Wildcard Weekend Preview
Week 1 brings unbridled excitement because we've been made wait so long.
Championship Weekend - like our AFL preliminary finals - is among the favourites for the purists of the sport.
And, the Super Bowl is an event of unmatched stature - but the decider is as much about the festivities as it is the game.
Which is why - with the recently expanded playoff format - Wildcard Weekend is my favourite of all.
Six excellent match-ups.
New kids on the block, the proven bunch and a third chapter to a couple of in-division rivalries. Wildcard Weekend has the whole lot.
Things get rolling with a clash in The Jungle between Las Vegas and my Bengals. An AFC East battle breaks out in Buffalo between the Bills and Patriots at noon on Sunday. We then wake up nice and early Monday morning for Philly @ rainy Tampa Bay, then the old-school clash between San Francisco and Dallas and spend the afternoon seeing whether Big Ben and the Steelers can take it up to Kansas City at Arrowhead.
Finally, Tuesday lunchtime provides us with an NFC West showdown between Los Angeles and Arizona - two teams who looked like the best in football across different parts of the season.
Time to dive into this hellacious half-dozen...
LAS VEGAS at CINCINNATI - Sunday 8:25am, Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio
The Bengals rise has been quicker than many anticipated, especially considering Joe Burrow went down with an excruciating and significant knee injury midway through his rookie season.
But, the LSU National Champ and Heisman Trophy winner has exploded as a sophomore with more than useful assistance from sensational rookie Ja'Marr Chase, Pro Bowl back Joe Mixon and oversized wideout Tee Higgins.
Across the field, these Raiders deserve immense praise and respect.
Their coach fell to an email scandal. A former round one pick crashed a motor car and killed an innocent woman and questions have circled around Derek Carr's future as a Raider QB.
But the Bengals will have no sympathy for their foes.
Josh Jacobs has found strong form in the back half of the season and can help keep the ball out of the hands of Burrow and friends.
Problem is, the Bengals have proven to be such an explosive offensive unit.
Chase is a prob-lem. Explosive, elusive, powerful and hard to bring down. The last time No. 1 played a full game he scorched Kansas City to the tune of 11 catches, 266 yards and three scores.
Higgins has had his own monster performances and Tyler Boyd has made some huge plays at crucial times. Throw in Mixon (1,205 yards, 16 total TD) and you start to see what all the fuss is about in Ohio.
Vegas have proven to be resilient and gritty, but aside from any playoff butterflies I expect Cincy to roll past these Raiders.
PICK - BENGALS 28, RAIDERS 23
NEW ENGLAND at BUFFALO - Sunday noon, Highmark Stadium, Orchard Park, New York
We've seen this movie twice but one felt fictional and one felt real - to me anyway.
A win in the snow when your quarterback tried three passes - total - feels like an aberration.
The 33-21 Bills victory in Foxboro felt more like a true indication of where these two teams sit. On that night, rookie Mac Jones was 14/32 with two picks. Josh Allen went for 314 and 3.
These quarterbacks are apples and oranges at this point in their respective careers.
Both squads possess staunch defensive units, good coaching (great coaching in New England's case) and strong special teams play but in the end, one team has Josh Allen and one team has a rookie who was not trusted to toss the rock in one of the corresponding contests.
PICK - BILLS 21, PATRIOTS 17
PHILADELPHIA at TAMPA BAY - Monday 5am, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida
This is one where the actual win/loss result feels inevitable but not in the manner most expect.
Behind Jalen Hurts and Miles Sanders, the Eagles possess the tops ground game in the NFL. They average 159,7 rush yards per contest. Meaning, they can tote the rock, control the clock and keep Tommy Brady and the boys on the bench staring at Microsoft Tablets.
The Eagles front is strong. They've proven up for the challenge in big games and we know the only kryptonite for Tampa Tommy is pressure in his face - as is the case for most!
But, as I said at the start of this preview, we all know Tommy B will find a way.
