The 2017 NFL season wasn't the best NFL year we have seen. There have been more exciting seasons, and Week 17 certainly did not offer too much in terms of drama, what with only three teams sitting on the outside of the playoffs hoping for a chance to supplant one of the three teams yet to lock up a spot. Everyone else was either clinched or eliminated.
Win probability tells an incredible story about the drama -- the Bills' season was over and the Ravens looked like they were waltzing to the playoffs for another chance to be a dangerous team.
And then Dalton ripped out the Ravens' heart. Which leaves us with just 12 teams, eight of which will play during wild-card weekend. Let's break those down while going through some observations from Week 17.
Saturday, Jan. 6 at 4:35 p.m. ET on ESPN/ABC
The Titans have no business being in the playoffs, but the NFL isn't always a meritocracy. On the other hand, Tennessee piled up wins early in the year against bad teams and did what it had to against the Jaguars in Week 17.
Kansas City is a huge favorite in this game, opening as an 8-point favorite over the Titans according to the Las Vegas Westgate SuperBook. It's hard not to like the Chiefs in that spot, even with a huge number, because there is a significant talent difference between these teams.
Alex Smith elevated his game before a brief stretch where he struggled during the middle of the year. In the final few games that mattered (Smith was benched for rest purposes in Week 17), he was pushing the ball down the field more. The switch to Matt Nagy calling plays paid off dividends, particularly as Kareem Hunt became more involved again.
The over/under in this game is 46, which suggests some semblance of high-scoring from both teams. It wouldn't be inconceivable if Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray (if healthy) were able to run the ball effectively against Kansas City, which featured the 31st-ranked rush defense by DVOA heading into Week 17.
Marcus Mariota was not dynamic through the air against Jacksonville, but the Jags are a tough test for any quarterback. He did run the ball well, piling up 60 yards on 10 carries, including a game-clinching stiff arm that would end the Jags' hopes of doing anything other than trying a Hail Mary.
My gut would ultimately lean towards the Chiefs winning and covering this game, primarily because of the Andy Reid factor. He's got a significantly greater amount of experience than Mike Mularkey, who still might be coaching for his job depending on what happens in this playoff game.
If the Chiefs can run the ball well and exploit the Titans through the air with Smith and Travis Kelce, they can force the Titans to play catchup, which is not a spot they prefer to be in.
Saturday, Jan. 6 at 8:15 p.m. ET on NBC
This is a fun game, and Vegas knows it, because it has the highest total of any wild-card game (50.5). That is still a surprisingly low number though, given how quickly both of these squads can score. It might be a nod to the surprisingly effective Rams defense (sixth in DVOA before this week) and the Rams trotting out a young quarterback in Jared Goff who does not have any playoff experience.
Los Angeles checks in as a 6.5-point favorite, according to the Westgate. That's a lot of points for a rookie head coach and a guy in Goff who hasn't seen this stage in his career. Conversely, Matt Ryan has eight playoff starts and tons of experience. No one trusts the Falcons that much right now, but they have the talent and experience.
Personally, I like the Rams in this spot, although I wish the line was lower. Atlanta's defense has not been good this year and they can be exploited on the ground, where potential MVP winner Todd Gurley has been destroying people all season long. It would hardly be shocking to see Gurley show up in a huge spot and produce some points.
It's worth at least wondering how the Rams resting players against the 49ers -- which ultimately did not matter -- might affect them as they try and get the momentum rolling again. But the Rams did close out the season hot, winning the division after blasting the Seahawks on the road. It felt like a changing of the guard situation, and now Los Angeles can really make a statement with the first Los Angeles playoff game in decades. Give me the Rams if we're picking now -- they're a public team, and it wouldn't be surprising to see it end up over a touchdown.
Bills at Jaguars
Sunday, Jan. 7 at 1 p.m. ET on CBS
We're so excited we just can't hide it. The nature of the AFC and how it played out didn't do the mothership any favors, and let's be honest, this is not the sexiest game on the planet. The Jaguars are huge 8-point favorites and will probably be bet up even higher if LeSean McCoy is unable to go (McCoy was carted off during the Bills' win over the Dolphins). The total is just 41.5; Vegas does not see a ton of points coming in this game.
The Jags are susceptible to the run (29th in run defense DVOA before Week 17), so McCoy being healthy could potentially create some havoc. And maybe there's something to the idea of Tyrod Taylor and the Bills' offense being similar to the Titans. The offensive line probably isn't as good, but McCoy when healthy is better and more dangerous than Henry/Murray. Taylor typically does not make mistakes and can create plays with his feet.
Ultimately this game may come down to Blake Bortles. The quarterback, who wasn't even a lock to start the season under center with the Jags, actually ripped off a stretch of great football in December, helping the Jags take down the division. But he has looked very questionable the last two weeks, in ugly losses to the 49ers and Titans. Those are teams a good Jags team should beat, even if both games were on the road. If Bortles makes several big mistakes, which is entirely plausible, the Jags can lose this game at home.
The Bills' defense is a top-half unit and can create some havoc for passing offenses. Walk to the nearest mirror and say "I'll take Blake Bortles laying more than a touchdown" out loud. I can't do it. Give me the Bills and the points, but I'll wait to see how high it moves, with the Jags being another public team.
Sunday, Jan. 7 at 4:40 p.m. ET on Fox
It's hard to beat another NFL team twice in one season, and it is real hard to beat a team three teams in a single season, but that's what the Saints will try to do after drawing a matchup against the Panthers. New Orleans was a 6-point favorite against the Panthers the last time the teams played in New Orleans, and the Saints are a 6.5-point favorite this time around. It's not surprising, given how poorly the Panthers played against the Falcons on Sunday -- I might have even guessed the line would be higher, but getting Cam Newton as a touchdown dog in the playoffs might be a bit much to chew on.
Vegas does expect this to be a high-scoring affair, opening up the total at 49.5. That's pretty high, although the Saints beat Carolina 31-21 and 34-13 the last two times out. If the Panthers are able to produce any kind of offense, these two teams will certainly flirt with the Over.
The question for Carolina becomes whether or not the Panthers can slow down Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. The dynamic duo became the first pair of running back teammates to record a season of 1,500 scrimmage yards or more, a remarkable feat when you consider the history of the Saints' offense in recent years and the fact they're splitting time, plus Kamara being a rookie. They are a terrifying combo, however, and the Panthers will need an A+ effort from their linebacking duo of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis if they want to slow down the Saints offense.
For Carolina, there has to be a major question about Cam's ability to produce in the passing game. The Panthers are badly banged up at receiver, and Newton was just off against the Falcons. The Panthers weren't recording first downs via the air and couldn't run the ball, although the latter has been a problem all season long. The offense lacked explosion, and if Carolina doesn't figure out a way to generate some plays down the field or some chunk plays, it is going to be a short postseason for the Panthers.