Well I had the best final week I’ve ever had and I don’t even need to look that up. It’s really tough to pick winners while teams are resting starters and I was 12-4 (170-85-1 overall) which left me tied with Vinnie Iyer atop the list of every writer who publishes picks of every game. I should have taken the Bengals! I had a handful of really great picks that I won’t mention here pick by pick because now I’m back to 0-0 for the playoffs. I was 10-6 against the spread (139-112-5 overall) and that might be my best season ever in that category where I usually end up just a little over 50/50. I was 11-4-1 on the over/under (132-121-3 overall) to recover from early season woes. I’m usually better in that department. Still, the +11 week left me at +38 against Vegas for the regular season and that’s good.
Buffalo (10-6) @ Houston (10-6): The first three games of wild card weekend took place during the 2018 regular season, but a lot has changed since then. The Bills enter this game sliding having lost three of their last four games. They are a little beaten up as well having dealt with some physical games during the December stretch. They lost a tough game to Baltimore, went to Pittsburgh and pulled out a win, then fell in another tight game at New England. On the plus side, last week’s home loss to the Jets was with key starters resting. That helps, but the Texans also got to rest and rolled over for Tennessee in a 35-14 loss. Prior to that they had won four of five including the one that mattered over the Titans and against the Patriots. It’s hard not to like a team that has December wins over both the other AFC wild card round teams. They are 3-3 against playoff teams if we discount the week 17 loss with backups. How do we deal with the 38-24 loss to Denver on this field just a few weeks ago though? They also lost at home early to Carolina so they are far from invincible here. It’s more of an advantage that they won’t have to play at someone else’s stadium where weather could be a factor.
The Bills are 1-4 against playoff teams. That’s tough to overlook. Their lone win was 14-7 at Tennessee and by the way these guys are 6-2 on the road so that’s huge. Of the losses to playoff teams, three were by one score with the exception being Philly routing them 31-13. They are 4-4 in one-possession games (ignoring last week’s loss with backups) and that’s not great. Houston is 8-3 in such games and while that mostly means they were in more close games, it does show they can finish. Buffalo won more decisively, but played lesser competition as part of the awful AFC East and played the dumpster fire that was the NFC East. Psychologically it’s tough for me to get over the Texans losing in such pathetic fashion last year in the playoffs here, 21-7 to Indianapolis. In the 2018 regular season matchup they won 20-13 thanks to an interception of Peterman that was housed. That’s how much has changed. Allen has solidified himself as the starter since then, obviously. Watson hasn’t had his full stable of weapons and that has held him back. It’s going to be tough for him against this defense. On the other side, Watt makes a miraculous return from injury and that’s potentially game changing even if he just provides an emotional lift and occasional presence on passing downs.
Both teams have allowed a healthy number of sacks. Houston has given up more (49-40) and needs to keep the heat off Watson because Buffalo’s defense has generated a lot more sacks (44-31). The Texans are significantly worse in pass defense, like over 70 yards per game worse. They only have a couple more picks (14-12) but have allowed less than half the TD passes (15-33). Watson is the better quarterback and he’s played in more big games than Allen, but he’s facing a lot more resistance. Both teams have piled up rushing yards, resting in the top 10 for the season in yards per game and the Texans are ahead per carry (4.6 to 4.4) and touchdowns (17-13). Defensively, the Bills are 18 yards per game better, and allow a lower average (4.3 to 4.8) while both teams have given up 12 scores. This is a really even matchup. In terms of strategy and coaching I like the visitors. It worries me they were unable to finish the job against good teams. If I’m trusting a quarterback it’s going to be Watson. Logically I’m very torn on this result because the stats lean to the Bills. Their defense is better, but this is playoff football. They haven’t been here and I don’t think they are ready. Last year the Texans got here and choked. Watt is back to make sure they get this one, against the odds: Houston 19, Buffalo 17 (BUF +3/under 43.5)
Tennessee (9-7) @ New England (12-4): The prodigal son returns! Well not really. Vrabel is bringing his Titans to town in what could be the “end” of the “dynasty” however the Patriots really got those titles is another story. They destroyed them last year in Nashville 34-10 but that’s kind of how it goes for New England they lose games sometimes in mysterious fashion. The only thing is, it’s not a huge mystery. Physical teams who can rough up Brady are their kryptonite. The way to beat them is to run them over. It’s not that difficult to figure out really. Beat them up. Few teams have been able to execute that blueprint. Tennessee played a fairly soft schedule, finishing 1-3 against playoff teams when discounting their rematch win over Houston while the Texans were resting players. All of those games took place for them at home, which is significant. Two were mid-December (Houston, New Orleans) and the lone win came over Kansas City when Mahomes was returning from injury. It’s troubling how they really haven’t beaten good teams. They are 3-3 in one-possession games, which isn’t great. The 7-2 finish to their season, sparked by Tannehill taking over at quarterback, is fantastic. This is the playoffs now though. The Patriots know about that. Brady has more playoff wins than the playoff field quarterbacks combined. His team is 4-4 down the stretch, however, and last week’s 27-24 loss at home to a Miami team they had beaten 43-0 earlier this season is a fire alarm. They are also now 3-3 in one-possession games and have lost their last three such contests. It might be time to doubt them, for real.
