The playoffs are here! This weekend and the next are some of the best of the season. Excitement and drama are on deck. Some teams were able to sneak into the last spot, while others playing this weekend thought they would be off till the Divisional Round. There are some great matchups this weekend. The NFL decided to play both AFC games Saturday and the NFC Sunday.
We’ll start with the Saturday Slate and work our way into Sunday.
Buffalo at Houston
These two have been locked into their slots for a couple of weeks and took the opportunity in Week 17 to rest most of their key players. Both teams lost but were obviously not operating at full capacity. The last serious games both played were the Saturday games before Christmas. Houston was able to hold on against a Tampa team that immediately spotted them 10 points, but the Texans still struggled most of the day. Buffalo gave the Patriots a huge effort but came up just short.
Buffalo has made massive strides over where it was last year but has struggled against the tougher competition it has faced. Before last week, they went through an absolute gauntlet. The Bills faced Dallas, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and the Patriots – all on the road, aside from the Ravens. Buffalo’s strengths are a stout defense and Josh Allen making a few big plays. Receivers Cole Beasley and John Brown are also two reliable targets for Allen.
Houston is a mind-boggling team. They beat the Patriots and then proceeded to get destroyed by the Broncos. They were able to defeat the Titans – but not convincingly. Then, as mentioned, they went to the wire with Tampa, while Jameis Winston actively tried to give them the game. Houston is basically Deshaun Watson and question marks, and even he has not been totally spectacular recently.
A key matchup in this game is going to be Tre White versus Deandre Hopkins. White has emerged as one of the best corners in the league. Hopkins is of course one of the best, if not the best, wideouts in the league. The Texans will have JJ Watt back for this game, but at what capacity is unknown. Watt is coming off of a torn pec from late October.
Houston definitely has the edge on offense. The Texans’ ground game is also somewhat underrated, and that is an area the Bills have struggled to defend. Buffalo has the superior defense, however. The Texans’ pass defense is a sieve. All Allen has to do is make a few big plays to put up points. Buffalo also has the edge in coaching. The Bills are going to come out locked in and ready to go. The Texans should do the same, but as something like the Denver game shows, they could start out sleep walking.
If the Texans are to win, they will need Watson to be in electric form. That said, it is just too difficult to actually trust the Texans. Even though they won their division and are at home, they’ve dropped this kind of game before. They were never even in their game against the Colts last year. Buffalo is not that Indy crew, but this is the same old Texans.
Buffalo 23 Texans 14
Tennessee at New England
Could this be the last stand of the Patriots? New England has limped into the playoffs and was shocked last week by the Dolphins, costing them a bye. New England has not played in the Wild Card Round since the 2009-10 season. They have appeared in 8 straight AFC Title games and 3 straight Super Bowls. It has been an incredible run. “This time feels different” has been said about them too much, but this time, it really does. The defense has been excellent, and then they couldn’t stop Ryan Fitzpatrick last week on the last drive. Tom Brady has clearly regressed. There are a lot of new faces on the offense, and it has yet to gel.
Tennessee comes into this contest as one of the hottest teams in the league, winners of five of their last seven. While Houston more or less allowed them to win last week, the Titans had been on fire. The offense has been fantastic, and the defense serviceable. Before last week, the Titans had dropped two straight – one a close contest against the Texans and the other against the juggernaut Saints. Ryan Tannehill has earned himself a huge payday following his fantastic stretch since taking over as the starter. He saved the Titans’ season and has made them incredibly fun to watch. Derrick Henry claimed the rushing title with a huge game last week, and rookie AJ Brown has emerged as an electric weapon.
While the Patriots have struggled this season more than any recently, they cannot be counted out. Although, this being Wild Card weekend and not the Divisional is actually something that is foreign to them. Tennessee is just excited to be here, while the Patriots have the expectations of a Super Bowl.
Tennessee’s defense being so-so would matter more against, say, the Chiefs or Ravens, but the Patriots have seriously struggled to get consistent offense. The Titans don’t have to score 30 to win. The Titans need Ryan Tannehill to continue his extremely efficient play, but mainly to rely on Derrick Henry. Henry is an absolute beast of a running back. The Patriots’ rush defense is the most susceptible part of that unit. New England was Top 5 in yards allowed, but bottom 5 in attempts against and middle of the pack in yards per carry. They were recently gashed by Joe Mixon and the Bengals.
