By Amy Tennery
(Reuters) – The four battle-hardened winners of the NFL’s wild card games roll onto the next round of playoffs this weekend, with a mix of veterans and relative newcomers all vying to clear the latest hurdle on the path to the Super Bowl.
Having toppled the heavy favorites New Orleans Saints in their wild card clash, the Minnesota Vikings hope to beat the odds yet again on Saturday as they face off against the San Francisco 49ers, who enjoyed a stellar 13-win and three-loss regular season.
Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who previously played second-fiddle to Tom Brady in New England, will play in a post-season game for the first time, along with fellow playoffs newcomer George Kittle, the league’s strongest-performing tight end.
“Jimmy’s been doing it all year, every prime time game he shows up, plays well,” Kittle told reporters on Wednesday. “He’s going to play really well.”
The stellar 14-2 Baltimore Ravens, with their seemingly invincible 23-year-old quarterback Lamar Jackson, play host to the Tennessee Titans, a year after falling short in their wild card game against the Los Angeles Chargers.
“We just have to lock in mentally and spiritually and get ready to play our best football on Saturday night, and that’s what we’ll be shooting for,” head coach John Harbaugh told reporters on Thursday.
Sunday’s action kicks off with the Houston Texans traveling to Kansas City in the weekend’s most lopsided matchup, with oddsmakers expecting the Chiefs to win the game handily as 24-year-old quarterback Patrick Mahomes builds on his experience in the league.
“The only thing that’s really different (from last year) is just having the experience,” Mahomes told reporters on Wednesday. “I understand how much every single play counts. How much every single rep in practice counts and how you really have to take advantage of every single opportunity you get.”
Sunday’s NFC matchup, meanwhile, features a clash of Super Bowl veterans, with the Green Bay Packers welcoming the Seattle Seahawks to their home turf.
The game is expected to be the most tightly contested of the weekend, featuring former Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers leading the Packers into their first post-season appearance since 2016 against seven-time Pro Bowler Russell Wilson’s Seattle team.
(Reporting by Amy Tennery; Editing by Christopher Cushing)