What to Watch For in Saturday’s N.F.L. Playoff Games
The four teams headlining Saturday’s N.F.L. wild-card doubleheader know each other well.
The Las Vegas Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals met in November amid a three-game skid for the Raiders. The New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills, two A.F.C. East rivals, met twice in the regular season, splitting those games 1-1 with each team winning on its opponent’s home field.
A rematch and the final game in this season’s trilogy awaits. Here’s a look at the matchups that will kick off the first week of the 2022 N.F.L. playoffs.
Las Vegas Raiders at Cincinnati Bengals
4:30 p.m., NBC
The Raiders (10-7) had little time to celebrate their chaotic win over the Chargers last week, which clinched Las Vegas a playoff berth as the No. 5 seed in the A.F.C. The Raiders will face a Cincinnati Bengals offense that has bulldozed its way to the postseason and has the No. 4 seed.
Joe Burrow, Cincinnati’s unquestioned quarterback of the future, was one of the league’s best passers in the latter half of the regular season as the Bengals (10-7) started using a more pass-heavy game plan. Burrow threw for over 300 yards in three of his last four games, completing over 60 percent of his passes in each of those matchups. Plenty of that success has been because Burrow is throwing to wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who has been as solid a safety net as any quarterback could want.
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Many questioned the Bengals’ decision to pick Chase at No. 5 overall in the 2021 draft instead of offensive tackle Penei Sewell (a top offensive line prospect), and Chase did little to quell that skepticism with an underwhelming preseason marked by dropped balls. Since then, however, Chase has all but run away with the offensive rookie of the year award, proving that those early season overreactions were just that. He led the Bengals in receptions (81), yards (1,455) and touchdowns (13) in the regular season and caught 11 passes for over 200 yards in Cincinnati’s win over the Chiefs, which knocked Kansas City out of the top spot in the A.F.C.
Although the combination of Burrow, Chase and receivers Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd has been a tough assignment for opposing defenses in recent weeks, the Raiders’ defense largely suppressed Cincinnati’s passing attack when the teams met in Week 11, a matchup the Bengals won. Burrow passed for a season-low 148 yards and had just a single touchdown in a game that was much closer than the final score of 32-13 indicated.
Las Vegas’s strength on defense is up front, where Maxx Crosby, the Raiders Pro Bowl edge rusher, thrives in affecting the passer. Crosby didn’t get to Burrow in the teams’ first meeting, though Las Vegas sacked him three times. Yannick Ngakoue, the Raiders other disruptive defensive end, logged a strip-sack fumble on the Bengals’ first drive of that game. Las Vegas should have little trouble generating pressure against a Cincinnati offensive line that struggles in pass protection (Burrow was the most sacked quarterback in the regular season).
A large majority of players on both of these teams have never played in a playoff game. The Raiders hadn’t made the postseason since 2016 and they last won a playoff game in 2002. If the Bengals win at Paul Brown Stadium, it’ll be their first playoff victory in over 30 years.
New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills
8:15 p.m., CBS
The Bills (11-6) won four of their last five games of the regular season to lock up the A.F.C.’s No. 3 seed. The Patriots (10-7) went 2-3 to close out the season and ended with the No. 6 seed.
They’ll meet at Highmark Stadium on Saturday where the temperature is expected to be in the single digits with a wind chill around negative 10 to 15 by kickoff.
That means this game could look a lot like when the teams met in early December, when the Patriots’ rookie quarterback Mac Jones attempted just three passes in a blustery, run-heavy matchup in New York. New England won, 14-10, with over 200 yards on the ground.
The Patriots could be without starting cornerback Jalen Mills, who was added to the reserve/Covid-19 list Tuesday, which would be problematic for a secondary already lacking in depth at the corner position.
New England traded Pro Bowl defensive back Stephon Gilmore to the Carolina Panthers during training camp. The Patriots’ slot cornerback Jonathan Jones had season-ending shoulder surgery in October. Mills and cornerback J.C. Jackson have been the centerpieces of the Patriots’ thin secondary.
Still, the Patriots’ defense allowed only 17.8 points per game, the second lowest total in the league (Buffalo allowed 17.0). The Bills ended the regular season with one of the N.F.L.’s best defensive units, leading the league in several defensive categories, including fewest yards allowed per game and fewest passing yards allowed.
In the teams’ second meeting, the Bills forced one of Jones’s worst performances of the year in a double-digit win. Jones completed 14 of 32 passes and threw two interceptions in the game.
Buffalo’s offense, headed by quarterback Josh Allen, has been inconsistent this season, but the threat of the connection between Allen and wide receiver Stefon Diggs remains. In that Gillette Stadium win, Diggs had six catches for 85 yards and a touchdown.