NFL Wild Card Round Preview

The 2019 NFL regular season has ended, and the playoffs have arrived. 20 teams have entered the long and grueling offseason while a dozen teams remain for a shot at the Lombardi Trophy. We start with the Wild Card Round. There are a couple teams that look to be dangerous and make a run at the Super Bowl. Let’s look at the games that will determine who the four teams with a first-round bye will face next week.

Saturday, Jan. 4

Buffalo Bills at Houston Texans

The Wild Card round starts off with quite possibly the most even and intriguing of the four matchups this weekend. The Buffalo Bills won 10 games for the first time since 1999 and have reached the playoffs for only the second time in the last 20 years. They are led by a stingy defense that is ranked third in yards allowed and second in points allowed. Cornerback Tre’Davious White enjoyed a breakout season that saw him tie a league lead in interceptions with six and establish himself as a legitimate lockdown corner. Second year quarterback Josh Allen struggled to start the season but elevated the offense during his last six full games as a starter (starters mostly sat in their season finale vs the Jets) as he threw 10 touchdowns and only two interceptions. The Bills went 4-2 and the losses were close losses to the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots. The Bills are in their second postseason in three years, as two years ago, the Bills, led by Tyrod Taylor, lost at Jacksonville 10-3 in the Wild Card Round. They are looking to win their first playoff game since January of 1996 when the Jim Kelly-led Bills defeated the Dan Marino-led Miami Dolphins 37-22 in the Wild Card Round.

The Houston Texans, meanwhile, are sitting in a very familiar position. This is the fourth time in five years the Texans have opened the Wild Card Round slate and they have been at home each time. The Texans won the AFC South for the second consecutive year under quarterback Deshaun Watson. Last year, the Texans fell 21-7 to their divisional rival, the Indianapolis Colts, in the Wild Card Round. That game, the Texans failed to get into a rhythm and superstar wide receiver Deandre Hopkins was ineffective due to injury. This year, the Texans improved their offensive line with the addition of Laremy Tunsil. The Texans sit at the middle of the pack in major statistical categories due to the Texans’ major inconsistencies. One week, they look impressive in their win against the New England Patriots, and the next, they are getting run out of their own building by the 4-8 Denver Broncos. The Texans are looking to make a run at their first AFC Championship Game and to start by winning their first playoff game since January 2017 when they beat the Oakland Raiders, who started a third-string quarterback, 27-14.

I expect this game to be a defensive battle. Both teams have great talent on defense and the Texans got a boost with the return of superstar JJ Watt. I think Tre’Davious White will win his matchup vs Hopkins, but I think the Texans have enough weapons to overcome the Bills’ defense and win this defensive slugfest.

Prediction: Buffalo 13 – Houston 17

Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots

This is the second time in three years these two teams will face off in the playoffs. In the 2018 Divisional Playoff Round, the Patriots dominated Marcus Mariota, Mike Mularkey and the Titans 35-14. The Titans are much different this time around. Not only have they changed their uniforms since then, they have a new coach and quarterback. Mike Vrabel, who won three Super Bowls with the Patriots from 2001-2004, is now the Titans’ coach, and they are quarterbacked by the resurgent Ryan Tannehill. After losing at Denver 16-0 in Week 6, the Titans were 2-4 and decided to make the switch to Tannehill from Mariota. Tannehill led them to a 7-3 record and one of the most explosive offenses in the second half of the season. The Titans are also led by the NFL’s rushing champion, Derrick Henry, and Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate, AJ Brown. Brown is a wide receiver that has exploded since Tannehill took over the offense. He has earned the third highest Pro Football Focus grade among wide receivers, behind only established stars in Michael Thomas and Julio Jones.

As for the Patriots, they head into the postseason with concerns. The Patriots had a chance to earn a first-round bye last week by beating the 4-11 Miami Dolphins at home but fell 27-24 and are now forced to play in the Wild Card Round for the first time since 2009, where they lost 33-14 to the Baltimore Ravens. The Patriots have never reached the Super Bowl without a first-round bye and are put in that situation once again. Tom Brady, while still productive, had his worst season in many years as he ranked only 18th in QB rating and missed the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2006 (he missed in 2008 but he missed the entire season with injury). The defense had to carry the team more for the first time this decade as the defense ranked first in points allowed per game and second in takeaways.

The Titans carry an impressive offense into the postseason against a struggling Patriots team. The Patriots are great at adjusting for the biggest games and last year, struggled heading into the playoffs but would win the Super Bowl. I expect this to continue as the Patriots will look to control the clock and prevent the dynamic Titans’ offense from exploding for big plays. It will be a close game but the Patriots will prevail.

