NFL Wild Card Locks of the Week
256 NFL games are in the books and there are only 11 left to go. While I will sorely miss having 16 games of action on my TV every Sunday, these playoffs present narratives that are extremely enticing.
For the first time in 10 years, the Patriots will play on Wild Card weekend. 42-year-old Tom Brady will need to win three games in a row, with two of them likely on the road, in order to get back to the Superbowl for a fourth consecutive year. He faces a Tennessee Titans team that comes out of nowhere. After benching Marcus Mariota for Ryan Tannehill, they have rattled off 7 of 10 victories to claim the sixth seed and face the Pats in the Wild Card round.
The Buffalo Bills have made it back to the postseason for the second time in three years behind an incredible pass defense and 2nd year QB Josh Allen. McDermott has coached a disciplined unit that nearly took the division away from New England. The Bills Mafia travels to Houston, where Bill O’Brien’s Texans have won the AFC South for the 4th time in 5 years. Deshaun Watson has been electric all season and will look for his first playoff win as a pro.
In the NFC, the New Orleans Saints, despite going 13-3, will host Wild Card weekend after having home-field advantage the prior year. Drew Brees has broken multiple records this year, including Peyton Manning’s TD record and the record for highest completion percentage in a game. His top wideout, Michael Thomas, led the NFL in receiving yards this season and was dominant in every game. They get a chance to avenge the Minneapolis Miracle by facing Kirk Cousins’ Vikings, who behind Dalvin Cook and a solid defense claimed the sixth seed in the NFC.
The last game of Wild Card Weekend involves two teams who made the playoffs in an entirely different fashion. The Seattle Seahawks, who were literally an inch away from winning the NFC West, travel to open their postseason run. Runner-up MVP Russell Wilson will look to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time since “passing at the 2-yard line.” Luckily, he may be able to overcome that mistake with Marshawn Lynch back in the backfield. Their opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, scratched and clawed their way to a division title behind a slew of injuries all around the roster. Wentz will look to get out of Nick Foles’ shadow and win a championship with the team on his back, as he has carried the Eagles’ offense for much of the season.
After closing out the season with a poor 0-3 week (hey, I said Week 17 was the hardest week), I look to rebound with a postseason run of my own. Every team here is fighting for glory, with some on the line more than others. Without further ado, here is the Wild Card edition of my Football Locks of the Week (odds courtesy of FootballLocks.com).
Regular Season Record: 27-23-1 (54%)
Playoff Record: 0-0
Buffalo +2.5 at Houston
This is a true pick’em, with Houston getting the obligatory 2.5 points for home-field advantage. However, I think defense travels and the Bills will keep this a tight game for all 60 minutes. I like Buffalo to cover the 2.5-point spread.
The Bills’ defense should give Deshaun Watson fits. Watson is extremely talented, but there have been multiple games this season where he has been stymied by a less than stellar defense. In games versus Jacksonville, Carolina, and Tampa Bay, Watson was shut down for most of the game; he was held under 200 yards passing in each of them. He also had poor outings against Denver and Baltimore until he recovered in garbage time. He faces a Bills defense that is ranked fourth against the pass and second in points per game allowed.
The Bills’ defense has several great pieces on the defensive side of the ball, including potential DPOY Tre’Davious White, rookie DT Ed Oliver, standout linebackers Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds, and one of the best safety tandems in the league in Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. Watson’s offense will not be completely shut down, because DeAndre Hopkins and 1,000-yard rusher Carlos Hyde will be able to get some chunk plays, but I think the Bills can keep the Texans offense under 17 points. The Bills are 8-1 in meaningful games when holding opponents to 17 or less, with their only loss coming against New England in Week 4.
On the other side of the ball, Josh Allen and company should be able to score on Houston. The Texans are 29th against the pass and 25th against the run. Their star cornerbacks Bradley Roby and Johnathan Joseph were limited in practice, but even if they can suit up, they will be hard-pressed to keep up with the speedy John Brown and shifty Cole Beasley. Allen is not a great passing QB, but he’s more than serviceable. He passed for 3,089 yards, 20 TDs, and 9 INTs this season. He can produce in this matchup.
