The AFC Wild Card games will feature 3 teams that have not seen the Playoffs since the George W Bush administration took office, or in Buffalo’s case Bill Clinton’s administration was in office. So it has been a long while for these three and on a side note, I am very glad to see the three in there in part because of the playoff droughts. But of course, the big question is, are all of these games just an appetizer for what many believe will be another Pittsburgh/New England AFC Championship in 2 weeks? Or will one of these four have a legit chance at not only upending one of those two teams but making the Super Bowl? Given their histories and the histories of the Patriots and Steelers, it is probably not a best bet, but as they say, this is why we play the games.
The Chiefs and Bills got off to red hot starts in the season as it seemed like Kansas City was not only a lock to win the AFC West but take away the #1 seed from the Patriots early on. But they sputtered midway through and found themselves in a dogfight with a Chargers team that had gained steam and a Raiders team that was pretty much a hot mess. They recovered to win the division, but not a factor in a homefield/bye. Buffalo started off great as well, being a defensive powerhouse. And inexplicably, the Bills fell apart, getting shredded. And a rookie head-coaching mistake by Sean McDermott of benching Tyrod Taylor for the inexperienced Nathan Peterman as Peterman threw 5 INT’s in a game to the Chargers as many (myself included) thought it may be the beginning of the end for Buffalo’s season. The Bills, aside from what feels like their annual 2 losses from the Patriots, turned it around. Taylor came back and was solid and LeSean McCoy got things going.
The AFC South champion Jaguars and Titans mirrored each other a little bit as well, but the Jaguars turned heads early and often with their defense giving opposing teams fits and embarrassing the Steelers in Pittsburgh in early October. Jacksonville, even now looks to be a sleeper in the AFC but after two straight losses in San Francisco and Tennessee, reality may be hitting that the Jaguars are still a bit away from being that Super Bowl contender. The Titans were an interesting story as many thought they would take that next step with the continued production of Marcus Mariota and a strong running game, while the defense seemed to get younger and more improved. Instead, Mariota went backwards (13 TD from 26 last year, 15 INT from 9 last year, and 3,232 passing yards, down nearly 200 from the year before). Murray couldn’t keep as healthy as last year and nearly had half of the yards he had in 2016. And Henry’s numbers went up in part, but didn’t make a major splash either while the defense stayed about the same as what they were last year. But despite a 3-game losing streak near the end of the season, the Titans found themselves on the winning end, somehow.
TENNESSEE TITANS AT KANSAS CITY CHIEFS, 4:35, SATURDAY: The Titans and Chiefs open up the playoff weekend. This is somewhat of a rough read for this game as you can look at it and go “well, both teams can win this” and you’d be right. Neither team has been fully consistent enough to really make an overwhelming case for a win. And in the Titans case, losing DeMarco Murray for this game is really huge given the Titans need to capitalize on Kansas City’s defense against the run, which has struggled (ranked 25th in yards allowed). But Kansas City has to shrug off their playoff demons and fast. The Titans historically have been a good road team in the playoffs. But of course, that resided mostly in the Steve McNair years. Far different team.
TITANS WIN IF:
- DERRICK HENRY HAS HIS COMING OUT GAME: No Murray means Henry will carry the load. And when the guy gets going, he can be a massive beast that can take over. If the Titans can get him the ball 20-25 times, it is a good chance the Titans will be winning this game. And given how Kansas City is problematic against the run, it could happen.
- MARCUS MARIOTA DOESN’T TURN THE BALL OVER: Mariota has been pretty turnover prone this season with the 13 INT’s. He may have a good day in the air, but the turnover situation will be key. He cannot throw any picks especially in key situations as it has felt that way this year with him. If he continues his turnover trends, the Titans won’t last long and some will wonder if Mariota is the guy in Tennessee after his 3rd year.
- THEY CAN GET TO ALEX SMITH: The Titans sacked opposing quarterbacks 42 times in 2017. Not too bad. And Alex Smith was was sacked 35 times. This is a huge advantage for the Titans. They cannot let him escape out of the pocket and they need to get him down a few times. One other key is if they can get Smith to turn the ball over via fumble or INT, which is tough to do for him.
CHIEFS WIN IF:
- THEY INTERCEPT MARIOTA 2 TIMES: I think it is safe that Kansas City will get a pick off of Mariota at least once, and in a key situation. But getting a 2nd INT may break the back of the Titans.
- THEY GET OFF TO AN EARLY LEAD: Make Mariota pass is the key and the way to do that is if they jump to an early lead on the Titans. It will take them out of their game and keep them from using Henry a great deal. And having Mariota passing to try to beat you is an added bonus at this point.
- KAREEM HUNT BREAKS FOR A FEW BIG PLAYS: Tennessee has a good run defense. Kareem Hunt has played better down the stretch and maybe it’s not a shocker that when Hunt struggled in the middle part of the season, so did the Chiefs. He needs to have a good day for Kansas City to advance.
