It’s the best time of year to be a football fan, even if your team wasn’t fortunate enough to make the playoffs this season. More than any year in recent memory, the NFL Playoffs feel wide-open, as both conferences are ripe for the taking.

The New England Patriots have won three Super Bowls in the past five seasons, but for the first time in over a decade, will be forced to play on wildcard weekend. Could the extra game be a hurdle for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, who customarily only have to win two home games to reach the Super Bowl?

I’d argue the Patriots are the third-most likely team to represent the AFC, with the top-seeded Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs holding better odds. Not only did both of these teams beat the Patriots in the regular season, but both also have first-round byes and absolutely electrifying quarterbacks.

Sometimes the lower seeded teams in the AFC feel like a joke, but this year, I wouldn’t count out the Houston Texans, Buffalo Bills, or Tennessee Titans to make some noise.

The favorite in the NFC depends on who you ask. Is it the top-seeded San Francisco 49ers? They have the easiest case for best team in the conference, but the New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers, and Seattle Seahawks aren’t far behind at all.

The Seahawks sit in a precarious position with the #5 seed, even though if they scored six more points in their season finale, they would be the #1 seed with home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. They face a banged-up Philadelphia team, but the Eagles can rise to the occassion when the calendar strikes January. The last NFC playoff team is the Minnesota Vikings: perhaps not the flashiest, but one of the most fundamentally sound teams in the postseason.

What will the Super Bowl matchup be? Will the Patriots return to defend their title, or will the AFC’s torch be passed to a new quarterback like Lamar Jackson or Patrick Mahommes?

In the NFC, will Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, or Russell Wilson add to their already illustrious careers? Or will Kirk Cousins, Carson Wentz, or Jimmy Garoppolo earn their first Super Bowl appearance?

For fun, you can check out my preseason NFL predictions to see who I originally had in the playoffs and Super Bowl. In the AFC, I predicted a Kansas City Chiefs-Baltimore Ravens matchup: a prediction I just might stick with four months later. In the NFC I had… the Chicago Bears and Atlanta Falcons. Ouch.

Read ahead as I break down the wildcard games, and then fill in the rest of the playoff bracket based on my predicted winners.

Wildcard Predictions

#5 Buffalo Bills (10-6) at #4 Houston Texans (10-6)

Time: 4:35 PM ET

Line: Houston Texans (-2.5)

Image result for bills texans
Credit: Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For the first time this century, the Buffalo Bills have broken through into the playoffs. Buffalo carries a strong 6-2 record on the road this season, while the inconsistent Houston Texans hold a respectable 5-3 record at home.

I call the Texans inconsistent because they failed to show up in some of their biggest games this season (blown out in Baltimore, manhandled by Broncos with AFC South still yet to be locked up.) Still, among Houston’s ten wins were victories over the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs.

While the Bills started the season a strong 5-1 by virtue of a tissue-soft schedule, the season’s second half was more inspiring, even with less ones. In total, the Bills lost two one-score games to the Patriots and a one-score game to the Ravens. They can play with anyone, and definitely these Texans.

Houston does get defensive end J.J. Watt on the field, and on paper, I trust Deshaun Watson more than Josh Allen in the postseason. But at the same time, Houston has squandered opportunities in January before.

So long as Allen doesn’t turn the ball over more than once or twice, I really like Buffalo’s chances to extend their season to the Divisional Round of the playoffs.

Bills win 23-20, Bills win ATS

#6 Tennessee Titans (9-7) at #3 New England Patriots (12-4)

Time: 8:15 PM ET

Line: New England Patriots (-4.5)

Image result for titans patriots
Credit: SI.com

The Tennessee Titans finished 7-3 down the stretch with Ryan Tannehill under center. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, on the other hand, went an uncharacteristic 4-4 in their final eight games. Three of these losses came to AFC playoff teams (Ravens, Chiefs, Texans) along with a head-scratching loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 17 with playoff seeding on the line.

Could this be the year we see Brady and Belichick make an early exit from the postseason?

