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2017 NFL Playoff Preview – Wild Card Weekend

2017 NFL Playoff Preview – Wild Card Weekend

The regular season in the NFL has come to a close and now it is time to get real serious. Twelve teams have been able to get through 16 games in order to make it this far, but within the next few weeks we will see who comes out as the best from the AFC and the NFC where they will meet in US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis for Super Bowl LII.

The wild card games will take place this weekend, and these games are looking like enticing matchups. Let’s get into who is involved in each game and what to watch for in them.

AFC

Buffalo Bills at Jacksonville Jaguars

An interesting wild card game here as we have two teams that have been in playoff obscurity for at least ten years. The Jaguars will host this game as the AFC South champion, which came as a shock to many as they had not posted a winning season since their last playoff appearance in 2007. Led by a defensive that gets to the quarterback and a secondary that forces a lot of turnovers, they hope to get far in the playoffs. On the offensive side of the ball, rookie Leonard Fournette has been a force as long as he is healthy. He ran for over 1000 yards in the regular season and nine touchdowns. Blake Bortles has shown some improvement at quarterback, but there have been times where he has slipped up. In the last two games, he has thrown five interceptions. That has to be corrected for them to make a run to the Super Bowl.

Their opponent is one that has not reached the playoffs since 1999. Buffalo got in the postseason due to a win over Miami in the last game of the regular season combined with the loss by the Baltimore Ravens. First year head coach Sean McDermott will have his team prepared with or without their leading rusher LeSean McCoy as he suffered an ankle injury against the Miami Dolphins. Tyrod Taylor will have to step up and produce, even though he has had an up and down year which includes being benched for one game. He has to make big plays for the Bills to have a good chance to get past the Jaguars on Sunday afternoon. Buffalo’s secondary is no slouch as Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde, and Tra’Davious White combined for 14 interceptions this season. If the front seven can get pressure on Bortles it could lead to that trio making plays on the ball for the Bills.

Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs

Arrowhead Stadium will be the site of the first Wild Card Game which will have the Chiefs hosting the Titans. Both teams have had their ups and downs this season, particularly the Chiefs who at the beginning of the season looked like the best team in the NFL. Their offense racked up a lot of yards as their rookie running back Kareem Hunt led the league in rushing and Alex Smith had over 4000 passing yards (yes, THAT Alex Smith). They also scored nearly 26 points a game which is ranked sixth in the league. Coach Andy Reid hopes to utilize his playbook with Smith, Hunt, and receiver Tyreke Hill and tight end Travis Kelce against a defense that was fairly average but also forced a lot of turnovers and touted a stingy run defense. Their linebacker core with Wesley Woodyard, Avery Williamson, Brian Orakpo, and Derrick Morgan cause some havoc in the backfield as Morgan leads the team in sacks with Orakpo right behind him in that department. Woodyard is the team leader in tackles. Up front, Jurrell Casey clogs the line up and gets stops. The secondary will be called upon to counter the quick hitting routes of Hill and the crisp route running by Kelce. Kevin Byard led the NFL with eight interceptions and he has Adoree Jackson with him plus Logan Ryen and Jonathan Searcy.

Tennessee’s offense had been based on the play of quarterback Marcus Mariota, and this season has been somewhat of a struggle for him. He has been injured and missed one game this season plus threw more interceptions than touchdowns for the first time in his career. He has to be more patient in the pocket and make the right plays for the Titans to be successful in this game on Saturday. In the backfield, Derrick Henry will be at full strength to run the ball but his running mate DeMarco Murray most likely won’t be there with him as he has a MCL tear on his knee. Henry may have to step up on his production plus big plays by Delanie Walker, Eric Decker and Rishard Matthews in the passing game will be key to the Titans’ success against Kansas City.

The Chiefs defense relies on their secondary to make plays on the ball as they are responsible for the team being ranked in the top ten in turnovers forced and interceptions. Marcus Peters and Terrance Mitchell lead the way with five and four interceptions respectively and linebacker Justin Houston leads the team in sacks with 9.5 this season. They will want to pressure Mariota to force bad throws which the secondary could capitalize on. It may take some backups to get the job done as Benny Logan, Jarvis Jenkins and Rakeem Nunez-Roches are either questionable for this playoff game or out.

