Titans (5) @ Chiefs (4) (Saturday January 6; 4.35 p.m. E.T. on ESPN/ABC)
Nothing demonstrates the weird averageness of the AFC this season quite as well as this matchup. The Titans sprinted out to 8-5 and looked to be challenging the Jaguars for the AFC South before listing badly, then pulling out a win when it really mattered against Jacksonville in Week 17.
The Chiefs kind of did the same, beating the New England Patriots in Week One and powering out to 5-0 before a run of six losses in seven games. Andy Reid’s team responded to the threat of throwing away the AFC West by winning four in a row, as Kareem Hunt and Alex Smith found their groove again. The division title was wrapped up with a game to spare, enabling Reid to play Patrick Mahomes against the Broncos.
The Chiefs should be favorites given a bevy of talent on offense, but the Titans have a stout run defense and proved earlier in the year that they can run the ball themselves with DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. Marcus Mariota is an unknown quantity in his first-ever playoff game, though, and that may give Kansas City a narrow advantage.
Prediction: Titans 21 Chiefs 24
Falcons (6) @ Rams (3) (January 6; 8.15 p.m. E.T. on NBC)
Ouch. The Rams’ reward for a fine season under rookie head coach Sean McVay is to host the defending NFC Champion Falcons in Los Angeles. There have been easier assignments for a third seed, which is mostly thanks to the Falcons never quite waking up all season and generally conforming to the stereotype of a Super Bowl loser with a hangover.
The Rams will unleash MVP candidate Todd Gurley on a Falcons defense that always seems to come alive when the playoffs begin. Like Mariota, Rams quarterback Jared Goff has no playoff experience to fall back on. Matt Ryan does, and expect him to look for Julio Jones early and often.
The Falcons may be better served, though, keeping the ball out of Ryan’s hands (and thus away from Aaron Donald) and trusting Devonta Freeman to find holes in the NFL’s 28th-ranked run defense, per ESPN.
Prediction: Falcons 28 Rams 21
Bills (6) @ Jaguars (3) (Sunday January 7; 1 p.m. E.T. on CBS)
Only the hardest heart in Baltimore could begrudge the Bills those scenes of wild locker-room joy after Andy Dalton’s 49-yard touchdown pass on fourth down ended Buffalo’s 17-year playoff drought.
The Bills shouldn’t feel like they’ve won just by making it to the playoffs, though. Yes, the Jaguars have a terrifying defense. They can sack you with a massive defensive front or take the ball away in the secondary or stuff your run game like few other teams right now in the NFL. But they also have Blake Bortles at quarterback. The Bills need LeSean McCoy to play (the running back has an ankle injury). They need to put the ball in his hands. They need to pressure Bortles into mistakes. And then, they may find the dream doesn’t end on Wild Card Weekend.
Prediction: Bills 14 Jaguars 7
Panthers (5) @ Saints (4) (January 7; 4.40 p.m. on Fox)
Had the Panthers beaten the Falcons in their final regular-season game, they would have been hosting this game. Instead, they travel to the Saints who rediscovered defense in 2017 and look just about the most balanced team in the playoffs, even accounting for the Steelers, Patriots, Vikings and Eagles. If Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and the Panthers’ linebacking corps can’t stop Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram and the Saints’ scary running game, then the Panthers will be one-and-done in the playoffs. It may be as simple as that, even if Cam Newton performs heroics.
Prediction: Panthers 10 Saints 31