The opening week of the NFL playoffs has arrived, and we’re previewing every game on the wild-card round slate. Our NFL Nation reporters bring us the keys to every game, a bold prediction for each matchup and final score predictions.
Additionally, ESPN Stats & Information provides a stat to know for each game, and the Football Power Index (FPI) goes inside the numbers with a matchup rating (on a scale of 1 to 100) and a game projection. NFL analyst Matt Bowen identifies a key matchup to watch, ESPN Chalk‘s Mackenzie Kraemer hands out helpful nuggets and national NFL writer Kevin Seifert focuses in on each game’s officiating crew. It’s all here to help get you ready for a loaded weekend of NFL football.
What to watch for: Which quarterback will have success running the ball? The Bills’ Josh Allen (third) and the Texans’ Deshaun Watson (fourth) were among the top QBs in rushing yards this season. But according to research from ESPN Stats & Information, the Texans have allowed the second-most yards per rush to opposing quarterbacks this season (5.6), while the Bills allowed the fewest (2.8). — Sarah Barshop
Bold prediction: Allen has yet to throw for 300 yards in his career; he will again fall short of that mark but will manage to complete two passes of 40 or more yards against a vulnerable Texans secondary. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
Stat to know: Houston defensive end J.J. Watt will return (torn pectoral) on Saturday, and it will be welcomed by the Texans’ defense. Without Watt this season, the Texans’ pass rush win rate — an ESPN statistic powered by NFL Next Gen Stats determining how often a pass rush beats its blocks within 2.5 seconds — is just 27%, well off the league-average pace of 42%. With Watt? That number rises to 45%. Watt has 5.0 sacks in six career playoff games.
Key matchup: Watson vs. the Bills’ zone coverage. Buffalo has a zone-heavy defense (54% of defensive snaps). Look for the Texans to influence underneath defenders on leveled routes to create intermediate coverage voids for Watson. That leads to open-window throws to wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins on deep, in-breaking routes to the middle of the field. Read more.
Betting nugget: Allen is 10-6-1 against the spread (ATS) in his career as an underdog, with one of the non-covers coming last week when he was pulled in the first quarter. Fourteen of those 17 games went under the total. As for Houston, it is 1-5-1 ATS as a favorite this season. Read more.
Officiating nugget: Referee Tony Corrente’s regular-season crew threw an average of 17.1 flags per game, fifth most in the NFL. But Corrente threw the second-fewest number of flags for roughing the passer (four).
Louis-Jacques’ pick: Bills 17, Texans 7
Barshop’s pick: Texans 20, Bills 17
FPI prediction: HOU, 69.3% (by an average of 6.7 points)
Matchup must-reads: Texans takeaways earn spirited response from veteran Mike Adams … Why Will Fuller’s status against Buffalo is a big deal for Texans … Next test for Bills’ Tre’Davious White? Texans All-Pro WR DeAndre Hopkins
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET | CBS
Matchup rating: 74.8 | Spread: NE -5 (44)
What to watch for: The Patriots were plus-21 in turnover differential during the regular season, which led the NFL and is a point that Titans coach Mike Vrabel has been stressing this week to his team. New England’s defense and special teams haven’t created a turnover in each of the past two games, and they are determined to reverse that trend. — Mike Reiss
Bold prediction: Titans running back Derrick Henry will rush for more than 100 yards and score two touchdowns — one of which will be on a big play via the screen game. The Patriots utilize a lot of blitzes, which set up perfectly for a well-timed screen pass. Henry will be a major factor in the second half as the Titans milk the clock to protect a late fourth-quarter lead. — Turron Davenport
Stat to know: Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill averaged 9.6 yards per pass attempt this season, the fifth-highest rate in a season in NFL history (min. 250 attempts). According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Tannehill also had the highest completion percentage above expectation in the NFL. But the Patriots’ defense forced the lowest completion percentage below expectation in coverage in the NFL.
Key matchup: Henry vs. the Patriots’ defensive front seven. This has to be a heavy-volume game for the NFL’s rushing champ. Force the Patriots to defend zone schemes and clog cutback lanes versus a back who led the NFL with 2.3 yards after first contact. In short, make New England tackle Henry for four quarters, while setting up Tannehill in the play-action passing game. Read more.
Betting nugget: New England is 18-1 to win the Super Bowl and was as long as 20-1 earlier in the week. Those are the longest odds New England has had to win at any point this decade, and the longest odds entering the playoffs that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have ever had. However, Belichick and Brady are 6-0 ATS at Gillette Stadium against Tannehill, winning each game by at least seven points. Read more.
Officiating nugget: Referee John Hussey’s regular-season crew threw the second-fewest flags for defensive pass interference (14) but the third most for offensive pass interference (11). Hussey’s crew also called the second-fewest offensive holding penalties (38).
