It’s playoff time.
The 2017 NFL regular season is over, which means the slate is wiped clean and 12 teams remain in the running for football’s ultimate prize: the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
The postseason road to Super Bowl LII begins this week, with eight teams in action on Wild Card Weekend. The New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers await the winners in the AFC, while the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings earned first-round byes in the NFC thanks to their successful regular seasons.
Our pigskin pickin’ trio of Mike Cole, Andre Khatchaturian and Ricky Doyle has been making predictions all season, and they’re not stopping now. Here’s who they like this weekend.
SATURDAY, JAN. 6
Tennessee Titans at (-9) Kansas City Chiefs, 4:35 p.m. ET
Mike: Titans. The game plan for the Titans should be simple: Run the ball early and often … and then run it some more. That’s really been Tennessee’s only plan of attack all season, and they can have some success against a middle-of-the-pack KC run defense. Sustained drives will keep it close, especially given the Titans’ red zone advantage on both sides of the ball. If they score a touchdown when the Chiefs might settle for a field goal, that swing should be enough for the Titans to keep it within the number.
Ricky: Titans. The Chiefs will win the game. Their offense is far more explosive and diverse, and offensive coordinator Matt Nagy recently taking over the play-calling duties mitigates some concerns about head coach Andy Reid (a notoriously bad clock manager) getting too pass-happy when he has the NFL’s leading rusher at his disposal. But I haven’t forgotten Kansas City’s mid-season swoon before righting the ship, and those struggles make this spread far too large for my liking. Titans find a way to cover, which, like Mike said, likely will entail running the football ad nauseam.
Andre: Chiefs. Turnovers will be a huge factor in this one. The Titans haven’t had a turnover-free game since Week 3. The Chiefs have had nine turnover-free games all year. Kansas City also had the second-best turnover differential this season. Take away interceptions on Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill trick play pass attempts and the Chiefs are tied for the league lead in that category. On the flip side, the Titans have a minus-6 turnover differential since Week 3. Marcus Mariota finished the season with more picks than touchdowns. Give the Chiefs’ dynamic offense good field position and they will hurt you.
Atlanta Falcons at (-6.5) Los Angeles Rams, 8:15 p.m.
Mike: Rams. This is the game of the weekend, and it was the toughest game to pick. And on a neutral field with both teams at even strength, I’d be tempted to pick Atlanta to win outright. But the game is in L.A. and Atlanta comes in banged up. The Falcons’ last four games of the regular season were knock-out, drag-out divisional games. Now, they have a playoff game on a short week across the country. Making matters worse is the state of the Falcons offensive line. Guard Andy Levitre is on injured reserve, and star center Alex Mack is dealing with a nagging calf injury. That’s bad news for a team trying to slow down the best interior rusher on the planet in the Rams’ Aaron Donald, who generated an absurd 91 quarterback pressures during the regular season. The Rams defense can do just enough to bottle up the Falcons offense with a late play to seal the win and the cover.
Ricky: Rams. The Falcons’ defense can be a frustrating unit. It’s full of explosive playmakers, suggesting it should be among the NFL’s elite, yet there are times when Atlanta doesn’t tackle well and almost looks too fast for its own good. That’ll be problematic against the Rams’ up-tempo offense, which can negate the Falcons’ pass rush and wear down the opposition, namely by serving up a heavy dose of Todd Gurley.
Andre: Falcons. The Falcons’ experience in big games should keep this game close. These two teams are pretty evenly matched. They are both solid at quarterback, have excellent running attacks and both protect their passers well. But if you’re giving the team with the second-best yards per play differential 6.5 points, then I’m going to take the points. The biggest factor will be in the running game. The Rams allowed 4.7 yards per carry and the Falcons have a potent running attack. They’ll be able to run the ball, eat clock and keep the game close.
SUNDAY, JAN. 7
Buffalo Bills at (-9) Jacksonville Jaguars, 1:05 p.m.
Mike: Jaguars. The LeSean McCoy injury is a doozy. Establishing the running game was the only chance Buffalo had to neutralize the Jacksonville pass rush, and even if McCoy gives it a go, you have to think he’ll be hobbled. Without an effective McCoy on the other side, the Jags’ pass rush can pin its ears back. Only Pittsburgh had a better sack percentage this season among playoff teams, and the Bills had the worst sack percentage allowed. Blake Bortles will cost Jacksonville its season at some point, but it won’t be at home. The QB’s passer rating was 30 points higher at home than on the road, as he threw 15 touchdowns to just five interceptions in the friendly confines of EverBank Field.
Ricky: Jaguars. Only two teams had a worse opponent sack percentage than the Bills this season: the Houston Texans (31st) and Indianapolis Colts (32nd), two non-playoff teams. You know what the Jaguars did to those teams this season? Beat the living crap out of them. Jacksonville recorded 10 sacks against Houston in Week 1 and another 10 against Indianapolis in Week 7. The Jags outscored the Texans 74-14 in two games and the Colts 57-10 in two games. The Bills might be better than both the Texans and the Colts, but let’s face it, they shouldn’t be anywhere near the playoffs, either, and the Jaguars will prove it this weekend.
Andre: Jaguars. Jacksonville had the second-best yards per play differential in football. Buffalo was 27th in that category. Ricky did a great job highlighting the mismatch in the trenches favoring Jacksonville’s defense. The same applies on the other side of the ball. Buffalo was 31st in sack percentage and if Blake Bortles has time to throw, he’ll be more effective. Finally, the Bills allowed the fourth-most rushing yards per game and the Jaguars were first in rushing this year. This should be a blowout.
Carolina Panthers at (-7) New Orleans Saints, 4:40 p.m.
Mike: Saints. Forget the cliche about how hard it is to beat a team three times in a season: It’s happened 13 times — in 20 chances. New Orleans won both meetings with Carolina this season despite not having Marcus Lattimore in either game. The Panthers have enough trouble moving the ball through the air as it is. If New Orleans can keep Cam Newton in the pocket and make him throw, it’s hard to picture Carolina keeping it close.
Ricky: Saints. Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara combined for 248 total yards and three touchdowns in Week 13, and we should expect another heavy dose of New Orleans’ talented running back tandem this Sunday. The Panthers are solid against the run, but the Saints’ offense can beat you in so many ways, evidenced by Kamara’s 7.7 yards per touch on offense (not counting special teams), the highest single-season average in NFL history among players with at least 200 touches. It’s hard to imagine the Panthers keeping pace in a shootout.
Andre: Saints. I keep citing yards per play differential, but it really is a telling stat. In each year since 2012, at least one Super Bowl representative has been ranked either first or second in yards per play differential in their respective year. The Saints finished first in the category this year and the Panthers are one of two playoff teams to have a negative YPP differential. Furthermore, the Saints had a plus-7 turnover differential, while Carolina was in the negatives. All in all, New Orleans has the better quarterback, more explosive running attack, better offensive line and just as effective of a defense.
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