The N.F.L. playoffs are here and with them comes the added theater of the first Monday night wild-card game and two matchups of teams meeting for the third time this season that will anchor the postseason’s opening weekend.
Saturday night’s Patriots-Bills III and Monday’s third contest between the N.F.C. West-rival Cardinals and Rams sandwich a weekend where parity — and familiarity — should be on display. A rematch between the Raiders and Bengals, and a contest between the Cowboys and the 49ers, two of the N.F.L.’s most-storied franchises, should also ramp up the drama after Las Vegas and San Francisco both needed overtime to claim their playoff spots.
This weekend, though, the N.F.L.’s sudden-death overtime rules will apply: The length of the extra period stretches to 15 minutes from 10, and there won’t be any question of whether to kneel since the games will continue until someone scores.
Here’s a look at the wild-card round of the N.F.L. playoffs, with all picks made against the spread.
Last week’s record: 6-10
Regular-season record: 129-143
All times are Eastern.
2021 N.F.L. Season News and Analysis
- The Reason Every Playoff Team Will Lose: All but one remaining team have a fatal flaw.
- N.F.L. Coach Firings: Brian Flores (Dolphins), Matt Nagy (Bears), Mike Zimmer (Vikings) and Vic Fangio (Broncos) were all dismissed before the Giants fired Joe Judge and announced the retirement of G.M. Dave Gettleman.
- Week 18 Takeaways: What we learned from the final games of the regular season.
- Searching for Joy in East Rutherford, N.J.: An illustrated look at the cold, wet Giants loss to the Washington Football Team.
Las Vegas Raiders at Cincinnati Bengals, 4:30 p.m., NBC
Line: Bengals -5.5 | Total: 49.5
There are few stories this postseason more interesting than the Raiders (10-7), a team once considered out of playoff contention until it closed the regular season by winning four consecutive one-score games to earn a wild-card spot. They face a Bengals (10-7) offense that has thrived under Joe Burrow, who enters the game on a tear, having thrown for over 300 yards in three of his last four starts.
Burrow could exploit the Raiders’ secondary, the most-vulnerable unit of Las Vegas’s defense, which has allowed over 300 passing yards four times this season. The Pro Bowl defensive end Maxx Crosby and other lineman can generate pressure against a Bengals front that’s given up 55 sacks. But the Bengals have a Plan B in Joe Mixon, who finished third in the league in rushing yards (1,205), and could thrive as a receiver on check-down routes against the Raiders’ zone-based defense. Cincinnati beat Las Vegas comfortably in Week 11, and there’s little reason to think it will not happen again. Pick: Bengals -5.5
New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills, 8:15 p.m., CBS
Line: Bills -4 | Total: 42.5
Round 3, anyone?
Every good fight needs a third installment, and this meeting between the Bills (11-6) and Patriots (10-7) could be similar to the first, in Week 13, when New England let Mac Jones attempt only three passes in its win over Buffalo. Forecasts in Orchard Park, N.Y., on Saturday call for temperatures that hover around 0 degrees and a 30 percent chance of snow, an outlook that again favors a heavy reliance on the running game.
The Bills’ defense allowed league lows in yards and points in the regular season, but it has been susceptible to the run. In the teams’ late-December meeting, a Buffalo win, the Bills forced Jones into a 14 of 32 passing performance with no touchdown throws and two interceptions. Assuming more of the offensive load in recent weeks, Jones has looked like the rookie he is, and trusting a first-year passer to overcome the spread, on the road, in the cold, against an ascending team isn’t really a safe bet. Pick: Bills -4
Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1 p.m., Fox
Line: Buccaneers -8.5 | Total: 49
Tom Brady will have to endure mentions of Super Bowl LII and the Philly Special as he prepares for the Eagles (9-8), who pivoted their season by focusing on the run to such an extent that Philadelphia finished with the league’s highest rushing average (159.7 yards per game). The Eagles’ salvation plays right into a major strength of Tampa Bay’s, since they give up only 92.5 running yards per game, third-fewest in the league.
