Finally. The NFL playoffs are here.
Wild Card Weekend starts Saturday with both AFC games on the docket. While first-round quarterbacks Deshaun Watson, Ryan Tannehill and Josh Allen along with that sixth-rounder in Tom Brady promise to define the day, there are key rookies for all four teams that are capable of making a major impact on who advances to the divisional round.
Bills Offensive Rookies vs. Houston
Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane completely rebuilt Allen's supporting in the offseason, and several of those new pieces were added through the draft. After the Bills landed Ed Oliver in the first round, Beane shifted his focus to the offensive side of the ball on Day 2 including two separate trade ups for prospects he was targeting. All three of those picks are starters for the 10-6 team.
Cody Ford claimed the right tackle spot from Day 1 and started 15 games during the regular season. Like most rookies, his first year had its share of ups and downs, but Ford has developed some consistency over the last half of the season. With the likely return of J.J. Watt on Saturday, Ford will be tested keeping Allen clean against an overall weak Houston defense.
In the third round, the Bills selected running back Devin Singletary who impressed the brass enough over the summer to release veteran LeSean McCoy prior to the start of the season. A Week 2 hamstring injury limited Singletary early on, but he emerged as the focal point of Buffalo’s rushing attack. Despite missing four games, Singletary tallied 969 yards from scrimmage and averaged 5.1 yards per rushing attempt. Houston’s rushing defense is ranked 25th and surrenders a touchdown on a whopping 26.5 percent of drives. Singletary’s blend of vision, contact balance and elusiveness against a poor defense should lead to a big game.
Beane packaged multiple Day-3 picks to move back into Day 2 to select tight end Dawson Knox who enjoyed an impressive rookie season. Knox may have been the eighth TE drafted, but he finished second in receiving yards among rookie tight ends behind first-round pick Noah Fant. A big-play threat, Knox averaged 13.9 yards per reception and can serve as a true X-factor for Buffalo against a sloppy Texans pass defense.
Texans G Max Scharping vs. Buffalo
After several years of struggling, the Houston Texans offensive line is finally starting to take form and rookie guard Max Scharping is a big reason why. He took over at left guard in Week 3 and started the last 14 games of the season. Scharping has mostly held his own, especially in pass protection.
A four-year starter at offensive tackle in college, he shifted inside for the Texans and those same qualities that enabled Scharping to excel blocking on the perimeter has helped him shut down pass rushers in the NFL. Scharping will have his handsful with fellow rookie Ed Oliver, who found some extra juice the last time he got a chance to play in his home state of Texas on Thanksgiving Day when he record two sacks against the Dallas Cowboys. Scharping will be critical in making sure Oliver doesn’t pressure Deshaun Watson.
Titans WR AJ Brown vs. New England
After dominating the SEC in 2017 and 2018, AJ Brown slipped to the second round of the 2019 draft and became the only rookie wide receiver to have over 1,000 receiving yards this season. Brown tallied 1,051 yards and also led all rookies with eight receiving touchdowns while averaging 20.2 yards per reception. He is an every-level-of-the-field threat that is dangerous with the ball in his hands. Brown averaged 8.9 yards after the catch which was another area he dominated at Ole Miss.
Brown is entering Wild Card Weekend on a hot streak, racking up 605 receiving yards and six total touchdowns over the last six games. Waiting across the line from Brown on Saturday will be Patriots’ superstar cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who many believe is the leader to win the award for Defensive Player of the Year. Gilmore is coming off arguably the worst performance of his career in Week 17 against the Miami Dolphins when he surrendered 119 receiving yards just one week after getting toasted by Bills’ wide receiver John Brown for a 53-yard touchdown reception — his first of the year. Gilmore is undoubtedly looking to regain his normally dominant form but Brown presents a difficult challenge.
Patriots P Jake Bailey vs. Tennessee
Wait. Is this correct? The Patriots are playing this weekend? I’ve checked five times and it appears to be accurate.
While rookie wide receivers N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers promise to be important for the Patriots offense against the Tennessee Titans, Jake Bailey is the X-factor here. The Patriots special teams have been among the best overall units in the NFL this season with Bailey as the catalyst.
He is averaging 41.3 net yards per punt and finished second across the league with 36 punts pinned inside the 20-yard line. His directional punting combined with elite special teamer Matthew Slater can help the Patriots win the field position game. Given the struggles of New England’s offense this season, defense and special teams have been its formula. Those hidden yards will be significant against an emerging Titans’ team.