It’s hard to believe we’re in YEAR FIVE of making NFL postseason predictions!
These predictions predate the inclusion of the other writers on our staff, but ya boy is more than happy to remind you of his fresh 12-4 record picking Wildcard games over that time frame (you’re highly encouraged to inspect the site if you’re skeptical of this claim).
So what do you need to know about Wildcard Weekend 2017?
We have the details below, but let’s start here: Several of these teams are walking in the playoffs hot or cold (primarily due to QB uncertainty). Also, upsets aren’t uncommon Wildcard Weekend. Last year, we saw Pittsburgh topple Cincinnati. Two years ago, Baltimore knocked off Pittsburgh (we had that one). The year prior, the Chargers and Saints won in Cincy and Philly respectively. So which team(s) winning/losing streaks are legit? And which underdog(s) are primed to shock the world?
Oakland Raiders (#5) at Houston Texans (#4) (-3.5)
The least fun game of Wildcard weekend always airs first on Saturday…and here we are.
This game isn’t fun. It isn’t even fun to write about. In fact, we’re throwing this game out of the “upset” conversation. We’re also throwing out their November 21 meeting out of the equation.
The Oakland Raiders got screwed. Flat out. Maybe it’s karma for the rampant speculation of the team moving (pause) well anywhere. Maybe it’s karma for a jillion years of Al Davis. Maybe it’s karma for Jack Tatum. Maybe it’s karma for just being the Raiders. Whatever the case, the injury to Derek Carr sucks for the team, their fans (especially) and football fans everywhere.
The Raiders now must turn to either a less than 100% Matt McGloin, or a wet behind the ears Connor Cook to quarterback their 12-4 team to a Super Bowl. And guess what? It ain’t happenin’!
Sidebar: Maybe Jack Del Rio can call up Steph Curry. It’s not like he’s not busy leading any other team these days.
Oakland was first or second in the AFC most of the year, but after collapsing under the weight of McGloinCook last Sunday, they plummeted to the fifth seed. The plug was pulled on the high-powered Oakland offense, scoring only six points in Denver. Granted, it was in Denver. But the Texans defense is pretty stout, even without J.J. Watt.
Houston is especially tough on opposing passers, ranking second and ninth in passing yards allowed and opposing QB rating. Quietly, the Raiders ranked second in the NFL in takeaways and led the league in turnover differential, but their defense overall is average at best. If Tom Savage (or Brock Osweiler) can protect the rock and prevent Kahlil Mack for J.J. Watting this game, Houston should prevail and cover at home.
A wasted season for a team that was actually a year ahead of schedule; the Raiders with Carr would mop this team. But Houston is without their best player too.
Detroit Lions (#6) at Seattle Seahawks (#3) (-8)
The Lions and Seahawks are two of the harder teams to understand.
The Lions appeared to be up shit creek when Calvin Johnson retired. But Matthew Stafford shocked, well most of us, by putting together his finest season as a pro, much of it with an injury to his throwing hand. Matty Staff (just trying it out) engineered eight game-winning drives, as Detroit won six of eight at home and almost won the division for the first time in 26 years.
On the flip side, they dropped five of eight on the road. They actually had to pull eight games out of their ass at the end, and the only team they beat all year that finished with a winning record was the Washington Redskins, who missed the postseason. Even more troubling, Detroit dropped three straight to end the season, allowing the Packers to chase them down in the standings, and now have to schlep up to Seattle.
The Seahawks were a popular preseason NFC Super Bowl pick, but got off to a slow start thanks to substandard o-line play and an injury to Russell Wilson. Seattle’s inconstant play for much of the year has been staggering, but much like an AFC team we’re about to preview, their struggles have been almost exclusively on the road. Since Seattle is at home Saturday, we’ll dive more into that next week.
Aside from a general grittiness, there isn’t a ton to like about the Lions at this point. They’ve overachieved, and now are face the near impossible task of backing into the postseason and winning a playoff game in the almost-dome that is CenturyLink Field. Detroit will cover, but the Seahawks will slip past them and advance to Atlanta.
Miami Dolphins (#6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (#3) (-10)
At the risk of coming off like a complete homer/hater, yours truly took the road less traveled and banged on the Pittsburgh Steelers all year, beginning by picking them to miss the playoffs. Of course, ya boy got this one wrong; the Steelers went 11-5, winning the AFC North in the process. The Steelers are also winners of seven straight, making them (along with the Patriots) the hottest team entering the playoffs, and are home to the warm-weather acclimated Miami Dolphins on Saturday.
Pittsburgh is poised for another Super Bowl run, right? Well…
The Steelers win streak comes immediately following a four-game losing streak that nearly derailed their season. That losing streak told us far more about this team than the winning streak did, given the competition faced. Three of the four L’s came to playoff teams, with the fourth coming to the Ravens, who spent much of 2016 in first place in the AFC North. While Ben Roethlisberger was injured in the first game of this stretch, a bye week serendipitously fell in the middle of the four games, allowing Ben to only miss one Sunday.
