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Rebounds in season opener by Ben Simmons, who also scores 19 points

Wild Weekend

Posted by Eric Fisher On January 4

The Eagles have a hard-earned bye this week, making this a scouting week for the Birds’ potential opponents in the next round.

The Eagles, seeking their first playoff victory since the 2008 season could play the Falcons, Panthers or Saints in their playoff opener. None of these teams stands out as an easy opponent. On the other hand, none appears unbeatable, either. And that’s sort of the them for this year’s NFL playoffs.

There isn’t an overwhelming favorite in this year’s playoffs. The Patriots (13-3) and Steelers (13-3), both of whom have byes this weekend, seem a step above the rest of the AFC playoff field, but neither one is a dominant team.

The NFC is also without a dominant team. Furthermore, there is much more parity in the NFC. It would be shocking if the Bills, Titans or Jaguars emerged as the AFC representative in the Super Bowl, but nobody should be shocked by any of the six NFC playoff teams reaching the Super Bowl.

With the previous paragraph providing context, let’s take a look at this weekend’s wild card round matchups.

SATURDAY

AFC

TITANS AT CHIEFS, 4:30 p.m.

Titans (9-7): The Titans aren’t exactly riding a hot streak into the playoffs. After losing consecutive games to the Cardinals, 49ers and Rams, the Titans salvaged a wild-card berth with a victory over the Jaguars, who were already locked in as the No. 3 seed in the AFC, in their regular-season finale. Quarterback Marcus Mariota, whom many Eagles fans wanted the Eagles to trade up to select during the Chip Kelly era (error?), has struggled this season. He has thrown more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (13), resulting in an awful quarterback rating (79.3). Despite a 62 percent completion rate, Mariota hasn’t been accurate when not making “safe” throws. Derrick Henry (176 carries for 744 yards, 2 TDs) has taken over the No. 1 running back role from former Eagle DeMarco Murray (184 for 659, 6 TDs), who hasn’t practiced this week after suffering an MCL injury during a Week 16 loss to the Rams, but neither is a dynamic rusher. The Titans’ strength is their defense. They allow only 3.6 yards per carry, which ranks fourth in the NFL. The defense is good, but the Titans join the Bills as the only playoff teams which allowed more points than they scored this season.

Chiefs (10-6): The Chiefs have been a bit schizophrenic this season. They shot out of the gates with a 5-0 start, lost six of their next seven games, and then finished the regular season with four straight wins to secure the AFC West title. On the other hand, the Chiefs’ only victory since September over a team that finished with a winning record came Dec. 16 against the Chargers, and they haven’t defeated a team that made the playoffs since beating the Patriots and Eagles during the first two weeks of the season. The Chiefs have an explosive offense. Quarterback Alex Smith, previously known as a game manager who avoids mistakes and attempts at big plays, completed 67.5 percent of his passes this season while throwing for 4,042 yards and 26 touchdowns. Smith threw just five interceptions and compiled a quarterback rating of 104.7. Smith’s weapons include rookie running back Kareem Hunt, who rushed for 1,327 yards and eight touchdowns and caught 53 passes for 455 yards and three touchdowns. Tight end Travis Kelce (83 receptions for 1,038yards, 8 TDs) and Tyreek Hill (75 receptions for 1,183 yards, 7 TDs) are Smith’s top targets, and Hill is a dangerous punt returner. The Chiefs defense hasn’t been particularly good, but the Titans offense doesn’t present a major challenge.

Prediction: The Titans haven’t scored more than 24 points since Oct. 6. The Chiefs scored at least 24 points in 12 of their 16 games. And three of the four games in which they didn’t score at least 24 points all occurred during a three-game stretch in November. The Chiefs scored at least 26 points in all five of their December games. Those numbers don’t seem to add up to a Titans victory, although eight of their last 10 games decided by five or fewer points. The Titans may keep this game close, but the Chiefs have too much firepower, particularly in the passing game, for the Titans to match. Chiefs 24, Titans 19

NFC

FALCONS at RAMS, 8:15 p.m.

