2023 NFL Playoff Preview: Bills return from crisis could resemble “Boston Strong”

My hometown New England Patriots are not in a great spot right now. Their offense has been making costly mistakes week after week, and while they’ve been able to stay competitive in most games, they are truly missing Tom Brady’s ability like no other to clutch up and win in any situation. In a conference loaded with young, exciting QBs, they now lack a franchise guy or a true offensive coordinator to develop Mac Jones into one. What’s worse is that it’s unclear what Bill Belichick is willing to do about it. However, as we begin an NFL playoffs without the Patriots, I think the outcome of these playoffs could still be something Boston fans will appreciate.

No, I’m not talking about Tom Brady going out with a bang and winning his 8th ring. He still has the clutch factor I mentioned earlier, but he can only go so far without scoring touchdowns the first three quarters of games. I’m actually talking about a divisional rival.

It’s not often I’m happy for the Buffalo Bills. They ended New England’s long streak atop the AFC East and if they won a title this year (or anytime during my four years in Ithaca), I would never hear the end of it being a Pats fan in the middle of Bills territory.

However, when I watched last week’s game between the Bills and Patriots, the energy at the stadium seemed unlike many games I’ve seen before. It did remind me of one very special day in Boston.

Back in 2013, I was in attendance for the Boston Red Sox’s first game after the Boston Marathon Bombings. To give you an idea of what Fenway Park was like that day, I give you this excerpt from an article I wrote about the experience:

“The energy inside Fenway that day was indescribable.  The pregame ceremonies began honoring the Marathon bombing victims, the police that hunted down the bombers, and the paramedics who helped many wounded victims.  The Red Sox were wearing special Boston Strong jerseys and there was a “B Strong” symbol on the Green Monster.  As part of the ceremony, David Ortiz firmly stated, “This is Our F***ing City!” I had been to several games before but this was different.”

Not many moments can unite people like that day did, but I think Damar Hamlin’s remarkable recovery from his scary collapse against the Bengals has done just that. Bills fans came ready with signs in Hamlin’s honor, and Hamlin himself delivered an inspiring message to the team from his hospital bed. If you watched the game when Hamlin’s collapse occurred, you will likely remember how shaken up his teammates were that night. This crisis, most importantly, is a wake up call about the need for more attention towards NFL player safety. Regardless, Hamlin and his teammates love this game, and at the end of the day, they’re going to continue to play. When Hamlin woke up, the first thing he asked was, “Did we win?” Hamlin’s perseverance inspired the Bills to play out the rest of this season in his honor.

That day at Fenway Park, the Red Sox won the game with Marathon Bombing victims in mind and went on to win a championship. I expect a similar trajectory for the Bills. While this is about a New England division rival, the Bills taking this energy and turning it into their first Super Bowl victory would be an inspiring story, and one that Boston fans can relate to.

The Bills have one of the best rosters in the league. I feel they have played some of the best football we’ve seen this year. Now, while other teams may have longer win streaks, I feel this energy will give the Bills the momentum they need to win it all.

Below I have outlined their path to victory, as well as my predictions for the rest of the playoff games this season.

Wild Card Weekend

Saturday

49ers, 34, Seahawks, 28

Many are expecting a blowout here, but now is not the time to write off Geno Smith (as if there ever was a time to do that). I expect him to work with WRs D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett to put up a fight and expose a secondary that does not quite stack up with the rest of this strong 49ers defense. In the end though, I have the Niners winning this. They just have too much offensive talent all over the map for the Seahawks to handle. RB Christian McCaffrey will likely run all over the Seahawks front seven, forcing the Seahawks into the same fate all other #7 seeds have suffered, and the same fate they suffered in their last two games against San Fran this season.

Chargers, 28, Jaguars, 27

I think this is my pick for the most exciting game of the weekend. Two young franchise QBs on teams peaking at the right time battling it out in their first ever playoff appearances. I’m expecting a close game in which both offenses put up big numbers in both the pass and run game. In the end though, I still think Justin Herbert is the better quarterback of the two for the time being. Look for him to lead a game winning drive as the Chargers move on with a road win.

Sunday

Bills, 28, Dolphins, 17

The Dolphins are the only team on the AFC side of the bracket without a surefire franchise QB. The team has been able to win with Tua Tagovailoa after giving him Mike McDaniel, a coach who believes in him, and two elite receivers in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. However, that’s not enough for the AFC playoffs anymore, and besides, Tagovailoa isn’t a guarantee to play this game after repeated concussion problems. Whether Tagovailoa plays or not, this team is no match for QB Josh Allen and the Bills.

Vikings, 34, Giants, 21

This has been a popular upset pick considering the Vikings have a negative point differential, but come on. Do you really expect Justin Jefferson, the best receiver in the NFL right now, to fold against the 9-7-1 Giants? I’d expect the Giants to keep it close early, but QB Kirk Cousins will clutch up late in the game as he utilizes Jefferson. Let’s save the exposing of the Vikings for a team that has a more serious case for Super Bowl contention.

