January 13, 2022

2022 NFC Wild Card Round Betting Preview

The 2022 NFL playoffs are almost here, and with the addition of another Wild Card participant, we've got the makings of an excellent slate of games. Both the AFC and NFC appear open for a surprise contender to get hot which could lead to some major upsets on the opening weekend of the postseason. 

The NFC is particularly difficult to project because of injuries and inconsistent play. The sky-high potential of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Los Angeles Rams, and Dallas Cowboys is only seen on occasion. There's plenty of room for the Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers, and Arizona Cardinals to crash the party, though. 

We'll break down each of the NFC games this weekend and provide pick analysis. This is an excellent opportunity to profit and build your bankroll before the Super Bowl.

Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The first NFC playoff battle to kick off in 2022 features the seventh-seeded Philadelphia Eagles and second-seed — and defending Super Bowl champs — Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This game is a rematch from the Buccaneers' 28-22 victory in Week 6. Much has changed since that matchup, as the Eagles went on an unlikely 7-4 run after a 2-4 start.

Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni quickly changed opinions on his future after he embraced his immensely powerful run game. Many wondered why the Eagles refused to utilize their athletic linemen, dual-threat quarterback, and stable of versatile backs. Even after ignoring the ground game for three of the first five games, the Eagles ascended to the No. 1 rushing offense in the NFL after committing to the strategy. 

Philadelphia had to adjust after their loss to Tampa Bay or risk a course that led to cleaning house in the organization. Tampa quickly grew a 28-7 lead as they dominated with efficiency. The Eagles were able to make the score close as the Bucs relaxed in the late third quarter, but it was hardly in jeopardy as the Bucs had 11 first downs and 186 total yards more than their foe.

Second-year Eagles passer Jalen Hurts was uninspiring, racking up a measly 159 total yards on 26 passes and 10 rushes. The only other player to carry the ball was Miles Sanders with nine rushes. Since then, the Eagles haven't produced less than 324 total yards with their starters.

Hurts turned in a respectable campaign with 3,144 passing yards, 784 rushing yards, and 26 total touchdowns on an offense featuring young talent all over. He's a wild card who can scare even the defending Super Bowl champions because of his volatility. Instead of knowing a consistently mediocre passer will provide a limited impact, Hurts can land anywhere on the scale of bad to fantastic at any given moment. 

For a team nursing several major injuries on both sides of the ball, that type of wild card is scary. For as great as Tom Brady has been in 2021, he's working with a skeleton crew on offense. He connected with receiver Mike Evans for an excellent two-touchdown performance and throwback Rob Gronkowski game in Week 18. But the offense is relying on Le'Veon Bell, Breshad Perriman, and a handful of youngsters yet to prove themselves in bigger roles.

The health of Tampa Bay could prove extremely important in a hurry. The Buccaneers won in 2020 because of their defensive playmakers, and on top of Lavonte David and Carlton Davis being on injured reserve, pass-rusher Jason Pierre-Paul is banged up with a shoulder injury. All of a sudden, Tampa Bay's 21st-ranked pass defense looks less prepared, and their third-ranked run defense is less than full-strength.

The strategy for Philadelphia to cover against Tampa Bay is the same as any team facing a Tom Brady team: play keep away. Controlling the clock, limiting turnovers and negative plays, and having an x-factor who can go supernova is key. The Eagles have that on offense thanks to their chiseled identity.

Philadelphia's star-laden defense will need to show the consistency they had this season as well. They're one of the stingiest units in the NFL thanks to a fantastic back-seven that has masterfully learned to maximize a front four that plays their roles perfectly. If the Bucs can't run the ball, Tom Brady will be harassed often by Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave. Those two are insanely critical to their chances in a cover and upset. 

Pick: Eagles +9 and Under 49

San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys

The biggest opportunity for San Francisco is capitalizing on the Cowboys' own lack of identity. Dallas has scored 50 points in two of their last three games thanks to an explosive passing game, sure, but Dak Prescott and Kellen Moore haven't been nearly as consistent as their top-ranked passing attack suggests. 

