2018 NFL Playoff Preview: Wildcard Round

The playoffs are here, and that means the hip thing to do for a smartass sports blog like ours is to analyze and predict the outcomes of various permutations of eleven men in matching outfits trying to beat up eleven other men in different matching outfits.

Kansas City Chiefs vs. Tennessee Titans

The good news for Tennessee: The Chiefs can’t stop the run, and they can really run. Mariota on his best day is probably better than Alex Smith on his best day. KC’s D is burnable, and their offense sometimes stutters.

The bad news for Tennessee: They’re poorly equipped to stop basically anything the Chiefs do offensively. Mariota’s not remotely consistent, but Alex Smith is. It’s really hard to win an offensive shootout against a team that’s stronger at nearly every offensive position than you are.

The good news for Kansas City: They’ve got the best receiver (Hill), running back (Hunt), tight end (Kelce), and quarterback (Smith) on the field. They’re a way better special teams operation than the Titans, which puts even more pressure on the overmatched Tennessee offense. DeMarco Murray isn’t playing.

The bad news for Kansas City: They don’t get to play Tennessee again next round.

Final Verdict: Kansas City wins in either a nail biter (if Mariota plays like the superstar he occasionally appears to be) or a route (if he plays like he usually does).

 Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Buffalo Bills

The good news for Buffalo: Blake Bortles is pretty good at throwing horribly timed interceptions. Jacksonville, as great as they are defensively, aren’t well equipped to stop LeSean McCoy. Tyrod Taylor’s conservative passing preferences mitigate Jacksonville’s opportunist interception hunting.

The bad news for Buffalo: McCoy might not play, and won’t be full strength if he does. Leonard Fournette is on the other team. A bad offense against the league’s best defense isn’t a great recipe for success.

The good news for Jacksonville: Bortles is nowhere near as bad as his reputation, and on his good nights is extremely effective. Leonard Fournette is on their team. They’re a team built to win low-scoring games, and Buffalo only plays low-scoring games.

The bad news for Jacksonville: There’s always a chance Bortles is going to turn into the parody version of himself. They’re likely to get torn apart by McCoy if he’s healthy. They still have to live in Jacksonville.

Final Verdict: Jacksonville should roll pretty easily here, unless McCoy plays well and Bortles doesn’t, in which case they’ll probably still squeak by in a 17-14ish rock-fight.

 Los Angeles Rams vs. Atlanta Falcons

The good news for Atlanta: They’ve been here before, and they’ve got something to prove; both are big advantages, and most teams have to choose between one or the other. Matt Ryan’s a better quarterback than Jared Goff is, and he gets to throw to (on balance) better receivers. Deion Jones might be able to take away a lot of the receiving versatility that makes Todd Gurley so dangerous.

The bad news for Atlanta: Their offensive line is banged up, and Aaron Donald treats healthy O-lines like second stringers, and second stringers like lunchmeat. Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman are both banged up. The Rams are one of the few teams with enough O-line firepower to counter ATL’s stellar pass rushers.

The good news for LA: They outrank Atlanta in all three DVOA categories, namely offense (by 3), defense (by 16), and special teams (by 17). ATL doesn’t have a great secondary, but LA has a great passing attack. Aaron Donald might secretly be a Greek demigod unleashed by Zeus to sack the crap out of opposing quarterbacks.

The bad news for LA: Almost none of their key players have any playoff experience. Almost all of Atlanta’s key players have tons of playoff experience. Their home field advantage…isn’t. Alex Mack might actually be able to mildly inconvenience Donald.

Final Verdict: The Rams are the better team but they’re walking into an ambush. Experience matters, and I think ATL, if healthy, sneaks away with the upset. 

New Orleans Saints vs. Carolina Panthers

The good news for Carolina: The Saints looked a little mortal down the stretch. If any linebacker can contain NO’s killer running back duo, it’s Luke Kuechly. Cam Newton is still capable of winning a game by himself when he’s feeling it.

The bad news for Carolina: New Orleans already beat them twice, putting up at least 30 both times. Not enough receiving options against a tough Saints secondary. Playing in the Superdome is never good news for the road team.

The good news for New Orleans: They’re the better team, playing at home, and mostly healthy. Drew Brees is still one of the best three passers on the planet, and he’s unusually fresh for this point in the season thanks to a stellar running game. Basically no team, including the Panthers in two attempts, has figured out how to neuter Kamara, Ingram, and Brees in the same game.

The bad news for New Orleans: Cam Newton likes to win games he’s supposed to lose. Saints are reliant on a lot of young players who haven’t seen the playoffs before. The receiving corps isn’t quite what it once was.

Final Verdict: Don’t overthink it; the Saints beat Carolina twice already and generally played better football all year. There’s always a chance Cam goes supernova and torches the Saints for the upset, but it’s too small of a chance to bet on it.

That should do it for now. Come back next week for our thoughts on the divisional round. 

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