First, the bad news: Full 16-game NFL slates are gone and won’t be back for a whole nine months. The good news, of course, is that the playoffs are upon us.
The NFL’s second season begins Saturday afternoon in Texas, kicking off a four-game, two-day slate filled with win-or-go-home slobber-knockers. With all due respect to the great Andy Williams, this is the most wonderful time of the year.
And the NESN.com’s picks column continues to roll on in the playoffs, with Mike Cole, Ricky Doyle and Andre Khatchaturian delivering their against-the-spread picks for each game of the weekend.
Here are their wild-card round picks.
SATURDAY, JAN. 4
Buffalo Bills at (-2.5) Houston Texans, 4:35 p.m. ET
Mike: Bills. It sounds like Will Fuller won’t play for the Texans, which might as well be a death knell. The Texans were 8-3 when he played this season, and 2-3 when he didn’t, with their passing production just about cut in half when he couldn’t get on the field. The Bills are also very good when it comes to taking away the deep ball, which is a specialty of the Houston offense, so I expect the Bills to muck it up, keep it close and low-scoring and actually find a way to win this game and add to Bill O’Brien’s continued postseason misery.
Ricky: Bills. Houston’s defense isn’t just bad. It’s one of the worst in the NFL, finishing 26th in DVOA (by far the worst mark of any playoff team), according to Football Outsiders. The Texans ranked 30th in defensive Drive Success Rate (DSR), which measures the percentage of down series that result in a first down or a touchdown, and 31st in yards allowed per drive. The Bills, meanwhile, ranked second in defensive DSR and fourth in yards allowed per drive. Sure, Houston holds the edge offensively, but Buffalo’s offense has shown enough promise to think it can keep pace in what could be a postseason rock fight.
Andre: Bills. This one will come down to the Texans’ inability to stop anything defensively. The Texans finished the season 31st in yards allowed per play and 22nd in yards per play differential. They also ranked 16th in turnover differential. Since having a three-interception game against the Patriots earlier this season, Josh Allen has 17 touchdowns and just three picks since Week 4. He also finished the season with the third-most rushing yards among quarterbacks and Houston struggled containing mobile QBs, allowing the seventh-most rushing yards to quarterbacks in 2019. Deshaun Watson has also struggled lately, throwing 11 picks over the last 10 games.
Tennessee Titans at (-5) New England Patriots, 8:15 p.m.
Mike: Titans. If Tennessee plays as it has for the last two months and the Patriots continue to look like they have for the last month or so, we could be looking at Tom Brady’s final home game as a Patriot. I’m not ready to go that far, but I do think this will be a close game, in large part due to Derrick Henry. New England has had problems stopping the run at times this season, and trying to tackle Henry in cold, rainy weather doesn’t sound like a great time. Offensively, the Patriots’ issues have been well-documented, and no team would have benefited from the bye more than them given bumps and bruises Brady and Julian Edelman are dealing with at the moment. Instead, they’re looking at a short week. Still think Brady and Co. have one more signature win, but it will be close.
Ricky: Titans. I’m putting a lot of stock into the familiarity factor. New England has lost nine games over the past two seasons, and four of those defeats came against teams coached by former members of the Patriots organization (Mike Vrabel, Brian Flores, Bill O’Brien and Matt Patricia). The Titans offer a double whammy, with Vrabel calling the shots and former New England defensive coordinator Dean Pees now serving in that same role with Tennessee. (Pees had some success against the Patriots as the Ravens’ defensive coordinator.) Heck, the Titans even will have old friend Logan Ryan covering Edelman — the Patriots’ most important weapon — in the slot. This feels like a bad matchup for the defending Super Bowl champions.
Andre: Patriots. Tennessee finished the season with the fourth-most yards per play, but context is key: Six of the Titans’ last seven games have come against teams who are in the bottom-11 in rushing yards allowed per carry, passing yards allowed per attempt or both. The Patriots are the best defense the Titans have faced and touchdowns will be hard to come by in the sloppy New England conditions. The Titans have made only eight (yes, eight) field goals out of 18 attempts this year. Bank on the Patriots, who led the league in forced turnovers, to cause Ryan Tannehill to cough up the ball a few times and use good field position (New England ranked first in average drive start) to score points.
