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Saturday, 6 January 2018

NFL Play Off Picks 2018- Wild Card Weekend (January 6-7)

The NFL regular season is in the books and that means we are ready for Play Off Football beginning with the Wild Card Weekend on Saturday and Sunday in the first week of the 2018 calendar year.

In all honesty some of the match ups might look a little lacklustre on paper, but I think the Play Offs will be a lot of fun and I can't wait for everything to get going on Saturday evening (evening in the United Kingdom at least).

My pick to win the Super Bowl? Right now I am leaning towards the New Orleans Saints to win two tough road games and then go on and beat the New England Patriots in Minnesota in the Super Bowl.

Talking about New England, I am very interested to read the stories about discontent in Foxboro and whether there is going to be a serious break up between Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.

It would be nice and that is coming from a Miami Dolphins fan who is fed up of the dominance of the Patriots- personally I would love to see Belichick walk away because I really think the Patriots are more of a success because of the Head Coach than their Hall of Fame Quarter Back.

It will be interesting to see how things play out, but something is definitely not right in New England.

Now onto the Wild Card Weekend Picks.

Tennessee Titans @ Kansas City Chiefs Pick: A few weeks ago no one would have really be expecting to see the Kansas City Chiefs in the Play Offs as they lurched from one poor result to another. More recently it has been the Tennessee Titans who have almost backed their way into the post-season and now the two teams meet for the chance to make their way into the Divisional Round of the Play Offs.

A three game losing run was ended by the Titans when beating the AFC South Division Champions Jacksonville in Week 17 and that was also enough to sneak into the post-season as the Number 5 Seed.

However it did come at a cost with DeMarco Murray banged up and that is likely going to see their starting Running Back missing out on playing at Arrowhead Stadium. Derrick Henry is not a bad replacement for this game, but Tennessee would have liked to have gone into this road Play Off game at full strength.

Henry should have a chance to have some success running the ball, even if the Titans have struggled to do that effectively in recent games. However this time they won't be going up against a Defensive Line that has played the run particularly well this season and Kansas City may have a few problems shutting down the run.

That is the key for Tennessee and it will help settle things down for Marcus Mariota at Quarter Back who is making his first start in the Play Offs. I mean first start as a professional having played for the Oregon Ducks in the College Football Ranks in Play Off Football, and Mariota's ability to scramble and make the runs for First Downs when he needs to.

Mariota has shown he can make plays through the air too, but much of the success of the Offensive unit will depend on whether Tennessee can establish the run. It is a big amount of pressure for Henry to shoulder, but him and Mariota have had success at the College level to think they will have the belief they can go into Arrowhead Stadium and at least keep the chains moving.

Then the Titans can turn the ball over to the Defensive front seven and hope they can find a way to put the clamps on the Kansas City Offensive unit which does put together some exotic plays to move the chains. The first port of call for the Titans is to make sure they prevent Kareem Hunt from continuing what has been a break through the rookie wall he had hit earlier in the season.

Hunt has been really good for the Kansas City Chiefs, but running the ball against the Titans Defensive Line will be a challenge, although Andy Reid has a tendency to quickly move away from the run in big games. He won't mind letting Alex Smith air it out at Quarter Back, and Smith is capable enough as he has shown in past Play Off appearances.

And it might not be the worst decision in the world with the Titans struggling in the Secondary, although the pressure the Titans get up front will be key against this Kansas City Offensive Line and at least rattle Smith. I do think the Chiefs will end up winning the game because of how well Smith is able to look after the ball, but this feels like a game that could be very close because I do feel that Tennessee will have success Offensively.

I do worry about the way the home teams played in the Wild Card Round last season with all four winning and covering, but this is a lot of points and the Titans seem to be underrated. Tennessee have won four of their last five visits to Arrowhead Stadium including a two point win as the underdog in December 2016.

This is a lot of points and the Titans look worth backing with the start. The Kansas City Chiefs have a terrible recent record in the Play Offs, but they can at least make the Divisional Round with a narrow win on Saturday so take the points with the Titans.

Atlanta Falcons @ Los Angeles Rams Pick: The Atlanta Falcons may not have forgotten about the way they blew the Super Bowl eleven months ago, but they have gotten over it well enough to get back into the Play Offs. The Falcons have not looked as good as they did going into the Play Offs last season, but now they are here they have the experience to be a test for anyone.

Play Off experience is not something the Los Angeles Rams have, but this has been a very special season already as Sean McVay has got his players on the same page. They have a powerful Offensive unit and a solid Defensive unit and the Rams really do feel they can make a deep run and potentially go all the way.

Los Angeles has to be excited for their Play Off game after the Rams returned to the City, and this has all the makings of a really good game. The trip out from the East Coast is a difficult one for Atlanta and could work against them, but the timing isn't terrible for the Falcons with the late Saturday evening spot.

