Will the Steelers upset the Bills?

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<p><figcaption class=Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP

The playoffs arrive with a super wild card weekend full of intrigue. The field is wider than ever after a rollercoaster regular season, any contender from the lame giants, plucky upstarts and surprise packages can justify a deep playoff run, everyone will believe they can live another week until the Real heavyweights of the league, San Francisco and Baltimore, enter the fray.

What the Browns must do to win: Joe Flacco needs to continue the fearless approach that got him to the playoffs. The 38-year-old’s stats through five games (1,616 yards and 13 touchdowns) extrapolated across 17 would make him an MVP contender. Keeping him well protected (he’s been given an average of 2.6 seconds to work from the pocket) has been the key ingredient to the impressive passing numbers.

What the Texans must do to win: Offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik needs to show a little more faith in CJ Stroud. The Texans struggled against the Indianpolis Colts last week after the 75-yard touchdown on the first play when Slowik tried and failed to establish the run. Devin Singletary’s 24 carries for 62 yards slowed them down significantly. Stroud needs to have more opportunities to make plays.

Key player: Myles Garrett, DE, Browns. The best edge rusher leads the league’s stingiest passing defense. The consistency with which he beats offensive linemen, a 30% win rate that drops to 29% when two men face him according to ESPN analysis, is his superpower. No quarterback is safe.

Prediction: Browns on jeans

Miami Dolphins vs Kansas City Chiefs (Saturday, 8 pm EST/1 am GMT)

What the Dolphins must do to win: Dolphins defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has to throw everything at Patrick Mahomes. Even if Jaylen Waddle and Raheem Mostert are healthy enough to play, Miami’s offense is unlikely to be the powerhouse it was earlier in the year. That means Fangio’s unit has to do the heavy lifting through sacks and turnovers, his 56 quarterback takedowns rank third in the league.

What the Chiefs must do to win: Kansas City must start over. Andy Reid will be happy to close the door on a confusing regular season in which the Chiefs surprisingly struggled at home, a 5-4 record the worst under Reid at Arrowhead. Mahomes must lift a limited offense that has generated 300 or more passing yards just twice this season (they did it 10 times in 2022). Miami’s own limitations through a long list of injuries should help whet Mahomes’ appetite.

Key player: Jaylen Waddle, WR, Dolphins. Miami has to get Waddle back into the lineup. Even if he’s not completely ready to return, the Dolphins need the attention he gets from a defense to ease some of the burden on Tyreek Hill, who is nursing his own quadriceps and ankle injuries.

Prediction: Bosses over dolphins

Pittsburgh Steelers vs Buffalo Bills (Sunday, 1:00 p.m. EST/6:00 p.m. GMT)

What the Steelers must do to win: The defense needs to bounce back after losing TJ Watt to injury. Mike Tomlin and coordinator Teryl Austin must work quickly to fill the void left at linebacker. What Pittsburgh hopes to achieve is the massive increase in production from backup QB Mason Rudolph and Najee Harris, who rushed for 100 yards in consecutive games for the first time in his career over the past two weeks. If the increase feels out of nowhere, that’s because it is: 29% of George Pickens’ total yards this season came in two games under Rudolph. Using all weapons might be his only hope.

What the Bills must do to win: Find a way to convert in the red zone. For two weeks straight, Buffalo has babbled when necessary. Three trips inside Miami’s 20-yard line ended with no points, the most of any team this season. Tomlin is as sharp as they come and will take advantage of any advantage, especially with the Steelers proud to be at the top of the “nobody believes in us” rankings.

Key player: Josh Allen, QB, Bills. If Allen is hot, cruise through Buffalo. If it’s cold, they crumble. Last week’s victory showed all the skill and imperfection of him. If he can get rid of the ball faster and stop throwing unnecessary interceptions, his dynamic running and passing without Watt harassing him will get the job done. Five straight wins to win the AFC East was impressive, but the season could have gone much smoother if Allen had let his teammates share the load.

Prediction: Bills on the Steelers

Green Bay Packers vs Dallas Cowboys (Sunday, 16:30 EST/21:30 GMT)

What the Packers must do to win: Jordan Love’s quality feels assured now after a mixed start to his life as a franchise figurehead. Questions remain about a boom-or-bust defense that has to stay away from the nerves that nearly cost them their lives during a narrow escape against Carolina on Christmas Eve. They survived a back-and-forth battle with Dallas last season, but need to escape being absorbed into another.

What the Cowboys must do to win: Dallas fans need to keep the home fire burning. The team’s unparalleled connection to its home stadium has produced results that speak for themselves: They are 8-0 at AT&T Stadium this season. Their running game seems stagnant without an overhaul of the offensive line, so they will lean on the arm of Dak Prescott. Brandin Cooks deserves more goals; his speed can destroy the Packers.

Key player: CeeDee Lamb, WR, Cowboys. A force of nature that propelled Dallas to regain the NFC East. Lamb had the best statistical season ever for a Cowboys receiver: 135 receptions and 1,749 yards of phenomenal production. Can Green Bay stop him? Last year they struggled to the tune of 150 yards with a pair of touchdowns.

Prediction: Cowboys over Packers

Los Angeles Rams vs Detroit Lions (Sunday, 8 pm EST/1 am GMT)

What the Rams must do to win: Los Angeles needs to spend a lot of time up front. They have an elite quarterback with two devastating weapons at his disposal. Detroit’s stoppage of races is too strong to give up significant gains. Let Puka Nacua and Cooper Kupp exploit a Lions backfield that has given up 350 yards per game in its last three outings.

What the Lions must do to win: Detroit needs to feed off what will be an incredible atmosphere at Ford Field. They are 6-2 at home, outscoring opponents by nine points per game this season. They should keep the Rams guessing by mixing the power of David Montgomery with the speed of Jahmyr Gibbs as much as possible, and then hit them with a hit from Amon-Ra St Brown.

Key player: Matthew Stafford, QB, Rams. Revenge. After 12 unsuccessful years supporting the Lions, Stafford returns for his first playoff game at Ford Field. The veteran is at the peak of his powers, a territory he knows intimately will only enhance them further.

Prediction: Rams on lions

Philadelphia Eagles vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Monday, 8:15 pm EST/1:15 am GMT)

What the Eagles must do to win: They need to unite on defense because, as it stands, their expensive front-line squad is a total failure. Start over with a new perspective or start the car. If defense wins championships, someone who has given up 31 points per game in the last seven needs to rethink quickly.

What the Buccaneers must do to win: Avoid complacency. Baker Mayfield, the most trusted player, will feel good about his chances with Mike Evans at his disposal. But that connection is what Philadelphia hopes, changing it by distributing the ball will keep them on their heels. Chris Godwin, Rachaad White and even the underused Cade Otton can make a difference.

Key player: Lavonte David, LB, Buccaneers. An elite run stopper whose speed, in diagnosing the opponent and making tackles, will be instrumental in Tampa Bay taking down Philadelphia’s powerful running attack. David can lead a strong counterattack that puts the ball in the hands of Jalen Hurts. From there the game could be closed.

Prediction: Buccaneers over Ɓguilas

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