With the 2017 NFL regular season complete, it’s time to move on to the playoffs. This year’s postseason features a number of teams who didn’t make it past the regular season last year, as well as a team that hasn’t been in the playoffs in 18 years as the Bills make it to the postseason for the first time since the 1999 season, ending the longest active drought in the four major pro sports leagues in the U.S. The Bills aren’t the only new blood in this season’s playoffs; they join the Rams, Titans, Jaguars, Panthers, Saints, Eagles and Vikings as teams in this year’s field that weren’t there a year ago, which means 75% of this year’s playoff field is new, with the Steelers, Patriots, Chiefs and Falcons the holdovers. The Patriots and Steelers hold the AFC’s byes as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, respectively, and in the NFC the top two seeds are the Eagles and Vikings, who will wait until the divisional round to play as they vie for their spot in Super Bowl LII.
As I start picking the playoff games, I wrapped up the regular season with a record of 132-124 against the spread and 166-90 straight up.
No. 5 seed Tennessee Titans (9-7, Wild Card) at No. 4 seed Kansas City Chiefs (10-6, AFC West champions) (-8, over/under 44)
It was basically a tale of three seasons for the Chiefs in 2017. After starting 5-0 and being the last undefeated team in the league, they went 1-6 in their next seven games before finishing the campaign on a four-game winning streak. They’ll look to continue that momentum Saturday afternoon when they host the Titans, who are playing in their first playoff game since the 2008 season. Somewhat surprisingly, the Chiefs have the advantage at quarterback, based on how they played this season. Chiefs QB Alex Smith had a career year, throwing for 4,042 yards and 26 touchdowns in 15 games while throwing five interceptions, just one off from his career-best in that category. Titans QB Marcus Mariota, on the other hand, regressed from his 2016 production. He also played in 15 games, throwing for 3,232 yards, which was just a couple hundred behind last year. His 13 passing touchdowns, however, were half of the 26 he threw in 2016, and his interceptions increased from nine to 15.
The Titans could have an issue in the running game if RB DeMarco Murray can’t play. He missed the team’s Week 17 game with a knee injury, which could put his status for this weekend in question. Like Mariota, Murray’s production went down this season, running for just 659 yards and six touchdowns in his 15 games this season. He also had 39 catches for 266 yards and 1 touchdown. If he can’t go, the Titans have one of the league’s best backup running backs in Derrick Henry, who only had eight fewer rushes than Murray and totaled 744 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. The Chiefs have the best running back in the game with rookie RB Kareem Hunt, who ran for 1,327 yards and eight touchdowns, along with 53 receptions for an additional 455 yards and three touchdowns. The Titans don’t have great options in the receiving game. TE Delanie Walker‘s 74 receptions led the team; he had 807 yards and three touchdowns. WRs Eric Decker and Rishard Matthews had 54 and 53 catches, respectively; Decker’s catches went for 563 yards and 1 touchdown while Matthews had 795 yards and 4 touchdowns. The Chiefs had two pass-catchers who surpassed 1,000 receiving yards. TE Travis Kelce had a team-best 83 catches for 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns, and WR Tyreek Hill caught 75 balls for 1,183 yards and seven touchdowns.
Both teams were middle-of-the-pack in scoring defense, but the Chiefs were ahead of the Titans with 26 takeaways, compared to 21 for Tennessee. S Kevin Byard led the Titans defense with eight interceptions, and CB Marcus Peters five interceptions were the most on the Chiefs. Titans K Ryan Succop made about 83% of his field goal attempts this season and converted 31 of 33 PATs while Chiefs rookie K Harrison Butker was successful on 90.5% of his attempted field goals, and he made all 28 of his PATs in the 13 games he played.
The Chiefs have the clear advantage offensively in this game, while the defenses are pretty evenly matched. I’m not sold on Smith being one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, but I think the combination of Hunt, Hill and Kelce will be too much for the Titans to be able to keep up with them. I think the Chiefs win the game fairly easily. I’ll go with a 27-17 final score, which means I’m taking the Chiefs (-8) and barely over the 44 points, even though my projected score would be a push.