The Bills run game should also prosper, as Devin Singeltary has averaged 5.1 yards per carry this season and has overtaken the lead-back role. Even with JJ Watt coming back along the defensive line, Singletary is great at avoiding first contact and can accelerate from there.
I think this is a low-scoring game, but the Bills have the pieces and favorable matchup to win this game. As long as Buffalo doesn’t fall behind quickly, their defense can mask their offense’s ineptitude and help them win their first playoff game this century. I am taking Buffalo to come out on top in this one.
Bills 23 Texans 17
New England -5 vs Tennessee
The Patriots’ demise has been greatly exaggerated. I understand everyone thinks the sky is falling in Foxborough because they’ve lost a chance at a first-round bye for the first time in a decade. However, these Patriots are still a team to be feared.
New England boasts the NFL’s second ranked passing defense and sixth ranked rushing defense. They have only allowed 14.1 points per game, which is two points less than the next best team. I am not going to buy the fact that they are no longer a great defense just because they were bested by (the legendary) Ryan Fitzpatrick last week. New England has twice as many interceptions as touchdowns this season and boasts the best turnover differential in the league by a large margin. Last week was an anomaly.
On the Titans’ side of the ball, Tannehill, Derrick Henry, and AJ Brown have been on fire lately. Henry became the NFL’s leading rusher with last week’s performance and Tannehill has a 22:6 TD:INT ratio playing barely half a season. They look like a team with momentum on their side. Yet, they can be beat.
The Patriots will double team AJ Brown, stack the box to take away Henry, and put Stephon Gilmore on Corey Davis. They can play single coverage among the rest of the Titans’ players, as none of them are truly game changers. New England is also one of the best teams at bringing the blitz, as they have 47 sacks on the season. Tannehill will not have the time to throw it deep and this offense will suffer because of it.
The Patriots offense, although abysmal of late, seems to have found their formula in the last few weeks. They are a run-oriented team that will use screens and play-action passing to move the ball. Brady does not have the mobility to hold the ball for long nor will his offensive line give him enough time to throw it 40 times. The Patriots will empty their bag of tricks if needed to move the ball on the Titans’ 21st ranked defense. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Julian Edelman or Mohammed Sanu throw a TD pass in this game.
Lastly, I think the Patriots’ playoff experience gives them an edge over the Titans, who have made the playoffs only once in the prior 10 years. The Patriots know what to do to win a playoff game and will be completely locked-in after they gave up a huge game to the Dolphins last week. I wouldn’t be shocked if New England came out and lambasted the Titans like they did the LA Chargers last year.
I think Tennessee can keep it close, but New England will win and cover. I expect the Patriots to win by about a touchdown and quiet the media a bit regarding the potential end to their dynasty. These aren’t the dominate Patriots of yesteryear, but they are good enough to beat an inexperienced Titans squad in Foxborough.
Patriots 27 Titans 20
New Orleans -7.5 vs Minnesota
This one is an open and shut case for me. The Saints are infinitely better than the Vikings right now and it is not close. I like New Orleans to easily cover this spread and destroy Minnesota in the Superdome.
The Saints boast one of the deepest and most diverse offenses in the league. You already know about the greatness of Drew Brees, who in only 11 games this year completed 74% of his passes for nearly 3,000 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions. There are only four quarterbacks this year that have more passing touchdowns than Brees, and they played all 16 games. The Vikings are middle of the pack versus the pass and have been exposed at times. Xavier Rhodes, their “premier” cornerback, will not be able to guard Michael Thomas. Plain and simple.
Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray also present a problem for the Vikings, as Minnesota has been carved up by running backs in crucial games this season. They gave up over 200 yards rushing to Seattle in a critical MNF matchup and allowed Aaron Jones to run for 154 yards in their divisional showdown with the Packers. These two games had cost the Vikings a division title. I fear they will be unable to stop the combination of Murray and Kamara.
