NFL Wild Card Weekend Picks

With the regular season behind us we say goodbye to 20 of the 32 NFL teams and turn our attention to the remaining 11 games on the schedule. The two division winners with the best records from each conference (Patriots, Steelers, Eagles, Vikings) get the week off and will be watching intensely to find out who their divisional round opponent will be. The other four division winners play host to wild card entrants who are faced with winning on the road or relinquishing their championship dreams for the season. In this single-elimination format, anything can happen so let’s take a look at the four games this weekend.

Saturday Games

4:35pm EST – Tennessee Titans @ Kansas City Chiefs; Line: Chiefs by 8.5

In the only game in which weather may play a factor, the wild card Titans travel to Arrowhead Stadium to take on the AFC West Champion Chiefs who are in the playoffs for the 3rd straight season. Tennessee, on the other hand, qualified for the postseason for the first time since 2008.

Chris’s Pick: Playoff football seems to come down to two things more often than not, quarterbacks and limiting your mistakes. Offensively, those two things go hand in hand and for that reason I have to favor the Chiefs here. Andy Reid is one of the most experienced coaches in the NFL and he’s been in this position many times before. The Chiefs will have an advantage in the preparation department and I think they’ll be the most disciplined team on the field. Alex Smith has also been here before and he’s playing some of the best football of his career. He proved in the final half of the season that he deserves to be the quarterback of this team and I believe he’s going to make the most of his opportunities this post-season. Marcus Mariota is a young quarterback and he’s struggled in the last couple of games, committing costly turnovers and making mental errors like that will help you to a quick playoff exit. The Titans were able to ride their stellar run game into the post-season but they’ll need their entire offense clicking if they hope to overcome the Chiefs at Arrowhead. I don’t think it happens this year. Chiefs 28, Titans 14

Danny’s Pick: I didn’t think that the Titans would make the playoffs given how inconsistently they played down the stretch. They have a defense and a run game which travel well, but that isn’t going to be enough to challenge the Chiefs in this game.  Alex Smith is a seasoned vet and Andy Reid has been around the block several times. The Chiefs have the ability to light up the scoreboard and Kareem Hunt and Tyreek Hill are a dynamic tandem that can cause problems for the best defenses. The Chiefs secondary has had problems most of the season and Marcus Mariota has a promising skill set—there is a lot to like about the 3rd year pro—, but he hasn’t made the jump yet and he will likely be in over his head on Saturday. Chiefs 32, Titans 20

Brad’s Pick: Every time I took a dive into Tennessee’s stats this season I found myself shocked that they were winning games. Although they played just well enough last week in Jacksonville to score a season-saving victory, the Titans ended the year a negative point differential. I think the 8.5 might be a little high for a team that has lost an NFL record five straight home playoff games, but KC has the longest current winning streak in the league among playoff entrants. Mariota will struggle in his first postseason start and the Chiefs will ride one of the NFL’s best home field advantages to a win. Chiefs 24, Titans 17

8:15pm EST – Atlanta Falcons @ Los Angeles Rams; Line: Rams by 5.5

The Rams are in the playoffs for the first time since 2004, but it’s the first NFL postseason game for the city of Los Angeles since the Raiders made it in 1993. The Falcons are the only 2016 NFC playoff team to qualify this season and I don’t think I need to remind you how that last playoff run ended.

Chris’s Pick: This Atlanta team isn’t too far removed from their last post-season appearance, but it’s not the same team we all remember. They’ve taken several steps back this season in terms of offensive consistency and I’ve been critical of their ability to compete for four straight quarters all year. I thought they’d rise to the occasion against a team like the Panthers last week, but I also had very little faith in an inconsistent Panthers offense that relied too much on Cam Newton. The Falcons proved me right last week, and I’m thinking they will again. Matt Ryan hasn’t looked the same since Kyle Shanahan left to takeover the 49ers, and I think he continues to struggle against Aaron Donald and a punishing Los Angeles Rams pass rush. The best offense in football with sophomore quarterback Jared Goff, feature back Todd Gurley, and rookie Cooper Kupp will continue to play at an exceptional level for first year coach Sean McVay. This team has a bright future and it’s first post-season appearance should cement that for Los Angeles fans. Rams 31, Falcons 28

Danny’s Pick: This is a very interesting match up. The Falcons in many ways were the surprise team of 2016. No one thought that they would be bad, but there weren’t many people picking them to dominate the NFC in the manner they did. They very nearly pulled off an upset in the Super Bowl before their epic collapse in the second half. The Rams were the team that came out of nowhere this season. Entering 2017, many analysts had already written off Jared Goff as a colossal mistake while some saw Todd Gurley as a one-hit wonder after a less than stellar 2016. Gurley is a legitimate MVP candidate and has been dynamic this season. If there is any reason to doubt the Rams in this game it comes down to experience. The Falcons have been there and done that. The Rams have very little playoff experience on their roster. Sean McVay, in his first season as a head coach, has obviously never coached playoff game. The Rams biggest stars Aaron Donald, Gurley, Goff, Cooper Kupp, Alec Ogletree, etc, have never sniffed the playoffs. Add to the Rams lack of experience, the Falcons have actually performed better statistically on grass on the road then they have at home this season. This the most difficult game for me to pick this weekend, but I’m going to side with experience. Falcons 28, Rams 27

Brad’s Pick: Much like Mariota, I expect Goff to find the pressure of playoff football daunting, but the Rams have a tremendous rushing attack and the benefit of staying at home to play a team traveling the most miles of any this weekend. If I had to take my next pay check and put it on one road team to win this weekend, that team would be the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons. Last December they went to LA and boat raced the Rams on their way to a division title. However, that was a different Rams team and the Falcons never did rediscover the offensive magic that propelled them last winter. Rams 31, Falcons 27

Sunday Games

1:05pm EST – Buffalo Bills @ Jacksonville Jaguars; Line: Jags by 8.5

This match up features two teams who are putting an end to lengthy playoff droughts with Jacksonville getting in for the first time since 2004 and the Bills for the first time since 1999. Coincidentally, 1999 is the last time the Jags won their division.

