It's Wildcard Weekend. Time for our NFL picks ATS! Four NFL teams - the Bills, the Jaguars, the Rams, and the Titans - end very lengthy Playoff droughts. All four are in action for Wildcard Weekend, along with the Chiefs, the Falcons, the Panthers, and the Saints. We discussed all the interesting storylines for the weekend, along with our picks for league MVP, and some thoughts on NFL Black Monday on the podcast so check it out. By this time next week, half of these eight teams will be home and we'll be on to the Divisional Round. First let's take a look at what to expect this weekend. Here we go! All the picks, previews, and commentary you need from The Football Pod:
***These are Wednesday morning lines for Wildcard Weekend. If you pick later in the week and need help with adjusted lines just find me on twitter, and I'll help you out. That's what friends are for!***
Tennessee (+9) @ Kansas City:
This is that first game of the weekend, that for whatever reason, has been mostly awful in recent years. It normally involved the Bengals or Texans. And sometimes, the Chiefs. So here they are again, this time hosting the Titans to kick off the postseason. After beating New England at Foxboro in the NFL's Thursday Night season opener, then proceeding to start the season 5-0, Chiefs fans were hoping for a first round bye rather than hosting a game at Arrowhead. But KC promptly dropped six of their next seven games. Then the Chiefs got back to playing a little more like they did at the beginning of the season to win four straight. It's a strange route to a 10-6 season and an AFC West division title, but it's much better than missing the Playoffs altogether. The Chiefs strong finish included what was essentially a division title game win over the Chargers a few weeks ago when LA was playing great football. So it'll be interesting to see how competitive KC can be next week in Pittsburgh or New England. First, they have to take care of business against the Titans. Vegas expects as much as evidenced by the huge spread. KAM pointed out on the podcast this week that Tennessee is one of two Playoff teams this year with a negative points differential. The Titans have actually allowed their opponents to score 22 more points than they have. (The Bills are the other such team with a worse differential, at negative-57...) This is a telling stat. It means the Titans are capable of beating enough bad teams to get to the nine wins they needed to secure this Wildcard spot. But they're also susceptible to being blown out. Check out their schedule and you'll find plenty of single digit wins over bad teams and a couple blowout losses. The Titans beat one Playoff team this year: The Jaguars, who they beat twice, although the second win was a meaningless Week 17 game for Jacksonville. Other than that win, the Titans have been mostly losing as of late. They've lost three of four and along with their negative points differential, they have a minus-four number for turnover margin. Tennessee is also ranked in the bottom half of the league for scoring offense and total offense. So do the Titans do anything well? Sort of. They do have a great defensive unit, but they do defend the run pretty well. Tennessee had the fourth best run defense in the NFL this year, allowing less than 90 yards per game (YPG) on the ground. That's a great number and run defense is generally something that can travel pretty well. Arrowhead should be an awesome atmosphere on Saturday afternoon, but I think Tennessee will have some success bottling up Kareem Hunt early. But the bad news for the Titans is that even if they force Alex Smith to beat them, he should come through. Smith's had arguably the best year of his career. He led the league with a 104.7 passer rating. He's also been pretty decent throughout his career in the postseason. He's thrown 12 career touchdowns to only 2 picks. That hasn't always translated to wins, but Smith is facing a below average Tennessee secondary here. The Titans will have trouble containing both Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. And even if Smith reverts to some of his conservative habits, the Chiefs can afford a slow start. The Titans won't be putting up a bunch of points anyway. Smith can wait for the big play(s) if necessary and take his shots when they're available. At some point he'll find his receivers and that will also soften up the Titans run defense. We could see plenty of Hunt in the second half as the Chiefs pull away and the Titans defense tires from being on the field too much. It's a big number but take the Chiefs to cover:
***Sam's Football History Lesson: The 2017 Chiefs have joined the 1981 San Diego Chargers as the only teams in NFL history to produce a 4,000 yard passer (Smith), a 1,000 yard rusher (Hunt), a 1,000 yard receiver (Hill), and a 1,000 yard tight end (Kelce). Their Chargers predecessors are Pro Football Hall-of-Famers Dan Fouts, Kellen Winslow, and Charlie Joiner, and former Pro Bowl MVP Chuck Muncie.***
Atlanta (+7) @ Los Angeles:
A year ago, Matt Ryan was league MVP and the Atlanta Falcons cruised past the two dominant teams of the NFC over the past decade - Seattle and Green Bay - en route to the Super Bowl. There, the Falcons enjoyed a big lead... Okay, we all know the story. No need to beat a dead horse. But I do think it's impressive that Atlanta found a way to get back to the Playoffs. The Falcons lost their offensive coordinator that was clearly responsible for so much of their recent success, they endured some ups and downs this year, and they also had to compete in what became the NFL's best division in 2017. The NFC South sent three teams to the postseason, a feat that's only been accomplished six times since NFL realignment in 2002. It's the first time this has happened since the AFC West sent three teams in 2013. Because Atlanta had to compete with two 11 win teams in its own division this season (Carolina and New Orleans), and because of the coaching changes and the Super Bowl hangover, I think it says a lot about the Falcons to get back to the Playoffs. But what comes next? Can Ryan show us that his 2016 MVP was more about him and not just the system that Atlanta ran last year? That remains to be seen, but he can disprove his doubters with a big game in the LA Coliseum on Saturday night.
