Don’t smile because it’s over. Cry because it happened.
That’d be the more fitting phrase for anyone hoping wild-card weekend might offer more than a single competitive game throughout the three-day slate. Not only had five of the six games been decided by multiple possessions, but all the blowouts were also practically decided at some point in the third quarter.
Here’s hoping for a little more drama in the divisional round.
For the second week in a row, we’ve assembled a crew of nine team executives and coaches from around the NFL to weigh in on the playoff games. Last week, they combined to correctly call four of the six outcomes, missing the Green Bay Packers’ upset of the Dallas Cowboys and the Houston Texans’ latest impressive performance against the Cleveland Browns.
Some fascinating storylines are taking shape this week. At quarterback, Lamar Jackson, C.J. Stroud and Jordan Love are trying to win their second career playoff games, and No. 1 picks Jared Goff and Baker Mayfield are continuing to try to fortify their standing with their new-ish teams. Then, in the weekend finale, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen are gearing up for their third playoff installment, with Allen trying to get the Buffalo Bills on the board in the budding rivalry.
There’s a contrast in settings, too. The Saturday slate features a couple of home atmospheres, Baltimore and San Francisco, that are a bit more accustomed to postseason success, whereas the energy Sunday in Detroit and Buffalo will continue to play a prominent role in the weekend’s theatrics.
Now, let’s get to the picks.
NFL playoffs: Key matchups to watch in each AFC divisional round game
Kickoff: 4:30 p.m. ET, Saturday
Expert picks: Ravens 9, Texans 0
Fear not, Texans fans. No one from the panel picked them to beat the Browns, either.
Of course, the Ravens are a more daunting opponent. The AFC’s top seed has won six consecutive games started by Jackson, the favorite to win the MVP Award next month. But for Jackson to improve upon his 1-3 playoff record, he will likely have to be more efficient as a passer. Jackson has completed less than 60 percent of his passes in all three postseason defeats, and the Ravens have averaged 10.7 points in those outings.
And though the Ravens allowed the fewest points in the league this season, they also had top-three defenses during the three prior seasons when they reached the playoffs with Jackson.
It’s simply a matter of translating that success to the playoffs, where the Ravens have one win in nine years.
“They can dominate all three phases and proved it throughout the regular season with a tough schedule,” an executive said.
The Ravens went 6-3 this season against teams that made the playoffs (two losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers), including a 3-0 mark against teams still standing. They beat the Texans 25-9 in Week 1.
“That’s who I see winning the AFC,” the executive added on the Ravens.
The Stroud effect is real, though. The NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite has been outstanding in back-to-back win-or-go-home games, completing 36 of 47 passes for 538 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.
Plus, edge rushers Jonathan Greenard (12 1/2 sacks) and Will Anderson (eight sacks, including one in the playoffs) have been a formidable duo. It’s a different challenge containing Jackson, but defensive-minded head coach DeMeco Ryans will surely have something creative up his sleeve for the veteran QB.
DeMeco already knew 🤯 pic.twitter.com/CXdSInCWHJ
— Houston Texans (@HoustonTexans) January 18, 2024
It just might not be enough.
“The Ravens are the overall better team,” a coach said. “But I think it will be a good game.”
The outcome might be determined by the best player on the field.
“Lamar is playing too well, and the defense will get to the rookie QB,” an executive said.
Kickoff: 8:15 p.m. ET, Saturday
Expert picks: 49ers 9, Packers 0
Sticking with the Saturday theme, can a first-year starting QB keep up the magic against a No. 1 seed? And just like last week, the Packers didn’t get a single panelist to pick them to win.
That’ll be the test for Love, but his best friend of late has been running back Aaron Jones, who has 476 rushing yards during the team’s four-game winning streak. The Packers’ disciplined, run-heavy game plan exposed the Cowboys, and head coach Matt LaFleur was patient enough to stick with it. Love consistently operated on schedule and made several elite throws to keep the Cowboys off-balance.
— Green Bay Packers (@packers) January 15, 2024
They’ll need a similar approach against the 49ers, who have allowed 4.1 yards per carry, just a tick better than the Cowboys.
