As of Wednesday, both the Titans and Bills were nine-point underdogs. They are the No. 5 and No. 6 seeds in the AFC, which means they'll be on the road in Kansas City and Jacksonville for this weekend's opening round of playoff games. Recent history has been a mixed bag for the wild-card's traveling teams; last season they went 0-4, the season before they were 4-0, and since 2012, the visitors are 9-11.
When the sun rises Monday, the season will be over for the Titans and Bills, though for completely different reasons.
When defenses craft game plans to stop opponents, the strategy is usually some variation of "making the offense one-dimensional." When the Chiefs take the field on Saturday there will be no mystery: The Titans' offense will arrive at Arrowhead Stadium as a one-dimensional unit, capable of only doing one thing well: Running the ball. Overall, the Titans' offense is replacement-level -- they rank 18th overall -- though the running game ranks eighth, according to Football Outsiders. Third-year quarterback Marcus Mariota is as responsible for that as he is for the 20th-ranked passing game. Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray are 21st and 27th in value per play among all running backs, and it's unclear if Murray will play Saturday while he recovers from a knee injury.
With the past four months as a guide, the Titans will lean on their run game. It's what they do best -- and it's what the Chiefs' defense doesn't do well at all. This is one of the few matchups favoring Tennessee. In fact, Kansas City's run defense ranks dead last and is only slightly better against the pass (No. 23). When Tennessee does throw it, Matthews should have opportunities; Kansas City ranks 31st against opponents' No. 1 receivers.
But the Chiefs are also hitting their stride at the right time. They started the season with five straight wins and then the wheels fell off; over the next two months, they went 1-6 and somehow lost to the Giants and Jets. But they've rebounded nicely, winning four straight, and the defense has even shown signs of life. In those four victories, the team allowed 15, 13 and 13 points before giving up 24 against the Broncos on Sunday in a game in which most of the starters didn't play. They also generated 12 turnovers in that span after generating 14 turnovers in the previous 12 games. Then there's Alex Smith, one of the league's most consistent passers. He has shown that he can bring it on a weekly basis; he began the season with five straight games with a passer rating over 100 and it wasn't until Week 9 that he threw his first interception (he entered that game with 16 touchdowns). And in his last four starts, Smith is 3-1 with seven touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating north of 100.
Perhaps most importantly, the Chiefs offense has the luxury of diversity. Smith makes sure everything runs on time and tight end Travis Kelce, wideout Tyreek Hill and rookie running back Kareem Hunt are all threats to score from just about anywhere on the field.
The Bills, meanwhile, will face long odds in Jacksonville on Sunday. Not because they have little chance of beating the Jaguars but because they have little chance of beating the Jaguars without their most important player: LeSean McCoy.
One of the NFL's most dynamic players is "day-to-day" after suffering a sprained ankle against the Dolphins last Sunday. If he doesn't play then the Bills' chances of pulling the upset border on impossible.
(This seems like a weird thing to write when the opposing quarterback is Blake Bortles, who until this season was one of the league's most disappointing players. But he's had a resurgence in 2017, thanks in part to a solid running game and the league's best defense.)
Without McCoy, the burden falls to quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who also is the team's second-leading rusher. But Taylor's game isn't throwing the ball 40 times -- his conservative play is what got him benched in Week 11 for Nathan Peterman -- and even if it was the Jaguars have the NFL's No. 1 pass defense. Ideally, the game plan would involve finding creative ways to get a healthy McCoy the ball. And on the occasions Taylor did drop back, target his second-favorite receiver, tight end Charles Clay. (Yes, McCoy is the No. 1 receiving target.)
As it stands, McCoy looks to be a game-time decision, which puts immense pressure on every other member of the Bills to accomplish something for the first time in 22 years: Win a playoff game.
