New year. New season. After an entertaining regular season that had its finale end on a tackle at the half-yard line in Seattle last weekend, let’s hope the play-offs are just as exciting. None of the four games jump out to me as classic match-ups, but Titans v Patriots has the most potential.
4-HOUSTON v 5-BUFFALO, 8.35am (AEDT)
This match-up has essentially been locked in for two weeks. Both teams rested starters for the most part in week 17, and the Texans should get a boost with J.J. Watt returning. The Bills’ defence, though, will be the star of this game. This is a bad match-up for Deshaun Watson and the Texans offence, who love to air it out to DeAndre Hopkins. Buffalo allowed the fourth-fewest passing yards per game at 195.2. Josh Allen can be shaky at times, but John Brown and Cole Beasley will have success against the Texans defence (fourth-most passing yards at 267.3). Remember how Drew Lock and the Broncos carved them up last month? Allen’s ability to run is also a key factor. Did you know that he has nine rushing TDs this season? That’s two more than Lamar Jackson (and Watson). Buffalo were 6-2 on the road, their best win at Dallas on Thanksgiving. Back in Texas and playing in the same time slot, the Bills will turn in another solid performance to earn the franchise’s first play-off win since 1995.
3-NEW ENGLAND v 6-TENNESSEE, 12.15pm
Tom Brady fed off all the doubters in last season’s title run. Not everyone counted them out, but I did, picking against them in the divisional round, championship game and the Super Bowl: Joe-for-3. There are a lot more doubters now, especially after a loss to the four-win Dolphins at home in week 17 with a bye on the line. The Patriots went 4-4 after an 8-0 start, and the offence has taken a step back. Tennessee have the offensive weapons to make Brady & Co have to put up 24-plus points to win, but there is reason to expect the Patriots to recover and cover.
This is their first wildcard game since the 2009 season, and while they don’t have the luxury of a bye, the fact that they lost as 16.5-point favourites last week is a plus. The Patriots haven’t lost back-to-back home games since November 2006, and they’ll be super-motivated to silence the doubters again. Stephon Gilmore, the lockdown cornerback, had his worst game of the season in week 17 and he surely will bounce back and limit talented rookie
A.J. Brown. Titans head coach Mike Vrabel is the wildcard of wildcard weekend. His new team beat his old team, 34-10, in Tennessee last season, and that was against a better Pats offence and with Marcus Mariota. Ryan Tannehill is 7-3 as Titans starter but he’s 0-6 at Gillette Stadium. He won’t get his first win here. Not under these circumstances.
3-NEW ORLEANS v 6-MINNESOTA, 5.05am (AEDT)
This is the only game of the four in which you couldn’t convince me to take the other side. The Saints have been one of the best teams all season – remember when they went 5-0 with Teddy Bridgewater when Drew Brees was hurt? – and they enter the post-season hot, having averaged 40 points a game in December. It’s rare a 13-3 team doesn’t get a bye, so expect Sean Payton’s team to play with an even bigger chip on its shoulder than usual. It will take a miracle for Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins (0-1 in the play-offs and 17-27-2 career road record) to outduel Brees in the Superdome in a big spot.
4-PHILADELPHIA v 5-SEATTLE, 8.40am (AEDT)
The casual fan might think this is an easy game for the Seahawks. They have Russell Wilson and were literally centimetres away from being the No.3 seed. But here’s the thing: Seattle are far from a juggernaut. They had only a points differential of plus seven, and nine of their wins were by seven points or fewer. When the Seahawks won at Philadelphia, 17-9, in week 12, they needed a flea-flicker TD pass to do it and that was against a banged-up Eagles team. Now it’s Seattle that’s hurting, and the injuries at RB and the O-line will show here as Philadelphia are stout up front defensively. Wilson will do his thing but so will Carson Wentz. Philly won four in a row to get in, and they’ll find a way to advance.