Even if the Vikings can bottle up the New Orleans backfield and double team Michael Thomas, they still need to contend with the likes of Ted Ginn Jr, Trequan Smith, Jared Cook, and even Taysom Hill. Yes, Taysom Hill may be an X-factor in a playoff game. What a world!
I don’t see how the Vikings can keep up, as Kirk Cousins has been abysmal in the last month. In his three December games, Cousins had never surpassed 250 passing yards and threw only one more touchdown than interception. After his offensive line’s showing versus Za’darius Smith and the Packers two weeks ago, I have no confidence they will hold up versus a Saints defensive front that is ranked third in sacks. If Stephon Diggs is shadowed by Marshon Lattimore, Cousins will need to rely on an injured Adam Theilen and old-man Kyle Rudolph.
I am not confident Dalvin Cook will have much of an impact upon his return, as the Saints just held Christian McCaffery to 26 rushing yards in a blowout win over the Panthers. The Saints defense is ranked fourth against the run on the year and have been more dominant to end the year than to start it. Cook will likely have very little running room and could be phased out of the offense if Minnesota falls behind early.
I think the Saints are extremely motivated to win this game after they have suffered two consecutive years of heartbreaking playoff losses (the Minneapolis Miracle and the No-Call Pass Interference versus the Rams). They are going to blow-out the Vikings in the Superdome. I am taking the Saints to cover easily.
Saints 38 Vikings 19
Seattle -1.5 at Philadelphia
These two teams feel eerily similar to me. They are both decimated by injuries on both sides of the ball, but they are extremely tough teams with great head coaches and good quarterbacks. They don’t have great weapons on the offensive side, but their quarterbacks more than make up for their faults. They also have defenses that are extremely talented and can cause havoc along the defensive front. This is an extremely close, low-scoring contest for me.
Yet, I am going to bet on the quarterback I believe is elite and the team that is slightly more talented at the moment. I am going to take the Seahawks to cover in Philadelphia.
Russell Wilson has been phenomenal this year. He has completed 66% of his passes for 4,110 yards, 31 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. Despite having an offensive line with pass protection issues, he can evade pressure and find the open man downfield with ease. He has turned rookie DK Metcalf into an extremely viable downfield option, as Metcalf has 900 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns this year. He also has turned Tyler Lockett into a 1,000-yard receiver and a reliable #1 option. Lockett and Metcalf are good, but I believe Wilson makes them look better than they actually are.
The Seahawks run game will have some trouble with Chris Carson, Rashaad Penny, and CJ Prosise out for the year. However, rookie Travis Homer did very well in his first start, accumulating 92 total yards on 15 touches. He could be utilized very similarly to how the Eagles use Boston Scott. Marshawn Lynch is a great veteran presence, but that is all he is at this point in his career. Still, I think he provides an emotional element that benefits Seattle. One huge play from him can lift up the offense.
On the other side of the ball, the defense does not have many Eagles weapons for which they need to account. Miles Sanders and Zach Ertz are still banged up, and even though it is possible they could play, they will likely have limited game action. Greg Ward and JJ Arcega Whiteside are decent receivers, but they will not have a big impact on the game. Only tight end Dallas Goedert and running back Boston Scott are the main threats to the Seahawks’ defense. Even still, the Seattle linebacking core of Bobby Wagner, KJ Wright, and Shaquem Griffin should be able to limit their effect.
Seattle is also one of the best teams in terms of turnovers. The Seahawks are 4th in the NFL with a +12-turnover differential, taking the ball away 32 times on the year. Wentz is not a turnover prone quarterback, but he has given up the ball fourteen times this year and could be without Lane Johnson protecting him on his right side. If Clowney or Ansah can get in the backfield, Wentz could end up fumbling the ball a few times on Sunday.
Again, this game should come down to the wire. It’s difficult to side convincingly with either squad, but I have to lean the Seahawks’ way. Their playoff pedigree, elite QB, and ball-hawking defense give them an edge over an Eagles’ team that is barely scraping their way through. I’ll take the Seahawks to win and cover.
Seahawks 16 Eagles 13