Davenport’s pick: Titans 24, Patriots 20
Reiss’ pick: Patriots 20, Titans 17
FPI prediction: NE, 73.0% (by an average of 8.1 points)
Matchup must-reads: Titans’ Mike Vrabel faces teacher-turned-competitor in playoff debut … Inside Bill Belichick’s resignation as the Jets’ coach 20 years ago … Ranking Tom Brady’s top 10 playoff performances … Patriots players quickly shift mindset with idea of ‘Revenge Tour’ … Rare wild-card game a blow to Patriots’ Super Bowl hopes … Lessons taught by his grandmother still push Derrick Henry today
Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET | Fox
Matchup rating: 88.2 | Spread: NO -8 (50)
What to watch for: Saints quarterback Drew Brees is playing some of the best football of his career at age 40. He threw 15 touchdown passes and zero interceptions in December and finished the regular season with a career-best passer rating of 116.3 despite missing five games earlier in the season because of thumb surgery. On the flip side, the Saints have quietly had the NFL’s No. 1 run defense over the past two seasons but will face a formidable matchup against a healthy Dalvin Cook. — Mike Triplett
Bold prediction: Minnesota QB Kirk Cousins will shatter the notion that he can’t play well in big-time games. With his full core of offensive starters available and healthy, Cousins will have his best game of the season, passing for 300 yards and three touchdowns. But it won’t be enough to outduel Brees and the NFL’s highest-scoring offense (36.3 points per game since Week 10). — Courtney Cronin
Stat to know: Using ESPN’s coverage metrics powered by NFL Next Gen Stats, Brees is the only qualified quarterback since Week 11 to complete at least 70% of his passes when facing both zone and man coverage. And he’s also the only QB in that time to post at least an 80 QBR against both coverage schemes.
Key matchup: Saints running back Alvin Kamara in the passing game vs. the Vikings’ linebackers. With the Vikings leaning on split-safety zone schemes, New Orleans coach Sean Payton can create favorable matchups for Kamara out of the backfield. This will allow the Saints to isolate underneath zone defenders in coverage to create one-on-ones with Kamara in space. Read more.
Betting nugget: In his career, Cousins is 0-15 outright and 1-13-1 ATS against teams that finished with at least 12 wins in a season (the Saints won 13 games this season). The outright winning percentage is the worst by any quarterback in the Super Bowl era. Meanwhile, New Orleans is 11-3 ATS since Week 3, the best mark in the NFL. Read more.
Officiating nugget: Referee Carl Cheffers’ regular-season crew called the league’s second-most total flags for offensive holding (68), more than twice the number called by the crew with the lowest total (Bill Vinovich, 32).
Emmanuel Acho and Domonique Foxworth say Drew Brees is the NFC playoff quarterback under the most pressure, as his time to win a Super Bowl is dwindling.
Cronin’s pick: Saints 33, Vikings 24
Triplett’s pick: Saints 30, Vikings 23
FPI prediction: NO, 63.2% (by an average of 4.5 points)
Matchup must-reads: Saints have had their fill of playoff miracles over the past decade … Friends Sean Payton, Mike Zimmer are ‘same guy’ in different packages … Why Saints’ Drew Brees decided to embrace his football mortality … Perceived slights fueling Vikings going into playoff matchup with Saints … Vikings RB Dalvin Cook says he’ll be at full strength for Saints game
Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET | NBC
Matchup rating: 64.9 | Spread: SEA -1.5 (45)
What to watch for: Eagles guard Brandon Brooks is out with a shoulder injury and tackle Lane Johnson (ankle) is questionable for Sunday, meaning the right side of the line might be manned by backups Matt Pryor and Halapoulivaati Vaitai. The Seahawks are second to last in sacks this season (28), but defensive end Jadeveon Clowney & Co. will have some opportunities this week. — Tim McManus
Bold prediction: The Seahawks will force at least two turnovers. They won the first meeting in Philadelphia thanks to five takeaways, and that was without Clowney. But he’s back (albeit it at much less than 100%), and Quandre Diggs might be as well. Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz is playing his first playoff game and might not have his No. 1 target in Zach Ertz. — Brady Henderson
Stat to know: According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the 2019 Eagles are the sixth division winner since the 1970 merger to have zero wide receivers gain 500 yards through the air. The Eagles started nine different wide receivers during the regular season, and during their current four-game win streak, they had four different wideouts catch a pass: Greg Ward Jr., J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Deontay Burnett and Robert Davis. That quartet had 11 career receptions combined entering the season. It shouldn’t surprise then that Wentz completed 242 passes to his running backs and tight ends this season, the most by a quarterback since Drew Brees‘ 251 in 2014.
Key matchup: Seahawks receiver Tyler Lockett vs. the Eagles’ man coverage. With the Eagles leaning on single-high man coverage, Lockett will have opportunities to win in the slot. Look for quarterback Russell Wilson to target Lockett on vertical shot plays and deep crossers to test the Eagles’ cornerbacks. Read more.
Betting nugget: Under the current playoff format (since 1990), a 9-7 or worse team has hosted an 11-5 or better team eight times in the wild-card round. The home team went 6-2 in those games (6-1-1 ATS) despite being the underdog in six of those games. Philadelphia is also 5-0 outright as a playoff home underdog in the Super Bowl era, winning all but one game by at least 13 points. Read more.
Officiating nugget: Referee Shawn Smith’s regular-season crew threw the league’s most flags for unnecessary roughness (23), more than three times the lowest crew total (Walt Anderson/Alex Kemp, 7). Smith’s crew also called the second-most roughing the passer fouls (12).
Henderson’s pick: Seahawks 23, Eagles 21
McManus’ pick: Seahawks 28, Eagles 26
FPI prediction: PHI, 60.3% (by an average of 3.4 points)
Matchup must-reads: Road warriors: Seahawks hoping away success continues in the postseason … Two things Carson Wentz hasn’t done? Beat Seattle, win a playoff game … Will Jadeveon Clowney’s postseason determine his Seahawks future?