No. 6 seed Atlanta Falcons (10-6, Wild Card) at No. 3 seed Los Angeles Rams (11-5, NFC West champions) (-6.5, over/under 48.5)
After failing to hold onto a 28-3 lead, the Falcons ultimately lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl LI in February, and now they’re looking to get back to the Big Game for another shot at winning it. Playing in a second straight Super Bowl won’t be easy for the Falcons, though, as their offense this season isn’t nearly as good as it was a year ago. A big part of that is because of QB Matt Ryan, the 2016 NFL MVP who took a big step back this season. He threw for 4,095 yards and 20 touchdowns, which were his worst numbers since 2010 and 2008, respectively. He also threw 12 interceptions, five more than in 2016. In his second season in the league, Rams QB Jared Goff showed a vast improvement over his rookie campaign. He sat out the regular season finale so played in 15 games, throwing for 3,804 yards and 28 touchdowns with seven interceptions, matching the number of picks he threw in seven games in 2016.
RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman split the bulk of the Falcons’ carries, with Freeman leading the way with 865 yards and seven touchdowns on 196 rushes; Coleman ran for 628 yards with five touchdowns in 156 attempts. If you combine their stats, they pretty much match the production of Rams RB Todd Gurley, an MVP candidate. He carried the ball 279 times for 1,305 yards and 13 touchdowns, a nice bounceback performance from subpar numbers he put up in 2016. Gurley was also highly involved in the passing game, catching 64 balls for 788 yards and six touchdowns. Those numbers were better than pretty much all of the Falcons pass-catchers other than WR Julio Jones, who had 88 receptions for 1,444 yards but just three touchdowns. WR Mohamed Sanu‘s five receiving touchdowns led the Falcons; he had 703 yards on 67 catches. For the Rams, rookie WR Cooper Kupp had 62 receptions for a team-best 869 yards and five touchdowns. WR Robert Woods matched that touchdown total, and WR Sammy Watkins led the team with eight receiving touchdowns.
The Falcons had a better defense during the season in terms of points allowed — 315 vs. 329 — but the Rams’ 28 takeaways were the fifth-most in the league and significantly more than the Falcons’ 16, which placed them in the bottom five of the NFL. If the game comes down to kicking, the Falcons have a clear advantage with veteran K Matt Bryant, who was successful on 34-of-39 field goal attempts and converted all 35 of his PATs. With Rams K Greg Zuerlein going on IR after Week 16, they’re relying on rookie K Sam Ficken, who made two of his three field goals and went missed one of his five attempted PATs in Week 17.
I don’t think the Falcons have much of a chance to win this game, unless Ryan happens to return to his 2016 form rather than the way he played in 2017. Even then, Goff and Gurley may be too much for the Falcons to be able to keep up with them. To me, it’s not a question about which team wins the game, but rather what the Rams’ margin of victory will be. I think the Rams win by better than a touchdown, so I’ll go with the Rams (-6.5), 31-20, and over 48.5.
No. 6 seed Buffalo Bills (9-7, Wild Card) at No. 3 seed Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6, AFC South champions) (-9, over/under 39.5)
The Bills are the most surprising of the playoff teams to me, as I predicted them to win four games in my season preview. Even though they ended up going 9-7, I don’t think they’re as good as that record would indicate, and they’ll face an even tougher challenge in the game if they’re without their best offensive player, RB LeSean McCoy, who left Sunday’s game with a leg injury and whose status for this game is in question. Bills QB Tyrod Taylor played in 15 games this season, 14 starts, and threw for 2,799 yards and 14 touchdowns with just four interceptions. Jaguars QB Blake Bortles had a stretch of playing well during the season, ultimately throwing for 3,687 yards and 21 touchdowns on the year with 13 interceptions.