Here is the entire Wild Card Weekend schedule:
Saturday, Jan. 6
AFC: (5) Tennessee (9-7) at (4) Kansas City (10-6), 4:35 p.m. ET (ESPN/ABC)
NFC: (6) Atlanta (10-6) at (3) Los Angeles Rams (11-5), 8:15 p.m. ET (NBC)
Sunday, Jan. 7
AFC: (6) Buffalo (9-7) at (3) Jacksonville (10-6), 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
NFC: (5) Carolina (11-5) at (4) New Orleans (11-5), 4:40 p.m. ET (Fox)
Wednesday odds update
Titans at Chiefs (-9.0)
- The line was -7.5 on Monday
- Kansas City against the spread: 10-6
- Kansas City against the spread as the favorite: 8-5
- Tennessee against the spread: 8-7-1
- Tennessee against the spread as the underdog: 2-1
Falcons at Rams (-6.5)
- The line was -5.5 on Monday
- Atlanta against the spread: 7-9
- Atlanta against the spread as the underdog: 0-2
- Los Angeles against the spread: 9-7
- Los Angeles against the spread as the favorite: 7-5
Bills at Jaguars (-9.0)
- The line was -7.5 on Monday
- Buffalo against the spread: 9-6-1
- Buffalo against the spread as the underdog: 4-5
- Jacksonville against the spread: 9-7
- Jacksonville against the spread as the favorite: 6-5
- The line was -6.0 on Monday
- Carolina against the spread: 9-7
- Carolina against the spread as the underdog: 5-2
- New Orleans against the spread: 9-7
- New Orleans against the spread as the favorite: 8-3
Kansas City and Tennessee are teams going in different directions; the Chiefs are starting to resemble the team that started the year 5-0 while it's unclear if the Titans have emerged from their late-season funk that saw them drop three of their final four games. Not only that, but it's hard to imagine Tennessee having a game plan to slow Kansas City's high-powered offense, and Mariota and the Titans' offense haven't shown the consistency to keep them in games. Playing at Arrowhead Stadium, one of the NFL's toughest venues for road teams, further lessens Tennessee's chances of pulling off the upset.
Final score: Chiefs 28, Titans 17
There is so much to love about this Rams team. It starts with Sean McVay, who at 31 wouldn't even be the oldest player on his team. But he's wise beyond his years and has taken a perennial loser during the Jeff Fisher era and molded them into division winners is one season. And now the Rams are looking for their first playoff victory since 2004, back when the Rams were still in St. Louis, Mike Martz was the coach, Marc Bulger was the quarterback and McVay was a freshman wide receiver at Miami University. Now he's responsible for the NFL's sixth-ranked offense -- and the growth and maturity of quarterback Jared Goff and running back Todd Gurley. Meanwhile, Wade Phillips has the Rams' defense, which was 15th a season ago, playing as a top-five unit.
The biggest obstacle facing this team is lack of postseason experience. But McVay has had his team prepared at every turn and it's hard to imagine that won't be the case on Saturday. Yes, 11 months ago the Falcons were minutes away from their first Lombardi Trophy but this isn't the same team that scored at will a season ago. Matt Ryan has struggled with consistency and the defense is still a liabillity and ultimately, that will be their downfall.
Final score: Rams 24, Falcons 20
The Bills are in the playoffs for the first time since 1999, back when Wade Phillips was the coach and Doug Flutie and Rob Johnson were the quarterbacks. Unfortunately, McCoy appears to be a long shot to play, which pretty much guarantees the Jaguars their first postseason victory since 2007. The thing is, we liked the Bills' chances with McCoy. Their methodical, run-heavy offense matches up with the Jaguars' biggest weakness, and should Buffalo lead late in the game there's no reason to think that Bortles would be capable of leading a comeback in the franchise's biggest game in at least a decade. But barring McCoy's miraculous recovery, the Jaguars will be too much for the Bills.
Final score: Jaguars 20, Bills 12
Which Panthers team will show up? Because if you know that then you'll have a much better idea about the outcome. Will it be the outfit that twice gave up 30-plus points to the Saints during the regular season? Or will it be the team that won seven of eight from Weeks 8-16? Or maybe it'll be the group that laid an egg against the Falcons in Week 17, in a game that saw Cam Newton go 14 of 34 for 180 yards and three interceptions. The inconsistency is maddening. Meanwhile, the Saints are the NFL's top-ranked team, according to Football Outsiders. The offense, as it has been through much of the Drew Brees era, is among the league's best. But it's been the defense, which had been reduced to laughingstock status in recent years, which has made all the difference -- the unit is eighth overall. And it's that balance on both sides of the ball that makes New Orleans one of the NFL's most formidable teams.
Final score: Saints 27, Panthers 20