AFC Wild Card Preview: Young Gun QBs Take Center Stage

The NFL playoffs are finally here! On Wednesday, we covered the NFC Wild Card games. Now, we tackle the AFC Wild Card matchups. While the each NFC matchup features at least one veteran quarterback, the AFC is dominated by its young stars.

The average age of the NFC starting quarterbacks on Wild Card weekend is 31 years old (admittedly boosted by ageless wonder Tom Brady, 45). But the average age of the AFC starting quarterbacks on Wild Card weekend is just under 25 years old.

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

AFC Wild Card: #5 Los Angeles Chargers (10-7) at #4 Jacksonville Jaguars (9-8), Saturday 8:15 ET (NBC)

Previous Meeting: Jacksonville 38, Los Angeles 10 (Week 3 in Los Angeles)

Main Storyline (Chargers): Is Brandon Staley coaching for his job?

It's insane to me that this is a storyline, but I do think it's fair. With guys like Sean Payton and Jim Harbaugh out there, it's possible the Chargers could look to make a big move. I wrote a post about how Los Angeles fans have been hard on Staley. They hated him when the team looked like it would miss the playoffs, loved him after a four-game winning streak got them in, then hated him again for playing his starters for three quarters in Week 18.

I've already written a lengthy piece about why firing him to replace him with Sean Payton would be a mistake. I appeared on Dan Dakich’s show, “Don’t @ Me” and doubled down on that assertion. But the general feeling in NFL circles is that he has underachieved with an elite quarterback.

Now, Staley has had two winning seasons and made the playoffs in one of them. Every team should be so lucky to consider dumping a coach with a 19-15 record. But that's where we stand. And a loss against Jacksonville -- a team with a worse record than LA -- would not help his case.

The Chargers are very slight favorites in this one, even though Jacksonville beat the snot out of them in Week 3. Justin Herbert is making his first career NFL playoff start. As mentioned in my NFC playoff preview, quarterbacks tend to struggle in their first postseason attempt.

Arguably the biggest games Herbert has ever played are the past few weeks. He won a Pac-12 championship in 2019 with Oregon over Utah and then won the Rose Bowl over Wisconsin. Those aren't exactly confidence-inspiring big games.

To me, a healthy Chargers team -- which it appears they are, at least as much as a team can be at this stage -- is more talented than Jacksonville. That's why the pressure is on. Staley is known for his risk-taking when it comes to play-calling and fourth down attempts. It will be interesting to see if he has the stones to take those risks in this game. Or if he tries to play it safe.

If he does, indeed, play safe then I think there is something to his job being on the line. Lack of job security generally lends itself to more conservative decisions. I, for one, hope that's not the case.

Go for it, Staley.

Main Storyline (Jaguars): Does Trevor Lawrence's college experience pay off at this level?

I got into a fun debate with OutKick's Geoff Clark about this. He's been harping on the young QBs struggling in their first playoff start, which is objectively true. However, I think his experience playing in the College Football Playoff does help him.

Geoff's point is that the two are very different. I'm not here to say any college football game is like playing in the NFL. But those are big games, with big audiences. And Lawrence played in four College Football Playoff games in three seasons and won a National Championship. Plus, Lawrence and the Jags played a de facto playoff game last week against Tennessee. Experience matters and I think his experience in those games especially helps against Herbert who really hasn't played in anything like this, at all.

It's actually curious that Jacksonville is an underdog in this game. One metric I've used a lot this season -- and has led to a successful betting season -- is EPA/play. Jacksonville is better than Los Angeles in that key statistic. And they're at home.

Note: you can't see the Chargers in the graphic unless you zoom in because they're buried in that little cluster with Pittsburgh, Seattle, Cleveland and Green Bay.

The Jags have typically been a Vegas darling this season, often with spreads leaning towards them more than it seemed they should. But now, in a win or go home game, they're suddenly underdogs. It's possible Vegas is baiting the public to back the home dog. But it could also be thinking they public will back the team with the better record. Either way, I think it's a toss up. Will be interesting to see if Lawrence's big game experience helps him in the clutch moments.

AFC Wild Card: #7 Miami Dolphins (9-8) at #2 Buffalo Bills (13-3), Sunday 1:00 ET (CBS)

Previous Meetings: Miami 21, Buffalo 19 (Week 3 in Miami), Buffalo 32, Miami 29 (Week 15 in Buffalo)

Main Storyline (Dolphins): Can Miami cover the spread in Buffalo?

Sadly, Tua Tagovailoa is not going to play in this game. The spread went from Buffalo -9.5 to Buffalo -13 ... immediately. That should be Miami's goal: to keep this game within two scores. Seriously, I'd like to give some hope that this game could be competitive but it's so hard to find it.

In games that Tagovailoa started and finished, Miami went 8-4. In games he didn't, the Dolphins were 1-4. That one win came last week against the eliminated and hapless Jets. And that only happened because the Jets scored six points. The Dolphins offense can't function without Tagovailoa and could really be something special if they had an above-average quarterback.

