NFL Wild Card Weekend game picks: Saints edge out Panthers


Those guys weren't even supposed to be there ...

It was late December back in 1996, and the upstart Jaguars found themselves taking on the Bills at Rich Stadium in Buffalo. Forget that they were a second-year expansion team -- they wouldn't have even made it to Wild Card Weekend had it not been for one of the most clutch kickers in NFL history (Morten Andersen, i.e., Vinatieri before Vinatieri) missing a gimme field goal in Week 17. Jacksonville was not even the new team fans were paying attention to, as the Panthers' mix of veteran free agents landed them a first-round bye. With that as the backdrop, call it any word one tick below shocking when Jacksonville handed Buffalo its pink slip. Not just any exit, either. This was the last hurrah for a Bills team coached by Marv Levy, with Jim Kelly under center and the rest of a nucleus that had reached four straight Super Bowls. No matter. The Jags put a 30-spot on them before advancing all the way to the AFC Championship Game.

After the wild-card win, much of postgame chatter was about left tackle Tony Boselli, who stonewalled Hall of Famer Bruce Smith time and again. Fellow Hall of Famer Walter Jones, who was a Florida State tackle at the time, told me he watched the game in admiration, calling Boselli "the premier technician." Natrone Means piled up 175 yards rushing behind Boselli and Co. -- and an even sweeter visor. Second-year head coach Tom Coughlin walked off the field of his first playoff game a winner. He did the same in a Divisional Round win at Denver, before Jacksonville ultimately fell in New England against Bill Parcells' Patriots -- a group that included a defensive assistant by the name of Bill Belichick.

If all goes well Sunday, Coughlin will see the Jacksonville team he now manages from the front office take one step closer to getting another crack at Belichick and the Patriots. (FYI: Coughlin did get the best of Belichick a few times in his Giants tenure. Just a reminder.)

Going over to the other conference ...

All of the games -- and their forthcoming results -- are detailed below. The Titans and Chiefs kick off Wild Card Weekend, but everyone I've talked to is really looking forward to Saturday night at the L.A. Coliseum. Always look forward to your thoughts: @HarrisonNFL is the place.

Now, let's get to it!

Elliot Harrison went 10-6 on his predictions for Week 17, giving him a record of 166-90 thus far this season. How will he fare in Wild Card Weekend? His picks are below:

Sunday, Jan. 7 @ 1:05 PM ET
Excited to watch this game. Excited to see if Tyrod Taylor can take over. With LeSean McCoy's uncertain status, Taylor will need to channel his inner Russell Wilson against the league's top secondary and pass rush. Remember that officiating fiasco in Seattle last year, which overshadowed Taylor and Robert Woods ballin' out for the Bills? Taylor used his legs effectively, while pushing the ball downfield in a manner at odds with the Bills' stock dink-and-dunkage. Of course, Buffalo can throw all the none-yard outs the world has to offer if Blake Bortles serves up a pick-six, or a couple of short fields on errant throws. Yeesh. So, on that note, Leonard Fournette will be quite important for the Jags. Unfortunately, his performance has been middling -- at best -- of late. Over his last five games, Fournette's rushing totals have read 25, 57, 101, 48 and 69 yards -- at a lowly 3.23 yards per tote over that span. Jacksonville's defense, which has allowed the second-fewest points in the NFL this season, might have to carry these Jags to a win. (Something the suffocating unit's certainly capable of.)

Fun fact: Of the 89 teams to make the playoffs with a top-two scoring defense in tow, 31 of them made it all the way to the Super Bowl. That's 34.8 percent, which is a number with legit meaning, given that the Jags are one of six combatants in the AFC (theoretically giving each a 16.7 percent chance).

(Not) Fun fact: Buffalo ranks last in scoring offense and scoring defense among all of the playoff participants.

