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Wild Card Weekend Predictions

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NFL Playoffs – Wild Card Round

That fabled time is finally here: the NFL Postseason. The field of 32 teams that started the month of August with dreams of Minneapolis, Minnesota and Super Bowl LII has been whittled down to 12. With four of those teams receiving byes, the remaining eight will square off in this weekend’s Wild Card round. Four division champions and four wild card teams in eight win-or-go-home games that will bring us closer to crowning this year’s world champions. Needless to say, this weekend has everything: high-powered offenses, plenty of newcomers, stingy defenses, teams seeking redemption, division rivals, and 12 or so hours of football. It’s a wide open field this year, especially in the NFC, and one thing is for certain: never count out the wild card.

With that here are my winning picks for this weekend’s Wild Card Round action.

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(5) Tennessee Titans @ (4) Kansas City Chiefs – Saturday 4:35 PM ET, ESPN

This game features a rematch from the 2016 season. In week 15 of the 2016 campaign, the Titans rolled into Arrowhead Stadium and upset the Chiefs by a final score of 19-17. Could another upset be in the works? Let’s take a look at each team:

Tennessee Titans (9-7)

Mike Mularkey, in his second full season as Tennessee’s head coach has led his team to another 9-7 finish. This time, that 9-7 record has resulted in a postseason berth.


Mularkey has spent much of his time in the league as an offensive coordinator. Unfortunately for Mularkey and the Tennessee faithful, his team’s offense has been rather underwhelming this season. The Titans finished 2017 ranked 23rd in total offense, 23rd in passing yards per game, 15th in rush yards per game, and only managed to average scoring 20.9 points per game (19th). Marcus Mariota seems to have taken a step back in his development. In Mariota’s sophomore campaign in 2016, he threw 26 touchdown passes against only nine interceptions. This season Mariota mustered a measly 13 touchdown passes while throwing 15 interceptions. DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry combined for 1,805 scrimmage yards and 13 total touchdowns this season. But with Murray out with a knee injury, the 2015 Heisman winner will have to carry the load.


Meanwhile, the Titans’ saving grace this year has undoubtedly been their defense. The Titans are 13th in the league in total defense, allowing an average of 328 total yards per game. Most notably, they have the fourth best run defense in the NFL, allowing only 88.1 rushing yards per contest. This unit’s defensive Achilles heel is their passing defense, allowing 239.3 net passing yards per game, good for 25th in the league. Tennessee’s performance against the pass does not bode well for them, especially in a field of AFC teams that consists of their share of pass-happy teams. One of those teams happens to be their opponent this Saturday.

Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)

The Chiefs certainly didn’t get to this point without having a bit of a roller-coaster-type season. Kansas City made short work of the Patriots in week one and started their season 5-0. If you do the math, you can figure out that Kansas City went 5-6 over their final 11 games, including a stretch where they lost six out of seven games from week 6 to week 13. Fortunately for the Chiefs, they managed to win their final four games to clinch the AFC West.


One determining factor for their mid-season slide could be the play of their defense. The Chiefs finished 2017 ranked 28th in total defense, allowing a whopping 365.1 total yards per game. They are ranked in the bottom four in terms of pass defense and in the bottom quarter in defending against the run. There are a couple of silver linings, however. Kansas City is (albeit, barely) in the top half of the league in scoring defense (15th) surrendering 21.2 points per game. The Chiefs have also forced 26 turnovers in 16 games this season.


Kansas City’s offense, on the other hand, has been a juggernaut. They finish in the top ten in total yards (5th), net passing yards (7th), rushing yards (9th), and in scoring (6th). Alex Smith emerged as an early MVP candidate during KC’s 5-0 start. His name has long since been removed from consideration, most likely due to his team’s mid-season slump. Smith still had himself a good season: in 15 starts he passed for 4,042 yards throwing 26 touchdowns against only 5 interceptions, by far the best single season TD-INT ratio of his career. He also posted the league’s highest passer rating (104.7). Kareem Hunt had an impressive rookie campaign. Hunt captured the NFL rushing title while gaining 1,782 total scrimmage yards and 11 total touchdowns. Putting him on the field with Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce makes the Chiefs offense incredibly dangerous.

The Verdict

So it’s the Titans lackluster offense and solid defense against the high-flying Chiefs offense and mediocre defensive unit. What will be the determining factor of this matchup? Turnovers. The Chiefs have a +15 turnover margin, second best in the league. The Titans, however, give the ball away far too much, posting a turnover margin of -4 on the season (24th in the NFL). The Titans may come out strongly and make it a contest in the first half, but their penchant for mistakes and lack of experience will get the best of them in the end.

