Wild-card weekend is, in many ways, a setup for the best weekend of the NFL calendar.
Now that the field is set for next weekend’s divisional-round — when the league’s top eight teams will scramble to advance to the conference championships — let’s reset the playoffs.
Saturday, Jan. 13: 8:15 p.m. ET, CBS | Game HQ
Titans lowdown: Tennessee has already advanced further than most thought after upsetting the Chiefs in the wild-card round. The Titans did, however, demonstrate a winning playoff formula: A reliance on the power running of tailback Derrick Henry and the improvisation of quarterback Marcus Mariota. Henry averaged 3.8 yards after first contact against Kansas City, which is precisely the kind of playmaking an underdog team would need to pull off a road playoff victory. Read more on the Titans from Cameron Wolfe.
Patriots lowdown: Some observers were rattled by a round of sub-Hall of Fame play from quarterback Tom Brady, who threw interceptions in five consecutive late-season games. But remember the big picture: In a league with no perfect teams, the Patriots have lost only once since Oct. 1. Brady has had an extra week to nurse shoulder and Achilles injuries, and tight end Rob Gronkowski is as healthy as he has ever been in January. It seems likely that the franchise is headed toward an offseason reset to some degree — coordinators Josh McDaniel and Matt Patricia are receiving heavy interest as potential head coaches. But for now, the relatively weak state of the AFC bracket puts the Patriots in excellent position for a run at their eighth Super Bowl appearance in the Brady-Bill Belichick era. Read more on the Patriots from Mike Reiss.
Bottom line: This is a game the Patriots should and almost certainly will win. An AFC Championship Game rematch looms against the Steelers.
Sunday, Jan. 14: 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS | Game HQ
Jaguars lowdown: After outlasting the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, the Jaguars drew an interesting divisional-round matchup. They more than handled the Steelers in Week 5, intercepting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger five times in a 30-9 victory at Heinz Field. It was one of nine games in which the Jaguars’ entirely legitimate defense held an opponent to 10 or fewer points. Quarterback Blake Bortles, however, has regressed since an early- and midseason surge, and his play poses a massive obstacle to advancing further. Read more on the Jaguars from Michael DiRocco.
Steelers lowdown: Promising playoff paths have crashed for the Steelers because of injuries to one or more of their Big 3: Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell. So all eyes will be on Brown, whom the Steelers are hoping can return after missing the final three regular-season games with a calf injury. Like the Patriots, the Steelers were nearly unbeatable during the final three months of the season. They lost once — to the Patriots — after Oct. 8, but their worst day of the season was undoubtedly that Week 5 loss to the Jaguars. Read more on the Steelers from Jeremy Fowler.
Bottom line: It’s not easy to envision Bortles winning a road playoff game, but any team with a defense as sharp as the Jaguars’ unit has the chance to at least keep it close. The Steelers are and should be the favorites.
Saturday, Jan. 13: 4:35 p.m. ET, NBC | Game HQ
Falcons lowdown: After some early-season struggles, the Falcons now have the look of a low-seed that no team wants to play. They’ve won seven of their past nine games, and Saturday night’s choke-out of the high-scoring Los Angeles Rams demonstrated how Atlanta can win a defensive/ball-possession game. It was amazing to see the Falcons pull out the 26-13 win, even as quarterback Matt Ryan threw shorter (3.8 air yards per pass) than in any game of his career. Their ability to navigate a cross-country trip, and a slippery track at the Los Angeles Coliseum, bodes well for a long playoff run. Read more on the Falcons from Vaughn McClure.
Eagles lowdown: These are teeth-grinding times in Philadelphia, where the season-ending knee injury of quarterback Carson Wentz has stunted anticipation about a Super Bowl run. The Eagles’ offensive scoring output dropped by almost half in the three games backup Nick Foles has started — from 28.3 points to 15.7 points per game — and it’s fair to question whether they can navigate the playoffs without Wentz. And in a trend that has gained attention recently, the Eagles’ defense allowed seven touchdown passes over their final four games, tied for third most in the NFL. Could they have discovered a solution during their first-round bye? Read more on the Eagles from Tim McManus.
Bottom line: It’s pretty wild but really not debatable that a No. 6 seed opened as a 2.5-point favorite in a playoff game at the No. 1 seed. (A top seed has never been an underdog in its first playoff game, per ESPN Stats & Information.) But it’s an appropriate recognition of the Falcons’ winning formula and concern about the Eagles’ post-Wentz drop-off.
Sunday, Jan. 14: 4:40 p.m. ET, Fox | Game HQ
Saints lowdown: After an 0-2 start, the Saints have put together their best team since winning Super Bowl XLIV in 2009. That was also the year they defeated the Vikings in the NFC Championship — the game that prompted the NFL’s Bountygate investigation. We’ll see just how much the Saints have changed since their Week 1 loss to the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium, and whether they can establish a ball-control running attack against Minnesota’s top-rated defense. Read more on the Saints from Mike Triplett.
Vikings lowdown: Minnesota had the NFL’s best defense this season, whether you measure by points allowed per game (15.8), yards (275.9) or third-down percentage (25.2). Fourteen of the Vikings’ 16 opponents managed less than 20 points. Well-rounded and healthy, the unit is poised to control the NFC playoffs. From a team perspective, perhaps the biggest question is whether quarterback Case Keenum can continue his charmed play. He finished the season ranked second in Total QBR (69.7) after five seasons as a backup. Sunday will mark his first playoff appearance. Read more on the Vikings from Courtney Cronin.
Bottom line: All you need to know about the teams’ Week 1 matchup is that Sam Bradford threw for 346 yards and three touchdowns in the Vikings’ 29-19 victory. Both teams have undergone significant changes since then, and this matchup could be the best game of the 2017 playoffs.