Bleacher Report's Expert NFL Wild Card Weekend Picks & Predictions
The last time a favorite covered the spread on Wild Card Weekend in the NFL, Barack Obama was still president of the United States.
In the last two years, teams favored in the opening round of the NFL playoffs have gone just 3-5 straight-up and 0-8 against the spread, and the only fave to walk away with a win in last January's wild-card slate was a Dallas Cowboys squad that beat the Seattle Seahawks by just two points.
Here's how that crew fared this season (last week's records in parentheses):
1. Brad Gagnon: 133-118-5 (7-8-1)
T-2. Brent Sobleski: 124-127-5 (6-9-1)
T-2. Gary Davenport: 124-127-5 (9-6-1)
Consensus picks: 122-129-5 (9-6-1)
Moneyline consensus: 165-89-2 (11-5)
And here's their underdog-heavy card for the four games slated for Saturday and Sunday in Houston, Foxborough, New Orleans and Philadelphia.
Lines from Caesars as of 5 p.m. ET on Thursday, Jan. 2.
No. 5 Buffalo Bills (10-6) at No. 4 Houston Texans (10-6)
When: Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET
Where: NRG Stadium, Houston
Referee: Tony Corrente
Line: Houston -3
In a nutshell: Both teams feature highly touted young quarterbacks with remarkable talent, while both franchises are looking to get monkeys off their backs. The Bills haven't won a playoff game this century, while the Texans have been embarrassed in two of their three home playoff games under the tutelage of head coach Bill O'Brien.
Injuries to watch: Bills cornerback Levi Wallace suffered an ankle injury in Week 17 and has been limited in practice. Meanwhile, it looks as though the Texans will get star edge defender J.J. Watt back from a shoulder injury. Wide receiver Will Fuller V is fighting to come back from a groin injury, and starters Laremy Tunsil (ankle), Johnathan Joseph (hamstring), Bradley Roby (hamstring) and Kenny Stills (knee) are also banged up for Houston.
Random tidbit: As Matt Bonesteel of the Washington Post notes, first-time starting quarterbacks have gone 8-15 in the playoffs this decade, with Deshaun Watson, Mitchell Trubisky and Lamar Jackson all losing under those circumstances last postseason. Buffalo's Josh Allen is next up.
The Pick: Bills +3
Houston's only playoff win under O'Brien came against a 2016 Oakland Raiders team that was without starting quarterback Derek Carr. In playoff games against opponents who actually had their starting quarterbacks the last five years, they're 0-3 with an average margin of defeat of 28-8.
That includes 21-7 dud against the Indianapolis Colts in Houston last January.
Even with Allen making his playoff debut, and even with Watt returning and Fuller potentially back, none of our experts are willing to lay a field goal with the untrustworthy Texans.
"The Bills lost three of their last four regular-season games," Sobleski said, "while the Texans won four of their last six. So, why would anyone think the Bills will go into Houston and claim a victory? Matchups. The Bills' aggressive defense gives them an advantage over the Texans' weak front. Plus, cornerback Tre'Davious White can shadow DeAndre Hopkins. On the flip side, Houston is terrible against the run, while Buffalo owns the league's eighth-ranked ground game."
Still, Gagnon and Davenport are taking the Texans to win straight up.
"Watt's return could be huge," Gagnon said. "The Texans badly need to get to Allen under these circumstances, and the three-time Defensive Player of the Year could be a difference-maker. Ditto for Fuller, who gives Watson another elite option if Buffalo's tremendous secondary takes Hopkins away. The Bills gave up an AFC-low 46 20-yard plays during the regular season and they had the league's second-best DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) against No. 1 receivers, but Fuller could exploit an injured Wallace. That's enough for me to pick Houston to finally grind out a home playoff win, but with its history and Watt and Fuller still question marks, I'm not laying a full three points."
Meanwhile, Davenport is sort of blocking a unanimous consensus against the spread. He's predicting a push, which essentially means he's sitting this one out.
"It wouldn't be any kind of massive upset if the Bills won here," he admitted. "These two teams are pretty evenly matched and the Bills have the better defense. But the Texans have the more dynamic offense, the better quarterback in Deshaun Watson and the benefit of playing at home. Houston has wins over three teams in the AFC playoffs, while the Bills are 1-4 against playoff teams this year. Give me Houston in a close one."
