Who are you picking to win the Wild Card games?

Posted Jan 5, 2018

Who are you picking to win the Wild Card games as the playoffs kickoff.



Tennessee (9-7) at Kansas City (10-6): The Titans are one of those teams who try to bring the game down to their level: their D makes you work for long drives by taking away the big play, while their O tries to control the ball with runs and short passes, figuring they will win the mistake game with you. The Chiefs are a big play team: Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill, Jason Kelce usually turning short or medium designs into long gains. Alex Smith keeps plays alive, and though he's thrown some very bad passes under pressure this year, and a few when not, he's been the same guy whose skills are hugely underrated by knockers while his flaws are seriously underlooked by boosters who think he's the league's MVP.

The Titans can match Adoree Jackson on Hill: he'll need help because you have to disrupt him at the line of scrimmage to stop the Chiefs' pnchant for tunnel and bubble screens. But I'd expect to see safety Kevin Byard keying on Kelce; they can't leave him to linebackers. Force the Chiefs to grind it out on you and you have a chance. On the other side of the ball, the Titans appear to have Derrick Henry set as the feature back: he is the kind of guy who needs a hole blocked for him, so he can build up a head of steam, at which point he's hard to bring down (Ron Dayne? Eddie George?) The Chiefs like to stunt and blitz, and the Titans can punish you if they catch you stunting one way and they're running Henry the other. If the Titans can put their stamp on the game it may take only one big play from Henry or maybe Delanie Walker to win it; Marcus Mariota has looked limited both physcially and by the offense this year: closer to Tyrod Taylor than to even Alex Smith. Arrowhead is a tough place to go into and win, and the Chiefs are a better team than most of those the Titans have beaten. Pick: Chiefs

Atlanta (10-6) at LA Rams (11-5): Can we put one hoary idea behind us right away? There is no 'Super Bowl Hangover'. Shut up about it! Are the amateur psychologists in the pundiariat seriously asking us to believe that 53 players, 10 practice squadders, 22 coaches (yes, they have 22) and however many front office people are involved, many of whom were not even with the team last year and all of whom are relatively fully-functioning adults, are so traumatised by a loss that they are doomed to win THREE fewer games than last year? Give me a break. Remember, the Falcons' schedule got tougher due to winning their division; they lost their offensive coordinator and whatever else, Matt Ryan has always seemed to take time to adjust going right back to college (and Steve Logan), and many of the breaks and lack of injuries that accompany a Super Bowl run, went the other way this year. Remember, it was a late season blossoming of a young defense which propelled Atlanta to the Super Bowl (think Colts in 2009) and that group has performed differently, if not less effectively this year. Last year they averaged 33.8 points per game. You'll recall my writing New England could win the Super Bowl if they held the Falcons to 28 (in fact they held the Falcons' O to 21). And so, improbably, they did.

Meanwhile, the Rams are this year's Falcons. Especially on offense where Sean McVay, like Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta, has the league's highest scoring offense, without a Ryan, or Julio Jones. He does have Todd Gurley, who should be the league's offensive player of the year, and like Shanahan he schemes his players into good matchups, open spots where Jared Goff can generate yardage. Their O line, with the addition of Andrew Whitworth, has been much better, and their defense, now coached by Wade Phillips, is a lot like the Falcons' last year, except Atlanta didn't have an Aaron Donald, who should be the league's defensive player of the year.

