NFC Wild Card Preview: Veteran QBs Try To Takedown Their Younger Counterparts

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The NFL playoffs are finally here! The first game of the weekend is the last team to qualify, the Seattle Seahawks, traveling down I-5 to take on San Francisco in an NFC Wild Card match.

Well, they’ll probably fly, but you get the point. There will be one NFC Wild Card game on each day of the weekend: Seattle-San Francisco on Saturday, New York-Minnesota on Sunday and Dallas-Tampa Bay on Monday night.

Each game features a quarterback matchup with a large age gap — at least a nine-year difference in each contest. Geno Smith (32) vs. Brock Purdy (23). Kirk Cousins (34) vs. Daniel Jones (25). And, of course, Tom Brady (45) vs. Dak Prescott (29)

With that, we take a look at each of the three games…

NFC Wild Card: #7 Seattle Seahawks (9-8) at #2 San Francisco 49ers (13-4), Saturday 4:30 ET (FOX)

Previous Meetings: San Francisco 27, Seattle 7 (Week 2 in San Francisco), San Francisco 21, Seattle 13 (Week 15 in Seattle)

Main Storyline (Seahawks): Which Geno Smith will show up on Saturday?

It’s been a roller coaster of a season for Smith and the Seahawks. They came out of the gates with a bang, and all anyone could talk about was the resurgence of Geno Smith. A team that many — including myself — thought would be competing for the number one pick in the NFL Draft was instead competing for a playoff spot.

They got out to a 7-5 start behind easily the best 12-game stretch of Smith’s nine-year career. In those 12 games, Smith completed nearly 73% of his passes and threw 22 touchdowns to just six interceptions. His passer rating was 108.7, far-exceeding his career mark of 84.8.

But, as I warned many times on the OutKick Bets Podcast, beware of “resurgence.” Smith has been in the league a long time and essentially was a career backup. There’s a reason for that. He played well early this season, no question.

But the question always remained: when does he turn back into Geno Smith? The team lost its next three games and finished the season 2-3 in its final five. They beat the Jets and Rams to sneak into the playoffs thanks to the Lions win over the Packers in the final game of the season.

Smith completed 63% of his passes in those five games and threw eight touchdowns, but he had five interceptions. His passer rating dropped back around his career mark and sat at 83.9.

But Smith showed that he’s capable of putting up strong performances. He’s never going to consistently do it, but in the playoffs you only have to put together four of them to win a championship. Going against a team that’s beaten him twice this year — and features the league’s best defense — is a tough ask and I don’t think he can pull it off.

But you never know.

Nick Bosa and the 49ers have already beaten Geno Smith and the Seahawks twice this season. Can they make it three in the NFC Wild Card?
Nick Bosa and the 49ers have already beaten Geno Smith and the Seahawks twice this season. Can they make it three in the NFC Wild Card? (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)

Main Storyline (49ers): Can the Purdy magic continue into the postseason?

The San Francisco 49ers, for my money, are the most talented team in the NFL. They have the league’s best defense. Their offense boasts two of the most explosive playmakers in the league — Christian McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel — and they can create mismatches with tight end George Kittle and wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk.

But the question will always hang over their heads: can the last pick in the 2022 NFL Draft really lead a team to the Super Bowl? All he has to do is avoid mistakes. Let the big boys carry the load and just keep the steering wheel steady.

But we just don’t know how he will respond to adversity. The 49ers have won all five of his starts. They didn’t trail at all in the first three. San Francisco did trail in the second half and come back to beat the Raiders — but everyone comes back to beat the Raiders in the second half (not exaggerating, they blew an NFL record FIVE double-digit second half leads — no other team ever had more than three in a season).

Thee 49ers trailed briefly in Week 18 against the Cardinals, but the game was never in doubt. So what happens when the game is in doubt? Not only a game, but a playoff game? We just don’t know. And we won’t know until it happens. Good news for Purdy is that he and the team handled Seattle relatively easily less than a month ago.

The score looked closer than the game was, as the 49ers led 21-3 in the middle of the fourth quarter. I expect a similar outcome here, but not every game will be that easy. Can’t wait to see how the kid responds.

NFC Wild Card: #6 New York Giants (9-7-1) at #3 Minnesota Vikings (13-4), Sunday 4:30 ET (FOX)

Previous Meeting: Minnesota 27, New York 24 (Week 16 in Minnesota)

Main Storyline (Giants): Can Daniel Jones, a career 21-31-1 starting quarterback, win a playoff game in his debut?

There’s a theme emerging, and it’s about the quarterbacks. It’s a quarterback league and that’s what people care about. So here we go with Daniel Jones.

A lot of talk about replacing “Danny Dimes” but new coach Brian Daboll stuck with him and the team is in the playoffs for the first time since 2016 — when some guy named Eli Manning was quarterback. Daboll sure seems like someone who gets the most out of quarterbacks. He got this job off the back of his work with Josh Allen, one of the league’s elite talents who many gave up on after a rough start to his career.

Now, Daniel Jones is not Josh Allen in the talent department (man, I didn’t expect to fire hot takes like THAT in this piece) but Daboll is squeezing everything he can out of the kid. He improved in every passing category this season and even led the NFL in interception percentage (1.1% of his passes were picked, lowest mark in the league). He also ran for a career-high 708 yards and seven touchdowns.

Daboll uses Jones very similarly to how Buffalo uses Allen. In fact, their rushing numbers this season are eerily similar — Jones: 120-708-7, Allen: 124-762-7. Of course, Jones can’t throw like Allen, but Daboll helps him avoid mistakes.