Prediction: Tennessee 17 – New England 20

Sunday, Jan. 5

Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints

The Minneapolis Miracle is a play that has haunted Saints’ fans for the past two seasons, and last year’s controversial NFC Championship Game loss against the Los Angeles Rams only added to the pain. While the Saints beat the Vikings last season 30-20, the Saints now have a chance for true revenge as the Saints welcome the Vikings in New Orleans for their postseason meeting since the Minneapolis Miracle.

The Vikings don’t have Case Keenum (the quarterback of that play) anymore and instead have Kirk Cousins. Cousins had a fine season as he was fourth in the NFL in QB rating and completion percentage and led the Vikings to 10-5 as a starter (he sat in their Week 17 loss to the Chicago Bears). However, Cousins is still under fire as he lost both Monday Night Football games and fell to 0-8 in his career on MNF. In Week 16 against the Green Bay Packers, he only threw for 122 yards without star running back Dalvin Cook, and many are questioning his ability to win big games. Cousins lost his only previous playoff game, a loss in January 2016 to the Packers 35-18 as quarterback of the Washington Redskins.

As for the Saints, they suffered two excruciating losses in their last two trips in the postseason. But this season, they get a chance to avenge the Minneapolis Miracle and reach the Super Bowl. They head into the playoffs with more momentum than they did last season and look nearly unbeatable. Michael Thomas broke Marvin Harrison’s record of 144 receptions in a season with 149, and Drew Brees continued to break records, passing Peyton Manning for most all-time touchdown passes. Brees missed five games with an elbow injury, but that ended up being a blessing for the Saints. Teddy Bridgewater led the Saints to a 5-0 record and Brees finished the season much better than last year. In Brees’ last four games last season, he threw for three touchdowns, three interceptions and 857 yards. This season, Brees threw for 15 touchdowns, 0 interceptions and 1188 yards. That is a big difference that is terrifying for the Vikings’ defense.

I don’t expect this game to be close at all. The Vikings have struggled in pass coverage and are facing a red-hot Drew Brees and Michael Thomas. Also, despite the return of Dalvin Cook, the Saints are fourth against the run and will force Cousins to beat them through the air. The Saints will explode early, and Cousins will not be able to keep up. Vengeance will be sweet for the Saints.

Prediction: Minnesota 17 – New Orleans 41

Seattle Seahawks at Philadelphia Eagles

This is a battle between two teams that head into the postseason ravaged by injuries. The Eagles are down their top three wide receivers and have been down most of their offensive linemen and secondary. The Seahawks have lost their top three running backs and starters in the secondary and linebacking corp for the season. Their starting left tackle, Duane Brown, has been injured as well. Yet, with superstar performances from role players and especially their quarterbacks, both have found themselves in the postseason. This is the one wild card game where it’s a regular season rematch. The Seahawks won 17-9 at Philadelphia on November 24 and was carried by now injured Seahawks’ running back Rashaad Penny.

The Seahawks started out 10-2 and were looking strong for a possible division title and first-round bye in the playoffs. However, the running back injuries piled up and the offense deteriorated as a result. The Seahawks were blown out by the Rams and lost at home to the Cardinals and 49ers to finish the season and lose out on the NFC West championship. They were carried by Russell Wilson, who had a phenomenal season with 31 touchdowns, five interceptions and 4110 yards. The weird aspect of this season is the Seahawks finished 7-1 on the road but 4-4 at home. The Seahawks are usually a home dominant team, but they have played better on the road and that benefits them for this matchup.

The Eagles, miraculously, scratched and clawed their way into an unlikely postseason berth. With a down year from the Dallas Cowboys, the Eagles took full advantage and, despite a 5-7 start, won their last four games, all against divisional foes. They had to rely on youngsters and practice squad members such as receivers Joshua Perkins and Greg Ward Jr., running backs Boston Scott, and Miles Sanders to produce for this offense. With a lot of guts, grit and passion, the Eagles won the division championship. The statuses for tight end Zach Ertz, right tackle Lane Johnson, cornerback Jalen Mills and running back Miles Sanders are day-to-day for this Sunday’s game.

With both teams banged up, no team has the clear advantage. The game could swing one way or another depending on who can play for both teams. Regardless, I think the Seahawks will narrowly come out on top. I trust Wilson a little more than I do Wentz and I think the game will be decided on Wilson making one more play than him. Seattle will win and head to San Francisco to play the 49ers a third time.

Prediction: Seattle 21 – Philadelphia 14

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