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2018 NFL playoff odds, picks: Chiefs roll, Saints beat Panthers for third time

The first game of Wild Card Weekend also happens to be the least interesting.

The Titans might be the No. 5 seed in the AFC, but they also seem like the least-deserving playoff team this year. Tennessee was outscored on the season and fielded below-average outfits on both offense and defense. Marcus Mariota stagnated. DeMarco Murray regressed. Derrick Henry was … fine. Corey Davis barely contributed. Eric Decker didn’t exactly work out. The defense was terrible for much of the year.

The Chiefs fielded one of the NFL’s best offenses for most of the season, and got back on track in a big way down the stretch after a midseason stumble. If they were squaring off against an opponent with an offense equipped to get into a track meet with them, their lackluster defense might lead one to pick against them — but this Tennessee offense is uninspiring. The Chiefs seem thus like the biggest lock of the week.

At least the Saturday night game should be considerably more interesting, with the best offense of 2016 taking on one of the most improved offenses in NFL history. Kyle Shanahan lifted the 2016 Falcons offense to new heights by scheming Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, and Tevin Coleman into position to succeed. Those players are all incredibly talented, and they took advantage of the way Shanahan used them to become one of the highest-scoring offenses ever. They regressed this season under Steve Sarkisian, while the Rams shot up to lead the league in scoring.

Sean McVay engineered one of the great turnarounds anyone has ever seen, taking Jared Goff from a player that looked like he didn’t belong in the league and turning him into one of the NFC’s best passers. Todd Gurley was arguably the NFL’s best offensive player. The former Bills receiving corps (Robert Woods, Sammy Watkins) suddenly formed the core of one of the best passing offenses in football. The Rams are fast and fun, and they’re incredibly tough to stop — even for a defense as athletic as the Falcons.

Sunday’s games carry a ton of intrigue as well, with Marcell Dareus facing off with his former team — one that made the playoffs on a last-second miracle performed by Andy Dalton, of all people. The Bills center their offense on the running game, and if they were playing the early-season Jaguars, that might have worked out incredibly well for them on Sunday. The problem is that the Jaguars’ run defense took off into the stratosphere after the team acquired Dareus from the Bills, and now it’s pretty much impossible to move the ball on them on the ground or through the air. It’s hard to see how the Bills come away with a win unless Blake Bortles completely self-destructs. That’s entirely within the realm of possibility, of course, but the Jacksonville defense might be good enough to win them the game even if Bortles plays poorly.

In the late Sunday game, the Saints will be going for their third win of the season against the division rival Panthers. Both teams have strong defenses and running games, but the Saints have a vastly superior air offense. That helped them win the first matchup of the season against Carolina, with Drew Brees throwing three touchdowns to Cam Newton’s three interceptions. Newton should have more success than that this time, but it’s hard to picture the Carolina defense shutting down all of the Saints’ various weapons. Michael Thomas, Mark Ingram, Alvin Kamara, Ted Ginn, Brandon Coleman, and Willie Snead are just too much for one team to deal with.

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