WILDCARD WEEKEND: After a couple of lackluster weeks to close the season, excitement returns to the NFL this weekend: the playoffs have arrived.
From J.J. Watt’s return, to Tom Brady in what could be his final postseason, to the Eagles in the familiar spot of home underdog, there’s no shortage of intriguing storylines this week, and if the lines are any indication, we can expect four competitive games. Here are some thoughts and predictions for each one:
Buffalo Bills @ Houston Texans (HOU -2.5, 44)
Recommendation: Buffalo +2.5 at 2.06
The Texans have the superior quarterback and are playing at home, making them a tempting play as a short favorite over a Buffalo team filled with playoff newbies and led by a QB who sometimes struggles to hit open receivers and has yet to throw for 300 yards in any game in his 2-year career. But the Bills have something that the Texans do not: a capable defense. Matter of fact, “capable” is far underselling the Buffalo D, a unit that ranks 3rd in the NFL in yards allowed, 2nd in points allowed, and is especially good in the secondary, as they were one of only three defenses this season to hold opposing quarterbacks to a QB rating below 80.0. Plus, the Bills have excelled against mobile quarterbacks like Watson, allowing the fewest yards per QB rush (2.8) in all the NFL. It’s almost like the Buffalo defense was designed specifically to stop players like Watson.
For Houston, it’s a different story entirely. Not only has the Texans defense been exceptionally bad this season– 28th in total yards allowed and dead last in what many consider to be the most important defensive stat, yards per play allowed– they’ve been particularly bad at defending mobile quarterbacks, surrendering 5.6 yards per QB rush, the second-worst mark in the league. Josh Allen, of course, is is one of the league’s preeminent running quarterbacks, ranking 3rd among all QBs in rushing yards this season, one slot ahead of his counterpart in this game, Houston’s Watson. And Allen will have some chances downfield against a Texans secondary that is prone to giving up the big play– Allen may not be the most accurate QB in the league, but he has a big arm and speedy receivers like John Brown who can get behind the defense. The Buffalo offense wasn’t great statistically this season, but if they would have played defenses like Houston’s every week, they would’ve looked like a juggernaut. J.J. Watt’s return won’t be enough to stop an offense whose strengths match up nicely with Houston’s weaknesses, and on the other side of the ball, Watson may be facing his toughest test of the season. Buffalo feels like the right side here.
Tennessee Titans @ New England Patriots (NE -5, 44)
Recommendation: Tennessee +5 at 1.91
We’ve seen it so many times before: Brady is too old, the Patriots lack the requisite depth, the dynasty is crumbling, Belichick has lost his fastball… it seems that at least once per season, these things are said about the NFL’s Evil Empire, and those who say them always end up eating their words. Always. Until… they don’t? I mean, look, nobody is saying that Belichick isn’t a great coach, or that Brady isn’t a great quarterback, or that winning a playoff game in Gillette Stadium isn’t an extraordinarily difficult thing for a visiting team to do. But there’s no denying that the Patriots have appeared vulnerable in recent weeks, going 2-3 in their last five games, including an ugly Week 17 loss to Miami that cost them a 2-seed and a first round bye. The receiving corps is as thin as it’s been in the Brady/Belichick era, Brady threw for 1 touchdown or fewer in half of his games this season, and the Pats have scored 24 points or fewer in 6 of their past 7 games. Unquestionably, there are issues on offense.
The New England defense, meanwhile, played at an elite level throughout most of the season, leading the league in both yards allowed and points allowed. But they’re just a week removed from allowing 320 passing yards to Ryan Fitzpatrick, and this week’s opponent, Tennessee’s Ryan Tannehill, is playing the best football of his career, leading the NFL in both QB rating and yards per pass attempt. He’s flanked by the league’s leading rusher, Derrick Henry, and he has a young, ascending, electric playmaker at his disposal in A.J. Brown. The Titans have been rolling since inserting Tannehill as the starter, going 7-3 in their last 10, and they’ve played particularly well away from home, dropping their last two home games but carrying a 3-game road winning streak. Viewing the last two months in a vacuum, you’d say that Tennessee is the better team and should probably be favored here. Football isn’t played in a vacuum, of course– history and past experiences will play a role in this game, but I expect a spirited effort from the Titans, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if they pulled off the upset. In what should be a relatively low-scoring, competitive game, 5 points feels like too many.
