By David McDonnell
Tonight, the football gets ramped up as we start the much anticipated playoffs.
It’s knockout football, ladies and gentleman, from here until we get to the Superbowl in Glendale, Arizona in the middle of February.
At 9.30 pm, we have a grudge match as the San Francisco 49ers come up against divisional rival Seattle Seahawks on the NFC side of the draw.
On the AFC side of Super Wildcard Weekend, I expect a very exciting game between two emerging superstar quarterbacks when Justin Herbert and his Chargers travel to Jacksonville to take on the Trevor Laurence led Jaguars at 1.30am GMT.
Seahawks v 49ers
The Niners are strong favourites having won their last 10 games in a row. Right now they look like the best team in football in many areas but there is still one big question mark over rookie sensation Brock Purdy, at quarterback after the two previous incumbents got put on injured reserve during the season. More on him in a bit.
The Niners’ defence, banged up throughout the season, are fitter and healthier now than they have been all year. Currently, San Francisco has the best defence in football, with All-Pro players at all three levels. They boast the NFL sack leader in Nick Bosa, who continuously wins at the line of scrimmage and looks to me as a shoe-in for Defensive Player of the Year.
On the offensive side of the ball, the 49ers have in my opinion one of the top three O-lines in football, which helps with their zone running attack. They also possess an array of weapons that allows head coach Kyle Shanahan to scheme up attacks in a variety of ways. It makes the Niners very difficult to stop as they can attack your defence in a multitude of ways.
For example: Christian McCaffery is a top class running-back who is terrific catching the ball out the back field, while Deebo Samuel is a top wide receiver who is also used as a lethal threat rushing the ball. They have other receiving options with tight-end George Kittle, who has scored seven touchdowns in his last four games. One trait they all have in common is that they all make yardage after the catch with their athleticism.
Add in receiving duo Jauen Jennings and Brandon Aiyuk who have made big plays on third downs all season and Pro Bowl selected full-back Kyle Juszczyk, and you have an offence with options.
So, there is a lot of expectation in San Fran to get the the Superbowl this year and a lot of pressure on their rookie quarterback Brock Purdy who was Mr. Irrelevant in last year’s draft, after he was the last and 262nd player selected.
Tonight he Purdy will become the lowest-ranked QB to ever start a play-off game.
So far he has answered all the doubts and then some. In the games he has played, he has scored 13 touchdowns and thrown four interceptions. He has shown himself to be very calm in the pocket when there is a defensive tackle bearing down on him and also in the face of a lot of media attention and public scrutiny. So far he has been unruffled, but can Seattle turn up the pressure on his young shoulders?
The Seahawks are 6.5 point underdogs but they have a chance. They have two rookie tackles in Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas, who have impressed this year but they will have their hands full tonight. They also have a good corp of defensive backs but where they have struggled at times on defence is getting after the opposition quarterback.
They have a Pro Bowl caliber QB in Geno Smith, two good receivers in Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf and an excellent running back in rookie Kenneth Walker. However, where this team has been especially inconsistent on offence is running the ball especially in the back half of the season. Should they struggle tonight with their rushing attack, then the 49ers will have a massive advantage in the trenches.
However, if they can establish a run game, then this contest could be closer than expected. What the Seahawks have in abundance is knowledge of San Francisco, and a serious chip on their shoulder having lost to them twice already this season.
To put my cards on the table, I expect a 49ers victory and I would be shocked if Seattle pulled off a famous win.
Chargers v Jaguars
Of the two playoff games tonight, I am most looking forward to this contest as we get to see two of the emerging superstars in the NFL.
I would put Justin Herbert in my Top 5 quarterbacks in the NFL, and he has the arm talent, size, strength and know how to keep his team in the game when they are struggling. He can also make the big throws when they need him to. If anything, I would like to see Herbert use his legs more in the postseason as he has it in his locker and it was a skill he was quite adept at using at Oregon in college.
Herbert played through a rib injury for most of the season and his form has increased as he has gotten better, especially after the Bolts mid-season bye week. In December, the Chargers’ offence was looking electric with the return of Mike Williams and Keenan Allen, and it is unfortunate that the former will be missing for a few weeks with a fracture on his back.
It means that the Jags will be able to pay more attention to Allen and you might see Joshua Palmer see more targets. He is a good third option but does not have the size or big-play ability that Williams brings to the table. On the upside, their offensive line is going better than it had been with a number of players back from injury but unfortunately they are still missing Rashawn Slater.
The Chargers main source of scores this season has come from Austin Ekeler and he will be involved heavily throughout the game.
Jacksonville are soaring right now and Trevor Laurence is balling out on a week-to-week basis and he has drummed up a great relationship with all his receivers, but especially with tight-end Evan Engram and duo Zay Jones and Christian Kirk. The LAC pass rush will need to slow down Laurence to give themselves the best shot at winning this game. With Joey Bosa back in the fray, that will help in a big way.
Jacksonville have a strong offensive line, especially on the right side with Jawaan Taylor and Brandon Scherff and an excellent running back in Etienne.
The Jaguars defence is also playing well. Josh Allen and Trevon Walker give them pass rushing options from the edge and there is a terrific partnership at safety between Andre Cisco and Rayshawn Jenkins, while Tyson Campbell has done well in pass defence.
The Jags defence came up big in the final quarter in their last game of the season against the Titans, and I think they will need to do so again, in what I expect to be a contest that goes to the wire.
Earlier on in the week, I was pulling for the Chargers and although Williams is a big loss, I would back Herbert to somehow make it happen on the road with the form that he is in right now.