This year, the NFL showed what parity really is, and that has made this season one of the most exciting in recent memory. Eight of the twelve teams in the playoffs this year missed the postseason only a year ago, and because of that, it is hard to know what to expect from each team. With this great parity, the most exciting part of this season will be seeing which of those new playoff teams, if any, will have a chance at claiming the Lombardi Trophy on February 4 in Minneapolis.
#4 Kansas City Chiefs vs. #5 Tennessee Titans
This game is just another opportunity for QB Alex Smith to really assert himself as more than just a game manager who can’t get it done in the playoffs. And with the offense he is leading into the playoffs this year, he has a strong chance to do just that. The Chiefs bring a very balanced offense into the playoffs: they are ninth in the league in rushing, seventh in the league in passing, and fifth in total offense. They are going to have to rely on their passing game in this game though, as the Titans have had the fourth best defense against the rush this season, and that shows no signs of changing in this game. RB Kareem Hunt, the leading rusher in the NFL this year, will have a tough day running the ball, but Smith will be able to get the passing offense going against the Titans’ 25th ranked pass defense. The Titans, on the other hand, will have to feed RB Derrick Henry, giving him upwards of twenty rushes, and rely on QB Marcus Mariota for some timely plays in order to put points on the board. This style of offense will do enough to keep the Titans in the game, but in crunch time, the Titans will not be able to make the game winning plays. The Chiefs will get big plays through the air from TE Travis Kelce and speedster WR Tyreek Hill, giving the Chiefs the close win and sending them to the AFC Divisional Round.
#3 Jacksonville Jaguars vs. #6 Buffalo Bills
All season, the Jaguars defense has terrorized quarterbacks, leading the league in sacks and gaining the moniker, “Sacksonville.” Unfortunately for their defensive line, they are up against one of the league’s top mobile quarterbacks in Tyrod Taylor. He will be able to neutralize the pass rush by making plays with his legs, escaping pressure, and extending plays. Beyond Taylor though, the Bills will not have enough offense. Jacksonville’s top ranked pass defense, led by CB Jalen Ramsey, will shut down WR Kelvin Benjamin and the rest of the Bills’ receivers, and with RB LeSean McCoy hurt with a sprained ankle (even if he does play he will not be healthy enough to make a difference), the Jags will completely shut down the Bills. RB Leonard Fournette will have a good day and QB Blake Bortles will play well enough at home to win what should be a fairly easy game for the Jaguars.
#4 New Orleans Saints vs. #5 Carolina Panthers
QB Drew Brees and Head Coach Sean Payton finally have the Saints back in the playoffs for the first time since 2014, and it is also the first time they are hosting a playoff game since 2012. For sure, the Superdome will be unbelievably loud when these teams take the field. The noise will not cause QB Cam Newton many problems though as he will come up big, playing like he did in his MVP season. His play alone will keep the Panthers in this game. Despite this, the Saints, who have beaten the Panthers twice this season, both by fairly wide margins, will continue their dominance of Carolina. The Saints have a well balanced offense that will show up this game, and Brees will play very well, opening up running lanes for RBs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. While Cam and the Panthers’ offense will put up points, the Saints’ offense will be unstoppable and their defense will make key plays down the stretch to clinch the win.
#3 Los Angeles Rams vs. #6 Atlanta Falcons
Prepare for RB Todd Gurley to go off. Gurley, one of the favorites to win MVP, ran for 1305 yards this year and had 788 yards receiving, second among running backs behind Alvin Kamara. He will get off to a slow start as the Falcons will come in playing fast and playing for their lives like they did in the Super Bowl last year, but after the first quarter, Gurley and the Rams’ offense will settle down and begin to take over. The Atlanta offense has been just a little out of sync all year, and that will not be fixed in this game. They will put up points — with QB Matt Ryan, WR Julio Jones, and RB Devonta Freeman they are too talented not to — but they won’t put up enough points to truly challenge the Rams. Unfortunately for Falcons’ fans, this year’s playoff run will be much shorter than last year’s.