By Jason Keidel
The only NFL weekend better than wild card weekend is the divisional round. So consider the next two days a delicious appetizer to next weekend’s main course, with four games between teams with almost identical records. Indeed, the home team in all four games didn’t win more than one game more than their opponent this weekend.
So let’s get to it…
Tennessee Titans (9-7) @ Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)
Saturday, January 6, 4:35 p.m. ET
The Titans limp into Arrowhead without workhorse RB DeMarco Murray and, based on his play this year, a diminished Marcus Mariota. They will lean a lot on the legs of Derek Henry and hope Mariota — who has thrown two TDs in a game just three times all season — finds his mojo by Saturday.
The Chiefs went from a 5-0 juggernaut, the talk and chalk of the NFL, to a foundering 6-5 ball club, to now, once again, a semi-feared football team. They won their last four games, and averaged 28.6 points over their last five. Still, while the Chiefs seem to have found their legs, they may wish this game were played at Tennessee. Indeed, the Chiefs have lost their last five home playoff games, and haven’t won one since Joe Montana was under center. They’re also 1-4 in their last five home games against the Titans.
Still, Kansas City has to have the edge here. Most football indexes give the Chiefs a 75 percent chance to win. Las Vegas places Kansas City as an 8.5 point favorite. There isn’t enough history of the Chiefs winning playoff games at all, much less by nine points, but the Titans are too hurt, too inexperienced, and will likely be too cold to leave Arrowhead with a win.
Prediction: Chiefs win, 20-16
Atlanta Falcons (10-6) @ Los Angeles Rams (11-5)
Saturday, January 6, 8:15 p.m. ET
This is not only the Rams’ first playoff game since 2004, but it’s the first playoff game in Los Angeles since January 1994, when the Raiders were on their Oakland hiatus.
The Rams are NFL’s top-scoring team at 29.9 points per game, and host the Falcons, last year’s top-scoring team. The good news for the Rams is the league’s top-scoring team has reached three of the last four Super Bowls. Indeed, the Rams’ scoring has jumped 15.9 PPG from last season, the greatest improvement since the 1970 NFL merger. And they have bionic RB Todd Gurley, who led the NFL in touchdowns and had more receptions than Devin Funchess.
The Falcons’ offensive line is a bit banged up, which is not good when facing DT Aaron Donald, perhaps the best player by the greatest margin at his position. Much has (and will) be made about Atlanta’s supposed Super Bowl hangover, which wasn’t profound enough to keep them from returning to the playoffs. Naturally, they don’t look exactly like they did last year. But who does?
If recent NFL history is any indication, the deck is stacked against the Falcons overall. The last team to make the Super Bowl after losing it the prior year is the 1993 Buffalo Bills. The only two teams to lose the Super Bowl and then win it the next year are the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins, back in the early 1970s.
Prediction: Rams win, 31-24
Buffalo Bills (9-7) @ Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6)
Sunday, January 7, 1:05 p.m. ET
Since 2013, Quarterbacks making their playoff debuts are 1-10. The victory total is bound to double, as Bills QB Tyrod Taylor and Jaguars QB Blake Bortles are making their maiden playoff voyage.
Had the Los Angeles Rams’ makeover not been so remarkable, we’d be talking about the Jaguars, who have taken the NFL elevator from outhouse to penthouse in quick order, thanks to the twin architects of Tom Coughlin and Doug Marrone.
Both clubs have the playoff blueprint, in that you need to establish the run as the months flip deep into winter. The Bills and Jaguars are NFL’s two most run-heavy clubs, rushing the ball more than the other 30 NFL teams. They are also the only two clubs that ran the ball more than passed it. Jacksonville has Leonard Fournette, Chris Ivory, and TJ Yeldon to shoulder the rushing load.
The problem for Buffalo is they will either be without or play with a rather hurt LeSean McCoy, who was carted off the field last Sunday with an ankle injury. Which means they must rely on Taylor’s legs or his arm. If the latter, the Jaguars have a historically robust pass defense, allowing just 169.9 yards per game. Go with the home team and the better defense.
Prediction: Jaguars win, 20-13
Carolina Panthers (11-5) @ New Orleans Saints (11-5)
Sunday, January 7, 4:40 p.m. ET
Since 1970 merger, there have been 20 instances of one team going 2-0 against another during the regular season and then meeting a third time in the playoffs. And 13 times the 2-0 club capped a 3-0 record in the playoffs. The Saints won both NFC South match-ups with the Panthers, outscoring Carolina 65-34 — a fine feat against Carolina’s stout defense.
The Saints have done a subtle but wholly essential makeover on offense. Drew Brees is still a sublime quarterback, but threw 137 fewer passes this year than last year now that he has a two-headed beast at running back. Mark Ingram you’ve known for years. Now he’s paired with Alvin Kamara, who is playing like he came from a comic book. The rookie RB has averaged 7.7 yards every time he touches the ball, most in NFL history.
Another key is keeping Panthers’ all-world QB Cam Newton healthy. Newton has been hit on 24 percent of his drop-back passes, the most in the NFL. He also leads all NFL QBs with 524 yards on designed runs, easily the most in the league. Now is the time to cash in, if they can, on rookie RB Christian McCaffrey. The difference between these teams is offense. Carolina gave up 327 points; New Orleans gave up 326. But the Saints outscored the Panthers, 448-363.
The Saints have won their last five home playoff games, which speaks to the home-field turbulence of their indoor home. It’s a shame the Panthers didn’t win their last game of the regular season, because then this game would be played in Charlotte. The Panthers were 11-3 against the rest of the NFL, but 0-2 against the Saints. And now they must beat them in the decibel-bending SuperDome. No thanks.
Prediction: Saints win, 30-24
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.