The NFL playoffs officially begin this weekend with the Wild Card Round. Four games make up Wild Card Weekend. In this special post on Charm City Bird Watch, we will break down each matchup. Each game includes a 100-word blurb and a score prediction from founder Jake McDonnell, and contributors Nolan McGraw, Tyler Feeser, and Vasilios Nikolaou.
Saturday, Jan. 6
Image Credit: KC Kingdom
AFC: #5 Tennessee Titans (9-7) @ #4 Kansas City Chiefs (10-6) – 4:35 pm – ESPN/ABC
Jake: The AFC Wild Card round is really underwhelming. All four teams in the AFC playing this weekend don’t pose any legitimate threats against the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
However, its nice to see some new teams in the AFC Wild Card slots. The Titans limped their way into the playoffs and have been up-and-down all season. The Chiefs started off as one of the hottest teams in the NFL, but then proceeded to lose six of their next seven games. They did end the season 4-0, and I believe that trend will continue on Saturday. Neither team has a game-changing unit, but I believe the playoff experience of Alex Smith and Andy Reid outmatches the inexperience of Marcus Mariota and the Titans.
This week, the Jon Gruden Raiders rumors added another element to this game. Despite publicly stating that he will likely become the next head coach of the Raiders, Gruden will call this game. Some have criticized Gruden for holding the Raiders up, but Gruden had prior commitments to calling this game and he wants to honor them. Enjoy what will probably be Gruden’s last game in the booth for a long time.
Pick: Chiefs 24, Titans 20
Nolan: Andy Reid’s Chiefs got off to an extremely hot start by winning five games in a row while averaging over 32 points a game. They followed this up with an abysmal stretch before pulling themselves together for a strong finish and a division title. Because their season was such a rollercoaster, it’s difficult to get a read on the Chiefs but they are certainly favored over the visiting Titans. Tennessee is just not a threatening team. They dropped three of their last four but still got into the playoff mix with a win this past Sunday. The Chiefs have the coaching and enough playoff experience to pick up a Wild Card win over a Tennessee team that has been very shaky on the road.
Pick: Chiefs 27, Titans 19
Tyler: When Tennessee travels to Kansas City they will be making their first playoff appearance since 2008 and will look for their first playoff win since 2003. Kansas City, on the other hand, has been in the playoffs the past two seasons and three of the last four. Kansas City will come in hot, winners of their last four games. Tennessee comes in winning their last game of the season, but they dropped the previous three games. The Titans don’t look like a traditional playoff team and quite frankly were aided by a weak AFC. I don’t expect this to be a lopsided game but the Titans will be overmatched. The loss of Eric Berry will lead to a big game for Delanie Walker but a subpar offensive line and too many offensive weapons for Kansas City will lead to the demise of Tennessee.
Pick: Chiefs 24, Titans 13
Vasilios : The Tenessee Titans limp into the AFC playoffs being the weakest team to make it in. If the Titans had lost the final game of the season against the Jacksonville Jaguars (who are also in the playoffs), head coach Mike Mularkey and his patented “Exotic Smashmouth” offense would’ve been out the door without much of a thought.
The Kansas City Chiefs have something to prove, showing that they are one of the more tenacious teams in the league with a slate of impressive wins this season to show for it. Head Coach Andy Reid may have found his QB of the future in rookie Patrick Mahomes who is just waiting for seasoned veteran Alex Smith to make a mistake.
Pick: Chiefs 28, Titans 10
Image Credit: SITNews
NFC: #6 Atlanta Falcons (10-6) @ #3 Los Angeles Rams (11-5) – 8:15 pm – NBC
Jake: If you listened to the latest episode of the Ebony Bird Podcast this week, you’ll know that I originally picked the Rams to win this game. I’m going to change that pick and go with Atlanta. I did not realize that the Rams went 4-4 at home this season. That’s concerning. The Falcons also have one of the fastest defenses in the NFL that I believe can contain Jared Goff. Todd Gurley may take off for 100+ yards in this game, but the Falcons should be able to limit Goff.
Matt Ryan and the Flacons have not forgotten their 28-3 blown lead against the Patriots in Super Bowl 51. They are still angry about it. Their road to the Super Bowl will have to take place all on the road, but the Falcons are much more battle-tested than the Rams. In my book, the experience of Ryan, Devonta Freeman, and Julio Jones will outmatch whatever Sean McCoy and the Rams draw up.
