A viewer’s guide to the 2021 NFL Wild Card Round

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Tennessee Titans at Baltimore Ravens
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Somehow, some way, the NFL was able to navigate a normal 16-game regular-season schedule through the COVID-19 pandemic without having to cancel a single game. 

There were outbreaks and scares alike, but they made it to the playoffs, which this year features seven teams instead of just six. 

While the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers enjoy a bye week, the other 12 playoff combatants take the stage during a loaded Wild Card weekend.

Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills- Saturday, 1:05 p.m. ET (CBS)

The AFC East champion Buffalo Bills helped end the New England Patriots’ reign of terror on the NFL and win their first division title since 1995. While their defense was expected to be the calling card, the dynamic duo of quarterback Josh Allen and wide receiver Stefon Diggs helped put Buffalo on the map. Allen is an MVP candidate this season, throwing for 4,544 yards with 37 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, and a 107.1 quarterback rating. His No. 1 receiver in Diggs led the NFL with 127 receptions and 1,535 yards to go with eight touchdowns. 

They’ll face an Indianapolis Colts squad that will try to give Philip Rivers an opportunity to ride off into the sunset. The 39-year-old slinger has hinted at retirement, but he’ll have to turn back the clock to his Chargers days if he wants to keep up with the Bills, who could feast off Indianapolis’ susceptible pass defense.

Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks- Saturday, 4:40 p.m. (FOX)

The Seattle Seahawks won the NFC West no thanks to their defense, which has reputationally been a force over the last decade. Despite picking up Jamal Adams before the season, Seattle’s defense was one of the worst in football; instead relying on veteran quarterback Russell Wilson and the showstopping DK Metcalf. 

They’ll have a stiff test in their divisional rivals, the Rams, who possess the top pass defense in the NFL. Along with the pass-rushing brilliance of Aaron Donald, the Rams owe their defense a ton of credit for getting this far. An offense with Jared Goff continues to sputter, though they were given Week 17 off. The Rams have averaged just 17.7 points over their last four games, which featured an embarrassing loss to the New York Jets.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Washington Football Team- Saturday, 8:15 p.m. (NBC)

Tom Brady makes his first postseason appearance in a uniform that isn’t the Patriots’ in a primetime matchup against the 6-10 NFC (L)East division-winning Washington Football Team. 

The 43-year-old recorded 4,633 passing yards in Year No. 21, making it the ninth time in the last 10 years that he’s eclipsed the 4,000-yard passing mark. Not to mention 40 touchdowns compared to just 12 interceptions. His leading receiver, Mike Evans, is questionable for Sunday’s game after picking up a knee injury in Week 17, but Brady still has some big-time targets in the likes of Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, and Rob Gronkowski. 

While Washington’s 6-10 record is nothing to write home about, their defensive line and pass rush is. Chase Young is quickly becoming one of the most imposing edge rushers in the game while Washington was sixth in the NFL with 47 sacks. It’s worth noting that Tampa Bay’s rush is no slouch, either, as they posted one more sack than Washington.

Baltimore Ravens at Tennessee Titans- Sunday, 1:05 p.m. (ESPN)

Sunday’s opening game will feature two of the most dynamic offensive talents in all of football. 

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson became the first quarterback in NFL history to post two seasons with at least 1,000 rushing yards to go with 2,757 passing yards in 15 games. He’ll be looking to exact some revenge after Tennessee knocked the Ravens out of the playoffs last year in upset fashion.

While Jackson is lightning, Titans running back Derrick Henry is thunder, leading the NFL in rushing for the second-straight season while becoming just the eighth player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season (2,027). The overwhelmingly powerful running back with deceiving speed also led the league with 17 touchdowns.

Chicago Bears at New Orleans Saints- Sunday, 4:40 p.m. (CBS)

Like Rivers in Indianapolis, this could be the swansong for Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who has contested with injuries in the latter stages of his career. 

New Orleans has built a team of playmakers around him though to ensure there was minimal drop-off when he was out of the lineup. A three-headed rushing attack of Alvin Kamara, Latavius Murray, and Taysom Hill combined to post over 2,000 yards on the season. Meanwhile, their defense is one of the best units in the league, allowing the fifth-fewest points and the fourth-fewest total yards.

For the Bears, this is a golden opportunity for quarterback Mitch Trubisky to prove that he can be the franchise quarterback. He has failed to live up to the hype after being taken second overall in the 2017 draft.

Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers- Sunday, 8:15 p.m. (NBC)

Under normal circumstances, this is a golden opportunity for the Cleveland Browns to exorcise some major demons. This is a franchise that hasn’t been to the playoffs in 18 years and their first crack at it comes against a Steelers team that has terrorized them in the AFC North for decades. 

Unfortunately for the Browns, COVID has swept through their ranks and head coach Kevin Stefanski will not be able to be on the sidelines for his team in their biggest game in nearly two decades. 

Regardless, it’s Baker Mayfield’s time to shine as he’ll duel Steelers veteran Ben Roethlisberger, who made a triumphant return with 3,803 yards with 33 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions after missing most of 2019 with an injury. 

While he and the Steelers once looked like the most invincible team in football following an 11-0 start, they lost four of their final five games to enter the postseason on shaky ground.

This story originally appeared on amny.com

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