Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams – Saturday, January 6th, 2018 – 7:15PM kickoff
Andy: The NFC games are a bit more interesting to me than the AFC games this weekend. That starts with tonight’s game, with a couple of explosive offensive teams matching up in Los Angeles, which hasn’t hosted a postseason game since the 1985 season, when Eric Dickerson was chewing up yards on the ground and Dieter Brock was adding 50-or-so passing yards per game. The passing game should be a bit more prolific this year than it was more than 30 years ago. But this game, in my eyes, has the greatest potential for upset this weekend. Atlanta hasn’t been great, but Matt Ryan has been around the block a few more times than Jared Goff. The Falcons are beat up a bit, but I think they make this a game.
Tony: The NFC Wildcard matchups are certainly more compelling to me, at least on paper. The Falcons overcame the Super Bowl curse, to make it back to the playoffs (not actually that uncommon–the 2016 Panthers were actually the first Super Bowl losing team to miss the playoffs altogether since the 2008 Patriots, who lost Tom Brady in the first game of the season). But they did so in ugly, ugly fashion–at least offensively. Defensively was a different story–the Falcons actually improved significantly on the defensive side, ranking 9th in yards/game (vs 25th in 2016), 9th in Rushing yards/game (17th), 12th in passing yards/game (28th), and 8th in points/game (27th). All while being a shockingly low 27th (tied) overall in turnovers, with just 16. That could spell trouble for Todd Gurley, Jared Goff and the no-name receiving corps of the Rams. The question this year, though, is if the Falcons offense will show up.
Andy: The defense is definitely on the upswing. And there is a lot of talent on offense too. However — and maybe this had to do with how good it looked last year — but the offense looked strangled quite a bit this year. More likely, I think, is that Steve Sarkisian is simply no Kyle Shanahan when it comes to running an offense. Matt Ryan regressed. The tandem of Freeman and Tevin Coleman was not utilized as well this year. Julio Jones basically had three big games. It just never seemed like they were anywhere near on track for any stretch of time. Add in that Jones, Freeman and center Alex Mack are all beat up heading into the game and, even though I think this game is the most ripe for an upset of the weekend’s slate, I will not be picking said upset to take place.
Tony: Another question mark for the Rams–aside from the youth of their team AND their coaching staff–is the atmosphere in Los Angeles. Despite playing at the Coliseum–which seats over 93,000–the Rams were second to last in terms of home attendance for playoff teams (ahead of the Steelers, inexplicably). The Rams cracked 70,000 fans in just one home game, against the Cardinals – add in that the Rams were only 4-4 at home this year, and being at home for the playoffs might not really be that big of an advantage.
Andy: So, again, I’m not going to pick the upset, but this is a little bit of a coin toss to me. I’ll go Rams 27, Falcons 23.
Tony: One other wildcard…in the…wildcard…the Rams have six All-Pros on their team–but they might be missing one of their most important All-Pros, with kicker Greg “the Leg” Zuerlein out. Can they trust Sam “Kicken'” Ficken? Falcons 27, Rams 22.
Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints – Sunday, January 7th, 2018 – 3:40PM kickoff
Andy: The biggest threat of any team playing on Wild Card Weekend to advance beyond next week is the New Orleans Saints, though there’s no guarantee they get past Carolina on Sunday. While conventional wisdom says it’s hard to beat a team three times in a season, I learned by listening to the “Bet the Board” podcast this week that of the 20 teams faced with such a challenge over the years, 13 have done so. That said, the Saints don’t come into this game at full strength. The defense has suffered some injuries, with pass rusher Alex Okafor and safety Kenny Vaccaro among those missing the rest of the season. This is where Drew Brees comes in. The team has transitioned this year away from relying on his arm as much. But if I’m going into a tight playoff situation, there isn’t a QB playing in Wild Card Weekend I’d rather rely on to get me through than Drew.
Tony: The Saints also have possibly the most intriguing 1-2 punch in their backfield in the league, with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara–not to mention Michael Thomas. The Saints finally seemed to level things out this year between the offense and defense–but those injuries are a huge concern. The Panthers, on the other hand, seem to have had more ups and downs than a Vegas callgirl–from beating the Patriots to losing to the Bears, then back to beating the Vikings. Cam Newton is the heart and soul of the team–but that can be just as bad of a thing as a good. Especially against the Saints, whom he hasn’t really played well against since 2015.
Andy: Yep, that’s what I like about the Saints this season. Need to run the ball? Ingram or Kamara. Need to pass the ball? Thomas. Need another target? Brees is smart enough to find one. Tricky defense that makes it look like you need to run, then gives you a look that makes you need to pass? Kamara and Ingram combined for 139 catches this season. Kamara actually had more yards as a receiver than as a rusher. Ted Ginn had 53 catches. This offense is as dangerous as it has ever been and it’s more diversified than ever too.
Tony: The one thing that might concern me most about New Orleans on the offensive side is their OL–especially their interior line, which didn’t grade out that well on PFF. When the Panthers beat the Vikings, one of the main reasons for their success was that the Vikings interior line was jumbled, due to the loss of Pat Elflein. If the Saints can’t block the Panthers interior DL, that could start to make things even more interesting.
Andy: Yeah, and while the Saints have MORE weapons than the Panthers do, it’s not like Cam Newton has never been there before. And he does have Greg Olsen. And Christian McCaffery. And Devin Funchess and Jonathan Stewart. Some of these guys are new to the playoffs, and some are perhaps past their prime, but they are all capable of stretching defenses and giving the Saints problems. I suspect the game ends up something like Saints 28, Panthers 20. But it should be a compelling game and the winner will actually be able to give its opponent next week a ballgame too, which is more than can be said for this weekend’s AFC contenders.
Tony: I’ll go with a final score of 31-27 in this one…I’m just not real sure who to pick as the winner. Just to keep things interesting, I guess I’ll go with the Panthers.