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Dublin: 12 °C Tuesday 19 March, 2019
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Experience v optimism and your NFL Wildcard Saturday preview

The Chiefs host the Titans while the Rams take on the Falcons in the opening games of Wildcard weekend.

Tennessee Titans (9-7) @ Kansas City Chiefs (10-6) – Saturday, 9.35pm

Source: John Sleezer/PA Images

How did they get here?

ONLY ABOUT FOUR weeks ago, this match-up looked like it could very well be the LA Chargers versus the Baltimore Ravens.

Instead, Kansas City put together four wins on the spin — having lost six of the previous seven — to make it back-to-back AFC West titles for the first time.

For their part, the Titans limped into the playoffs with just one win over the last quarter of the season, but that victory over their divisional rivals, Jacksonville, was enough to see them over the line.

How do the Titans win?

Source: UPI/PA Images

Defence. The Chiefs have struggled against zone defence this season, with players admitting they struggle facing Cover 2 — which is odd considering that is perhaps the most vanilla defence in football — and the Titans play a lot of zone.

Kansas City have the best downfield offence in football with Travis Kelce leading the league in deep receptions (nine) and Alex Smith the most accurate passer on deep balls (56.5%). Cut those out — especially in the cold temperatures expected on Saturday — and Tennessee can stay in the game.

How do the Chiefs win?

Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Watch the clock. Poor time-management has been front and centre of Kansas City’s postseason problems. Two seasons ago they swept into the divisional round of the playoffs as the hottest team in the league only for Andy Reid to watch time tick away against the Patriots with three (!) timeouts in his pocket.

It was almost a carbon copy of Reid’s poor clock management at the end of Super Bowl XXXIX and something that can’t be overlooked, particularly in what might be a low-scoring affair.

Who will win? 

The Chiefs are eight-point favourites and while I do think they’ll do enough to reach the Divisional round, I don’t see them winning by more than five points given just how cold it’s going to be in this game.

Atlanta Falcons (10-6) @ LA Rams (11-5) – Sunday, 1.15am

Source: UPI/PA Images

How did they get here?

Talk about two different journeys. This time last year the LA Rams were coming off the back of a 4-12 season with the lowest scoring offence in the league while the Falcons were blowing everyone away on their way to a Super Bowl.

Now though, the Rams have the most potent offence in the NFL and, even with resting Jared Goff and company last weekend, topped the NFL in points scored.

Atlanta have been up and down all year, but there’s no doubt Matt Ryan has reverted to normal from his MVP season last year. However, when they needed a win last week, they got one and many around the team are claiming they are already in playoff mode.

How do the Falcons win?

Source: Travis Pendergrass/PA Images

Free the man. Only two players have 3,000+ rushing yards and 30 or more touchdowns in the past three seasons. One is Todd Gurley, the other is Devonta Freeman.

While the Rams rank third against the pass in Football Outsiders defensive DVOA, they were just 22nd against the run this season. However, Freeman averaged less than four yards per attempt in his last four games before injury ruled him out of Atlanta’s last couple of match-ups.

How do the Rams win?

Source: Keith Birmingham/PA Images

Keep on keeping on. The great thing for LA is that Atlanta’s defence is virtually identical to Seattle’s with a single high safety protecting the middle of the field with an emphasis on swarming the football.

While the Rams struggled first time around in a game riddled with mistakes by their offence, they hammered the Seahawks 42-7 — in Seattle — just three weeks ago and will fancy their chances again in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Who will win? 

I keep hearing that Atlanta has more experience and that the Rams were only 4-4 at home this season but I still like them to win, and cover the 5.5-point spread.

“Where’s my team’s preview?” you ask. Don’t worry, we’ll have previews of Sunday’s games up shortly after midnight on 7 January. 

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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