NFL Wild Card Weekend 2018: Keys To Each Matchup And Predictions [Opinion]

The NFL's second season starts this weekend, and some unfamiliar teams could be making noise.

Cam Newton and Drew Brees
Sean Gardner / Getty Images

The NFL's second season starts this weekend, and some unfamiliar teams could be making noise.

It’s been quite an interesting NFL season, and the postseason looks to be very unpredictable. There are some teams in the 2018 tournament that have not been on this stage in a number of years, and that should add even more intrigue. Other than the AFC’s top two seeds in the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers, each squad trying to make a Super Bowl run is a relative unknown. Most of the teams are more than capable of getting to the championship, though.

The 2018 NFL Wild Card Weekend starts off with the Tennessee Titans taking on the Kansas City Chiefs.

Key To Titans-Chiefs: Can Marcus Mariota Carry The Titans?

The first Wild Card game is one that features a rather underwhelming Titans team and the explosive Chiefs. Both teams have had their ups and downs this year. Tennessee started the year off well with some quality wins, and Kansas City sprinted out of the gate, going 5-0. It’s going to be a game in which Tennessee will likely try to drown out the clock with their running game featuring Derrick Henry, along with some read-option plays designed for quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Easy plays will likely be tough to come by for a rather under-achieving Titans offense, though, even with Kansas City’s 28th-ranked defense, as per ESPN. Even with running back DeMarco Murray having the lowest rushing total of his NFL career (according to Pro Football Reference), the Titans are going to miss his ability to go over the top of the defense in red zone situations. Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported he’s been ruled out.

This Tennessee offense is simply not functioning at a high clip, and Mariota is going to need to make a number of plays with his arm and his legs. The third-year QB has regressed in 2017, with just 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, as reported by Pro Football Reference.

It’s a tough matchup for them on the road against the NFL leader in passer rating in KC’s QB Alex Smith (per Pro Football Reference), NFL rushing leader Kareem Hunt, and two of the best playmakers in the league in tight end Travis Kelce and deep threat Tyreek Hill. The Chiefs win this one easily, even with them going just 1-9 in their last 10 playoff games, as was noted by Jason Wolf of The Tennessean.

Prediction: Chiefs 30, Titans 17

The next game, on paper, looks to be the best game of the weekend between the Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Rams.

Key To Falcons-Rams: Can Atlanta Make The Rams Play Methodically?

Quarterback Matt Ryan and the Falcons have gotten back on track a bit as of late, and they found their way into the postseason as the NFC’s lowest seed. Their opponent features the NFC’s turnaround team of 2018 in the Rams, led by offensive mastermind head coach Sean McVay. The Rams have benefited from a complete transformation from QB Jared Goff, and have one of the NFL’s MVP candidates in running back Todd Gurley. As a result, they had the league’s highest-scoring offense in 2017, according to ESPN. That attack will be tested against one of the fastest defenses in the NFL in the Falcons, who have drastically improved from last year, in which they nearly won a Super Bowl.

Todd Gurley and Jared Goff
Todd Gurley (left) and Jared Goff must be sharp for the Los Angeles Rams. Harry How / Getty Images

Both rosters are loaded with talent, and it could come down to the last few possessions of the game. This game should have plenty of fireworks with stars such as Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman for Atlanta, and the aforementioned Gurley. It’s not as if both Ryan and Goff are game-managers, but having balance will be crucial for controlling some clock in this one. L.A. always seems to start fast, and they do here, followed by the running game finishing it.

It’s just hard to see Deion Jones and the Falcons holding the NFL’s yards from scrimmage leader in Gurley in check all night. The Rams seal this one with impact defensive plays from the highest-graded interior defender in football in Aaron Donald (according to Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus) and talented safety Lamarcus Joyner, to go with others. Let’s not dismiss L.A.’s great special teams, either.

Prediction: Rams 28, Falcons 23

The first game on Sunday does not seem like a great one between the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars.

Key To Bills-Jaguars: Can The Bills Do Anything Offensively?

This game does not seem to be close, at least on paper. The Bills are an awesome story, as Buffalo finds itself in the playoffs for the first time since 2000, per Nick Veronica of Buffalonews.com. The Bills snuck their way in thanks to the Cincinnati Bengals scratching their way to a victory over the Baltimore Ravens, and it’s hard to see Buffalo doing much offensively in this game. Jacksonville conceded the fewest passing yards in the league to opponents and had the second-most sacks, according to ESPN.

Jacksonville had three defenders on the Pro Football Focus All-Pro team this year in Calais Campbell up front, and their two starting cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. It’s far from just those guys, though.

That defense is an immovable object at times, especially at home. With the Bills not having a healthy LeSean McCoy at running back, and Tyrod Taylor not having any favorable matchups at all against that Jags D, this game smells like a blowout. Jacksonville is getting better play out of Blake Bortles lately, and runner Leonard Fournette led an offense that piled up the most rushing yards in the NFL this season, per ESPN. Jacksonville might pull a shutout here.

Prediction: Jaguars 27, Bills 9

The last game of the weekend features the third meeting between the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers.

Key To Panthers-Saints: SuperCam Or Bad Cam?

The Panthers have gotten some exceptional Cam Newton this year, and some just bad Cam Newton. The inconsistent QB is the engine of Carolina, and in the playoffs, especially against the Saints and Drew Brees, they go as he goes. Newton has proven that he’s uber-talented as a playmaker with his legs, but his decision-making at times is still reckless. He’s not had much success this season against the much-improved Saints defense, and it’s difficult to see Newton and the Panthers having a ton of long drives.

With the Saints offensive balance between their two running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, and Brees leading the NFL in completion percentage (per Pro Football Reference), this team is going to be a handful at home. The Panthers will need to create multiple turnovers, and cash in in the red area. Newton, Christian McCaffrey, and Jonathan Stewart and the Panthers offensive line will have to play keep away to have a good chance in the fourth.

Good luck blocking Cameron Jordan and throwing toward rookie shutdown corner Marshon Lattimore, Panthers.

Carolina doesn’t get the ball in the end zone enough, and the Saints get the ball to wideout Michael Thomas on critical third downs.

Prediction: Saints 34, Panthers 23