While I wouldn’t pencil the Patriots into the Super Bowl or even the AFC Champonship just yet, I don’t see them having trouble defeating the Titans. Yes, Tennessee is a gritty team and Derrick Henry could give the Patriots defense a hard time on the ground.

But to me, the difference in playoff pedigree is huge. The Patriots do this every single year, and even though they don’t usually have to play on wildcard weekend, it’s still a January home playoff game in Foxborough. To beat that, you would need not just a good team but an elite team.

Patriots over Titans is the easiest pick of Wildcard Weekend, and I don’t really think it will be close.

Patriots win 38-17, Patriots win ATS

#6 Minnesota Vikings (10-6) at #3 New Orleans Saints (13-3)

Time: 1:05 PM ET

Line: New Orleans Saints (-7.5)

Image result for saints vikings
Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

I see this as the most exciting game of Wildcard Weekend, with the potential to be the one of the closest. Vegas doesn’t agree though: as the Vikings are the biggest underdogs of the weekend at -7.5.

To be fair, Minnesota sputtered slightly in the season’s second half, going 4-4 with losses to the Chiefs, Seahawks, Packers, and Bears. The Vikings went 1-4 against playoff teams in 2019, defeating only the Philadelphia Eagles.

Still, with the 5th-best scoring defense in the regular season (19.0 PPG) and a more than capable offense (25.4 PPG, 8th in the NFL,) Kirk Cousins and the Vikings could still be a tough out in the playoffs.

Of course, this is a rematch of the January 2018 divisional round matchup where the Vikings stunned the Saints on a last-second touchdown connection between Keenum and Diggs. That game was played in Minnesota, but the Saints will have home-field advantage in New Orleans this time.

The Saints have gone 6-1 in their last seven games, and 12-2 since their Week 2 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. Their other two losses came at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers.

Drew Brees and the Saints are hard to beat, and although I like the Vikings chances a lot more than Vegas does, I don’t see a reason to bet against New Orleans here. Unless it’s for the Vikings to cover the spread.

Saints win 27-23, Vikings win ATS

#5 Seattle Seahawks (11-5) at #4 Philadelphia Eagles (9-7)

Time: 4:40 PM ET

Line: Seattle Seahawks (-1.5)

Image result for seahawks eagles
Photo: Getty Images/MyNorthwest.com

Another game where I don’t agree with Vegas about the line: I think the Seahawks should be bigger favorites. Yes, they’re on the road, but Seattle is one of the best teams in the NFL. They outdueled the 49ers once, then nearly did it again in Week 17, falling literally inches short in the final seconds. Had they pulled off a last-second score, the Seahawks would have won the division and wouldn’t have had to play on Wildcard Weekend.

The Eagles are a gritty team, and clawed their way to 9-7 and an NFC East title despite a myriad of injuries. But while overcoming adversity has gotten them to the playoffs, they’re still banged up and injured heading into their matchup with the Seahawks.

Seattle went 11-5, with an incredible 7-1 mark on the road. The Eagles come into the playoffs riding a four-game win streak, all against NFC East opponents. Philadelphia finished 5-1 in the NFC East, beating up the Redskins and Giants four times and defeating the Cowboys once. Against all other opponents, the Eagles went 4-6. Against eventual playoff teams, Philadelphia went 1-3 with a Week 4 win over the Packers, along with losses to the Vikings, Patriots, and Seahawks.

I wouldn’t put it past the Eagles to find a little bit of January magic, but I have a feeling the Seahawks are going to go deep into this year’s playoffs. I don’t think the winner of the NFC East this year was ever going to stand a chance in the playoffs.

Seahawks win 24-16, Seahawks win ATS

NFL Playoff Bracket Predictions

CLICK HERE to read how I think the rest of the 2019-20 NFL Playoffs will shake out, using these predictions as the first round outcomes. I did go with three out of four favorites this weekend, but the Super Bowl matchup I’m going to predict will be far from just the chalk.

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