Black Quarterback: 2018 NFL Wild Card Preview and Picks
By Brandon Simmons
Playoff weekend has arrived for the 2017-2018 season. The AFC has some good matchups to keep you glued opening weekend but the NFC looks like a wide open slate from the top to the bottom.
Titans vs. Chiefs
The Tennessee Titans and Kansas City Chiefs will be opening the playoffs at Arrowhead stadium. The Chiefs come in as the AFC west champions but had a shaky road on the way there. After a 5-0 start, they wen 1-6 and sat on the verge of missing the postseason. However, they caught fire in December, winning 4 straight, scoring 25+ in each of the games. The Titans have not had as much luck, except until the end of the year where they got their playoff berth on a wild scenario. They went 1-3 in their last four games, in which the only victory was a 15-10 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Where they only scored 5 field goals.
Both teams look competitive on paper but there could be more to them. The Titans are not as high on offense as the Chiefs; but when it comes to defense, they are both just as weak as their counterpart against the pass as well as in scoring. These two teams also mirror each other in the strange technique of playing to their competition. You saw it with the Chiefs when they went into Foxborough and beat the Patriots decisively or lost 12-9 to the New York Giants. The Titans have those same tendencies beating the Seattle Seahawks 33-27 but losing 12-7 to the Arizona Cardinals.
The crazy thing is that both teams are built similar with slight differences. Each team has a quarterback who can get mobile, but the Titans have an obviously younger and quicker version. There is a tight end on both sidelines who can get down the field. However, when it comes down to it, the Chiefs have more wins playing in these types of games. They also have a slightly better offense. Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith doesn’t have to be better than Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota when he has pieces around him, such as running back Kareem Hunt, that can fly down the way. Look for the Chiefs to take this game in a close one.
Falcons vs. Rams
The Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Rams could really ruin some defense’s life this postseason; instead these teams will be trying to destroy the other’s unit on Saturday night. The Rams have enjoyed a turnaround which involved them winning the NFC West. In addition to their 11-5 explosion, the team has been on an offensive tear. Leading the league in scoring with a top 5 aerial attack, but not to mention, the dual threat running back in Todd Gurley II. The Falcons have been battling in the NFC South this whole season and made it in as a 6th seed. It has been their offense to keep them afloat as usual, but the defense has stepped up a little more this season.
The big attraction of these teams is their offense of course. Both squads reside amongst the top of categories such as points and yards. In addition to Gurley II, the Rams are equipped with a passing game headed up by quarterback Jared Goff while wide receivers Cooper Kupp and Sammy Watkins round out the arsenal of targets he has at his disposal. The Falcons have a similar build on offense with quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones connecting for plays down the field, along with wide receiver Tyler Gabriel, who has become sort of the 2nd option. The Falcons also have running back Devontae Freeman who provides a bulk of the rushing attack as well as some catching out of the back field when needed.
Ironically, it’s really going to come down to whose defense can get the most stops and get the right stops. Last Sunday, the Falcons were able to hold the Carolina Panthers to just 10 points because of how they took away the run as well as impact players such as Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey. Their last four games of the season they held opponents to under 100 yards rushing. So it’s a task they can do and will need to when they face Gurley; but he is a completely different story. He can easily slice you up with the run – as he has done in the last games of the season – and also cut you up with catching the ball. The Rams defense is not that good against the run, but they have an offense that score; However, the Falcons have recent experience slowing explosive running backs and will not let things get too crazy. Atlanta will sneak win this weekend.
Bills vs. Jaguars
Since both the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars are ending their long-standing playoff droughts with this game, you would think that they would be at each other’s throats for this matchup. However, it looks like only one team will have their season strangled before the game even begins. The Bills are making their first playoff appearance since 1999. They have had some close calls before this season, but none of them went through until the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday and sent Buffalo into the postseason. The Jacksonville Jaguars have not been to the playoffs since the 2007 season. Since then, it has been nothing but losing seasons and untalented quarterbacks. They seemed to have shaken off the losing seasons this year, but many argue they have not done anything for the latter.
This game is really going to go to the Jaguars because of what they can do on both sides of the ball and also what the Bills are lacking at the moment. Sunday, Bills running back LeSean McCoy suffered an ankle injury and has been questionable on whether he can suit up for this weekend. Even if he does, it still might not be enough to overcome the Jacksonville defense ranked, number 2 in the league. This unit’s strong suit is their defensive line, led by defensive end Calais Campbell’s 14.5 sacks. But if they can’t get pressure on the Bills’ mobile QB, Tyrod Taylor, look for the secondary to get an interception out of him, particularly cornerback A.J. Bouye, who finished the season 3rd in the league with 6.
Panthers vs. Saints
Just last week, these two teams were fighting for the NFC South crown on separate fields and will now face each other to move towards the Lombardi crown. The Carolina Panthers are coming off a 6-10 season last year – and two years removed from the Super Bowl – to go to 10-6 and 2nd in their division. The New Orleans Saints also had a turnaround going from 7-9 in the division to NFC South champs, including a sweep of Carolina in the regular season.
The Panthers and Saints are going to present a classic matchup of offense vs. defense. The Panthers defense has been great against the run, ranking 3rd in the league. This is going to be important as the Saints have renovated their running attack this year with running back, and rookie of the year candidate, Alvin Kamora. Between him, and running back Mark Ingram, the Saints have the run the ball effectively to keep the pressure off quarterback Drew Brees, so he can get his usual passing numbers and let the team remain one of the highest scoring teams in the league.
It’s hard to see this game get out of hand since these are division rivals but there are too many things stacking in the Saints’ favor. The Panthers look very questionable on offense. Outside of their running back group, can Panthers quarterback Cam Newton find a receiver to make plays down the field to keep up with the Saints? They traded wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin at the deadline and his replacement, wide receiver Devin Funchess, has not really lived up to that hype. If they do get into a shootout or a tight game, it will have to be the Carolina defense working hard to take away the run. But in both of those games against the Saints this year, the Panthers gave up 156 and 167 yards, respectively, on the ground. The Saints will probably struggle early on, because the Panthers will put up a fight, but expect New Orleans to come out on top in this one.
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