Breaking down and predicting six NFL wild-card playoff games

NFL logo for Sam Farmer picks
NFL logo for Sam Farmer picks (Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)

The Times’ NFL writer, Sam Farmer, examines this week’s matchups. Lines according to FanDuel Sportsbook (O/U = over/under). Last week’s record 9-7 (.563); regular season 162-110 (.596). Using point spreads with the scores Farmer predicted, the record against the spread last week would have been 8-8 (.500); regular season 130-135-7 (.491). TV channels are for Los Angeles area. All times Pacific.

No. 5 Cleveland (11-6) at No. 4 Houston (10-7)

Browns receiver Amari Cooper (2) burned the Texans defense for 265 yards receiving and two touchdowns on Christmas Eve.

When: Saturday, 1:30 p.m., Channel 4, Peacock. Line: Browns by 2½.

How the Browns can win: Get some chunk plays from quarterback Joe Flacco, who has thrown for 300 yards in a club-record four consecutive games. Protect the ball. The Browns have given it up an NFL-high 37 times. Win the battle between defensive end Myles Garrett and Texans left tackle Laremy Tunsil, two of the best in the game.

How the Texans can win: Improve against Browns receiver Amari Cooper, who had 265 yards and two touchdowns against them on Christmas Eve. Rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud must continue to avoid turnovers and play well in the red zone. Shut down the run as well as they did all season, before a letdown last week in the Indianapolis game. Play like they have nothing to lose.

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Pick: Three weeks ago, the Browns won this matchup by two touchdowns. Stroud makes a difference, but it won’t bridge that gap. Cleveland’s defense is too good, and there are too many mismatches the Browns can exploit. Flacco keeps it rolling with a road win for his new team. BROWNS 27, TEXANS 20

No. 6 Miami (11-6) at No. 3 Kansas City (11-6)

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes looks to pass against the Philadelphia Eagles in November.

When: Saturday, 5 p.m., Peacock. Line: Chiefs by 4.

How the Dolphins can win: Get help for Tyreek Hill, who was targeted 13 times last week compared to no more than three targets for any other receiver. Somehow generate a pass rush with their top four edge rushers hurt. Reverse some troubling trends — they were 4-4 on the road and 1-5 against winning teams.

How the Chiefs can win: Win the turnover battle. The Chiefs are 28th in turnover differential, the worst in coach Andy Reid’s time there. Trust the defense and don’t take unnecessary risks on offense — the opposite formula of years past. Count on the muscle memory of playoff experience. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes has an 11-3 record in playoff games. Don’t ditch the run.

Pick: The Chiefs have their shortcomings but it’s really hard to bet against them at home, particularly when it’s expected to be bitterly cold. Missing all those edge rushers, the Dolphins aren’t going to be able to sign guys off the street who will keep Mahomes under wraps. Kansas City’s defense creates some turnovers. CHIEFS 30, DOLPHINS 21

No. 7 Pittsburgh (10-7) at No. 2 Buffalo (11-6)

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) fumbles after a hit by Miami Dolphins linebacker Duke Riley.

When: Monday, 1:30 p.m. (originally scheduled for 10 a.m. Sunday), Channel 2, Paramount+. Line: Bills by 10.

How the Steelers can win: Capitalize on turnovers. Josh Allen has played only one interception-free game in the last 13, and he was picked off twice last week against Miami. Find a way to survive without superstar linebacker T.J. Watt, who is sidelined because of a knee injury. Get maximum production from running back Najee Harris.

How the Bills can win: Eliminate the turnovers. In addition to Allen’s interceptions, the Bills have had ball-protection issues with Pro Bowl running back James Cook, who has had problems with fumbles and drops. Get production from a banged-up crew that has injuries at key spots: wide receiver Gabriel Douglas (knee), linebacker Tyrel Dodson (shoulder) and cornerback Rasul Douglas (knee). Talk yourselves into playing conservatively.


Pick: The Bills sell out to stop the run and force Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph to beat them on the outside. As long as Buffalo can protect the ball — and that’s not a given — that plan should work. Pittsburgh makes it interesting for a while, but the Bills eventually pull away. BILLS 27, STEELERS 16

No. 7 Green Bay (9-8) at No. 2 Dallas (12-5)

Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) runs in open field against the Chicago Bears.

When: Sunday, 1:30 p.m., Channel 11. Line: Cowboys by 7½.

How the Packers can win: Keep Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott in the pocket, no simple task. Green Bay did a good job of that against Justin Fields (twice) and Mahomes, but didn’t do so against Tommy DeVito or Bryce Young in December. Lean on Aaron Jones, who since his return from a knee injury has had three 100-yard rushing games in a row, tying his career high. Run it down their throats.

How the Cowboys can win: Be a brick wall. Don’t get manhandled up front. Force the game to run through Packers quarterback Jordan Love. Get up early and make the Packers get away from the run, which cuts loose pass rusher Micah Parsons. Let Prescott get the ball out of his hands and to his playmakers. Have confidence because this team is unbeaten at home.

Pick: The Cowboys have more talent and experience, so they get out to an early lead and keep the Packers at arm’s length. As long as Dallas can stop the run early, it can build a lead and play from ahead which really suits that defense. COWBOYS 33, PACKERS 24

No. 6 RAMS (10-7) at No. 3 Detroit (12-5)

Rams running back Kyren Williams is stopped by Browns defensive tackle Shelby Harris.

When: Sunday, 5 p.m., Channel 4, Peacock. Line: Lions by 3.

How the Rams can win: Neutralize Lions defensive end Aidan Hutchinson. Treat him the way opponents treat Aaron Donald — maximum attention at all times. Put the clamps on Detroit’s running attack and make the game run through Lions quarterback Jared Goff. Somehow rediscover a kicking game. Finish early drives to take the crowd out of the game. Bring earplugs.

How the Lions can win: Get Jahmyr Gibbs going on the ground, which creates opportunities for the play-action passing game. Use receievers Amon-Ra St. Brown and Jameson Williams to take advantage of a vulnerable Rams secondary. Hope that injured rookie tight end Sam LaPorta can contribute, or find an adequate replacement.

Pick: Don’t underestimate the impact of losing LaPorta. He’s Goff’s guy. These Rams are just different when they have a healthy Kyren Williams running the ball, and Matthew Stafford is playing quarterback about as well as it can be played. Detroit has struggled against good teams. RAMS 31, LIONS 26

No. 5 Philadelphia (11-6) at No. 4 Tampa Bay (9-8)

Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) sneaks for a touchdown against the Buccaneers in September.

When: Monday, 5 p.m., Channel 7, ESPN. Line: Eagles by 3.

How the Eagles can win: Find answers for quarterback Jalen Hurts against the blitz. Rediscover their pass rush, which was such a key to them winning the NFC last season. Run as effectively as they did earlier in the season, especially with Hurts nursing an injured finger on his throwing hand.

How the Buccaneers can win: Protect quarterback Baker Mayfield, who has sore ribs and a bum ankle. He averaged only 4.3 yards per attempt last week, not allowing plays to develop downfield. Force turnovers — Tampa Bay finished tied for sixth with 26 takeaways. Win on second and third down to avoid the Brotherly Shove.

Pick: Tampa Bay has won five of six, the Eagles have lost five of six. The playoffs are a different animal, but those trends matter. One extra day of preparation isn’t going to make much of a difference for Hurts’ injured finger. Philadelphia receivers are banged up, and their pass defense is suspect. BUCCANEERS 24, EAGLES 20

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.