Scott Shapiro's NFC Wild Card preview and picks
The Sunday portion of the Wild Card round features a pair of NFC tussles, after what is hopefully a duo of thrilling AFC playoff games to start the 2020 NFL action. If you missed it earlier in the week, you can find my thoughts on the Saturday contests here.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints head into the playoffs playing their best football of the season. Sean Payton’s group has won six of their last seven, with the lone defeat coming to top-seeded San Francisco in Week 14, in one of the crazier back-and-forth games of the 2019 campaign.
Unlike last year, when the Saints offense was red hot through the first 11 games and lost steam late in the season, the unit led by future Hall of Famer Drew Brees appears to be peaking at the right time. The Saints are averaging 36.2 points per game over the last seven weeks, after a puzzling 26-9 defeat at home against Atlanta in Week 10.
The most consistent member of the offense has been wide receiver Michael Thomas, who has been impossible to cover in 2019, evidenced by his record-breaking 149 receptions. Star running back Alvin Kamara was one of the league’s most dangerous weapons in 2018, but did not put up nearly the same numbers this year. However, he did get it going over the last two games and found the end zone four times. Both he and Thomas appear poised for big games Sunday against the Vikings.
When most fans think of the Saints, they think of a high-powered offense led by Brees and Payton, but underestimating the quality of their defense is a huge mistake. They have a star at all three levels with Cameron Jordan, Demario Davis and Marshon Lattimore and matchup extremely well against a run-heavy Minnesota squad. The Saints have yielded just 91.3 rushing yards per contest.
Unlike New Orleans, the Vikings are not heading into the playoffs on a high note. Head coach Mike Zimmer rested his starters in the regular season finale, after an extremely disappointing performance at home against the Packers in Week 16. They will get standout running back Dalvin Cook back from a shoulder injury, but they have only beaten one playoff team in 2019 (Philadelphia in Week 6) and are led by a quarterback that has had little success in big games. Expecting them to hang in with the Saints in the Big Easy may be wishful thinking.
Minnesota is just 4-7 against the spread as a road underdog over the last three years and will run into a Saints squad that has an average per-game point differential of +16.8 over the final four weeks.
The best team in the NFC will roll to set up a matchup between the Saints and Packers next weekend in Lambeau.
Pick: New Orleans -8
The second NFC game features a rematch of the Week 11 contest won by Seattle, 17-9, in Philadelphia.
In that meeting Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson only threw for 200 yards on 25 attempts, but he missed on a couple opportunities downfield against an Eagles secondary that has improved over the course of the season but still is quite beatable. Since then Seattle has lost its top two running backs, Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny, and is also likely to be without left tackle Duane Brown. This is problematic for a run-heavy team against a Philadelphia run defense that ranks third in the NFL (90.1 yards per game on the ground).
It would make sense for the Seattle coaching staff to put the game in the hands of its star quarterback, but that goes against its offensive philosophy of establishing the run at all costs. Expect offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to stick to the ground and limit Wilson’s dropbacks, even without his two best rushers. This plays into the Eagles hands, as they'll need to keep the score low to get out of the Wild Card round.
The Eagles offense is even more banged-up than the Seahawks. The right side of their offensive line is in shambles, with tackle Brandon Brooks out for the year and guard Lane Johnson iffy at best to suit up Sunday. Philadelphia has been without its two best receivers, Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson, for much of the season and top pass catcher Zach Ertz is questionable with a fractured rib and lacerated kidney. This does not leave Carson Wentz with a ton of options, but the good news is Seattle lacks a pass rush and gave up the sixth most passing yards per game over the regular season (263.9).
Look for Wentz to use the short and intermediate passing game and take a few shots down the field against a Seattle secondary that can be overly aggressiv. Expect a lot of targets to tight end Dallas Goedert and former University of Houston QB Greg Ward Jr. If those two can come up with a few big plays, and the Eagles can get production out of the running back tandem of Miles Sanders and Boston Scott, they can sneak out of the Wild Card round with a minor upset.