NFC

Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams

Atlanta has the chance to return to the Super Bowl, but it will be a tougher road as they will be the sixth seed in the NFC and have to play on Wild Card Weekend against this season’s NFC West Champions, the Los Angeles Rams. The Rams have been one of the surprise teams in the NFL as they have one of the most dynamic offenses in the league. Head Coach Sean McVay did a great job utilizing running back Todd Gurley who leads the NFL in touchdowns scored and the quarterback Jared Goff impressed a lot of people in his 2nd season behind the pocket. Los Angeles uses a lot of weapons in the passing game, which includes Gurley and and receivers Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, and Sammy Watkins. It will take a lot of planning by Atlanta’s defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel to come up with a scheme to counter this offensive attack. He does have good pass rushers on that side of the ball with Adrian Clayborn, Vic Beasley, and Takkarist McKinley among the front seven. Clayborn will be dealing with some pain in his calf but will suit up on Saturday night. The defense will have to get more plays on the ball when Goff throws it, as they have only eight total interceptions this season with the team leader having just three.

Matt Ryan struggled a bit this season after his MVP performance in 2016. His numbers were down across the board including completion percentage, touchdowns, and total yards. The drop in production trickled down to the running game as well with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined having less yards than last season. It will be up to Steve Sarkisian to come up with a versatile playbook to use against a defense that gives up a lot of yards, but not a lot of points. Part of the reason for that is because they force a lot of turnovers. Their 3-4 philosophy implemented by Wade Phillips has them top 5 in the league in forcing turnovers and defensive end Aaron Donald is once again showing why he is a terror on the line of scrimmage, accumulating 11 sacks this season. The secondary led by Lamarcus Joyner and Trumaine Johnson makes sure that opposing receivers don’t do that well against them, but they will be dealing with Julio Jones who is arguably the best receiver in the NFL. The Falcons also have Mohammed Sanu on the other side, giving the Rams another big receiver to deal with. We will see if the Falcons can turn their proverbial switch on for the playoffs for them to have another shot at an NFL championship.

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints

This will be the 3rd meeting between the two this season, and it will be a chance for the Saints to beat the Panthers three times. New Orleans won the NFC South with an offense that was one of the best in the NFL and the story of the team has been the performance of the running backs – Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. They have been responsible for 25 touchdowns scored this season. Ingram is among the league leaders in rushing and Kamara dazzles with his speed and elusiveness from the backfield. Alvin also has scored on special teams. Drew Brees may not have thrown for as many yards or got touchdowns as he used to, but he was efficient with his throws as he amassed the highest completion percentage and the lowest amount of interceptions during his time in New Orleans. He plans to do that in this game against a defense that gave up 400 yards in their last meeting on December 3rd. Carolina head coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Steve Wilks will have to clean that up for them to have a shot at getting to the divisional round. They do have Luke Kuechly as their leader on the defense, but he is the only one on the Panthers who was named to go to the Pro Bowl. He has the most tackles, interceptions, and fumble recoveries on the team. Other players like Julius Peppers and Mario Addison get to the quarterback often, but it has not worked against a Saints offense that can get rid of the ball quickly.

Cam Newton is two years removed from his MVP season and with 22 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, he has looked average on the field in 2017. Some may say that he has been even worse, as he has thrown for 300 yards just twice this season. Even with that, the Panthers were able to finish with an 11-5 record. A key factor for that is the running game as they use a lot of running backs and Newton still breaks from the pocket to get yards. He is the team leader in rushing yards but they also have Jonathan Stewart and rookie Christian McCaffrey getting the bulk of the carries. If Carolina wants to get the win here, they may have to control the time of possession and limit how many times the Saints offense gets the ball. On the other side, the Saints defense has improved a lot from last season going from being a squad that was ranked among the worst in points allowed to being in the top ten this season. They have a secondary that gets a lot of interceptions led by rookie Marshon Lattimore and free safety Marcus Williams. Their opportunistic approach gives them more chances at getting to Newton as defensive end Cameron Jordan had a good year with 13 sacks. If the defense pressures Cam a lot in this game, it could lead to turnovers which would be a bad situation for the Panthers.

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