Steve O’Rourke: There’s rarely anything wild about Wildcard weekend

20 min

It’s called Wildcard weekend but rarely does it live up to the billing. Indeed, even back in January 2016, when all four road teams won for the first time, three of those teams were favourites going into the game, and the other was the Green Bay Packers led by Aaron Rodgers. For what it’s worth, the other match-ups saw Alex Smith beat the Texans with Brian Hoyer, Ben Roethlisberger best the AJ McCarron-led Bengals and Russell Wilson overcome Teddy Bridgewater’s Vikings. So no big surprises.

And while I’m loathe to sit on the fence and just pick home favourites this weekend, the following long-term NFL trend is something that should be in the back of everyone’s minds before taking a position.

Since 2001, road underdogs who enter the postseason on a less-than-two-game win streak — just like all the road teams this weekend — are just 13-39 straight up, and 20-30-2 against the spread.

That figure actually drops to 12-23-1 against the spread over the same period when the road team is getting a field goal or more, as is the case with all of this weekend’s games.

Indeed, in general none of this weekend’s road teams do particularly well when they are underdogs away from home. Over the past five seasons, only Carolina has a positive record against the spread while getting points on the road (59.1%) followed by Atlanta (48%) Buffalo (46.7%) and Tennessee (37.9%). That is something worth keeping in mind.

Tennessee Titans @ Kansas City Chiefs – Saturday, 9.25pm

After saying all that, the last time the Kansas City Chiefs won a home playoff game was in 1993 — with Joe Montana at quarterback — versus Warren Moon’s Houston Oilers. Of course, since 1997, the Houston Oilers have been known as the Tennessee Titans so it’s somewhat apt that these two pair off again this weekend.

Given the weather that could be in store this weekend, the rushing game might be crucial in this match-up. Despite a midseason dip, Kareem Hunt’s 35-yard touchdown run — his only play of the game last weekend — was enough to see him win the NFL’s rushing title, becoming the first rookie not selected in the first round to lead the league in rushing since Cincinnati’s Paul Robinson led the AFL with 1,023 rushing yards in 1968. Indeed Hunt’s 1,782 scrimmage yards accounted for 29.6% of his team’s total offensive yards this season so expect him to have a massive say in the result of Saturday’s early game.

Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith will look to carve open a vulnerable Titans secondary on Saturday night.

The Chiefs have also been quite good on the other side of the ball over the past few weeks, giving up 15 points or fewer in three of their last four — or 16.25 per game — five points fewer than their season average of 21.2 per game.

With the Titans averaging just 17 points per game as they finished the last quarter of the season 1-3, it’s little wonder that Kansas City fans are happy to be facing Tennessee and not the high-powered offense of the Chargers.

That’s not to say the Titans are without a chance in this game. For as stingy as they have been on defense in terms of points, the Chiefs ranked dead last in the league against the rush in terms of DVOA (and weren’t much better, 23rd, against the pass). Tennessee ranked in the middle of the pack in terms of yards (1833) this year, but do rank in the top-10 (8th) in rushing DVOA. The status of DeMarco Murray — following his Grade 3 MCL tear in week 16 — is still up in the air but Titans coaches are confident he can take his place in their triple-threat ground attack alongside Derrick Henry and Marcus Mariota.

The Chiefs go into Saturday’s game as eight-point favourites. While they had the second-best against the spread record (10-6) in the league this season, it’s worth noting that their average margin of victory was just 4.8 points. With that in mind, and though I expect Kansas City to win, I’ll be taking the Titans with the points. I also think the under (44.5) is an easy play in this one.

Atlanta Falcons @ LA Rams – Sunday, 1.15am

There are two things I was almost certain about this season that I got badly wrong. One was that the Cleveland Browns would make steady progress and win ‘at least’ five games. The other was that the Atlanta Falcons would fail to reach the postseason, suffering the same Super Bowl loss hangover we see so many teams fall victim to.

However, while the Browns being the Browns might not be all that surprising, I’ve watched most Falcons games this year and I’m still shocked they made the postseason.

Even though the offense retained largely the same group of players, they’d dropped from the number one ranked unit in the league — with 540 points on 995 plays — to 15th, with 353 points on 984 plays. Regular readers will know that I put the blame for this not just on Matt Ryan, who has certainly returned to his old self after an MVP year, but the loss of Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator.

The especially strong play of QB Jared Goff this season has been a major plus for the Rams.

While Atlanta had its struggles on offense this year, a minor miracle has occurred in LA where the Rams have gone from the league’s worst offense — scoring just 14 points per game last season — to the best in the NFL with a whopping 29.9 points per game this year. And while the improvement on defense has not been as dramatic — conceding 24.6 per game last year compared to 20.5 per outing this season — that 20-point swing has proven crucial to their brilliant season.

