January 12, 2024 9:00am

The NFL's wild-card weekend

Is there a wild-card champion in the 2023 NFL playoffs?

Photo of Rick Gosselin
NFL Correspondent

The arrival of Joe Flacco has made the Cleveland Browns the team no one wants to face in the NFL playoffs.

The Browns signed Flacco off the couch in late November and he proceeded to win four consecutive starts in December, powering the Browns into the playoffs as a wild card with an 11-6 record. There have been 11 wild-card teams in history that have reached the Super Bowl and seven of them took home the Lombardi Trophy.

So in this week’s NFL Power Poll, we asked our panel of former players, coaches, officials, talent evaluators, writers and broadcasters which of the six wild-card teams in the 2024 field has the best chance of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February – Cleveland, Green Bay, the Los Angeles Rams, Miami, Philadelphia or Pittsburgh?

The Browns won handily, receiving 68 of the 162 votes cast. The Rams were next with 43, followed by Philadelphia with 27, Miami 17, Green Bay 5 and Pittsburgh 2

“I went with Rams and Matthew Stafford because he's the best quarterback of the wild-card group,” said D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But Flacco has also won a Super Bowl and if he can get on another post-season heater, the Browns have the defense to make a Super Bowl run. What a story that would be.”

It’s already a neat story. Flacco won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens in 2013 but hasn’t been back since, with stops at Denver and the Jets before surfacing this season in Cleveland. Stepping in as the team’s fourth starting quarterback of the season, Flacco strung together four consecutive 300-yard passing games with 11 touchdowns in defeating Jacksonville, Chicago, Houston and the Jets.

But the Browns have more than just Flacco. Cleveland led the NFL in defense this season and also finished first in pass defense. The Browns sacked 49 quarterbacks and forced 28 turnovers.

The Browns face the AFC South champion Houston Texans Saturday and the Rams visit the NFC North champion Detroit Lions Sunday. In other games, Green Bay is at NFC East champion Dallas, Miami is at AFC West champion Kansas City and Pittsburgh at AFC East champion Buffalo.

“The Rams are terrifying,” said Bruce Castleberry, the sports editor of the Boston Herald. “They have a great offense, a quarterback who has a Super Bowl under his belt, a coach who just wins every year and a defense with Aaron Donald.”

Former Associated Press NFL editor and Hall-of-Fame voter Barry Wilner thinks this playoff field could provide a fitting end to an overall disappointing NFL season.

“Expecting a wild-card team to even win one game is always a dicey proposition,” Wilner said. “However, this season, with all of the mediocre play, especially on the offensive lines and in the secondaries, and injury issues and often-inept officiating, who knows what might happen. It would seem fitting that one of the `lesser lights’ of the playoff field such as the Rams would make a run to finish off what overall has been a hard NFL product to watch.”

In our second question, we asked the panel to focus on the most intriguing game of the weekend – the Rams at Lions. The two teams swapped quarterbacks in 2021 with the Rams sending Jared Goff to the Lions for Matthew Stafford. Both were former first overall NFL draft picks. Stafford quarterbacked the Rams to a Super Bowl championship that season and now Goff has delivered the Lions their first division title in 30 years in 2023. So who wins?

The Lions were picked to prevail in Stafford’s homecoming game, outpolling the Rams 94-68.

“Detroit won’t let this moment pass against Matthew Stafford without a win,” said Wayne Larrivee, the radio voice of the Green Bay Packers. “The Lions are the better overall team.”

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of significant key players in American sports today. It's member list draws on people from media, team management, and league management. It is not a scientific survey, but the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those who know most about the sport.

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