And the Buccaneers’ (13-4) injured starters are trickling back into the lineup. Coach Bruce Arians said Monday that he expected running back Leonard Fournette (hamstring), linebacker Shaquil Barrett (knee) and edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul (shoulder) to play Sunday. That bodes well as they attempt to defend their Super Bowl championship, not revisit Brady’s nightmares. Pick: Buccaneers -8.5
San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys, 4:30 p.m., CBS
Line: Cowboys -3 | Total: 50.5
This the closest spread of wild-card weekend, and for good reason: The 49ers (10-7) can counter everything Dallas does well defensively. The short drop backs and rushing attacks that are staples of Coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense negate linebacker Micah Parsons’s ability to generate pressure and sacks (he has 13 this season). San Francisco doesn’t rely on deep throws, which could neutralize Trevon Diggs, the Dallas cornerback who led the league in interceptions (11).
Despite the thrashing Dallas (12-5) gave to Philadelphia’s backups last week, the Cowboys’ offense has more often suffered from miscommunications between Dak Prescott and his receivers and an inconsistent run game. Behind the versatile receiver Deebo Samuel and a defense that allowed an average of only 260 yards over its final four regular season games, the 49ers could look to secure an upset, or at least keep the score uncomfortably close. Pick: 49ers +3
Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City, 8:15 p.m., NBC
Line: Kansas City -12.5 | Total: 46
One could argue that the Steelers (9-7-1) are the luckiest team in the postseason, as they benefited from the Colts’ inexplicable Week 18 breakdown against the Jaguars to sneak into the playoffs. That magic — and Ben Roethlisberger’s N.F.L. career — should end against Kansas City (12-5), which blew out Pittsburgh by 26 points in Week 16.
Kansas City Coach Andy Reid anticipates Tyreek Hill (heel), and running backs Darrel Williams (toe) and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (shoulder) to all play. Sure, Kansas City underwhelmed in its season-ending win against the Broncos, but nothing in Pittsburgh’s recent performances points to the Steelers being more than a bump in the road. Pick: Kansas City -12.5
Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams, 8:15 p.m., ESPN
Line: Rams -4 | Total: 49.5
The best team in the N.F.L. through October, the Cardinals (11-6) have lost four of their last five games and relinquished home-field advantage, and they now must travel to face the division-rival Rams (12-5). Arizona may get some much-needed help if J.J. Watt, who returned to practice this week after a three-month absence, is available, though his status is still uncertain. Receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who has a knee injury and hasn’t played since Week 14, will not be available.
Matthew Stafford finished the season tied for first in the league in interceptions (17), and his decision-making will be examined with microscopic scrutiny as the playoffs progress, given the draft capital General Manager Les Snead gave up to Detroit to trade for him. But at least for the first round, he can count on the Cardinals’ errors to be more damaging: Arizona has been flagged for at least six penalties in each game during a five-game stretch, and has fumbled an egregious 17 center-quarterback snaps this season. Pick: Rams -4
How Betting Lines Work
A quick primer for those who are not familiar with betting lines: Favorites are listed next to a negative number that represents how many points they must win by to cover the spread. Raiders -5.5, for example, means that Las Vegas must beat Chicago by at least 6 points for its backers to win their bet. Gamblers can also bet on the total score, or whether the teams’ combined score in the game is over or under a preselected number of points.
Running Resolutions: Start Slowly, Eat Your Favorite Foods
Being a professional runner can be an individual pursuit. But rarely do professional runners reach their highest potential alone.
Many of the world’s best runners have a team of experts who help them get their minds and bodies primed for performance. These runners have physical therapists and psychologists, coaches and nutritionists, doctors and teammates.
This month, we decided to treat you, our newsletter readers, like the professionals, by introducing you to a team of experts to help you run your best this year.
Last week, we introduced the first two members of your team: Yera Patel, a physical therapist at NYU Langone Health, and Justin Ross, a clinical psychologist in Denver.
This week, we’re talking to Amy Yoder Begley, coach of the Atlanta Track Club and a 2008 Olympian, and Amy Stephens, team dietitian for Empire Elite Track Club.
Want to ask them a question? Email email@example.com and include the name of the expert in the subject line. (Questions about training or coaching go to Begley; those about nutrition go to Stephens.) We’ll answer readers’ questions as we move into February — which can be the hardest month for keeping New Year’s resolutions.
These conversations have been edited and condensed.
⚡️ Q. and A. with Amy Yoder Begley, Atlanta Track Club coach and a 2008 Olympian
What advice do you give to new runners?
I tell people to try to get rid of all of the barriers that would keep you from running.
