By: Jesse A. Cook (Executive Managing Sports Editor)
Surprises flooded the Wild Card Round with three lower seeds taking the game, but could that turn in the Second Round?
A.F.C. 4. HOUSTON TEXANS (10-6) AT 2. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (12-4):
Betting against the roaring crowd at Arrowhead is never a good bet… but I was never known to play the safe cards; Deshaun Watson is coming in hot and the Chiefs have a worse defense. Sure, the Texans struggled in the first half against the Buffalo Bills, but starting with their first scoring drive midway through the third, Watson hit 14 of 15 targets for 198 yards. The Chiefs have not lost in weeks, but with two stellar quarterbacks with expert receivers, consistent running backs, and solid offensive lines, the game comes down strategy.
I know I sound like Phil Simms, but, barring any egregious game-ending errors, the players are near-on equal. Let’s face it, at a certain point, Andy Reed’s strategy becomes predictable; let Patrick Mahomes scramble around in the backfield until he spots Travis Kelce sprinting up the middle. When Bill O’Brien brings J.J. Watt up the middle and Whitney Mercilus around the outside, Mahomes will be reigned in and he does not operate well in the pocket.
Texans steal it in K.C., win it 37-27.
A.F.C. 6. TENNESSEE TITANS (9-7) AT 1. BALTIMORE RAVENS (14-2):
Lamar Jackson is “Big Truss-worthy” when it comes to big moments because he has been reliable all year. The Titans have some good forces working for them, though as Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill tore up the top-ranked defense in the league in the New England Patriots on the road last week in the Wild Card Round.
All this said, Jackson is a better rusher than some entire teams, so it is not like the Titans really stand a chance. He will be hitting Marquise Brown for big gains and Justin Tucker will be splitting the uprights like a hammer and nail split a plank of plywood.
Plus, as great as Henry has been for Tennessee, Baltimore gave up the fewest yards per rushing attempt out of any team in the National Football League. They are going to force the Titans to pass and that will not go well for them, despite having a hot quarterback at the helm.
Ravens take the easy dub, 41-24.
N.F.C. 5. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (11-5) AT 2. GREEN BAY PACKERS (13-3):
If there is anyone these playoffs have been unkind to, it’s an older quarterback. Tom Brady and Drew Brees went down in the Wild Card and despite missing the playoffs, Phillip Rivers has been in the news for the prospect of being shipped away from the team he’s called his own for his entire career. Russell Wilson is no longer exactly on the younger side of the league, but he is a newborn baby at 31 compared to Aaron Rodgers at 36. Maybe it is not that drastic of an age difference, but nevertheless, the Seahawks have the advantage. The Seahawks defense allowed fewer yards per rushing attempt which will limit Aaron Jones on offense and Wilson has more weapons to target in Chris Carson on the run and D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett through the air.
Wilson has been the better quarterback, too. He completed 66.1% of his passes in the regular season for 256.9 yards per game and third-in-football 31 touchdowns. Rodgers completed 62.0% of his passes for 250.1 yards per game and 26 touchdowns.
The top two receivers coming into this are Lockett and the Packers’ Davante Adams, but Seattle has the advantage there, too. Lockett had 1,057 receiving yards and eight touchdowns while Adams only had 997 receiving yards and five touchdowns.
Give another road victory to the revamped Legion of Boom because the Seahawks are gonna nab it at 24-16.
N.F.C. 6. MINNESOTA VIKINGS (10-6) AT 1. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (13-3):
The Vikes have been finishing their drives with spikes and that is how they are going to roll this weekend in San Fran. It is clear that Dalvin Cook’s injury is history because he turned 28 carries into 94 yards and two touchdowns. Also, Kirk Cousins threw for 242 yards, 129 of which went to Adam Thielen. Kyle Rudolph caught for 31 yards and Cousins’ only touchdown pass. The 49ers obviously did not play last week, so let’s look at the seasons for these teams.
The Niners have the better defense in total yards per game and total passing yards per game, but they are not stellar when it comes to the rush. Minnesota surrendered only 108 rushing yards per game (still not great), but San Fran 112.6 rushing yards per game. That might not sound like the biggest difference—it really isn’t—but that adds up, and when the opponent is strongest on the rushing game, that really makes a difference. Cook and Alexander Mattison will have field days.
Garoppolo is a slightly better quarterback as he has tossed for 248.6 yards per game, 27 touchdowns, and a completion on 69.1% of his passes. Cousins sits right behind him at 240.2 yards per game, 26 touchdowns, and the same completion rate at 69.1%. The difference between the starters is not so pronounced that they will be the difference-makers.
The running game is the defining aspect this weekend. Cook rushed for 81.1 yards per game, 37.1 yards per game, and scored 15 touchdowns this year. Jones rushed for 67.8 yards per game, caught for 29.6 yards per game, and scored 19 touchdowns this year. All the touchdown numbers mean is that Jones gets the ball more at the goal line. That might mean that Jones is more reliable, but the rushing and receiving numbers give the Vikes the edge and put the Cook in the kitchen.
Minnesota has the edge, and this time it will not take a miracle to bring them to the N.F.C. Championship. Vikes take the game 27-26.
It’s a good week in the N.F.L., but the scoring will make it even better.