Falcons (10-6): The Falcons would be the defending Super Bowl champions if not for an epic collapse last season against the Patriots. After being the Super Bowl runner-up, the Falcons struggled this season before securing a return to the playoffs with a 22-10 triumph over the Panthers in their regular-season finale. With their formally high-powered offense looking rather pedestrian, the Falcons finished in the middle of the pack (15th) in points scored. They only averaged 18.6 points during their five December games, never exceeding 24 points. Perhaps, however, the Falcons’ struggles have been exaggerated. Four of those December games were against playoff teams, and the Falcons only allowed an average of 17 points per game during those games. In fact, their schedule featured 10 games against teams that finished with a winning record, including seven against teams that qualified for the playoffs. After a 4-4 start, the Falcons went 6-2 during the second half of the season, with the only losses coming against the Vikings and Saints. Matt Ryan (left) hasn’t played like an MVP, an award he won last season, but completed 64.7 percent of his passes and threw for 4,095 yards this season. The running back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman is a threat both running and receiving, and Julio Jones (88 receptions for 1,444 yards, 3 TDs) is one of the NFL’s best receivers. Add in Mohamed Sanu (67 catches for 703 yards, 5 TDs), and the Falcons’ offense – if healthy – still looks pretty impressive. With all of the focus on the offense, the secret is that the Falcons have the NFL’s 8th-ranked defense, which is why they were able to win 10 games despite an average-performing offense.

RAMS (11-5): Even though Matt Ryan has only been good rather than great this season, this game still features an MVP candidate. Rams running back Todd Gurley has rushed 275 times for 1,305 yards and 13 touchdowns and caught 64 passes for 788 yards and six touchdowns. Among the other targets for second-year quarterback Jared Goff (62.1 percent for 3,804 yards, 28 TDs, 7 INTs) is rookie Cooper Kupp (62 catches for 869 yards, 6 TDs), Robert Woods (56 for 781, 5 TDs) and Sammy Watkins (39 for 593, 8 TDs). The Rams average an NFL-best 29 points per game, but that average is inflated by some blowouts of bad teams. In their five games against teams that qualified for the playoffs, the Rams only reached 29 once (in a loss to the Eagles). Yet they crushed the Seahawks, 42-7, the week after the loss to the Eagles to sew up the NFC West title. Overlooked is the Rams defense, which, other than the loss to the Eagles and the meaningless regular-season finale against the 49ers, hasn’t allowed more than 24 points since Oct. 1.

Prediction: The Falcons want to follow the precedent set by the 2005 Steelers and 2010 Packers, both of which won the Super Bowl as sixth seeds. The Falcons warmed up for the playoffs by going 6-2 during the second half of the season, with the only losses coming against the Vikings and Saints. But the Rams, who made a remarkable turnaround this season, prepared for the playoffs with a second-half schedule that included four playoff teams: the Vikings, Saints, Eagles and Titans, as well as a crucial victory over the Seahawks. Both teams have underrated defense. Experience is on the side of the Falcons and Ryan, but Gurley might be the difference. On the other hand, the kicking game is important in the playoffs. The Falcons have steady veteran Matt Bryant; the Rams have Penn State alum Sam Ficken, who was signed in late December after the dependable Greg Zuerlein was injured. Falcons 24, Rams 23

SUNDAY

AFC

BILLS AT JAGUARS, 1 p.m.

Bills (9-7): The Bills took advantage of the opportunity provided by the Ravens’ loss to the Bengals by defeating the Dolphins in their regular-season finale to secure the final wild-card berth in the AFC. But the Bills don’t seem equipped for a deep playoff run. Former Eagle LeSean McCoy (left) is the leading rusher (287 carries for 1,138 yards, 6 TDs) and receiver (59 catches for 448 yards, 2 TDs) for the Bills, but he left the Bills’ regular-season finale with an ankle injury and did not practice Wednesday. McCoy isn’t the only key player on the injured list. Starting receivers Deonte Thompson (shoulder) and Kelvin Benjamin (knee) may be limited in the playoff opener. Thompson sat out Wednesday’s practice, while Benhamin was a limited participant. Tight end Charles Clay (knee), the Bills’ second-leading receiver (49 for 558 yards, 2 TDs) was also a limited participant. Former Eagles receiver Jordan Matthews is on injured reserve with a knee injury. Fewer healthy targets is the last thing quarterback Tyrod Taylor needs. Taylor only threw 14 touchdown passes this season. His quarterback rating (89.2) isn’t terrible, but Taylor is more adept at making big plays with his legs (427 yards rushing, 5.1 per carry, 4 TDs) than with his arm. The Bills are solid on defense, particularly in the secondary, where rookie Tre’Davious White and E.J. Gaines patrol at cornerback, but their offense didn’t exceed 24 points during the final nine games of the regular season.

Jaguars (10-6): The strength of this team is its defense. Defensive ends Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue both hit double digits in sacks with 14½ and 12, respectively, and defensive tackles Malik Jackson and Abry Jones and veteran middle linebacker Paul Posluszny control the middle. The beneficiaries of the pressure on opposing quarterbacks include shutdown cornerbacks A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey, who should be able to cover the Bills’ receivers one-on-one. Less settled is the Jaguars offense. Quarterback Blake Bortles (60.2 completion percentage for 3,687 yards) has improved this season, throwing 21 touchdowns, but he’s still erratic at times, as his 13 interceptions demonstrate. If leading receiver Marqise Lee (56 receptions, 702 yards, 3 TDs) can’t play due to an ankle injury, Bortles may have limited options. Leonard Fournette (268 carries for 1,040 yards, 9 TDs) is the anchor of the running game.