“No QB should be as confident as Jordan Love is going into the weekend,” an executive said. “He’s playing lights out right now, and that offense is rolling. Green Bay should be excited about the future with how much young talent is on that roster. I expect a good battle this weekend but ultimately see the Niners’ run game and front seven taking over to win. Green Bay is still suspect on defense, and I have my doubts they will be able to control the game at any point.”‘
The 49ers figure to be a more challenging test than the Cowboys for two reasons. They’re far more dedicated to their running game with Christian McCaffrey, and the 49ers are viewed as a more disciplined team. They might not be as likely to succumb to the mistakes the Cowboys made to cater to the upset.
“(The game) will be closer than people think,” an executive said. “The 49ers’ run game and playmakers will be the difference.”
Added another coach: “The (Niners) defense will eliminate big plays and make (the Packers) drive on them.”
The 49ers have won two games in each of the last two postseasons, so they’re experienced. They were also potentially a Brock Purdy injury away from a Super Bowl rematch with the Kansas City Chiefs a year ago.
— NFL (@NFL) January 18, 2024
Though the Packers’ youth is impressive, that’s come out of necessity. They had $67 million in dead cap space this season, the fourth most in the league, so they needed big production out of players on rookie contracts.
That might just be too much to ask against a potential juggernaut in San Francisco.
“Too big (of a stage) too early for the Packers,” an executive said.
NFL Playoffs divisional round expert picks and odds for Chiefs vs. Bills, 49ers vs. Packers and every other game
Kickoff: 3 p.m. ET, Sunday
Expert picks: Lions 8, Buccaneers 1
If you’re of a certain age and watched a lot of football before the turn of the century, the idea of a Lions-Bucs game to determine an NFC Championship Game participant might have rattled your week.
But here we are.
“I went back and forth (with my pick),” an executive said. “I ultimately picked Detroit because they’re the more complete team and have home-field advantage. I am curious to see how Goff plays this weekend because I do think Tampa can get pressure on him. And historically, when you can get hits on Goff, you can get him out of rhythm.”
The Lions have been preparing for this stage all season, and the Bucs have exceeded expectations. The visitors have won six of seven, and they’ve been victorious in their past three road games.
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) January 18, 2024
“The Bucs are hot, but the Lions have a good, balanced offense that should help keep Tampa’s defense honest.”
The Lions have gone 7-2 at Ford Field this season, including the playoff opener against the Los Angeles Rams last weekend.
“Home field will matter,” an executive said. “And Goff will outperform Baker.”
Kickoff: 6:30 p.m. ET, Sunday
Expert picks: Bills 8, Chiefs 1
Allen has been viewed as one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks for the past four years, but he needs to get over the Mahomes hump in the playoffs. The Chiefs beat the Bills in the 2020 and 2021 postseasons, but the Bills are finally getting a crack at them in Buffalo.
What’s more, the Bills are the league’s hottest team with six consecutive victories. This is a far cry from a year ago when they were heading in the wrong direction as the playoffs started.
“(The Bills) are a little beat up from the Pittsburgh game, but I think Allen seals the deal this weekend,” an executive said. “He’s balling right now.”
Based on recent performance, it’s hard to argue against the Bills’ chances, but their injuries across the board are a concern. So, too, is Mahomes in the playoffs, and he might be increasingly motivated after the Chiefs have been written off more than usual due to the rash of mistakes from the skill players.
“(The Bills are) rolling at the right time, playing better football than Kansas City down the stretch, (and that) will continue,” a coach said.
JOSH ******* ALLEN!!!!
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) January 15, 2024
The lone voter who took the Chiefs essentially called it a coin toss. Both teams have high ceilings, but it’s been tough to predict how they’ll perform any given week. The lopsided nature of the picks is surely indicative of the Chiefs’ struggles this season.
The Chiefs defense might not be getting enough attention in the clash between two high-profile quarterbacks. Kansas City has allowed 20 or fewer points in six consecutive games, and it has surrendered more than 21 points just twice all season.
The Bills beat the Chiefs 20-17 in Week 14 at Arrowhead.
“The Bills finally get it done (in the playoffs) versus Kansas City,” an executive said.
(Top photo of Andy Reid and Sean McDermott: Kevin Sabitus / Getty Images)