Pick: Falcons 34, Rams 30
Nolan: At just 23 years of age, Jared Goff and Todd Gurley have helped the Rams win their first division title since 2003. They are one of the more inexperienced teams in this year’s playoff pool but their resume is still strong. The Rams averaged a league high 29.9 points a game this season but do they have the poise to hold off a Falcons team with a chip on their shoulder? Atlanta managed to claw their way into the postseason and we all know they want to do nothing but avenge their loss in last year’s Super Bowl. I can see this one being a shootout but I am going with the Falcons. They know what is at stake here and their experience can give them an edge over a younger Rams team.
Pick: Falcons 35, Rams 31
Tyler: The defending NFC champs snuck their way into the playoffs with a week 17 win and look to return to the Super Bowl. If they do they would be the first NFC team to repeat since the 2013-2014 Seahawks. It wont be an easy feat though. The NFC is very tough this year and is anyone’s conference to win. The Falcons start their playoff run in Los Angeles this week against the Rams. The Rams will be playing their first home playoff game in L.A. since 1986. The key for Atlanta is going to be stopping Todd Gurley and Jared Goff. The Falcons defense will need to play like it did during their 2016 Super Bowl run in order to beat the Rams’ high-powered offense. The Rams have too many offensive weapons and have the defense to shut down Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Devonta Freeman. I do think that the Falcons will be able to keep pace for a while but the Rams will pull out a win in the end.
Pick: Rams 31, Falcons 23
Vasilios: Atlanta is one of the very few teams to make it back to the playoffs after partaking in the Super Bowl last season but they have a glaring Kyle Shanahan-shaped hole in their organization. Quarterback Matt Ryan has regressed slightly this season, and once again Julio Jones turns into Houdini in big spots. The Super Bowl hangover is still lingering for this squad.
What can I possibly say about the LA Rams that hasn’t been said already? Sean McVay looks like the next great NFL head coach after tapping into the seemingly bottomless talent of quarterback Jared Goff and serious MVP candidate – running back Todd Gurley. The addition of Wade Philips as a defensive coordiantor will go down as one of the best hires in recent history. Rams to the Super Bowl, calling it now.
Pick: Rams 35, Falcons 21
Sunday, Jan. 7
Image Credit: Bleacher Report
AFC: #6 Buffalo Bills (9-7) @ #3 Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) – 1:05 pm – CBS
Jake: I’m changing another pick.
I would like to start by saying that I think this game will be a lot closer than most people think. I know this is the first playoff experience for the Jaguars in 10 years, but the Bills’ playoff drought was much longer. They also have one of the most passionate fanbases in the NFL, where the Jaguars have one of the least passionate fanbases. This could turn into a favorable crowd for the Bills before the game even begins.
I know that the Bills’ offense does not match up well against the Jaguars defense, but let’s not forget how bad Blake Bortles looked the past two weeks against Tennessee and San Francisco. The Bills have the 29th-ranked run defense in the NFL this season. All the Jaguars need to do is feed Leonard Fournette the ball and they will win the game. Keep the ball out of Bortles’ hands. The loss of LeSean McCoy is a killer for the Bills. He practiced on Thursday, but a sprained ankle for a running back is not promising. I expect Shady to be very limited. That will put more pressure on Tyrod Taylor and Buffalo’s limited receiving core, and the Bills’ playoff resurgence will collapse quickly.
Pick: Jaguars 24, Bills 13
Nolan: If you’re someone who is getting tired of same NFL playoff scenarios every year, this is the matchup for you. Both The Bills and Jaguars managed to make the playoffs this year, breaking two of the longest active playoff droughts. Jacksonville has spent the last decade outside the postseason while Buffalo has waited 17 years. The Jaguars may have backed into the postseason and they lack playoff experience, but they have the pieces to be a legitimate threat in the coming weeks. Leonard Fournette helped the Jags average a league-high 141 rushing yards per game and the defense was arguably the best in the AFC.
