A mix of lunch pail “been there before” teams and wildly under-qualified backup quarterbacks resulted in four blowout victories for the home favorites last year. The 2018 iteration of Wild Card Weekend is nothing of the sort. In fact, the playoffs overall could be summed up as a group of higher-seeded veterans QBs looking to upend a collection of playoff virgins and over-qualified backups playing with home field. Bye teams aside, the notion of Jared Goff and Blake Bortles being touchdown favorites at home would’ve scored you a first class ticket to an insane asylum just a few hundred days ago.
But here we are. It’s 2018 and eight of the 12 playoff teams weren’t here last January. Let’s begin.
Sidebar: Friendly reminder, ya boy is 15-5 all-time picking Wildcard Games.
Tennessee Titans (#5) at Kansas City Chiefs (#4) (-8)
While some quarterbacks have been maddeningly inconsistent this season (more on Cam Newton later), Marcus Mariota has just been trash.
His 13 TDs, 15 picks and 3,232 passing yards would have been solid in 1975. But in 2017, it’s an embarrassment. He also hasn’t been the rushing threat we were sold he would be coming out of Oregon. Only twice did he top 40 rushing yards this season, not impressive for a decidedly mobile quarterback. To make matters worse, the Titans have refused to give Derrick Henry full-time running back duties over DeMarco Murray, who has slowly morphed into just another dude with not enough tread left on the tires (Matt Forte says hi). In spite of passing down limitations, Henry’s superiority to Murray has been painfully obvious; that Mike Mularkey never made this change is and indictment on himself and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs are still the Chiefs. Not sexy, often frustrating, we get it. But on their best day, they can still do this. They’ve been here many times before (“here” meaning the Wild Card round) and despite all the Alex Smith jokes floating around the internet, statistically he’s been great—on par with The Greatest even.
Tennessee’s offense ranks in the bottom third of the league. Their defense is in the middle third. They lost three of their last four and finished 9-7 in a division that had two of the four worst teams in the league. They have every bit the look of an average football team that caught a few breaks. Maybe they infuse some radical ideas like throwing the ball to their wide receivers, or give Henry 20 touches, but anything short of that will lead to an average road playoff performance against a sound, well-coached team.
If only average was the name of the game—Tennessee would be the Patriots. The Titans cover (barely); KC wins.
Atlanta Falcons (#6) at Los Angeles Rams (#3) (-5.5)
Question: Which Falcons storyline do you buy?
A) The defending NFC Champions won three of their last four to make the playoffs.
B) The Barney Gumble-level hangover from choking away the largest lead ever in a Super Bowl will crumble this team that has underachieved all season, and teams that lose the Super Bowl almost never make it back the following year.
C) Matt Ryan is low key a very good playoff quarterback: 68% completions, 18 TDs, 7 picks and a 102.4 passer rating in eight career postseason games.
D) Matt Ryan is slumping in his last five games: 58.3% completions, 4 TDs, 4 picks and a 78 passer rating.
E) The battle tested Falcons are underdogs against an inexperienced Rams team, led by a second-year QB and a 31-year-old head coach, each making their playoff debuts.
F) Atlanta, a franchise that is 3-8 all-time in road playoff games, is traveling cross-country to play outdoors at night against Los Angeles, who hasn’t hosted a playoff game in 24 years (and that was the Raiders, it’s been 32 years for the Rams).
The Falcons are fascinating. The Rams are good.
Jared Goff’s ride from penthouse, to outhouse, back to penthouse would make R. Kelly proud. At the same time, Todd Gurley (whom many left for dead after a dreadful 2016, not us though) might actually win the NFL MVP award. It should be Tom Brady, but Gurley has a real chance.
The Rams are better on paper, but ATL has few other things going for them. They’ve held opposing running backs to less than 100 yards rushing all but five times this season. L.A.’s soon-to-be All-Pro kicker Greg Zuerlein is on IR, a factor that could easily harm a young team playing with expectations.
The Falcons aren’t what they were last year, but they’re better than the average six seed. They won 10 games in a division with two other playoff teams. They beat the Saints, Panthers, Seahawks, Cowboys and Packers (with Rodgers). They can match the Rams’ speed. And that experience thing…it matters, especially when the chasm is this great.
The Carolina Panthers have a cumulative total of 187 career playoff games played on the current roster. That ranks as the most in this year’s NFC playoffs.
