Wild card weekend is here and the table has been set. We had a crazy finish to week 17 that pushed the Baltimore Ravens out of the playoffs and saw the Tennessee Titans eek their way in. What team, if any, will dethrone the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons on their quest to the Super Bowl.
A.F.C Wild-Card Round
No. 4 Kansas City Chiefs vs. No. 5 Tennessee Titans
Saturday, January 6 at 4:35 p.m. ET
The Tennessee Titans take their 9-7 record into Arrowhead stadium for the first play-off game of the 2018 season. Without question this is the LEAST anticipated game of the weekend and a no brainer when it comes to picking a winner. The Titans limped into the play-offs due solely to the NFL's ridiculous tie breakers.
The Titans were abysmal the second half of the season, winning only one of their last four and three of their last seven. Contrary to the wall the Titans hit, the Chiefs have gotten hot at the right time. After a four game losing streak the Chiefs have won four in a row and finished the season 6-2 at home.
The loss of Demarco Murray for this game is a huge one. Derrick Henry has come on strong and will likely be the starter going into 2018, but he isn't enough this weekend. Marcus Mariota has been one of the biggest disappointments this season. His 13:15 Touchdown to Interception ratio is a joke and has people questioning if he is the future for the Titans. Can Mariota find a way to lead an offense that is ranked 15th or below in passing, rushing, and receiving this year and win road game in the play-offs? Probably not.
The Titans defense is the sole reason they are in the playoffs this year. They have been able to get to the quarterback and have been tough against the run. Kareem Hunt was taken out of the picture in the middle of the year, but has come to life since Andy Reid handed the play calling duties over to Matt Nagy and Alex Smith has had a great Alex Smith year. Over 4,000 yards passing and a Touchdown to Interception ratio of 26:5. Efficiency and consistency in quarterback play is what will make the difference this weekend.
The only way the Titans can win this game is if the Chiefs beat themselves. The Titans just do not have the talent to win. Even if the defense keeps Kareem Hunt in check, I can't see the offense being able to put enough points on the board. Alex Smith keeps it simple and finds Travis Kelce multiple times.
Prediction: Kansas City Chiefs 27, Tennessee Titans 13
N.F.C. Wild-Card Weekend
No. 6 Atlanta Falcons (10-6) @ No. 3 Los Angeles Rams (11-5)
Saturday, 8:15 PM EST, NBC
The first in a pair of exciting NFC Wild Card matchups begins on Saturday, the upstart Los Angeles Rams – champions of the NFC West – host the defending NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons. In a matchup of two franchises potentially heading in opposite directions, the Rams have taken the NFL by storm whereas the Falcons are hoping to find some of the firepower that nearly brought home the Lombardi Trophy a year ago.
From worst to first, the Rams have completely reinvented themselves offensively to become the most explosive team in the NFL just one year after finishing dead last in scoring. With Todd Gurley turning in the most dynamic season in a Rams jersey since Steven Jackson circa 2006, Jared Goff taking a gigantic step forward in his sophomore campaign and number of receiving weapons who can win a game (Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, Sammy Watkins), Los Angeles is a very difficult team to game plan for. While the Falcons have quietly turned in a very respectable season on the defensive side of the ball (8th in points allowed), they are only middle of the road when it comes to sacking the quarterback and finished in the bottom-five in the NFL at forcing turnovers. If you can’t pressure Goff or get your defense off the field with a few timely turnovers, you are not going to be able to keep the Rams off the board.
Atlanta’s offense has taken a significant step back this season across the board, especially in the passing game. Matt Ryan’s 2016 MVP season looks like an aberration after nearly throwing half the amount of touchdowns (2016: 38, 2017: 20) with almost double the interceptions (2016: 7, 2017: 12). Julio Jones felt this regression in the touchdown department with only three scores despite hauling in 88 receptions for over 1,400 yards. Both Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have battled through injuries this season to partially explain the decreased efficiency of the running game, but there seems to be a systematic issue with the Atlanta offense after losing Kyle Shanahan. An inconsistent attack will not bode well against a defense – led by Aaron Donald’s 11 sacks and five forced fumbles – that loves to hit quarterbacks and force turnovers.
Many will look at Los Angeles as an unproven team that – despite putting together a wonderful and entertaining season – may not be able to get it done when facing adversity in a playoff-type setting. I would argue that looking back two short months will paint a more accurate picture on this team’s resiliency as opposed to referencing past seasons under different regimes.
After a lop-sided 24-7 loss in mid-November to the Minnesota Vikings, the Rams then faced five-straight teams who finished at or above .500 – three of which were playoff teams – and rattled off a 4-1 record while scoring 32.4 points per game before resting the starters in the season finale. LA had its “punched in the mouth” game this season and they responded by getting angry, beating up on some good teams and scoring a lot of touchdowns.
The Falcons have struggled with consistency all season and the Rams’ quick-strike ability could put the visitors in a hole early. Past successes aside, nothing about this season indicates that this version of the Atlanta Falcons will be able to overcome an early deficit to a team that feasts on mistakes – on both sides of the ball – as readily as Los Angeles.
Last year was last year and things have changed quite a bit for both teams. While this version of “The Greatest Show on Turf” has yet to perform on the playoff stage, people forget that the same could be said about the Falcons team that made it to the Super Bowl (and should have won). The Rams have an explosive offense to go along with the sort of defense that is proficient in the areas that have won championships for less talented teams.
