The NFL regular season is no more. The time for the battle-hardened underdogs to persevere and the perceived elite to fulfill their lofty destinies is now. Undoubtedly, the unexpected will occur as all four wild-card teams from both the NFC and AFC attempt to topple the postseason favorites that currently stand in their way. Although many fans are already anxious to be captivated by the well-known juggernauts in the Divisional Round, the Wild-Card round always offers plenty of unpredictable upsets as underappreciated franchises attempt to prove that their coveted playoff spots were well-earned. Even if your team failed to make the playoffs this year, there will still be a multitude of high-octane affairs that should satiate any disappointment for fans who have to watch their hated rivals compete for a highly coveted Super Bowl Title.
Tennessee Titans vs. Kansas City Chiefs
Time: Saturday, 4:20 PM E.T.
Location: Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Missouri
TV Channel: ESPN
Although it would be easy to postulate that the Kansas City Chiefs have the distinct edge in this contest as they have the better team on paper and home-field advantage, the competitive disparity between both of these franchises is actually much closer than you would think. Sure, the Tennessee Titans limped there way into the playoffs with a 9-7 record, but in their last three losses, the Titans lost by a combined score of just 12 points. With that being said, the Titans underrated defense has struggled to cover up for the deficiencies of third-year quarterback Marcus Mariota. Aside from throwing more interceptions than touchdowns this season (13 TD’s, 15 INT’s), Mariota has been inconsistent running the football as well, which was supposed to be one of his more promising attributes (312 rushing yards, 5.2 rushing yards per game, both career lows). Conversely, the Chiefs are red hot coming into the playoffs as they have scored 26 points or more and have held three out of their last four opponents to under 20 points during their last four games. With both Alex Smith and running back Kareem Hunt playing well down the stretch of the regular season, the Tennessee Titans will need running back Derrick Henrey to pick up the slack for an offense that has been wildly inconsistent all season. Although the defense of the Titans will keep this game relatively close, the electric playmakers of the Chiefs and the innovative play calling of head coach Andy Reid will eventually win out in front of a deafening and passionate fan base at home
Final Score: Titans 20 Chiefs 28 Spread: Kansas City -9.0
Atlanta Falcons vs. Los Angeles Rams
Time: Saturday, 8:15 PM E.T.
Location: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles, California
TV Channel: NBC
Arguably the most intriguing wild card matchup this weekend, the burgeoning defense of the Atlanta Falcons against the electric offense of the Los Angeles Rams should be an incredible sight to behold. Quitely allowing just 19.7 points per game, the physical defensive front of the Falcons has worked wonders against every opponent they have encountered. Despite the statistical regression of quarterback Matt Ryan (38 TD’s and 7 INT’s last season, 20 TD’s and 12 INT’s this season), the veteran passer has still been efficient and accurate from a macro perspective (64.7 CMP%). However, the offense of the Falcons has been at its best when running backs Tevin Coleman (628 rushing yards, five touchdowns) and Devonta Freeman (865 rushing yards, seven touchdowns) have been able to run wild on opposing defenses as both offensive weapons are equally proficient at catching and running the football. On the other side of the equation, the offensively supercharged Rams (29.8 PPG) are loaded with potent offensive weapons, the most notable of which is MVP candidate running back Todd Gurley (19 total touchdowns, over 2,00 all-purpose yards). Although the dominant play of Gurley has been the obvious catalyst for the Rams offensive success, it has also been the resurgence of quarterback Jared Goff that has allowed this team to be truly dynamic and unpredictable when moving the ball down the field towards the end zone (five touchdowns and seven interceptions last season, 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions this year). While the Rams have been one of the many surprise success stories in the NFL this year and have a prolific offense, the Falcons have established themselves as a dominant defensive team and should get enough production from both their rushing and passing games to escape Los Angeles with a shocking and well-deserved upset victory.
Final Score: Falcons 26 Rams 23 Spread: Los Angeles -6.5
Buffalo Bills vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
Time: Sunday, 1:05 PM E.T.
Location: EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Florida
TV Channel: CBS
Although the Buffalo Bills needed some help to earn themselves a coveted playoff berth, this team did what they had to do down the stretch as they won three out of their last four games. Unfortunately, the Bills final win of the regular season came with a steep price as running back LeSean McCoy sprained his ankle and will be a game-time decision come game day. While Buffalo does have some other notable playmakers in wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Charles Clay, they have struggled to pass the ball effectively throughout the season (176.6 PYPG) and have been overly reliant on their potent rushing game to carry them offensively (126.1 RYPG). Of course, it has been well-documented that the Jacksonville Jaguars have been one of the most efficient defenses this season (16.8 PAPG) as they have allowed just one opponent to score more than 30 points against them. However, even more surprising is the much-improved quarterback play of Blake Bortles, who has looked incredibly confident when locating his speedy receivers (7.05 yards per pass attempt). On top of that, the Jaguars rookie running back Leonard Fournette has been fearless in rushing the football between the tackles (8.4 yards per rushing attempt), which has allowed Bortles to be more effective as opposing defenses can longer tee off on him and forget about the running game. While Bills fans should be incredibly pleased that their team finally found a way to make it to the playoffs, this glorious euphoria will be short lived as Buffalo will struggle mightily to get anything going against the Jaguars stout defense even if McCoy is able to suit up and play on Sunday.
Final Score: Bills 13 Jaguars 27 Spread: Jacksonville -9.0
Carolina Panthers vs. New Orleans Saints
Time: Sunday, 4:40 PM E.T.
Location: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, Louisiana
TV Channel: FOX
Despite the current and consensus perception that the NFL is a quarterback and passer friendly league, the run-happy, defensively stout Carolina Panthers are winning in a slightly different fashion. Rushing for 131.3 yards per game (with quarterback Cam Newton being the Panthers leading rusher with 754 rushing yards), the Panthers have consistently imposed their will as a physical offense and have been able to win several close games as a result. However, if the Panthers hope to overcome the top-10 defense of the dominantly dynamic New Orleans Saints, they will need rookie running back Christian McCaffrey to be a prominent threat in the short passing game (8.1 yards per reception). Beyond New Orleans opportunistic defense, the Saints have emphatically established themselves as one of the most versatile offenses in the NFL with a relentless rushing attack (129.4 RYPG) and a potent albeit slightly less prolific passing game (261.8 PYPG). Despite quarterback Drew Brees throwing for less than 30 touchdowns for the first time since 2007, the Saints have received immense production from running backs Mark Ingram (1124 rushing yards, 12 rushing touchdowns) and rookie sensation Alvin Kamara (13 total touchdowns, over 1500 all-purpose yards) to elevate an already deadly offense (28 PPG). Although the Panthers have a physically gifted defense and arguably the most athletic quarterback in the NFL, the Saints have way more firepower on the offensive side of the football, something that even the impressively consistent defense of the Panthers will be unable to contain for very long.
Final Score: Panthers 27 Saints 31 Spread: New Orleans -7.0