NFL playoffs wild-card round game picks, bracket schedule, odds, bold predictions and more

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The opening week of the NFL playoffs has arrived, and we’re previewing every game on the wild-card round slate. Our NFL Nation reporters bring us the keys to every game, a bold prediction for each matchup and final score predictions.

Additionally, ESPN Stats & Information provides a stat to know for each game, and the Football Power Index (FPI) goes inside the numbers with a matchup rating (on a scale of 1 to 100) and a game projection. NFL analyst Matt Bowen identifies a key matchup to watch, ESPN Chalk‘s Mackenzie Kraemer hands out helpful nuggets and national NFL writer Kevin Seifert focuses in on each game’s officiating crew. It’s all here to help get you ready for a loaded weekend of NFL football.

Jump to a matchup:
BUF-HOU | TEN-NE
MIN-NO | SEA-PHI

Bye: BAL, KC, SF, GB

Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET | ESPN/ABC/ESPN App
Matchup rating: 55.4 | Spread: HOU -2.5 (43.5)

What to watch for: Which quarterback will have success running the ball? The Bills’ Josh Allen (third) and the Texans’ Deshaun Watson (fourth) were among the top QBs in rushing yards this season. But according to research from ESPN Stats & Information, the Texans have allowed the second-most yards per rush to opposing quarterbacks this season (5.6), while the Bills allowed the fewest (2.8). — Sarah Barshop

Bold prediction: Allen has yet to throw for 300 yards in his career; he will again fall short of that mark but will manage to complete two passes of 40 or more yards against a vulnerable Texans secondary. — Marcel Louis-Jacques

Stat to know: Houston defensive end J.J. Watt (torn pectoral) will return Saturday, and it will be welcomed by the Texans’ defense. Without Watt this season, the Texans’ pass rush win rate — an ESPN statistic powered by NFL Next Gen Stats determining how often a pass rush beats its blocks within 2.5 seconds — is just 27%, well off the league-average pace of 42%. With Watt? That number rises to 45%. Watt has 5.0 sacks in six career playoff games.

Key matchup: Watson vs. the Bills’ zone coverage. Buffalo has a zone-heavy defense (54% of defensive snaps). Look for the Texans to influence underneath defenders on leveled routes to create intermediate coverage voids for Watson. That leads to open-window throws to wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins on deep, in-breaking routes to the middle of the field. Read more.

Betting nugget: Allen is 10-6-1 against the spread (ATS) in his career as an underdog, with one of the non-covers coming last week when he was pulled in the first quarter. Fourteen of those 17 games went under the total. As for Houston, it is 1-5-1 ATS as a favorite this season. Read more.

Officiating nugget: Referee Tony Corrente’s regular-season crew threw an average of 17.1 flags per game, fifth most in the NFL. But Corrente threw the second-fewest number of flags for roughing the passer (four).

Louis-Jacques’ pick: Bills 17, Texans 7
Barshop’s pick: Texans 20, Bills 17
FPI prediction: HOU, 69.3% (by an average of 6.7 points)

Matchup must-reads: Texans takeaways earn spirited response from veteran Mike AdamsWhy Will Fuller’s status against Buffalo is a big deal for TexansNext test for Bills’ Tre’Davious White? Texans All-Pro WR DeAndre Hopkins

Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET | CBS
Matchup rating: 74.8 | Spread: NE -5 (44)

What to watch for: The Patriots were plus-21 in turnover differential during the regular season, which led the NFL and is a point that Titans coach Mike Vrabel has been stressing this week to his team. New England’s defense and special teams haven’t created a turnover in each of the past two games, and they are determined to reverse that trend. — Mike Reiss

Bold prediction: Titans running back Derrick Henry will rush for more than 100 yards and score two touchdowns — one of which will be on a big play via the screen game. The Patriots utilize a lot of blitzes, which set up perfectly for a well-timed screen pass. Henry will be a major factor in the second half as the Titans milk the clock to protect a late fourth-quarter lead. — Turron Davenport

Stat to know: Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill averaged 9.6 yards per pass attempt this season, the fifth-highest rate in a season in NFL history (minimum 250 attempts). According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Tannehill also had the highest completion percentage above expectation in the NFL. But the Patriots’ defense forced the lowest completion percentage below expectation in coverage in the NFL.

Key matchup: Henry vs. the Patriots’ defensive front seven. This has to be a heavy-volume game for the NFL’s rushing champ. Force the Patriots to defend zone schemes and clog cutback lanes versus a back who led the NFL with 2.3 yards after first contact. In short, make New England tackle Henry for four quarters, while setting up Tannehill in the play-action passing game. Read more.

