Shapiro's Sunday NFL Wild Card picks
The theme of day two of "Super Wild Card Weekend" is familiarity.
All three games feature teams that played each other during the regular season, and AFC North rivals Cleveland and Pittsburgh matched up twice.
Expect hard-hitting action, especially in the AFC matchups, where the squads clearly do not care for each other.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Tennessee Titans
Not only is the Sunday opener a repeat of the Week 11 game won by the Titans, but it is also a rematch of last season’s Divisional Round contest.
In that upset victory for Tennessee, Mike Vrabel’s defense stifled Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore offense early and rode running back Derrick Henry.
The Titans are likely to employ a similar strategy Sunday, but there is one massive problem. Their defense is terrible.
Not only do they lack a pass rush (19 sacks in the regular season), but they have struggled to cover opposing receivers and have not exactly been stout versus the run. Look for Jackson, J.K. Dobbins, and Gus Edwards to have plenty of success on the ground, and for Mark Andrews and Marquise "Hollywood" Brown to make a number of big plays down the field.
Thirty points or more is likely for the Ravens.
The Titans defense may have regressed, but the offense has not.
With a year under his belt in offensive coordinator Arthur Smith’s system, quarterback Ryan Tannehill has proven that his second-half run last year, after he took over for Marcus Mariota, was no fluke.
Tannehill is a great fit to run an offense built around Henry and the play-action passing game. With A.J. Brown and Corey Davis on the outside, and Jonnu Smith at tight end, the Titans are an incredibly difficult offense to contain. They should have no issue scoring points against a Ravens defense that is solid but nowhere near as good as it was a season ago.
When these teams played in the regular season, 50 points were scored, but six field goals were kicked. Look for more end zone visits Sunday, in what is likely to be the highest-scoring game in the Wild Card Round.
Chicago Bears vs. New Orleans Saints
New Orleans Saints
A lot of things were different when these teams met in Week 8, a game won by New Orleans, 26-23.
The Bears started Nick Foles, not Mitchell Trubisky, at quarterback, and were without star defensive end Akiem Hicks, while the Saints were without wide receiver Michael Thomas and still figuring things out as a team.
Trubisky has proven to be an improvement from Foles, but the upgrade is unlikely to be large enough to matter against one of the league’s best defenses. On the other hand, the presence of Thomas, and head coach Sean Payton’s ability to have his team peaking at the right time, should matter significantly.
The Saints have only played 10 quarters all year with Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, and Michael Thomas on the field together, yet still managed to finish the season with a 12-4 record. They'll encounter a Chicago team that beat up on bad squads down the stretch to get into the postseason and only has defeated one team with a winning record all year. This is a mismatch.
Cleveland Browns vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
One of the season’s best stories has been the Browns. Cleveland made the playoffs for the first time since 2002 with a 24-22 victory against the Steelers in Week 17, which set up this rubber match.
Unfortunately, Cleveland will be shorthanded Sunday, with the news that head coach Kevin Stefanski tested positive for COVID-19. The Browns will also be without Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio and defensive end Olivier Vernon. It's not ideal, but like many teams, the Browns have played shorthanded often in 2020.
We were informed this morning that Head Coach Kevin Stefanski, two additional members of the coaching staff and two players have tested positive for COVID-19.— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) January 5, 2021
Our contingency planning calls for Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer to serve as the acting Head Coach. pic.twitter.com/Mhh9Zt1e4d
My first instinct when I saw the line jump from 4 to 6.5, with the COVID and injury news, was that it was an overreaction, but perhaps I was incorrect.
Stefanski is also the Browns’ play caller. It is difficult enough for a quarterback to perform well in his first postseason game when everything is set up perfectly, but now Baker Mayfield will have Alex Van Pelt, not Stefanski, guiding him against one of the NFL’s best defenses. It will be a tall task for Cleveland to move the ball with consistency Sunday.
Laying nearly a touchdown with a Steelers team that could not run the ball and struggled to make big plays down the field during the second half of the season is not for me, nor is taking the points with Cleveland.
I will count on Mayfield struggling and the Browns defense hanging in there enough to keep this game somewhat close.