The Patriots played an awful schedule. They were 3-3 against playoff teams, two wins coming over the Bills who aren’t exactly juggernauts and a 17-10 win over Philly who won a joke of a division. Two of the losses came on the road (Baltimore, Houston) but they lost to all the other AFC division champs. They are 2-2 in their last four home games. Both wins were close including a 13-9 struggle over Dallas. They are primed for the picking. Usually when everyone doubts them they rise up, but they don’t have the bye week to prepare this time. New England’s saving grace this season has been +21 in turnover margin. If they can’t win that battle their season is over. Tennessee is +6 and that’s good enough to rank ninth in the league. Ten of the top 11 teams are in the playoffs, so yeah, turnovers matter a lot.
Tannehill can control the game and be smart, but the forecast is rain and showers so that’s a factor. The Titans have allowed twice as many sacks (56-28) but have a more efficient passing game and have more TD passes (29-25) and even fewer interceptions (8-9) which includes the Mariota starts of course. They are 20 points higher in passer rating, and while their targets might not be household names the Patriots are struggling after Gronk’s retirement to find a second option behind Edelman. He’s tough to guard, but not exactly a big play threat. New England is second in pass defense, and 25 interceptions is a huge number plus 47 sacks. They have given up only 13 TD passes, four of which came in one game against Houston. Tennessee has 43 sacks and if they can attack Brady it’s over. Their pass defense isn’t great, but it’s good enough considering Brady really can’t go deep.
Running the ball is going to decide the game. The Titans are third and average 5.0 per carry. They have 21 rushing scores, tied with the Ravens atop the NFL. Henry is a beast. The Patriots somehow have 17 rushing scores, but average only 3.8 per carry and 106.4 a game. They have used smoke and mirrors for years, well a couple decades really, and now the gig might be up. The Titans are good enough against the run (4.0, 104.5) and while the Pats are good (4.2, 95.5) they really haven’t faced a lot of competition this season. This is an emotional pick. I can absolutely see the visitors running them over and punching them in the mouth. Vrabel knows the way to beat this team and has the players on the lines to do it. He realizes his quarterback only has to play within himself and everything will be fine. Flacco and Eli beat this team and neither one of those guys will be mixed up with Rodgers or Brees. I think the run is over, I really do. The team is tired. They are out of tricks. If they had anything left I believe it would have shown up last week when they needed it to earn a bye week: Tennessee 24, New England 20 (TEN +5.5/under 45)
Minnesota (10-6) @ New Orleans (13-3): The Saints got a measure of revenge with a regular season 2018 win over the Vikings to help them ease the pain of that brutal playoff loss. Now they can finish the job and really put the hammer down on the franchise that stole their shot at a title. Everyone seems to have forgotten this team has been on a mission since another title shot was stolen from them by a horrific call in the NFC Championship Game. All of the attention seems to be on the flashy new threats (Ravens, 49ers) but they are definitely here and ready. It’s crazy for a 13-3 team to have to play the first round, but after a blowout win last week I don’t think they will be bothered. Minnesota rested starters in a loss to Chicago. They are now 1-4 against playoff teams, with the lone win over Philadelphia. Three of the losses came on the road, including in Kansas City who was playing without Mahomes. The knock on Cousins is he can’t win big games. He’s done nothing to dispel that. Discounting last week’s game they are 2-2 in one-possession games. New Orleans is 7-1 in such contests, with the exception being the reason we are here, a 48-46 thriller against San Francisco. They are 3-1 against playoff teams with two wins coming on the road (Seattle, Tennessee) and the opener against Houston. Two of those were way back in September, so there’s a question about their readiness to deal with a big game. The 49er game felt like a playoff atmosphere so I’m not worried.
