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Week 17: Rick: 78-1; Coin: 5-10-1

Cumulative: Rick: 122-127-7; Coin: 116-133-7

Saturday, January 4

4:35 pm Buffalo Bills at Houston Texans (-2 1/2, 44) - Winners of the AFC South division, the Texans rate a very slight favorite over the Bills, the #1 wild card.

Buffalo finished with a record of 10-6, though it easily could have been better. Having mailed in their last game, losing at home, to the Jets, 13-6, the Bills have dropped three of their last four, but won the needed game at Pittsburgh in week 15, by a 17-10 score.

The other losses in the final four weeks were to playoff teams, Baltimore (24-17) and at New England (24-17). Buffalo had opportunities to win or at least tie in each of those games, especially at New England, ending the game on a failed fourth down in the red zone. The loss to Baltimore was within a score, which says a great deal about the Bills, primarily their defense. during Baltimore's 11-game winning streak through the end of the regular season, only three teams have held the Ravens to 24 or fewer points: the Bengals (go figure), the 49ers (in a rain-soaked 20-17 Baltimore win) and the Bills.

Buffalo's defense is the primary threat for the Texans. The Bills were second, league-wide, in points allowed, at 16.2 per game, to New England (14.1). By contrast, Houston was well down the list at #19, having given up 24.1 ppg during the regular season. The Texans will get all-star J.J. Watt back from injury, which may help, but the Texans should be able to hold up defensively against the Bills because Buffalo is #23 in scoring, averaging 19.6 per contest. Houston is marginally better, at #14, scoring at a pace of 23.6 points per game.

All of this makes for an interesting and probably tight match-up. There could be an assortment of gadget plays involved as both QBs, Buffalo's Josh Allen and Houston's Deshaun Watson, are both agile runners. Don't be surprised if either or both of them are used as receivers in wildcat formations. A big play on a flea-flicker may be the ultimate game-changer, as will turnovers. Ball control, time management, time of possession are going to be critical. Key players are RB Carlos Hyde and WR Deandre Hopkins for Houston. Allen and John Brown have key roles for the Bills.

These two last met in week six of 2018 in Houston. The Texans took a 20-13 decision. Josh Allen is a year older and better, and the defense has solidified. This one looks to be going down to the final gun.

Houston took the AFC South in 2018 and hosted the Colts in a 21-7 loss in one of last year's wild card games. They are still an unproven post-season quantity, as are the Bills.

Coin Flip: Houston

Prediction: Bills 17 Texans 14

8:15 pm Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots (-5, 44 1/2) - The Tennessee Titans qualified for the playoffs on the final weekend of the regular season, becoming the second wild card and #6 seed after defeating an undermanned Houston squad, 35-14.

Tennessee went 7-5, but they were just 2-4 before Ryan Tannehill took over the starting quarterback job, replacing the ineffective Marcus Mariota. Thus, under Tannehill, excluding the last Houston conquest, the Titans went 6-3, with losses to Carolina, Houston, and New Orleans.

New England was a shoo-in for the playoffs, but they faltered down the stretch, losing three of their last five, culminating in an inexplicable home loss to Miami, 27-24, in week 17, that knocked them down to the #3 seed, the first time the Patriots have gone into the playoffs without a bye since 2009. That year, they took the AFC East with a 10-6 mark and were hammered in a wild card game, at home, by Baltimore, 33-14.

This year, the Patriots were 12-4, had the best defense in the league, allowing 14.1 points per game, and were seventh in scoring (26.3).

Tennessee, at #9, scored an average of 25.1 ppg, but may be on par or better than the Patriots, since they only averaged 16.3 the first six weeks of the season. The Titans have plenty of weapons on offense, including the league's leading rusher, Derrick Henry, who is a bruising back that gains strength as the defense weakens late in games. Over the final seven weeks of the regular season, Henry rushed for over 100 yards in five of those games, all wins. It's safe to say that if Henry has a big game, the Titans are going to win.

Getting back to New England, while their defense has done the job well for the entire year, the offense has seen its share of struggles. They have not had a 100-yard rusher the entire season, and only had three 100-yard receivers, each time Julian Edelman. New England does spread the ball around quite a bit, so some of those numbers may be a little skewed due to the way coach Belichick manages the offense. Still, they are not dominant, as they have been in years past with Tom Brady behind center, and there are signs that the 42-year-old future Hall of Fame QB may have some physical issues, primarily a bruised elbow on his throwing arm. Not having a week off to prepare, rest, and heal may work against the Patriots.

Tennessee's defense was 12th in points allowed, giving opponents 20.7 per game, but they are likely good enough to control the Patriots for most of the contest. Unless they get behind early and have to abandon the running game, they should be in this until the bitter end. If the Titans can take a lead into half time, they may be looking forward to a divisional game next week. Tennessee's pass rush is excellent and they can put pressure on Brady, keeping him from a comfort zone in the pocket. Brady's not much of a scrambler, though Tannehill, a former college receiver with youthful legs, has proven he can carry the ball if opportunities are presented.

These two last met in week 10 of the 2018 season, at Tennessee. New England came into the game with a gaudy, 7-2 record, but were taken apart by the 4-4 Titans in a 34-10 stunner.

The Titans have an opportunity to win outright and put to rest to one of the NFL's greatest dynasties. Tennessee's game plan will be simple. Run behind Henry and use play action, and stunt the New England ground game.

Coin Flip: Tennessee

Prediction: Titans 24 Patriots 20

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