Buffalo Bills fans will never forget the way the 2017 regular season ended. Neither will fans of the Baltimore Ravens.
After a wild Week 17, the focus shifts to the playoffs where the two teams involved in the Music City Miracle will each get a chance to shock the football world as betting underdogs. The Bills are on the road against the Jacksonville Jaguars while the Tennessee Titans will visit the Kansas City Chiefs.
Meanwhile, the NFC wild-card picture is absolutely loaded with four capable Super Bowl contenders. Nobody would be shocked if one of the New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers, Los Angeles Rams or Atlanta Falcons went on to represent the NFC in Super Bowl 52. However, two of those teams won’t even make it past the wild-card round.
Here is a look at 10 key storylines to watch heading into wild-card weekend.
Against all odds
According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Bills had a 13 per cent chance to make the playoffs heading into Week 17. Everybody knows what happened next. The postseason drought is over. However, the odds are once again stacked against Buffalo heading into wild-card weekend.
FPI projects the Bills have an 18 per cent chance to beat Jacksonville – a 1 per cent chance to win the Super bowl. Of the eight teams that will play this weekend, Buffalo is considered the least likely to win. After making the playoffs for the first time since 1999, the Bills will look to beat the odds again with a win on Sunday.
So you’re saying there’s a chance?
There is one odd statistic that could provide some hope for Bills fans heading into Sunday. Buffalo is the seventh team in NFL history to clinch a playoff spot with an overall point differential of minus-50 or worse (minus-57). Each of the previous six teams went on to win a playoff game.
It doesn’t help that running back LeSean McCoy is a game-time decision because of a sprained ankle. Still, after overcoming the odds to register nine wins and make the playoffs, it’s impossible to completely write this team off. They might be underdogs, but it wouldn’t be all that shocking if the Bills find a way to beat the Jaguars this weekend.
Jaguars looking to run
For the first time in franchise history, Jacksonville led the NFL in rushing yards this season. Based on play calling, that shouldn’t be a surprise. The Jaguars ran the ball by design on a league-high 48.89 per cent of their snaps, averaging 141.4 rushing yards per game. Rookie running back Leonard Fournette led the way with 1,040 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. Even quarterback Blake Bortles chipped in with 322 rushing yards and two rushing scores.
Only three teams gave up more rushing yards than Buffalo did this season. Establishing the run against the Bills’ 29th-ranked run defence will undoubtedly be a key to Jacksonville’s success or lack thereof when they clash on Sunday.
#Sacksonville in the spotlight
Football fans in Buffalo will celebrate the team’s first playoff game in nearly two decades when their team takes the field on Sunday, ending the longest-active drought in the NFL. Jacksonville fans have also been patient, waiting for postseason football over the last decade. The Jaguars clinched their first division title since 1999 and ended the fourth-longest active playoff drought in the NFL in the process.
A dominant defensive front is among the biggest reasons for their success. Jacksonville led the NFL with 52 sacks. Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue combined for 26.5 sacks this season, which is the most by any teammates since J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus of the Houston Texans combined for 29.5 sacks in 2015. Meanwhile, Dante Fowler Jr. and Malik Jackson each recorded eight sacks.
The ability to consistently generate pressure with just the front-four was a major weapon for the Jaguars all season. The Jacksonville defence ranked second in takeaways and second in points per game allowed this season. The spotlight will be on the Jaguars front-four when they go back to work against the league’s 32nd-ranked pass offence this weekend.
Hunt begins in Kansas City
The Chiefs were able to rest several key players in their Week 17 win over the Denver Broncos. One player that didn’t rest the entire game is running back Kareem Hunt, who convinced head coach Andy Reid to play long enough to win the NFL rushing title. Hunt had a 35-yard touchdown run that pushed him to 1,327 rushing yards on the year – 22 more than Rams running back Todd Gurley for the most in the league.
