The NFL postseason kicks off this Saturday with an action packed four-game weekend, beginning with the Texans hosting the Raiders at 4:30 p.m. ET. There’s plenty to talk about with the four Wild Card games, so let’s get right to it.
WILD CARD ROUND
Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans (Sat. 1/7, 4:30 ET, ESPN/ABC)
Both of these teams enter the postseason with very questionable quarterback situations. Oakland plans to start rookie Connor Cook, who has thrown just 21 NFL passes, all last week in Denver. In fact, he would become the first quarterback ever to make his first NFL start in a playoff game. Houston, on the other hand, will likely turn back to Brock Osweiler, who had previously been replaced by Tom Savage until Savage suffered a concussion last week. For lack of better words, Osweiler has been atrocious this year after being handed a lucrative $72 million contract. During the regular season, the Raiders were a far better team than the Texans. While Oakland finished sixth in the NFL in points scored, Houston scored the second fewest touchdowns in the league (24). That is historically inept for a playoff team; no playoff team since the merger has ever scored fewer touchdowns in the regular season. However, the Texans do have one point in their favor. Oakland’s success this season has been largely tied to MVP candidate Derek Carr’s performance, whereas Houston has won with terrible quarterback play all year. Without Carr, it’s anyone’s guess how the team will respond. Both teams can be expected to run the ball heavily. In addition, both teams possess an elite pass rusher, Khalil Mack for the Raiders and Jadeveon Clowney for the Texans. This game could very well come down to which team runs the ball more effectively and how often Mack and Clowney can pressure the opposing quarterback. Despite all the uncertainly surrounding the Raiders, I’m picking them to win this game in a tight, low-scoring affair. With Houston’s unsightly (-49) point differential for the season, they don’t belong in the postseason at all, and I just can’t trust them to even beat a team who is missing their most important player.
Detroit Lions at Seattle Seahawks (Sat. 1/7, 8:15 ET, NBC)
This is another matchup that looks slightly less appealing than it would have earlier in the year. Detroit began the season 9-4, with Matthew Stafford playing some of the best football of his career. However, they stumbled into the playoffs by losing their last three games, albeit all against playoff teams. Meanwhile, the Seahawks have problems of their own. They still finished third in the NFL in fewest points allowed, but the defense has regressed since Earl Thomas’ season-ending injury in Week 13. In addition, the rushing attack which has been such an integral part of Seattle’s success for the last half-decade has taken a big step back this year. While Thomas Rawls did an outstanding job filling in for the injured Marshawn Lynch last year, a fractured fibula earlier in the year limited him to just nine games and he has averaged a pedestrian 3.2 yards per carry, down nearly 2.5 yards from last year. With that being said, the Lions don’t have the greatest running game either, and their offense has scuffled of late. Like the Raiders-Texans game, I expect this one to be close, but I think Seattle pulls it out. CenturyLink Field is possibly the toughest place for visiting teams to win, and despite the issues they’re facing, Seattle was still 7-1 at home. One more caveat to this matchup – the Lions have not beaten a playoff team all year.
Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers (Sun. 1/8, 1:05 ET, CBS)
The Dolphins are yet another playoff team who will in all likelihood be playing without their starting quarterback, Ryan Tannehill. With veteran backup Matt Moore slated to play in his stead, Miami will rely heavily on breakout star running back Jay Ajayi, who became the fourth player to rush for 200 yards three times in one season. Pittsburgh has plenty of weapons to match up with Ajayi, led by the outstanding offensive trio of Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, and Ben Roethlisberger. Although the Dolphins enter the postseason as one of the league’s hottest teams, winning nine of their last eleven contests, they were a decidedly middle-of-the-pack team in terms of points for and against and had a negative point differential for the season. This is the only Wild Card Round game that I don’t think will be very close. As good as Miami has played in the latter half of the season, Pittsburgh has been even better, currently riding a ten-game winning streak following a rocky start. Their defense has been much better in the second half and the Dolphins’ offense is no match for the firepower provided by Brown, Bell, and Roethlisberger. If there’s a silver lining for the Dolphins, it’s that they did beat Pittsburgh in Week 6 by a score of 30-15. But for that to happen, it will probably take another 200-yard outing from Ajayi, and the Steelers will be sure to make stopping him their main focus.