MY TAKE: Of all the 4 playoff games this weekend, this game is the one I have a difficulty predicting. When the match-ups were announced, I originally said the Titans would win this game. Right now I feel like the Chiefs will win it and big. But maybe tomorrow I go back to Tennessee. Losing Murray will hurt, but the Titans do have Derrick Henry still and could make a huge impact. That said, this is a young Titans team that is probably a year away and this is definitely not Mariota’s best season of his early career. I think the Chiefs are on a roll right now and will be playing more aggressive than they were last year against the Steelers in that crazy game. I think Kansas City will get more than a couple of turnovers and will pull away in the 4th quarter. CHIEFS 26, TITANS 17
BUFFALO BILLS AT JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS, 1:05, SUNDAY: In our “wait, what?” moment of the year, the Bills play the Jaguars in the playoffs while we see the Packers and Seahawks all ride the couch in 2017. Yes, I know, AFC/NFC but still. This will be a game that may be fun to watch just because of how the teams haven’t been regulars of playing January football for a while. There’s already a war between the teams’ Twitter feeds and even though it is at home, where Jacksonville hasn’t hosted a playoff game since they lost to Tennessee in the 1999 AFC Championship game, expect the Bills (who also lost to Tennessee on the Music City Miracle that year) and their fans to pack the place in.
BILLS WIN IF:
- LESEAN MCCOY PLAYS AND IS EFFECTIVE: Buffalo is reliant on McCoy in the run game. Yes Tyrod Taylor is actually a formidable runner and actually a good one at that. But the next best back they have is Mike Tolbert and he is a great fullback. But could he carry the load 20 times? Doubtful. Buffalo will be in big trouble if McCoy is a no-go.
- THEY MAKE BLAKE BORTLES, “BLAKE BORTLES:” Not Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, Cleveland’s DeShone Kizer, and Denver’s Brock Osweiler got anywhere near the grief as Blake Bortles did this year, from fans, media, and even players. But Bortles played pretty well in 2017. Was he an All-Pro guy? No. But the completion rate went up this year and the interceptions went down. It’s probably a key reason alongside the emergence of Leonard Fournette at RB and the defensive improvements why the Jags are in the playoffs. However, a few have pointed out that Bortles numbers were jolted because he played well against the poorer squads as opposed to struggling against playoff teams like the Titans, Steelers, and Rams. If the Bills defense, ranked 20th against the pass, can frustrate Bortles, then they are in great shape.
- THEY DO NOT LOSE THE 4TH QUARTER: One alarming thing for Bills fans to keep an eye on: the last 4 games Buffalo has been outscored in the 4th 44-3. It’s one thing to give up 13 to Miami and have a late lead lost to Indianapolis at home in a blizzard. But you’re on the road against a stout defense. The Bills have to step up their fourth quarter play or else they will be going home regardless.
JAGUARS WIN IF:
- LESEAN MCCOY DOESN’T PLAY: While Jacksonville has been praised for their defense in 2017 and rightfully so, it is really the pass defense that deserves the credit. The rushing defense is a concern (21st in yards allowed). LeSean McCoy is Buffalo’s running game aside from Tyrod Taylor when he is out of the pocket. Buffalo would be practically one-dimensional against the Jaguars if McCoy is out. And while Tyrod Taylor is a respectable quarterback and is smart with the football, he is not going to throw for 300-400 yards to win a game. It just won’t happen.
- THEY FIND A WAY TO INTERCEPT TAYLOR: Jacksonville’s passing defense is great, but what makes them very dangerous is they can also get the turnover. However, Taylor is not an interception machine. IF McCoy plays and plays well, the Jags defense has to find a way to pick off Taylor.
- BLAKE BORTLES PLAYS SMART: Bortles hasn’t done anything incredibly wrong this year. He’s done what was asked and beat the teams he is supposed to beat. Yes, he has a good defense bailing him out, but he hasn’t been an epic dumpster fire. That said, in a game that I expect to be somewhat low-scoring & close, and any turnover from either side will change the outcome, he cannot make any costly mistakes. Or that puts this game right in the Bills hands.
MY TAKE: Before I say my pick and what I think of Buffalo’s chances of winning this game with and without McCoy, I will say this: I don’t trust Blake Bortles at all. That said, if the Bills do not have McCoy suited up, the Jaguars *should* win this game. Taylor would be one dimensional and has to pass the ball, which plays into the Jags hands. If McCoy plays, I honestly think Buffalo will grind it out as much as possible and do two things: 1. tire the Jaguars defense. 2. keep the Jags offense out of rhythm and on the sideline. So with that said, I think McCoy plays. BILLS 14, JAGUARS 10
Fan in the Obstructed Seat