A pair of AFC teams will end their playoff droughts when the Las Vegas Raiders take on the Cincinnati Bengals to kick off the postseason. The Raiders (10-7) are in the playoffs for the first time in five years, when they lost at Houston in the Wild Card Round. The Bengals (10-7) are back in the postseason for the first time since falling 18-16 to Pittsburgh at home in the Wild Card Round back in 2016.
It's been even longer since either team has won a playoff game. The Raiders' last postseason victory came back in 2003 when the team, still in Oakland at the time, beat Tennesee 41-24 in the AFC Championship Game. The Raiders would then lose to Tampa Bay (48-21) in Super Bowl XXXVII. Since then, the team has made just one playoff appearance, the aforementioned loss to the Texans. Cincinnati's last postseason victory came all the way back in 1991 when the Bengals beat the then-Houston Oilers 41-14 in the Wild Card Round. Cincinnati followed that up with a 20-10 loss in the Divisional Round to the then-Los Angeles Raiders and has gone 0-7 in the playoff since, all in the Wild Card Round and four of those losses coming at home.
As for this season, Las Vegas finished strong, winning its final four games in the regular season to earn a wild-card berth. The last victory was a roller coaster, to put it mildly, as the Raiders edged out the Chargers 35-32 in overtime at home in the last game of the regular season. Las Vegas was in control for most of the game, leading 29-14 with 8:23 left, but Los Angeles tied the game with a touchdown on the last play of regulation. In overtime, the Raiders struck first with a field goal, but the Chargers answered setting up the real possibility of a tie, which would have meant both teams would have gotten playoff berths. Instead, Daniel Carlson connected on his fifth field goal of the game, this time from 47 yards out, as the clock expired to secure wild-card berths for Las Vegas and Pittsburgh while Los Angeles saw its season come to an end. Besides Carlson's strong leg, Josh Jacobs ran for a season-high 132 yards, and Derek Carr connected with Hunter Renfrow for a pair of touchdowns in the victory.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati (10-7) had already clinched the AFC North title the week prior, so the Bengals didn't have much to play for last week against Cleveland. With Joe Burrow (rest) and Joe Mixon (on the Reserve/COVID-19 list) both out, the Browns won 21-16 at home, snapping Cincinnati's three-game winning streak. The defense forced two turnovers but also gave up nearly 400 yards to a Cleveland offense that was led by backups at quarterback (Case Keenum) and running back (D'Ernest Johnson). The Bengals' offense managed just 182 yards with Brandon Allen at the helm and other starters, such as wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, playing very little.
These two teams faced each other earlier this season with Cincinnati winning 32-13 out in Las Vegas. Mixon ran for 123 yards and two scores in the victory while the Raiders totaled just 72 yards on the ground, went 1-for-7 on third down, and turned the ball over twice.
AFC Wild Card: Las Vegas (10-7) at Cincinnati (10-7)
Kickoff: Sat., Jan. 15 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Bengals -5
Three Things to Watch
1. First-time jitters
It's been five and six years, respectively, since either team has even been in the playoffs, so there are a lot of guys who have not been in this situation before. Carr was with the Raiders during the 2016 season when they last were in the postseason (went 12-3 as the starter), but he got hurt in Week 16 and missed the playoff game. So both he and his counterpart, Burrow, will be making their first postseason start. But the inexperience also extends to the coaches, considering Zac Taylor is in his third season leading the Bengals, while the Raiders' Rich Bisaccia took over as the interim prior to Week 6 after Jon Gruden resigned. Las Vegas is 7-5 under Bisaccia.
So the players and coaches can try and prepare for what is ahead, but actually playing in a postseason contest is completely different. A fast start is important; both teams have a good pass rush and could tee off on the other's quarterback, especially if the running game is ineffective. The current forecasts for around game time on Saturday are calling for temperatures below freezing, but it will feel even colder with winds gusting up to 20 mph. These are certainly not conditions the Raiders are used to, but they did make road trips to both Kansas City and Cleveland in December.
2. Mixon vs. Jacobs
Mixon didn't play in the regular-season finale because he was on the Reserve/COVID-19 list but he still finished third in the NFL with 1,205 rushing yards. He's no longer on the list, back at practice, and will be ready to go on Saturday. On the other side, Jacobs missed a couple of games because of injury and wound up with 872 rushing yards (15th). But Jacobs has picked it up recently with his two 100-yard efforts in the last three games, helping fuel Las Vegas' four-game winning streak. Mixon hasn't gone over 100 yards since Week 12 against Pittsburgh and is only averaging 3.3 yards per carry since that game.
One of Mixon's three 100-yard games came in the win over the Raiders earlier this season, so don't expect Cincinnati to shy away from feeding its workhorse. Las Vegas finished 19th overall against the run, giving up 114.3 yards per game, although the numbers were better on the road. On the other side, the Bengals were fifth in rushing defense (102.5 ypg) and held Jacobs to just 37 yards on nine carries (4.1 ypc) in the first meeting. It's more important for Jacobs to find some success early, as Carr doesn't have as many options to throw to beyond wide receiver Hunter Renfrow and tight end Darren Waller compared to Burrow. Jacobs is dealing with some injured ribs, but he played with them last Sunday and put up his best performance of the season, so they shouldn't prevent him from being out there on Saturday.
3. Does momentum matter?
Las Vegas enters on a four-game winning streak and is probably still riding the emotion of last Sunday's overtime win to get into the postseason. The Raiders have to deal with a short week and a potential emotional letdown, but they also could be sharper than Cincinnati, who rested most of its stars last week. Will the time off matter for Burrow, Mixon, and Co.? It remains to be seen, but the margin of error is even smaller once you get to the playoffs, so hopefully the Bengals can get into a rhythm early. Prior to sitting out last week, Burrow has been arguably the hottest quarterback in the entire league, throwing for nearly 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns in his last two games. Chase has been his primary target, but Las Vegas will need to contend with fellow receivers Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd as well. The Raiders did a good job against Burrow in the first meeting, as he threw for just 148 yards and a touchdown (to Chase) while sacking him three times, but he's been playing on a different level over the past several weeks. So will the rest benefit Burrow and the Bengals or will the rust come into play?
I'm modestly concerned that the Raiders expended so much to get here that they won't have as much left on Saturday. It's hard to beat a team twice, or at least that's what the cliché says. I think both squads come out punching early, but I like the Bengals to keep on doing so later into the contest. Burrow has been fantastic lately, and I think he and Chase will connect for at least one long touchdown. It'll be the difference as Cincinnati picks up its first postseason win in 31 years.
Prediction: Bengals 27, Raiders 20
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.