NFL wild-card weekend: Picks, predictions

The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and of the 12 quarterbacks in the playoffs this year, only three — New England’s Tom Brady, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and Saints QB Drew Brees — have ever won a Super Bowl. Of the remaining nine teams, only two — the Panthers and Falcons — have quarterbacks who have even played in a Super Bowl.

That new blood has created excitement in new places, especially in Buffalo as the Bills are in the playoffs for the first time since 1999. The Rams also ended a long playoff drought, reaching the postseason for the first time since 2004. The Jaguars also are in the playoffs for the first time since 2007. 

Playoff experience is invaluable and could prove to be the difference — especially on opening weekend. 

NFL wild-card weekend predictions

Titans (9-7) at Chiefs (10-6) 

4:35 p.m. ET, Saturday (ESPN)

The Titans got into the postseason thanks to Marcus Mariota coming through in the clutch late in a Week 17 win over the Jaguars to complete a season sweep. The reward is a trip to Kansas City, where the Chiefs went 6-2. The Titans won at Arrowhead Stadium late in the 2016 season, but this year will have to contain electrifying rookie running back Kareem Hunt to repeat that feat.

Hunt led the NFL in rushing with 1,327 yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. The Titans defense ranked fourth against the run, so it should be strength vs. strength. The Titans will be without starting running back DeMarco Murray because of a knee injury and will go with Derrick Henry to carry the load.

Turnovers will be key as Mariota has been intercepted 15 times this season while Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith tossed just five interceptions. Smith is the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for at least 3,000 yards and throw fewer than 10 interceptions in five consecutive seasons.

While Mariota has the Titans in the playoffs for the first time in his three-year career, Smith is a playoff veteran and will get the Chiefs into the division round.

Prediction: Chiefs 23, Titans 16

Falcons (10-6) at Rams (11-5) 

8:15 p.m., Saturday (NBC) 

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was the NFL MVP in 2016 while leading the league’s highest-scoring team to an NFC championship. The Rams were the NFL’s highest-scoring team this season, led by running back Todd Gurley, who is a favorite to be NFL MVP. 

Gurley led the NFL in rushing going into the final week but didn’t play and finished 22 yards behind the Chiefs’ Hunt for the rushing title. He did lead the NFL with 2,093 scrimmage yards and 19 touchdowns and joined Hall of Famers O.J. Simpson and Marshall Faulk as the only players in league history with at least 2,000 scrimmage yards, 10 rushing touchdowns and more than five touchdown receptions in a single season. 

As impressive as the Rams have been this season, turning things around under first-year coach Sean McVay, they haven’t been to the playoffs since 2004. The Falcons are postseason-weathered, having gone to the Super Bowl last season, and that experience will prove invaluable. 

Prediction: Falcons 35, Rams 31

Bills (9-7) at Jaguars (10-6) 

1:05 p.m., Sunday (CBS) 

The Bills end the NFL’s longest postseason drought, making the playoffs for the first time since 1999. The Jaguars, who limp into the playoffs as losers of their last two games, haven’t been in the postseason since 2007. 

Both teams have been wildly inconsistent, but the most reliable unit has been the Jaguars defense. The Jags were second in total defense and had the NFL’s top pass defense in 2017. Though Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor has been careful with the ball, he might have a tough time against the “Sacksonville” pass rush.

The Jaguars have won five straight at home while the Bills were just 3-5 on the road. Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles, despite being terrible on the road, has seven touchdowns without an interception in his last three home games. 

Prediction: Jaguars 20, Bills 17

Panthers (11-5) at Saints (11-5)

4:40 p.m., Sunday (Fox)

The Saints are the third NFC South champions in as many seasons and got the 2017 division title thanks to their season sweep of the Panthers. New Orleans won both games by double figures and scored at least 30 points in each. 

Both teams are coming off  losses in Week 17, but there is more concern with a Panthers team that has scored just 32 points over the last two weeks.  

This is Carolina’s eighth trip to the postseason since the franchise began in 1995. The Panthers have reached the division round, either by winning or through a bye, each of the previous seven times. That streak ends this year. 

Prediction: Saints 34, Panthers 20