The last regular season NFL game of the year came down to the wire, with the San Francisco 49ers securing the No. 1-seed in the NFC by virtue of an incredible tackle. That excitement should carry over to the playoffs, where the field of Super Bowl contenders feels deeper than it has in years. Here’s a look ahead to Wild Card Weekend on Sling TV.
Saturday, January 4
Buffalo Bills (10-6) vs Houston Texans (10-6)
4:35pm ET on ESPN/ABC
The Bills come limping into this game having lost three of their last four, including their finale against the Jets. New York beat them 13-6 in a game that saw starting CB Levi Wallace suffer a pretty serious ankle sprain, though it looks like he’ll be OK for Saturday. The Bills gave up the second-fewest points in the league this season at 16.2 ppg, but they played one the AFC’s weaker schedules and went just 1-4 in games against playoff-bound teams. On the other side of the ball, Buffalo was a middling 23rd in scoring at 19.6 ppg; QB Josh Allen competed just 58.8% of his passes and threw 20 TDs against 9 picks, and their run game is very middle-of-the-road. The Texans, meanwhile, have played one of the conference’s tougher schedules and managed to go 3-3 against playoff-bound teams, though the were outscored by an average of .5 points per game. The Texans’ pass D is suspect, giving up 4,276 yards this season, but Allen isn’t good enough to fully exploit that weakness. Houston QB DeShaun Watson is a dynamic young quarterback who can tuck the ball under his arm and head up field when he can’t find anyone down field. DeAndre Hopkins — who’s donating his game check to cover funeral costs for a 7-year-old girl who was murdered on Sunday — is a truly elite receiver who’s averaged 101 catches and 1,318 yards per year for the past five seasons. Houston at home, with a lethal QB-WR combo against a dinged up Buffalo defense, will make the 3.5-point spread stand up.
Sunday, January 5
Minnesota Vikings (10-6) vs New Orleans Saints (13-3)
1:05pm ET on FOX
The Vikings wrapped up the regular season with back-to-back losses to Green Bay and Chicago and finished the year just 1-4 against playoff teams. To be fair, Minnesota sat several starters for the final game of the year, including leading rusher Dalvin Cook, who is dealing with a bum shoulder. Cook’s absence would be a huge blow to the Vikings’ offense, but he says he’s “ready to go” for this weekend’s game. Without him, Kirk Cousins will be forced to carry the load and it’s not clear he’s equipped to do that.
While the rest of the league trudges their bruised bodies into “Week 18,” Drew Brees should be relatively fresh; the 40-year-old QB missed five games in September and October, but has looked perfectly healthy since then. In the nine games since his return, Brees has completed 74.6% of his passes for 2,571 yards, 25 TDs and just 2 interceptions for a passer rating of 119.4; as good as the Vikings’ defense is, Brees is otherworldly. Although the Vikings beat the Saints in an all-time playoff classic a couple years ago, the Saints at home with one of the all-time great QBs lining up over center will take this one walking away.
Seattle Seahawks (11-5) vs Philadelphia Eagles (9-7)
4:40pm ET on NBC
According to NFL bylaws, someone had to win the NFC East, so why not the Eagles? On December 1, they were 5-7 and appeared DOA, but Philly ran the table against the Giants (twice), Washington, and Dallas to take the division. Credit Carson Wentz, who passed for 1,199 yards and 7 TDs with no interceptions during that stretch.
The Seahawks stumbled to the finish line, losing three of four, as Russell Wilson’s stealth MVP candidacy crumbled into dust. Over Seattle’s final seven games, Wilson completed just 63.2% of his passes for 1,605 yards, 9 touchdowns and 4 interceptions, while getting sacked 26 times. The Seahawks outscored opponents by a total — not an average, but a total — of 7 points this season. That is not the stuff of which champions are made. This is a rematch of a Week 12 game which Seattle won 17-9, thanks in large part to Philly’s season-high 5 turnovers. Is it ridiculous that a 9-7 team from the league’s weakest division team gets to host an 11-5 team from the league’s toughest division in a playoff game? Yes. Is that enough to tilt things to the Eagle’s favor? Also yes.
Stats courtesy Pro Football Reference