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Which NFL underdog teams could go on a surprising playoff run?

·3 min read
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Home-field advantage can be meaningful in the playoffs. But don't judge a team simply by how it made it the postseason.

With the NFL's wild-card round set to start Saturday, all six of the home teams and division winners have been installed as favorites. But while the Super Bowl has overwhelmingly skewed toward top seeds in the last decade, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' journey last year should inspire some hope for those hitting the road in the first week of the postseason. And four of six wild-card winners last year did not claim their division crown.

With that in mind, we asked USA TODAY Sports' NFL reporters, editors and columnists:

Which non-division-winning team in the wild-card round has the best chance of going on a surprising playoff run?

Their answers:

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San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle (85) celebrates following the win in overtime against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.
San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle (85) celebrates following the win in overtime against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Jarrett Bell

The Patriots. Maybe. Bill Belichick's team is built for playoff football, with its top-shelf defense, strong running game and, well, crafty coaching that would allow a shot a upsetting the top-seeded Titans. But first things first. Win again at Buffalo. Not probable, but possible.

Jori Epstein

The Cardinals begin the postseason Monday night at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, a venue that has become a de facto road game even for its home squads the Rams and Chargers. The Rams pose a formidable matchup with unique talents like defensive tackle Aaron Donald, cornerback Jalen Ramsey and wide receiver Cooper Kupp. But the big arm that powers Los Angeles quarterback Matthew Stafford’s highlights has erred too often of late. In the postseason, there is no margin for error. Expect a blitz-happy Cardinals defense – further bolstered by J.J. Watt’s return from injury – to capitalize against a gunslinger who threw seven interceptions across his last three weeks. That defense and the mismatch offense Kyler Murray leads can travel to Green Bay or Tampa and remind NFL teams how much they power up in hostile environments. Arizona tattoo artists best practice their Kliff Kingsbury sketches.

Mike Freeman

The Eagles because of the way they can run the ball. It’s really hard to prepare for someone of Jalen Hurt’s smarts and speed. He’s one of the best pure runners in the NFL who is also becoming a highly skilled passer. They are a problem.

Mike Jones

The previous question about division winners at risk of upset leads right into this one. I think the 49ers could wind up surprising some teams. They battled adversity in the form of injuries at a bunch of key positions, but they managed to overcome that and force their way into the playoffs.

When you look at them, all of the reasons that made many pick them as potential Super Bowl contenders during the preseason still apply. They’ve got an impactful rushing attack, a physical defense and the experience of having mounted a march to the Super Bowl just a couple years ago. If San Francisco can build some momentum, AND STAY HEALTHY, then they could wind up going deep into the postseason.

Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz

Backing the Cardinals at this point requires a significant leap of faith given that Kliff Kingsbury's crew dropped four of their last five games in their seemingly annual end-of-season nose dive. But of all the wild-card entrants, the Cardinals are the only one that have a quarterback capable of elevating them with MVP-caliber play. Yes, Kyler Murray is going to need help - and he'll be without perhaps his most important colleague in wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. But Arizona's wins over the Rams and Cowboys, as well as their narrow loss against the Packers, prove that the Cardinals are capable of pushing any team in this field when Murray is in top form.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' NFL coverage on Twitter @usatodaynfl.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL playoffs: Which wild-card team could go on a surprising run?