Jan. 07, 2020
NFL Wild Card Week Preview
Four months of football has set the stage before us. Twelve teams. Eleven games. One champion. This is the time that we wait desperately for as fans of the game. Over the next month, there will be games, drives, and moments that will be relived for years to come. This week could be the start of a memorable championship run for one of these eight teams. But for half of them, this weekend will only be remembered for heartbreak. Whether a team is chasing their 1st ring or their 7th, the joy or sorrow from a win or loss will be the same. And no matter how unlikely a certain team's odds may seem, in the NFL, there is always chance.
Bills vs Texans
There are few NFL franchises more snake bitten than the Buffalo Bills. It wasn't until their 19th season after the AFL/NFL merger that the Bills finally won a playoff game. Shortly after, they did become the first and only team to make 4 consecutive Super Bowl appearances, but they would lose all 4 of them. Since then, in 25 seasons, they have just one playoff win to their name. In their 54 seasons in the NFL, the Bills have 7 division titles. Their opponent now has 6 division titles in only 18 years of existence. The Texans also have three 1st-round wins, but have never made it to the conference championship. Both teams will be looking to change their narrative this season with a deep playoff run, but one will be sent home this Saturday.
Both teams ended their season with a solid 10-6 record. However, these teams got there in very different ways. If you ask me, one team is clearly more equipped for a postseason run. To string together a bunch of wins against high-level competition, consistency is key. Through good play in the trenches, ball security, and a steady running game, the Bills have remained more consistent than most teams out there. Although they don't have many standout wins, Buffalo has played well in nearly every game they've played. Besides on rough one against the Eagles, the Bills have not lost by more than one score. They also played two close games with New England, and gave the Ravens a harder time than just about anyone. The Texans, on the other hand, have been very hot and cold. At their best, they have toppled the Chiefs and Patriots, but they don't stay there long. The Texans have not strung 3 wins together once this season. If they could reach their ceiling consistently, they would be dangerous, but they just can't seem to do that.
Come Saturday, the Texans will be outmatches in the trenches. They likely won't win the turnover battle. Their best receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, could be virtually taken out of the game by Tre'Davious White. The one advantage Houston seems to have is a superior passer, but without a quality supporting cast, Watson won't be able to save this team.
Bills win, 23-17
Titans vs Patriots
The most dominant team in NFL history is back in the postseason for the 11th straight year and the 17th time in 19 seasons. A January meeting in New England has been the most intimidating thing in this league for nearly 2 decades. In that time, they have played 23 playoff games on their own turf. They have lost just 3 of those games. But after many years of waiting, many think that this is the year that that changes, due mostly to Tom Brady's decline. At age 42, Brady amassed a passer rating under 90 for the 2nd time in the decade. His completion percentage, TD percentage, and yards per pass in 2019 are all about as low as they've ever been. It's no doubt that the Patriots are still a major threat. Their defense had the lowest points allowed of any team since 2008. But the intimidation factor is certainly down with Brady's decline.
Most times, you wouldn't give a 9-7, 6th-seeded team the slightest chance in New England. However, the record doesn't tell the whole story with Tennessee. No team in the league has picked up more yards per play than the Titans at 6.5. In their final 7 games of the regular season, they averaged 33.4 points per game, which would have put them 1st in the NFL if extended over the whole season. Derrick Henry is 2019's leading rusher, and Ryan Tannehill is playing the best football of his career by far. Tannehill's passer rating of 117.5 led the NFL and passed his previous personal best by nearly 25 points. The defense has taken a slight step back from last season, but their bend-don't-break style has slowed teams down enough to bring in the wins.
All those things make the Titans one of the most capable 6th seeds in recent memory. I think they stand a chance against anyone out there. However, the last team they want to see in the Patriots. One of the things Bill Belichick does best is take away your biggest weapon. In this case, that's Derrick Henry. If they can do that, they force Tannehill to do all the heavy lifting, and that spells trouble for the Titans. In his time with the Dolphins, Tannehill has a rough history in this stadium, going 0-6 with a passer rating of 70.0 and twice as many picks as TD's. As good as he's been this season, I don't see him flipping the script in his 1st postseason start. New England will take this one easily and move on to Kansas City where their real challenge will await.
Patriots win, 28-16
Vikings vs Saints
The Saints came into each of the last 2 postseasons as one of the favorites to win it all, but all they have to show for it is a pair of wins and a pair of heartbreaking losses. But New Orleans is only getting better. Their trio of Brees, Thomas, and Kamara continues to be the best in the game. The only thing more impressive than the plays that these players make is the how few mistakes this offensive unit commits. On average, the Saints allow just 1.5 sacks and 0.5 turnovers per game (NFL record). This offense is nearly unstoppable when all cylinders are firing, and all the defense seems to need is a couple stops or takeaways to help them pull ahead and take control for good. In the 10 complete games Brees has played, this team has outscored their opponents by over 10 points per game.
The Minnesota Vikings are no slouches themselves. Despite having 3 fewer wins, I would still argue that the Vikings are a more talented team than their division rival Packers. They are better in the trenches than most, they have some great skill position players, and they take great care of the ball. Normallly those things would give me great confidence in this team moving forward. However, there is a reason that this team lost every big game they played this year. Like most other have already done, I'm putting the blame on Kirk Cousins. With all the talent that surrounds him, Cousins has no excuse for his failures. He might look real good against the Lions or the Chargers, but as soon as he's faced with a real team, the real Kirk comes out. He can't make the necessary plays to beat a team like the Saints, no matter how much help he might have.
Saints win, 27-20
Seahawks vs Eagles
It seems that most NFL postseasons have one team that doesn't seem to belong. This year, it is an Eagles team that spent the whole season trailing the underachieving Cowboys, until they would finally pass them up by beating them in week 16. If Dallas had retained their lead, they would have seemed slightly more worthy of a postseason slot. While they have certainly not played their best football, at least they seem to have the talent to compete with the rest of conference. The Eagles, however, seem totally outmatched, despite winning it all just a couple seasons ago.
As mediocre as Philadelphia seems to be, as a whole, I think they're probably better than Seattle. If you take Russell Wilson off this team, they might not win 5 games. They are only in this position because of how far he has been able to carry them. Now, as fatigue has been building and injuries mount up, it has become harder and harder for Wilson to drag this team to victory, and his play has declined dramatically. After posting a passer rating over 100 in 8 of the first 9 games, Wilson had just 1 such game in his final 7. As a result of this decline, 3 of Seattle's 5 losses came in the last 4 weeks. The Eagles faced the Seahawks during this stretch as well. While they couldn't pull out a win, Wilson had one of his poorest performances of the year. If Philadelphia could shut him down again, they might just shock the world.
Eagles win, 19-16