If you’re feeling odd about this year’s NFL Playoffs, your feeling is appropriate—it’s an unfamiliar field, with only 4 of the twelve teams returning from last season. Several future Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan) are making yet another trip to the postseason, but opposing defenses are licking their chops for the fresh meat that is Jared Goff, Case Keenum, Blake Bortles, Marcus Mariota, and Tyrod Taylor, all making their postseason debuts. Here’s how wild card weekend will go down (and be sure to tune in to the College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday!).
- Tennessee Titans vs. 4. Kansas City Chiefs, 4:20 p.m. ET
These two teams finished the season in opposite directions—the Titans finished losing three of their last four, and the Chiefs finished the season on a four-game winning streak. Alex Smith is 1-3 as a starter for the Chiefs in the playoffs, but he is set up well to reach the divisional round for the second season in a row. The bad news? They’d likely win a trip to Foxborough. The good news? They already beat (and quite frankly, dominated) the Patriots on the road this season. The Chiefs bring the same balanced attack as past seasons, but the emergence of Kareem Hunt and Tyreek Hill add more explosive elements for Alex Smith. As for the Titans, I predicted at the beginning of the season that they would reach the postseason as the number two seed—it was a premature prediction, and Tennessee showed that they just aren’t strong enough yet to pose a serious threat to the AFC. They’ll keep it close, but give the Titans a year or two until they’re competitive.
Prediction: Chiefs 23, Titans 17
- Atlanta Falcons vs. 3. Los Angeles Rams, 8:15 p.m. ET
The only returning NFC team from last season, it took the Falcons until the very end to clinch a postseason spot. This will be the best game of the weekend, and it will come down to a last-second Matt Bryant field goal. The Rams have undergone an incredible turnaround under first-year coach Sean McVay, going 11-5 and winning the NFC West after a 4-12 year in 2016, and they will be a force to reckon with in the NFC for years to come. But this game will go to Atlanta for two reasons: First, the experience of Matt Ryan and the Falcons is huge, as they know what it takes to make a run in January, and have revenge on their mind for what occurred last February. Second, the Falcons bring a new-and-improved defense to the table, finishing in the top 10 in total defense—an attribute that will prove critical in stopping the number one scoring offense in the NFL led by Todd Gurley and Jared Goff.
Prediction: Falcons 33, Rams 31
- Buffalo Bills vs. 3. Jacksonville Jaguars, 1:05 p.m. ET
Bills fans made $17 donations to Andy Dalton’s charity in honor of Buffalo’s first postseason appearance in 17 years, and the celebration was epic (see video below)—the entire Bills team was watching the screens as Andy Dalton completed a fourth-and-12 touchdown pass in the waning seconds to boost the Bills into Wildcard weekend. Unfortunately, the prediction says the road ends here for Buffalo. The Jaguars are hosting their first playoff game in 18 years, and Everbank Field will be deafening. This will be a low-scoring game featuring two less-than-ideal playoff quarterbacks, but the Jaguars have the superior defense and homefield advantage, and they win their first playoff game since 2007.
Prediction: Jaguars 23, Bills 10
- Carolina Panthers vs. 4. New Orleans Saints, 4:40 p.m. ET
Wildcard matchups are one thing—Wildcard matchups between divisional opponents are on a whole different planet. The Saints are trying to beat the Panthers for a third time this season, something that hasn’t been done since 2009 when the Cowboys beat the Eagles three times on the year. This may be the last hurrah for Drew Brees, who will be 39 years old if the Saints reach the NFC Championship, and I believe he has one more magical run in him—he’s got two running backs who surpassed 1,500 yards from scrimmage in Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, and a revamped defense—last season, the Saints were second to last in the league in points allowed per game; this year, they’ve climbed to 10th. As for the Panthers, they bounced back from a 6-10 last season, but the third time is not the charm for Carolina, as Cam Newton struggles with two turnovers.
Prediction: Saints 28, Panthers 17