New Orleans 90
L.A. Rams 21
— Will Bryan (@Pantherstatsguy) January 2, 2018
The heart really wants the Rams to win, but the head says the Falcons narrowly pull off the upset.
Buffalo Bills (#6) at Jacksonville Jaguars (#3) (-9)
As cool as it is for the Bills to make their first playoff since 1999, you kinda feel bad that they didn’t miss the postseason by one game just so the whole world could revel in the idiocy that was “The Nathan Peterman Game” once more. Tyrod Taylor is far from perfect, but he isn’t prone to turnovers, he’s mobile and he throws a pretty deep-ball when given the opportunity. In the right system with dangerous skill players around him, T-Mobile could be just that—dangerous.
Too bad the 2017 Buffalo Bills ain’t that. With LeSean McCoy (at best) less than 100% or (at worse) in street clothes this weekend, they have little to no shot at generating points against an impressive Jacksonville defense.
“Sacksonville” got this nickname for a reason. The Jags defense is second only to Minnesota in yards and points allowed. They were also second in the NFL in takeaways and sacks. By any measure, this defense is ferocious. They intercepted Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and Russell Wilson a combined nine times. The only quarterback that really put it on ’em was Jimmy Garoppolo (who’s kidding who—nobody can stop “Jimmy G(esus)“).
Given Taylor’s risk averse style of quarterbacking (he has the lowest interception rate in NFL history, a gift and curse of sorts), Shady McCoy’s injury and the Jags D, it’s hard to envision Buffalo reaching 15 points. Riding the best run game in football (statistically), the Jags win, cover— and advance to face a Steelers team they destroyed in Pittsburgh three months ago.
Carolina Panthers (#5) at New Orleans Saints (#4) (-7)
Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, a team has swept a division rival during the season only to play them a third time in the playoffs 20 times. The team going for the sweep is 13-7 in those contests. That’s a 65% clip, or roughly the equivalent of a team as good as…the 2017 Saints.
“It’s hard to beat a team three times in a year,” they said. “The Saints can’t beat the Panthers again,” they said.
Really? Why not? They’ve done it twice already in convincing fashion, and they’re at home on Sunday.
New Orleans looked far from great in December, but they still found themselves atop the toughest division in football at season’s end. Their only trouble may be having dropped games against their three toughest opponents (Pats, Vikings and Rams), the calling card of the fugazi.
On the other side, HHSR has been touting Carolina as a championship sleeper since the preseason, and recently doubled-down by claiming they’d represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. However, Cam Newton desperately clinging to the tile of “World’s Most Inconsistent Quarterback” has given reason for pause.
Our last podcast was taped prior to Week 17, a week where Cam stunk it up again, and Carolina blew their chance a hosting a playoff game this weekend. Now the task has become much more daunting: defeat a team they haven’t beaten in two attempts, on the road, in a dome…then win two more road games (most likely) to reach the dance. Cam Newton hasn’t strung together three good games all year. Asking him to do it all on the road in the playoffs is asking for the moon an the stars.
Sidebar: Teams that have won three consecutive road playoff games to reach the Super Bowl in NFL history: ’85 Pats, ’05 Steelers, ’07 Giants and ’10 Packers. That’s it.
Cam has the talent to make his team the fifth one to do it, and he definitely could control Sunday’s game from start to finish to spring an upset…
Sidebar: You can’t teach stuff like this. Utterly spectacular.
but none of it is likely to happen. And if the Saints get an early lead, we know they can run on Carolina, and we know the Panthers will struggle to come back because Newton isn’t accurate enough.
Bad draw for the “North Carolina Panthers”—the Saints win and the Panthers cover in what should be a thriller.
With this change in NFC predictions at the stroke of midnight, we need to select another NFC representative for Minneapolis. And the more you look at it, the Saints have the most balanced team in the conference. Coach, quarterback, explosive offense, elite pass rush, ability to force turnovers, health at key positions, depth, experience—they check all the boxes. They may even have the Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year (Alvin Kamara & Marshon Lattimore). The Saints will march back to the Super Bowl.
Sorry, Carolina. The leg-shaving karma police said you can’t win this year.
Anthony’s picks: Chiefs, Rams, Jaguars, Panthers
Kenneth’s picks: Chiefs, Rams, Jaguars, Panthers