Previewing the First Weekend of the NFL Playoffs

Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs
Saturday, January 6, 4:35 PM ET (ABC/ESPN)

How the Titans Could Win
Titans starting running back DeMarco Murray will miss this game with a knee injury, but backup Derrick Henry actually leads the team in rushing despite having fewer carries. Henry averages 4.2 yards per attempt, and Kansas City allows an average of 118.1 rushing yards per game (25th in the league). If coach Mike Mularkey and the Titans can commit to running the football, they might be able to come out of Kansas City with a victory.

Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota has been inconsistent, but Kansas City’s passing defense has also struggled, ranking 29th in the league. Also, Tennessee has the NFL’s fourth-ranked rushing defense, which could help slow down Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt (first in the league with 1,327 rushing yards).

How the Chiefs Could Win
Kansas City’s defense has been inconsistent, but the unit knows how to jump a pass. Mariota has 15 interceptions this season, third-most in the league. Look for Mariota to throw two interceptions. He will make careless errors late in the game that will prove costly to Tennessee.

The Kansas City offense could end up having a field day as well. QB Alex Smith has weapons across the board and has completed 67.5% of his passes this year. Using the speed of receiver Tyreek Hill and the red zone abilities of tight end Travis Kelce, Smith will look to attack Tennessee’s young secondary as other top teams have done. The Chiefs will most likely succeed. For example, Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger each threw for nearly 300 yards and four touchdowns against the Titans.

Two Story Lines to Watch
Tennessee tight end Delanie Walker leads the team with 807 receiving yards and is second on the Titans with three touchdowns. They run many red zone plays for him, so the Chiefs have to keep an eye on him inside their own 20. Also, watch out for trick plays. Mularkey is not afraid to get creative.

Kansas City’s Hill averages 15.8 yards per reception, and he has seven touchdowns of 30-plus yards this season, which is the most of any receiver in the last three years. He is definitely planning to leave the Titans choking on his dust this Saturday.

Buffalo Bills at Jacksonville Jaguars
Sunday, January 7, 1:05 PM ET (CBS)

How the Bills Could Win
Jaguars QB Blake Bortles has thrown five interceptions in his last two games. Buffalo’s defense has allowed the second-fewest passing touchdowns and has the eighth-most interceptions. If the Bills can force a couple of turnovers out of Bortles and set up the offense with great field position, then they can come out of Jacksonville with a win.

Buffalo, which is usually reliant on injured star running back LeSean McCoy (listed as day-to-day), will have to rely on wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Charles Clay to make plays, especially in the red zone. But that will be tough with Jaguars cornerbacks A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey lurking on the edges.

How the Jaguars Could Win
If McCoy doesn’t suit up, the path to victory for the Jaguars should be pretty easy. So-called Sacksonville needs to get to Bills QB Tyrod Taylor. The matchup is too perfect. The Bills have 55 sacks (second in the league), and Taylor has been sacked 46 times  (third-most in the league). He hasn’t even played every game.

Offensively, the Jaguars need to get the ball to running back Leonard Fournette. He has emerged as a star in his rookie year, and the Bills allowed the most rushing yards and rushing touchdowns this season. In the warm weather of Jacksonville, this is one of the most favorable matchups on paper that you will see this weekend.

Two Story Lines to Watch
The Jaguars have forced 33 turnovers this season, second-most in the NFL. The Bills have to be very careful because if they turn the ball over a couple of times, this game could get out of hand.

If McCoy does play, then the Bills chances improve dramatically. He has 1,586 scrimmage yards and eight total touchdowns this season. He will be nursing an injury, though, so his playing time would be limited.

Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams
Saturday, January 6, 8:15 PM ET (NBC)

How the Falcons Could Win
There are two main reasons why the Falcons could pull off a huge upset and come out of L.A. with a victory. The first reason is running back Devonta Freeman. Although the Rams’ underrated passing defense has shined, teams have run very successfully against L.A. The Rams have allowed the fifth-most rushing yards and the fourth-most rushing touchdowns in the league. Freeman has split carries with Tevin Coleman this season but has still managed eight total touchdowns and has come up big in important games.

