It is hard to believe that we are but five short weeks away from the end of another NFL season. No fewer than 24 teams are inactive this weekend – four because they won post-season byes and the other 20 because they were too rubbish to make the post-season at all. That leaves just four wildcard games for us to look forward to.
Crazy though it seems, this is probably the best weekend of the entire NFL season. There is none of the hype of the Superbowl, or even the Conference Championship games. Nor is there the predictability of the Divisional Round, where the best two sides from each conference play at home, having had a week off, against teams who may only have played six days before. No, in terms of ‘anything could happen – and probably will’-ness, Wild Card Weekend is where it is at – and this year probably more so than ever.
To put it bluntly, any one of these eight teams could win this weekend. But, equally, any one of them could collapse in an embarrassing heap long before half-time. Each tie is a delicious prospect in so many ways. Here’s what to expect.
Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs (9.35pm)
The Titans staggered into the playoffs like an exhausted marathon runner crossing the finish line, a win over the Jaguars in the final game of the season securing both their place and coach Mike Mularkey‘s continued employment, whilst at the same time ending a three game losing streak. That they almost squandered a 12-3 half time lead in the process only adds to the unpredictability of this contect.
By contrast, the Chiefs started and ended the season in blistering form. It was just the bit in the middle, where Andy Reid‘s side sagged like a failed souffle, that makes you wonder about their durability, to fear that the wheels could come off again at any moment.
It’s a coach on rocky ground (Mularkey) against one with one of the safest jobs in football (Reid). It’s a third year quarterback who has yet to convince the doubters, Marcus Mariota, against an established veteran who has yet to convince the doubters, Alex Smith. It’s a pair of dynamic young running backs in Kareem Hunt (Chiefs) and Derrick Henry (Titans). What more could you want?
Prediction: Chiefs by 12
Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams (1.15am Sunday Morning)
The Rams weren’t supposed to be here. After the disaster of 2016, the departure of Jeff Fisher and the introduction of a rookie head coach in Sean McVay, this was supposed to be a season of consolidation. Instead, they won the NFC West by two clear games, turned Jared Goff into a top rank quarterback, found an offensive line that could actually block for Todd Gurley, and unearthed possibly the next great undersized slot receiver in Cooper Kupp. Oh, and they had, by general acclaim, the best special teams unit in the NFL, too.
It seemed to take some time for the Falcons to get over Superbowl LI. For much of the season they struggled to get above 0.500 and it wasn’t until a victory in Seattle in Week 11 that they began to look more like themselves. Matt Ryan remains as enigmatic as ever, and the one-two punch of running back duo Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman (when both have been fit) is a potent one. The defense, though, has been below last year’s standards, with Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett, in particular, struggling to live up to the reputations that they earned themselves.
Experience could be key here, though. The Falcons have been through all of this before, whilst the young Rams roster has limited post-season experience. Los Angeles will also be missing ‘Legatron’, Greg Zuerlein, after the kicker was placed on injured reserve with a herniated disc a couple of weeks ago. Losing someone who pings over 45-yard field goals for fun could be a big loss in a tight game.
Prediction: Falcons by 6
Buffalo Bills at Jacksonville Jaguars (6.05pm)
Twelve months ago, you would have assumed that anyone who predicted this match-up was still drunk from New Year’s Eve. Both have made it this far pretty much in spite of themselves. The Bills’ ill-fated dalliance with Nathan Peterman as their starting quarterback could easily have cost them their playoff berth in the long run, but they held on to sneak into the playoffs in the final game of the season. Tyrod Taylor bounced back well from his ignominious benching, but this will be a tough ask for them. Over the regular season, they had the 29th ranked offense (31st in passing yards) and 26th ranked defense. They’ve basically ridden here on the back of the continued brilliance of LeSean McCoy (they are ranked 6th in rushing) and a good deal of luck.
The Jaguars’ success this season can be put down to two things – rookie running back Leonard Fournette, and the fact that halfway through the season Blake Bortles suddenly started playing like an NFL quarterback. Add into the mix the swarming defense, led by presumptive defensive MVP Calais Campbell and with the shutdown cornerback combo of Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye, and you have an team which has just grown in strength as the season has gone on.
If any game is going to be one-sided this weekend, it ought t be this one. The Jags just seem to have too many weapons for for this Bills team. But we’ve seen odd things happen in this round before and if Buffalo’s ground game gets going there isn’t a defense in the NFL that can stop McCoy.
Prediction: Jaguars by 15
Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints (9.40pm)
The NFL’s schedulers appear to have saved the best for last. Cam Newton visiting Drew Brees? Ron Rivera gambling against Sean Payton? What’s not to love? Well…
The two sides have met twice already this season, and the Saints won both games by a comfortable margin. They have the second ranked offense in the NFL and their running back duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara (widely favoured to be the offensive rookie of the year) has, at times, been unstoppable.
The Panthers, of course, have their own ground game. Jonathan Stewart is a wily veteran. Christian McCaffrey has grown in stature as the season has gone on. And then, of course, there’s Cam himself. However, whilst they can compete in that part of the game, and whilst the two defences are ranked in the top 20, the real difference is in the passing game. Carolina are only 28th, whereas the Saints, with the brilliance of Brees and the threat of Michael Thomas, rank 5th. Whilst other teams have shown that they can handle this threat, the Panthers have twice shown that they can’t, and it is only a month since they gave up four touchdowns in the Superdome.
Prediction: Saints by 10