Encapsulating the four wild-card games is a funny business. All but Vikings-Saints appear to be close to a tossup. And what follows could be delicious: A New England victory over Tennessee puts the Patriots in Kansas City for the fourth Pats-Chiefs game in 14 months. And wins by the Saints and Seahawks on wild-card weekend sets up the third Seattle-San Francisco matchup in nine weeks. On with the first four playoff games:
Buffalo (10-6, 5th seed, AFC) at Houston (10-6, 4th seed, AFC)
4:35 p.m. ET, NRG Stadium, Houston, TV: ESPN
Houston favored by 3.5
Houston has made the playoffs six times in its 18-year history. This will be the sixth time the Texans have played the postseason-opening 3:35 p.m. CT Saturday game in Houston. The Texans have hope that J.J. Watt could return from a torn pectoral to buttress a defensive front that’s had trouble stopping big-armed quarterbacks like Buffalo’s Josh Allen—Houston’s given up 33 touchdown passes—and stopping running games of all sorts. The Texans are surrendering 4.8 yards per rush, which bodes well for Devin Singletary of the Bills. He’s basically sidelined Frank Gore in the past month or so with his versatility, running inside with power and outside with the ability to make defenders miss. Buffalo will need to pen in Deshaun Watson and pressure him to throw quick, so he can’t win this game with his legs. If Houston gets back the oft-injured Will Fuller (groin), he likely won’t be full-speed, and that will hurt their chances because it puts more pressure on DeAndre Hopkins. The key to the game might be Buffalo wideout John Brown, who’s become a legitimate deep threat for Josh Allen and will certainly challenge the beatable Houston secondary.
Tennessee (9-7, 6th seed, AFC) at New England (12-4, 3rd seed, AFC)
8:15 p.m. ET, Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass., TV: CBS
New England favored by 4.5
The stats don’t love New England here. The Brady/Belichick Patriots have made the Super Bowl nine times, and each time they made it as a 1 or 2 seed in the AFC. In the three years they haven’t had a bye, they’ve lost prior to the Super Bowl. Look at their path here: Tennessee with rushing champ Derrick Henry and resurgent quarterback Ryan Tannehill first, then a potential hellscape of a run to the Super Bowl, potentially at Kansas City and at Baltimore in the span of eight days. First, New England will have to dispatch the power-running Titans and the 247-pound Henry; in four of his last six starts, Henry has battered foes for 149 rushing yards or more, including Sunday’s 211-yard job at Houston. The Patriots also will need a secondary more vulnerable than earlier in the season to clamp down on rookie star A.J. Brown and his gaudy 20.2-yards-per-catch average. Everything’s been a struggle for New England offensively. At this point, the Patriots are probably best-suited to win a power game with Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead trying to control the clock. That’s what it’s come to for the Patriots, who have one receiver or tight end with more than 30 catches. Hard to imagine that in an offense with Tom Brady under center, but that’s the reality of the 2019 Patriots.
Minnesota (10-6, 6th seed, NFC) at New Orleans (13-3, 3rd seed, NFC)
1:05 p.m. ET, Superdome, New Orleans, TV: FOX
New Orleans favored by 7.5
Some day, Kirk Cousins is going to have to win one of these Kirk Cousins Referendum Games. He’s 0-9 on Monday Night Football, 0-2 in playoff games, and his reward for his first playoff game as a Viking quarterback is to play the best team standing on wild-card weekend, in the toughest place to win on wild-card weekend. The good news for Minnesota will be having Dalvin Cook (chest, shoulder pain) back after missing the last two games of the season, which should give the offense a chance because the game won’t be solely in Cousins’ hands. But I just can’t see the Vikings knocking off the Saints. Drew Brees is his classic self in recent weeks, leading the Saints to 36.2 points a game in the last seven weeks, with 22 touchdowns and just one pick. I don’t trust Cousins to get in a shootout with Brees—who would?—and I don’t see the Viking secondary being able to slow the New Orleans attack. The Saints are PFF’s highest-rated team through the regular-season, slightly ahead of Baltimore, and a good part of that is New Orleans’ top-special teams. They can win with kicker Wil Lutz, punter Thomas Morstead and a sudden returner, Deonte Harris. Hard to see many edges in this matchup on the Vikings’ side.
Seattle (11-5, 5th seed, NFC) at Philadelphia (9-7, 4th seed, NFC)
4:40 p.m. ET, Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, TV: NBC
Seattle favored by 1.5
Five weeks ago, when it appeared the Eagles were sliding out of any realistic playoff shot, Seattle came to the Linc and won a 17-9 slugfest; the Seahawks survived a dropped TD that day and clearly were the better team. Since then, the Eagles have been wasted by injuries; I’ve never seen a playoff team with skill players more beat up than Philly’s are right now. Yet, since trailing the Giants 17-3 at the half in week 14, perilously close at 5-7 to being out of the playoff chase, the Eagles have outscored four foes 108-53 and gone 4-0. At the same time, Seattle stumbled to a 1-3 finish, been outscored in those games by 29 points, and over-relied on Russell Wilson to save them almost every week. The Seahawks lost 1,600 yards of rushing prowess when Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny—healthy in the first Eagle meeting—were lost for the year with injuries. This game likely will come down to which supporting cast can help a hot quarterback more. The Eagles are likely to put more pressure on Wilson than the Seahawks on Carson Wentz, who has come alive with the weight of a franchise on his shoulders. I think this is the game of the weekend, and the NFL wisely put it in the window that usually garners the highest ratings.