It's worth noting that Buffalo's one victory over a playoff team came on the road against the Tennessee Titans and that they actually went 3-1 away from home against teams that were .500 or better during the regular season.
Put it all together, and we're picking Buffalo to cover in a really tricky game between two enigmatic squads.
Davenport: Texans 23, Bills 20
Gagnon: Texans 21, Bills 20
Sobleski: Bills 23, Texans 17
Consensus: Buffalo (+3)
Score Prediction: Texans 21, Bills 20
No. 6 Tennessee Titans (9-7) at No. 3 New England Patriots (12-4)
When: Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough
Referee: John Hussey
Line: New England -5
In a nutshell: The Patriots arguably haven't looked this vulnerable in a decade, while the Titans peaked late in the year and wound up with the league's highest-rated passer (Ryan Tannehill) and leading rusher (Derrick Henry). Tennessee also crushed these Pats when they last met in 2018, which could indicate former Bill Belichick disciple Mike Vrabel has an edge here.
Injuries to watch: Titans wide receiver Adam Humphries (ankle) remains out, but his absence hasn't been problematic of late. Right tackle Jack Conklin (knee) and cornerback Adoree' Jackson (foot) are good to go. A multitude of key Patriots are banged up, including Julian Edelman (knee, shoulder), Jamie Collins Sr. (shoulder), Marcus Cannon (ankle), Jonathan Jones (groin) and Jason McCourty (groin). But all are expected to play.
"I feel better than I have in the last few weeks," Edelman said on WEEI on Thursday, according to Darren Hartwell of NBC Sports Boston, "and I feel good enough to go out and compete at a high level."
Random tidbit: The Patriots have played in just three Wild Card Games in the Belichick era, winning two. The only loss was their most recent Wild Card Game, when they were trounced 33-14 by the Baltimore Ravens at home. That was way back in 2010.
The Pick: Titans +5
Against playoff teams this season, the Patriots went just 3-3 with a negative scoring margin. They've looked utterly pedestrian, even in Foxborough. They had won 18 consecutive regular-season home games before falling to both the Kansas City Chiefs and the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium in December.
With that in mind, the majority of our analysts are down with taking a handful of points with Tennessee on Saturday night.
"I know, I know. It's the Patriots. Never bet against the Patriots," said Sobleski, who is taking Tennessee on the moneyline. "It's too tempting, though. New England isn't playing nearly as well as we've seen in recent years, and its personnel isn't nearly as good, especially on offense. The league's leading rusher is also coming to town, and Bill Belichick's defense isn't exactly stout against the run. That doesn't even take into account that Ryan Tannehill is playing better than Tom Brady this season. Yes, you read that correctly."
Statistically speaking, that's indisputable. And Sobleski is also right about New England's somewhat soft run defense, which only a few weeks ago was roughed up by Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard and now has to deal with Henry.
Now, only the Patriots are better than the Bills at taking away No. 1 receivers. In fact, New England's pass defense is historically good, and top cornerback Stephon Gilmore is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
But Gilmore hasn't been himself in recent weeks, and the Pats have become a lot less efficient across the board on D. Now they have to deal with one of the hottest offenses in the league, and Gilmore could have his hands full with top Titans wideout A.J. Brown, who put together four 110-yard performances in the final six weeks of the regular season.
That has Davenport convinced this'll be a close game, even if he's not willing to go the moneyline route with Tennessee.
"I get the temptation to take Tennessee to win this outright," he said, "especially after the Patriots fell flat at home in Week 17 against the Miami Dolphins. But I just can't see even these flawed Patriots losing two in a row at Gillette Stadium. That said, this spread's big enough that Tennessee and the points is the play against the spread."
But we don't have a unanimous consensus here because Gagnon is having a hard time believing in the Titans and a harder time giving up on the Pats.