Look at Josh Allen with Brian Daboll: In his first three years in the league, Allen threw two redzone interceptions. The first of his career didn’t come until Thanksgiving last season. This seaosn, without Daboll, Allen threw five redzone interceptions. Of course, it’s not just about the coaching.

But how does Josh Allen go from nearly untouchable in the redzone to suddenly mistake-prone in one offseason? And how does Daniel Jones, a guy with a 2.3% interception rate coming into this season suddenly cut that in half?

Jones threw 29 interceptions and fumbled 36 times in his first three seasons. This year, he threw just five interceptions and fumbled six times. He averaged, essentially, a fumble per game prior to this year.

But can he avoid the mistakes that plagued him his entire career in his first career playoff game? Josh Allen struggled in his first playoff game, a 22-19 loss against Houston where he completed 52% of his passes. Granted, Allen was younger than Jones is now. But the playoffs are a different animal.

Justin Jefferson went off in the first meeting between these team, a Vikings victory. Can he do it again in the NFC Wild Card game?
Justin Jefferson went off in the first meeting between these teams, a Vikings victory. Can he do it again in the NFC Wild Card game? (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

Main Storyline (Vikings): Can Kirk Cousins shake the “mediocre” narrative?

I have gotten into so many arguments with OutKick staffers, I’ve lost count. The head of OutKick, Gary Schreier, is a Vikings fan. He hates Kirk Cousins. I get a text every time the guy does something wrong because apparently I’m Cousins’ dad, or something.

Why do I get those texts? Because I feverishly defend Cousins. I think he’s wildly underrated as an NFL quarterback. His career was spent with very below-average coaches and it hindered his ability to produce. I said before the season that this year was extremely important to Kirk.

The team fired perennial underachiever and conservative AF head coach Mike Zimmer. They hired Kevin O’Connell, who promised a more modern approach in play-calling, coming from the Sean McVay coaching tree. Low and behold, the Vikings went 13-4 and won the NFC North. Cousins threw for over 4,500 yards, the second-highest total in his career.

But none of that really matters. For quarterbacks, it’s all about the postseason. Cousins is 1-3 in playoff games and the only victory was a 2020 win over New Orleans. Cousins did lead them to an overtime touchdown to win, but Cousins haters always neglect that part. Mostly because they got rolled by San Francisco the following week.

But now the Vikings have a home playoff game, and they’re favored to win. If Cousins plays badly, and Minnesota loses, I may be out of excuses. Get it done, Kirk.

NFC Wild Card: #5 Dallas Cowboys (12-5) at #4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-9), Monday 8:15 ET (ESPN)

Previous Meeting: Tampa Bay 19, Dallas 3 (Week 1 in Dallas)

Main Storyline (Cowboys): You guessed it, it’s about Dak Prescott.

Prescott is similar to Cousins in that he’s 1-3 in the postseason in his career. Now, Prescott is five years younger and has time, but the clock is ticking. After leading the NFL in interceptions despite missing five games, questions are surrounding his future in Dallas. Yes, he signed an extension last season, but the Cowboys can get out of it after next season. If Prescott doesn’t win a playoff game this season or next, expect that to happen.

But it all starts this week. Unfortunately for Dallas, their 12-5 season wasn’t enough to win the division and get a home playoff game thanks to the Philadelphia Eagles terrific season. But this is about as good as it gets in terms of road playoff games.

Yes, Tom Brady is Tom Brady. But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are under .500. Their team isn’t very good. However, Prescott and the Cowboys STRUGGLED in Week 1 against Tampa. This is a different team, granted, but that has to be in the 29-year-old quarterback’s head.

Dak was 14-29 in the contest with 134 yards and an interception before getting hurt. It was Dak’s second worst performance of the season. The problem is that his worst came just last week. A miserable 14-37 (38%) effort for 128 yards. Not great, especially in a game that — at least at kickoff — had a chance to matter for Dallas winning the NFC East.

Again, regular season doesn’t matter, especially in Dallas. Prescott has been the starting QB for the Cowboys for seven years and they have not advanced past the Divisional Round. He needs to win a couple playoff games to keep this job. Period.

Dak Prescott struggled mightily against the Bucs in Week 1 and he'll have to be a lot better if the Cowboys want to advance past the NFC Wild Card round.
Dak Prescott struggled mightily against the Bucs in Week 1 and he’ll have to be a lot better if the Cowboys want to advance past the NFC Wild Card round. (Photo via Getty Images)

Main Storyline (Bucs): No way Tom Brady can take this Tampa Bay Buccaneers anywhere in these playoffs … right???

Look, this team is not good. They beat the Cowboys in Week 1 and the Seahawks in Week 10. Those are the only two playoff teams they have defeated this season. In the last three weeks, the Buccaneers have squeaked by the Arizona Cardinals (in overtime) and Carolina Panthers before resting their starters in the second half against Atlanta last week.

So they haven’t really played a complete football game arguably since that Week 10 win against Seattle. They melted down in the second half against the Bengals and were never competitive against San Francisco. They also lost to the Browns and barely beat the Saints in that time frame.

But does any of that matter? This is Tom Brady and these are the playoffs. This is what he does. Still, it’s a tall order to limp this team any further. Micah Parsons is going to make his life hell. Brady is going to have to evaluate his future after the season. I think that starts Tuesday morning.

Follow Dan Zaksheske on Twitter: @OutkickDanZ

Written by Dan Zaksheske

Dan began his sports media career at ESPN, where he survived for nearly a decade. Once the Stockholm Syndrome cleared, he made his way to Outkick. He is secure enough in his masculinity to admit he is a cat-enthusiast with three cats, one of which is named “Brady” because his wife wishes she were married to Tom instead of him.

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