WILDCARD WEEKEND: It’s that time of year again— the playoffs have arrived.
The last couple of weeks of the NFL’s regular season are always a bit of a slog, but the payoff is worth it, as there’s nothing quite like the energy and intensity of playoff football. Now the games are truly meaningful, the players are truly invested, and the Super Bowl is a concrete goal rather than some far-off dream. All eight teams playing on this Wildcard Weekend are just three wins away from the grandest stage in all of sports, and over the next month we’ll see players sacrifice themselves— literally put their physical safety on the line— in pursuit of that ultimate goal.
All the while, I’ll be getting fat on the couch and yelling at the television. And hopefully, when it’s all over, I’ll do a little happy dance around the living room on account of all the money I’ve won.
Ain’t life grand?
Here are my thoughts on the weekend’s four matchups:
TENNESSEE TITANS @ KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (KC -7.5, 44.5)
Recommendation: Tennessee +7.5 at 2.05
Tennessee was leaking oil badly towards the end of the regular season, losing three straight games before pulling out a season-saving Week 17 win over Jacksonville. But even in that game, the offense produced just 15 points, making it ten straight games now in which the Titans have scored 24 points or fewer. The offensive ineptitude is the primary culprit behind the team’s late-season fade, but they have a golden opportunity to get it cranked up this week against the porous Kansas City defense, a unit that ranks 28th in the NFL in yards allowed and 29th against the pass. Last week the Chiefs allowed inexperienced Denver QB Paxton Lynch to throw for a career-high 254 yards and two touchdowns, so Marcus Mariota should be able to do some damage here.
The Chiefs enter this game having won four straight, but none of those wins came against playoff teams and prior to that they had lost 6 of 7, so I’d be careful about putting too much emphasis on the current winning streak. Though the offense has played better over the past month after a horrendous midseason stretch, nothing will come easy against a solid Tennessee defense that ranks in the top-half of the league in both yards allowed and points allowed and has held nine opponents this season to 20 points or fewer. And if you think the Kansas City offense is going to be contained, as I do, and you believe that Mariota will find at least moderate success against the vulnerable Kansas City secondary, then the 7.5-point number here feels a little big, doesn’t it? I expect the Titans to keep this one close.
ATLANTA FALCONS @ LOS ANGELES RAMS (LA -5.5, 48.5)
Recommendation: L.A. -5.5 at 1.91
The Rams are a young, inexperienced team with a young, inexperienced head coach. A home playoff game is uncharted territory for most of the players on the roster. The Falcons, meanwhile, have an abundance of playoff experience, a battle-hardened veteran QB, and a banner hanging in the rafters from their trip to the Super Bowl last season. And its not like the Falcons backed in to these playoffs— they earned their spot with a hard-fought win over Carolina last week. If you look at this game a certain way, Atlanta +5 seems like a pretty enticing proposition.
From any other angle, however, this looks like a mismatch. The Atlanta offense has been tremendously disappointing and has seemingly regressed over the course of the season, producing fewer than 20 ppg in the team’s past five contests. Even in their big Week 17 win over Carolina, the Falcons could find the end zone only once. That’s not going to cut it against an explosive Rams team that put up at least 26 points in all eleven of their victories and led the NFL in scoring at 29.9 ppg. The Rams have a promising young QB in Jared Goff and a beast of a running back in Todd Gurley, who led the NFL in yards from scrimmage this season and is a legitimate MVP candidate.
Though the Atlanta defense has exceeded expectations, they are vulnerable against the run, surrendering 4.2 yards per carry (19th in NFL), so Gurley should find room to operate in this game. And the Rams have been playing great football lately— prior to their Week 17 loss to San Francisco, which should be disregarded because they rested many of their starters, they had won 4 of 5, with victories over New Orleans, at Seattle, and at Tennessee. Their four wins in that stretch came by an average of 20.2 ppg. I think they keep it rolling with a relatively easy win over Atlanta here.
BUFFALO BILLS @ JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (Jax -7.5, 40)
Recommendation: Jacksonville -7.5 at 1.89
The Jags have lost their last two games and they have a clear Achilles heel in quarterback Blake Bortles, who cannot be trusted and will likely be replaced in the offseason. But they do have a great defense— a unit that ranks second in the NFL in both yards allowed and points allowed and first in sacks— and on Sunday they’ll face a Buffalo offense that is among the league’s worst. The Bills average a mere 18.9 ppg, putting them in the company of teams like the Bengals, Jets, Bears, and Cardinals, and they rank 29th in total offense, as only three teams average fewer yards per game. To make matters worse, their best offensive player, tailback LeSean McCoy, is dealing with an ankle injury and will be a game-time decision this week. Even if McCoy plays, he’s sure to be hampered by the injury.
The news doesn’t get much better for the Bills on the other side of the ball— despite their reputation as a defense-oriented team and their coach’s defensive background, the defense has been dreadful over the past couple of months and now ranks 28th in yards allowed. Worst of all, where they’re weakest— stopping the run— is where Jacksonville is strongest, as the Jags lead the NFL in rushing at 141.4 ypg while the Bills rank 29th against the run, surrendering nearly 125 ypg. This is just a bad matchup for Buffalo all around, and if it weren’t for Jacksonville’s history of ineptitude I think the line would be closer to 10 here. Expect the Jags to put a decade of futility in the rearview mirror on Sunday with a resounding win in front of the home fans.
CAROLINA PANTHERS @ NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (NO -6, 48.5)
Recommendation: Under 48.5 at 1.91
As division rivals, these teams have already met twice this season and New Orleans won both games by double-digits. You get the feeling that the Saints aren’t playing their best football, however, as they’re only 3-3 in their last six games. Carolina, on the other hand, had won 7 of 8 before a Week 17 loss to Atlanta, and the Panthers are healthier now than they were in either of their prior meetings with New Orleans. They’ve been winning the same way they always win— with an excellent defense and a run-based offense that is powered by Cam Newton’s big-play ability. But that offense has had trouble against the surprising Saints defense this season, averaging just 17 points failing to reach 300 total yards in either game.
The New Orleans offense has had no such trouble against the Panthers, but it should be noted that the Saints have scored 24 or fewer in four of their past six games, and in their last two outings they’ve looked positively ordinary. Carolina has an excellent defense that ranks 7th in the league in yards allowed, and these teams have surrendered the exact same amount of points this season— 20.4 ppg— which puts them 10th in that category. I know it’s always tough to bet the under in a Saints game, especially when they’re playing in the Superdome, but I have a hunch that this game will be more low-scoring than most are anticipating. The Carolina offense doesn’t have some magic potion or secret plan— they do what they do, running the ball and relying on Newton’s creativity, and with their limited receiving corps they really can’t do much else. But the Panthers do have a quality defense, and they know the New Orleans offense all too well. I think familiarity helps the defenses here and I like this one to come in under the posted total.