Make sure you have shoes that are fitted: You don’t want old shoes that are going to cause sore knees, a sore back or blisters that would keep you from running.
Learn to fuel and hydrate to make sure you don’t bonk on a shorter run.
And start slow. There’s walking, there’s run-walking and there’s running. It can be easier to start with 30 seconds running and 30 seconds walking instead of three miles.
What do you tell runners who are trying to level up their performance?
People who have just been running who haven’t added anything like hill repeats will see huge improvements as long as they progress slowly.
Make three days a week important workouts. Add a speed workout a week, a threshold a week and a longer run a week. Start slow and low with the intervals and add to it.
Any advice for runners coming back from an injury?
Coming back from injury is the same for everybody: You need to start slower than you think.
I say the same thing with elite athletes and everyone else coming back. They say, “I’m ready to start!” and I say, “Yeah … wait one or two more days.” It’s a progression.
When do you tell runners to consider working with a coach?
People come to me when they have done one or two races and they want to hit a certain goal. So if you’ve been running for a while, or done a couch-to-5K program, or done three or four 5K races but are not getting any faster, that’s a good time to find a coach.
Also, if you are getting injured while running, it can be helpful to find a coach.
What should runners look for in a coach?
Look for someone who has training plans but also has flexibility in those plans to be able to fit your life. Can you move things around? If it’s a team, do they meet as a group, and are there times and places that work for you?
It can be hard to fit it in, so it’s important to find something that’s going to work in your life. Once you’re addicted to it, yes, you’ll get up at 4:30 a.m. to get it in. But not at first. At first, make it accessible so you don’t find yourself racing across town to make it to a workout.
Any words of wisdom on goal-setting?
Finding flexibility in your plans is huge, and be OK to pivot and find a different race if needed. You may spend a lot of time and energy and money on training, and you don’t want the disappointment to keep you from finding another opportunity. Or if an injury happens, you don’t want to push through and hurt yourself.
Have multiple goals for the year and have process goals too. You could get terrible weather for your half-marathon or your marathon. And you might not hit your time goal or age goal.
But if you have a progress goal — I’m going to try and run four days a week, or I’m going to try and go to all the speed sessions this season, or I’m going to try and stretch every day — have that process goal just in case you don’t hit that time goal.
🍴 Q. and A. with Amy Stephens, team dietitian for Empire Elite Track Club
What’s some top-level advice you give to runners?
The first thing I tell people is that there’s no need to overthink eating. Fill your diet with lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, low-fat proteins and whole grains.
Another big thing I tell patients is to stock your pantry. That should include healthy carbs: things like rice, whole grains, oatmeal and potatoes. And keep snacks on hand. There are some fun snacks if you are willing to make a few things that are nutritious, like chia pudding or homemade protein balls.
Have some easy-to-prepare snacks that don’t require cooking, like apples and peanut butter, or carrots and hummus, or toast with avocado. Those are all awesome and easy foods that are as easy to grab as a bag of chips. And people want to compete with the bag of chips — you want something easy and fast.
When — and what — do you tell athletes to eat before their runs?
Your body has enough stored glycogen for an hour and half of running without food. But getting something in your stomach is important to preserve the glycogen in your body longer.
I recommend choosing higher-carb foods that are low fat and low protein. Something like oatmeal with some banana and honey, or a waffle and jelly because they are easy and quick.
The biggest mistake athletes make is not eating enough or eating too much before a run. You can have a carbohydrate-rich meal before an event (a meal a few hours before) and a small snack one hour before. And practice that.
How do you recommend runners refuel?
I encourage my athletes to eat right after a long run or a workout, within 30 minutes or so. That glycogen window is where your muscles and your body are primed to absorb the maximum amount of carbohydrates. I usually recommend things like chocolate milk, yogurt with some fruit or some kind of nutrition bar.
If you are running, you want to support the run and get the most out of it. Refueling kick-starts recovery right then and there, which will help you recover faster so you can get ready for your next workout or run.
Are there any foods you tell runners to avoid?
As long as 90 percent of your diet is packed with nutrient-dense foods, 10 percent can be less nutrient-dense. You don’t have to give up your favorite food.
You can have chocolate; that’s not changing your performance. But if you tell yourself you can’t have something, that has a much bigger impact on your mental state.