Pick: Jaguars 23, Bills 17
Tyler: The Bills and the Jaguars will both break long playoff droughts when they meet this weekend in Jacksonville. Buffalo will make its first playoff appearance since 1999 (haven’t won a playoff game since 1995). Jacksonville will be making its first playoff appearance since 2007, the year of their last playoff win. The Bills, like the Titans, were aided by a weak AFC. They don’t look like a playoff team and on paper this matchup looks like a complete mismatch. Buffalo has the league’s fourth worst rush defense while Jacksonville leads the league in offensive rushing yards per game. I fully expect the Jags to run the ball all afternoon. The Jaguars coaching staff knows that they can’t win a Super Bowl by relying on Blake Bortles. They have to establish the running game early and rely on their stout defense. That will start this weekend. From Buffalo’s perspective it will come down to LeSean McCoy’s health. If he is able to play I think they can make a few plays but still not enough to squeak out a win. If McCoy can’t go, this could get ugly.
Pick: Jaguars 31, Bills 10
Vasilios: Man, I have had a few Bills fans rub in my face that they took the Ravens spot in the playoffs. But despite all of that, I like Tyrod Taylor and think the Bills are a solid team. But not solid enough to take on the likes of Jacksonville. Especially not when running back LeSean McCoy, who suffered a high ankle sprain last week, isn’t at 100%. #BillsMafia’s excitement will be very short lived.
The Jags had a tough ending to the season, losing to the San Francisco Garoppolos (49ers) in week 16 and the Titans in week 17. This will be the week for their defense to reassert their dominance and put Jacksonville back on the map for the first time since Mark Brunell threw passes to Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith.
Pick: Jaguars 17, Bills 0
Image Credit: Where Y’at Magazine
NFC: #5 Carolina Panthers (11-5) @ #4 New Orleans Saints (11-5) – 4:40 pm – FOX
Jake: Both of the NFC games are much more compelling than the AFC Slate. The Panthers, despite losing to the Saints twice this season, finished with the same record as the Saints and had a chance (albeit a small one) to clinch a bye last week. Even though that did not happen, they are back in the playoffs after missing them last season. New Orleans is back after a three-year playoff drought.
Both defenses present nothing special, so I think this game comes down to who has the better weapons. To me, that’s easily the Saints. I love Cam Newton, but Christian McCaffery is not Alvin Kamara or Mark Ingram, and Greg Olsen is not Michael Thomas. At this stage of their careers, Newton may be a better quarterback than Drew Brees, but Brees has more to work with, and that will be the reason why the Saints win this game and beat the Panthers for the third time this season.
Pick: Saints 31, Panthers 27
Nolan: Wild Card weekend will conclude with a high-profile matchup between two NFC South teams. Both of these teams entered the postseason with 11-5 records, but New Orleans took the division title after taking down Carolina in both meetings this season. It’s extremely difficult to defeat a team three times in one season but the Saints are certainly capable of this with their high octane offense. Drew Brees and company have put up 34 and 31 points against the Panthers this year and I think they can reach this again with home field advantage on Sunday.
Pick: Saints 31, Panthers 27
Tyler: The Saints are back in the post season for the first time since 2013 and have a legitimate shot at representing the NFC in the Super Bowl. New Orleans has the best quarterback of all the NFC QBs, they have one of the best running games in the NFC, and they have once of the top three defenses in the NFC. Teams will need to choose if they want to get beat by Drew Brees or by Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. Minnesota may be the only team that can defend both. But when we talk about this week’s matchup I do expect it to be competitive…for the first half. This is the third meeting between these division rivals this season, with the Saints winning both of the previous matchups. The Super Dome will be loud and the Saints defense will feed off of the atmosphere. Cam Newton will make a few mistakes and I expect him to unravel in the second half. The Panthers just don’t have the defense to defend the balanced Saints offense.
Pick: Saints 34, Panthers 17
Vasilios: Carolina is one of those teams that flew under the radar for most of the season and quietly compiled an 11-5 record despite trading away their #1 receiver in Kelvin Benjamin at midseason. Cam Newton has yet to regain his dominant 2015 form, but the play of rookie running back Christian McCaffrey has been admirable. Also, having a defense with a backbone always helps.
Speaking of defenses with backbones, the Saints have finally found theirs thanks to rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore. The Saints are one of the feel-good stories of the season, with quarterback Drew Brees approaching the twilight of his career, the pieces around him are stepping up. The Saints have a plethora of weapons at Brees’s disposal, like wide receiver Michael Thomas, and running backs
Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. Brees deserves to go out with another ring for all that he’s done for this Saints team that was irrelevant before his arrival.
Pick: Saints 27, Panthers 24