"New England will have a lot of trouble moving the ball," he admitted, "especially if Logan Ryan can shut down a banged-up Edelman. But Tennessee doesn't have the pass-rushing prowess to get to Brady, which is undoubtedly the key to beating the Patriots in the playoffs. And we all know how good the Pats are at taking away their opponent's top weapon. If they can remove Henry from the equation, I'm not betting on Tannehill in his first-ever playoff start or Brown in his first-ever playoff game against Gilmore, Belichick and the rest of that New England D."
He's outnumbered, but it's worth noting that those picking against the majority as lone wolves are 79-64-2 this season.
Davenport: Patriots 24, Titans 20
Gagnon: Patriots 26, Titans 20
Sobleski: Titans 27, Patriots 20
Consensus: Tennessee (+5)
Score Prediction: Patriots 24, Titans 21
No. 6 Minnesota Vikings (10-6) at No. 3 New Orleans Saints (13-3)
When: Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans
Referee: Carl Cheffers
Line: New Orleans -7.5
In a nutshell: In a potential Minneapolis Miracle revenge game, the smoking-hot Saints will attempt to lift a playoff curse against an opponent that struggles against high-quality competition, struggles on the road and struggles in big spots. It's not a good formula for the Vikings.
Injuries to watch: Star running back Dalvin Cook looks set to return from a shoulder injury for Minnesota, but linebacker Eric Kendricks (quad) was limited in practice on Thursday and cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes (ankle), Mike Hughes (neck) and Mackensie Alexander (knee) are all hurting as well. Saints record-breaking receiver Michael Thomas is dealing with a hand injury, but that's not expected to be a problem, and they're extremely healthy beyond that.
Random tidbit: The Vikings were 1-4 against playoff teams this season, with three of those losses coming in the second half of the year. Meanwhile, the Saints averaged 36.3 points per game in the final seven weeks of the regular season.
The Pick: Saints -7.5
Our gang's only unanimous selection of the week just happens to be the biggest favorite on Wild Card Weekend. All three experts agree the Vikings are in the wrong place at the wrong time against New Orleans.
"The Superdome crowd AND payback for the Minneapolis Miracle?" Davenport said. "That's more than enough to push the Saints over the top since they're already the better overall team."
With Brees under center, the Saints are 6-1 in home playoff games. And that one loss deserves an asterisk because they were jobbed by the officials when they fell to the Los Angeles Rams at the Superdome last year.
But only two of those six wins came by more than six points, so you're allowed to fear a 7.5-point spread Sunday.
"Kirk Cousins could certainly get hot," Gagnon said, "or Dalvin Cook could return from injury and at least help Minnesota gain some level of control against a short-handed New Orleans defensive front. Throw in the backdoor cover possibility, and I wouldn't spend whatever's left from the holidays on the Saints. But Cook isn't 100 percent and the Saints' fourth-ranked run D can probably force Cousins to do most of the heavy lifting. Considering his track record on the road, against high-quality opponents and on a national stage, that could be disastrous."
Cousins has lost each of his last six road starts against teams that finished with winning records, and he's lost nine consecutive prime-time games against winning teams.
Plus, Brees and the Saints are on fire offensively. He has a 22-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 125.6 passer rating during that aforementioned seven-game hot streak, and now he has a chance to feast on a secondary that has struggled immensely all season and features three injured corners.
Throw in that injury to Kendricks (which could be huge for Alvin Kamara), and it's hard to buy into Minnesota's D in this matchup.
"The Vikings are a good team," Sobleski said, "and having Cook back for this game is a big boost. But the Vikes aren't close to as good as the Saints, who will be playing in front of a raucous Superdome crowd. New Orleans likely isn't happy about even having to play on Wild Card Weekend, and there's the matter of payback for the Minneapolis Miracle of two years ago. Saints roll to a double-digit-point win, and the 'Kirk Cousins can't win the big one' narrative rolls on."
