Last year, I said the playoffs were as open as they has been for a long time, with no team standing head and shoulders above the rest – and it probably was! As it turned out, the experience of the New England Patriots, and their knack of getting it done against tough opponents throughout the season, was enough to defeat the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead to get to the Super Bowl, and enough to beat the Los Angeles Rams once they got there.
This year, I don’t think the Super Bowl is quite as open. I expect the Super Bowl to be contested by one of the top two seeds in each conference, with everyone else, whilst good, there to make up the numbers.
One thing that strikes me this season is the lack of any team in the playoffs that really doesn’t deserve to be there. The Eagles, with the weakest record, have suffered with a lot of injuries, but are a worthy opponent for anyone. The Titans, sneaking in at the #6 seed in the AFC, have been very impressive since Ryan Tannehill became the starting QB. The Seahawks, at the #5 seed in the NFC, very nearly won their division (the toughest by far this year, too), and the Vikings at #6 had 10 wins with a net point differential in three figures. There’s no-one coasting in these playoffs, and unlikely to be anyone blown away.
That said, here’s a brief preview of each of the Wild Card fixtures:
Buffalo Bills @ Houston Texans
One way to see how good a team really is, is to examine how it fared against fellow playoff teams in the regular season. Last season’s Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots, came into the playoffs with a 100% record against fellow playoff teams.
Neither team here is quite that impressive. The Houston Texans have played six games, winning three. They’re 2-2 on the road and 1-1 at home. That said, their home loss was in week 17 against the Tennessee Titans, a game that meant very little. The win? They beat the New England Patriots 28-22 in week 13.
The Buffalo Bills have played five games, losing four. The good news? One of those wins was on the road, in week 5 against the Titans. Otherwise, they’ve lost twice to the Patriots (home and road, as divisional rivals), and at home to both the Ravens and Eagles.
According to my Power Rankings, the Bills are ranked #11 and the Texans #13, so they are closely matched. Both are better on the road. The Texans score more points, but the Bills have the #2 scoring defense in the league, trailing only the Patriots. The Bills had a slightly easier schedule (the NFC East ranks #8 by a long way, the NFC South ranks #2) in a *slightly* easier division (yes, the Patriots are good, but the AFC South had three viable teams for most of the season).
Most of my Power Rankings figures put the Bills a tad ahead of the Texans, which his annoying given the previous data about games against fellow playoff teams. If the Bills had a better offense, they’d be an easy pick here.
A 1-4 record against fellow playoff opponents is poor, but it’s hard to pick against the Bills here. The Texans have lost their last two games at home. Yes, one was week 17, but they also lost in week 14, to the Denver Broncos. And they lost it badly, 28-14, only a week after beating the Patriots. They only just beat the Colts and Raiders (both by 3), and the Bills are a tougher opponent than either of those.
The Bills, meanwhile, are 6-2 on the road, and whilst they haven’t beaten anyone better than the Titans (when Mariota was still the starter, too), they’ve won five of those games by 7 points or more.
It’s a really tough pick. My predictor really struggles with the Texans, because they’re just not a consistent team.
The predictor picks: the Bills (by 2.5 points).
Bills confidence level: 80%.
Texans confidence level: 0% (Yes, the predictor has, in effect, predicted against itself ?)
My pick: Buffalo Bills.
Tennessee Titans @ New England Patriots
Last year, as mentioned earlier, the Patriots had a perfect record against playoff opponents. This year, it’s only half as good. They’ve played six, won three. 1-1 at home, 2-2 on the road. At home, they’ve beaten the Bills and lost to the Ravens.
The Titans have played five, won two. That said, they’ve played one on the road, and won it. But it was the week 17 game that didn’t mean much to the Texans. Still, momentum. Something the Patriots don’t have after losing at home to the Miami Dolphins.
The Titans are, quite possibly, the most inconsistent team in football, but that’s in part because of their change at QB, which has improved the team as the season has progressed. They are, arguably, a slightly better team than their rating puts them (#10 in my Power Rankings, compared to #3 for the Patriots).
The Titans are another team that plays better on the road, but going to Ne England is a tough prospect, especially against the #1 scoring defense in the league.
On first look, and recent performances, I’d probably favour the Titans. Especially as Derrick Henry might run straight through the Patriots’ defense. But on a slightly deeper inspection, there’s good reason to keep trusting in a home win for the Patriots.
First, on the Patriots’ side. They don’t often lose two straight games. Their week 16 win against Buffalo was also very impressive, so the Dolphins game was probably an outlier. But furthermore, the Patriots had no takeaways in their last two games. Cause for concern? Maybe. Or perhaps they’re overdue a couple. And when the Patriots win the turnover battle, they almost always win, except against the very best (and, Titans fans, you’re not quite in that bracket).
The Titans have not played a close road game all season. The closest was in week 9, where they lost by 10 to the Carolina Panthers. They’ve also lost to the Jaguars and Broncos. Their road wins? They came against the Texans (week 17, not wholly competitive), Falcons, Browns, Colts and Raiders.
