For just the second time in NFL history, 12 teams will do battle on Wildcard Weekend, and for fans who subscribe to the idea that sleep is overrated, there's a first Monday Night Football play-off encounter to test their devotion.
The expanded play-off format throws up a couple of possible mismatches, while it's doubtful any of the games will rival last weekend's regular season finale between the Las Vegas Raiders and the Los Angeles Chargers for drama. In an encounter where a tie would have guaranteed both teams postseason progression, a walk-off Daniel Carlson field goal in overtime ensured that the Chargers' loss was the Pittsburgh Steelers gain.
The regular season was one with its fair amount of controversy, with Covid-19 and coaching flashpoints figuring prominently in the NFL narrative.
In the second post-pandemic season, MVP favourite Aaron Rodgers found himself embroiled in a vaccination brouhaha, where his own idea of being "immunised" didn't quite cut it as the reserve/Covid-19 list swelled in a manner which it hadn't during the previous campaign.
The customary coaching casualties included Jon Gruden, who couldn't cling on to his 10-year, $100m contract in the wake of an email scandal where the Super Bowl winner was dogged by accusations of racism and homophobia.
The transition from college football to the NFL proved a disastrous one for Urban Meyer and the Jacksonville Jaguars, with both parties discovering that grown men in the paid ranks weren't as likely to tolerate questionable coaching techniques as student athletes. His end was hastened not just by friction with the players on the team's roster and a string of losses, but also a tawdry incident in his Ohio bar. A case of being Urban by name, but not urbane by nature.
The 'any given Sunday' mantra held up particularly well this season, and it looks as if nine of the play-off teams heading into the weekend action can approach a Super Bowl run with varying degrees of confidence in an open year. Both the Steelers and the Raiders find themselves in the unusual position of occupying postseason slots despite recording negative points differentials, while the Philadelphia Eagles have managed to secure a berth without beating a single team with a winning record.
Ja'Marr Chase continued his unbelievable start to his career with a pair of TD catches in Week 3 to lead the Bengals over the Steelers 24-10.— NFL (@NFL) January 14, 2022
It was Cincinnati's first win in Pittsburgh since 2015. pic.twitter.com/5HqLCr6vlI
Cincinnati Bengals v Las Vegas Raiders, Saturday, 9.30pm, Handicap: Bengals - 5
A Bengals side still in the embryonic stage of its development surpassed expectations by winning the AFC North. Second-season quarterback Joe Burrow has garnered much of the acclaim, but the Bengals may have an even more talented player in the form of rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase.
The hosts and their opponents both possess more impressive units on the offensive side of the ball, with the Bengals attacking threat almost certainly the more potent and capable of greater upside. The Raiders defence can be relied upon to haemorrhage a significant points tally, while the Bengals have also defensive deficiencies to overcome.
It finished 32-13 to the Bengals when these sides met during the regular season, but this promises to be a much closer affair. Both sides finished with 10-7 records and the Raiders endured a more arduous strength of schedule.
One facet of the Bengals displays that has to be a cause for concern in their lack of consistency. A team that shocked the Kansas City Chiefs and almost upset the Green Bay Packers somehow conspired to rack up losses to two of the worst teams in the league in the Chicago Bears and the New York Jets.
If the outcome of this game is in doubt, one thing we can be more confident of is how the game will unfold, with the Wildcard opener looking the prime contender to be the highest scoring game of the weekend.
Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots, Sunday, 1.15am, Handicap: Bills - 4.5
The Bills and the Patriots recorded a win apiece in their divisional rivalry during the regular season, with the Patriots' 14-10 success in Buffalo in December one of the most remarkable victories of the season. Quarterback Mac Jones completed two of just three passes for a measly 19 yards as coach Bill Belichick placed all his eggs in the run game basket.
That proved a tactical masterstroke as harsh weather conditions prevailed, while it also took the Bills' more accomplished pass defence out of the game.
A better reflection of these sides' respective abilities was the Bills' 33-21 win over the Patriots in the return fixture in Foxborough, where weather wasn't a factor. The Bills have home advantage in the play-offs, but that may prove anything but for a pass-orientated team not really built for winter football in frigid Buffalo.
