The matchups for wild-card weekend aren’t all that exciting, but if they can be half as thrilling as Week 17 was, well, then we’re in store for some good football.
In the AFC, the Titans and Bills — two teams that at times this season looked nothing like playoff teams — will have a hard time pulling off road upsets. It will be tough for the Panthers and Falcons in the NFC, too, but they have a stronger chance of achieving the feat.
Favorites went 10-6 against the spread (ATS) in Week 17, continuing a strong second-half push to finish with the overall season lead at 123-113-14. All four home teams are favored this week, with no spread under six points.
Look for all four home teams to advance, but will they all cover?
Some story lines for the playoffs:
Will the Vikings become the first team to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium?
Will the Eagles, the NFC’s No. 1 seed, make it to the Super Bowl without Carson Wentz?
Can the Falcons make it back to the Super Bowl?
Steelers-Patriots, Part II. Can we just fast forward to that matchup?
If all four home teams advance this week, that will set up three rematches in the divisional round: Chiefs at Patriots, Jaguars at Steelers and Rams at Vikings.
TITANS (9-7) AT CHIEFS (10-6), 4:35 p.m.
TV: Ch. 7, ESPN
Chiefs by 8.5; O/U: 44
The early Saturday game on wild-card weekend has a history of being the least anticipated matchup. This one isn’t that bad, but don’t expect an exciting finish as Kansas City should play from in front and control the action. Of the 12 playoff teams, Tennessee is the most underwhelming. After an 8-4 start against mostly subpar competition, it lost three in a row before a Week 17 desperation win over Jacksonville to get in. The Titans went 3-5 on the road, including some bad losses (57-14 at Houston, 40-17 at Pittsburgh) and even a bad win (12-9 in OT at Cleveland). Now, they have to play at one of the toughest stadiums in Arrowhead against a Chiefs team that went 6-2 at home. Kansas City had a midseason spiral, going from 5-0 to 6-6, but turned things around by closing on a four-game win streak. Three of those victories were at home, including a 30-13 prime-time win over the Chargers in Week 15. Expect a similar performance as Alex Smith finds success throwing to Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, setting up Kareem Hunt and the run game. Tennessee won a thriller at KC last year, 19-17, but it’s hard to see this being close. The Chiefs have the better all-around team and coach, and it will show in a never-in-doubt win. Call it Chiefs 27, Titans 13.
The pick: Chiefs
FALCONS (10-6) AT RAMS (11-5), 8:15 p.m.
TV: Ch. 4
Rams by 6.5; O/U: 48.5
This is the best matchup of the weekend, and proof that things change in a hurry in the NFL. On their way to the Super Bowl last season, the Falcons crushed the Rams, 42-14, in L.A late in the year. But these aren’t Jeff Fisher’s Rams. Atlanta is going to have its hands full with one of the most explosive teams in football. The Rams essentially had a bye last week, resting its big-name players in the regular-season finale. Sean McVay, a lock for Coach of the Year, turned L.A. into an offensive juggernaut, with an NFL-best 29.9 points per game. Just look at the Rams’ point totals in their 11 wins: 46, 41, 35, 27, 33, 51, 33, 26, 32, 42 and 27. Jared Goff and Todd Gurley will be tough to stop. Atlanta was up and down all season: From 3-0 to 4-4 to winning six of its last eight. The Falcons aren’t the same team as last year, and that’s been visible all season long as Matt Ryan and the offense haven’t repeated the success with new coordinator Steve Sarkisian. They settle for too many field goals. A year after scoring 30 or more points in 11 games, Atlanta did it only four times this season. Look for the Rams to start fast with McVay’s mastery on offense, then Wade Phillips’ defense can seal a statement win for a young team. Call it Rams 34, Falcons 23.
The pick: Rams
LOCK OF THE WEEK
BILLS (9-7) AT JAGUARS (10-6), 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 2
Jaguars by 6.5; O/U: 39.5
The Bills ending the NFL’s longest playoff drought, qualifying for the first time since the 1999 season, is a feel-good story on its own. Throw in the fact that Buffalo fans have donated more than $250G to Andy Dalton’s charity after his touchdown pass helped make it happen, and well, you got yourself a Hallmark movie in the works: “Un-BILL-ievable,” next Tuesday at 9 p.m. Lost in the Bills’ playoff return is the Jaguars themselves are back in it for the first time since 2007. Jacksonville clinched a playoff berth in Week 15, then gave up 44 points to the 49ers and lost to the Titans last week. Don’t be scared off by those two losses. In fact, it works in the Jags’ favor as an already dominant defense (second-best in points and yards allowed) will play with a bigger edge. The Jaguars finished the season on a 5-0 home win streak, including a “we’re for real” win over the Seahawks. Jacksonville will control this game on both sides of the ball, pounding Leonard Fournette 25-plus times against a Buffalo defense that allowed the fourth-most rushing yards per game (124.6) and an NFL-high 22 TDs. Blake Bortles won’t have to win this game, which is a good thing. LeSean McCoy is a game-time decision, and even with him, the Jags can cover this number. Jacksonville’s defense, led by Calais Campbell, makes a statement as Doug Marrone gets a win against his former team. Call it Jaguars 23, Bills 9.
The pick: Jaguars
PANTHERS (11-5) AT SAINTS (11-5), 4:40 p.m.
TV: Ch. 5
Saints by 6.5; O/U: 48
This is the toughest game to call. The old football axiom goes, “It’s hard to beat a team twice in one season.” Well, how about three times? The Saints and Panthers both finished 11-5, but New Orleans was the NFC South champion because it was 2-0 against Carolina: a 34-13 road win in Week 3 and a 31-21 win in the dome in Week 13. With a dynamic 1-2 punch in the running game with Mark Ingram and rookie sensation Alvin Kamara to go along with Drew Brees, as well as a solid defense, the Saints have the better all-around team and should be able to complete the three-game sweep. But it won’t be easy. With the spread being this high, it’s hard not to scoop up the points in what should be a hard-fought division game. Week 17 showed once again how these familiar contests are always tricky. Just ask the Saints themselves, who lost to a feisty four-win Bucs team on a last-second touchdown. Cam Newton and Carolina played one of their worst games in a Week 17 loss to Atlanta, so expect them to play with a chip on their shoulder. Luke Kuechly and the Carolina defense also have something to prove after allowing 30-plus points in the previous two games against the Saints. This should be a fun one. Saints win, but Panthers keep it competitive all game and cover. Call it Saints 27, Panthers 24.
The pick: Panthers
Staff picks and standings
(best bets in bold)
118-124-14, 4-13 best bets
Last week: 13-3
Chiefs Rams Jaguars Panthers
Last week: 9-7
Chiefs Rams Bills Panthers
Last week: 9-7
Titans Rams Jaguars Saints
Last week: 10-6
Chiefs Rams Jaguars Panthers