Chris’s Pick: Jon Gruden once challenged an exceptional Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense to prove their greatness by scoring on defense and Coach Marrone will need his Jaguars to do the same with Blake Bortles facing a secondary that includes Rookie of the Year candidate Tre’Davious White, and first-year Pro Bowler Micah Hyde. Luckily, the Jaguars have Brad’s defensive player of the year pick, Calais Campbell. Campbell’s first year in Jacksonville has been exemplary and while his second half of the season sack numbers haven’t been nearly as dominant as his first half figures, he’s certainly allowed his teammates to flourish as opposing teams are forced to double team him on a regular basis. The Buffalo Bills have overachieved this season, and while it’s been a fantastic run for Tyrod Taylor and company, they’ll have no answer for this Jaguars defensive front. More than any other game this season, they’ll rely on their passing game and I don’t believe Taylor is a good enough quarterback to win this contest. Jaguars 28, Bills 17

Danny’s Pick: This will not be the most entertaining game of the weekend. Both teams have great defenses, both have solid running games, and both have QBs with no playoff experience. That being said, I don’t see the winner of this game making a run. I see the Jaguars rising to the challenge this week. The Jags front four will cause problems for Tyrod Taylor and Bortles will make just enough plays to get the win. Jaguars 15, Bills 10

Brad’s Pick: The Bills went to Miami last weekend and did what they had to do, but beating a David Fales led Dolphins team that had nothing to play for does not impress me. LeSean McCoy may not play, but against a rugged Jags defense maybe it doesn’t matter who is getting the carries. Speaking of Jacksonville, they come into this game losers of two straight as Blake Bortles has been simply awful. The defense was gouged in a Week 16 trip to San Fran, but I think the Jaguars rekindle the the magic and get the home win. Jags 19, Bills 13

4:40pm EST – Carolina Panthers @ New Orleans Saints; Line: Saints by 6.5

For the third time this season—and the second time in New Orleans—these NFC South foes will face off. The Saints return to the playoffs for the first time since 2013, while Carolina will see its first postseason action since losing in Super Bowl 50 back at the end of the 2015-2016 season.

Chris’s Pick: My take says the edge goes to the New Orleans Saints in this one. A resurgent 2017 Saints defense will have an easier time disrupting this Panthers offense, and the Saints offensive roster is better at both phases of the game. Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara are a cut above Christian McCaffrey and Jonathan Stewart, and the Saints receiving corps is head and shoulders above the Panthers wide outs. Drew Brees is the more accurate quarterback, and with every single play bringing one of these two teams a step closer to the Super Bowl, the Saints will benefit greatly from the experienced hand of head coach, Sean Payton. Ron Rivera and the Panthers have been to the Super Bowl more recently, but emotional fortitude is a trait for overcoming adversity and again, I give the edge to this Saints team. The Panthers greatest asset is their cerebral defensive shotcaller, Luke Kuechly, but he doesn’t lead the offense.  Cam Newton is going to be tested once again by a New Orleans Saints team that has already beaten him twice this season and I don’t think the third try will end up any different. Saints 31, Panthers 21

Danny’s Pick: In many ways this feels like it could be the Saints’ year. The Eagles lost their QB and the Vikings will need their defense to be historic or Case Keenum to play out of his mind if they are going to get to the Super Bowl. The Saints have a balanced and dynamic offense, a seasoned roster infused with young talent at key positions, and an opportunistic defense that plays complimentary football. Drew Brees is the most seasoned QB in the NFC with tons of big game experience. The Panthers are the NFC equivalent of the Titans. Whenever I have watched them they have not looked impressive, Cam Newton’s numbers are underwhelming, and the defense has lost a step this season. The Panthers are a team that won several games that they did not deserve to win this season, but you have to give them credit for making plays when they needed to. This Panthers team is not good enough to beat the Saints without the Saints beating themselves. The dynamic running game with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara will help the Saints control the ball and, if the Panthers get down early, it is very possible that Cam Newton will turn into a turnover machine. Saints 28, Panthers 14

Brad’s Pick: These teams met in Week 3 and Week 13 with neither game being close so New Orleans has to be cautiously confident coming into this one despite getting their nose bloodied last week in Tampa. Like the Saints, Carolina stumbled on the road in division in Week 17. Cam was beyond bad completing 14 of 34 passes for 180 yards, a TD, and three INTs—confidence edge to New Orleans again. The Sean Payton-Drew Brees edition of the Saints has learned to take care of the home field and I think that’s what they do on Sunday evening in the dome sweet dome. Saints 31, Panthers 20 (Can’t believe I’m taking all four home teams straight up!)

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