The good fortune continued as Pittsburgh’s win streak began with a Week 11 game against the lowly Browns (the streak was actually bookended by wins over Cleveland), followed by a Thanksgiving night game against the Colts minus Andrew Luck. That schedule break saved their season.
Similarly, the Dolphins started slow and ended hot. Things looked bleak for Adam Gase’s group after a 1-4 start. But starting with a win — against Pittsburgh — Miami found the winning formula and ripped of six straight and nine of 11 to end the year (it’s worth noting Miami’s comp wasn’t exactly murderers row either). The biggest reason for the turnaround: Jay Ajayi.
Fantasy football’s breakout star, the second-year running back proved to be a game-changer in real football as well, rushing for over 200 yards in a game three times this year, including the Steelers game. When the Dolphins feed their bell cow back at least 17 times, Miami is 8-0. While the Steelers run defense improved during the back half of 2016, they did give up 152 yards to Isaiah Crowell in Week 17 (while playing most of their defensive starters). MIA will need to get off to a good start to allow the J-Train to punish Pittsburgh.
We all know about the brilliance of Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger, but the biggest factor the Steel City has in its favor is playing at home (on that green-painted dirt they call a football field). Beyond its obvious benefits, Big Ben has been so inconsistent in home vs. road games, his new nickname should be Harvey Dent. In 2014, 2015 and 2016, Dent’s passer rating dips by 23.8, 16.4 and 38.3 (!!!) points respectively in road tilts. In short, he’s not the same dude, but he’s playing at home on Sunday.
Harvey could easily slip his silver dollar back into his pocket and go nuts on Miami, but a revamped Dolphins o-line that has been the story much of 2016 will prove to be the difference. Miami is a warm weather team that plays like a cold weather team, Pittsburgh is the opposite; the forecast Sunday calls for a high of 27 degrees. Oh, and no one should be convinced Ryan Tannehill is better than Matt Moore.
We’re always good for at least one upset on Wildcard Weekend, right?
New York Giants (#5) at Green Bay Packers (#4) (-4)
This game opened with the Pack as a 7.5 point favorite, but the line is now down to -4; it should continue to drop.
For further historical context, their Sunday Nighter earlier this season was an entertaining contest. And who could forget this thriller in East Rutherford? (This game started with a long TD from Eli to Beckum…Travis Beckum.) It seems like anytime these two teams hook up and Scott Tolzien isn’t involved, it’s a great game!
Here’s three key traits we’ve observed from each of the New York Giants’ last two Super Bowl runs in 2007 and 2011:
• New York had to win at least two road game just to make the Super Bowl.
• The Giants recipe for success was comprised of Eli Manning getting the ball to dynamic wide receivers, and a rugged and opportunistic defense making life hell for the opposing QB.
• The Giants came in hot (won three of their last four in 2011; won three of their final five in 2007, including playing the undefeated Patriots to the wire in the final game of the season).
All of those things are again true about the 2016 Giants. After losing in Green Bay 23-16 on October 9, the Giants ripped off six straight wins and finished the year 9-2 in their final 11 games. It was at this point the G-Men turned the corner defensively, ranking near the top of the NFL in several defensive categories from Week 6 on.
New York is also battle tested— the only gimmes on their schedule were games against Cleveland and Chicago. The rest were either playoff teams, or teams that missed the postseason but were decent (Minnesota, Baltimore, New Orleans, Washington & Philly twice, etc.) They’re also THE ONLY TEAM to knock off the Dallas Cowboys this year when Dallas played its starters (save the Romo jokes), and they did it TWICE. This Giants team is for real. And for all the crap I’ve given him, in road and neutral site playoff games Eli Manning is 7-1 in his career.
All that said, what we have here is the hottest defense in the league squaring off against the hottest quarterback in the league.
If you’re one of the people who doubted Aaron Rodgers midseason, you’re a dope. And you know it. Since an ass-ugly 47-25 loss to Tennessee on November 13, Rodgers has been nothing short of superlative. Over the next seven games, he’s been responsible for 19 touchdowns (one rushing) against ZERO interceptions. AR’s passer rating met or exceed 115.0 five times, while his QBR exceeded 80 five times (for the football novice: Matt Ryan led the NFL in passer rating in 2016 at 117.1 and QBR at 83.4).
Rodgers is at least near great almost always; the difference in the second half of the year was the improved play of his weaponry. Jordy Nelson, quietly the most slept on great player in the NFL, had a spectacular season coming back from an ACL tear. Aside from a dud in Chicago, Davante Adams stepped up his game. Ty Montgomery was given the running back job full time and, well, he ran with it. And the Green Bay defense began forcing turnovers. They’ll have to make Eli give the ball up once or twice (and hold down the electric Odell Beckham) to outlast a New York team swimming in confidence.
The Pack had to win three road games to make the Super Bowl six years ago. At that time, on a little known but highly entertaining and award-winning radio show, I told the great Adam Clark that the winner of the Packers/Eagles Wildcard game would represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. I feel the same way about this Packers/Giants game. And I have the same team winning this weekend that I did six years ago…
Kenneth’s picks: Texans, Seahawks, Dolphins, Giants
Anthony’s picks: Texans, Seahawks, Steelers, Packers