McCoy ran the ball 287 times this season, gaining 1,138 yards with six touchdowns. But if he can’t go, RB Mike Tolbert will likely get the start, and he had limited opportunities during the season. He played in 12 games but had just 66 rushes for 247 yards and one touchdown, and he was outgained on the ground by Taylor. If the Bills are without McCoy on Sunday, the Jaguars will have a significant advantage at running back with rookie RB Leonard Fournette, who ran for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns in 13 games. McCoy also led the Bills with 59 receptions, going for 448 yards and two touchdowns. TE Charles Clay, who dealt with injury issues during the season, had 49 catches for 558 yards and two touchdowns in 13 games, and WR Kelvin Benjamin played six games with the Bills after being traded by the Panthers, nabbing 16 receptions for 217 yards and 1 touchdown. WR Marqise Lee led the Jaguars with 56 catches in 14 games, totaling 702 yards and three touchdowns, but he is questionable for Sunday’s game as he recovers from an ankle injury. WR Dede Westbrook came on late in the season, finishing the year with 27 receptions for 339 yards and one touchdown in seven games.
The Jaguars had one of the best defenses in the NFL this year, allowing the second-fewest points in the league at 268, while the Bills allowed opponents to score 359 points. The Jags’ 33 takeaways also ranked second in the league, and the Bills were tied for ninth with 25. Bills K Steven Hauschka was 29-for-33 on field goals and converted all 29 of his PAT attempts. Jaguars K Josh Lambo played in the team’s last 10 games of the season, missing just one of his 20 field goal attempts and going 22-for-24 with his PATs.
Neither team has a great offense, but the Jags have the best offensive player in Fournette, especially if McCoy misses the game or is limited. Taylor and the Bills should have an especially difficult time moving the ball down the field against the tough Jaguars defense. This is the Bills’ first playoff appearance in a long time, but I don’t think it will last long. I’ll expecting the Jaguars to win a low-scoring game, 20-14, so I’m taking the Bills (+9) and under 39.5.
No. 5 seed Carolina Panthers (11-5, Wild Card) at No. 4 seed New Orleans Saints (11-5, NFC South champions) (-6.5, over/under 48.5)
The Panthers and Saints both went 11-5 this season, but I don’t think they’re as evenly matched as that would indicate. Panthers QB Cam Newton had one of the worst seasons of his career, throwing for 3,302 yards and 22 touchdowns with 16 interceptions, one off of the most he’s had in any season of his career. Saints QB Drew Brees also had a down year but performed better than Newton. He had 4,334 passing yards with 23 touchdowns and just eight interceptions, which almost matched his career-best of seven.
Newton led the Panthers with 754 rushing yards and six touchdowns, with RB Jonathan Stewart adding 680 yards and six touchdowns. Rookie RB Christian McCaffrey ran for 435 yards and two touchdowns, but his bigger contribution came in the passing game; he had a team-best 80 receptions for 651 yards and five touchdowns. The Saints had the best running-back duo in the league, with RB Mark Ingram leading the way with 1,124 yards and 12 yards. Rookie RB Alvin Kamara had 728 yards and eight scores on 120 carries. Both were effective in the passing game, as well, with Kamara grabbing 81 receptions for 826 yards and five touchdowns, and Ingram catching 58 balls for 416 yards. Panthers WR Devin Funchess had 63 receptions and led the team with 840 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. TE Greg Olsen missed much of the season, playing in just seven games and totaling 17 catches for 191 yards and one touchdown. For the Saints, WR Michael Thomas led the way with 104 catches for 1,245 yards and five touchdowns.
The Saints’ defense was improved over recent seasons, ranking 10th in the league in points allowed at 326, but the Panthers were right behind them at 327. The Saints had 25 takeaways, compared to the Panthers’ 21. Panthers K Graham Gano made all but one of his 30 field goal tries and missed three of 37 PATs. Saints K Will Lutz went 31-for-36 on field goals and 47-for-50 on his attempted PATs.
Of the four games this weekend, this one should feature the two best offenses. For the Panthers, Newton needs to avoid turning the ball over and Olsen, who returned from his injury a couple weeks ago, needs to be close to 100% and have a good game if they want to be able to beat the Saints on the road. I think the Saints are the better team overall and I trust Brees more than Newton with the way they played this season. I think Saints win 34-27, so I’ll go Saints (-6.5) and well over 48.5.
Based on the above picks, here is how I see the rest of the postseason playing out:
Saints beat the Eagles
Patriots beat the Chiefs
Steelers beat the Jaguars
Rams beat the Vikings
Steelers beat the Patriots
Saints beat the Rams
Super Bowl LII
Saints beat the Steelers
(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)