New York Giants at Green Bay Packers (Sun. 1/8, 4:40 ET, FOX)
The Packers have won their last six games, and Aaron Rodgers is playing as well as any quarterback in the league. Green Bay is always tough to beat at home, but the Giants have a recent history of winning at Lambeau Field in the playoffs. New York has a legitimate championship defense that really turned it on in the second half of the season. But while their defense has been incredible, their offense has disappeared. The Giants have gone five games without scoring 20 points, which is not an encouraging way to enter the postseason. While the Packers’ defense has been wildly inconsistent throughout the year, they’ve been much better at home. The Giants have a terrible running game and Eli Manning is a turnover-prone quarterback, so unless Odell Beckham Jr. can break off a couple of big plays, the burden once again falls on the defense. Pro Bowlers Landon Collins and Janoris Jenkins will be especially counted upon in the secondary, as well as New York’s excellent pass rush. The success of Green Bay’s offense is tied completely to Rodgers, since they too have one of the league’s least intimidating rushing attacks. Because the Giants defense is so stellar, they have a chance to win any game against any team, but I like the Packers’ chances here, because Rodgers has been too good lately and I don’t think New York’s offense will be able to keep up. The Giants have only won three games this year by more than one score and only one by more than 11 points, which came against the woeful Cleveland Browns.
TBD at Atlanta Falcons (Sat. 1/14, 4:35 ET, FOX)
The Falcons finished the regular season with the NFL’s best offense by a wide margin (33.8 points per game) and they sure are fun to watch. Matt Ryan may win the MVP award, averaging a league-best 9.3 yards per pass attempt, a number only a handful of players have reached in the last 40 years. Atlanta also possesses one of the game’s best wide receivers in Julio Jones and a two-headed monster backfield of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Although they often win or lose on the heels of their offense, Atlanta’s defense and pass rush in particular have improved throughout the season. The Falcons will be a tough opponent for anyone in the NFC to beat, since they have far fewer flaws than any of their potential Divisional Round opponents.
TBD at New England Patriots (Sat. 1/14. 8:15 ET, CBS)
Since New England will face off against the lowest remaining AFC seed, they won’t play the Steelers in the Divisional Round, and that means they will almost definitely play a team led by a backup quarterback. It’s hard to believe any of those passers will match up well against Tom Brady, who was nearly perfect in twelve games this year, throwing 28 touchdown passes versus just two interceptions and compiling a 112.2 quarterback rating. But the Pats aren’t just a one-dimensional team. LeGarrette Blount rushed for a league leading 18 touchdowns and is one of the game’s best short yardage and goal line backs. In addition to having the NFL’s third best offense in terms of points per game, New England’s defense gave up the fewest total points for the season. Whoever they face, the Patriots could very well cruise to the AFC Championship Game with a victory of at least three touchdowns.
TBD at Kansas City Chiefs (Sun. 1/15. 1:05, NBC)
The Chiefs are an old school type of a team, built around a strong defense, an explosive running game, and a conservative but effective passing attack. Kansas City’s defense generated the most takeaways for the season and tied with Oakland for the best turnover ratio. If their opponent makes any mistakes and gives the Chiefs an opening, it will spell disaster. Even more daunting is that when opposing teams have been able to score against them, Kansas City has shown an ability to open up their offense more and keep up. The Steelers would likely give the Chiefs the toughest matchup, but I envision K.C. to be one of the few teams that could limit Pittsburgh’s high-powered offense, even though they fell to the Steelers 43-14 in embarrassing fashion in Week 4.
TBD at Dallas Cowboys (Sun. 1/15, 4:40 ET, FOX)
The NFC’s top seed is among the most complete teams in the NFL, but a number of close games in past couple of months have shown that Dallas is not invincible. If my Wild Card predictions turn out correct, the Cowboys would be matched up against the Packers, who lost to Dallas earlier in the year, but have a good enough passing game to compete. Otherwise, it’s possible that Dallas hosts the Giants, whom they have already lost to twice. A lot will depend on whether their opponent can contain Ezekiel Elliott and how well Dak Prescott will handle the pressure of his first playoff start for a franchise that is starved for a deep playoff run. If he struggles in the first half and the Cowboys fall behind by multiple scores, it wouldn’t surprise me if they turned to Tony Romo to change things up. However, I like Dallas’ chances of advancing past their first playoff game.
This year’s postseason should be intriguing because there is no team that stands out as the clear-cut favorite. With that being said, we could very well see all four teams who have a first-round bye advance to their respective conference championship games. Most of the other teams in the field are flawed in some way, while the top seeds are much more complete in all aspects of the game.
Should that happen, my early prediction is a Falcons/Chiefs Super Bowl. I think Atlanta would beat Dallas, or any other NFC team for that matter, since their offense has been so superior to the rest of the league. Going with the Chiefs is a tough call, but I do think they could come up with the right formula to upset New England should those two meet. Teams that have beaten the Patriots in the past have done so with good ball control and by pressuring Tom Brady, two of the hallmarks of Kansas City’s success. Between Atlanta and Kansas City, it’s the Falcons who I see coming out on top of that matchup, which makes them my early pick for Super Bowl champions.
In any event, expect the majority of the matchups, including those this upcoming weekend, to be thrilling, tightly-contested games. Many of the NFL’s top teams this year have not been to a Super Bowl in a long time, so it should be an exciting road to Super Bowl LI on February 5th.