Kansas City 30 – Tennessee 16

Image Credits: Shotgun Spratling/Los Angeles Times

(6) Atlanta Falcons @ (3) Los Angeles Rams – Saturday 8:15 PM ET, NBC

This is a game that features the league’s top scoring offense from 2016 in the Atlanta Falcons and the league’s to scoring offense this season in the Los Angeles Rams. These two teams met in week 14 last year in Los Angeles where Atlanta won decisively by a score of 42-14. Los Angeles will look to flip the script in their first playoff appearance since 2004.

Atlanta Falcons (10-6)

“Super Bowl Hangover.” Those words have been hanging over the collective head of the Atlanta Falcons since their stunning loss in Super Bowl LI after they had taken a 28-3 lead over the New England Patriots late in the third quarter. The Falcons managed to win their way into the postseason last week, an important first step to returning to the Super Bowl to exorcise last February’s demons.


What’s been apparent this season is that Atlanta’s offense has not played as well as they did in 2016. That’s not to say that they haven’t had flashes of that success. Atlanta finished 8th in the league in total offense, 8th in net passing yards, and 13th in the league in rushing. The most glaring difference from 2016 to 2017, however, has been the difference in scoring. The Falcons led the league last season by scoring roughly 34 points per game. This year they rank 15th, only mustering 22.1 points per game. Matt Ryan’s 2016 (4,944 yards 38 TDs 7 INTs 117.1 Rating) and his 2017 (4,095 yards 20 TDs 12 INTs 91.4 Rating) have differed greatly. In addition to a reduction in big plays, the falcons have also dropped a league high 28 passes this season, more than double their drops from last season. It is worth noting that seven of Ryan’s 12 interceptions this season came off of dropped passes by the Falcons receivers.

Atlanta’s key to victory on offense is their runningbacks. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman were a lethal combination this season. The two backs combined for 2,109 scrimmage yards and 16 total touchdowns in 2017.


The Falcons defense has improved greatly from last season. The Falcons are 9th in total defense and have the league’s 8th best scoring defense. The defense has held its opponents to an average of only 19.7 points per game, which has helped the struggling offense secure victories this season. The Falcons are 10-0 this season when their offense has scored over 20 points. If a team only needs to score 20 to win, you know their defense is playing well.

Los Angeles Rams (11-5)

What a difference a year makes in the NFL. The Rams, behind first year head coach Sean McVay, improved on their 4-12 mark from 2016 and are now the NFC’s third seed.


In his second season, quarterback Jared Goff has improved in leaps and bounds. In 15 starts, Goff has passed for 3,804 yards and 28 touchdowns against 7 interceptions, with a passer rating of 100.5. Todd Gurley could very well be this year’s MVP. Gurley has amassed 2,093 total scrimmage yards and 19 total touchdowns. Gaudy numbers like that only become more impressive when considering they came in only 15 games. Goff and Gurley lead the league’s highest scoring offense, putting up nearly 30 points per game. The Rams are also 10th in total offense and 10th and 8th in passing and rushing, respectively. This Rams offense is a dangerous unit that could be dangerous if they start to make a run.


The Rams defense, however, has not been as sterling as the offense. The Rams are in the middle of the pack as far as defense against the pass (13th) and scoring defense (12th). In total defense the Rams slide to 19th, allowing 339.6 total yards per game. And shockingly enough, the Rams are 28th against the run this season. That figure doesn’t bode well for a team facing the two talented backs that the Falcons have. The key player on defense for the Rams, of course, is defensive lineman Aaron Donald. Donald has been a force this season, tallying 11 sacks and 5 forced fumbles en route to his fourth Pro Bowl selection. With Atlanta’s veteran guard Andy Levitre being placed on IR this week, Ben Garland will take his place. While Garland his filled in for Levitre relatively well this season, it is a matchup Donald will look to exploit.

The Verdict

In order for Los Angeles to win they need to start out fast and turn the game into a track meet. If LA scores 30 or more, they will undoubtedly win. In order for Atlanta to win, they need to gash the Rams in the running game. This will help them sustain drives and keep the Rams offense off of the field. If Matt Ryan throws the ball efficiently and avoids turnovers, it could be a long day for the young Rams. I think the Falcons can do these things. I also think their defense is good enough to slow the Rams offense down a bit. Also a big factor in this one is previous playoff experience. The Falcons have a combined 143 career playoff games played on their player roster. By contrast, the Rams only have 21 career playoff games played on their player roster. I’m giving the defending NFC Champions the upset pick.

Atlanta 27 – Los Angeles 20

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(6) Buffalo Bills @ (3) Jacksonville Jaguars – Sunday 1:05 PM ET, CBS

This game features two teams snapping long playoff droughts. The Jaguars secured their franchise’s first AFC South title while making their first postseason trip since the 2007 season. The Bills snapped the longest active playoff drought among the four major professional North American sport leagues, having not reached the postseason since the 1999 season. These two teams faced off in week 12 of last year with Buffalo winning by a score of 28-21 at home. With Sunday’s game taking place in Jacksonville, things may go a little differently.