Davenport: Saints 31, Vikings 17
Gagnon: Saints 30, Vikings 20
Sobleski: Saints 31, Vikings 21
Consensus: New Orleans (-7.5)
Score Prediction: Saints 31, Vikings 20
No. 5 Seattle Seahawks (11-5) at No. 4 Philadelphia Eagles (9-7)
When: Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET
Where: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia
Referee: Shawn Smith
Line: Seattle -1.5
In a nutshell: The Eagles defied the odds in making astonishing late-season runs in 2017 and 2018, and they're doing it again now. This time, though, they actually have a healthy starting quarterback. Unfortunately for them, nobody else is healthy. But fortunately for them, the Seahawks aren't in substantially better shape and Philly is at home thanks to the fact it won the NFC East by default. Nobody expects either team to go on a Super Bowl run, but both have significant playoff pedigree and championship-winning coaches. So who really knows.
Injuries to watch: Both teams—and the Eagles in particular—have been gutted by injuries all season. Philly's receiving corps has been obliterated, and key pass-catchers Nelson Agholor (knee) and Zach Ertz (ribs) are big question marks (DeSean Jackson is already out). Emerging back Miles Sanders (ankle) has also been missing practice time this week, while offensive tackle Lane Johnson (ankle) has been limited alongside Derek Barnett (ankle), Sidney Jones (back), Avonte Maddox (abdomen), Jalen Mills (ankle) and Fletcher Cox (triceps). Oh, and guard Brandon Brooks (shoulder) is freshly on injured reserve. It's just ridiculous.
As for the Seahawks, who lost their top three running backs late in the season, edge defender Jadeveon Clowney is still struggling with a core injury, left tackle Duane Brown is bothered by knee and biceps injuries, linebacker Mychal Kendricks is out with a knee injury and receivers Malik Turner (concussion) and Jaron Brown (knee) have been out of practice. At least they might get safety Quandre Diggs back from a high ankle sprain.
Random tidbit: Philadelphia and Seattle outscored their opponents by just 38 total combined points during the regular season. The Eagles won just four of their last seven home games, while the Seahawks went 7-1 on the road.
The Pick: Eagles +1.5
While both Carson Wentz and Tannehill are joining Allen in making their playoff debuts this weekend, Philly's quarterback doesn't seem as likely as the others to become overwhelmed. He's much more seasoned than Allen, he's facing a much weaker defense than Tannehill, he's been an MVP candidate in the past, and he's excelled in big games before.
And while Wentz's supporting cast is a mess, he and the Eagles are remarkably resilient. They're also getting points at home from a struggling opponent that has also been ravaged by injuries.
The majority of our panelists see this as an opportunity to fade the public, which is heavily backing the Seahawks.
"Russell Wilson could certainly hijack this game," Gagnon said, "but Wilson hasn't been himself for weeks. He posted a mere 90.7 passer rating in the final seven games of the regular season, and he's in big trouble with significant injuries in the backfield and along the offensive line. He also hasn't been consistently supported by a depleted defense. The Eagles still have a strong defensive front, while Seattle is using spare parts at running back. That could put a lot of pressure on Wilson to do all of the work on the road."
The Seahawks outscored their opponents by a grand total of seven points this season. And while they could at least get Duane Brown back on offense and Diggs back on defense, Philadelphia could benefit just as much if Johnson and Ertz can return.
"This is the hardest game of the weekend to peg," Davenport confessed. "The Seahawks may well be the better team here, and the Eagles are just so banged up. But the Seahawks have injury issues of their own, and these two teams have been heading in opposite directions—the Eagles have won four straight, while Seattle's loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the finale was the team's third defeat in the last four contests. Go with the home underdog and the 'upset.'"
But it's probably appropriate that this isn't unanimous.
"Somehow, the Eagles won their last four games with an offense held together by bubble gum and paper clips," Sobleski said. "Actually, the reason behind the squad's late-season success is rather simple and explained with two words: Carson Wentz. The Eagles quarterback performed at an MVP-level to elevate the play of those around him and carry his team. But guess what? The Eagles will now face another quarterback who's done that all season. Don't doubt Wilson."
It'd make a lot of sense to wait for more clarity on both teams' injuries before betting either way here. Or just spend the money on popcorn, sit back and enjoy what is almost certain to be a wacky game between two fun teams that refuse to die.
Davenport: Eagles 21, Seahawks 20
Gagnon: Eagles 21, Seahawks 20
Sobleski: Seahawks 20, Eagles 17
Consensus: Philadelphia (+1.5)
Score Prediction: Eagles 21, Seahawks 20