Scott Shapiro's AFC Wild Card preview
Happy New Year, everyone. I hope you had a great holiday season and are ready for what should be a terrific month of football.
Football fans have become accustomed to an AFC and NFC tilt on both days of the Wild Card round, but not this year. Instead, the AFC will be featured Saturday and the NFC will take center stage Sunday afternoon. Here are my thoughts on the two AFC contests that get the 2020 NFL Playoffs rolling.
It would not be the Wild Card round if the Texans were not hosting a game with hopes to make the Super Bowl. They have played at NRG Stadium in the initial round of the NFL playoffs in five of the last eight seasons, with mixed success.
Houston disappointed as a two-point favorite last January against the Colts, but prior to that had won three of its previous four Wild Card games, including a 27-14 win in 2016 against the Oakland Raiders. Unfortunately, the Texans have been unable to get to the AFC Championship Game in any of these seasons.
This season Bill O’Brien’s squad won its sixth division title since 2011 and was led by the play of quarterback Deshaun Watson. The former Clemson Tiger threw for 26 touchdowns and 3,852 yards in the regular season, but also threw it to the other team a career-high 12 times. He faces a tough task on Saturday, when he'll meet a Bills defense that yielded just morethan 195 yards per contest, fourth best in the NFL. With star cornerback Tre’Davious White likely to shadow DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller’s status up in the air because of a groin injury, Watson will have his work cut out for him in his second playoff start.
The Bills snuck into the playoffs for the first time in nearly two decades in 2017, but there is little doubt that this year’s team is considerably better than the group from two years ago. Quarterback Josh Allen has been erratic at times, but he has taken a huge step forward for head coach Sean McDermott in his second season. Allen still needs to improve on his accuracy, but he has a tremendous arm and also makes big plays with his legs. This should come in handy in Houston, against a Texans defense that yielded the seventh most rushing yards to opposing QBs in 2019.
Allen will be making his first playoff start, which is always a concern, but he played well in nationally televised games late in the season, so I am hopeful he can avoid the big mistake and find wide receiver John Brown for a few big plays against a subpar Texans secondary.
Houston has the better quarterback, but Buffalo has the better head coach, the better defense and I like the way they head into this game, compared to the Texans, who were awful in Week 16 in Tampa and rested their starters in a home loss to Tennessee to close the season.
NFL free pick: Buffalo +3
New England Patriots
The defending champions are regulars in the playoffs, but are not accustomed to playing on the first weekend. They have had a bye during the Wild Card round every season since they were dominated by the Baltimore Ravens in Foxborough in 2009. The Patriots blew a huge opportunity to again bypass the opening playoff round when they lost as 17-point favorites to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Dolphins in Week 17.
New England entered the month of November 8-0 and appeared poised for another run to the AFC Championship Game but was pushed around in Week 9 in Baltimore and has struggled to look the part since.
The Patriots' mediocrity over the second half of the season can be blamed on an offense that is void of big-time playmakers. Julian Edelman and James White have made big plays for the Pats over the years, but without a true No. 1 wide receiver or Rob Gronkowski, they just have not been as impactful. Combine that with inconsistent offensive-line play and an aging Hall of Fame quarterback, and you have a team that has struggled to find the end zone regularly.
The Patriots defense was historically dominant and carried the team for the first half of the season, but that was against questionable competition. Since the schedule has gotten stiffer, it has still been the strength of the team but has looked slow at times and has been beatable to close out the regular season.
Tennessee’s offense averaged just more than 16 points per game with Marcus Mariota as the starting quarterback over the first six games, but has nearly doubled its output (30.4 points per game) since Ryan Tannehill took over in Week 7. The eighth overall pick in the 2012 draft has led the Titans to a 7-3 record in his ten starts. Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith still runs things through the league’s leading rusher Derrick Henry, but Tannehill’s efficiency, along with the emergence of rookie wide receiver A.J. Brown, has given Tennessee the balance it has searched for but never found under Mariota.
Tannehill has not faced many defenses with the talent and discipline of the Patriots, and Brown has an extremely tough matchup against Stephon Gilmore, who was not his usual dominant self a week ago. Even if Gilmore is able to shut Brown down, the Titans should be able to stay in the game by running the ball against a New England defense that has been exploitable on the ground.
It is a bit scary to play against Belichick and Brady in the playoffs, but this New England team just has not looked like themselves. They may find their way out of the Wild Card round at home, but if they do it is likely to be in a nail biter.
Take the points.