Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 9:55 AM

Saturday's AFC Playoff Essentials

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Buffalo at Houston (-2.5, 44), 4:35 pm ET, ESPN

The Texans just won their fourth AFC South title under Bill O’Brien, but he was being heavily criticized as recently as last month before his team closed out with wins in four of five before tanking their meaningless Week 17 contest against Tennessee. If Houston fails to hold serve here, it would fall to 1-4 in playoff games under O’Brien, having advanced past “Wild Card” Weekend only once. The Texans handled a Raiders team forced to start current XFL first-rounder Connor Cook at QB in 2016 before suffering a 34-16 loss at the Patriots.

Houston (10-6 SU, 7-8-1 ATS) lost to division rival Indianapolis 21-7 last year and fell 30-0 against the Chiefs back in ’15. To say there’s pressure on O’Brien to win this game is an understatement.

The same can be said about Deshaun Watson, once dubbed Michael Jordan by Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, his college coach. He’s a decided improvement on Brock Osweiler and Brian Hoyer, the other Texans quarterbacks who have started under O’Brien. He’s better than Matt Schaub and T.J. Yates, the other two quarterbacks who won playoff games under Gary Kubiak and have therefore done something Watson has yet to. The third-year quarterback is just 0-1 but accounted for a single touchdown in a duel against Andrew Luck, throwing an interception and completing just 29 of 49 passes in an awful home loss where Houston failed to score until the fourth quarter of a game it trailed 21-0 at the break.

O’Brien and Watson are tied together in the hot seat. They’re in a situation where disappointing the home base again as they managed to last year could lead to early boos and ultimately mitigate the edge the Texans are supposed to have in welcoming the Bills into town. While O’Brien, also the team’s general manager, has improved the talent level, he’s ramped up expectations. Conservative play-calling and questionable in-game decisions have tried fans’ patience. Watson remains in their good graces, but he’s turned the ball over more this season and didn’t take a decided step forward. This is a big day for him.

Buffalo (10-6, 9-6-1) isn’t under the same type of burden. Reaching the playoffs for the second time in his three seasons makes Sean McDermott the most successful head coach since Wade Phillips was let go in ’99, and he’s indeed the winningest coach Buffalo has had of the 10 (head and interim) that have served at the helm for the team this century. Buffalo hasn’t won a playoff game since 1995. Josh Allen will be making his first playoff start and is hoping to become the first Bills quarterback to throw a touchdown in the postseason since Doug Flutie did in a game he started against Dan Marino on Jan. 2, 1999. Yes, it’s been that long.

The Bills fell at Jacksonville 10-3 a couple of years ago and have to fear a similar ending considering that points have been hard to come by in their toughest contests. Second-year QB Josh Allen will be making his first career postseason start but went just 1-4 against playoff teams this season. Buffalo averaged 14.2 points in those games. Although veteran Frank Gore is in the mix, the Bills don’t have a lot of veteran leadership on the offensive side of the ball to lean on as they hit the road. Leading rusher Devin Singletary is a rookie. Top receiver John Brown reached an NFC Championship game with Arizona in ’15 and hasn’t been back since.

Although the Texans’ defense has been vulnerable most of the season and has been taken advantage of in the red zone, the return of J.J Watt has the unit encouraged that it can perform their best when it matters most. Houston ranked 28th in total defense but gave up only four yards per rush as opposed to 5.34 without Watt, who obviously also makes the team’s pass rush all the more formidable in coming back from a torn pectoral muscle suffered Oct. 27.

Allen has props of 219.5 passing yards and 36.5 rushing yards available at Caesars. My expectation is that we’ll see him surpass the rushing prop because he’s certainly capable of putting up a big gainer or two on a scramble and often calls his own number on designed runs.

Buffalo would be favored at home given the spread in this contest, which is a nod to its superior defense. The Bills ranked third in yards allowed and gave up just 16.2 points per game. The Texans were 1-5-1 ATS as a favorite while Buffalo has yet to not cover a rod game this season (6-0-2 ATS), winning six of their eight outright. Watson threw for 26 touchdowns and 3,852 yards, while DeAndre Hopkins finished with 1,165 receiving yards and seven touchdown passes. A prop on Hopkins going over 72.5 receiving yards is also attractive, as are any TD props involving tight end Jordan Akins.

Houston has won four of the last five meetings against the Bills, falling in Buffalo in 2015 but owning home victories in ’12, ’14 and most recently, last season. The Texans won 20-13 on Oct. 14, 2018, pulling away on a Jonathan Joseph pick-six of embattled former backup Nathan Peterman, who was in for Allen in the final quarter. Buffalo managed just 12 first downs and 229 total yards. Watson threw for just 177 yards and was picked off twice, but did hook up with Hopkins for a score.

The individual matchup between Hopkins and star Bills corner Tre’Davious White, a first-team All-Pro, should be this game’s most important. Houston’s x-factor will likely be RB Carlos Hyde, who will be tasked with keeping Watson and the offense in manageable passing situations as the workhorse. He topped the 100-yard mark in the big win in Tennessee in Week 15 that ultimately helped the Texans claim the division and will be key in keeping the Buffalo defense from being overly aggressive.

Wrapping up the AFC South entering Week 17 and being locked into the No. 4 seed allowed the Texans to rest starters last season, so they’re well-rested. While Watt is certain to play, O’Brien wasn’t as sure he’d have the services of No. 2 wide receiver Will Fuller, who really makes the Texans offense far more dynamic when he’s been able to play. ESPN Stats & Info reports Houston’s QBR with him in the lineup is 75.2 with him and 59.8 without him while the team’s third-down conversion rate is 51.9 percent when he’s out there and way down at 32.9 when he’s been unavailable. Fuller has dealt with hamstring issues and now a groin injury that has him listed as a game-time decision.

