The NFL has long been defined by the league’s quest to level the playing field, and the upcoming postseason may just be a pinnacle in that pursuit of parity.
Eight of the 12 teams to qualify for the playoffs didn’t make the cut in 2016, good for 66 percent turnover – significantly higher than the usual 50 percent replacement rate.
In the AFC, the Jacksonville Jaguars usurped the Houston Texans for the South title, while the Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans swapped in for the Oakland Raiders and Miami Dolphins as Wild Card entrants.
The NFC was even more tumultuous, with the Philadelphia Eagles dismissing the Dallas Cowboys in the East, the Minnesota Vikings vanquishing the Green Bay Packers in the North, and the Los Angeles Rams reclaiming the West from the Seattle Seahawks. And last year’s NFC Wild Card representatives, the New York Giants and Detroit Lions, were ousted this year in favor of the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers.
The Jaguars improved from 3-13 to 10-6, the Rams rose from 4-12 to 11-5, and several teams (Bills, Eagles, Panthers, Saints) climbed from under .500 to secure a postseason appearance.
With so many newcomers crashing the playoff party, and postseason experience so essential, handicappers might have a hard time assessing the field. For help on that front, check out the game capsules below – based on the most current lines posted by online sportsbook Bovada – to get a read on all four games going down this Wild Card Weekend
#6 Tennessee Titans (9-7) @ #3 Kansas City Chiefs (10-6) – 4:35 p.m. EST on ESPN/ABC
Last season the Chiefs won the West and landed a first-round bye, before promptly losing 18-16 at home to a Steelers team that could only kick field goals.
This time around the Chiefs are still the best in the West, and with the Titans coming to town, another field goal fest could be in the cards.
The Chiefs attempted 45 field goals this year and converted on 41 tries, both tops in the NFL. The Titans were third in the league with 42 attempts, but only managed to get 35 through the uprights (fifth overall).
Kansas City can kick to score, but the Chiefs are still finding the end zone, to the tune of 28.0 points per game during their current four-game winning streak.
Tennessee – losers of three of its last four – has scored 28 points or more just three times all year, and the last offensive outburst came way back in Week 6 against the lowly Colts.
This one opened up with Kansas City as full 7-point home favorites, but the line has since swelled to (-9). And given both teams’ propensity to take three points rather than seven, total bettors have a manageable number of 44 to work with.
#6 Atlanta Falcons (10-6) @ #3 Los Angeles Rams (11-5) – 8:15 p.m. EST on NBC
After blowing a 28-3 lead to lose last year’s Super Bowl, the Falcons rose to the occasion in Week 17, beating the Panthers to win their way back into the playoffs.
Atlanta’s road to redemption takes them westward, where a resurgent Rams team awaits.
Led by first-year head coach Sean McVay, the youngest in NFL history at just 30 years old, the Rams are reliving their “Greatest Show on Earth” glory days. L.A. leads the league in scoring at 29.8 points per, with second-year quarterback Jared Goff and third-year running back Todd Gurley forming a formidable tandem.
For the Falcons, finding the end zone hasn’t been as easy, as the departure of offensive guru Kyle Shanahan resulted in a dip to 22.1 points per (15th). But the defense has stepped up to allow only 19.7 points per (8th), including 10 to the Panthers in the playoff-clinching win.
After opening as 5.5-point home favorites the Rams have been bet up slightly to (-6), and the Over/Under is set at 48.5 points.
#5 Buffalo Bills (9-7) @ #3 Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) – 1:05 p.m. EST on CBS
Buffalo finally broke the longest current playoff drought in North American sports – 17 years in the cold – thanks to a victory over Miami combined with Cincinnati’s last-minute elimination of Baltimore.
But with standout running back LeSean McCoy still nursing the sprained ankle he suffered last week, the Bills may have trouble snapping a longer streak of futility. Buffalo hasn’t won a playoff game since 1995, and if McCoy can’t go on Sunday, the decidedly mediocre Bills will be hard-pressed to upset a talented Jaguars team.
Buffalo passes for only 176.6 yards per game (31st), scores only 18.9 points per (22nd), and surrenders 22.4 points per (18th). Their only strong suit is the ground game, which goes for 126.1 yards per game (6th overall), but that production would be slashed if “Shady” isn’t at full capacity.
A playoff game in Jacksonville without McCoy to tote the rock would be a disaster for Buffalo. The Jaguars lead the NFL in pass defense with a paltry 170 yards per game, and their 21 interceptions are good for second overall. If quarterback Tyrod Taylor is forced to carry the offense against the cornerback duo of Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, Buffalo is in serious trouble.
Bettors seem to agree, as the opening line of Bills (+6.5) has been bet up in a hurry. The Jaguars are currently 9-point favorites and climbing, as McCoy has been held out of practice thus far. As for the total, the Over/Under of 39 is by far the lowest of Wild Card Weekend.
#5 Carolina Panthers (11-5) @ #3 New Orleans Saints (11-5) – 4:40 p.m. EST on FOX
At first glance, this game looks like the proverbial slam dunk.
The Saints have already dispatched the Panthers twice this season, winning 34-13 in Carolina and 31-21 at the Superdome. That pushed New Orleans to 7-1 at home on the year, and with their first playoff game since 2014 secured, the Saints will surely have a boisterous crowd on hand this Sunday.
The new-look New Orleans offense is still scoring in bunches (28.0 points per / 4th overall), but for once it’s the running game going to town. Their two-headed dragon of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram combined for 129.4 yards per game (5th), but to keep it up in the playoffs, they’ll need to push through the Panthers’ stout run defense.
Carolina gives up just 88.1 yards per game on the ground, and the third-best rushing defense in football would seem to have the stuff to stop New Orleans in its tracks.
But the Panthers surrendered 149 rushing yards in their first loss to the Saints, and another 148 yards in the second.
Accordingly, the opening line of Saints (-4) has ballooned to (-7) in short order. Meanwhile, the Over/Under has settled at 48.5 given the likelihood of a run-heavy game plan for the home team.