The 2018 NFL Playoffs are finally upon us, and thankfully the New Orleans Saints are among this year's playoff field. The 2017 NFC South Champion Saints host their division rivals, the Carolina Panthers. Although the Saints and Panthers sport identical 11-5 records, the Saints won the tiebreaker by sweeping the season series. Some say, incorrectly, that it’s difficult to beat a team three times in the same season, but there’s a reason one team is 2-0 and the other is 0-2, they may matchup better or they may just be better.
We’ll see just who the better team is this Sunday. Although we have some interesting matchups this weekend, they are all headlined by Saints/Panthers. This is the marquee matchup and it should be a showcase for the Saints as they look to make their deepest playoff run in quite a few years now. Let's take a look at this huge game, as well as which teams will be moving on to the Divisional Round next weekend.
Last week I went 10-6
I told you so: Titans over Jaguars!
What do I know: Panthers over Falcons?
WILD CARD WEEKEND
AFC - #5 Tennessee Titans (9-7) at #4 Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)
Saturday, January 6th - 3:35pm CST - ESPN
It’s going to be very difficult for Tennessee to go into the hostile confines of Arrowhead Stadium and win in the playoffs. The Titans have a losing record on the road this season and Kansas City is arguably the most difficult road game to win in the AFC. Tennessee ended a three-game losing streak last week against an unmotivated Jacksonville team at home but they’ll catch no such breaks in this one.
Kansas City has rebounded nicely from a terrible mid-season swoon, by tearing off a four-game winning streak and winning the AFC West title. Kansas City’s secondary has been their biggest weakness this season but Marcus Mariota won’t be able to exploit that weakness. Kansas City’s deceptively balanced offense will make the plays necessary to win this home game, sending the Arrowhead faithful home happy. Kansas City wins 24-21.
NFC - #6 Atlanta Falcons (10-6) at #3 Los Angeles Rams (11-5)
Saturday, January 6th - 7:15pm CST - NBC
While there are some out there that thinks this is a tough draw for the Rams and this may be where the defending NFC champs make their run back to the Super Bowl, they are gravely mistaken. Although Atlanta may be better defensively this time around, they are nowhere near the threat on offense that they were under Kyle Shanahan a year ago. Most importantly, in the Matt Ryan era, the Falcons have not won a playoff game outside of Atlanta, a dubious distinction that is being generally overlooked.
Los Angeles is one of the three best teams in the NFC field, and should be the clear favorite against any opponent outside of Minnesota and New Orleans. For all of the attention that goes to their explosive and balanced offense, the difference in this game will be LA’s defense making the big plays and bigger stops against Atlanta’s offense. Despite the LA Memorial Coliseum being flooded with opposing fans during the season, the Rams drew the one opponent that lacks the support to overwhelm the home fans. The Rams will have a true homefield advantage in this one for a change. Los Angeles wins 30-20.
AFC - #6 Buffalo Bills (9-7) at #3 Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6)
Sunday, January 7th - 12:05pm CST - CBS
Buffalo’s return to the playoffs after a nearly two-decade absence has made for a great story but it’ll be a short one. The Bills only do one thing particularly well, running the ball, and only one person on the team runs the ball particularly well, LeSean McCoy. The big issue for Buffalo is that McCoy is nursing an ankle injury and even if he plays, he’s unlikely to be anywhere as effective as he’ll be needed to be against the dominant Jags defense. Buffalo can't pass the ball, and can’t rely much on their defense.
Jacksonville, on the other hand, enters this game with the top-ranked rushing offense in the NFL behind rookie standout Leonard Fournette, and boast the second-ranked defense in the NFL as well. This clearly reads like a recipe for playoff success, but there are two concerns for the Jaguars. First is quarterback Blake Bortles, despite team success this season, he’s a weakness and next to his opponent this week, Tyrod Taylor, remains among the weakest QB’s in this AFC field. Second is the fact that Jacksonville has only faced three teams that made the playoffs and only went 1-3 in those four games; not ideal. These factors will catch up with the Jags, but not this week. Jacksonville wins 27-14.
NFC - #5 Carolina Panthers (11-5) at #4 New Orleans Saints (11-5)
Sunday, January 7th - 3:40pm CST - FOX
In the Drew Brees era, the Saints are undefeated at home in the playoffs, while the Panthers are 0-2 away from Carolina in the Cam Newton era. Although these facts may not mean much in this isolated game, they can magnify confidence and reinforce doubts these teams and their leaders have going into this game.
The key for the Saints defense is to keep Newton under 190 yards in the air and under 30 yards on the ground. Cam will give them turnover opportunities, but it will be up to the Saints to capitalize on those opportunities and turn them into actual turnovers. Rookie standouts Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams could feast on crucial turnovers and turn them in to easy points or crucial field position that could be the difference in this game.
The X-Factor for the Panthers offense is tight end (and professional Saints nuisance) Greg Olsen. Although Olsen has had a hugely disappointing and largely injury ravaged season, he is always a threat when he takes the field against the Saints, which he didn't in the two previous meetings this season. If the Saints can take Olsen out of the game, or Olsen’s surgically repaired foot takes him out for them, the Saints can really separate from Carolina in this one.
All attention for the Saints offense will understandably be on Drew Brees and the remarkable backfield duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, but the X-Factor for the Saints offense will be wideout Michael Thomas. Thomas has been a Panthers-slayer during his young career and will continue to be that in this playoff game. The Saints will prove why they are the NFC Champions and the class of the division, silencing the doubters outside New Orleans, and even those within. Saints win 31-17.
Let's see what the Wild Card round has in store. The Saints have as good a chance as any team in this field to go all the way. Here’s to hoping that actually happens. Here's to a great playoff weekend! Leave us your picks, comments, and insight below!