The Dallas offense has been swaying between average and great in key matchups. Outputs of 16, nine, and 22 against Denver, Kansas City, and Arizona, respectively, and then larger scores against the bottom-feeders suggests that Dallas simply beats up on bad foes. The attrition that has robbed Dallas of some of their playmaking depth will show against a great secondary.

San Francisco plays physically with their sixth-ranked passing defense. Moore must not fall into comfortable habits of being conservative, or else the 49ers will have their way. Pushing the ball downfield against San Francisco works but only when plays are sequenced thoughtfully.

Dallas has that ability but often falls into the trap of going for big plays only when needed. San Francisco would love for Dallas to lose confidence in their game script and take random shots.

Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan is excellent at disruption. His play calling is designed to keep a defense guessing even if he runs similar plays. Every play creates conflict for key defenders, and later there will be a counter to take advantage of the unsureness. 

Even with a physically limited version of Jimmy Garoppolo, the 49ers can create massive passing plays with misdirection and yards after the catch. Boasting the seventh-best run game in the NFL with mostly no-namers carrying the ball, San Francisco has a way of producing against everyone. Dallas has solid defense but are vulnerable to misdirection and run plays that attack the cornerbacks.

Those are issues against San Francisco, and I think it's why San Francisco ultimately can stay within three points and cover. Dallas hasn't shown they're reliable with their identity yet, and they're facing a team capable of plugging and playing anyone who fits their scheme and finding production. These two coaching staffs are both well-regarded but don't necessarily produce the same. 

Pick: 49ers +3

Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams

With the season series split 1-1 and a cumulative score of 60-50 in favor of Arizona, this Wild Card battle Monday night is about to be fascinating. Both teams have significant stakes on the line, with the Rams' star-heavy, all-in approach, and the Cardinals hoping to get the most out of older veterans. With aging stars like Matthew Stafford, Odell Beckham, Von Miller, J.J. Watt, Chandler Jones and A.J. Green involved, expect a tenacity out of both sides that stems from championship desperation.

As if this rivalry needed that extra motivation. The commonalities from their two previous matchups should continue. That means expect a decent but unspectacular game from Kyler Murray, who is averaging 233 yards, 1.2 touchdowns and one interception in six career games against the Rams. 

Murray must play better in order to secure a win or even a cover. His yardage totals in their two 2021 matchups were impressive, but his interceptions ruined potential scoring drives. Look for the Rams to drop back and fill passing lanes to create tipped passes and interception opportunities.

What bodes well for Arizona is their newfound ability to consistently run the ball. They may have totaled 216 yards in their 37-20 victory in October against the Rams, but that was far and away an aberration on their season. The good news is their rushing game is more consistent now, and both Chase Edmonds and James Conner should play.

Murray will be fully unleashed as well. He tends to avoid running if possible to save his body, but now is the time to scramble as often as he needs to. The Rams' sixth-ranked rush defense is great for a reason but Murray is impervious to containment thanks to his tremendous passing ability. 

We've seen more variance on the other side of the ball. Los Angeles somehow has Cam Akers activated despite the Achilles injury he suffered in the preseason but we'll see how effective he and the Rams' rushing game is. They've ranked as a bottom-10 running team all year so now would be an odd time to establish what doesn't work.

Head coach Sean McVay must be excellent with his timing and play sheet. Anything less will put a ton of pressure on Matthew Stafford. Stafford has played relatively well this year but recent weeks have taken some of the shine off the veteran.

I don't know that Arizona has the horses to win outright barring a disastrous Stafford game. Injuries to Rondale Moore, Jordan Phillips, and Marco Wilson aren't insignificant when the margin for error is so small. But they can absolutely cover this generous point spread. 

Pick: Cardinals +4.5

Photo: Getty Images