Predictions for the N.F.L. Wild-Card Games

Predictions for the N.F.L. Wild-Card Games


Alex Smith is an experienced quarterback capable of far more than managing games, and the rookie Kareem Hunt shockingly won the N.F.L. rushing title after being taken in the third round of the draft out of Toledo. But other than a crucial win over San Diego in Week 15 that essentially saved their season, the Chiefs have not matched their early appearance of near invincibility.

The Titans hardly fared much better, losing three consecutive games before eking out a 15-10 win against a completely unmotivated Jacksonville team in Week 17. Marcus Mariota makes Tennessee a threat in any game he plays, and the Titans can certainly run the ball with great efficiency, but if the Chiefs let Hunt dictate the pace of their offense, they should survive what is probably the closest matchup of the wild-card weekend. Pick: Chiefs

FIRST-ROUND BYES Patriots, Steelers

N.F.C. Wild-Card Round

No. 6 Falcons (10-6) at No. 3 Rams (11-5) Saturday, 8:15 p.m. Eastern, NBC

Atlanta avoided the ignominy of failing to qualify for the playoffs a season after losing the Super Bowl, thanks to a Week 17 win over the Panthers. But getting out of the first round will be difficult because the Falcons must travel to Los Angeles to face a team that was one of the best in the N.F.L. on both offense and defense.

The Rams got an M.V.P.-caliber season from running back Todd Gurley II, and when he was not chewing up yardage as a rusher and receiver, quarterback Jared Goff stretched defensive backfields with a receiving corps led by Robert Woods, Sammy Watkins and Cooper Kupp.

Atlanta still resembles last season’s team in terms of critical players, but instead of having an elite offense and a defense that just got by, the Falcons are fairly middle-of-the-pack on both sides of the ball. Their playoff experience might overwhelm the youthful Rams, but more recent performances suggest the Falcons will be overmatched. Pick: Rams

No. 5 Panthers (11-5) at No. 4 Saints (11-5) Sunday, 4:40 p.m. Eastern, Fox

Carolina did not make a lot of noise this season, but the Panthers beat the Patriots and the Vikings and lost by only 5 points to the Eagles, so no one should be overlooking them.

The Carolina offense was inconsistent, but Cam Newton did a good job of using Christian McCaffrey’s skills as a runner and receiver, and the duo regularly transformed apparently broken plays into large gains.

Unfortunately for Newton, he is facing a Saints team that beat him twice during the regular season.

The Saints regained control of the N.F.C. South by finding some balance in their offensive approach. Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara might have been the best combination of running backs in the N.F.L., and Drew Brees looked just as potent as ever in his 17th season.

Most important, the Saints rebuilt the team’s defense into something worth considering, with Marshon Lattimore, a rookie cornerback, paying huge dividends after being taken with the No. 11 overall pick in the draft. Pick: Saints

FIRST-ROUND BYES Eagles, Vikings



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