NFL Wild Card Weekend
You spend all season waiting for one moment, and suddenly, it’s just a couple days away. And in a sense, it’s always weirdly anti-climactic.
For example: Who would have thought that Wild Card Saturday would start with the Titans at the Chiefs, followed by the Falcons at the Rams? And then, not to be outdone, Sunday would feature the Bills at the Jaguars?
It almost makes NFL prognostication a pointless exercise. The only division winners I correctly predicted were the Steelers and Patriots. I came up short everywhere else. That’s what happens when Aaron Rodgers smashes his collarbone and the Legion of Boom falls apart with injuries. Sigh. Oh well, there’s always next season.
Anyway, are you excited? I’m at an 8 out of 10, which I feel is high for Wild Card games. The heavy hitters are waiting for the real party to start in the divisional round. But this weekend will be a great warmup.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
Since the regular season has reached its end, let’s ditch the traditional power rankings. Instead, let’s focus on something else.
IMPORTANT NAMES IN THE WILD CARD ROUND
Sean McVay – The wunderkind has been lavished with praise for his amazing debut season in Los Angeles. And don’t get me wrong, that credit is well-deserved. However, this is grown man territory. You don’t get to face Chuck Pagano with Scott Tolzien at quarterback. Right off the bat, you get the defending NFC champs in a home stadium that hasn’t hosted a playoff game in decades. This is where reputations are made and McVay will have every decision scrutinized to the fullest. Let’s see if he’s up for the challenge.
Cam Newton – Which Cam are we going to get? The charming superman who talks smack to Clay Matthews and immediately delivers a touchdown pass? Or the clunky, grumpy gus who throws 5-yard hitch routes 10 feet over the receiver’s head? Whichever persona shows up, will determine the Panthers’ fate against the Saints.
Blake Bortles – Yes, we get it. It’s soooo fashionable to say Blake Bortles sucks. Make your jokes, post your memes and blah, blah, blah. However, you can’t argue with the facts: The Jaguars finished 10-6 and Bortles had the highest completion percentage of his career (60.2) and the fewest interceptions (13). I’ll say it: I’d like nothing more than for him to play well and shut his haters up for at least one week.
LeSean McCoy – I was as happy as anyone else to see the Bills’ ugly playoff drought end. However, it’s going to be a short trip if Shady can’t get recover from a sprained ankle suffered in Buffalo’s Week 17 win. Coach Sean McDermott says he’s “day-to-day,” which is a little encouraging. I can’t imagine McCoy won’t suck it up and make sure he’s out there on Sunday, because if he isn’t, his team is in trouble.
Tyreek Hill – When the Chiefs gets rolling, it’s usually because Hill – and tight end Travis Kelce – are stretching the field on deep passes. According to Pro Football Focus (via NFL.com), Hill leads the league in catch rate on downfield throws at 52.2 percent. If he breaks a big play on Saturday, look for Kansas City’s offense to feed off that. And it won’t be easy against a stingy Titans secondary.
Alvin Kamara – Here’s a quote from Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson regarding the Saints star rookie RB: “Oh, he’s going to feel it.” You can gather what he means. Carolina is going to hit Kamara as hard as they can on Sunday night. And they better, because the last time these two teams faced off, Kamara went off for 122 total yards and two touchdowns. If he gets going strong in the Superdome, Who Dat Nation will have a lovely day.
Deion Jones – The Falcons defense, once a laughingstock, has improved greatly as several young pieces have, as coach Dan Quinn said, taken “a big step from Year 1 to Year 2 just as you hoped it would happen.” And at middle linebacker, Jones is the man who anchors this unit. But he has quite the challenge this week as he faces off against Rams RB – and MVP candidate – Todd Gurley. If Gurley gets wherever he wants on the field, game over. It’s up to Jones to bottle him up. Good luck.
Sam Ficken – A kicker?! Yes, a kicker. The Rams once had the best special teams in the NFL by far. Then they lose Greg Zuerlein for the season to a back injury and they were forced to pull Ficken in off the street. The Rams went from an automatic option within 55 yards to a giant question mark. This game could very well come down to him. I imagine everyone on the L.A. sideline will be covering their eyes.
Derrick Henry – The Titans ruled out RB DeMarco Murray for Saturday’s game, which means the entire load will fall on Henry. And while the latter had 117 total yards in Week 17, 66 of them came on one reception, which means he needed 28 carried to gain 51 yards. The Titans offense works well when they can use their running game to set up play-action passes with Marcus Mariota. It’s up to Henry to find holes and keep from making negative plays.
Matt Ryan – The Falcons QB has probably seen the replay of James White crossing the goal line in OT every night since the Super Bowl. His road to redemption starts in Los Angeles this weekend. He has the same weapons he did last season. All it takes is one impressive win to start a momentum that can get them to Minnesota. It’s up to him.
WHAT’S THE CHATTER?
Bill Belichick: The Patriots head coach, despite not having a game in the Wild Card Round, is taking this week seriously. So seriously, that he demanded that everyone show up on time for practice on Thursday, despite the New England region being hit with a horrific storm. On one hand, I understand. After all, you’ve got a job to do and it’s up to you to show up. On the other hand, what a dick.
Bills Mafia: Did you see the videos of the Bills players celebrating wildly when their playoff spot was clinched thanks to the Bengals beating the Ravens? (Sorry, Baltimore, that was rough.) Even the most cynical of us had to smile at that. It’s true that NFL players are well-compensated for their work, but it’s really cool to see them care. And even better to see respected veteran DT Kyle Williams make the postseason for the first time in his career.
Marvin Lewis: Wow, the man will literally never lose his job. And you know what? I’m fine with that. I like the man. And the rest of the AFC North must be happy. Not like the Bengals will win a playoff game anytime soon. By the way, Pro Football Talk pointed out that 39 coaches have won a playoff game since Lewis was hired. And that number can grow this weekend. Yikes.
Chuck Pagano: Looks like the Ravens might get their old defensive coordinator back. And Dean Pees is gone. Can I finally make a joke about the latter’s last name? No? Too immature? OK, cool, nevermind.
Aaron Rodgers: Did you hear the rumor? He might be dating Danica Patrick? I don’t have a stance on this, I just thought it was interesting.
Titans at Chiefs: Give me Kansas City. And this will be a classic Chiefs win. Low-scoring and with few mistakes. Expect Travis Kelce to take control of the middle of the field, with Tyreek Hill hitting a big play. And from there, it’s a steady diet of Kareem Hunt and taking advantage of Marcus Mariota’s mistakes.
Falcons at Rams: Homer alert! Of course, I’m going with the Rams. Even though the Falcons have two dangerous running backs and L.A. isn’t great at stopping the run. Truth be told, I’m not all that confident, but I must steel my resolve and hope for the best.
Bills at Jaguars: Here’s to Blake Bortles. No matter what happens from here on out, you’ll have at least one playoff win under your belt. Give me the Jags all day.
Panthers at Saints: Cam Jekyll or Cam Hyde? I feel the good one show up. I like the Panthers to advance in a tight one.