After a rather anti-climactic end to the 2016 NFL playoff race, the league is potentially looking at one of the more intriguing playoff series in recent memory. While fans unfortunately will have to contend with a slew of backup quarterbacks like Connor Cook, Brock Osweiler, and Matt Moore, the league’s usual headliners are all playing well and look poised to swipe another ring. Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Aaron Rodgers have all been here before and are getting hot at the right time, while newcomers like Dak Prescott and Matt Ryan are looking to make a name for themselves. The lower seeds may look weak, but the top teams look as strong as any past Super Bowl winner.
Unfortunately, this week’s Wild Card games feature the former and fans will have to suffer through teams playing with backups at QB (Houston, Oakland, Miami) and teams that are limping into the playoffs (Detroit, Seattle). Keep in mind, though, that last year all four road teams won in the Wild Card round. That doesn’t appear to be where the smart money is this year, with both Pittsburgh and Seattle hosting games, but a single road win can spark a team to get hot and make a late run. It may be tempting to sit this week out and do some chores instead, perhaps shovel some snow, but this week’s games have enough interesting storylines to merit some sort of attention.
5 Oakland (12-4) at 4 Houston (9-7)
Actually, never mind- it’s probably OK to sleep in and miss this one.
Maybe this year Roger Goodell should have limited the playoffs to just four teams per conference, because then America wouldn’t be subjected to the first ever Cook-Osweiler Bowl. This game is going to be ugly. Connor Cook comes in as a third-string rookie who is being forced into duty after Matt McGloin hurt his shoulder last week, and Osweiler comes in as a player who was benched in favor of a QB that failed to throw a TD in two and a half games.
In addition to subpar QB play, this game will also feature a number of high-level receivers that throughout the game will repeatedly look up and curse the football gods for forcing them to put up with such inadequate QBs. Look for Texans wideout DeAndre Hopkins to be underthrown at least 4 different times and for Raiders receiver Amari Cooper to be ejected mid-game for putting Stick-um on his legs after Connor Cook keeps throwing too low.
The real losers in this game, however, are the running backs who combined will probably rush for a record number of attempts.
PREDICTED SCORE: Houston 10 Oakland 15
- Ultimately the Raider’s three-headed RB combo of Murray-Washington-Richard will outlast Houston’s Miller and Blue in what will be the NFL’s shortest game ever. No fewer than three interceptions will be thrown and the lone TD will be a pick-six. Get ready for a lot of punts, although that might not be so bad…
6 Detroit (9-7) at 3 Seattle (10-5-1)
The Golden Tate Bowl! While Seattle in past years has been the crown jewel of the NFC, this game also promises to be another disappointment. Both teams enter this matchup 3-3 in their last 6 games, and feature offenses led by big name QB’s surrounded by practice squad-level playmakers. No offense (pun intended) to Thomas Rawls, Zach Zenner, Marvin Jones, and Jermaine Kearse, but there isn’t a soul on either roster that can get a defensive coordinator’s heart pumping.
Defensively, both defenses have been solid this year and ranked in the top half of the league. The Lions pass rusher should be able to feast on a banged up and struggling Seattle O-line, while the Seattle secondary should be able to wreak havoc on the Lions’ passing game. One interesting figure for the Seahawks moving forward: Seattle ranked 5th in pass defense before the injury to Safety Earl Thomas, and they have since ranked 30th. While it won’t hurt them this game, it will definitely hurt them in a matchup with the Falcons’ dynamic passing attack.
PREDICTION: Seattle 31 Detroit 10
- The game will not be as close as the score suggests. Pete Carroll has never lost a playoff game at home, and the Lions have never won a playoff road game in the Super Bowl era. Surely the loss of Earl Thomas will hurt the Seahawks going forward, but ultimately their abysmal offense is better than Detroit’s abysmal offense. Expect Russell Wilson to rush for two TD’s and for both team’s kickers, Matt Prater and Steven Hauschka, to attempt a combined 10 field goals.
6 Miami (10-6) at 3 Pittsburgh (11-5)
Miami trounced Pittsburgh 30-15 in their Week 6 meeting, but this matchup has a much different feel to it. Ryan Tannehill is expected to be out, and the Killer B’s (Big Ben, Brown, Bell) are rolling, just ask any fantasy football player. In Week 6 Jay Ajayi was also able to bust out 204 yards on the ground, something he probably won’t replicate again. The Steeler’s D may be down, but there’s no way that they’re going to get run over at home in the playoffs, right?
An upset is not outside the realm of possibility, though it is unlikely. According to SI the Steelers have the second worst passing attack in the league against the blitz, and Miami blitzes at the second highest rate out of playoff teams led by pass rushers Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake. Unfortunately, Miami’s run defense is 3rd worst in the league, which should lead to a beastly day from Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell. Still, Adam Gase has proven to be a crafty coach and Matt Moore was able to lead the Dolphins to two huge road wins at the end of the year in playoff-like conditions.
PREDICTION: Pittsburgh 35 Miami 27
- It will be a shootout for sure but ultimately Big Ben will outduel Matt Moore in the fourth quarter. Both Running Backs should have huge days. Look for Dolphins WR Jarvis Landry to invite his former teammate Odell Beckham Jr. back to Miami after the game.
5 New York Giants (11-5) at 4 Green Bay (10-6)
Finally, the game people want to see! This game will feature an enticing matchup between bonified stud QB and discount double-checker Aaron Rodgers and a Giants secondary that has made mince-meat out of QBs lately thanks to the play of pick-leader Landon Collins, DRC, Eli Apple, and Janoris Jenkins who should be back this week.
Outside of this strength vs. strength matchup, both teams have glaring holes. Neither team has proven to have an effective running game and will trot out no-namers like Paul Perkins and Ty Montgomery to keep defenses from constantly blitzing their star QBs. While both team feature elite wideouts like Jordy Nelson and Odell Beckham, the former has had injury problems and the latter has had problems with consistency and avoiding 3 hour flights to Miami.
PREDICTION: New York 24 Green Bay 21
- It all comes down to defense, and the Giants boast the number one red zone defense while the Packers have a very banged up secondary. Playoff legend Eli Manning should be able to exploit that and the Packers will struggle to score in the red zone since they lack a true running back or pass-catching Tight End. It’s hard to pick against Rodgers, but the Packers have too many holes and it is Eli Manning season.
1 New England (14-2)
- The clear Super Bowl favorite, the question will be whether they can establish a running game early so that they can utilize LeGarrette Blount in the red zone.
2 Kansas City (12-4)
- This Chiefs team is different than in years past now that they have true playmakers in Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and Spencer Ware. It will all come down to Alex Smith.
1 Dallas (13-3)
- They’re led by two rookies but haven’t played like it all year, and nobody should expect them to now. The offensive line will keep them in games no matter what happens.
2 Atlanta (11-5)
- The number one offense in the league has some clamoring for Matt Ryan to be given the MVP, and for good reason. He needs a good playoff run to show that he is an elite QB (see: Joe Flacco 2012).