The Playoffs are here! The Playoffs are here! It is a fantastic time in the NFL, and if you’re as big a fan as I am, you know the season always flies by. But, now we get to see the 12 best teams in the league fight it out for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. It starts on Wild Card Weekend, where teams are ready to take the first step toward a title. Before I get to my Wild Card picks, I want to run you through my playoff predictions all the way through, and then I will get into the details of this weekend. Off we go.
(5) Raiders over (4) Texans***
(3) Seahawks over (6) Lions
(3) Steelers over (6) Dolphins
(4) Packers over (5) Giants***
A couple notes. First off, it always seems like a road team will win on the first weekend of the playoffs, and I can see two of them pulling it off. One is Oakland, and the other is the Giants. Why? Because of their red hot defense. Honestly, I have the Giant/Packer winner winning at least two games in the playoffs. It’s the hardest game to pick for me.
(2) Falcons over (3) Seahawks
(1) Patriots over (5) Raiders
(2) Chiefs over (3) Steelers
(4) Packers over (1) Cowboys
Mostly chalk here, except for the Packers over Dallas. The rookies are going to have a tough time with the postseason pressure. (I would have the Giants over Dallas here as well if they win)
(1) Patriots over (2) Chiefs
(2) Falcons over (4) Packers
Hard to see someone knocking off the Pats, and the Falcons will be too tough to stop for Green Bay.
Super Bowl LI
(1) Patriots over (2) Falcons
The Pats are primed for a fifth Lombardi trophy in the Belichick era.
Now, for the Wild Card analysis.
Raiders at Texans
Nobody has had worse luck than the Raiders over the final two weeks of the season. They lost MVP candidate Derek Carr to a broken fibula, then backup Matt McGloin hurt his shoulder against Denver. Now, Connor Cook gets the reins against a very good Texans defense. Even without JJ Watt, the Texans still have lots of talent on this defense. Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney have been outstanding up front, and AJ Bouye has emerged as a great cover guy in the secondary. The only hope for the Raiders in this game is to protect their quarterback and give him a run game. The good news? The Raiders offensive line has allowed the lowest sack total this season. The bad news? Left tackle Donald Penn is out this weekend. This could open things up for the Texans to unleash their deadly edge rushers. But, if Oakland can get the run game going and give Cook easy reads, his weapons on the outside will make plays. The Texans also come in with a quarterback situation. Brock Osweiler was benched in favor of Tom Savage, but then a concussion put Osweiler back in the saddle. Now, Osweiler gets to prove that he belongs as a starter. The key for Houston is to run the ball and get pressure off of Brock. If they don’t run it successfully, Oakland will pressure Osweiler into bad throws. This game can be real close.
Key Players: RB Jalen Richard (OAK), DE Whitney Mercilus (HOU)
The Pick: Raiders 20, Texans 17
Lions at Seahawks
This game features a matchup of quarterbacks who have flat out carried their teams at times. Russell Wilson has had to move Seattle’s offense with a roller coaster of an offensive line and an awful running game. How awful? Christine Michael, who is playing in Green Bay now, is still their leading rusher. You don’t like to hear stats like that if you are a Hawks fan. The good news is that they are facing a Lions team that, at times, felt like Stafford was the only player who could make plays. Who has the edge here? Well, we know Seattle has the home field advantage effect in play. Elsewhere? Both of these offensive lines haven’t been great, but in terms of the running game, the Lions have succeeded more recently. Zach Zenner, Detroit’s third back, has found holes and brought balance to this Lions offense. The inconsistency in Seattle frightens me. They nearly lost to San Francisco last week. But, Seattle won’t be afraid of Stafford and company through the air. The weapons outside, Golden Tate and Marvin Jones, will be given headaches matched up with Sherman, Shead, and Lane. Tate is a great route runner, and Jones is a solid deep threat. The Lions will take chances down the field, so it could be up to Steven Terrell, the Earl Thomas replacement, to hold his own back there. If Detroit hits a home run ball, the game will get more interesting. But, Detroit’s defense has Darius Slay in the secondary and no one else. Slay looked hurt against Green Bay last Sunday, so Doug Baldwin might have his way with their secondary. The Lions must get pressure on Wilson to get off the field.
Key Players: DEs Frank Clark/Cliff Avril (SEA), DL Kerry Hyder (DET)
The Pick: Seahawks 24, Lions 16
Dolphins at Steelers
In a battle of premier running backs, the Dolphins travel to chilly Pittsburgh in what is a fascinating matchup. The Steelers enter the playoffs with the Killer B’s all healthy for the first time. Bell hasn’t been able to play with this group because of late season injuries the past couple seasons. Antonio Brown got hurt in the Wild Card round last season, and now, they are all healthy and very dangerous. They are up against a Miami team that was left for dead midseason, but rattled off 9 of 11 games for a playoff berth. Adam Gase has made the Dolphins a solid group, and made Tannehill a viable starter in this league, even though he won’t be available. Matt Moore gets the start, and he has been effective in his starts this season. He will need to rely on the run game to open up this offense. Moving Laremy Tunsil inside to guard has improved the run game, and the Steelers might have their hands full there. But, Matt Moore does like to take shots downfield, where the Steelers can take advantage and force turnovers. On the other side, the Steelers will have to deal with comeback player of the year candidate Cameron Wake off the edge and Ndamukong Suh in the middle. Those two will need to get pressure on Big Ben and plug up holes in the run game. The Steelers need to feed Bell as much as possible, and shorten the field on key third downs. Antonio Brown needs to be in the thick of this game, because if he disappears, there aren’t many weapons that can stretch the field (Ladarius Green is out). I think the Steelers will be too overpowering.
Key Players: WR Jarvis Landry (MIA), LB Ryan Shazier (PIT)
The Pick: Steelers 27, Dolphins 20
Giants at Packers
A matchup of strength on strength, the Packers offense and the Giants defense have been red hot down the stretch. Aaron Rodgers has thrown 18 TDs and no picks in his last seven games, while the Giants defense has been dominant throughout November and December, coming to a peak with their 10-7 win over the Cowboys. In their other meeting this season, the Packers dominated the Giants’ offense, and a garbage touchdown late made the 23-16 score look a little better. Things have changed since then. The Giants have more of a running game with Paul Perkins this time around, and Eli always seems to have some magic in the playoffs. Their offense will find some traction, especially against a porous Packers secondary. The injuries keep piling up at corner, so the Packers desperately need good games from Ladarius Gunter and Damarious Randall. But, on the other hand, Rodgers didn’t play too well against the Giants defense last time around, and he has been white hot of late. The Giants corners have all the pressure. One, because of a very solid Packers offensive line that can key in on guys like Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison. The Giants won’t have JPP or his backup, Owa Odighizuwa, playing in this game. So, the corners will have to stay with their man when Aaron Rodgers leaves the pocket, where he is extremely dangerous. This game will be the best of the weekend, and will be right down to the wire, but I’ll take the red hot QB. (Note: I can easily see the Giants pulling this out as well. This might be the toughest game to predict in the entire playoffs this season.)
Key Players: TE Jared Cook/WR Geronimo Allison (GB), RB Paul Perkins/CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (NYG)
The Pick: Packers 24, Giants 17
Enjoy Wild Card Weekend everybody!