Scully’s AFC Wild Card previews and picks

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January 2nd, 2020

The NFL Playoffs kick off Saturday, with an intriguing pair of AFC Wild Card games. New England will make a rare appearance as the No. 3 seed, after it earned a first-round bye the last eight seasons, and the Patriots are one of two top defensive teams in action this weekend, along with Buffalo. Houston and Tennessee will need to get things going offensively to prevail.

Buffalo Bills at Houston Texans, 4:35 p.m. ET (ABC)

Buffalo Bills
Over 44
Houston Texans
Under 44
The first Wild Card game of the weekend features a top-notch matchup between Buffalo’s defense and Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson.

The Bills are stingy. They bring the second-ranked scoring defense (16.2) and third-ranked defense by yardage (298.2 per game). Buffalo also holds opponents to just a 35.8% third-down conversion rate.

Health is a concern for Buffalo. Cornerback Levi Wallace and tackle Ty Nsekhe sustained ankle injuries last week, and defensive end Shaq Lawson is battling a hamstring issue. There are still playmakers on the defensive side, with Tremaine Edmunds, Micah Hyde, Matt Milano, Jordan Phillips and shutdown corner Tre’Davious White, but the Bills have a number of contributors nursing injuries on both sides of the ball.

It was disconcerting to see Nsekhe carted off the field, because J.J. Watt will be back this week. The three-time AFC Defensive Player of the Year should give Houston’s defense a boost.
Houston must get its offense going. Behind the standout play of Watson, the Texans defeated the Patriots and Chiefs, and went toe-to-toe with the Saints. Watson is elite, but Houston’s offense can be inconsistent, and fell behind Denver, 38-3, at home.

The Texans are one of the league’s worst defensive teams, but they performed well in the last two games that mattered. They held high-powered rivals Tennessee (21 points) and Tampa Bay (20) below their scoring averages to win the AFC South.

Josh Allen completed a league-low 58.8% of his passes for Buffalo. He showed clutch ability when it counted, however, and led five game-winning drives, but Houston has an enormous edge at quarterback. The Texans also have balance with running back Carlos Hyde, and Houston should be able to mix the pass and run effectively against a Buffalo defense that allows 4.3 yards per carry.

I’m going with Watson. Postseason games will be the measuring stick for the third-year quarterback, and I expect a big showing.

Pick: Houston -2.5

Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots, 8:15 p.m. ET (CBS)

Tennessee Titans
Over 44
New England Patriots
Under 44
Nobody could have envisioned this AFC Wild Card Playoff game in midseason. New England opened the year 8-0, behind the league’s No. 1 ranked defense, and made a bold statement in pursuit of a fourth straight Super Bowl appearance. The Titans had to bench quarterback Marcus Mariota after they started 2-4, with little hope to make the postseason with to Miami castoff Ryan Tannehill.

The tide turned for both teams in the second half of the season.

Tennessee is all about scoring points, with 2019 NFL leading rusher Derrick Henry anchoring the third-best run offense (138.9 yards per game), and Tannehill throwing for 2,742 yards, with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions in a little more than 12 games. Tannehill came out of nowhere to establish himself as a viable starting quarterback in the NFL. He completed 69.2% of his passes over the last eight weeks, and he has fine weapons in A.J. Brown and Delanie Walker. The Titans led the NFL in touchdowns in 2019, and since naming Tannehill the starter, they’ve produced touchdowns at a sensational 75.6% clip inside the red zone.
The Patriots have become a dysfunctional mess on offense. They’ve lost three of their last five games, including an ugly home setback to Miami last week that cost them the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye.

Quarterback Tom Brady is having his worst season, with no skill players around him. With Julian Edelman performing below standards because of injury, the 42-year-old quarterback has the worst collection of receivers in the league, so New England can't keep defenses honest by stretching the field. Brady has completed only 57.5% of his passes over the last five games and averaged 218 passing yards per game despite facing three bad pass defenses (Cincinnati, Houston and Miami). The Patriots also failed to record 100 rushing yards in half their games this season.

An unproductive offense puts too much pressure on a fine defense, and Ryan Fitzpatrick enjoyed a big game last week with 326 passing yards. The Dolphins dominated first downs (26-18) and time of possession (33:51-26:09), and Tennessee can do more of the same with an offense averaging 31.75 points per game since midseason.

Pick: Tennessee +5

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