Bengals, 23, Ravens, 16

You have to give the Ravens some credit for their defensive performance lately; since acquiring LB Roquan Smith from Chicago they’ve allowed just 14.7 PPG. As a result, I’m not expecting an insane stat-line out of Joe Burrow here. The Ravens offense, on the other hand, has been dysfunctional without Lamar Jackson. I don’t expect it to get much better, as Jackson is unlikely to be 100% even if he’s back. Besides, even Jackson is 1-3 in his playoff career. Everything seems to be working for Cincinnati right now, and this Ravens team isn’t the one to stop them.

Monday

Buccaneers, 23, Cowboys, 20 (OT)

The Cowboys are actually favored on the road in this one, but when’s the last time you saw them beat Tom Brady? Fun fact: they never have. Even in this dysfunctional season, the Buccaneers took down Dallas 19-3. To be fair, QB Dak Prescott got hurt midway through that game, but Prescott hasn’t been looking all that sharp lately: he has a 15/11 TD/INT ratio in his last 7 games. I do expect the Cowboys to have the early lead here, as they have a lot of talent all over the map. Tom Brady isn’t going down easy though, and I expect him to lead a fourth quarter comeback and win it for the Bucs in overtime.

Divisional Round

AFC

Chargers, 35, Chiefs, 34

Patrick Mahomes has looked as good as ever despite the loss of WR Tyreek Hill. However, his performances against the AFC’s best this season have not been all that promising. He lost to the Bills and Bengals (despite those teams being seeded lower), and he may have swept the Chargers, but those were 3 point wins in which Justin Herbert was missing key receivers (Allen was out in the first one and Williams was severely limited in the second one). This one should be a close battle in which both QBs thrive. However, the Chargers are healthy and hot. I expect Herbert to shock the world and take down his divisional rival to advance to the AFC Championship.

Bills, 27, Bengals, 24

This will be an interesting one, as we finally see a rematch of Week 17’s canceled game. In addition, these teams have been playing at a level few others can, and I expect the winner of this game to go on to win it all. The Bengals have been on fire lately, with Joe Burrow continuing to improve week after week regardless of what receivers he has to work with. They still don’t have the momentum the Bills will have coming into this game. I do expect it to be very close, but I have Josh Allen working with Stefon Diggs to put together a big drive in the final seconds and set up a game winning Tyler Bass field goal.

NFC

Eagles, 16, Buccaneers, 10

This Bucs defense should be able to slow down the Eagles run game. However, the Eagles have the perfect defense to shut down Tom Brady. James Bradberry and Darius Slay are one of the best cornerback duos in football. They can each take on one of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, severely limiting the options for Brady to throw to in an offense that’s been dysfunctional at times. Evans may have 9 consecutive 1,000 yard seasons, but at the end of the day, he’s a matchup-dependent receivers who feasts on weak secondaries. Brady will probably find Leonard Fournette for some checkdowns. Still, with his best two receivers locked up, it’ll be hard to make anything happen on offense. It could be Brady’s last game in a Buccaneers uniform, or any uniform for that matter.

49ers, 28, Vikings, 23

This is where I see the Vikings season ending. I’m expecting Brock Purdy and the Niners offense to put up a lot of points early on a weak Vikings secondary. Like always, QB Kirk Cousins and WR Justin Jefferson could work some late game magic for the Vikings. I don’t think it will be enough to come back for a win this time around. A 5-point loss is probably a generous prediction. I don’t think Minnesota is anywhere near the level of the Eagles or Niners, who I have meeting in the NFC title game.

AFC Championship

Bills, 34, Chargers, 17

The way I have the Divisional Round matchups working out should make for some close, exciting games. I can’t say the same about this one. I feel the Bills and Bengals are operating on a level no AFC West team has reached, and this game will show it. Look, Josh Allen and Justin Herbert are both great quarterbacks. However, in comparison to the Bills, teams like the Chiefs and Chargers have some serious defensive problems. The Bills run game is nothing special, but I still think it will have an unusual amount of success against a flawed Chargers front seven. With the run game heating up, the pass game strong as ever, and the whole roster motivated, the Bills could be a scary opponent to face in the Super Bowl.

NFC Championship

Eagles, 20, 49ers, 17

This one will be closer since both teams have pretty competent defenses and each QB has an elite supporting cast. Putting the supporting cast aside, Brock Purdy is a pretty good QB, and I think he has a chance to become a franchise guy. However, I think Jalen Hurts’ dual-threat ability will set him apart in this game, and Purdy will fail to keep up with him as the clock winds down.

Super Bowl LVII

Even when the Bills were able to make it this far in the 1990s, this is where they failed; you may have heard about their infamous four straight Super Bowl losses. I have the Bills capping off this historic season with the first Super Bowl win in franchise history as they take down the Eagles in Super Bowl LVII. It’ll be hard for the Bills to shut down the combo of mobile QB Jalen Hurts and RB Miles Sanders. However, this Eagles pass game is built very similarly to how the Bills pass game was in Josh Allen’s breakout year. The Bills secondary will take advantage of that, limiting the impact of Philly’s WR duo of A.J. Brown and Devonta Smith. Meanwhile, Allen will take advantage of the fact that he has a deeper group of receivers, including all three starters from 2020 in addition to an improving Gabriel Davis and Isaiah McKenzie. This Bills team is always ready with their next player up, and that will make the difference in this one.

Comment with your thoughts on these predictions. If you’re a Boston fan, who are you rooting for in these Patriot-less playoffs?

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