Both teams have solid turnover differential numbers with the Saints at +15 and the Vikings at +11. Their quarterbacks protect the ball with a combined 14 interceptions thrown in 32 games and over 1,000 passes. They both protect the passer fairly well, allowing fewer than 30 sacks and complete a high percentage. Obviously New Orleans is better, they have Brees and “Can’t Guard Mike”. Defensively Minnesota has a slight advantage. Both teams have a ton of sacks, with the Saints leading (51-48) and the Vikings lead in interceptions (17-13). The health of Cook is vital if the visitors want to pull an upset or have any hope. They are sixth in rushing with 19 scores. New Orleans is in the middle of the pack, but they have Kamara at their disposal. They just don’t run quite as much. Minnesota has a good run defense, but the Saints are fourth. Same deal though in terms of attempts faced. It’s a pretty even matchup on the ground really. Usually I expect playoff teams to be close. This is a unique case. Minnesota doesn’t have Cook to lean on the way they want to, even if he says he’s healthy or whatever. Cousins is playing in a dome, he’s used to that. However, this dome is loud and annoying since he’s the visitor. Brees had a record-breaking season with Thomas and it will continue here: New Orleans 27, Minnesota 20 (MIN +8/under 49.5)
Seattle (11-5) @ Philadelphia (9-7): It’s kind of embarrassing that the Eagles are even in the playoffs, but that’s the system. Winning the division earns a home game and that’s how it is. The Seahawks were on the flip side of this when Lynch was in his prime, and their 7-9 team pulled off a huge upset win that ultimately led to their ascent to Super Bowl champions. The Eagles are on the descent or so it seems. They haven’t been able to keep it together since winning it all. A 4-6 record outside the trash can NFC East illustrates the disparity here. The visitors are 8-2 outside the highly competitive NFC West. It’s a rematch from the week of Thanksgiving, and Seattle won that game here 17-9. Philly scored with 20 seconds left in that one to make it closer than it really was. Wentz threw 45 times, two of which were picked and was sacked 3 times. Wilson went down 6 times and was intercepted once, but had to throw only 25 times thanks to the running of Penny and Carson (22 carries for 155 yards). Neither will be here for the rematch. It’s on Beast Mode. The Eagles have their own issues, but their deficiency is at wide receiver. At least Ertz is expected back at tight end and that’s huge. Johnson being out at tackle is devastating though. They aren’t the same team without him. Philadelphia is 6-4 in one-possession games this season as they have slugged along. Going 4-0 against division goes to close the season did the trick, but let’s not forget they lost in Miami preceding that streak. They are actually 2-3 against playoff teams, having won in Green Bay and Buffalo, while losing in Dallas. They lost November games here against New England and of course these guys. Seattle is an unreal 10-2 in one-possession games and that’s not sustainable. It will bite them next week, and maybe next year as well. It’s hard to do that well in close games year after year. They are 3-3 against playoff teams with the win in the first meeting plus a road win in San Francisco and home win over Minnesota. They lost the 49er rematch last week at home which is what landed them here, and also lost at home to Super Bowl contenders (New Orleans, Baltimore).
The Eagles are the only team in the playoff field with a negative turnover margin (-3). The Seahawks are third (+12). Wentz has played in big games, but Wilson is a playoff veteran with a ring he earned and has been on the field in two Super Bowls. The passing offenses are comparable, just above average. They protect the ball having combined for 14 picks and can light up the scoreboard with a combined 58 TD passes. Seattle has allowed more sacks (48-37) and that’s an issue in what could be a defensive game, not to mention rather cold. Philly has the edge in pass defense and has a lot more sacks (43-28) but they have allowed 27 TD passes against only 11 interceptions. Wilson can find a way. The Seahawks are fourth in rushing, but without a lot of the guys who helped them achieve those stats. Philadelphia is a rising rushing offense at eleventh and seem to be gaining momentum. On defense the Eagles are third and can contain Lynch. The Seahawks are below average and have alarming figures in yards per carry allowed (4.9) and scores (22). The hosts can get this done, no doubt. Will they though? I feel like every time I use one player being out as the reason a team wins or loses I’m wrong. Nevertheless, two offensive line starters are gone for the hosts and I think that’s the difference in a close game: Seattle 19, Philadelphia 16 (SEA +1/under 45.5)