By Don Banks | January 4, 2018 6pm PT
Not to be a buzz kill, but the first round of the NFL playoffs no longer routinely launches an inspiring long-shot underdog on the road to the Super Bowl. The past eight Super Bowl qualifiers (2013-2016) all had first-round byes, and that recent trend holds in the case of nine of the past 10, and 13 of the past 16 Super Bowl clubs.
So there’s that to consider this weekend when you watch the action unfold in Kansas City, Los Angeles, Jacksonville and New Orleans. We may not see any of these teams in Minneapolis next month. But that doesn’t mean there’s no good football or fun in store.
The Los Angeles Coliseum playing host to its first playoff game since the 1978 NFC title game? Sign me up. The Saints back in their Superdome funhouse in January for the first time since the 2011 season? That’ll work. And then there’s Jacksonville, which hasn’t had a playoff home date this century, and the upstart Bills, who had their died-and-gone-to-heaven scenario just to get here. That’s plenty to look forward to, plus the rare possibility of a Chiefs home playoff win and a Titans postseason appearance almost 10 years in the making.
It’s the playoffs. Anything can happen. Even if recent history says these eight teams aren’t going all the way, you know we’ll watch for those exceptions and aberrations.
Last week’s picks: 9-7 (.563); Season: 57-23 (.713)
No. 5 Tennessee (9-7) at No. 4 Kansas City (10-6) — Chiefs fans know their club’s tortured postseason history all too well, especially at home, where Kansas City hasn’t won in the playoffs since Joe Montana was putting together that great run to the AFC title game in the 1993 season. But if not now for these Chiefs, when could they ever expect to end that playoff drought at home, which has reached 0-5? Two years ago, Kansas City went to Houston and put a stop to its playoff losing streak, beating the Texans by a resounding 30-0. This one won’t be that lopsided, but the Titans will likely have that just-happy-to-be sheen on them on Saturday, and that’s a sure sign of a one-and-done postseason trip. Unless Marcus Mariota takes the entire Tennessee squad on his back and leads the way, we should have the Chiefs third consecutive berth in the final eight in store. And then it’s on to New England and a rematch of the 2017 season opener. Winner: Kansas City.
No. 6 Atlanta (10-6) at No. 3 Los Angeles (11-5) — If there’s an upset looming this weekend, it feels like it could be the playoff-experienced and defending NFC champion Falcons rising up and knocking off a young Rams team that might be susceptible to first-time postseason pressure in a prime time setting. And don’t forget, Los Angeles doesn’t really have much of a home-field advantage just yet, going only 4-4 at home this season compared to 7-1 on the road. Atlanta has essentially been in playoff mode for weeks now, and maybe with the pressure of trying to make the postseason lifted, the Falcons will play their best ball and look a little more like last year’s version of themselves. That said, the Rams have so many ways to beat you and are a confident group that doesn’t seem to tense up or find the stage too large. And that “I got this’’ tone is set is by likely NFL Coach of the Year winner, Sean McVay. I give Atlanta a real shot in this game, but I’m giving Los Angeles the nod. Winner: Los Angeles.
No. 6 Buffalo (9-7) at No. 3 Jacksonville (10-6) — With as much as these two teams like to keep the ball on the ground, the specter of a sub-3 hour playoff game could return in Sunday’s early time slot. But the Bills won’t have a healthy LeSean McCoy in the backfield, if they have him at all, and that means advantage Jaguars in the running game. Defense and strong special teams will likely be both teams’ desired path to victory, but the Jaguars are going to have a rabid and boisterous crowd behind, with their fans waiting as long for another home playoff game as the Bills fans waited for a postseason berth (1999 in each case). In this, a battle of teams that hope this season is just the beginning of their relevancy, you have to give the advantage to Jacksonville with its elite-level defense. The Doug Marrone Bowl might not captivate the nation’s attention this weekend, but I like the ex-Bills head coach to prevail over the club he surprisingly walked away from on New Year’s Eve 2014. Winner: Jacksonville.
No. 5 Carolina (11-5) at No. 4 New Orleans (11-5) — I don’t buy the trope that it’s hard to beat the same team three times in the same season, because I think it’s balanced out by the better team usually wins factor. Plus, the Panthers haven’t really come close to beating the Saints, losing twice this season by an average of 15.5 points per game. So Carolina might well have New Orleans in its head a little bit entering this all-important third meeting. This will be Cam Newton’s first postseason game since his meltdown in Super Bowl 50 and I expect he’ll attempt to be in full Superman mode, saving the day for his Panthers. But that Carolina passing game hasn’t clicked of late, and the Saints simply have play-makers galore on both sides of the ball this season. My picks for the offensive and defensive rookies of the year — Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore — will both have stellar playoff debuts for the Saints and this unexpectedly fun and rewarding season will roll on in New Orleans. Winner: New Orleans.