NFL Wild Card Sunday Preview: Bills, Bengals hope to advance to divisional round meeting while overachieving Vikings host Giants

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase (1) breaks away from Baltimore Ravens safety Marcus Williams (32) on a reception in the first quarter of the NFL Week 18 game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Baltimore Ravens at Paycor Stadium in downtown Cincinnati on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023. The Bengals led 24-7 at halftime. Baltimore Ravens At Cincinnati Bengals Nfl Week 18

NFL Wild Card Sunday Preview: Bills, Bengals hope to advance to divisional round meeting while overachieving Vikings host Giants

Miami Dolphins (9-8) at Buffalo Bills (13-3)

Time/TV: noon CT/CBS

The No. 7 seed Miami Dolphins will head north to Buffalo for a wild card round battle with the No. 2 seed Bills to kickoff Sunday’s NFL playoff action. Miami qualified for the playoffs just last weekend, topping the New York Jets 11-6 to finish off a roller-coaster regular season, while Buffalo finished the season 13-3 with its playoff berth never really in doubt. The Bills enter the playoffs seeded only behind Kansas City in the AFC, but could potentially have been seeded ahead of the Chiefs had Buffalo been afforded the opportunity to complete Week 17’s Monday Night Football game in Cincinnati. Given the circumstances surrounding Bills’ safety Damar Hamlin, who collapsed during that game after suffering cardiac arrest, it never made sense to continue playing. The result for the Bills is that they were not given a bye into the divisional round, but a potential Buffalo versus Kansas City AFC Championship Game would be played in Atlanta, Georgia, instead of on the road in Kansas City.

If the Bills are going to advance that far, they’ll first have to defeat a divisional opponent on Sunday afternoon. Miami and Buffalo split their two regular-season meetings, the home team winning both in dramatic fashion. The Bills’ trip to Miami came on a swelteringly hot day in late September, while the Dolphins’ traveled to Buffalo for the snowiest game of the NFL season on Dec. 18. While temperatures are once again expected to hover in the twenties Sunday afternoon, no snow is in the forecast.

For the Dolphins, the biggest challenge to overcome if they hope to keep Sunday afternoon’s game competitive is not the weather – it is that they are down to their third-string quarterback making his first career postseason start. Rookie Skylar Thompson is expected to make his third career start after struggling when called upon this season. Thompson passed for just one touchdown while throwing three interceptions, posting a dismal 27.3 QBR during the regular season. Miami is also missing its excellent left tackle, Terron Armstead, so Skylar Thompson will likely need to get the ball into his wide receivers’ hands quickly for the Dolphins to have any success on offense. The Dolphins lost five straight before finally winning their season finale and have not scored an offensive touchdown since Week 17 at New England. Buffalo boasts the NFL’s second-highest scoring offense and second-best scoring defense, and is playing inspired football in front of raucous fans to honor Damar Hamlin. Wish the Dolphins luck – they’re going to need it in spades to pick up their first playoff win since 2000.

New York Giants (9-7-1) at Minnesota Vikings (13-4)

Time/TV: 3:30 p.m. CT/FOX

The No. 6 seed New York Giants will travel to Minneapolis for the second time in four weeks to take on the No. 3 seed Minnesota Vikings in Sunday’s NFC wild-card round matchup. Minnesota returns to the postseason after a two-year absence, led by first-year head coach Kevin O’Connell. The Giants are also led by a first-year head coach in Brian Daboll, who breaks a much longer drought by leading New York to its first playoff berth since 2016. When the Vikings and Giants met on Christmas Eve, Minnesota needed a last-second, 61-yard field goal by Greg Joseph to win a 27-24 thriller. New York feels it should have won the game after outgaining the Vikings 445 yards to 353 and averaging 6.7 yards per play. The Giants shot themselves in the foot with two turnovers and seven penalties, mistakes they hope to avoid in Sunday’s playoff rematch.

For Minnesota, Sunday’s game is about validating a 13-4 record that many feel was as much a result of good fortune as good football. The Vikings’ 11-0 record in games decided by one score is an impressive statistic that, at the same time, feels completely unsustainable, especially given that their four losses came by an average of more than 22 points per game. On the season, the Vikings were outscored by their opponents 427-424 despite winning 13 of 17 games.

If Minnesota is to beat the Giants once again, it will have to find a way to stop the run. New York averaged six yards per carry in the first matchup and boasts an offense that ranks fourth in the NFL overall, with an average of 148 rushing yards per game. After resting starters last Sunday in Philadelphia, the Giants will be running on fresh legs. For New York, containing Justin Jefferson has to be a major part of the game plan. Jefferson, arguably the NFL’s top dog at the wide receiver position, averaged more than 100 yards receiving per game, including 133 versus the Giants’ secondary on Dec. 24. The good news for the Giants is the secondary will get reinforcements in the form of top cornerback Adoree’ Jackson. Jackson returns to the lineup for the first time since Nov. 20 after suffering a knee injury returning a punt. If New York can instead force Minnesota to lean on its 27th-ranked rushing attack, they’ll have a very good chance of advancing to the divisional round next weekend.

Baltimore Ravens (10-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (12-4)

Time/TV: 7:15 p.m. CT/NBC

The No. 6 seed Baltimore Ravens will travel to Cincinnati for a second consecutive week for Sunday night’s AFC wild-card round showdown with the No. 3 seed Bengals. Cincinnati handled Baltimore comfortably a week ago, winning 27-16 in a game it led by at least two possessions from the first quarter onward. Star quarterback Lamar Jackson missed that game for Baltimore and is also expected to be unavailable this Sunday. The Ravens turned to third-string quarterback Anthony Brown in Week 18, who could be forced into action again if second-string quarterback Tyler Huntley is still unable to go.

Regardless of Baltimore’s hazy situation at quarterback, the Ravens are expected to look a bit different come Sunday night. Baltimore rested running back J.K. Dobbins and tight end Mark Andrews last Sunday, among others. Cincinnati, meanwhile, is suddenly dealing with two key injuries on its offensive line. With La’el Collins already out for the season with a torn ACL suffered in Week 16, Cincinnati will likely also be without guard Alex Cappa for Sunday night’s game, making life harder on Bengals’ quarterback Joe Burrow against the Ravens’ talented front seven. Bengals’ players hinted at a feeling that the Ravens were taking cheap shots in last Sunday’s game, which could create a more emotionally-charged environment between these AFC North rivals.

Down the stretch of the 2022 season, Baltimore really only won games by keeping them low-scoring. Without Lamar Jackson’s playmaking ability to lean on, the Ravens have instead become a team that leads with defense and special teams, hoping to outlast their opponents in physically-demanding rock fights. By season’s end, Baltimore’s defense ranked third in the NFL, allowing just 18.5 points per game. Last weekend, the Bengals’ 27 points scored were the most allowed by the Ravens since Thanksgiving weekend in Jacksonville. To defeat Baltimore for a second consecutive week, the Bengals will need backup offensive linemen Hakeem Adeniji and Max Scharping to play well and provide Joe Burrow time in the pocket. Cincinnati inherently trusts Joe Burrow’s ability to deliver in big moments, but the Bengals’ inability to protect their third-year star quarterback sunk their hopes of winning last season’s Super Bowl. Avoiding a similar fate won’t be easy against John Harbaugh’s Ravens, who have won an NFL-record eight road playoff games during his tenure and are 6-0 away from home in the wild-card round.

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