The Rams’ playoff resume begins with a convincing home win over the Falcons. LA wins the turnover battle, pressures Ryan into a few costly mistakes and gets a pair of scores from Gurley (one rushing, one receiving) to advance.
Prediction: Los Angeles Rams 31, Atlanta Falcons 17
A.F.C. Wild-Card Round
No. 6 Buffalo Bills (9-7) at No. 3 Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6)
Sunday, 1 p.m. Eastern, CBS
At one point during the season, the Buffalo Bills tried giving up on their season. They tried their hardest to throw everything away. They traded away their best wide receiver in Sammy Watkins to the surging Rams. They traded their best defensive player, Marcell Dareus, to the Jacksonville Jaguars (who they are playing in the wild card round.) The Bills went as far as to benching their starting quarterback in week 11 for an unproven rookie in Nathan Peterman who threw 5 INTs in his first half of a football game! Then, week 17 happened and the stars aligned for the Bills and THE Bills Mafia, the Bengals beat the Ravens and all hell broke lose in Buffalo and they have finally made the playoffs after 17 long years. Yes folks, that’s 1999.
The Bills, for all their efforts, get to face a great team in the Jacksonville Jaguars. This Jaguar defense ranks #1 in passing defense at 169.9 ypg and #21 in rushing defense at 116.2 ypg which means their defense ranks 2nd overall with 286.1 ypg on the year. If the Bills have any chance this game, they need the running game of Tyrod Taylor and LeSean McCoy to show up. McCoy is banged up and will not be at full strength it would seem due to an ankle injury that left him in pain and carted off the field last week.
On the other side of the ball, the Jacksonville Jaguars defense has been a force to be reckoned with, as stated above. The offense of the Jaguars are a different story. On one hand, you have the promising rookie 1,000 yard rusher in Leonard Fournette who has been carrying the ball a lot at 20.6 touches per game and at 3.9 yards per attempt. The 20.6 touches per game are just behind league leaders Bell and Elliot. The reason the Jags are rushing so much is due to the “not so great” play at the quarterback position with Black Bortles. Bortles, right now, needs to be the ultimate game manager for the Jags. The running game needs to flourish behind that very good O-Line and the great talent of fournette and Bortles is not put into a position to where he will cost them the game.
The Bills need the game to be put into Blake Bortles’s hands. The Bills mafia needs the young quarterback to force errors. If that does not happen, that Jacksonville defense is too good and will keep that Bills offense silent for the day. The Bills may have ended their 17 year playoff drought, but another one may just begin after this game.
Prediction: Jacksonville Jaguars 28, Buffalo Bills 7
N.F.C. Wild-Card Round
No. 5 Carolina Panthers (11-5) @ No. 4 New Orleans Saints (11-5)
Sunday, 4:40 PM EST, FOX
There’s an old adage that it is difficult to beat a team three times in a season. Do you know when people say that? When they can’t think of another reason for the better team to NOT win a third-straight time.
After three-straight 7-9 seasons and the looming questions of what life would look like after Drew Brees, the New Orleans Saints got a shot in the arm and won the NFC South for the first time since 2011 with an improved defense and a dynamic, yet balanced offense.
A running joke for years, the News Orleans Saints defense, led by Cameron Jordan (13 sacks) and DROTY candidate Marshon Lattimore (5 interceptions) turned in a top-10 finish in points allowed after three-straight seasons in the bottom-five. Add that with the fact that Drew Brees is Drew Brees, Mark Ingram turned in his best season as a pro (1,124 yards, 12 TD), Michael Thomas continued to impress as one of the game’s best young receivers (104 catches for 1,245 yards) and Alvin Kamara is all that is man…and you’ve got the makings for a lengthy playoff run.
On the opposing sideline, in an example that not all 11-5 records are created equal, Carolina has put together a far better record than it had any business having. Cam Newton’s deficiencies (sub-60% completion, 22 TD vs. 16 INT, lowest passing yardage total in a season where he has played 16 games) and strengths (led all QB in rushing with 754 yards and 6 TD) were on full display this season. The former MVP was saddled with an injury-riddled receiving corps who traded its best weapon (Kelvin Benjamin) at the trade deadline and was without his perennial Pro Bowl tight end (Greg Olsen) for over half of season. Christian McCaffrey proved to be a versatile weapon out of the backfield in his rookie campaign (80 catches, 1,086 total yards, 7 total touchdowns), Jonathan Stewart had a nose for the endzone over the course of the second half of the season and Devin Funchess has developed into a proficient redzone threat. The Panthers defense remains above average as they still employ the always dangerous Luke Kuechley and got double-digit sacks from Mario Addison and the ageless Julius Peppers.
The trouble for the Panthers is that they just don’t match up well with the powerful Saints. Outmatched on both sides of the ball, the Saints outscored Carolina 65-34 in two meetings and seemed to run and pass at will in each matchup.
Carolina will live and die with its quarterback and – unfortunately for Panthers fans – New Orleans seems to have his number this season. The Saints have stifled Cam when the teams have met this year, holding him to under 200 yards passing per game with 67 total rushing yards and three total touchdowns in two games. Win or lose, Newton will be the most important player on the field on Sunday evening, but against a drastically improved secondary (third-most interceptions in the NFL this season) and an offense that can choke the life out of an opposing defense with a myriad of weapons, the former Auburn Tiger will find that the third time is NOT the charm against his division rival.
Cam needs to blow up if the Panthers have a chance and it doesn’t happen today. Saints win. Kamara probably does something awesome like throwing a touchdown pass to himself.
Prediction: New Orleans Saints 24, Carolina Panthers 17