Of course, absolutely none of that could matter, because the Patriots still have Bill Belichick, and he is a master game planner. The Patriots will need to play at a level they have not reached since the middle part of the season to win this one. Their best hope is to keep the game low scoring and not let it turn into a shootout. The Titans will have different designs.
New England 24 Tennessee 21
Minnesota at New Orleans
The last time these two teams faced in the playoffs, the result was one of the greatest plays in the history of the NFL. Now, it will be to the misfortune of the Vikings that the Saints missed getting a bye. There is perhaps no team in the league playing as well as the Saints. Since losing to the Niners, they have dominated in all of their games. Drew Brees has been on a warpath, and Michael Thomas just completed a record-breaking season. Alvin Kamara has been heating up as well. The excellence of the Saints’ offense draws the attention away from their defense, which has also been a formidable unit. Cameron Jordan can absolutely wreck games on his own, and he will have the chance to do that this week.
Last we saw the full strength Vikings, they were absolutely embarrassed by arch rival Green Bay at home. Minnesota, like several others, decided to rest key players against the Bears. Minnesota will have Dalvin Cook back this week, but at what capacity is unknown. Cook has gone through chest and/or shoulder issues since the Vikings faced the Seahawks in Week 13. Adam Thielen returned to action from a hamstring issue in Week 15, but disappeared against the Packers and did not play against the Bears. There is no chance he is fully healthy. The Vikings have not played a team that is at the level of the Saints all season. They blew a lead in Seattle and lost to the Matt Moore led Chiefs.
The Saints’ secondary is probably the most suspect area of the defense, but the same can be said for the Vikings. Drew Brees will target Michael Thomas relentlessly through the game. Further, Jared Cook has really come on as of late, and Alvin Kamara is always dangerous. The Vikings do not have the horses to stay in this race. And all of this is before mentioning who is under center for Minnesota. The Saints will score early and force Kirk Cousins to match. He might once, possibly twice, but after the Monday Night debacle, it feels almost impossible to trust him in a big moment.
Saints 34 Vikings 13
Seattle at Philadelphia
A battle of two squads trending the opposite way. Many declared Philly dead in the water after a shocking loss to the Dolphins in Week 13. Thankfully for them, they got to face their entire division after that, and Dallas crashed and burned. That is not to take anything away from the Eagles. Winning a division is always impressive, and Philadelphia has a pedigree and edge to it. Seattle has struggled recently, closing the season on a 1-and-3 stretch. Those losses were all to division rivals, and the win was a tight game against the dreadful Panthers. Seattle has been brutalized by injuries. The Eagles have, as well. Philly has made it work better than Seattle mostly.
These teams faced off in Week 12, at Lincoln Financial Field, where the Seahawks were able to do just enough to get by. That has been Seattle’s MO all season, as the Seahawks have just one two-score win on the year and a +7 point differential, second worst of the entire playoff field to only the Texans at -7. Seattle has been better on the road this year than home, going 7-1 away compared to just 4-and-4 at home, a departure from a decade of dominance at Century Link Field.
Seattle leaves a lot to be desired, but they have the best player in this game in Russell Wilson. He is going to be asked to do a ton. The Eagles have been a formidable run defense all season, and Seattle is devastated on the offensive line. It feels improbable that Marshawn Lynch and a patchwork backfield will be able to find a ton of running lanes. On the flip side, Seattle was tied for second to last in defensive sacks. Pressure does not mean everything when facing a player like Wilson, but it does not hurt.
The same goes for Carson Wentz, who has had a great season when considering the situation around him. The Eagles pulled the same type of stunt last year. They snuck into the playoffs and upset a great (at the time) Bears team. The Eagles are just able to make it work with what they have. Facing a weak defensive unit like Seattle’s will offset the fact the Eagles are missing so much at the skill spots. However, the Eagles have something of a nightmare situation on the right side of the offensive line, losing Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Brooks and possibly being without Pro Bowl right tackle Lane Johnson. Having to face Jadeveon Clowney with two backups on the same side is a tall task.
Both of these teams are incredibly banged up, but having excellent systems in place that have gotten them to this point. These have both been model NFL franchises of late, and this sets up to be an exciting conclusion to the first week of the playoffs.