NFL playoffs: Bills are back, Vikings may never leave home
Can anyone unseat the Patriots in the AFC?
No one circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills.
And no one knows misery quite like the Bills. But now, the franchise that once lost four Super Bowls in a row is back in the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 season.
And so the playoff picture is set, with some regular customers sprinkled among many new faces.
Two-horse race in AFC
In the AFC, the top two seeds, the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers, are also last season's conference title combatants. The Patriots won handily, and then the Super Bowl.
Below them, the conference was mediocre. The third seed, the Jacksonville Jaguars, have Blake Bortles at QB. The fourth-seeded Kansas City Chiefs dropped games to the New York Giants and New York Jets amidst losing six of seven.
There's the Tennessee Titans, who run the "exotic smashmouth" offence, which sounds exciting, but just features too much running and not enough points.
The Bills clock in as the sixth seed after nearly blowing their season with Week 11's Nathan Peterman project. In typical Bills fashion, they may have to play the Jaguars without star running back LeSean McCoy, who was carted off the field in Week 17 (x-rays were negative, and he's a game-time decision).
So a Patriots-Steelers rematch at Foxborough seems likely. Despite being the MVP favourite, Tom Brady hasn't been at his best this season, throwing six picks in his last six games. Combined with the Patriots' 29th-ranked defence, there are some reasons to believe we will be spared of another New England Super Bowl appearance.
But not enough.
Pittsburgh's defence just hasn't been the same since linebacker Ryan Shazier was scarily lost for the season, and Pats tight end Rob Gronkowski is healthy for the playoff run. The game will be a shootout, and the Patriots will win. Again.
NFC more competitive
The NFC was the more competitive conference this season, by far. As such, the playoff field is wide open.
The first-seeded Philadelphia Eagles limp into the post-season without MVP-calibre QB Carson Wentz, who tore his ACL in Week 13, leaving the Eagles with Nick Foles. In his last five quarters, Foles has gone 23-49 for 202 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Yuck. They'll will likely be home underdogs in the divisional round.
The Minnesota Vikings also earned a bye. After their top two quarterbacks went down, the Vikings turned to Case Keenum, who suddenly played well after years of mediocrity. Combined with Minnesota's league-leading defence — both in points and yards — the Vikings are favoured to win the NFC and play the first-ever home Super Bowl game.
If the Eagles indeed lose in the divisional round, the Vikings won't ever have to leave Minnesota.
In Los Angeles, the Rams dumped head coach Jeff Fisher, turned to Sean McVay, and went worst to first in offence. Second-year QB Jared Goff has been steady, but the star is RB Todd Gurley, who led the league in touchdowns. Plus, the Rams boast the league's best defensive player in tackle Aaron Donald.
The bottom three NFC seeds all come from the South: the New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons. The Saints' offence was reignited by the thunder and lightning RB duo of veteran Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara. The Panthers leaned on their defence to win games, because Cam Newton was erratic. They'll need him to rediscover his MVP touch.
For the Falcons, it's all about avenging 28-3 — a lead they blew to the Patriots in the Super Bowl. A weird season saw Atlanta squander loads of talent with too many costly penalties and dropped passes. Seven of QB Matt Ryan's 12 interceptions were tipped off his receivers' hands, and I can't think of a better way to describe Atlanta's season.
It will be tough for the reigning NFC champions to defend their title, but they'll make the conference title game, only to lose to the Vikings in a rematch of the 1998 NFC championship.
Super Bowl pick: Vikings over Patriots.
Tennessee Titans (+9) at Kansas City Chiefs
The most interesting thing about this game is the broadcasting crew. Jon Gruden will be the colour commentator amidst heavy speculation that he will become head coach of the Oakland Raiders. On the field, there's the lacklustre Titans against another mediocre Chiefs team.
Pick: Yawn. Chiefs win and cover in a laugher.
Atlanta Falcons (+6.5) at Los Angeles Rams
There's two possible narratives for what should be the most exciting game of wild-card weekend. One, is the young Rams against the experienced Falcons. We see this every year, where a young team plays well all season but folds under the pressure of the playoffs, and McVay, Goff and Gurley are all making their playoff debuts.
The second narrative is that this year's Rams are last year's Falcons. Both teams entered the playoffs on a roll, and both feature speed all over the field and top-10 offences in the league.
Pick: On Saturday, the Falcons will avoid the dumb mistakes and prove the first theory true.
Buffalo Bills (+9) at Jacksonville Jaguars
What a weird matchup. Neither team trusts its QB. Buffalo benched Tyrod Taylor at one point, and Blake Bortles is Blake Bortles. Buffalo traded DT Marcell Dareus to Jacksonville earlier this season, only to see its run defence immediately collapse without him. Jacksonville's head coach Doug Marrone quit on the Bills in 2014.
Let's assume McCoy is healthy enough to play. Neither offence is particularly effective through the air, meaning a comeback is unlikely and early points will be huge.
Pick: The Bills will carry over momentum from Week 17, get that early score and Bortles will never recover.
Carolina Panthers (+6.5) at New Orleans Saints
The division rivals played twice this season, with the Saints taking both. It's tough to beat a team three times in a season, but the Saints should pull it off. Cam Newton struggled against New Orleans, failing to throw for 200 yards in either game. New Orleans will control the pace with their running game and defence, and oust Carolina.
Pick: Saints win and cover.