New year. New season. After an entertaining regular season that had its finale end on a tackle at the half-yard line in Seattle last Sunday night, let's hope the playoffs are just as exciting.
In three of this weekend's wild-card games, quarterbacks are making their playoff debuts: Buffalo's Josh Allen, Tennessee's Ryan Tannehill and Philadelphia's Carson Wentz.
None of the four games jump out to me as classic matchups, but Titans-Patriots has the most potential. Don't worry, if the playoffs go as I expect, we could get a Championship Sunday for the ages.
LOCK OF THE WEEK
BILLS (10-6) AT TEXANS (10-6)
TV: Ch. 7, ESPN, 4:35 p.m.
Texans by 2.5; O/U: 44
This matchup has essentially been locked in for two weeks, and everyone knew it would be the early Saturday game. In fact, Buffalo has been the fifth seed for so long that coach Sean McDermott probably knows what kind of Gatorade Deshaun Watson prefers by now. Both teams rested starters for the most part in Week 17, and the Texans should get a boost with J.J. Watt returning. The Bills' defense, though, will be the star of this game. This is a bad matchup for Watson and the Texans offense, who love to air it out to DeAndre Hopkins. Buffalo allowed the fourth fewest passing yards per game at 195.2. Josh Allen can be shaky at times, but John Brown and Cole Beasley will have success against the Texans defense (fourth most passing yards at 267.3). Remember how Drew Lock and the Broncos carved them up last month? Allen's ability to run is also a key factor. Did you know that he has nine rushing TDs this season? That's two more than Lamar Jackson (and Watson). Buffalo was 6-2 on the road, its best win at Dallas on Thanksgiving. Back in Texas and playing in the same time slot, the Bills will turn in another solid performance to earn the franchise's first playoff win since 1995.
The pick: Bills
TITANS (9-7) AT PATRIOTS (12-4)
TV: Ch. 2, 8:15 p.m.
Patriots by 5; O/U: 44.5
Tom Brady fed off all the doubters on last season's title run. Not everyone counted them out, but I did, picking against them in the divisional round, championship game and the Super Bowl: Joe-for-3. There are a lot more doubters now, especially after a loss to the four-win Dolphins at home in Week 17 with a bye on the line. The Patriots went 4-4 after an 8-0 start, and the offense has taken a step back. Tennessee has the offensive weapons to make Brady & Co. have to put up 24-plus points to win but there is reason to expect the Patriots to recover and cover. This is their first wild-card game since the 2009 season, and while they don't have the luxury of a bye, the fact that they lost as 16.5-point favorites last week is a plus. The Patriots haven't lost back-to-back home games since November 2006(!!), and they'll be super-motivated to silence the doubters again. Stephon Gilmore, the lockdown cornerback, had his worst game of the season in Week 17 and he surely will bounce back and limit the talented rookie A.J. Brown. There's good line value here as well: Normally, the Pats would be 6-7 point favorites in this spot but because of last week, it's a couple points lower. Mike Vrabel is the wild card of wild-card weekend. His new team beat his old team, 34-10, in Tennessee last season, and that was against a better New England offense and with Marcus Mariota. Ryan Tannehill is 7-3 as Titans starter but he's 0-6 at Gillette Stadium. He won't get his first win here. Not under these circumstances.
The pick: Patriots
VIKINGS (10-6) AT SAINTS (13-3)
TV: Ch. 5, 1:05 p.m.
Saints by 7.5; O/U: 49.5
This is the only game of the four in which you couldn't convince me to take the other side. The Saints have been one of the best teams all season — remember when they went 5-0 with Teddy Bridgewater when Drew Brees was hurt? — and they enter the postseason hot, having averaged 40 points per game in December. It's rare a 13-3 team doesn't get a bye, so expect Sean Payton's team to play with an even bigger chip on its shoulder than usual. By now you all now about the Saints' playoff misfortune the last two seasons, and it all started with the Minny Miracle in the divisional round. This time, it will take another miracle for Kirk Cousins (0-1 in the playoffs and 17-27-2 career road record) to outduel Brees in the Superdome in a big spot. Brees and Michael Thomas lead a double-digit win. Next stop: Lambeau Field.
The pick: Saints
SEAHAWKS (11-5) AT EAGLES (9-7)
TV: Ch. 4, 4:40 p.m.
Seahawks by 1.5; O/U: 45.5
The casual fan might think this is an easy game for the Seahawks. They have Russell Wilson and were literally inches away from being the 3 seed. No wonder the line went from Eagles -3 to Seahawks -2. But here's the thing: Seattle is far from a juggernaut. It had only a +7 point differential, and nine of its wins were by seven points or fewer. When the Seahawks won at Philadelphia, 17-9, in Week 12, they needed a flea-flicker TD pass to do it and that was against a banged-up Eagles team. Now it's Seattle that's really hurting, and the injuries at running back and offensive line will show here as Philadelphia is stout up front defensively. Wilson will do his thing but so will Carson Wentz. Doug Pederson's team found a way to win four straight and make the playoffs, and they'll do it again to advance.
The pick: Eagles
STAFF PICKS AND STANDINGS
(best bets in bold)
119-130-7 overall, 8-9 best bets
Last week: 8-7-1
Last week: 6-9-1
Last week: 11-4-1
Last week: 7-8-1