So whilst this Titans team has a good road record, it’s not as good as it should be for the opponents they’ve faced. That said, the Patriots’ point differential in their first four home games was +81, compared to +1 in their last four.
I think I will again trust the more consistent data set (the Patriots at home), despite this having more than a whiff of an upset written on it.
My predictor picks: the Patriots (by 0.5 points).
Titans confidence level: 0% (again ?).
Patriots confidence level: 100%.
My pick: New England Patriots.
Minnesota Vikings @ New Orleans Saints
Of the four games this weekend, this is, on paper, the easiest to predict. The Saints are a strong home team, and have won six of their eight home games this season. An inexplicable loss to Atlanta in week 10 aside, the Saints have been consistent at home. They did lose in week 14 to the San Francisco 49ers (48-46), but they also beat the Texans, Cowboys and Colts. However, four of their games were decided by 3 points or fewer, so don’t expect this to be a blowout game (although it might be… I’ll come back to that).
The biggest issue for the Saints is their defense. They’ve kept opponents to 10 points or fewer three times this year, but in the other five games, they’ve allowed 24 points or more.
The Vikings, on the other hand, are 4-4 on the road. None of those wins come against playoff teams. They lost the Kansas City by 3, to Green Bay by 5, and to Seattle by 7. But they have kept the games close, so it still doesn’t look unmanageable for the Vikings.
According to my Power Rankings, the Saints are ranked #4, and the Vikings are ranked #7. The Saints score about 3 points per game more, but allow about 2.5 points per game more too. The Vikings score better on the road (28 PPG vs 25.5 PPG), whereas the Saints give up more at home (25 PPG vs 21.5 PPG).
But there is one area that makes it look like the Saints should have this covered. The Saints have played seven games against a top ten rushing offense this season:
|San Francisco 49ers||#2||Home||Lost by 2
|Tennessee Titans||#3||Road||Won by 10
|Seattle Seahawks||#4||Road||Won by 6
|Dallas Cowboys||#5||Home||Won by 2
|Indianapolis Colts||#7||Home||Won by 27
|Houston Texans||#9||Home||Won by 2
|Arizona Cardinals||#10||Home||Won by 22
As you can see, aside from a loss to the 49ers, which I’ll put down to being beaten (in a close contest) by a better team, the Saints, with the #4 rushing defense in the league, have had the better of opponents whose game relies mainly on the run.
The Vikings rank #6 rushing and #23 passing.
Against playoff opponents, the Vikings are 1-4 (20%), and the Saints are 3-1 (75%).
My predictor picks: the Saints (by 0.5 points).
Vikings confidence level: 100%.
Saints confidence level: 83%.
My pick: New Orleans Saints.
Seattle Seahawks @ Philadelphia Eagles
This is the only game of Wild Card week that’s a repeat of the regular season. These teams met in week 12 in Philadelphia, where the Seahawks won 17-9.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the Eagles went 9-7 in the regular season, and the Seahawks went 11-5, my Power Rankings rank the Seahawks #14, and the Eagles #9. Well, it’s mainly the home form. The Seahawks have struggled at home, posting a 4-4 record and allowing a lot of points (they lost two home games by two scores). Thankfully for them, their road record is much better (7-1).
Indeed, they’ve won both their road games against playoff opposition, as not only did they beat the Eagles in week 12, but they also beat the 49ers 27-24 in week 10. Their only road loss was to the Rams in week 14, by 28-12.
The Eagles are 5-3 at home, but haven’t beaten any playoff opponents. Their three losses were to the Lions (week 3), the Patriots (week 11) and the Seahawks (week 12, if you didn’t pick that up before now).
The Eagles are 2-3 overall against playoff opposition. The Seahawks are fractionally better at 3-3.
My predictor picks: the Eagles (by 2.5 points).
Seahawks confidence level: 67%.
Eagles confidence level: 100%.
My pick: Seattle Seahawks.
Of the teams playing this week, I only see the New Orleans Saints as outsiders for the Super Bowl. However, in order to get there, they need to win this week and then win at Lambeau Field in the Divisional Round, which is a tough ask given it’s always likely to be cold there in January, and the Saints are an indoor team. I don’t see any of the other teams troubling the Super Bowl.
If the Patriots win this week, they’ll travel to Arrowhead, where I fancy the Chiefs to take care of them (in what would be a repeat of last year’s AFC Championship, albeit a week earlier). I don’t see any of the four AFC teams playing this week causing sleepless nights for the Baltimore Ravens (the Chiefs would cause them concern, though).
On the NFC side, the Vikings are too reliant on the run, the Eagles are too banged up and the Seahawks just don’t quite score enough points. If the Saints can win this week and at Lambeau, a trip to San Francisco might be a very interesting game. But overall, the top seeds deserve their byes – they are, for me, the best teams in the league this year.
And if I had to pick the one game that’s most in-the-air this week, it would be the Bills-Texans game. I may have picked the Bills, but for me, it’s on a knife-edge.
See you next week when I’ve got them all wrong, and the Texans have just blown out the Bills 59-0!