Minnesota Vikings @ New Orleans Saints (NO -8, 50)
Recommendation: New Orleans -8 at 2.02
The Minnesota offense has cooled off a bit since a red-hot stretch in the middle of the season, but they’ll be as healthy as they’ve been all year for this game, as Dalvin Cook is expected to be full-go after missing multiple games with a shoulder injury. Cook will find the going tough against a New Orleans defense that allows just 91.3 rushing yards per game (4th in NFL), but the Saints have allowed some big plays through the air this season, so this is an excellent chance for Kirk Cousins to quiet his critics and put to rest some of the big-game demons that have haunted him throughout his career. And for what it’s worth, I expect Cousins to play well and lead some scoring drives in this game.
But can Cousins and the Vikes keep pace with Drew Brees and the Saints juggernaut? And if you believe they can, what, exactly, do you base that on? Since Brees returned from injury, the New Orleans offense has been nearly unstoppable, averaging an NFL-best 36.3 points per game since Week 10. Brees has shown no signs of slowing down at age 40, and is in fact playing some of the best football of his career, finishing the season with a career-best passer rating of 116.3 and throwing 19 touchdowns to just 1 interception over his last 6 games. Unfortunately for the Vikings, they’ll be without two key members of their secondary for this game, as nickelback Mackensie Alexander has been ruled out with a knee injury and Mike Hughes will miss another game with a neck issue. “Shorthanded” is not how you want to describe your defense when you’re about to head to the Superdome for a playoff game, but unfortunately for the Vikes, that’s the situation. I think Minnesota is simply overmatched here– the Saints are far superior on offense, and might be better in the defensive front seven, too. I expect New Orleans to pull away in the second half and win this one by double-digits.
Seattle Seahawks @ Philadelphia Eagles (SEA -1.5, 45)
Recommendation: Philadelphia +1.5 at 1.91
I would be extremely surprised if either of these teams were able to advance to the Super Bowl, but this should be a very compelling game nonetheless, as Russell Wilson will once again have the world on his shoulders and the team on his back in a hostile environment. Perhaps no player in the NFL carries as much of a burden on a week-to-week basis as Wilson, particularly amidst the deterioration of the Seattle defense, which has surrendered 24 points or more in each of the team’s past 5 games. The defense has been the primary culprit in the ‘Hawks late-season collapse, as they simply weren’t able to slow down opposing offenses during the team’s 1-3 December stretch that cost them a first-round postseason bye. This matchup should be just what the doctor ordered for a Philly offense that has finally started to find its rhythm in recent weeks, producing 28.4 points per game over the team’s last five contests.
Of course, these teams have already met this season– back in Week 12, Seattle took advantage of 5 Philadelphia turnovers to pull out a 17-9 victory. The Eagles actually dominated the game statistically, racking up 23 first downs to Seattle’s 14 and controlling time of possession, but the turnovers proved costly, and the ‘Hawks escaped with a win despite Wilson completing just 13/25 passes for 200 yards. The Philly defense has stepped up to the challenge and produced some big performances in recent weeks, and though Wilson will have opportunities against the single-high safety look that the Eagles favor, I expect the Philly defensive line to dominate the banged-up Seattle o-line and make things extremely difficult for both Wilson and the Seahawks rushing attack. It just feels like the Eagles are set up for success here: a home game against a team that has been struggling in recent weeks and has a defense that can be exploited. This is time for Carson Wentz to shine, and I like his chances. Gimme the Eagles in this one.