last week,” White points out. “And there’s a four-point drop off from Jared Goff. So that’s regular season. How much more could it be actually in the postseason with no experience, going in after just one start? That could be worth a couple more points to the line, I feel. So if Goff is said to be out later on the week… We see the line right now Seattle -4. I think you’ll see this line 6, 6 1/2, if the information says that Goff is not playing. Because that’s big, the experience in the playoffs.”
Goff led the Rams to Super Bowl LIII two years ago, where they lost to the New England Patriots. This year’s run, should it occur, may start with Wolford under center. Goff has been throwing the ball, but was listed as a limited participant in Tuesday’s practice. Rams coach Sean McVay won’t be naming a starting quarterback until Saturday.
“I don’t think Goff will play,” White speculates. “That’s my guess right now, that he’s going to be out. So I’m going to suggest, if you like Seattle, grab them as soon as possible. But I like the under in the game. I like under 43. The total right now is 42 1/2, 43. My number, with no Jared Goff in the game, is 37 1/2. I think both defenses will play up to what they need to do in this football game. And Seattle has been an under team the last six weeks. The Rams have been an under team all year long. Big, big game. I can see this being a very low-scoring affair, maybe 13-10, 16-10, in that scoring range.”
The Rams won the first of the teams’ two matchups, 23-16. The Seahawks won the second, 20-9. Goff started both games.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Washington Football Team, Saturday, January 9, 8:15 p.m. (NBC)
To some degree, the Washington – Tampa Bay game also hinges on an injured quarterback. Washington starter Alex Smith looked noticeably hobbled in the team’s Week 17 win to secure the NFC East and a playoff spot. He still managed to go 22-32 for 162 yards, with two TDs and two interceptions. It wasn’t pretty, but it was also likely better than the alternative. This team was 5-1 this season with Smith starting and 2-8 without.
The difference also shows up in the spread. “That’s gonna be big,” says White. “If he was injured during the game, it’s going to be a 3, 3 1/2-point drop off. Obviously, they released Haskins last week. The new backup. a young quarterback, so Smith has all the experience. But, boy, he’s not very healthy right now. He gutted through last week’s performance against an Eagle team that was going backwards. Now he’s up against a Buccaneer defense that’s going to be number one in the league in mostly all the stat categories.”
Tampa Bay’s defense is formidable, finishing the regular season allowing only 80.6 yards per game on the ground, tops in the league. Washington’s young defense is also solid, giving up just 304 yards and 20.6 points per game, both top five. But defensive lineman Chase Young made a rookie mistake in calling for Tom Brady.
“Why wake up a sleeping giant?” wonders White. “You don’t need to do that. Tom Brady already knows what he has to do. Now you just got his offensive line even that much more prepared to play this game against you. I think that was a very bad, immature move by Chase Young.”
Even Alex Smith’s injury and Chase Young’s comments may not matter enough in game that has the Bucs heavily favored. “I think the line was a put up a little short,” says White. “That line opened at 8. I’m seeing 8 1/2 – 9 now. I made the game 11, and can see even higher, because that 11 is with a healthy Alex Smith.”
That’s because Brady, as a six-time Super Bowl champion, has been in this situation many times before. “Tampa Bay all the way here,” says White. Who’s everybody going to bet on game day? Who’s the general public going to jump on? And I don’t mind being on the general public’s side in this game. But you know they’re all going to be on Tom Brady. They’re all going to be laying the points, and I think you’ll see this number close in the 10 – 10 1/2 range.”
Chicago Bears @ New Orleans Saints, Sunday, January 10, 4:40 p.m. ET (CBS)
The Bears won three of their last four games to slide into the playoffs. That mini-run came after losing six straight, and the wins came against sub-.500 teams. In Week 17, playing for a spot in the postseason, the Bears were dismantled by a Green Bay Packers team looking to secure a first-round bye.
They’ll meet the second-seeded Saints, who face a serious personnel issue. Running back Alvin Kamara tested positive for COVID-19 before Week 17’s game against the Carolina Panthers. That forced multiple other backs into quarantine. It ultimately didn’t matter in their win over Carolina. But it very well could against a much better Bears defense. Wide receiver Michael Thomas, Drew Brees’s favorite target, is coming off of injured reserve after an ankle injury.
“Those are three star players against the Bears defense,” notes White. “They will need, I think, all three or at least two. They’re going to need at least one of the running backs to play. Michael Thomas, the last I read, he’s been great. They said he’s ready to go. So it has not been confirmed that he’s probable, but I think Michael Thomas is playing. He’s worth a point and a half to the line. Murray’s worth about a point, because if Murray wasn’t in, that means Kamara is not in. Kamara is worth a point and a half. So that’s a lot of value.”
The earliest Kamara could return is gameday, if he tests negative. That would leave him without the benefit of preparing for the game with his teammates. Murray will also have a chance to return with a negative test.
The Bears have their own injury issues. Linebacker Roquan Smith, their best defender this season, may have suffered a dislocated elbow in Week 17. Rookie wideout Darnell Mooney injured his ankle in the fourth quarter of the Packers game. Both could miss Sunday’s game.
The game could come down to defense and field goals. “If there’s injuries, if there’s no Alvin Kamara in this game or Latavius Murray, I think it is an advantage to the Chicago Bears. They’ve played well down the stretch. I like the way the Bears have played. This could be a game that goes right down to the wire. The last team that kicks that field goal wins the game. So if both running backs are out for the Saints, I will be on the Bears this weekend.”
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