NFL Wild-Card Weekend Picks and Preview: Tom Brady’s Last Stand?

Who’s ready to get wild? Last year’s wildcard round produced some nailbiters, including three of four games that ended within one score. And who could forget the double-doink that extinguished the Bears’ season. 

Only one of this weekend’s games looks like a possible blowout on paper. The other three are nearly impossible to pick with any confidence but what the hell, let’s try anyhow!

Buffalo at Houston, 4:35 ET, ESPN

Congratulations to the Texans who must own stock in the ESPN wildcard game; this will be their fourth January appearance on the Worldwide Leader in five seasons. The first three were not quite filled with glory. Houston was shut out by Kansas City in 2016, beat the Connor Cook-led Raiders in 2017 and could only manage a touchdown in a blowout loss last season to the Colts.

The Texans probably won’t start a new chapter by demolishing the Bills. Five of Buffalo’s six losses were by less than a score (though Week 17 shouldn’t count since the Bills rested many of their starters.) But Buffalo, while very well coached by Sean McDermott, didn’t beat any heavy hitters this season.

Still, Josh Allen can be quite effective when he’s in a zone in the short passing game, Devin Singletary is a weapon with a good matchup against a weak Texans run defense, and corner Tre’Davious White is probably the second best at his position behind Stephon Gilmore.

The Texans offense, led by Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins, can be explosive but isn’t as dynamic as it should be. Will Fuller likely missing this one is a major detriment to Houston. Neither of these teams have shown much consistency but the Bills have proven they’re not fazed by being on the road – they’ve won four of their last five away from Buffalo.

Bills 31 Texans 30 (Frank Gore lives!)

Tennessee at New England, 8:15 ET, CBS

Will this be Tom Brady’s last game at Foxboro? If you’ve been paying attention this week, you’ve heard that question a lot. Brady is a free agent and has a no franchise tag clause in his contract.  Also, and here’s the key. He’s been a liability for most of the second half, the anomaly against Buffalo in Week 16 notwithstanding. The Pats are only a four-loss team and in theory should easily do away with the 9-7 Titans but three of New England’s losses came in the month of December while Tennessee is a fearless team on the rise. 

New England’s loss to Miami was shocking because Stephon Gilmore was smoked for really the first time this season and Brady’s age (I mean, elbow pain) really hampered his performance. Most uncharacteristic were the Pats’ lack of halftime adjustments. 

New England is clearly missing Rob Gronkowski or any force that can at minimum operate as a decoy. Rookie WR N’Keal Harry has emerged and looks like the future but the usually prolific Julian Edelman only has 10 catches over the past three games. Even though the playoff Pats are traditionally a different animal and Gilmore will surely rebound, the Pats don’t match up well against the Titans. Bill Belichick was right to call rushing title winner Derrick Henry their “biggest challenge to date.” Henry has been on fire since Week 10, eclipsing 100 yards rushing on all but one game and collecting double digits touchdowns in four of those games, all wins. The Titans don’t lose when Henry tops 100 yards and the Patriots don’t have the personnel to stop Henry AND the Ryan Tannehill to AJ Brown combination.

The Patriots have a large special teams advantage. (The Titans are on their fourth kicker this season, Greg Joseph, and he has yet to attempt a field goal .) New England also has home field and two decades of playoff experience on its side. But this team isn’t the same and the Pats empire may fall at the hands of Ryan Tannehill of all people.

Titans 27 Patriots 20

Minnesota at New Orleans, 1:05 ET, FOX

The Saints have a bone to pick with the playoffs and the Vikings’ Minneapolis Miracle is certainly on the list.  They should be able to at least escape this one without PTSD. The Saints, led by Drew Brees, have one of the most electric pass games in the NFL. The Vikings secondary is its weakness, and the unit was dealt a blow when Mackensie Alexander was officially ruled out. Banged up former Pro Bowler Xavier Rhodes will play but is having a down year and Brees could have a field day throwing in his direction. 

Per usual, the Vikings success will be determined by which Kirk Cousins shows up and whether he can avoid turnovers. Assuming Dalvin Cook is his typical productive self, Cousins is going to have to take advantage with a sharp aerial attack. He gets Adam Theilen back this week but the Saints stout defensive front is well positioned to keep the Vikings under wraps.

While the Vikings boost an impressive enough 10-6 record, the only playoff team they beat this season were the Philadelphia Eagles and that was in the first half when the Eagles were still finding their identity. The Saints are playing with tons of swagger, have an array of offensive weapons, and that crucial Superdome advantage.

Saints 42 Vikings 28

Seattle at Philadelphia, 4:40 ET NBC

Most of Seattle is still agape at the final two minutes of the mindboggling Week 17 loss against San Francisco. Perhaps bringing back a past-his-prime Marshawn Lynch wasn’t the best idea as evidenced on a crucial five-yard delay of game penalty due to confusion on a Lynch sub in. On to this week where the Seahawks play an Eagles team that has won four in a row. Seattle already beat the Eagles in Philly 17-9 on November 24th so they won’t be phased by the travel. 

But they should be phased by injuries. Duane Brown and Jadaveon Clowney were among players missing practice this week. They should be even more phased by an offensive line which has allowed Russell Wilson to be sacked 26 times in the past seven games. Some of that comes from Wilson’s propensity to keep plays alive and look for high degree of difficulty options but the Seahawks oline has been a perineal issue. The pass rush from Philadelphia will be key here, and they have a great shot to control this game.

The Eagles are also dealing with some offensive line issues, more in the injury department as Matt Pryor and Halapoulivaati Vaitai are starting for the injured Lane Johnson and Brandon Brooks. Zack Ertz’s status is also in question. But Carson Wentz is healthy and the Eagles are the hotter team.

Eagles 30 Seahawks 29 (Because Seattle never plays in boring games)