The key matchup to watch will be Julio Jones vs Trumaine Johnson. Jones can win that one on one but I can't imagine Wade not giving Johnson some help over the top. That would put pressure on Matt Ryan to get more use of his running backs as receivers, something they've not done as well as last year. In general they've had more short passing plays, which means Wade's outside backers will have their work cut out for them. Devonta Freeman and Ben Garland, who starts at guard for Andy Levitre could be their key players; while Alec Ogletree, who's from just outside Atlanta and went to Georgia, is the guy to watch in the middle of that 3-4 D for the Rams. Home field advantage in the cavernous Coliseum hasn't been great for the Rams (4-4 at home 7-1 on the road; the only loss to Minnesota; while Atlanta was 5-3 both home and away) but somehow I can't see McVay leaving his team floundering here. The Rams have seen Dan Quinn's D twice this year with Seattle, and ought to be able to rise to the occasion. Pick: Rams


Buffalo (9-7) at Jacksonville (10-6): Marcel Dareus Bowl! This is probably the toughest game of the weekend to pick, because we don't really know which Shady McCoy will show up; he's walking on his sprained ankle but whether he will be able to run effectively on it we won't know until gametime. We also don't know which Jaggernaut will show up, or more accurately which Blake Bortles (and Nathaniel Hackett). The loss in Santa Clara may be seen as an aberration, but the one last week in Nashville was more worrying, because they held the Titans to 15 but could only put 10 on the board themselves. Buffalo are a puzzle: Tyrod Taylor frustrates the team by the things he doesn't see on the field, but his passing caution also means he doesn't turn the ball over as Bortles might. He won't find his receivers easily: the Jags' secondary as been as big a reason for the explosion of sacks, certainly as much as the addition of Calais Campbell. It's been feat or famine sack wise for the Jags; keeping Taylor in the pocket is a big key to controlling the Bills, and on the other side of the ball, Tre'Davious White and company won't be threatened by the Jags' rookie pair of Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole. Marqise Lee is on track to play, which helps because he's the most effective in the medium-range attack. How will Leonard Fournette react to his first playoff game? How will the Jags use him? Why isn't Chris Ivory getting snaps? Those are my big questions: I want to see the Jags mix it up on offense, not get predictable and try to beat the Bills with a ball control game. I know that sounds like 'put the game in Blake Bortles' hands' and that makes me sound crazy, but offensively, it's only when they've put defenses off-balance that they've functioned best. Pick: Jags

Carolina (11-5) at New Orleans (11-5): There is another hoary old adage about how hard it is to beat a time three times in a season. But that ignores the idea that you've been able to beat a team twice and unless something changes you ought to be able to do it again. I am told that in the last 20 times NFL teams have met in this situation, the two-game winners are 13-7. On the one hand that's impressive. On the other hand it isn't as impressive as the 40-0 those teams had already run up, so let's get real.

The Saints have beaten the Panthers twice because they have been able to run the ball reasonably well against what is a very good front seven, and because the Panthers haven't been able to threaten their secondary much (and that was without Marshon Lattimore). Carolina stay in their base D more than any team in the league, which allows Sean Payton to seek out mis-matches, and the success of their running has been because he's drawn those excellent linebackers away from the box and then attacked their spots. I don't see any reason why the Saints can't continue to do that. None of their receivers will frighten the Panthers, but the Saints' pass game comes from those schemes, and the fact that both Kamara and Ingram can catch the ball makes it easier for Drew Brees to find other targets. If Josh Hill were more of a receiving tight end (not a criticism of him) the O might be a nightmare for defenses.

Meanwhile Cam Newton is closest thing to a single-wing tailback the league has seen since when? When Billy Kilmer was in the shotgun for the 49ers? Or Spec Sanders and Ace Parker for the 1946 AAFC New York football Yankees? Cam's a throwback in this system: they will run him and let him throw and wait for the big plays, while hoping someone else can make at least one (Jonathan 'Late Show' Stewart's 60 yard run against the Vikings for example). I'd like the Saints' chances better if this were an AJ Klein Bowl; the former Panther backup linebacker, who saw plenty of action when Luke Kuechley and Thomas Davis were injured, was lost for the season, and he was the defense's lynch-pin, especially against his old team. The Saints have survived other injuries (Anzalone, Vaccaro) to their D, and they should be able to get through this one at home. Last week, in what was a chaotic week 17 prediction wise, I did pick the Panthers and the Saints to lose; this week it's only Carolina. Pick: Saints



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