Kansas City will lean heavily on its star rookie against a Tennessee defence that allowed the fourth-fewest yards per carry in the NFL this season. It’s an intriguing matchup that will play a key role in the outcome of Saturday’s AFC wild-card showdown.
NFC threats playing on wild-card weekend
The 2011 New York Giants are the last NFC team that went on to play in the Super Bowl after winning on wild-card weekend. Each of the last five NFC Super Bowl representatives was a top-two seed that benefited from a bye.
That could change this year with a strong crop of NFC teams playing on wild-card weekend in the Rams, Saints, Panthers and Falcons. All four of those teams finished with at least 10 wins and a case can be made for each of them as legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
The bottom three seeds in the NFC all have proven quarterbacks with Super Bowl experience in Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan. Meanwhile, the top two seeds are led by unproven playoff quarterbacks in Nick Foles for the Philadelphia Eagles and Case Keenum for the Minnesota Vikings.
Is this the year that an NFC team playing on wild-card weekend ends up making a run to the Super Bowl?
The NFC South sends three
The NFC South will have three representatives in this year’s playoffs in the Saints, Panthers and Falcons. While all three teams have the talent to make a deep playoff run, they also have major flaws.
One thing is certain: the NFC South is guaranteed to be represented in the NFC Divisional round by the winner of Sunday’s wild-card game between Carolina and New Orleans.
Saints will try to make it three in a row
The Saints swept their two regular-season meetings against the Panthers. There are two different perspectives heading into their third meeting. On one hand, New Orleans has proven it can beat Carolina on two occasions and should be confident heading into wild-card weekend. On the other hand, it’s tough to beat a team three times in one season.
Since the NFL merger in 1970, there have been 20 instances where a team played an opponent in the playoffs after beating them twice in the regular season. Those teams went 13-7 in the playoff rematches.
One key matchup to watch is the Saints run game against the Panthers' third-ranked run defence. Despite Carolina’s success defending the run, New Orleans averaged 148.5 rushing yards in its two wins over the Panthers. Running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram have been outstanding for the Saints this season. If they can run the ball effectively on Sunday, New Orleans should have a good chance to make it three wins in a row versus Carolina.
Falcons face tough road to Super Bowl return
The Falcons won’t benefit from a bye week like they did when they clinched the NFC’s No. 2 seed a year ago. Instead, they will face an extremely difficult test on the road against the Los Angeles Rams.
Atlanta is also dealing with key injuries to wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman, who were held out of practice earlier this week with ankle and rib injuries respectively. Perhaps the biggest question mark is the status of quarterback Matt Ryan, whose numbers took a significant hit following his 2016 MVP season. The Falcons need Ryan to perform at a higher level in the playoffs in order to navigate through the NFC and earn a shot at redemption in the Super Bowl.
Atlanta will face an extremely difficult test right out of the gate against Aaron Donald and the Los Angeles defence this weekend.
Rams ready to roll
A year ago, the Rams finished last in the NFL in scoring. This season, Los Angeles led the league in scoring. The Rams are just the second team in NFL history to go from worst to first in points per game in one year.
The biggest difference has been the impact of first-year head coach Sean McVay. In his rookie season, Jared Goff completed just 54.6 per cent of his passes with five touchdowns, seven interceptions and an 18.9 Total QBR in seven games played. In 15 games this season, Goff completed 62.1 per cent of his passes with 28 touchdowns compared to seven interceptions and a 48.4 Total QBR.
Running back Todd Gurley had 1,212 scrimmage yards and six touchdowns last year. This year, he led the NFL with 2,093 scrimmage yards and scored 19 touchdowns to put his self in the MVP conversation.
No team has experienced a more incredible turnaround than the Rams this season. With a rookie head coach, a second-year quarterback and a ton of weapons on both sides of the football, it will be interesting to see how they perform against the defending NFC champions on Saturday night. One thing is for sure, McVay and the L.A. offence will be ready to roll on wild-card weekend.