Sunday, Jan. 7 @ 4:40 PM ET
As well as these defenses have played for most of the season -- particularly the Saints' unit -- these two teams tend to play high-scoring affairs. Look no further than their meeting one month ago, when they combined for 52 points. In years past, they nearly hit the 80 mark -- although that would be a little ambitious in the playoffs. Rookie CB Marshon Lattimore has set the tone for a Dennis Allen defense that propelled the Saints to the division crown. Mike Nolan has been an unsung hero as New Orleans' linebackers coach, getting steady production out of the position despite not having big-time personnel at his disposal. A.J. Klein, in particular, has fared well for Nolan. Meanwhile, the back seven as a whole has accounted for 20 picks -- third-highest in the league. That said, attacking those LBs in space should be a priority for Panthers OC Mike Shula and QB Cam Newton. Christian McCaffrey would catch 8-10 balls in that scenario (he and Alvin Kamara might tally 20 receptions between them). On the outside, Devin Funchess can't disappear for long stretches, as was often the case during the season. (Granted, he's been pretty banged up of late, nursing a balky shoulder.) Otherwise, Carolina won't be able to keep up if/when Drew Brees gets going. Especially if Cam continues his dismal performance on third down, when he is the second-worst-rated passer this year (59.8).

Fun fact: Kamara led all qualifying rushers in yards per carry (6.1) and all running backs in receiving yards (826). No rookie has ever pulled that off. Reggie Bush caught 88 balls his first year, but averaged just 3.6 yards per rush (barely half Kamara's figure).


Saturday, Jan. 6 @ 4:35 PM ET
The Chiefs can entertain multiple ways to win this game, starting with establishing NFL rushing leader Kareem Hunt early. The rookie tailback straight out of the MAC -- the Return of the Mack! -- carried the football only one time last week, so he has fresh legs. That said, the Titans match up well here, and gave up the fewest rushing touchdowns in the league during the regular season. The second way the Chiefs can prevail is through the air, where they own a clear advantage over Tennessee. Alex Smith posted the NFL's highest passer rating this season, while Marcus Mariota is the lowest-rated passer in the playoff field (yes, including Blake Bortles). Also worth noting: The Titans' pass defense finished 25th. The most obvious way for K.C. to advance, however, is to win the turnover battle. The Chiefs boast a whopping plus-nine in turnover diff over the past four games.

If Tennessee is to steal a win at Arrowhead, Derrick Henry must take over. The passing "attack" has been more of a passing suggestion. Mariota just hasn't been able to make teams pay for stacking up against the run often enough. For most of the regular season, the Chiefs' run defense ranged from terrible to subpar. Blame the free agency loss of Dontari Poe, as well as weak play from the ILBs. K.C.'s been better in this area of late, but you have to think Henry will have some openings. Will that advantage be enough for the Titans? No.

Fun fact: Kansas City is the first team with a 4,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard rusher, 1,000-yard wide receiver and 1,000-yard tight end since the 1981 Chargers. That San Diego squad made it to the AFC Championship Game ... but had no defense.

Saturday, Jan. 6 @ 8:15 PM ET
Taking the Rams at home in what should be an entertaining Saturday night game. The Falcons made it into the postseason with a couple of key wins over NFC South foes: the Saints on "Thursday Night Football" back in Week 14 and the Panthers last weekend. New Orleans was without Alvin Kamara for most of that matchup, which meant Atlanta could focus on Mark Ingram and make Drew Brees look elsewhere in the short passing game (like Josh Hill's general direction in the end zone). Carolina has been stunted all year in the passing game, even with Christian McCaffrey being the Panthers' version of Kamara. The Los Angeles offense presents an entirely different burrito, packed with different accoutrements. Not only can Todd Gurley catch the ball out of the backfield (64 grabs for 788 yards and six touchdowns), but the Falcons will be forced to respect Sammy Watkins vertically in the same way that all of their opponents must be mindful of Julio Jones. Don't forget the undervalued Cooper Kupp around the middle of the field. Rook seems to be in the middle of the action in big spots pretty routinely. (Even the plays he hasn't made have been relevant this year.) While these defenses are fairly even (slight edge to Atlanta), the Rams' multi-barreled attack will be too much.

Fun fact: Devonta Freeman and Gurley are the only NFL players with 3,000-plus rushing yards and 30-plus touchdowns over the last three seasons. This speaks to three things: 1) How productive Gurley was in 2017, because he was certainly unproductive in Jeff Fisher's offense. 2) The dearth of "franchise" running backs these days in the Emmitt Smith/Barry Sanders/Terrell Davis ilk. 3) Matt Ryan isn't the only part of the Falcons' offense folks should care about. Freeman could rumble for 100 yards Saturday night.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.



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