At first glance, it doesn’t seem we’ll get compelling matchups this wild-card weekend.
The closest spread among the four games is 6.5 points, according to Yahoo Pro Football Pick’em. According to OddsShark, since 1996 teams favored by 7.5 points or more in the wild-card round are 15-2 straight up and 14-3 against the spread. And this slate of games is coming off last season’s bad first weekend, when we had the highest combined point differential in the history of the current playoff format. If we don’t get four blowouts by the home teams this season, we’re doing better than last season at least.
Let’s take a look at the wild-card weekend games:
Titans at Chiefs (-8.5): The Titans are an underwhelming wild-card team. They had a negative point differential on the season. They lost 57-14 to the Houston Texans. Seven of their nine wins came against non-playoff teams, including the Colts (twice), Browns (in overtime!), Bengals and Texans. Marcus Mariota, is the rare playoff quarterback with a negative touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Yet, it still seems like the line is a little high. I think the DeMarco Murray injury is good news for Tennessee, forcing the overwhelmed coaching staff into playing Derrick Henry. Henry hasn’t had a great breakthrough season, but at least he gives the Titans a chance to move the ball on the ground against a Chiefs defense that wasn’t good against the run. The stubborn insistence on featuring the struggling Murray was a big reason the Titans offense wasn’t that good.
The Chiefs are a good, well-balanced offense, but I still worry about them getting a little tight and conservative in the playoffs. Old reputations die hard. I think the Chiefs win, but it’ll be fairly close. The pick: Chiefs 20, Titans 16
Falcons at Rams (-6.5): We have to let go of the idea that the Falcons from last season are going to reemerge. They’ve been underwhelming all season. They have scored 88 points in five games since the start of December. Maybe the offense suddenly comes to life, but it wouldn’t be based on anything we’ve seen most of this season.
The Falcons take on a Rams team that has no trouble scoring. If we eliminate Week 17, when the Rams’ starters didn’t play, they scored at least 26 points in 12 of their 15 games and nine of their last 10. The Falcons probably need to score 30 to win, and as crazy as it sounds for a team that was the seventh-highest scoring team in NFL history last season and brought mostly everyone back, I’m not sure Atlanta is capable of it. Oh, and the Rams are rested too.
The Falcons will be a relatively popular upset pick I think, but mostly because of what we remember them being last season. That team rarely showed up this season. The pick: Rams 34, Falcons 20
Bills at Jaguars (-8.5): The Bills and their fans should be excited to make the playoffs for the first time since 1999. It’s an awesome story. I have a hard time believing it continues.
If LeSean McCoy doesn’t play, or is far from his normal self after an ankle injury, I don’t know how the Bills move the ball against the Jaguars defense. The only reason the Bills offense was even somewhat mediocre (22nd in points scored, 29th in yards gained) was that McCoy was awesome all season. He had 1,586 yards from scrimmage. Charles Clay was second on the team with 558 yards. Tyrod Taylor and Deonte Thompson are third and fourth at 427 and 425 yards. Nobody else had more than 325 yards all season. Unless McCoy had a remarkable recovery, you’re looking at an offense whose best healthy playmaker might be Charles Clay, against the best defense in football.
This has to be stated too: There’s the Blake Bortles factor. Sure, he had a nice stretch late in the season. Then the past two weeks he has two touchdowns and five interceptions. We all know Bortles could sabotage the Jaguars in the playoffs. The only way the Bills can win, other than McCoy looking like McCoy, is for Bortles to give it away. And that could happen. But I think this the type of game that Jacksonville can win without many pass attempts. The pick: Jaguars 20, Bills 9
Panthers at Saints (-6.5): Of the four road teams this week, I think there’s no question the Panthers are the best of the group. It is an 11-5 team that has wins over the Patriots and Vikings. Cam Newton is coming off two very quiet games, but this isn’t a Blake Bortles situation. We all know what Newton is capable of. Before a late swoon, he had a solid season.
The problem for the Panthers is the Saints are really good, and the Superdome will be deafening. New Orleans swept the Panthers and looked like the better team in both matchups. I think it’s possible the Saints have the trump card among all NFC playoff teams: Drew Brees. No other quarterback in the NFC field is a sure first-ballot Hall of Famer like Brees is. The Saints have all the strengths of any other team in the NFC, and the best quarterback on top of it.
Still, I think the Panthers make it interesting. They’re really well coached, Newton is much better than he has shown the past two weeks, and some of these playoff games this weekend have to be competitive. Hopefully. The pick: Saints 28, Panthers 24
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