| January 11, 2020 05:00 AM
The NFL’s wild-card weekend lived up to its name. As the best teams in the league join the fight for the Super Bowl, will there be more wild upsets, or will the best conquer the underdogs?
Here are my previews and predictions for each game, starting with the first match-up.
No. 6 Minnesota Vikings (11-6) at No. 1 San Francisco 49ers (13-3) (Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET on NBC)
These are two similar teams when it comes to identity, but they are very different when it comes to how they execute it. Minnesota and San Francisco love to run the ball. It’s a huge part of their offense. They’re also both great defensive squads.
The Vikings employ more explosive wideouts in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen while using Dalvin Cook as a workhorse, every-down back. Cook can do it all, running the ball and catching it effectively out of the backfield.
The 49ers, meanwhile, use three running backs in Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida, and Raheem Mostert and employ a more wide-open offense under head coach Kyle Shanahan. An interesting wrinkle in this game is that Shanahan used to coach Cousins back when they were both with the Washington Redskins.
San Francisco has the league’s second-best scoring offense and averages an impressive six yards per play as an offense. A big reason for that is its ability to run the ball. The 49ers are second in rushing yards per game, and no team in the NFL has scored more rushing touchdowns this season. The Vikings are sixth in the league in rushing yards per game and rushing touchdowns.
San Francisco tight end George Kittle is the X-factor in this game. While the performance of the 49ers backfield is definitely important, no player on the 49ers roster creates mismatches and has an effect on a game like Kittle. He almost single-handedly helped them win a thrilling shootout at New Orleans in the regular season, a critical victory that helped San Francisco earn the No.-1 seed.
The Vikings had history working against them last week and managed to break through for their first road playoff win in 15 years. I won’t go into the, ahem, controversy surrounding said win.
They’ll have even more history working against them this week. The No. 6 seeds have lost eight consecutive games in the divisional round and are 5-19 in this round going back to 1990.
The spread: San Francisco (-7)
My pick: I think San Francisco’s front seven will make it tough for Dalvin Cook to have the kind of effect he did last week. I believe we’ll see a defensive battle, and I’m taking the 49ers to win, but I don’t think they’ll cover the seven-point spread.
No. 6 Tennessee Titans (10-7) at No. 1 Baltimore Ravens (14-2) (Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET on CBS)
The Ravens have a lot of things going for them: they have the likely league MVP, the league’s top scoring offense, the league’s top rushing offense, the league’s third-best scoring defense, home-field advantage, an additional week of rest, and the game’s best kicker.
The Titans will go as far as Derrick Henry can take them. That’s why he was my X-factor last week and that’s why he’s my X-factor again this week. His 182-yard performance against the Patriots on 34 carries was something special. With Tannehill only going 8-for-15 for 72 yards with a touchdown and an interception, expect to see the Ravens put extra bodies in the box to try and take Henry away. The Titans have no choice but to lean on him early and often.
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has been sublime this season. He has thrown for over 3,100 yards with 36 touchdowns and six interceptions while completing over 66% of his passes and has also run for over 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging nearly seven yards per carry.
Lamar Jackson is hands-down the best player in the NFL.
The Ravens, as I said before, have the NFL’s top rushing offense while the Titans are third. One of the big problems for Tennessee is that the Ravens also have a top-five run defense, and no team has really figured out how to stop Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore offense.
ESPN noted that the Ravens have the best first-quarter point margin in the NFL. They are an astounding plus-97 after the first 15 minutes. That’ll be something to keep an eye on. If the Ravens get out to an early lead, especially a big one, the Titans may have to try and throw their way out of the hole instead of giving Henry 35 carries and bleeding the clock.
The spread: Baltimore (-9)
The pick: The Titans are a fundamentally sound football team, and they definitely have a chance to win in Baltimore. That being said, I think they’ll stick around and eventually lose by double digits. I’m taking the Ravens to win and cover the spread.
No. 4 Houston Texans (11-6) at No. 2 Kansas City Chiefs (12-4) (Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET on CBS)
It’s hard to erase the stink of last week’s Bills-Texans game. Bill O’Brien looked inept early on and looked incompetent late in the 4th quarter and in overtime. Only through the brilliance and sheer force of will that is Deshaun Watson were the Texans able to advance. Say what you will about Andy Reid and clock management, but I think he’s easily the coach you trust more in this game.