Expect the Patriots to adopt a similar strategy to the one that served them so well in the first low scoring match-up, and while high winds aren't something the teams will have to contend with, temperatures are set to plummet to -13C. This could be game of fumbles and botched catches as gripping the ball becomes more difficult.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Philadelphia Eagles, Sunday, 6pm, Handicap: Buccaneers - 8.5
The Bucs clash with the Eagles is another encounter where weather could prove a great leveller, with gusts of up to 30km/h forecast. The Super Bowl champions are superior in almost all areas, but the Eagles are the better rushing outfit.
However, their 0-6 record against teams with a better than .500 record in the regular season reflects their limitations, while their defence has struggled against both the pass and the run.
The Bucs are shorn of Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown in offence, with the latter a permanent high-profile departure, and their defence will feature a number of players returning from injury. The Eagles aren't designed to overcome large deficits, but if the high winds do buffet Raymond James Stadium, they can give the Bucs a fright.
Despite a painful thumb injury, @JimmyG_10 put together a clutch drive that sent the game into OT where rookie Ambry Thomas (@Tavonn_) made the play of his career (so far).— NFL (@NFL) January 14, 2022
The Niners were back in the #NFLPlayoffs. Insane! (8/9)pic.twitter.com/ieq1C9i0Fd
Dallas Cowboys v San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, 9.30pm, Handicap: Cowboys - 3
The Cowboys put up plenty of impressive numbers, mainly in the passing game, in claiming the division disparagingly referred to as the 'NFL Least'. The 49ers fortunes will lie with their ability to rush the ball against a team that's main weakness is their run defence.
The visitors' quarterback Jimmy Garappolo has been battling a thumb injury, but that didn't prevent him from leading his side to a crucial win over the LA Rams last weekend. Beset by a raft of injuries earlier in the season, the 49ers have benefitted from a number of gifted starters returning at just the right time. Major concerns over the Cowboys run defence could see the 49ers edge a fascinating contrast of styles.
5 years ago today: @steelers K Chris Boswell made a playoff record SIX field goals to lead Pittsburgh to an AFC Divisional win in Kansas City.— NFL (@NFL) January 15, 2022
Final score: Boswell 18, Chiefs 16. 🤯
📺: #PITvsKC – Sunday 8:15pm ET on NBC
📱: NFL app pic.twitter.com/dsjtTrcLbb
Kansas City Chiefs v Pittsburgh Steelers, Monday, 1.15am, Handicap: Chiefs - 12.5
Ben Roethlisberger's last hurrah in the NFL seemed likely to come at the end of the regular season, but a number of unlikely results created what looks like no more than a stay of execution for the Steelers. If Tom Brady has aged like a fine wine, Roethlisberger is now a vino of the corked variety.
The weapons he once possessed, namely that big arm and his ability to extend plays after contact, have been diminished by time, and his lumbering lack of mobility is particularly anachronistic in the era of the dual-threat quarterback.
When he surveys the artillery down the field, things get no better, and the Steelers are over reliant on their talented rookie running back Najee Harris. The Chiefs have had issues of their own on both sides of the ball this season, with Patrick Mahomes finally looking like a mere mortal on occasions, but it's difficult to make any case for the Steelers given their offensive frailties.
LA Rams v Arizona Cardinals, Tuesday, 1.15am, Handicap: Rams - 3.5
The Cardinals' season has faltered badly since their seven-game winning streak was snapped by the Packers in late October. Key injuries to quarterback Kyler Murray and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins played their part in that downturn, but the Cardinals haven't looked the same team even since Murray's return.
Hopkins has been ruled out of the Rams game and that could prove fatal to his side's chances.
The Rams have been the more consistent outfit, even if they haven't yet hit the heights the Cardinals achieved earlier in the season. Turnovers have a major influence in the outcome of any game, but could prove particularly significant in this one, with Murray prone to making fumbles and Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford tied with Trevor Lawrence for the most interceptions thrown in the league this season.