It is all about how well the Atlanta Defensive unit can step up and slow down what has been a dynamic Offensive unit the Rams have been running. Jared Goff has looked like the Number 1 Pick in the Draft, while Todd Gurley may have overtaken as potentially the best Running Back in the NFL.

Gurley will be a threat catching the ball for sure, but whether he is able to establish the run against the Atlanta Defensive Line is another question. The Falcons have been stout up front and forced teams into third and long and they will feel they can at least stop Gurley from making big gains on the ground.

In saying that, Gurley won't be stopped in the screen game and as the safety blanket for Goff in the passing game. That will be an important outlet for the Rams as the Atlanta Falcons will be able to get some pressure on Goff in those obvious passing situations and may give Atlanta, who have a decent Secondary and will feel they can give Matt Ryan and the Offense a chance to at least have a chance to win this game.

And I do think the Falcons will have an opportunity to win this game as long as Ryan can even get up to 75% of how well he was playing last season.

Matt Ryan has not clicked with his new Offensive Co-Ordinator Steve Sarkisian in the same way he had with Kyle Shanahan, but some of the poor decisions in throwing the ball has to be shouldered by the Quarter Back. He can't afford to do that against Los Angeles with the turnover battle likely to be a huge factor in the outcome of this game.

He has to lean on the duo at Running Back who should find room up front despite the strength the Rams have on the Defensive Line. It has been an issue for the Rams to slow down the run in recent weeks, and through much of the season, so both Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman could be a huge part of this game, or they should be if the Falcons really want to win this game.

Both are also capable of catching the ball out of the backfield and making plays in the open space and that is important for Ryan as he has to manage this game from third and short spots. Anything else and he will have Aaron Donald all over him and Ryan won't be able to see Julio Jones stretching the field, but otherwise there are some holes in the Secondary which can be attacked by Ryan.

I do think the Falcons are getting too many points here even if they have flattered to deceive for much of the season. Matt Ryan has not played as well as he did last season but I think his Play Off experience is going to be important and I definitely think he can keep the Falcons in within a Field Goal and having a shot to win the game at the end of the Fourth Quarter.

Favourites have been covering for fun in recent weeks and that is a worry when I am backing a couple of underdogs in the Wild Card Round on Saturday. However I do think the Falcons have a good enough Offensive unit to challenge the Rams and at least keep this close enough to get within the points.

I expect the Atlanta Defensive Unit to also keep this one closer by at least slowing down the Los Angeles Offense and I will take the points here.

Buffalo Bills @ Jacksonville Jaguars Pick: Anyone who has watched the NFL for any length of time have to know how dominant Defensive units can be at this time of the season. It could be argued that the Jacksonville Jaguars Defensive unit is the best in the AFC and they will feel they can ride that to success in the Play Offs after surprisingly making their way in as the Number 3 Seed as winners of the AFC South.

There would be a lot more believers in Jacksonville if you could buy into Blake Bortles, but that is even more difficult when thinking how little the franchise seems to think about their own Quarter Back. All of the rumours are that the Jaguars are going to move on from Bortles unless he wins them the Super Bowl and that has to be playing on the mind of the Quarter Back who is simply not very good.

The best case scenario for the Jaguars in any game they play is that they are not putting themselves on the back of the Quarter Back. Instead Jacksonville will want to run the ball very well and then look to their Defensive unit to make the big plays which has been a feature of their games throughout this season.

Don't expect too much different when facing the equally surprising Buffalo Bills who have snapped the longest drought for a Play Off berth in professional sports. However they have not looked the same Defensively since trading Marcel Dareus to the Jaguars and I think it looks a tough afternoon for the Bills.

The run Defense has really struggled without Dareus and there is little doubt the Jaguars are going to try and pound the ball down their throat throughout the afternoon. While Leonard Fournette has had a few troubles in the second half of the season, he should be able to get on track here and that will put Bortles in a decent enough position to not have to force things, which is when he does get into difficulty.

There are holes in the Buffalo Secondary which can be exploited by Bortles if the Jaguars are pushing the ball downfield, but the key will be to run the ball and at least keep the field position battle in their favour.

That will shift the pressure on the Buffalo Bills to find the right plays Offensively to at least try and find a way to move the chains against a very strong Defensive unit. The battle to get into the post-season and snap their long run without Play Off Football came down to a Week 17 game in Miami, and while they beat the Dolphins, the Bills may also have seen LeSean McCoy banged up.

McCoy will play on Sunday as far as I can understand, but he won't be anything near at 100% and the Bills be really leaning on him to break open some big runs. Without McCoy at top health, it is tough to see Buffalo doing that consistently and that means Sean McDermott is going to have to have faith in Tyrod Taylor, who is clearly out of favour as the starting Quarter Back.