The Chiefs, in stark contrast to the Bills, have as much offensive firepower as any team in the league. Patrick Mahomes, despite missing some games this season, has still thrown for over 4,000 yards and 26 touchdowns with just five interceptions while completing nearly 66% of his passes.
The Texans have given up the 4th-most passing touchdowns and passing yards in the NFL this season. That’s not a recipe for success against the Chiefs offense.
Watson is my X-factor in this game because there will be a lot of times where he’ll have to pull a Russell Wilson and just make something happen. The game will be in his hands and on his shoulders. That’s how it was in the second half and overtime against the Bills, and that’s how it will be again at Arrowhead. Watson is a great player, and he, like so many other greats, is at his best in the biggest moments.
ESPN wrote that Kansas City’s defense is susceptible to quarterbacks running the ball. The Chiefs allowed opposing QBs to average five yards per carry, a mark that put them 25th in the NFL. The Chiefs will have to be wary that Watson doesn’t take off and hurt them with his legs like he did early in the season when he ran for two touchdowns in the Texans’ road win at Kansas City.
There are still many question marks in this game on both sides. Will Will Fuller be able to play? He’d be a huge lift to the Texans offense and was sorely missed in last week’s win. Will J.J. Watt be able to have a big effect as he continues to find his form? Will the Chiefs be able to run the ball in crunch time even though they rank 23rd in rushing yards per game and 20th in yards per attempt?
The Chiefs have a top-five scoring offense and rank second in offensive yards per play. Another key stat for them, as it is for any team, is third-down conversions. The Chiefs led the NFL in third-down conversion percentage, moving the chains 47.6% of the time. The Texans have the 2nd-worst defense in the NFL when it comes to stopping teams on third downs, allowing opponents to convert 48.5% of the time.
The Texans are fantastic at scoring touchdowns when they get into the red zone, but they’re also terrible at preventing them. When the Texans enter the red zone, they score touchdowns 64.2% of the time. That’s 7th-best in the NFL, but when other teams get into the red zone, they allow touchdowns 71.4% of the time. Execution on third down and in the red zone will be critical for both teams in a game where we should see a lot of points.
The spread: Kansas City (-9.5)
The pick: I expect Watson to have another great game, but I think that Mahomes and the Chiefs offense will be too much for the Texans to stop. I’m taking the Chiefs to win, but I predict they won’t cover the spread.
No. 5 Seattle Seahawks (12-5) at No. 2 Green Bay Packers (13-3) (Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET on FOX)
These two teams have combined for some pretty epic clashes over the years. Perhaps we’ll get another one Sunday night at Lambeau Field.
The plan for the Seahawks on offense will be pretty clear: run the ball. The Seahawks have the fourth-best rushing offense in the NFL and even added Beastmode Marshawn Lynch into the mix. They’re facing a Packers team that was 9th-worst in the NFL at defending against the run. Seattle managed a paltry 2.5 yards per carry last week in its win against Philadelphia, forcing Russell Wilson to be, well, Russell Wilson. The guy does it all.
Packers running back Aaron Jones also does it all and is my X-factor for this game. He’s a really special player. He has run for nearly 1,100 yards this season and has 16 rushing touchdowns but also has nearly 500 receiving yards and another three receiving scores. He’s averaging 4.6 yards per carry and nearly 10 yards per catch out of the backfield.
Aaron Rodgers flew under the radar for much of the year and actually finished the year 20th in quarterback rating, but he often shines in the brightest moments. Will we see another sensational playoff performance from him on Sunday night?
Seahawks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has the ability to affect a game off the edge and knocked Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz out of the game last week. The Packers will have to account for him.
The wide receivers should be fun to watch in this game. Green Bay’s Davante Adams is one of the best receivers in football and has been for the last few seasons, while Seattle’s Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf are a tough tandem to defend.
Interestingly, the Packers have a top-10 scoring defense but are in the middle of the pack offensively while the Seahawks have a top-10 scoring offense and a below-average scoring defense.
The spread: Green Bay (-4.5)
The pick: Russell Wilson will somehow manage to keep Seattle in the game, and it wouldn’t shock me if the Seahawks somehow manage to win, but I think the Packers will eke out a win against a beat-up Seahawks squad. I’m taking the Packers to win and cover the spread.
Noah Niederhoffer (@NNiederhoffer) is a producer at SiriusXM and a graduate of the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Originally from Atlanta, he now lives in Washington, D.C.