They call them wild cards for a reason.
At least one wild-card team has won in the opening round of the NFL playoffs in each of the last five postseasons. In the two years since the league expanded to seven playoff team, a wild-card team has gone all the way to its respective conference title games. The Buccaneers won the Super Bowl LV in February 2021 as the No. 5-seed in the NFC.
Which wild-card teams in this season's playoff bracket are most scary? I've made my picks. One per conference.
Let's go back a year, when, on the Pick Six Podcast TikTok, I posted a video about the 49ers being the dark horse team in the playoffs, and my rationale mainly focused on the fact that San Francisco had an abnormal amount of stars/superstars -- Trent Williams, Fred Warner, Nick Bosa, Deebo Samuel, and George Kittle -- for a club not hosting a playoff game. They went 10-7 during the regular season, then upended the Cowboys in Dallas, the top-seeded Packers in Lambeau and held a late, fourth-quarter lead over the eventual Super Bowl champion Rams in the NFC title game.
I get similar vibes from this season's Chargers, another 10-7 club.
Los Angeles enters Saturday night's game in Jacksonville as a wild-card team with the following studs: Joey Bosa, Keenan Allen, Derwin James, Austin Ekeler, and Khalil Mack. Mike Williams appears to be OK after his injury scare in Week 18.
Oh yeah, and Justin Herbert. The driver of this team.
Now, I'm among those who feel the Chargers' use of Herbert can be likened to owning a Ferrari solely to drive through the school zone, but he's as physically capable to make outrageous -- and I mean OUTRAGEOUS -- throws as well as Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. What makes the Chargers offense compelling beyond their incredibly gifted passer is the fact that the system drives him away from being boom or bust. He's completed over 65% of his passes in all three of his regular seasons to date and sent a career high completion rate of 68.2% in Year 3.
Also, the Chargers are peaking. They went 5-2 down the stretch when they needed it most, and in Week 18, the starters did not play the whole game -- the fact they played at all is sort of baffling, and Brandon Staley's decision to play them for multiple series on offense and defense could be an article of its own. In those seven games, Herbert completed 70.6% of his throws at a respectable 7.09 yards per attempt with nine touchdowns and three interceptions.
Also in that time frame, the Chargers defense finished 10th in EPA allowed per dropback. Quality pass defense goes a long way in the playoffs. And the defense is finally fully healthy.
Los Angeles isn't perfect. Neither were last year's 49ers. Herbert gets hit too much. The offense probably isn't optimized for the style of quarterback they have. And, heck, they were blown out at home by the Jaguars in Week 3.
But they have DUDES. And the likes of Bosa, Ekeler, Mack, Allen, Williams, and James are the type of needle-moving players that can elevate others around them and their team in key moments in postseason contests. Herbert has all-world talent. The five-seed Chargers are a frightening wild-card team.
I had a whole thing typed about the Cowboys. Then I flipped to the Seahawks. Ultimately didn't love either one. I've confidently landed on the Giants.
Are they humming on offense or defense right now? No. They started 7-3 and finished 9-7-1.
But I trust Coach of the Year candidate Brian Daboll to maximize New York's talent and make necessary adjustments in the postseason. Remember too, the Giants took the Vikings to the brink on Christmas Eve before losing on a 61-yard field goal.
The Giants sit at the opposite end of the spectrum to the Chargers. Los Angeles is oozing with superstar-caliber players and doesn't always play to its potential. Daboll and Co. squeeze every last ounce of ability from everyone on the 53-man roster. But it's not like that roster is barren of top-tier talent. Saquon Barkley will probably be named to one of the All-Pro teams. Defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence deserves a nod there too. Rookie Kayvon Thibodeaux is a three-down wrecking ball on the outside and Leonard Williams is no slouch up front.
New York doesn't emanate a classic "scary wild-card team" aura. They're very well-rounded. Each unit can pick up others when they're having an off day. They want to play arduous knock-down-drag-out football and keep it close. And they're very successful in doing that.
The Giants played in 13 one-score games in the regular season. More than the Vikings! They went 8-4-1 in those contests, and that's counting a valiant effort by backups in Week 18 on the road in Philadelphia. (Bonus: Kenny Golladay scored a touchdown!)
In that loss to the Vikings a few weeks ago, the Giants had the same amount of first downs as Minnesota (23), Daniel Jones threw for more yards than Kirk Cousins with a better yards-per-attempt average, Barkley outgained Dalvin Cook on the ground, and the Giants outgained the Vikings as a team.
Hats off to Minnesota for all the magic it conjured in 2022. Eventually, the One-Score Game Gods zap every team back to reality, and the Vikings went 11-0 in one-score games this season.
The Giants have the roster makeup, head coach, and regression to the mean on their side to spring an upset in the first round of the playoffs and land back in Philadelphia in the second round of the playoffs.