Taylor will have some interested teams if he is made available to leave Buffalo, but McDermott is not convinced despite the Quarter Back generally playing mistake free football. His legs will be the bigger factor in this one as he tries to help the Bills move the chains, but if Buffalo are leaving him to convert third and long it will be a long day in the office for him.

The Quarter Back is going to be under immense pressure from the Sacksonville, I mean Jacksonville, pass rush and Taylor won't have time to throw into a Secondary who have been very strong. It all points to a tough afternoon for the Buffalo Bills and I do like the Jaguars to progress.

It is a big number for any team with Bortles at Quarter Back and the mistakes he can make, but I expect there won't be a lot of responsibility given to him. Instead the Jaguars can run the ball and then use their strong Defensive unit to make plays and limit what the Buffalo Bills are able to produce which can in turn lead to a fairly comfortable win for the Jaguars.

Of course backing Bortles is about as much fun as colonoscopy, but I expect the Jaguars won't ask him to do too much and that should be good enough for a double digit win with another late Defensive Touchdown putting an exclamation mark on the performance.

Carolina Panthers @ New Orleans Saints Pick: The New Orleans Saints won the NFC South and on the way they swept the Carolina Panthers, and now they have to host them in the Wild Card Round of the Play Offs. Beating a team three times in the same season has always been said to be a tough task, but the team sweeping the regular season games have won thirteen out of twenty in the Play Offs.

That will give the Saints a little more belief that they can beat a tough Divisional rival again in a season where New Orleans have surprised. Now they could be a trendy pick in the suddenly open NFC to go all the way to the Super Bowl as a redesigned Defensive unit have been able to ease the pressure on the strong Offensive side of the ball.

Not that the Saints were ever that bothered about being involved in a shoot out with Drew Brees Quarter Backing the team. However this time things have changed with a more balanced New Orleans Offense looking more dangerous than they have in recent years with an ability to run the ball and also a star in the making at Running Back, Alvin Kamara, who is capable of taking a short pass the distance.

It will be a challenge for a strong front seven of the Panthers to try and deal with all of the Offensive weapons New Orleans have, while the Secondary does have a few holes. The Saints scored at least 31 points in each of the two games against the Panthers and it could be another day in the office for them.

Carolina will believe they can limit the New Orleans ground game which will give them a chance to get after Brees, but this is not something that will particularly worry the veteran and former Super Bowl winner. Brees is not likely to hold onto the ball for too long and the threat of Kamara out of the backfield is going to only open up what has been a struggling Secondary even more.

That is an area Brees will exploit and I do think the New Orleans Saints will move the ball effectively in this one and it will need a special Panthers performance to slow them down. Ultimately I can't see that happening barring an unfortunate injury to someone like Kamara like the one the Running Back suffered against Atlanta in the regular season and I like the Saints to put up another bunch of points against the Panthers here.

They can then turn it over to the improved Defensive unit to seal a place in the Divisional Round of the Play Offs. There are still some questions about the Saints and whether their young players on the Defensive side of the ball can step up now they are in the pressure cooker of the Play Offs.

It is potentially a good match up on which to start for the Saints as they have been stout on the Defensive Line and prevented teams from running the ball consistently. That is a huge part of the Carolina Offensive game plan and it will be tough to win this game if the Saints are forcing Cam Newton into third and long spots.

The ability of Newton is sure to help at points in the game as he is able to get away from pressure and take off with the scrambling ability about as good as anyone out there. Newton is not afraid to use the read option to blow away from Linebackers, but so far the Saints have been able to contain the Quarter Back and scoring points will force Newton to have to look to make plays through the air to keep up with the New Orleans Offense.

A solid pass rush will collapse the pocket around Newton and there aren't many Receivers that the Quarter Back can rely on in clutch times. The New Orleans Secondary have also shown they can diagnose plays and make a break on the routes which has seen them turn the ball over at key moments.

All in all I think the Saints are going to be too good for the Carolina Panthers and can beat them for the third time this season. Maybe the Panthers have learned from their two games against New Orleans, but I still think the Saints will score their points and it will be too much to ask a pretty one dimensional Offense to play keep up.

The underdog does have a strong record in the series, but I like the Saints to win this one by around a Touchdown mark and cover this number.

MY PICKS: Tennessee Titans + 8.5 Points @ 1.95 Bet Fred (2 Units)
Atlanta Falcons + 5.5 Points @ 1.95 Ladbrokes (2 Units)
Jacksonville Jaguars - 8.5 Points @ 1.91 Bet Victor (2 Units)
New Orleans Saints - 6.5 Points @ 1.91 Bet Victor (2 Units)

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