The Rams chose to rest their starters last week, something I’m personally against because injuries are a part of the game and a key player is as likely to be hurt on the first snap of a playoff game as they are in a week 17 fixture. However, the Rams bye was all the way back in week eight so I can understand Sean McVay’s thinking and there’s a reason he’s almost a certainty for Coach of the Year honours.

The Rams are 6.5-point favourites and I think they’ll justify that spread with a comfortable win in the early hours of Sunday morning. Indeed, it’s the pick I’m most confident in this weekend. I will also be taking the over (48.5) in this one.

Buffalo Bills @ Jacksonville Jaguars – Sunday 6.05pm

Here’s the thing about Jacksonville. Sure, they didn’t need to win last weekend against the Titans, and they didn’t really need to win the week before against the 49ers, but the performance of the offense in the former and the defense in the latter could raise an eyebrow or two if you’re a believer in momentum.

However, the fact remains that there’s very little evidence for momentum when it comes to the playoffs. While teams entering the postseason with two victories win their first playoff game approximately 47% of the time, those losing their final two regular-season games have a 44% win rate in their postseason opener (and teams with a 1-1 record have a 53% win rate). All of which tells you that NFL teams find it quite easy to forget the regular season.

The Jaguars Defense has been one of the best against the Pass this year but have struggled against the Run.

That said, the Blake Bortles issue is one that Jacksonville might not be able to overcome. When ahead or tied this season, the former UCF quarterback has completed 199 passes (61.6%) for 16 touchdowns and four picks. While behind, the 25-year-old’s completion rate drops to 58% — not a huge fall — but more significantly he has just five scores to nine interceptions. He also tends to hold onto the ball for longer when trailing and that results in more sacks — 14, compared with just six while leading.

For the Bills, one of the lowest-scoring offenses in the NFL with just 18.9 points per contest, the status of LeSean McCoy is going to be critical.

Ankle injuries are kryptonite for running backs because, even if you control the pain, trying to make a cut when you don’t trust your leg not to buckle underneath you is going to slow you down.

This is unfortunate for Buffalo as the Jags are susceptible to the run and, even with the addition of former Bills defensive lineman Marcell Dareus, rank just 26th on the ground in DVOA. Tyrod Taylor, however, could have a big day with his feet.

For me, this is actually the toughest game of the weekend to call because, if the Jags get into an early lead, they’ll comfortably cover the nine-point spread.

However, if Buffalo can score early, it’s going to be a much closer affair. My gut says Jacksonville will cover, but I’m probably not going to put my money where my mouth is. However, I will be taking the over 39.5 points because these are two teams not used to playing postseason football and mistakes — and unexpected scores — will happen.

Carolina Panthers @ New Orleans Saints – Sunday, 9.40pm

Three is the magic number. A rare divisional Wildcard match-up means these two will face-off for a third time this season. There has only been one team in it to date with the Saints outscoring Carolina 65-34 and forcing six turnovers in the process. That has been the modus operandi for New Orleans on defense this season and will take heart from the three interceptions Cam Newton not only threw last week against the Falcons — including the game-deciding play — but also the three picks he had when the pair first met in September.

Despite his struggles at times this year, Newton has been responsible for 4,056 yards of Carolina’s 5,179 offensive yards and he led the Panthers in rushing in seven of their 16 games; running for 754 yards, the most among NFL quarterbacks. Just four of their 11 wins have come against teams who have made the playoffs and, while those victories were over the Patriots, Eagles, and Vikings, they also have a loss to the Bears on their record that is really difficult to look past.

Panthers QB Cam Newton will have to feature prominently on Sunday night for Carolina to escape from New Orleans with a win.

For the Saints, the formula is simple. Create turnovers on defense and look to both Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara to lead in the way in the running and short-passing games.

The pair became the first running back team-mates in NFL history to pass 1,500 scrimmage yards in the same season. In their 11 wins, New Orleans averaged over 150 yards per game on the ground this season, but just over 81 rushing yards in the five games they lost. And even though Carolina’s defense is ranked sixth in DVOA against the rush, the Saints ran for 149 and 148 yards in their two previous match-ups.

My one concern for New Orleans is on the offensive line where starting left tackle Terron Armstead, who suffered a thigh injury in week 16, sat out last week’s loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Armstead is one of the most athletic tackles in the league and the drop off is significant if the Saints have to move Andrus Peat from left guard to left tackle, putting Senio Kelemete in at left guard.

It’s hard to beat a team three times in a season but I do think the Saints will get the job done, even with the 6.5-point spread. I also think there’s very little chance the game goes under the 48-point total given how good both these offenses can be when they hit their stride.

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