Scully’s NFC Wild Card preview and picks

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January 3rd, 2020

Philadelphia is the least accomplished of the four participants in Sunday’s NFC Wild Card games, but the Eagles did win the Super Bowl two years ago. All four teams have had serious postseason aspirations in recent years, but only New Orleans qualifies as a legitimate Super Bowl contender in 2020.

Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints, 1:05 p.m. ET (FOX)

Minnesota Vikings
Over 50
New Orleans Saints
Under 50
It was special the last time Minnesota and New Orleans met in the 2018 playoffs, at least for Vikings fans, as their team delivered a remarkable last-second comeback dubbed “The Minneapolis Miracle.”

After they lost quarterback Drew Brees for six games early in the season, the Saints went through a tough, five-game stretch in mid-season, where they lost twice and squeaked by in a couple of narrow wins. The offense started to click again late in the year, as the Saints defeated their final three opponents by a combined 114-45 margin, and Brees has thrown 16 touchdowns with no interceptions in his last five games.
New Orleans has a banged-up secondary. Eli Apple, Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams are nursing injuries, but Kirk Cousins does not enter the postseason in good form. Minnesota’s quarterback has thrown three interceptions in his last four games, recorded only 122 passing yards in a poor showing against Green Bay most recently and notoriously comes up short in important games.

The Saints bring an elite run defense. They rank fourth, with 91.3 rushing yards allowed per game this year, and held their last three opponents to a 78.7-yard average. New Orleans had the sixth-best third down defense, with opponents posting only a 34.8% conversion rate.

Minnesota’s offense can best be described as inconsistent. The Vikings need to run the ball effectively to be competitive, but Dalvin Cook may not be 100% as he returns from a shoulder injury in Week 15. He was one of the league’s best running backs during the first half of the season, but Cook tailed off down the stretch. He failed to record a 100-yard rushing performance and averaged only 63.8 rushing yards over his last six games. The Saints are eligible to hold him in check.

The Vikings' shortcomings caught up with them late in the season. With the NFC North title still in the balance, the Vikings lost two of four games and rested their starters in the final week. Injury-ravaged Philadelphia, which won a mediocre NFC East with a 9-7 record, was the only playoff team Minnesota defeated during the regular season.

The Vikings remain talented defensively. They rank seventh in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), forced 17 interceptions and recovered 14 fumbles, but the Saints rarely turn the ball over and established a new record, with only eight giveaways in 2019.

New Orleans went on an 0-5 ATS run late last season, but the Saints will enter this year’s playoffs on an upswing. I expect them to carry their momentum forward with a convincing win, and the Saints will be a tough out in upcoming weeks.

Pick: New Orleans -8

Seattle Seahawks at Philadelphia Eagles, 4:40 p.m. ET (NBC)

Seattle Seahawks
Over 45
Philadelphia Eagles
Under 45
This will be the second meeting between these teams in Philadelphia, and Seattle proved best in the first matchup November 24. The Eagles were in disarray at the time, because of injuries and inconsistent secondary play, but they dug themselves out of a hole with a four-game win streak to finish the season 9-7.

The Seahawks held a 10-2 record in early December but dropped three of their last four games, hampered by injuries. The Seahawks were decimated at running back, after they lost Chris Carson and C.J. Prosise in Week 16, and brought Marshawn Lynch out of retirement. The offensive line has been makeshift in practice, with Duane Brown (knee surgery), center Joey Hunt (fibula) and guard Mike Iupati (neck) all held out this week. Defensive standouts Jadeveon Clowney and Quandre Diggs are other notables on the injury report who Seattle hopes can play Sunday.

Quarterback Russell Wilson remains a difference maker, but he can’t do it all himself. Seattle’s defense went off form after it shut down the Eagles in Week 12. Over the last five games, opponents have averaged 27 points per game against the Seahawks, with the pass defense slipping to 27th in the league. Ugly best describes the run defense since mid-December, as the Seahawks have allowed 175.3 rushing yards per game.

With no margin for error, Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz performed at a high level down the stretch. He was basically introducing himself to new receivers during the season, as it seemed every able-bodied pass catcher went down with injury, and Wentz became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 4,000 yards without a teammate surpassing 500 receiving yards.

His main man, tight end Zach Ertz, appears likely to join DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffrey and others on the sideline because of a rib injury, but it won’t matter in my estimation. Wentz can still pick apart a vulnerable Seattle pass defense, and the Eagles are averaging 28.4 points over the last five games.
Philadelphia’s defensive line will make its presence felt. Ranked third against the run, the Eagles have held three of their last four opponents, and seven of the last nine, to 17 points or fewer. I will be surprised to see Seattle get much going offensively, and Philadelphia will have the upper hand this time.

Pick: Philadelphia +1.5

James Scully's 2019 NFL record ATS on BetAmerica heading into the playoffs: 47-40