Corners Johnathan Joseph and Bradley Roby are questionable but should play. The Bills list DE Shaq Lawson, WR/KR Andre Roberts, RT Ty Nsekhe and CB Levi Wallace as questionable.

The ‘under’ went 12-4 in Bills games this season and favored the low side (9-7) in Houston games. For all “Total Talk” on Saturday’s AFC Wild Card games, read Chris David’s piece click here .

Tennessee at New England (-5, 44.5), 8:15 pm ET, CBS

A pair of Bill Belichick’s proteges may ultimately wind up teaming to end the Tom Brady era in New England with a thud few could’ve seen coming.

Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, who was one of Brady’s favorite teammates and won three Super Bowls with the Patriots over an eight-year span as a player before going into coaching upon his retirement a decade ago, will bring a team that has won five of their last seven games into Foxboro for a “Wild Card Weekend” date Belichick wanted no part of.

The six-time Super Bowl-winning coach just saw his Patriots fall to his most recent defensive coordinator, Brian Flores, who guided Miami to a stunning 27-24 upset at Gillette Stadium as a 17-point underdog. The talent disparity between both rosters dictated that the game should’ve never been close, yet the Dolphins led for most of Sunday afternoon before Tom Brady led a late rally that Ryan Fitzpatrick erased with one final flourish.

Instead of getting to rest up their ailing bodies while watching the Chiefs welcome in the scary-looking Titans, the Patriots fumbled away the AFC’s second seed and the bye that went along with it and will have to suit up against Tennessee to try and avoid elimination. A defense that had barely allowed 13 points per game suddenly looks vulnerable too since Miami receiver DeVante Parker dominated Stephon Gilmore, arguably the NFL’s top corner, to help seal New England’s demise.

The Titans not only have their passing game clicking behind Ryan Tannehill, who has teamed with rookie A.J. Brown to terrorize defenses over the past few weeks, they also can lean on NFL rushing leader Derrick Henry, who came back after taking a week off to rest a hamstring injury and ran for 211 yards and three scores in a dominant Week 17 win in Houston. The Texans didn’t play starters last week, but the Titans still answered the bell and come in looking sound on both sides of the ball in a must-win game. Tennessee ranks fourth in the NFL in 6.1 yards per play (6.1). Tannehill led the league averaging 9.59 yards per pass attempt and led the Titans to a 30.4 scoring average in his starts.

Beyond the fact that Vrabel played 17 playoff games under Belichick’s watch, giving him great insight to what he’s up against here, he’s also won the only meeting against his mentor as a head coach. The Patriots had won seven straight matchups with Tennessee prior to a 34-10 rout in Nashville on Nov. 11, 2018. Brady threw for 254 yards but failed to throw for a touchdown, while Henry ran for two scores and combined with backup Dion Lewis, a former Patriot, to run for 115 yards. Davis, who had a quiet injury-plagued ’19 regular season, caught seven passes for 125 yards. He’s healthy again.

Top receiver Julian Edelman finished with nine catches for 104 yards in that loss but has been limited to just 10 receptions over the past three weeks and has appeared hampered by a sore knee. There are also physical limitations to worry about as far as Brady is concerned. Although he’s ignored questions about what looks to be pretty obvious elbow discomfort, Brady has been noticeably flapping his arm and jogging in place to stay loose on the sideline.

Midseason acquisition Mohamed Sanu hasn’t had the impact the team expected and rookies N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers are about to learn that playoff football ramps up the intensity to another level. New England scored over 30 points only once over its last nine games, though it did average 27.3 over its past three games.

Brady threw for 4,057 yards in his 20th season but threw for just one 300-yard game since mid-October. He threw for one or fewer touchdowns in half his games. Brady’s completion percentage (60.8%) was its lowest since ’13 and his passer rating ranked 27th in the regular season (88.0), its lowest since he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the ‘08 opener. I’d back the ‘under’ on a passing yards (257.5) prop featuring the legend.

Despite the fact most bettors are likely to tie their fortunes to Brady’s right arm for at least one last time in a home playoff game that might his last as a Patriot, oddsmakers didn’t even set the opening line at six or more points in the matchup against the No. 6 seed. The Westgate Superbook installed the Patriots as a 5.5-point favorite, but that figure was bet down to 4.5 points before climbing back up.

Tannehill is 0-6 in his career at Gillette Stadium, playing victim in New England’s dominance over the Dolphins, so it’s ironic that a Miami win made Foxborough the setting for his first career playoff start instead of Kansas City. While Patrick Mahomes is still feeling his way out through this playoff thing, the 42-year-old Brady will be making his 41st postseason start. Opposing Vrabel in his first playoff game as head coach is Belichick, who is 31-11 in his career (22-19-1 ATS).

Tennessee topped 400 yards six times this season for the first time since 1991. They finished with 5,805 yards of net offense, fourth-highest in team history. Most of New England’s injury-related question marks entering this game lie on the defensive end with CB Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones, safety Terrance Brooks and linebackers Jamie Collins and Ja’Whuan Bentley all listed as ‘questionable.’ Edelman will also don that tag but should play. The Titans list WR Adam Humphries as out but will have tackle Adoree Jackson and tackle Jack Conklin in the mix. Backup WRs Kalif Raymond and Cody Hollister, as is safety Dane Cruikshank due to illness.

Road teams are 8-0 against the spread over the past two seasons on “Wild Card Weekend,” winning outright five times. Be aware that the forecast calls for a wet, windy night. Temperatures should reside in the 40s and scattered showers are expected throughout.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA or e-mail him at [email protected]

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