SUNDAY, JAN. 5
Minnesota Vikings at (-8) New Orleans Saints, 1:05 p.m.
Mike: Saints. Here’s something I stumbled across this week: Dating back to 1992, at least one wild-card game every year has been decided by 13 points or more, and this seems like the most obvious candidate. Getting Dalvin Cook back should help Minnesota’s offense, but that might not do them much good if they’re chasing points all afternoon, which should be the case against the Saints’ offense. Drew Brees and Michael Thomas should be able to pick apart a Vikings cornerbacks group that has allowed a league-worst 72.6 completion percentage this season. The Vikings also haven’t fared very well in these spots recently. As road underdogs of six or more points, Mike Zimmer has lost 10 of 11 games and hasn’t covered in any of the last four, with Minnesota losing by an average of 13 points.
Ricky: Saints. The Vikings are so prone to letdowns — 1-7 ATS in their last eight road games against teams with winning records — that it’s hard to trust them in this spot, especially given New Orleans’ dynamic offense and Minnesota’s continued problems on the back end of its defense. Would it shock anyone if Thomas goes off against the Vikings’ secondary, Alvin Kamara victimizes the linebackers he’s matched up with in the passing game and the Saints go marching right into the divisional round with a blowout victory? Well, maybe Andre, I guess.
Andre: Vikings. These two teams rank similarly in many of the most important categories like yards per play differential, yards allowed per play, sack rate, opponent sack rate, turnover differential and even field goal percentage. The Saints will win this game, but eight points is a lot, especially since Cook is coming back from injury. When Cook gets going, it takes a lot of pressure off Kirk Cousins. The Vikings are 7-0 when Cousins has 30 or fewer pass attempts and 3-5 when he has more than that.
(-1.5) Seattle Seahawks at Philadelphia Eagles, 4:40 p.m.
Mike: Eagles. At this point, the Seahawks will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy and I’ll sit there saying, “I just don’t think Seattle is very good” — but I still don’t think they’re very good. Granted, the same could be said for the Eagles, but Seattle is coming into this game with a whole bunch of injuries, including a couple of key ones. The Seahawks will be without left tackle Duane Brown, meaning it could be another long day for Russell Wilson, who was sacked six times in these two teams’ first meeting in Week 12. Philly lost that game, but it didn’t have Jordan Howard, who could have a big role for the Eagles’ offense this week against a Seattle run defense that ranks 26th in DVOA, per Football Outsiders.
Ricky: Seahawks. It’s hard to make heads or tails of this game given the depleted rosters. The Eagles’ four-game winning streak to close out the regular season didn’t do anything for me, though, seeing as how three of those wins came against the Giants and Redskins — two awful teams — and one came against an inconsistent Cowboys squad playing with a banged-up Dak Prescott. The Seahawks only lost one game on the road this season, going 5-2-1 ATS, so they won’t be overwhelmed by the hostile environment. Expect Wilson to expose Philadelphia’s beatable secondary for a few game-changing chunk plays.
Andre: Eagles. Wilson showed why he should be the league’s MVP in Week 17. He’s been sacked more than any other quarterback in the league, has an injured backfield, his primary target is Tyler Lockett and he came two inches short from winning the NFC West in a pivotal road game against a divisional foe. But eventually, the Seahawks’ limitations have to catch up to Wilson. They’re on the road in a hostile environment with a leaky offensive line and no rushing attack. Carson Wentz is playing his best football of the season right now with seven touchdowns and no picks over his last four games. Finally, the Seahawks rush defense stinks. They allow nearly five yards per carry and Miles Sanders is averaging more than five yards per carry over his last nine.
Thumbnail photo via Danielle Parhizkaran/Northjersey.com via USA TODAY NETWORK