The second reason that the Falcons could win is experience. While Atlanta has a nearly identical roster to the team that gave up a 28–3 lead in the Super Bowl last year, the Rams’ star quarterback, star running back, and top three receivers have never played in a postseason game. If the Rams show any signs of nerves early, it will be up to the veterans on the Falcons’ defense to pounce.

How the Rams Could Win
This year, L.A. has had the top offense in football. The main reason for that is explosiveness. You never know when running back Todd Gurley, who has 2,093 scrimmage yards and 19 touchdowns (both the best marks in the league), will bust off a long run or take a screen pass to the house. On the other hand, while everyone is watching Gurley, QB Jared Goff is having a great year himself (3,804 passing yards, 28 TDs). Goff is first in the league with 12.9 yards per completion. The Rams have all the ingredients to make big plays, and if Goff, Gurley, wide receiver Sammy Watkins, and the offense can play as well as they have during the regular season, L.A. will most likely be heading to Minnesota to play for a spot in the NFC championship.

On the other side of the ball, just because the Rams have struggled to stop the run, that doesn’t mean they can’t get pressure on the quarterback and cause turnovers. L.A., led by defensive tackle Aaron Donald (11 sacks), has done a great job of getting after the quarterback and forcing turnovers. The team ranks fifth in the league in takeaways (28). If the Rams can get two or three turnovers, they have a great chance of winning.

Two Story Lines to Watch
Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp has 94 targets and 869 yards, so he will be an X-factor. Once they get in the red zone, however, Sammy Watkins is the man to watch. He leads the team with eight touchdowns (tied for eighth in the NFL in receiving TDs).

There is a similar situation in Atlanta. Julio Jones has 1,444 yards receiving to Mohamed Sanu’s 703 yards, but Sanu is the main target in the red zone. He has five touchdowns to Jones’s three.

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints
Sunday, January 7, 4:40 PM ET (Fox)

How the Panthers Could Win
One reason the Panthers could come out on top is QB Cam Newton’s ability to run the football. Newton leads the team in rushing as well as passing this year and is tied for the team lead in rushing touchdowns. Especially on third and short, the option of Newton running can rattle a defense. It also opens up the playbook for Carolina coach Ron Rivera, as he can run read options and all sorts of play-action passes. The other reason the Panthers could win is because of their talented veteran defenders. It is up to Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Julius Peppers to lead this defense and try to contain the Saints running back duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara.

How the Saints Could Win
New Orleans is favored by a touchdown against the Panthers, and that is for a reason. The Saints’ variety on offense has been incredibly hard to stop. Their two star running backs, Ingram and Kamara, have combined for 1,852 rushing yards and 3,094 scrimmage yards. Teams have had a hard time stopping them, and they also have to worry about future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees (4,334 yards, 23 TDs).

If the Saints can balance the running and passing game, the Panthers’ defense will be in serious trouble. In addition to their brilliant offense, the Saints had the league’s 10th-best defense this season. After trading Kelvin Benjamin to the Bills, Carolina has lacked depth and consistency in its passing game. Beyond wideout Devin Funchess and tight end Greg Olsen, no other receivers scare you. If Saints breakout cornerback Marshon Lattimore can lock down Funchess, Cam Newton will be in trouble.

Two Story Lines to Watch
Pay attention to Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (1,086 scrimmage yards, seven total TDs), especially when Newton is being chased in the pocket and when Carolina is in the red zone.

Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas averages 12.0 yards per catch and has 1,245 yards this season. Look for him to get chances down the field against an inexperienced Carolina secondary.

Photographs by: Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images (Titans-Chiefs); Wesley Hitt/Getty Images (Jacksonville); David Banks/Getty Images (Falcons); Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images (Saints-Panthers)



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