A lot of elite runners feel this pressure to be perfect — all or nothing — but over the years we have learned that doesn’t help the athlete. They get distracted thinking about foods they miss and thinking too much about food. I don’t want you thinking about that at all at the start line; I want you thinking about how you are going to take the lead.
What advice do you have for runners with stomach issues?
I like runners to have two options, and to practice with a couple of different foods that you think might work before a run.
Running involves continuous jostling of the stomach, so you have to train your body for that. But if you are having consistent stomach issues, touch base with someone who can help you pinpoint an issue. Too much food? Too little food? A sodium issue? A nutritionist can help do some troubleshooting with you.
Josh Allen’s Bills Nearly Perfect in Dismantling the Patriots
The Patriots surprised many observers this season by clawing their way back to the playoffs behind rookie quarterback Mac Jones, who played on an accelerated learning curve.
But after a seven-game winning streak, the Patriots went 1-3 down the stretch and entered the postseason as a wild-card team for the first time Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s tenure in New England. Despite giving up the second fewest points in the league, their defensive secondary was undermanned.
On Saturday, in the second coldest Bills home game ever — 7 degrees at kick off — Jones forced passes under pressure. Receivers dropped catchable balls. Jones was picked off twice and sacked three times by a Bills defense that had given up the fewest points in the league during the regular season. When he finally hit receiver Kendrick Bourne for the Patriots’ first touchdown late in the third quarter, narrowing their deficit to 33-10, the game was largely over.
Before kickoff, Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas, cornerstones of the Bills’ four consecutive Super Bowl appearances in the early 1990s, were on the field to rile up the crowd that, based on years of experience, feared the worst but hoped for the best. Fittingly, Kelly, a Hall of Fame quarterback, wore a Josh Allen jersey while Thomas wore a Devin Singletary jersey to honor the Bills’ current running back who, like Allen, showed off his versatility on Saturday.
Singletary had 81 yards rushing, two scores in the second quarter, and three catches for 13 yards. His proficiency catching and rushing forced the Patriots to keep him under watch, helping Bills’ receivers Emmanuel Sanders, Isaiah McKenzie and Stefon Diggs to break free.
Allen seemed in control throughout, even when he wasn’t. On his first touchdown pass, he evaded defenders before lofting the ball to the back of the end zone as he fell out of bounds. Allen was trying to throw the ball away, but instead, tight end Dawson Knox hauled it in for an eight-yard score.
At the Australian Open, Everyone Not Named Djokovic Is Ready to Star
MELBOURNE, Australia — It has been an exhausting two weeks, as if a Grand Slam tennis tournament has been contested already — albeit in courts instead of on them, and with all the focus on two missed shots.
Novak Djokovic’s battle with the Australian government ended on Sunday, when a court in Melbourne denied the unvaccinated tennis star’s request to overturn the government’s decision to revoke his visa. After dominating the news cycle and even delaying release of the match schedule, Djokovic left the country, unable to compete in the Australian Open, which begins Monday.
“Australian Open is much more important than any player,” Rafael Nadal said in his pretournament news conference. “If he’s playing finally, OK. If he’s not playing, Australian Open will be great Australian Open with or without him.”
Contemporaries — and contenders?
Djokovic’s cohort of champions could make noise at this event, including Nadal himself. Nadal, who is also going for a record 21st Grand Slam title to break the three-way tie with Djokovic and Roger Federer, won a small tournament in Melbourne in the first week of the season and has been able to practice at full strength less than a month after contracting the coronavirus. Nadal, seeded sixth, opens against Marcos Giron of the United States on Monday.
Andy Murray, the only player consistently able to hang with the “Big 3” during their primes, also enters the Open with confidence after reaching the final of the ATP tournament in Sydney last week.
A mid-tournament showdown looms
Both Ashleigh Barty and Naomi Osaka ended their seasons after losses at the United States Open last year, and both looked rested and ready in the first week of this season. Barty, who had to complete a lengthy quarantine upon her return home, said Saturday that she had made the decision to stop when she did last year for “the right reasons” for herself.
“Ultimately I felt like I’d had a fantastic year,” Barty said. “I was tired. I knew that for me to give myself the best chance to start well here in Australia was to go home and rest. I have absolutely no regrets.”
Barty, the top-ranked player in women’s tennis, won both singles and doubles titles in Adelaide in the first week of the season, positioning herself as a favorite to win her first Australian Open title. Barty has embraced being the home favorite, and the pressure that comes with trying to be the first Australian man or woman to win a singles title here since 1978, the longest such home champion drought of any Grand Slam event.
