(5) Tennessee Titans at (4) Kansas City Chiefs
It’s difficult to envision the Tennessee Titans winning this game on the road against a playoff-tested quarterback and head coach. The Titans did all they could to miss the postseason, losing three straight before narrowly beating the Jacksonville Jaguars. A -22 point differential makes them one of the worst playoff teams in recent years, and they’re likely to be without running back DeMarco Murray (MCL) on Saturday. Marcus Mariota followed a breakout 2016 campaign with a frighteningly inconsistent 2017, finishing 27th in passer rating and tossing more picks (15) than touchdowns (13). To win this, Tennessee will have to rely on a heavy dosage of Derrick Henry and hope an underrated front seven can put pressure on Alex Smith.
Kansas City ran hot (5-0 start, 4-0 finish) and cold (losers of six of their next seven) this season. They proved they can beat anyone, considering they beat the top-seeded teams in each conference (New England and Pittsburgh) in Weeks 1 and 2. They can also lose to anyone, having suffered a sweep at the hands of the Meadowlands teams. This is a team that has overcome adversity all season. When Spencer Ware tore knee ligaments in the preseason, Kareem Hunt stepped up to be an Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate. Dee Ford was lost for the year after six fairly unproductive games. Alex Smith responded to a midseason swoon (and talk of Patrick Mahomes) by throwing seven touchdowns to just one interception in four games down the stretch. And they’ve been without All-Pro safety for almost the entire year.
Still, Smith led the league in passer rating (104.7), throwing 26 touchdowns against just five interceptions. Hunt, Travis Kelce, and Tyreek Hill are a mismatch problem for any opposing defensive coordinator. The defense is nowhere near Andy Reid’s defenses of the past, but it’s doubtful Tennessee musters enough points to challenge Kansas City.
Prediction: Kansas City 27, Tennessee 16
(6) Buffalo Bills at (3) Jacksonville Jaguars
North America’s longest professional sports drought is over, with Buffalo sneaking in via a last-second touchdown pass by Andy Dalton. Are the Bills underqualified to be in the playoffs? Probably – they’ve got the fifth-worst point differential of any postseason team ever and they’re the lowest-scoring team in this year’s playoffs. Are they still here? Yes. There have been some underwhelming teams to win on Wild Card weekend throughout history. The 7-9 New Orleans Saints won a game. The 2011 New York Giants actually won the Super Bowl despite being outscored for the entire season. In fact, those previous four teams with the lowest point differential all won their first playoff game.
Interestingly enough, there’s a little bit of recent history between Jacksonville and Buffalo. Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone famously bailed on his contract with Buffalo a few years ago. And Jaguars’ $100 million defensive tackle Marcell Dareus was dumped by Buffalo earlier this season for just a sixth-round pick.
Whether LeSean McCoy can suit up will be significant for the Bills. McCoy is the team’s best offensive weapon, a running back capable of handling the ball 25-30 times if necessary. That’s good news, because Buffalo is 1-11 when Tyrod Taylor has to throw the ball at least 35 times, and the only win was against a rookie third-string quarterback. The Buffalo defense was bottom-10 in total yards allowed, first downs allowed, and dead last in rushing touchdowns allowed.
Meanwhile, Jacksonville’s defense is absolutely suffocating, having ranked first in the league in net passing yards allowed per attempt, and second in points, yards, and turnovers forced. Eight times this season the Jaguars held their opponents to 10 points or fewer. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye are the NFL’s top corner duo, while the defensive line has four different players who registered eight or more sacks.
Jacksonville has a quarterback problem in Blake Bortles, but if all goes according to plan, he won’t throw the football more than 20 times. Leonard Fournette was made for January football; in fact, the whole team was made for ball control playoff football. You take an offense that led the NFL in rushing yards and a defense that was top-two in both points and yards allowed, and that’s a recipe to win some games.
Prediction: Jacksonville 20, Buffalo 9
(5) Carolina Panthers at (4) New Orleans Saints
Both Carolina and New Orleans finished 11-5, but don’t be fooled by their identical records: New Orleans is the vastly superior team. The Saints overcame an 0-2 start and 19 different players on injured reserve, at one point winning eight consecutive games behind a ridiculously effective 1-2 running back tandem and a quarterback who will walk into the Hall of Fame. Drew Brees may have disappointed for your fantasy team, but he set the single-season record in completion percentage (72.0), led the NFL in yards per attempt (8.1), and posted a 100+ passer rating for the seventh time. It’s amazing what an elite defense and a strong running game can do for a quarterback’s efficiency numbers. Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara each put up over 1,500 scrimmage yards and double-digit touchdowns, and there’s also a 100-catch receiver to defend in Michael Thomas.
And that Saints defense. After years of ranking near the bottom in nearly every statistical category, New Orleans nailed the draft and saw its unit finish top 10 in the league in points allowed. Rookie corner Marcus Lattimore is the Defensive Rookie of the Year favorite and Cameron Jordan is an All-Pro edge rusher. This team also swept Carolina in the regular season and hasn’t lost a home game since Week 2.
Carolina’s best chance at winning is Cam Newton. He’s the streakiest quarterback in the game; he was the league MVP winner in 2015 and scarily inefficient as a passer in 2016. This year has seen a combination of both. When he’s on, Supercam can take over a game, but when he’s off, it’s difficult for Carolina to win. The defense will have its hands full trying to contain Ingram and Kamara. Carolina finished third in fewest rushing yards and touchdowns allowed. Luke Kuechly leads the way, but there are stars everywhere on the front seven – Kawann Short, Star Lotulelei, Thomas Davis, and the ageless Julius Peppers off the edge. Interestingly enough, the two worst rushing outputs Carolina has allowed this year both came against New Orleans. It’s likely that there are just too many offensive stars on New Orleans for the Panthers to win this.
Prediction: New Orleans 24, Carolina 17
(6) Atlanta Falcons at (3) Los Angeles Rams
We’re starting to see what young, innovative coaches can do with quarterbacks. Last year, Kyle Shanahan worked wonders with Matt Ryan; this year, 31-year-old child prodigy Sean McVay has done miracles with Jared Goff. It’s not just Goff though; McVay resurrected Todd Gurley, turned third-round rookie Cooper Kupp into a productive player in year one, and won a division that has been Seattle’s for five years running. A case could be made for the Rams as the NFL’s best overall team – they were first in total DVOA until they rested their starters in Week 17. All three units can beat you – Goff is emerging as a franchise quarterback and Gurley may be the most dynamic weapon in the game. The defense is led by Defensive Player of the Year favorite Aaron Donald. And the Rams had three different special teams players earn a First-Team All-Pro selection. These aren’t the Jeff Fisher Rams anymore.
Atlanta is no stranger to the postseason. The Falcons famously blew a 25-point lead in last year’s Super Bowl, but they had to win two playoff games to get there. The 2017 team isn’t the same, and it seems that losing offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was a major blow to an offense that still has playmakers but hasn’t had the same results. The ’17 Falcons were just 15th in points scored, putting up nearly 200 fewer points than last year’s club.
Atlanta’s defense actually finished top 10 in the league in both points and yards allowed, but it’s by no means a shutdown unit. 2016 Pro Bowler Vic Beasley followed up a 14.5 sack campaign with just five. The defense recorded just eight interceptions all season. Theoretically, Goff and Gurley should handle this club with ease, especially given the home field advantage factor.
Prediction: Los Angeles 27, Atlanta 20