NFL wildcard weekend picks: Saints to march on, Bills to upset Texans

<img class=”caas-img has-preview” alt=”Photograph: Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/NMXhABydQChOfuZybwZKqw–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTY0MA–/https://media.zenfs.com/en-GB/the_guardian_765/9562adf1cbb145b116dccae8c32d7513″ data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/NMXhABydQChOfuZybwZKqw–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTY0MA–/https://media.zenfs.com/en-GB/the_guardian_765/9562adf1cbb145b116dccae8c32d7513″>
Photograph: Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

What the Bills need to do to win: Whether you prefer detailed analytics or more simple stats, the Bills had one of the league’s best defenses this year. Buffalo finished the regular season ranked in the top-10 in total defense (third according to NFL.com, sixth according to Football Outsiders), rushing defense and passing defense. If they want to advance to the divisional round, they’ll need to limit Texans QB Deshaun Watson from completing any long-yardage “chunk” plays early in the game. If Buffalo enter halftime leading or trailing by fewer than 10 points, it will have a good chance to win the game.

Related: Buffalo’s ageless Frank Gore: the bell-cow back who’s doing the impossible

What the Texans need to do to win: Watson is one of the best big-play quarterbacks in the NFL and he has multiple explosive receivers (DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, Kenny Stills) to score even if the offense isn’t in rhythm. When facing Buffalo, scoring on chunk plays is a strong way to place pressure on the Bills’ methodical offense. The Bills specialize in slow-paced, physical games, so Houston would do well to try and take a big early lead and force Buffalo into an uncomfortable pace.

Key Player: Carlos Hyde, Texans. There will be plenty of focus on the Texans’ high-flying offense, but Buffalo’s stingy pass defense is equipped to limit Watson and his star receivers. If Hyde, who quietly rushed for over 1,000 yards this season, can exploit Buffalo’s front seven, then Houston will be in better position to execute the kinds of big plays it takes to beat the Bills.

Prediction: Bills 20-14 Texans

What the Titans need to do to win: Rushing champion Derrick Henry rushed for over 100 yards in five of his last six games (896 total yards, 6.45 yards per carry) to help propel the Titans to the playoffs for the second time in the last three seasons. As the season grows longer, Henry seems to get stronger: he clinched the 2019 rushing title with his splendid final third of the season after logging 585 of 1,059 yards in his final four games in 2018. Even with the Patriots’ stout front seven and revered run defense, Henry is one of the toughest running backs in the league to stop because of his size and pure strength. If Henry succeeds early, that should allow quarterback Ryan Tannehill more time to try and exploit the fierce New England defense.

What the Patriots need to do to win: Get their offense in sync. Tom Brady and the New England attack still managed 12 wins in 2019, but their Week 17 loss to Miami was a rocky, mistake-filled performance on offense that plunged them into the No 3 seed. If Brady can establish a better rhythm with rookie wide receiver N’Keal Harry and rely a bit less on Julian Edelman, the Patriots offense can better support a defense that helped pace the 12-win season.

Key player: Titans WR AJ Brown. New England have one of the league’s best secondary anchored by star cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but Brown has logged over 100 yards receiving in four of his last six games and scored five touchdowns in that timeframe. If he or Henry breaks a big play early, the Titans may be able to control tempo against New England’s struggling offense.

Prediction: Titans 13-24 Patriots

<img class=”caas-img caas-lazy has-preview” alt=”Titans wideout AJ Brown has averaged 20.2 yards per catch this season, second best in the NFL. Photograph: Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports” src=”https://sports.yahoo.com/nfl-wild-card-weekend-picks-090000433.html?src=rss” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/UKOp2o_gxIAHs5j9lbZb4w–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTY0MDtoPTQ1NC40/https://media.zenfs.com/en-GB/the_guardian_765/6e8e27d328fd06339816d8c07be44ac5″><img alt=”Titans wideout AJ Brown has averaged 20.2 yards per catch this season, second best in the NFL. Photograph: Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/UKOp2o_gxIAHs5j9lbZb4w–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTY0MDtoPTQ1NC40/https://media.zenfs.com/en-GB/the_guardian_765/6e8e27d328fd06339816d8c07be44ac5″ class=”caas-img”>
Titans wideout AJ Brown has averaged 20.2 yards per catch this season, second best in the NFL. Photograph: Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports

Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints
Sunday, 1:05 pm ET/6.05 GMT

What the Saints need to do to win: Quarterback Drew Brees returned from a thumb injury in Week 8 to throw for 25 touchdowns and just two interceptions over nine games. With weapons like wide receiver Michael Thomas (who led the league with 1,725 receiving yards) and a two-back combination of Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray (12 touchdowns between the two of them), Brees leads one of the most fluid offenses in the league. If the game becomes a shootout, New Orleans is better equipped to win.

What the Vikings need to do to win: Minnesota have one of the best pass rushing units and linebacking corps in the league. If they can pressure Brees, they can keep the game close. Defensive end Danielle Hunter is a nightmare matchup for the Saints offensive line and linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr are excellent both in run defense and pass coverage. If the Vikings can force multiple negative plays and win the turnover battle, this game will be close. Quarterback Kirk Cousins is pilloried too much for his poor primetime performances and can lean on electric options like Dalvin Cook, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen to keep pace with New Orleans’s powerhouse offense.

Key player: Cousins. The biggest knock on him is that he plays poorly in big games. This is his opportunity to pull the biggest upset of his career if he keeps the offense properly paced.

Prediction: Vikings 24-27 Saints

Seattle Seahawks at Philadelphia Eagles
Sunday, 4.40pm ET/9.40pm GMT

What the Seahawks need to do to win: The Seahawks endured an excruciating home loss to the 49ers last week and were rewarded with a trip to Philadelphia instead of hosting a playoff game. Quarterback Russell Wilson has been fabulous all season, but he’ll need standout performances from unheralded running back Travis Homer and wide receiver DK Metcalf to help stretch out a hobbled Philadelphia defense. Seattle do not look like an 11-win team on paper, but Wilson’s brilliance keeps them in every game.

What the Eagles need to do to win: Running back Boston Scott scored three touchdowns in Philadelphia’s division-clinching win over the Giants in Week 17, and he’ll need to maintain his outstanding play to keep the Eagles going. Philadelphia are excellent when playing to keep their season alive, and Scott is this year’s complement to QB Carson Wentz. With so many injuries to the receiving corps (Wentz finished the season with over 4,000 yards passing but no wide receiver logged over 500 yards), Scott and tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert will need to play big to knock off Seattle.

Key player: It’s Wilson. As impressive as his numbers are (4,110 passing yards, 31 TDs, five interceptions), it’s his ability to extend plays and mitigate aggressive defenses that makes him so special. If Philadelphia can somehow contain him, the Eagles will return to the divisional round.

Prediction: Seahawks 28-10 Eagles

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