The Rams, of course, will have something to say about that too. LA's offense under first year coach Sean McVay has been nearly unstoppable, and the Rams seem to be getting better and peaking at the perfect time. They sat several starters last week in a meaningless game for them and that dropped their scoring average to only 29.9 points per game (PPG). They may have just missed out on a 30 PPG season, but they still led the NFL in scoring. And prior to shutting it down in Week 17, LA had scored 32.4 PPG in their previous five outings. Behind a solid line and the improved play of quarterback Jared Goff, it's difficult to pinpoint a weakness for the Rams on offense. The centerpiece of the attack is Todd Gurley, the running back who famously won many fantasy football championships over the last few weeks. Gurley has put up unbelievable numbers, but the Falcons may present the toughest competition that he's seen in several weeks. Quietly, Atlanta has a top ten scoring defense, giving up only 19.7 PPG in 2017. The Falcons also bring their top ten rushing defense to LA this weekend. Gurley can hurt opponents out of the backfield too; that's no secret after his ten catch performance a couple weeks ago. But the Falcons are ranked top ten in total defense too. They're not the Vikings or the Jaguars, but the Falcons are a decent unit on that side of the ball. I'd argue they're definitely better than they were a year ago. But that's been lost this year as more attention has been paid to the Falcons offensive struggles. Atlanta won't shut down Gurley and the LA offense here, but I do expect them to get some stops and surprise some people that haven't seen many of their games this year. If they can get the Rams into third-and-long situations early, can they get after Jared Goff and rattle him in his first ever Playoff game? It's possible. The Falcons aren't great at getting to the quarterback but they're decent. They got 2.4 sacks per game this year. Containing Gurley is easier said than done, but if the Falcons can do that, they may have some luck getting after Goff and/or forcing him into some bad throws. Don't sleep on this matchup.
Offensively, Atlanta wasn't that bad this year. They just didn't live up to their 2016 numbers. They miss Kyle Shanahan, of course, but they still have all of the critical personnel pieces in place from a year ago. The Rams have a good, but far from great, defense. They finished ranked 13th in scoring defense but only 19th in total defense. Their rushing defense can be a liability. They gave up over 120 YPG on the ground this year. Expect Atlanta to try and get both Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman plenty of looks early. LA has the better superstar back in Gurley, but Atlanta's duo is pretty darn good. I think they'll have their chances here. Combine that with their sneaky good, under-the-radar defense and I like the Falcons chances. They're also the defending champs in the conference. I don't know if Playoff experience matters, but if it does, it favors Atlanta. Plus the Falcons have a chip on their shoulder. Add it all up and I think a touchdown is too much. Falcons to cover:
Buffalo (+9.5) @ Jacksonville:
We heard a lot of whining about a lot of things in 2017, sports and beyond. But two cities that aren't complaining are Buffalo and Jacksonville. Bills fans endured a 17 years long Playoff drought. Not to be outdone, the Jaguars have gone 17 seasons they last hosted a Playoff game. And Jacksonville no-showed the last decade of January football altogether. Now both teams make their Playoffs re-debuts. The fan bases couldn't be happier, and it's awesome for them. But will the players simply be happy to be there? Or are they showing up for this meeting in Jacksonville intent on advancing to the Divisional Round? We discussed this topic on the podcast this week, and I think if these were college teams, that may be a possible problem. But because they're professionals and because both teams are well-coached, I expect their best efforts.