Betting nugget: New England is 18-1 to win the Super Bowl and was as long as 20-1 earlier in the week. Those are the longest odds New England has had to win at any point this decade, and the longest odds entering the playoffs that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have ever had. However, Belichick and Brady are 6-0 ATS at Gillette Stadium against Tannehill, winning each game by at least seven points. Read more.

Officiating nugget: Referee John Hussey’s regular-season crew threw the second-fewest flags for defensive pass interference (14) but the third most for offensive pass interference (11). Hussey’s crew also called the second-fewest offensive holding penalties (38).

Davenport’s pick: Titans 24, Patriots 20
Reiss’ pick: Patriots 20, Titans 17
FPI prediction: NE, 73.0% (by an average of 8.1 points)

Matchup must-reads: Titans’ Mike Vrabel faces teacher-turned-competitor in playoff debutInside Bill Belichick’s resignation as the Jets’ coach 20 years agoRanking Tom Brady’s top 10 playoff performancesPatriots players quickly shift mindset with idea of ‘Revenge Tour’Rare wild-card game a blow to Patriots’ Super Bowl hopesLessons taught by his grandmother still push Derrick Henry today

Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET | Fox
Matchup rating: 88.2 | Spread: NO -8 (50)

What to watch for: Saints quarterback Drew Brees is playing some of the best football of his career at age 40. He threw 15 touchdown passes and zero interceptions in December and finished the regular season with a career-best passer rating of 116.3 despite missing five games earlier in the season because of thumb surgery. On the flip side, the Saints have quietly had the NFL’s No. 1 run defense over the past two seasons but will face a formidable matchup against a healthy Dalvin Cook. — Mike Triplett

Bold prediction: Minnesota QB Kirk Cousins will shatter the notion that he can’t play well in big-time games. With his full core of offensive starters available and healthy, Cousins will have his best game of the season, passing for 300 yards and three touchdowns. But it won’t be enough to outduel Brees and the NFL’s highest-scoring offense (36.3 points per game since Week 10). — Courtney Cronin

Stat to know: Using ESPN’s coverage metrics powered by NFL Next Gen Stats, Brees is the only qualified quarterback since Week 11 to complete at least 70% of his passes when facing both zone and man coverage. And he’s also the only QB in that time to post at least an 80 QBR against both coverage schemes.

Key matchup: Saints running back Alvin Kamara in the passing game vs. the Vikings’ linebackers. With the Vikings leaning on split-safety zone schemes, New Orleans coach Sean Payton can create favorable matchups for Kamara out of the backfield. This will allow the Saints to isolate underneath zone defenders in coverage to create one-on-ones with Kamara in space. Read more.

Betting nugget: In his career, Cousins is 0-15 outright and 1-13-1 ATS against teams that finished with at least 12 wins in a season (the Saints won 13 games this season). The outright winning percentage is the worst by any quarterback in the Super Bowl era. Meanwhile, New Orleans is 11-3 ATS since Week 3, the best mark in the NFL. Read more.

Officiating nugget: Referee Carl Cheffers’ regular-season crew called the league’s second-most total flags for offensive holding (68), more than twice the number called by the crew with the lowest total (Bill Vinovich, 32).

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Emmanuel Acho and Domonique Foxworth say Drew Brees is the NFC playoff quarterback under the most pressure, as his time to win a Super Bowl is dwindling.

Cronin’s pick: Saints 33, Vikings 24
Triplett’s pick: Saints 30, Vikings 23
FPI prediction: NO, 63.2% (by an average of 4.5 points)

Matchup must-reads: Saints have had their fill of playoff miracles over the past decadeFriends Sean Payton, Mike Zimmer are ‘same guy’ in different packagesWhy Saints’ Drew Brees decided to embrace his football mortalityPerceived slights fueling Vikings going into playoff matchup with SaintsVikings RB Dalvin Cook says he’ll be at full strength for Saints game

Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET | NBC
Matchup rating: 64.9 | Spread: SEA -1.5 (45)

What to watch for: Eagles guard Brandon Brooks is out with a shoulder injury and tackle Lane Johnson (ankle) is questionable for Sunday, meaning the right side of the line might be manned by backups Matt Pryor and Halapoulivaati Vaitai. The Seahawks are second to last in sacks this season (28), but defensive end Jadeveon Clowney & Co. will have some opportunities this week. — Tim McManus

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