In the NFL’s wild-card weekend, we saw one game lose its collective mind and might have also witnessed the end of a dynasty. All in all, each game was competitive, making for a highly entertaining weekend of football.
Basically, the bar is set high for the divisional round.
We’re down to eight teams in what some say is the best weekend on the NFL calendar, as the cream has risen to the top and we still get two playoff football games on each day of the weekend. Nothing better than that.
NESN.com’s Mike Cole, Ricky Doyle and Andre Khatchaturian are ready to go and have returned to make their weekly against-the-spread picks.
Here’s how they fared in the wild-card round.
Mike Cole: 1-3
Ricky Doyle: 2-2
Andre Khatchaturian: 1-3
And here are their divisional round picks.
SATURDAY, JAN. 11
Minnesota Vikings at (-7) San Francisco 49ers, 4:35 p.m. ET
Mike: Vikings. These two teams, stylistically, feel pretty similar. At their respective bests, the 49ers are the more talented team, but I think Minnesota can at least hang and keep it within the touchdown. Most notably, the Vikings’ ability to stop the big play feels like it could be big here. The 49ers scored 16 touchdowns of at least 30 yards (and eight of at least 40), but Minnesota allowed the sixth-fewest explosive run and pass plays this season. Even if you’re able to sustain long drives, the Vikings’ red-zone defense ranked second to only Denver in the regular season. The Vikings flustered the Saints in the red area last week, and they could have similar success this week against a Niners team that scored on just more than half of its red-zone trips despite finishing second in points per game.
Ricky: 49ers. Expect to see a revitalized San Francisco defense after the team’s first-round bye. Three impact starters — linebacker Kwon Alexander, defensive end Dee Ford and safety Jaquiski Tartt — are expected to suit up, giving the Niners a much-needed boost at all three levels. San Francisco’s third-down defense and red-zone defense — both of which suffered down the stretch as the Niners dealt with injuries and possibly fatigue (their regular-season bye came in Week 4) — should regress to the mean, especially with the Vikings playing on five days’ rest and Dalvin Cook coming off his heaviest workload of the season (28 carries) after missing Minnesota’s final two regular-season games.
Andre: Vikings. Cook showed just how important he is to the Vikings’ offense during the team’s wild-card round win over the Saints. When Cook rushes for 90 or more yards, the Vikings are 7-1 SU this season. As a team, the 49ers allowed 100 or more rushing yards in 12 of their 16 games, and they allowed 4.5 yards per carry this season. Cook should be able to expose the 49ers’ biggest weakness and keep this within the number. Minnesota’s red-zone defense should be able to force field goals rather than surrender touchdowns, which doesn’t bode well for the Niners, who ranked 23rd in field-goal percentage this season.
Tennessee Titans at (-9) Baltimore Ravens, 8:15 p.m.
Mike: Ravens. Tennessee comes in with no shortage of momentum after knocking off the Patriots last week, but the harsh reality — for the Patriots, at least — is that the Ravens are far more talented than the team the Titans beat a week ago. Pretty much no one has been able to stop Baltimore’s fast starts this season, as evidenced by their absurd plus-97 first-quarter point differential. A fast start against this Titans team puts the onus on Ryan Tannehill to get them back in the game, and I’m skeptical about that happening.
Ricky: Ravens. Is it fair to think last week might have been the Titans’ Super Bowl? Whatever the case, Tennessee will run into a world of problems this week after knocking off the defending champions in the wild-card round. You just can’t wear down the Ravens like you can the Patriots, because Baltimore typically comes out swinging, dropping its opponents to the mat right from the opening bell. The Ravens rank first in time of possession and first-half points per game, whereas the Titans rank 27th and 28th, respectively, in those categories. Tennessee typically gets stronger as the game progresses, but that’ll be extremely difficult against a Baltimore team that makes you become one-dimensional as you look to claw your way back into the contest. Also, Derrick Henry has carried the ball 66 times over the last two weeks. Who’s to say the big fella won’t get gassed at some point?
Andre: Titans. How do you beat Lamar Jackson? You keep the ball out of his hands. The Titans have the ability to do so if they win the time-of-possession battle. With Henry running like a machine lately, this is very possible. Maybe Jackson starts off slow in the first half because of a two-week layoff and the Titans’ running game helps the team build an early lead, forcing Jackson to throw the ball more often in the second half. For what it’s worth, the Titans only surrendered one rushing touchdown to quarterbacks this season, and they went up against mobile guys like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Deshaun Watson.
SUNDAY, JAN. 12
Houston Texans at (-9.5) Kansas City Chiefs, 3:05 p.m.
Mike: Chiefs. You might hear a lot this week about the Texans’ Week 6 win in Kansas City, but don’t let that sway your thinking. In that game, the Chiefs were without Chris Jones, Eric Fisher and Sammy Watkins. Tyreek Hill wasn’t 100 percent, nor was Patrick Mahomes, who was hobbled by an ankle injury. This time around, KC’s offense is operating at a much higher level and should have its way against a bad Houston defense that wasn’t exposed too much by a listless Buffalo offense last week. It could be a big game for Mahomes as the Texans allowed 33 touchdown passes (fourth-most) and a 60.8 QBR (sixth-highest) this season.
Ricky: Chiefs. The Texans’ defense stinks, ranking 26th in DVOA, 27th in points allowed per drive and 31st in yards allowed per drive. The unit ranks 31st in third-down defense and dead-last in red-zone defense, surrendering a touchdown on more than 70 percent of its opponents’ trips inside the 20-yard line. The Bills couldn’t capitalize and finish the job last week, but the Chiefs’ high-powered offense will have a field day this week as they pile up touchdowns rather than settle for field goals.
Andre: Chiefs. This is a huge mismatch. The Texans allowed the most yards per play (6.1) this season and they’re going up against one of the most explosive talents in the NFL in Mahomes. The Texans also have the worst yards per play and turnover differential among remaining playoff teams.
Seattle Seahawks at (-4) Green Bay Packers, 6:40 p.m.
Mike: Packers. Forecasts are calling for game-time temperatures in the mid-20s, and Russell Wilson doesn’t have a ton of NFL experience playing in the cold. Just three times has the temperature been below 35 degrees at kickoff in Wilson’s career, and the Seahawks are 1-2. That includes a 38-10 thumping in 2016 at Lambeau Field, a game Seattle was favored by three to win. Wilson threw five picks in that game. The Packers certainly have the horses up front to fluster the MVP candidate, and there wasn’t much last week in the Seahawks’ 17-point showing that makes you think they’re poised for an explosion this week.
Ricky: Packers. The Seahawks’ defense will need to force a turnover or two to be successful. The problem is Green Bay doesn’t cough up the football (second-fewest giveaways and fewest interceptions thrown this season). Another interesting note, via ESPN’s Bill Barnwell: Of the 132 teams to make the playoffs since 2009, Seattle’s 4.3 percent sack rate ranks 129th(!). Aaron Rodgers will have a clean pocket to work with, allowing him to pick apart a Seahawks defense that ranks middle of the pack against the pass, according to Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders.
Andre: Packers. Green Bay is well-rested, healthier than Seattle and at home. Wilson did a great job carrying his team this far, but the magic will run out this week. The Seahawks’ run defense was terrible this season, as they allowed nearly five yards per carry. Aaron Jones should be able to go off and take the load off Rodgers. Finally, the Seahawks can’t exploit the Packers’ biggest weakness — also run defense — because of injuries in the backfield.
Thumbnail photo via Benny Sieu/USA TODAY Sports Images