Sure, AB is gone, Lenny Fournette is under a cloud, as is Ronald Jones. Chris Godwin tore an ACL. But the man simply finds a way more often than not.
Gronkowski will be featured, as will Mike Evans. Then, we'll see cameos from Scottie Miller, Tyler Johnson and maybe even Le'Veon Bell.
PICK - BUCCANEERS 24, EAGLES 20
SAN FRANCISCO at DALLAS - Monday 8:30am, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
I really really like this Niners squad.
Deebo Samuel as a wideout, power back and after last week, passing threat! We know the weapon George Kittle is and Elijah Mitchell's season has been huge for a team looking to play with power and force.
Mitchell has bobbed up with five 100+ rushing games, giving this team another option alongside Samuel, Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk.
We also know what Nick Bosa and Fred Warner are all about on the defensive line.
We also know what Dallas are capable of - especially when it comes to the big play.
On both sides of the ball, this team can make major splash plays. Trevon Diggs and Micah Parsons are takeaway machines with Parsons among the candidates for DPOTY as a rookie.
Ezekiel Elliott has regularly been outplayed by reserve back Tony Pollard, which can be viewed in two ways; that Zeke is underperforming or that Zeke and Pollard form a punchy 1-2 tandem.
Dak Prescott got the feel-goods in the Cowboys blowout win over Philly after a rough stretch of place. He'll need to be at his accurate best to give CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper and Dalton Schulz ample opportunity to overpower the Niners defensive backs.
I trust Kyle Shanahan more than Mike McCarthy and I love the power and versatility of this offensive unit wearing red and gold.
PICK - NINERS 31, COWBOYS 30
PITTSBURGH at KANSAS CITY - Monday noon, Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Missouri
All in sundry expect this to be a blowout.
Hell, even Big Ben said his Steelers had no chance and were 'the worst team in the playoffs'.
Whilst we all know that's just Roethlisberger throwing out some relaxation bait for KC defenders, these Chiefs have been rolling and it's very hard to see Pittsburgh's impotent aerial attack sticking with Mahomes and his men.
The KC defence has stood up in the latter half of the season as well. Chris Jones' re-emergence as an interior defensive force has led the charge.
They'll cause Pitt some headaches inside noisy and cold Arrowhead.
Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce are what they are - explosive playmakers capable of taking over a game. But, not everything has been smooth sailing for these two this season. Can T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward and the Steelers front disrupt Mahomes and make Hill and Kelce null and void? Doubtful, but maybe this one will be closer than everyone thinks.
PICK - KC 28, STEELERS 17
ARIZONA at LOS ANGELES RAMS - Tuesday noon, SoFi Stadium, Inglewood, California
Like Buffalo/New England, we've read this book twice across the 2021/22 season.
Now we get a third - and far more vital - instalment.
The October 21 clash is the one I'm most interested in because there are more similarities we can draw upon. The same venue, for a start plus we saw high scoring which is a feature of these two outfits.
On that day, Arizona hung 37 on the Rams star-studded defence. Eric Weddle re-joins the fray in LA but this D has been shown up from time to time.
Kyler Murray is not a quarterback big Aaron Donald enjoys trying to sack. He's elusive and deceptive.
DeAndre Hopkins' return seems unlikely, meaning A.J. Green will likely draw Jalen Ramsey.
The Cards slowed Cooper Kupp in the October meeting but no one else has managed to come close to slowing No. 10. He and Odell Beckham Jr give Matthew Stafford two genuine star receiving threats.
James Conner has had an underrated, unheralded season for Arizona, as has Green and Zach Ertz since joining the team from Philly.
The Birds can keep this close and we will again hopefully see a shootout in Inglewood between two talented NFC West squads.
PICK - RAMS 28, CARDINALS 25
My best bets for Wildcard Weekend
Tee Higgins anytime TD - $2.50
Bills HT/FT - $2
Eagles +8.5 - $1.88
Deebo Samuel anytime TD - $2
KC win 1-13 - $2.64
LAR/ARI +48.5 points - $1.88