Buffalo Bills (9-7)

Looking at their season as a whole, you have to give the Bills some credit. They collected tough wins on the road in both Atlanta and Kansas City; averaged 126.1 yards per game running the football, good for 6th in the league; and they posted their first winning season since 2014. And the Bills snapped the longest active playoff drought in professional sports. The Bills are the America’s Sweetheart of this year’s postseason.


That’s about all I can say about Buffalo that’s positive. Other than the running game their offensive output has been abysmal. The Bills are 29th in total yards per game, 31st in net passing yards per game, and average scoring only 18.9 points per game (22nd). Tyrod Taylor is a bit of a curious case. While he posted a solid TD-INT ratio (14 TDs against 4 INTs) and adds another dimension with his legs (427 rush yards and 4 rushing TDs), his ability to push the ball downfield leaves something to be desired. In 15 games Taylor only managed to put up 2,799 yards through the air. Taylor averaged only 6.7 yards per attempt this season while completing only 40 throws of 20 yards or more all season, putting him in the bottom third of all quarterbacks. These figures may not be all his fault, but Buffalo’s inability to throw the ball effectively will hinder any effort for them to advance deep into the postseason.


It’s looking more and more likely that the Bills may be without LeSean McCoy (1,586 scrimmage yards 8 total TDs), or that he may be limited with an ankle injury. That will undoubtedly affect Buffalo’s ability to run the football, and that can only mean that the Bills defense will be on the field for longer than they’d like. That doesn’t bode well for a unit that is 26th in total defense, 20th against the pass, 29th against the run, and 18th in scoring defense. The Bills have created 25 turnovers and are +9 in turnover differential. In what could be a low-scoring game, being able to steal possessions will be a key factor in Buffalo pulling off an upset.

Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6)

Among the biggest surprises this season are the surging Jacksonville Jaguars. No one expected the 3-13 Jaguars to turn it around this year to post a winning record, secure a division title, and have one of the best defenses in the league. David Garrard would be proud. He was the quarterback the last time the Jags made the postseason.


Believe it or not, the Jags are not half bad offensively. They are 6th in the league in total offense and 5th in scoring offense. With an average of 141.1 rush yards per game, the Jaguars are the best running team in the league. Rookie runningback Leonard Fournette has a lot to do with those numbers. In 13 games Fournette rushed for 1,040 yards and 9 touchdowns. The only thing holding the Jags offense back is their passing game, ranked 17th in the league. Despite what you may have heard, Blake Bortles has actually been okay. I mean, it’s hard to find a lot of fault with 3,687 yards and 21 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. Fairly pedestrian, but good enough for ten wins. Besides, not every quarterback has a Twitter account dedicated to their greatness. Bortles has a chance to shine against a struggling Bills defense this Sunday.


What more can I say about the Jaguars defense that hasn’t already been said? They have been outstanding this season. Jacksonville ranks second in total defense and in scoring defense. They’re the best in the league against the pass, allowing only 169.9 yards per game. The Jags have accumulated 55 sacks this season (“Sacksonville”), 33 total takeaways, and have scored 7 defensive touchdowns. The only thing that they have struggled with this season is defense against the run. The Jags rank 21st in the league in rush defense, allowing 116.3 rushing yards per game. That shaky run defense is going against the league’s best running team, although without their top rusher. Still, that could be a matchup that could give the Jaguars some fits.

The Verdict

I don’t anticipate this one being a very high scoring matchup. It’s hard not to be excited for the Bills and all of their fans who finally get to experience the postseason after a long and frustrating wait. I mean they had to deal with Rex Ryan for a couple of years – that sucks. Part of me would like to see them win. But the other part of me, the part that thinks, knows that is not going to happen. The Jaguars are just too strong defensively and without LeSean McCoy, I’m not sure the Bills can supply the supplemental running game that Tyrod Taylor will need to be successful, even against the Jags run defense. If the Bills had LeSean healthy I’d anticipate more of a contest. Hopefully the Bills can build off of this season.

Jacksonville 23 – Buffalo 12

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(5) Carolina Panthers @ (4) New Orleans Saints – Sunday 4:40 PM ET, FOX

The final game this weekend is set to be one of the better matchups of this Wild Card round. The NFC South champion Saints will host the division rival Carolina Panthers. This game features two physical defenses and a pair of runningback tandems that can wreak havoc on any opponent. The Saints won both matchups this season (34-13, 31-21), but it’s hard to beat anyone three times in one season.