But efforts shouldn't be confused with results, and if the Bills stand any chance here, they'll have to put forth their best outing of the season. As discussed, Buffalo has the worst points differential number of any Playoff team this year, at negative-57. Points differential is generally a telling stat and the Bills rank 21st in the league in this category. They're fortunate to play in the weaker AFC; they would not have been a Playoff team with a 9-7 record in the NFC. But that's not Buffalo's fault. They played the schedule that was put in front of them and did enough to get in. Getting in and beating this Jacksonville defense is another story. The Bills may be without LeSean McCoy, as his injury status is still uncertain. Whether McCoy can go or not, Tyrod Taylor will need to be at his absolute best. We've seen Taylor's limitations over the past few years in Buffalo. He's had some great games against lesser opponents but generally struggles against better ones. Give him credit though for rarely turning the ball over. Taylor has only thrown four picks all season. As a result, the Bills have an excellent turnover margin for the season at +0.6 per game. That ties them with Jaguars for the fifth best number in the league. Buffalo arrived at the number by not turning the ball over. Jacksonville got there by forcing turnovers. The Jaguars forced so many that it compensated for the fact that they can be turnover-prone, themselves. Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles threw 13 interceptions this year. I don't expect either quarterback to single-handedly win this game. But the one that avoids costly mistakes may put their defense in the best situation throughout the day. In this battle of less than stellar quarterbacks, I actually give Taylor and the Bills the advantage. The Jacksonville defense will be great. But I trust Taylor to avoid catastrophic errors. I'm not sure we can say the same for Bortles. In what could easily be a field position battle of attrition, I actually like the Bills chances. They've played that game several times this year. Against great offenses (like New England), Buffalo can't sustain it long enough to win. But against Bortles and Jacksonville, Buffalo can settle in for a long, ugly affair. Bills to cover a number that's way too big for two postseason newcomers:
Carolina (+7) @ New Orleans:
The NFL decided to make this game the marquee matchup of Wildcard Weekend, in the Sunday 4:25 Eastern time slot. I couldn't agree more. Earlier this year when I wrote about the Dallas-Green Bay rivalry, I emphasized that Playoff rivalries don't typically involve division rivals. They just don't meet up in the postseason enough. So it's a treat when they do. It's also fun when one of the teams already won both regular season meetings. Then we debate whether the previous winner clearly has matchup advantages, or if the loser is due since it's so difficult to beat the same team three times in one season. In this case, New Orleans appears to be the better team this year. The Saints not only won both regular season games, but they won big by a combined scored of 65-34. If Carolina had managed to split the series then this game would be in Charlotte. But thanks to the sweep the Saints get to stay home, where they've been excellent all year. Unlike disappointing previous seasons in New Orleans, the Saints have committed to defense this year. New Orleans is top ten in scoring defense, turnovers forced per game, and turnover margin. On Sunday the Saints will have an awesome home field advantage thanks to the crowd in the Superdome. If Carolina comes out like they did in Atlanta last week in a similar environment, this game may be over early. Cam Newton was especially awful, missing his first nine passes and throwing three picks on the day. Despite a decent defensive effort, Carolina was never really in that game. They'll need to be much better on offense in New Orleans. It starts with Newton. As discussed on the pod this week, we know Newton is great and we've known that since he led Auburn to the national title in 2010. But wouldn't it be great if we saw it on a consistent basis? As a fan, I hope we get the awesome version of Cam on Sunday. The Saints have a done a lot of things well on defense this year but when it comes to run defense, they're very average. The Panthers, meanwhile, have the fourth best rushing offense in the NFL, going for over 131 YPG. Carolina should look to exploit this matchup and Cam should be part of the attack. He led all quarterbacks in rushing yards this year and that should part of the game plan for Sunday. He's a better quarterback when he's hurting opponents on the ground and through the air, both. If Carolina can get him going, they've got a shot.
