The Wildcard Round is here and the AFC and NFC present quite the contrast. Both road teams in the AFC got in at 9-7, and were outscored on the season, meaning they are among the ten worst teams by point differential to reach the postseason since 1990. Of course, several of those other “bad” teams won a game in the playoffs–the difference being that many of them were the worst division winners and got a home game. Meanwhile, the two NFC teams going on the road this weekend happen to be the last two Super Bowl representatives from the NFC.
As part of the preview, I include a similarity score to find the most similar playoff matchups, comparing both the qualities of the home team and road team by things like point differential, points scored and allowed, record, and passing and rushing efficiency stats.
Tennessee at Kansas City (4:30 ET Saturday on ESPN)
The Kansas City Chiefs are an amazing 0-7 against the spread at Arrowhead all-time in the playoffs, and only 2-5 straight up. Some of the results were not surprising (losing to the Colts with Manning, the Broncos with Elway, or the Steelers last year with Roethlisberger). The most perplexing of those losses was back in 1995, when the Colts–a team that bears some resemblance to these Titans in quality–came in and won an ugly game. This one would join that in shockers, because the Titans are lucky to be in the playoffs.
Tennessee was outscored by 22 points and lost three of the last four games. They are middling in offensive numbers, and Marcus Mariota threw more interceptions than touchdowns this year. The Chiefs, meanwhile, ranked 1st in rushing yards per carry, fewest turnovers on offense, and in the top 6 in net yards per pass attempt. The defense had its issues after the Eric Berry injury in the opener, but the offense–other than a disaster stretch against the teams from New York mid-season–was pretty good all year.
Similar Matchups: Kansas City 24.4, Tennessee 16.4, Kansas City comps won 10 of 12, covered 8 of 12.
The similar matchups show that these games have very often gone to the home favorite, where they had a notable quality edge and pass efficiency edge on offense. So I guess we’ll see if there’s anything to that bad January Arrowhead record.
Atlanta at Los Angeles Rams (Saturday, 8:30 PM ET, NBC)
The highest scoring team in 2017 meets the highest scoring team in 2016, in a game that is worthy of a round beyond the wildcard. In fact, we’ll see in the similar matchups that most did not take place in the first weekend. Most teams like the Rams, who outscored opponents by 149 points and led the league in scoring, got byes. The Falcons struggled to duplicate the explosiveness of a year ago, but still rank in the top 10 in both net yards passing per attempt on offense and defense. The Rams are a dangerous team to advance deep, but Atlanta is lurking as a dangerous upset candidate themselves.
Similar Matchups: Rams 32.2, Atlanta 20.1, LA comps won 11 of 12, 7 of 12 ATS (only one was a WC matchup, 3 champ game and 8 divisional)
It’s kind of surprising to see how few upsets there were (the one that shows up is the game that featured no punting involving the Chiefs and Colts), but most of these games involved home teams getting a bye. The Rams, though, basically treated last week as a bye week and did not try to win. The guess here is that the Falcons’ playoff experience edge is overvalued, and it depends on whether the Rams can generate big plays with Todd Gurley.
Buffalo at Jacksonville (Sunday, 1 PM ET, CBS)
In a weird bit of symmetry, Buffalo makes their first playoff experience in almost two decades, and goes against Jacksonville. Twenty-one years ago, it was an expansion Jaguars team that went on the road as a heavy underdog to Buffalo, and pulled a big and unexpected upset.
Eight of Jacksonville’s 10 wins this year have been by double digits, while the Bills were outscored by 57 points. If it feels like this is a game where either Jacksonville is going to run away and hide, or where Buffalo uglies it up and wins in a defensive showdown, well, the similar games agree. Half of them were divisional matchups where a mediocre team advanced. Included are both Jacksonville upsets from 1996.
Similar Matchups: Jaguars 24.7, Bills 18.3, Jaguars comps won 8 of 12, 5 of 12 ATS
Jacksonville is #1 in pass defense by net yards per attempt, but the continued injuries to the receiver group is a cause for concern, and if Marquise Lee can’t return today, it could open the door. The Bills had the famous disaster when they started Nathan Peterman for one week, but have beaten both the Falcons and Chiefs on the road.
Carolina at New Orleans (Sunday, 4:25 PM ET, FOX)
The Saints went 0-3 against other division winners, and 11-2 against the rest of the league, with one of those losses being in the finale at Tampa Bay. They rank 1st in net yards per pass on offense, while also ranking 2nd in rush yards per carry. Drew Brees led the league in completion percentage and yards per attempt, complementing the running game that took off with Alvin Kamara emerging alongside Mark Ingram. The pass defense finished middle of the pack but that was a significant improvement over recent years, and was impacted by injuries mid-season.
The Panthers have the same record, but got swept by New Orleans and don’t profile as nearly the same team, as they scored 85 fewer points while giving up the same amount. Cam Newton is again a big part of the rushing game, though rookie Christian McCaffrey has emerged as a receiving threat.
Similar Matchups: Saints 28.8, Panthers 17.8, Jaguars comps won 9 of 12, 9 of 12 ATS
Two of the 2007 Giants games show up on the similar list, but other than that, it was pretty much all favorites winning in similar type matchups. The Saints extreme advantage in passing and rushing efficiency and playing at home makes the three-game sweep likely.