Jan. 12, 2018
NFL Wildcard Preview/Predictions
Nothing like January football to start off the new year. With the beginning of the wildcard weekend, we start down the road to Minneapolis and Super Bowl LII. So let’s get this show on the road and look at the first playoff games of the new postseason.
Tennessee Titans vs. Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs are in the postseason for the third straight season. At one point, they looked like the best team in the league. Then they looked like the worst team in the league before getting back on track. Since losing to the Jets, Kansas City has been a different team from their midseason struggles. Their offense can competently move the football because they’ve gotten back to running the ball first. NFL lead rusher Kareem Hunt is the one to watch here. If he’s able to run the ball effectively, it will open up ways for Alex Smith to get Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce the ball in the passing game.
For the first time since 2008, the Tennessee Titans will be playing postseason football. After getting off to a 6-2 start, the Titans stumbled but eventually took care of business last week to clinch a spot. The Titans offense is underwhelming at best as they don’t do anything at an elite level. Their best form of attack is their rushing attack, but KC may have the bodies to slow them down. When it comes to passing the ball, Marcus Mariota has been far too inconsistent to maintain a high level of success. While the Chiefs defense is ranked 28th overall in yards per game, they don’t allow many points per game. Furthermore, they rank seventh in turnovers. The Titans can be prone to give the ball up when pressured. And finally, the Titans defense is ranked 13th in the league but had the advantage of playing teams like the Colts, Texans, and Jaguars for the better part of the season.
In the end, I don’t trust the Titans offense to produce enough points on offense. Look for a few key turnovers to work against them as well. I’m picking the Chiefs to pick up the win and move on to the next round.
Prediction: 21-13 in favor of Kansas City
Atlanta Falcons vs. Los Angeles Rams
This is the best game of the weekend on paper. These two teams could both make an argument of being the fastest in the league. The Rams return to the playoffs for the first time since 2004. For Rams fans in L.A., it’s the first Rams playoff appearance since 1989 and the first playoff game in L.A. since 1985. The Rams are the surprise team in the NFL, and it’s because of their offense. What was once there worst offensive unit in football has now become one of the elite units in the game. Head Coach Sean McVay has put together an offensive scheme that makes it tough to key in on one player. They are loaded with weapons like Todd Gurley, Sammy Watkins, Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods and Jared Goff. The one thing the Falcons boast that the Rams haven’t seen this season is the speed they have on that side of the ball. However, they run a similar scheme to the Seahawks. And that is something the Rams have seen plenty times before as they’ve played the Seahawks, 49ers, and Jaguars this season.
Speaking of the Falcons, they’re the only NFC playoff team from last season to make the playoffs this year. While they’re not the prolific offense from a season ago, they’re still a team to be respected. I actually believe the Falcons will be able to move the ball so long as they approach the game with a run-first mentality. The Rams have had problems stopping the run all season. This also has the added bonus of controlling the clock and keeping the ball away from the Rams offense. The problem is the Falcons will be without their starting guard Andy Levitre and the Rams have a ton of playmakers in their front seven despite their issues stopping the run. But in their DNA, the Falcons are a passing unit. This is where some other issues rear their heads. The Falcons have had trouble sustaining drives and quarterback Matt Ryan isn’t playing as well as he was last year. So which, Ryan, will we get on Saturday? The MVP-level QB or the lesser version?
I expect a high scoring game, but I think the Rams will be able to penetrate the Falcons offensive line and make some plays in the backfield. Furthermore, I think Ryan struggles in stretches of the game, leaving the Rams just enough of an opportunity to win the game.
Prediction: Rams win 34-28
Buffalo Bills vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Bills have finally done it. They made the playoffs for the first time in this century. The big story of this game is the status of LeSean McCoy. Even if he does play, he will likely be at less than 100 percent. And since he’s one of the few playmakers on the team going up against an elite defense, this isn’t good news. Even if he was at 100 percent, moving the ball against the Jaguars defense is a tough task. Jacksonville has two elite corners and a pass rush that loves to attack the opposing quarterback. Good thing Tyrod Taylor has mobility because he’ll need it. The one strength the Bills will be able to use against the Jags is their ability to not beat themselves. Typically, teams can doom themselves to head-scratching mistakes that cost them the game. The Bills tend to keep it simple and that allows them to hang around longer than expected. And this could be bad news for Jacksonville if they’re not careful.
Jacksonville is back in the playoffs after a 10-year hiatus and they sport one of the best defenses in the game. But recently, everyone’s greatest fears have begun to manifest. Before the season started, this blog called the Jaguars one of the most talented teams on paper but wrote of major success as a possibility due to their quarterback situation. For most of the season, Blake Bortles has managed not to crash the Jags season. Recently, however, he’s played like QB everyone feared him to be. He’s thrown two touchdowns and five interceptions over the last two weeks. So this could come down to how he plays. If he doesn’t turn the ball over, the Jags should have no trouble beating the Bills. If he fails to take care of the ball, the Jags are in trouble.
Prediction: 17-10 Jaguars
Carolina Panthers vs. New Orleans Saints
For the first time since 2013, the Saints are in the playoffs. At this point, they know the Panthers well. Not only have they played their divisional foe twice, they’ve also defeated them on both occasions. This season saw the Saints shift in culture. What has been a historically pass-happy offense joined with a weak defense has become a run-heavy offense with a solid defense. Out of all the teams in the NFC, the Saints are the most dangerous because their style of play travels well. Back to their defense, expect Marshon Lattimore to be dispatched to shut down Devin Funchess. And with Greg Olsen at less than 100 percent, this allows the Saints to stack the box against Cam Newton. The Saints will run into resistance when attempting to move the ball against the Carolina defense, but their strong offensive line and the experience of Drew Brees should give them an edge.
The Panthers are back in the playoffs after missing the postseason a year ago. Their overall success is dependent on the play of Cam Newton. When he’s playing at a high level, the Panthers are very tough to beat. When he plays poorly, the Panthers are barely an average team. Philosophically, Carolina wants to overpower you on both sides of the ball. They love to run the ball first and hammer teams with their defense. But as previously mentioned, the Saints have on of the best offensive lines in football and a veteran quarterback who is more than capable of making plays. So this will, in fact, come down to which Cam Newton shows up. If he can find a way to move the ball consistently, Carolina can win. However, I believe we will see inconsistent Cam. Furthermore, I don’t believe the Saints will have any trouble moving the ball and will ultimately win the game.
Prediction: 30-17 Saints