Alas, they don't. It's likely going to be seventh-round rookie Skylar Thompson again, and that's bad news for Miami. A third-string quarterback going against one of the NFL's elite teams on the road in his first playoff start? Yikes.

Main Storyline (Bills): First game on the way to the Super Bowl?

It would be nothing short of a failure if Buffalo lost this game. This is a team built for a Super Bowl run with a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback. But they have lost to the Dolphins already this season, though that was early in the season in Miami. And the South Florida squad gave the Bills a run during a Buffalo snowstorm in Week 15. Though Miami had its starting quarterback in both games.

That was the regular season, though, and the Bills are built for the postseason. They've got plenty of experience, having played six playoff games in the past three seasons. They even made an AFC Championship run in the 2020 season before losing to the Kansas City Chiefs. In fact, Kansas City has ended Buffalo's last two postseason runs.

The Dolphins are not the Chiefs. But they do have Tyreek Hill. Hill had 11 catches for 150 yards and a touchdown in last season's Chiefs playoff win over the Bills. The previous season, Hill had 9 catches for 172 yards in the AFC Championship. Safe to say Buffalo is going to have to slow him down this time around. Thankfully for them, Patrick Mahomes is no longer throwing him the football.

Josh Allen struggled in his first playoff appearance in 2019 but has been great since then. In the past five Bills playoff games, Allen has completed 69% of his passes with 14 touchdowns and just one interception. In two playoff games last season, Allen had a 9-0 TD-INT ratio and threw for 300+ yards in both games.

This game should be nothing but a stepping stone on Buffalo's playoff journey. Next step, a Divisional Round matchup against the Bengals, Chargers or Jaguars.

AFC Wild Card: #6 Baltimore Ravens (10-7) at #3 Cincinnati Bengals (12-4), Sunday 8:15 ET (NBC)

Previous Meetings: Baltimore 19, Cincinnati 17 (Week 5 in Baltimore), Cincinnati 27, Baltimore 16 (Week 18 in Cincinnati)

Main Storyline (Ravens): Does Baltimore have a chance without Lamar Jackson?

The short answer is ... no. They do not. I'm not the biggest Lamar Jackson fan and he has struggled in his playoff career, but there's no question he makes the team better than Tyler Huntley or Anthony Brown. With Jackson and Huntley trending toward not playing, it appears Brown will get the reins again in the AFC Wild Card.

Brown started in Week 18 against these Bengals and it ... did not go well. But, what do you expected from an undrafted rookie? Brown was 19-44 (43%) and threw two interceptions. It's incredible to think these playoffs are likely to see two seventh-round rookies and one undrafted rookie starting in the Wild Card round. Two of them -- Thompson and Brown -- have virtually no chance of helping their teams to advance.

The other -- San Francisco's Brock Purdy -- is very likely to lead his team to a victory and potentially beyond. That's a testament to the roster construction of the 49ers, as most teams would stand no shot in the playoffs with a third-string quarterback. But that's where the Ravens find themselves. And they're more than touchdown underdogs, probably only because there's an outside chance Jackson or Huntley could still play.

If and when those two are ruled out, this could be one of two AFC Wild Card games with double-digit point spreads. Not ideal for one of the biggest Sundays of the year for the NFL.

Main Storyline (Bengals): Can NFL's second-hottest team continue rolling right into the playoffs?

That's right, Cincinnati is currently on the second-longest winning streak in the NFL. They've won eight straight games, only trailing San Francisco, which has won ten in-a-row. The Bengals went into last year's postseason hot too, and that ended with a trip to the Super Bowl.

Not to get too far off the path, but talk about a tale of two Super Bowl teams. The Los Angeles Rams, who won the Super Bowl last year, finished this season at 5-12 and their head coach is considering retirement. To my knowledge, Zac Taylor is not considering something similar.

And why would he? Unlike McVay, who seems intent on bailing a bad situation, the Bengals have one of the best young quarterbacks in the game, Joe Burrow, and one of the best young playmakers in the game, Ja'Marr Chase.

The Ravens beat the Bengals earlier this season, but that's not the same Cincinnati team that they'll face in this one. That loss dropped the Bengals to 2-3 on the season. Since then, they've gone 10-1. They haven't lost a game since October. These teams faced one another last week, but Baltimore started Anthony Brown at quarterback and weren't playing for much. Hard to glean much from that one.

Joe Burrow was good in last year's playoffs. But he was sacked nine times against Tennessee and seven times in the Super Bowl. Burrow hasn't been sacked more than twice in any game during their eight-game win streak. That's going to be a big key in this game.

Starting tackle La'el Collins suffered a season-ending injury in Week 16. Starting guard Alex Cappa left last week's game and is questionable. That leaves question marks at both right-side offensive line spots. And Baltimore is tied for 5th in the NFL with 48 sacks.

If the Bengals can keep Burrow clean, they should win this game and move on to likely face Buffalo. If they can't, though, it could be a long night.