GOLD JACKET GAME OF THE WEEKEND
CAROLINA @ NEW ORLEANS, Sunday, 4:30 p.m. (EST)
The line: Saints by 6-1/2
The weather: Dome
The story: This is the first time these two have ever met in the playoffs and the third time they’ve met this season … with the Saints winning the previous two. People always talk about how difficult it is to beat someone three times in one year, but it won’t be if Cam Newton plays as he did last week … or the first time these two met this season. Newton had four multiple interception games this season, and one was vs. New Orleans. So, then, this is about the Saints stopping Cam and the Panthers minimizing Drew Brees, just as it always is … right? Not exactly. While Brees set a league record with a completion percentage of 72, he no longer has to carry this team. Now the Saints have a legit defense, star running backs in Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara and an offensive line that keeps pass rushers off Brees. He was sacked 20 times, second fewest in the league (the Chargers allowed 18). If there’s a key for Carolina, it’s this: Shut down the league’s fifth-ranked rushing attack. Only one team this season didn’t allow a 100-yard rusher, and you’re looking at it. The Panthers haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher the past 20 games, a franchise record.
Something to consider: The Saints were 7-1 at home this season, including a 31-21 defeat of Carolina in early December.
… AND THEN THERE WERE THREE
TENNESSEE @KANSAS CITY, Saturday, 4:30 p.m. (EST)
The line: Chiefs by 8-1/2
The weather: Mostly sunny, high of 31
The story: The Kansas City Chiefs held opponents to under 100 yards rushing only four times this year — with three of those four the last month of the season when the Chiefs went 4-0. Connect the dots, people. Stop the run, and the Chiefs win … and they’re halfway there with the Titans ruling out DeMarco Murray from Saturday’s game. OK, so Murray wasn’t all that effective, especially the second half of the season. But he was part of a run-heavy offense that had him, Derrick Henry and Marcus Mariota combine for 16 rushing touchdowns (11 by Henry and Murray) — or three more than Mariota threw. So stop the run, and you force Mariota to throw … and the envelope, please. He had two more interceptions (15) than TDs this season and ranked 27th among league quarterbacks, just behind Eli Manning. Bottom line: This is the Chiefs’ game to lose, but there are no sure things for Andy Reid this time of year. He’s lost five of his last six playoff games, and the Chiefs are 2-6 in their last eight playoff games at Arrowhead.
Something to consider: Since entering the league in 2015, Mariota has 39 touchdowns and no interceptions in the red zone.
ATLANTA @ L.A. RAMS, Saturday, 8:15 p.m. (EST)
The line: Rams by 6-1/2
The weather: Partly cloudy, high of 73
The story: The Rams are home, and that’s supposed to be an advantage. Except it’s not. They were 4-4 there this season; 7-1 on the road. Then there’s this: Quarterback Jared Goff was more effective … in fact, much more effective … on the road where he threw for 18 TDs and just two interceptions. No, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Rams coasted here, simply because these aren’t the 2016 Atlanta Falcons — a team that led the league in scoring. That distinction this season belongs to the Rams, who averaged nearly 30 points per. But Atlanta is the defending NFC champ, and Matt Ryan has playoff experience. More than that, Ryan is the Jared Goff of the NFC South — better this season on the road than at home … and you can look it up. He had 12 TDs and five interceptions on the road; 8 TDs and 7 picks at home.
Something to consider: Ryan has never won a playoff game on the road.
BUFFALO @ JACKSONVILLE, Sunday, 1 p.m. (EST)
The line: Jaguars by 8-1/2
The weather: Mostly cloudy, high of 58
The story: Don’t pay attention to that 8-1/2-point spread. This is one of the two most intriguing games this weekend, and here’s why: Buffalo is playing with house money, and Jacksonville is playing with Blake Bortles. So the pressure is on one team, and it’s not Buffalo. Look, the Bills were this close to another winter out in the deep freeze when, suddenly, inexplicably, Cincinnati delivered a late Christmas present — the Bills’ first playoff game since the 1999 season. Now, anything is possible. Yes, I know LeSean McCoy is hurt, and, granted, there’s that Jacksonville defense — the AFC’s best. Plus, the Bills aren’t a good road team. They were 3-5 there this season and 6-2 at home. I get all that. But if the Bills can keep this close … and, remember, the only opponent that scored more than 16 on them the last six games was New England (twice) … then Jacksonville may have to turn to Bortles. Uh-0h. While the Bills’ Tyrod Taylor had the lowest interception percentage in the NFL (0.95), Bortles had five interceptions the past two weeks.
Something to consider: The Jaguars held opponents scoreless on 13 of 16 opening possessions and allowed only one touchdown on a first series.
OUR BEST BETS
(Picks are made vs. the spread)
RON BORGES (Season record: 11-6) — JAGUARS (– 8-1/2). I don’t like Blake Bortles, but I do like the Jags to cover. The Bills weren’t going to beat them with a healthy LeSean McCoy. They won’t with a limping one.
CLARK JUDGE (Season record 9-8) — CHIEFS (–8-1/2). The Chiefs are hot, they’re home and they’re better. Much better. Check, please.
RICK GOSSELIN (Season record: 8-9) — CHIEFS (– 8-1/2). When Kansas City loses in the playoffs, it’s to a John Elway, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger. Not Marcus Mariota.
THE WEEKEND HALL OF FAMOUS
KANSAS CITY RB KAREEM HUNT. He aims for his fifth straight game with a TD.
ATLANTA QB MATT RYAN. In his last three starts vs. the Rams, he has seven TDs, no interceptions and a rating of 114.4. In his last four playoff games he has 12 TDs, 1 interception and a 129.2 rating.
RAMS’ DT AARON DONALD. He led his team with 11 sacks and five forced fumbles.
JACKSONVILLE DT YANNICK NGAKOUE. He led the NFL with six forced fumbles.
CAROLINA QB CAM NEWTON. In his last four games at New Orleans, he has 12 touchdown passes, two interceptions and two rushing TDs.
NEW ORLEANS QB DREW BREES. In his last five starts vs. the Panthers he has 13 TDs, three interceptions and a passer rating of 108.6.
TEN THINGS YOU PROBABLY SHOULD KNOW
- Wild-card weekend winners have won nine Super Bowls and participated in six of the past 12.
- There are eight new teams in this year’s playoffs vs. the 2016 postseason, tied for the most (2003)since the 12-team format was adopted in 1990.
- Matt Ryan (102.4) and Drew Brees (100.7) are two of only four quarterbacks with passer ratings of 100 or better in the playoffs. The others are Bart Starr (104.8) and Kurt Warner (102.8).
- Tyrod Taylor, Blake Bortles, Jared Goff and Marcus Mariota will make their first-ever playoff starts this weekend. The quarterback with the most yards passing in his first postseason start was Cleveland’s Kelly Holcomb, with 429 in the 2002 wild-card round.
- Carolina was the least penalized team this season, with 83 for 682 yards.
- The Los Angeles Rams became only the second team in NFL history (next to the 1964-65 49ers) to lead the league in scoring a year after producing the NFL’s fewest points.
- Three of the past four regular-season scoring leaders (Atlanta, Carolina and Denver) advanced to the Super Bowl.
- The Jaguars were the only team this season to rank in the top three in scoring defense (second), total yardage (second) and defensive takeaways (second). They also set a franchise record with seven defensive touchdowns this season, tops in the NFL.
- The Saints were 7-1 this season when leading after one quarter and 9-1 when leading at the half.
- Tennessee was one of only two teams (New England was the other) with three players with five or more rushing touchdowns each (Derrick Henry, DeMarco Murray and Marcus Mariota).