By Don Banks | January 1, 2018 11 am PT
After an eventful Week 17, the eight-team field for the NFL’s first round of the playoffs is set, with a pair of games on tap for Saturday and Sunday. Here’s an early preview of the four matchups, which feature six teams that didn’t make the postseason a year ago, plus last year’s Super Bowl loser and a playoff perennial from Kansas City.
No. 6 Buffalo (9-7) at No. 3 Jacksonville (10-6) — Both clubs feature quarterbacks their teams haven’t exactly been sold on this season. Buffalo benched QB Tyrod Taylor for Nathan Peterman in Week 11 (with disastrous results), and Jacksonville briefly started QB Chad Henne over Blake Bortles late in the preseason…..Two of the past three Bills head coaches meet in this one, with Buffalo rookie head coach Sean McDermott leading his organization to the postseason for the first time since 1999, to face the Doug Marrone-led Jaguars. Marrone was 15-17 in his two-season stint with the Bills (2013-14), resigning after posting his own 9-7 record in 2014….. While Buffalo endured 17 consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs, Jacksonville is playing in its first playoff game in 10 years, an AFC Divisional round loss at New England after the 2007 season….. Both teams own some glamorous wins this season, with the Bills having won on the road at Kansas City and Atlanta (both playoff qualifiers), and the Jaguars having embarrassed the Steelers in Pittsburgh and beat winning teams like Baltimore and Seattle at home…. Jacksonville was the NFL’s top rushing team this season, averaging 141.4 yards per game. That’s a bad matchup for Buffalo, since the Bills featured the league’s 29th ranked rush defense, allowing 124.6 per game.
No. 5 Tennessee (9-7) at No. 4 Kansas City (10-6) — This will be the 24th career playoff game coached by the Chiefs’ Andy Reid, who has led Kansas City to the postseason three consecutive years and four times in his five-year tenure. By comparison, the Titans’ Mike Mularkey is a playoff-coaching novice, making his first trip to the postseason in his sixth season (two in Buffalo, one in Jacksonville, and three in Tennessee)…..The streaky Chiefs are coming in hot, having won four in a row after losing six out of seven. And of course they opened the season with five consecutive wins. The Titans lost three of their past four and have looked sluggish offensively for a while now, not topping 24 points since Week 6…. Kansas City hasn’t won a home playoff game since beating Pittsburgh in the first round in the 1993 playoffs, going 0-5 at Arrowhead Stadium in that span. The Titans haven’t won a playoff game of any kind since beating Baltimore on the road in 2003’s first round. Tennessee is back in the postseason for the first time since 2008…. Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith was drafted No. 1 overall by San Francisco in 2005, and 10 years later the Titans took quarterback Marcus Mariota No. 2 overall in 2015.
No. 6 Atlanta (10-6) at No. 3 Los Angeles (11-5) — From 1967-2001, a span of 35 seasons, the Falcons and Rams were the in the same division and played twice a year. While the Rams lead the all-time series handily (47-28-2), Atlanta won their only previous playoff meeting, a 47-17 blowout home win in the 2004 NFC Divisional round against the then-St. Louis Rams…. Last season the Falcons featured the most explosive offense in the league, averaging almost 34 points per game. This year the Rams held that distinction, at 31 points per game before playing mostly backups in a Week 17 home loss to San Francisco…. Los Angeles posted five blowout wins of 25 points or more, and feature an MVP candidate in running back Todd Gurley, the likely Defensive Player of the Year in defensive tackle Aaron Donald, and the runaway favorite for Coach of the Year in Sean McVay…. The Falcons have last year’s MVP at quarterback in Matt Ryan, and are trying to become the first Super Bowl loser to return the game and win it since the 1971-72 Dolphins turned that trick…. The Rams were only 4-4 at home in the Coliseum this season, but went 7-1 on the road, losing only at Minnesota. The Falcons were a strong 5-3 on the road, the same mark they had at home.
No. 5 Carolina (11-5) at No. 4 New Orleans (11-5) — The Panthers at Saints is the only rematch of the first round, with New Orleans winning both previous games against their NFC South rival this season, giving it the tie-breaking advantage to claim the division title for the first time since 2011….. Drew Brees is the only quarterback playing in the first round who has won a Super Bowl ring, something Carolina’s Cam Newton couldn’t quite accomplish when the Panthers lost 24-10 to Denver two years ago in Super Bowl 50. Newton is a former league MVP, however, while Brees has never won that hardware…. The Saints have won their past seven home games after getting beat by visiting New England in Week 2. In its two games against Carolina, New Orleans won 34-13 on the road and 31-21 in the dome….. Both teams lost on the road in the division in Week 17, and the Saints are just 3-3 in their past six games. The Panthers went just 3-3 in the NFC South, but notched impressive wins against 2017 playoff teams such as New England, Minnesota, Buffalo and Atlanta….. The best news for Carolina’s mediocre passing game in the playoffs might be that standout tight end Greg Olsen missed both of the previous games against the Saints with his foot injury.