“I just have to hope that everyone understands that I’m giving it my best crack,” she said. “It doesn’t always work out exactly how you want to. But you go about it the right way, you do the right things and try and give yourself the best chance — that’s all you can do. That goes for all the other Aussies as well.”
When the draw came out, the match that was quickly circled as Barty’s toughest test in her path to the title was a potential fourth-round encounter with the defending champion Osaka, who is seeded 13th. After saying she was taking an indefinite break from tennis following her third-round loss at the U.S. Open, Osaka played well in her first tournament back this month, reaching the semifinals of a small event in Melbourne before withdrawing with a minor abdominal injury.
Raducanu readies for return
Emma Raducanu, the shock 2021 U.S. Open champion who marched through qualifying and the main draw without dropping a set, has begun this season less auspiciously. After contracting the coronavirus last month, Raducanu said her training had been limited to “maybe six, seven” hours on court before she played her first match in Sydney last week.
It showed. Raducanu was blitzed, 6-0, 6-1, by Elena Rybakina.
Raducanu has a tough test in her opening match, facing the 2017 U.S. Open champion, Sloane Stephens. Stephens, who married her longtime boyfriend, the soccer player Jozy Altidore, on New Year’s Day, also comes to the tournament without much competitive preparation.
“Obviously you don’t win a Grand Slam without being very capable,” Raducanu said Saturday, referring to Stephens. “I think it’s going to be a tough match for sure. I’m going to go out there and enjoy the match, because just playing in this Grand Slam, I had to work so hard to be here.”
Another first-round match of particular interest features two rebounding Americans: The 11th-seeded Sofia Kenin, whose 2020 Australian Open title helped her earn WTA player of the year honors that season, opens against Madison Keys.
Kenin, who struggled with injuries and family problems last season, showed promise during a run to the quarterfinals this month in Adelaide in her first tournament since Wimbledon. Keys, whose ranking had slipped to 87th, won a tournament in Adelaide the following week and rose to No. 51.
Though the Djokovic saga might make it seem otherwise, there are far fewer restrictions for vaccinated players at the tournament this year, compared to the strict hotel quarantines last year that compromised preparations for many athletes.
But while the reins loosen on players, the landscape regarding the coronavirus pandemic has shifted dramatically around them. At one time, there were only a handful of cases in the country each day; the rolling average is now over 100,000. Australia is heavily vaccinated, which has greatly reduced deaths and serious illness, but the tournament has still “paused” ticket sales at 50 percent for sessions that had not yet exceeded that amount in sales. All purchased tickets will be honored.
When g’day means goodbye
Two Australian fan favorites are calling it a career at this year’s tournament. Samantha Stosur, the 2011 U.S. Open champion, has said that this will be her last tournament in singles. Stosur, 37, has said she may continue to play doubles with her partner Zhang Shuai; the two won last year’s U.S. Open.
Dylan Alcott, who won a “Golden Slam” last year in quad wheelchair singles, will also retire. Alcott’s face is one of the most prominent in promotional posters for the tournament around the city, and the tournament plans to hold the final of his event in Rod Laver Arena.
Alcott’s odds of a happy ending seem good: He has won 15 of the 19 Grand Slam singles events he has contested in his career.
Game, set, match; lights, camera, action
Long envious of the popularity that Formula 1 racing received as a result of its Netflix series “Drive to Survive,” tennis players have expressed excitement about the start of production on their own documentary series.
With cooperation between the tours and the four Grand Slams providing access to camera crews around the tour, filming is underway at Melbourne Park. Though the full cast of key characters from the men’s and women’s tours is not yet known, Stefanos Tsitispas and the top American, Taylor Fritz, are known to be participating.
How to watch the Australian Open
With a 16-hour time difference between Melbourne and the Eastern time zone, watching the year’s first Grand Slam tournament can make for its own sporting challenge, with sleep a ferocious opponent, depending on where in the world you are watching from.
For the most part, the tournament’s day sessions begin at 7 p.m. Eastern time, with the night sessions in Melbourne beginning at 3:30 a.m. (Match times are subject to change.)
In the U.S., matches will be broadcast on ESPN and the Tennis Channel, and in Canada they will be on TSN.
The complete match schedule can be found on AusOpen.com.