NFL wild-card picks: Titans fall to Chiefs; Ryan lifts Falcons over Rams

  • Nick Celario

Hello again.

It’s been a while since my last column — so long ago, I had to look up the last time I had written one. It was just in April, so not terribly long, but long nonetheless.

Well, here I am again. It’s 2018, and “Hello. My name is …” is back. So, what to talk about? What’s going on these days?

The NFL postseason is upon us, so I guess I’ll talk about that, though the NFL is a sore subject for me.

A team I used to love will soon enough relocate to Sin City. So, peace out.

I won’t get deep into it here. This isn’t the time and place, and I’m sure you’re not interested in reading a venting session. So, I’ll get back on track here.

The NFL postseason. Aside from it being the playoffs, I’d bet some of you will be keeping a close eye this weekend as a handful of homegrown players from Hawaii will be showcased. (Shoutout to former TGI reporter David McCracken for highlighting said players in an article for Hawaii News Now.)

Let’s get into this weekend’s wild-card games:

Tennessee Titans (9-7) at Kansas City Chiefs (10-6); Chiefs -8 favorite

Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota — one of, if not the, most recognizable players from Hawaii — will kick off the 2018 NFL postseason at Arrowhead Stadium this Saturday. For the former Saint Louis School and University of Oregon standout, this shapes up as a formidable challenge.

Mariota finished the season ranked 20th among passing leaders according to ESPN with a 79.3 rating with 13 touchdowns to 15 interceptions — not great, but certainly not the bottom of the barrel among starting QBs.

Perhaps the Titans, an eight-point underdog as of Thursday according to SportsLine, can pull out an upset as Mariota and the Titans offense faces a Chiefs squad that surprisingly ranks just 28th in total defense.

However, the Chiefs finished the season winning its last four games, three against division rivals. The Titans went 2-3 in the last five games. Those include losses to the Cardinals (8-8) and the 49ers (6-10).

Also, Chiefs rookie rusher Kareem Hunt leads the NFL among running backs with 1,327 yards running, averaging 4.9 yards a carry and has eight rushing TDs.

If you’re one who believes in, “It’s not how start. It’s how you finish,” then you might be inclined to pick the Chiefs. In this instance, I am a believer. Pick: Chiefs.

Atlanta Falcons (10-6) at Los Angeles Rams (11-5); Rams -6 favorite

Last year’s NFC champion Falcons will conclude Saturday’s schedule with a showdown against the Rams.

I expected the Rams to live-and-die behind the play of RB Todd Gurley. He just had an MVP-caliber season, so no complaints there.

But the surprising play of Jared Goff, who’s ranked 10th among QBs, greatly helped the Rams win the NFC West over preseason division favorite Seattle Seahawks (9-7).

Yes, Goff had a great season — probably better than what anyone could have imagined. And though the Rams are a six-point favorite in this matchup, I will take experience here.

Goff could be great for years to come, but he is just in his second year in the league and is about to make his postseason debut, and the Rams can’t hand the ball off to Gurley on every play.

2016 MVP Matt Ryan is still one of the league’s better quarterbacks, ranking sixth according to ESPN.

With that and a good enough defense (12th against the pass and ninth against the run), I pick the Dirty Birds to upset. Pick: Falcons.

Buffalo Bills (9-7) at Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6); Jaguars -9 favorite

Seriously, who picked the Bills and the Jaguars to make the playoffs at the beginning of the season? Anyone?

After last season, Jags QB Blake Bortles was pegged as a No. 1 pick bust. This year, he had a rather productive season with a 84.7 rating with 21 touchdowns to 13 interceptions.

As for the Bills, the team appeared to be in a tailspin after the sudden benching of QB Tyrod Taylor in Week 11. That proved to be a disastrous decision as Nathan Peterman threw five picks against the Chargers, and Taylor was swiftly given the starting role again. And, well, here they are now.

This matchup, I predict, will be a battle of running backs come Sunday.

Jags RB Leonard Fournette totaled 1,040 yards running, averaging 3.9 yards a carry, with 9 TDs and two fumbles.

Bills rusher and seasoned vet LeSean McCoy had 1,138 rushing yards, averaging 4.0 yards a carry, with six touchdowns and one fumble.

I’m assuming McCoy will play. It was reported Thursday his status is uncertain after suffering an ankle injury Sunday.

Whoever runs wild, or at least runs better than the opposer, I believe will lead their team into the divisional round. My prediction: Fournette is the younger and stronger runner. Against a Bills D which ranks 29th against the run according to ESPN, Fournette should have his way. Pick: Jaguars.

Carolina Panthers (11-5) at New Orleans Saints (11-5); Saints -7 favorite

The Saints here feature a couple of Hawaii homegrown standouts in offensive lineman Max Unger and linebacker Manti Te’o.

Both have great rushing offenses. According to ESPN, Carolina ranks fourth in rushing, and New Orleans ranks fifth.

The Panthers have their three-headed running attack spearheaded by quarterback Cam Newton and complimented by RBs Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey.

The Saints have their rushing tandem in RBs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. Ingram ranks fifth in the league in rushing. Kamara was the fantasy football darling of this season (Thanks, buddy).

Carolina is ranked seventh overall on defense, third against the run. New Orelans is 17th overall and 16th against the run.

I’d say the matchup here is between quarterbacks Newton and Drew Brees. Different styles of play, but both exude their own brand of confidence.

Though Newton hasn’t performed as well as he did since his 2015 MVP year, he seems to always rise to the occasion on the big stages.

As for Brees, well, it’s Brees. Not much needed to say here.

I’m going on a hunch here and will say that Brees has one more great postseason run here. The NFC pool of quarterbacks are Brees, Newton, Ryan, Goff, Vikings’ Case Keenum and Eagles’ Nick Foles. I’d bet on Brees in this group. Pick: Saints.

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Nick Celario can be reached at ncelario@thegardenisland.com.

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