Defensively, the Panthers have an equally difficult task: Stop Drew Brees and the new-look Saints offense that relies on the run first. The Panthers were very good stopping the run this year, only giving up 88.1 YPG on the ground. That was good for third-best in the NFL. They'll be put to the test against the Saints top five rushing offense. But even if Carolina can bottle up Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, New Orleans can still lean on Brees. He may not be the Saints entire offense anymore, but he can still do anything they need at any time. That the Saints quarterback finished second in the NFL in passer rating this year, and he's their fallback plan in case the run game gets stifled, is a tremendous luxury. The Saints didn't need to rely on that luxury in either of their wins over the Panthers this year. When the teams met for the first time in September, New Orleans ran for 149 yards and controlled the clock. In the December rematch the Saints ran for 148 yards and held the ball for almost seven minutes longer than the Panthers. They had a game plan that they were able to consistently execute in both meetings. The Panthers knew what was coming and couldn't stop it. And again, they have Brees playing quarterback if and when they need a plan B. They'll execute again on Sunday. Saint to cover the touchdown at home:
College Football National Championship: Alabama (-3.5) vs Georgia, from Atlanta, Georgia:
If you've been reading our site this year, you know we like College Football as much as we do the NFL. We pick the games all year but don't do a lot with the Bowls since they're just glorified exhibitions. The Bowl games are a lot of fun, but it's difficult to know which teams will show up without conference championships or tangible postseason results on the line. The College Football Playoff (CFP), however, is another story. It's an all-SEC affair this year, and despite what you may have read elsewhere, that's perfectly fine. Clemson, the ACC champion, had their chance to knock off Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day. Oklahoma, the Big 12 champ, had their shot at Georgia in the Rose Bowl. Neither could do it. The SEC sent two teams to the Final 4 and both advanced. Both of these SEC schools deserved their shot in the CFP and both made the most of it. Kudos to both for making it this far. For another week, both will continue to enjoy the journey.
On Monday the journey ends and Alabama will come out on top. Georgia coach Kirby Smart is a former assistant to Alabama coach Nick Saban. Smart has done exceptionally well in his first two years as a head coach at Georgia. But history tells us that Saban's former assistants last beat him in a head-to-head meeting... never. Saban is 11-0 against former assistants. For Smart to buck that trend, Georgia will need to be excellent running the ball. That's how they've excelled on offense all year. But Alabama will commit to stopping the run and they'll have success early. In the Sugar Bowl, Alabama limited Clemson to 64 yards on the ground. They may not be as dominant against Georgia, but expect a similar effort. Then in obvious passing downs, it will be difficult for Georgia's true freshman quarterback, Jake Fromm, to convert. Fromm has been good this year. He may be great as soon as next year. Just not against Alabama on Monday night. Georgia has enough talent on defense to keep them in this game. But Alabama will eventually wear them down and pull away in the second half. Crimson Tide to cover and roll to their fifth national title in the last nine years:
|Sam's Play:||Crimson Tide|
|KAM's Play:||Crimson Tide|
|Payton's Play:||Crimson Tide|
|Rick's Play:||Crimson Tide|
|Greg's Play:||Crimson Tide|
|Jeremy's Play:||Crimson Tide|
Did you like our NFL picks this week? Hate the picks? Want to play along and teach us how to pick? Let our experts know what you think:
|Sam finally had a decent season in 2016 and hit a 55% success rate on his NFL picks. So your best bet is to fade his picks this year. It won't hurt his feelings.|
|The voice of thefootballpod.com, KAM's so good that she's been known to pick both NFL and college games. She'll share her picks as long as you don't trash talk her Packers.|
|Need power picks and the power sweep, both? Then look no further than Kevin's picks. This Western Pennsylvania football product knows the game as well as anyone.|
|She's not only the best bartender in town, but #PaytonsPicks set the pace in 2016, to the tune of a 56% success rate! Catch her if you can. Or just wisely follow her picks.|
|He's our resident Cowboys expert, so you'll hear from Rick a lot this year. As for his picks, #RicksLocks are as money as Dallas playing as the one seed in the NFC Playoffs.|
|Founder of theredbeat.com, and a contributor at turnonthejets.com, Greg is the newest member of the team. He's the biggest Jets fan we know (and willing to admit it...)|
|After making the rounds on the podcast circuit for years, we finally have our Kansas City Chiefs expert weighing in, writing columns, and picking games. So pay attention!|
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