Carolina Panthers (11-5)

To say that the Panthers are disappointed with being the 5 seed has to be an understatement. With New Orleans losing to Tampa Bay in week 17, all Carolina had to do was beat the Falcons to secure their fourth division title in the last five years. Instead they allowed Atlanta to win decisively at home, securing the six seed and ensuring that the Panthers would have to go on the road. One thing that is certain, though, is that no team wants to face Carolina when they are firing on all cylinders.


The best thing the Panthers can say they do offensively is run the football. They finished the season with the league’s fourth best rushing attack, putting up 131.4 rushing yards per game. The backfield tandem of Jonathan Stewart and rookie Christian McCaffrey have been exceptionally lethal this season. The two backs have combined for 1,818 scrimmage yards and 14 total touchdowns. But neither of those two led the team in rushing this season. That distinguished honor is bestowed upon quarterback Cam Newton. Newton rushed for 754 yards and collected 6 scores in the process. Frankly, running is probably the best thing does for his team. His passing performances are far too inconsistent. While he has his 4 touchdown 0 interception performances from time to time, it’s his performances such as the ones from weeks 16 and 17 that are the most troubling. Against division rivals Tampa Bay and Atlanta the past two weeks, Newton completed 50.8% of his passes, averaged 170 passing yards per game, and only threw one touchdown pass against four interceptions. It’s performances like those that just won’t cut it in the postseason.


Carolina’s defense has played quite well this season. The Panthers have the 11th ranked scoring defense and are 7th in the NFL in total defense. They fare better against the run (16th) than the pass (18th). Seems like anytime any commentator talks about the Panthers defense, the name that graces their lips almost always is Luke Kuechly. Rightfully so. Kuechly is one of the best defensive players of this generation. He is said to have an uncanny ability to read and diagnose opposing offenses in the middle of games. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera has also said the Kuechly has the best and fastest first step that he has ever seen. High praise to be sure. The only way for any opposing offense to find success against Kuechly is to find ways to maneuver around where he is on the field and take him out of the play. That, however, has been a lot more difficult than it sounds. If Carolina is to win, Luke Kuechly needs to have a monster game to give his offense a chance.

New Orleans Saints (11-5)

It’s hard to look at the Saints and find many serious issues. The Saints started their season 0-2 and it seemed that another rebuilding year was in order after they traded Adrian Peterson to Arizona. But then the play of their rookie runningback and their defense elevated immediately and they rattled off eight straight wins and they eventually secured  a division title.


As per usual, the Saints had a tremendous offense this year with only one difference: the running game. The Saints finished the season 2nd in total offense and 5th in both net passing and rushing yards per game. New Orleans also boasts the league’s fourth best scoring offense, tallying an average of 28 points per game. Other than re-setting the single season completion percentage record (72.0%), Drew Brees had a fairly pedestrian season, by Drew Brees standards, of course. Brees passed for 4,334 yards with 23 touchdown passes against 8 interceptions. He even added two scores on the ground. The thing is Brees didn’t have to shoulder the load offensively like he had to in years past. He can thank his runningback tandem of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara for that. Ingram and Kamara combined for a whopping 3,094 scrimmage yards and 25 total touchdowns. Those totals don’t even count the 347 kick return yards and the kick return touchdown Kamara had this season as well. This duo is the first runningback tandem to both each make the Pro Bowl and each accrue 1,500 scrimmage yards in the same season. When the Saints offense is on a roll, there aren’t many defenses that can stop this duo of runningbacks.


This Saints defense is playing far better than Saints defenses in recent years. While their total defense ranking (17th) and pass defense (15th) place them in the middle of the pack, there is one thing the Saints defense does exceptionally well: stop the run. The Saints are ranked third in the NFL against the run, allowing only 88.1 yards per game. It’s their ability to stop the run that allows their defense to get off of the field and give their offense a chance to run up the score. New Orleans has been the 10th best team in setting the bar for their offense, allowing opponents to score 20.4 points per game. With Brees, Kamara, and Ingram, if you can hold opponents to 20 points, you’re probably putting yourself in a good position to win the game.

The Verdict

Let’s face it, both of these teams were exposed a little bit within the last two weeks of the season. Especially in week 17, with Carolina losing to Atlanta and New Orleans losing to the lowly Buccaneers. Given all of the evidence, I would have to say that New Orleans has fewer problems than the Panthers. New Orleans has beaten Carolina handily twice this season already. All the Saints have to do is do what they have all season: stop the run. If Carolina can’t run the ball, they will be forced to pass, and I’m not sure what Cam Newton we will see throwing the ball. Probably not quite the one we saw against Atlanta, but definitely not the 4-touchdown-no-interception Cam either. Hard to bet against New Orleans in that dome.

New Orleans 27 – Carolina 17


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