NFL: It's the Wildcard Weekend for final play-off spots
Buffalo Bills players kneel after teammate Damar Hamlin is injured during the first half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Monday, January 2, 2023, in Cincinnati. (Photos: AP)

The 2022/23 National Football League (NFL) season seemed emotionally unimportant last week, following the terrifying scene during the Monday (January 2) night game between the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals, involving Bills' safety Damar Hamlin who went into cardiac arrest on the field.

Thankfully, Hamlin was discharged from hospital on Wednesday (January 11) and had recovered enough to watch his team's final challenge of the regular season last Sunday, against the New England Patriots.In the shadow of their teammate's support from a hospital bed, the Bills could not have scripted a more incredible start to the game — on the very first play, Nyheim Hines returned the opening kick-off 96 yards for a touchdown and later paid tribute to his fallen comrade.

Hines repeated the feat in the second half, this time for 101 yards, and psychologically put the game to bed.The Bills ended the regular season on a high note with a 35–23 win, thereby eliminating the Patriots from play-off contention, which allowed the Miami Dolphins to claim the final post-season spot in the American Football Conference (AFC) following their 11-6 defeat of the New York Jets.

The last domino for National Football Conference (NFC) didn't fall into place until the end of Week 18, when the Detroit Lions held on to beat the Green Bay Packers 20-16 last Sunday night, ending Green Bay's season and putting the Seattle Seahawks in the play-offs — Detroit would have been in, if Seattle had lost earlier the same day to the Los Angeles Rams.

The Kansas City Chiefs (14-3) and Philadelphia Eagles (14-3) clinched the top seeds in the AFC and NFC, respectively, to earn a rest this weekend — the Chiefs had a dominant 31-13 win over the Las Vegas Raiders last Saturday and the Eagles got by the New York Giants 22-16 last Sunday.The other 12 teams that still hold championship ambitions will be in action during Wild card Weekend, starting tomorrow, Saturday, January 14.

The Seahawks (9-8) are set to visit the San Francisco 49ers (13-4) in the afternoon to kick off the weekend. Having dropped both regular-season matchups, the Seahawks squad is now fortunate enough to have another bite at the apple, but those defeats were by an average of 14 points and against a San Francisco team that is on the rise, a similar outcome is therefore anticipated tomorrow.

The 49ers are riding a 10-game win streak and, since taking over for the injured quarterback (QB) Jimmy Garoppolo, rookie Brock Purdy is yet to lose a game as a starter (5-0) and is expected to maintain his unblemished record in this encounter.The Los Angeles Chargers (10-7) host the Jacksonville Jaguars (9-8) tomorrow night in a battle of NFL play-off first-timers. QB Justin Herbert will lead the Chargers — who are making their first play-off appearance since 2019 — and make his first play-off appearance, guided by Brandon Staley, who is in his second season of his first NFL head coaching job, also making his very first post-season appearance as a head coach. On the opposing sideline will be QB Trevor Lawrence, also making his post-season debut.

The Jaguars, whose last play-off berth was in 2017, entered week 14 at 4-8 but engineered a five-game winning streak which included a tenacious 20-16 victory against the Tennessee Titans last Sunday afternoon, that victory won them the AFC South division title. The Jaguars had the worst record in the league over the last eight seasons with just 36 wins in 129 games, but things are looking up and they did beat these Chargers 38-10 last September. Too close to call, but this should be a good watch.

The Miami Dolphins (9-8) visits Buffalo to play the Bills (13-3) on Sunday afternoon and, after starting the season with an 8-3 record, the Dolphins were on the verge of missing the play-offs, getting in only after edging the Jets last week and the Patriots losing to the Bills. This will be somewhat of a tie-breaker for these teams, as they split the regular-season divisional series 1-1.

The home team won each game by less than four points, with Miami prevailing 21-19 in week three and Buffalo coming out on top 32-29 in week 15. Of course, Miami had QB Tua Tagovailoa under centre for their win and he has officially been ruled out for this weekend, so this will be a tough outing for the Dolphins.

Additionally, backup QB Teddy Bridgewater is also hurt for a second-straight week and skill players Raheem Mostert and Tyreek Hill are nursing injuries, leaving the Dolphins almost limping into the post-season. Buffalo will be ready, at home, with their second-ranked scoring defence and second- ranked scoring offence. JustBet has the Dolphins as the biggest long shot this weekend for good reason.In the second game of Sunday's wild card triple-header, the New York Giants (9-7-1) will visit the Minnesota Vikings (13-4) for a rematch of the game played just two weeks ago at the same venue, where Greg Joseph made a 61-yard field goal as time expired to seal the 27-24 victory for Minnesota.

The Vikings are 8-1 at home this season and the offence of the Giants has been consistent all season, which had led JustBet to favour the home team by only a field goal, which makes sense after they won an NFL-record 11 one-score games this season.

This game could be an instant classic.The Baltimore Ravens (10-7) visit the Cincinnati Bengals (12-4) on Sunday night in a rematch of last weekend's final regular season game for both teams, in the same stadium where the home team eked out a 27-16 victory. The Bengals built a big lead last weekend, then came out flat in the second half, but held on to win the AFC North division and close the season on an eight-game winning streak. The Ravens rested some starters for the last game and this one should be close, but its really difficult to see Baltimore winning, especially without QB Lamar Jackson.

The Monday-nighter between the Dallas Cowboys (12-5) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-9) will close the first round of the play-offs with possibly the toss-up game of the weekend. These teams met in Week 1 and the Buccaneers secured a 19-3 win, but JustBet has the visiting Dallas team favoured in this encounter. Dallas QB Dak Prescott is capable of proving the bookmakers right, but he was humbled in the last game of the regular season, losing 26-6 to the Washington Commanders, led by a third string QB. He will be matching wits with QB Tom Brady, whose resume is undeniable so hold on for the ride!A wild Week 18 has set the stage for what should be an enthralling 2023 play-off run – win or gohome! Are you ready for some football?

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BY MARK ARCHER

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