Prediction: Much of the pregame hype will be about Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone facing his former team, but I don’t know how much that matters. The Bills beat both the Falcons and Chiefs this season, winning both games by six points. But during the second half of the season, the Bills were 1-3 against playoff teams, losing by an average of 18 points and, even in the victory (over the Chiefs), never scoring more than 16 points. On the other hand, the Jaguars benefited from a schedule that only included four games against teams that qualified for the playoffs, including two against the division rival Titans. They were 1-3 in those games, with their biggest win of the season being a 30-9 shocker against the Steelers on Oct. 8. But the Jaguars were good against the “almost-playoff” teams, beating the Ravens, Chargers and Seahawks. It seems as if the Jaguars defense has a decisive advantage over the Bills if McCoy doesn’t play or is limited. Former Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott has done a tremendous job in leading the Bills to their first playoff berth since the 1999 season, but the Bills’ best chance for victory is to rattle Bortles into throwing interceptions. Jaguars 27, Bills 16

NFC

PANTHERS AT SAINTS, 4:40 p.m.

Panthers (11-5): The Panthers won seven of eight games, including wins over the Falcons and Vikings, before losing the regular-season finale against the Falcons, which cost them the NFC South title. Their strength is their defense. Linebackers Luke Kuechly (125 tackles), Thomas Davis (76) and Shaq Thompson (61) are outstanding. The Defensive ends Mario Addision and the ageless Julius Peppers registered 11 sacks apiece, and defensive tackle Kawann Short added 7½. The offense, however, is erratic. When it’s clicking on all cylinders, the offense can score in the 30s. When it’s not clicking, however, it can be limited to 21 or fewer points. A big reason for the fluctuations is the uneven play of quarterback Cam Newton. He is the Panthers’ leading rusher (139 carries for 754 yards and six touchdowns), but he only completes 59.1 percent of his passes and has thrown 16 interceptions while throwing 22 touchdown passes. His 80.7 quarterback rating is barely above Marcus Mariota’s as the worst among quarterbacks starting this weekend. Newton has appeared to develop a better chemistry with rookie running back Christian McCaffrey (80 catches for 651 yards, 5 TDs) as the season has progressed. If tight end Greg Olsen (17 catches for 191 yards), who missed both games against the Saints this season, is healthy, it will give Newton a reliable and comfortable target. The Panthers don’t have much speed at receiver. Jonathan Stewart (198 carries for 680 yards, 6 TDs) is the top runner besides Newton.

Saints (11-5):  There is some concern that the Saints peaked with their 8-game winning streak. That streak followed an 0-2 start, with losses to the Vikings and Patriots. Of more concern is the 3-3 record the Saints have posted the past six weeks, which included a split with the Falcons, a win over the Panthers and a loss to the Rams. But the key could be that all three of those losses came on the road, while all three of their wins during the final six weeks came at home. Since the loss to the Patriots in the second week of the season, the Saints are 7-0 at home. That streak includes wins over the Falcons, Panthers and Lions. The Saints are led by Drew Brees, who completed 72 percent of his passes this season for 4,334 yards and 23 touchdowns. Brees has a tremendous 103.9 quarterback rating. His weapons include receiver Michael Thomas (104 catches for 1,245 yards, 5 TDs) and running backs Alvin Kamara (81 catches for 826 yards, 5 TDs) and Mark Ingram (58 catches for 416 yards). Ted Ginn (53 catches for 787 yards, 4 TDs) is the home-run threat. The Saints have a balanced attack, with Ingram (230 carries for 1,124 yards, 12 TDs) leading the way. Kamara, part of an outstanding 2017 draft class that also includes starting cornerback Marshon Lattimore, starting safety Marcus Williams and starting right offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk, has carried 120 times for 728 yards and eight touchdowns. The Saints’ defense isn’t great, but it’s no longer a weakness.

Prediction: It’s very difficult to beat a division rival three times in the same season, which is what the Saints are trying to do on Sunday. Panthers tight end Greg Olsen missed both meetings between the teams this season, but Olsen doesn’t play defense, and the Saints scored 34 and 31 points in those two games. Brees’ quick release negates some of the Panthers’ pass rush. If Newton is at the top of his game, the Panthers certainly could beat the Saints. The Saints’ 3-3 finish down the stretch tempts me to pick the Panthers, but I’m not going against the Saints at home – even if this is the third time the teams have played. Saints 30, Panthers 26

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