NFL wild-card preview: Bills, Jaguars, Rams end postseason droughts
Only four teams that made the NFL playoffs in 2016 are in the field following the 2017 season.
Of the eight new teams in this year's postseason tournament, three are ending long postseason droughts as they compete for the right to finish their season at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis in Super Bowl LII.
That quest begins on Saturday with a pair of games that kick off a wide-open wild-card weekend in which six of the eight teams were not even in the playoffs a year ago.
"There are a lot of happy guys in that locker room, a lot of emotions running pretty wild, guys just happy to be a part of it," said first-year Buffalo Bills coach Sean McDermott, who has the team in the postseason for the first time this century.
"This is a team; these guys play as a team. We're nowhere near where we need to be, but we are very grateful for this opportunity and it's a well-earned opportunity, and so my hat goes off to everyone involved."
A look ahead to wild-card weekend
Titans (9-7) at Chiefs (10-6), Saturday
The Tennessee Titans got into the postseason thanks to Marcus Mariota coming through in the clutch late in a Week 17 win over the Jaguars to complete a season sweep. The reward is a trip to Kansas City, where the Chiefs went 6-2. The Titans won at Arrowhead Stadium late in the 2016 season, but this year will have to contain electrifying rookie running back Kareem Hunt to repeat that feat.
Hunt led the NFL in rushing with 1,327 yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. The Titans defense ranked fourth against the run, so it should be strength versus strength. Turnovers will be key as Mariota has been intercepted 15 times this season while Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith tossed just five interceptions. Smith is the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for at least 3,000 yards and throw fewer than 10 interceptions in five consecutive seasons.
Prediction: Chiefs 23, Titans 16
Falcons (10-6) at Rams (11-5), Saturday
The Atlanta Falcons led the NFL in scoring last season, led by MVP quarterback Matt Ryan. The Los Angeles Rams were the NFL's highest-scoring team this season, led by running back Todd Gurley, who is a favourite to be named NFL MVP this year.
Gurley led the NFL in rushing going into the final week but did not play and finished 22 yards behind the Chiefs' Hunt for the rushing title. He did lead the NFL with 2,093 scrimmage yards and 19 touchdowns and is one of only three players in league history with at least 2,000 scrimmage yards, 10 rushing touchdowns and more than five touchdown receptions in a single season.
As impressive as the Rams have been this season, turning things around under first-year coach Sean McVay, they have not been to the playoffs since 2004. The Falcons are postseason-weathered, having gone to the Super Bowl last season, and that experience could prove invaluable.
Prediction: Falcons 35, Rams 31
Bills (9-7) at Jaguars (10-6), Sunday
The Bills end the NFL's longest postseason drought, making the playoffs for the first time since 1999. The Jacksonville Jaguars, who limp into the playoffs as losers of their last two games, have not been in the postseason since 2007.
Both teams have been wildly inconsistent, but the most reliable unit has been the Jaguars defense. The Jags were second in total defense and had the NFL's top pass defense in 2017. Though Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor has been careful with the ball, he might have a tough time against the "Sacksonville" pass rush.
Prediction: Jaguars 20, Bills 17
Panthers (11-5) at Saints (11-5), Sunday
The New Orleans Saints are the third NFC South champions in as many seasons and got the 2017 division title thanks to their season sweep of the Carolina Panthers. New Orleans won both games by double figures and scored at least 30 points in each.
Both teams are coming off losses in Week 17, but there is more concern with a Panthers team that has scored just 32 points over the last two weeks.
Prediction: Saints 34, Panthers 20