Here's a stat to jolt you before the start of these NFL playoffs -- at least one wild-card team has won in the opening round of the NFL playoffs in each of the last six postseasons. In two of the three years since the league expanded to seven playoff teams, a wild-card team has gone all the way to its respective conference title game. The Buccaneers won Super Bowl LV in February 2021 as the No. 5 seed in the NFC. 

A season ago, I picked the Chargers and Giants in this piece. While neither made a journey "deep" into the playoffs, New York snuck past the higher-seeded Vikings in Round 1, and Los Angeles had first-half leads of 24-0 and 27-7 on the road in Jacksonville before a very Chargerian collapse ended in a wild 31-30 Jaguars victory. 

In January 2022, I made a video for the Pick Six Podcast TikTok labeling the 49ers as the true dark-horse team to make another Super Bowl run. San Francisco didn't get to the Super Bowl that season but did upset the Cowboys in Dallas in the wild-card round and shocked the No. 1-seeded Packers in Lambeau the following week. And heck, they had a fourth-quarter lead on the eventual Super Bowl champion Rams on the road in the NFC Championship.

Which wild-card teams in this season's playoff bracket are most scary? Below are my picks. One per conference. 



I nearly picked the Dolphins here, I just don't love their wild-card setup, in Arrowhead, in potentially sub-zero weather. I'm a firm believer the main fuel source for a wild-card club making a deep playoff run is a large collection of star power. The 2021 49ers certainly had that. 

Cleveland does too, even after the team's extraordinarily bad luck on the injury front, but it's a collection that looks a bit different than most. Myles Garrett is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate, a perpetual game-wrecker who registered 14 sacks and 85 total pressures on just over 500 pass-rush snaps as the obvious attention-getter on the Browns front. 

When healthy Denzel Ward is a twitched-up, man-coverage specialist -- he had two picks and 11 pass breakups in 13 games during the regular season. 

The rest of Cleveland's stars aren't spectacular All-Pro types but this season have proven to be capable of significantly moving the needle -- Amari Cooper, Za'Darius Smith, David Njoku, Wyatt Teller and Joel Bitonio. Even Grant Delpit had a stellar fourth season in Cleveland with 80 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and zero touchdowns allowed in his coverage area. 

Then there's Joe Flacco. How do we properly analyze him? 

Since he assumed Cleveland's starting role, off the couch, in Week 13, he's tied for the ninth-most Big-Time Throws with eight. Nutso. During the Browns' four-game win streak from Week 14 to Week 18, Flacco was fourth among qualifiers in yards per attempt a whopping 8.6 yards. 

Now, I must note, he did have seven interceptions in that time frame too, the second-most in the NFL, which hints at the reasonable chance that in the playoffs the Flacco carriage turns into a pumpkin, thereby dousing Cleveland's recently scorching hot offense. Speaking of hot streaks and deep postseason runs, don't forget Flacco did author one of the most famous playoff scorchers in NFL history when he threw 11 touchdowns without a pick at 9.0 yards per attempt en route to the Ravens winning the Super Bowl in February 2013. 

And the Browns are animals up front on both sides of the ball. After an in-the-zone quarterback -- which Flacco seems to be -- teams want and typically need quality trench play to venture deep into the postseason. The Browns finished second in pressure rate on defense at 42.5%. Six players had at least three sacks during the regular season. As a unit, Cleveland's defense finished second in Aaron Schatz's defensive DVOA and first in Expected Points Added per play. Eye test or analytics -- it doesn't matter - the Browns are elite defensively. 

Their blocking unit -- even after losing Jedrick Wills, Jack Conklin, and Dawand Jones -- still brings it with authority. Flacco was pressured on just 31.5% of his dropbacks with the Browns during the regular season, the ninth-lowest rate from Week 13 on. 

Is this all too good to be true for the football-adoring fans in Cleveland? Maybe. But Flacco fits like a glove in Kevin Stefanski's play-action, bootleg centric offense. He's slinging it all over the field -- and clearly still has a monster arm -- while the defense is as stingy as they come. Do not mistake the incredibly resilient Browns with a suddenly revitalized 38-year-old former rival quarterback as a Hallmark-y, feel-good story and nothing more.

While going on the road in the playoffs is never a cinch, Cleveland smoked the Texans, in Houston, 36-22 on Christmas Eve. 

How the Browns are constructed makes them a club no higher seed wants to play in the AFC playoffs. 



What a year for the Shanahan coaching tree. Five of the top 10 clubs in EPA per play were either coached by Shanahan himself (the 49ers were No. 1) or had a play-caller on the tree (Dolphins, Packers, Rams, and Seahawks). The first branch to sprout on said tree, Sean McVay, reminded us of his play-designing brilliance en route to helping the Rams, with a lesser roster than they've had in a while, sneak into the postseason as the No. 6 seed in the NFC. 

Los Angeles has what only two others do in its conference's side of the playoff bracket -- a head coach who owns a Super Bowl ring (Mike McCarthy and Todd Bowles, who was the Buccaneers defensive coordinator in 2020, are those others.) That's vital. McVay comes armed with 10 games of postseason experience and has proven he breeds offensive efficiency. 

Matthew Stafford had an MVP-caliber season. Let me type that again for punch. Matthew Stafford had an MVP-caliber season. His 6.0% Big-Time Throw rate tied for best in the league among quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts. His 2.0% Turnover-Worthy Play rate was the fourth-lowest. 

And McVay, Stafford and Co. are humming -- what every team wants to be doing this time of the year. Before the Week 10 bye week, the Rams were 3-6, seemingly bound for a Top 10 pick. Afterward, they went 7-1 with the only defeat coming in overtime in Baltimore, 37-31. That has strong case for most impressive loss for any club during the regular season. 

Puka Nacua went over 1,500 receiving as a rookie. 5-foot-9, sub-200 pound Kyren Williams finished with 1,100-plus yards rushing on 5.0 yards per tote, and Cooper Kupp, quietly, had a 12-game performance with statistics that would've been an 83-catch, over-1000 yard season had he been healthy for all 17. 

Speaking of quiet seasons, 32-year-old Aaron Donald again led all defensive linemen in pressures with 84 and had 16 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Yeah, he's still pretty good. 

The Rams too are a squad with some superstars at vital positions. And they boast a genius offensive-minded head coach at the controls. Sure, the Stafford reunion in Detroit will be something, and the Lions are explosive with a budding superstar of their own on defense in Aidan Hutchinson

But Los Angeles can score with anyone, and has been there, done that in the past. That combination makes the Rams my sleeper pick in the NFC.