WILDCARD WEEKEND: Playoff football has finally arrived, as we’re now just days away from a Wild Card Weekend that will feature four Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks and several compelling storylines.
Though every team playing this weekend would surely rather have a bye, we’ve seen ten teams in the last 17 years advance to the Super Bowl without the luxury of an off week, and with the sort of difficulties that the top seeds are facing this season— injuries in the case of New England, experience for Dallas— the playoff landscape feels as wide-open as ever. Would it really surprise anyone if a battle-hardened team like Seattle or Green Bay was able to sneak by the defensively-challenged Falcons, or a Cowboys team that starts a rookie at quarterback? And in the AFC, I’m quite sure that nobody is eager to face the Steelers, who have won 7 games in a row behind the NFL’s most versatile offense.
This year’s “just happy to be here” list includes Houston, Miami, and Oakland. Unfortunately for us, two of those teams— Houston and Oakland— will be playing each other in a game that could turn out to be about as entertaining (and consequential) as a late-August preseason clash. This isn’t the way it was supposed to turn out for a Raiders team that looked like a genuine contender three weeks ago, but their season was shattered right along with Derek Carr’s leg and we now have to watch them in their death throes. Rest easy, Raider Nation, it’ll all be over soon…
Here are a few thoughts on this week’s action:
Oakland Raiders @ Houston Texans (Hou -3.5, 36.5)
Recommendation: Houston -3.5 at 1.91
Derek Carr’s injury may have sucked the juice out of this game (and Oakland’s season), but that’s not Houston’s problem. The Texans saw enough of Carr when he torched them for 295 yards and 3 TDs in a 27-20 Raiders win back in Week 11, so I’m sure they’re not crying any tears over his unfortunate situation. They’ve got quarterback issues of their own, anyway— Brock Osweiler was benched due to ineffectiveness a couple of weeks ago, but a concussion sustained by his replacement Tom Savage now leaves Osweiler back in the driver’s seat. He’ll be helped by the return of tailback Lamar Miller, who had two weeks to rest his sore ankle and has said publicly that he’s as healthy as he’s been since training camp.
Osweiler will also have the luxury of facing the generous Oakland defense, a unit that surrendered 20 points or more in 13 of the team’s 16 games this season and finished the year ranked 26th in total yards allowed. His counterpart on Saturday, Oakland’s Connor Cook, will have no such luxury. Cook, a rookie from Michigan State, was forced into action in the 2nd quarter of last week’s game in Denver when second-stringer Matt McGloin injured his shoulder. He didn’t inspire much confidence in leading a suddenly inept Raiders offense to a mere 6 points in a blowout loss, and now he get the first start of his career— a road playoff game against a team that led the NFL in total defense.
That’s right, despite losing the irreplaceable J.J.Watt early in the season, the Texans allowed fewer total yards than any team in the league in 2016, and they ranked second against the pass. In other words, this is a nightmare situation for Cook and the Raiders; I’ll be legitimately surprised if they exceed 250 yards of total offense. And they don’t have the type of defense that can be relied upon to shut down the opposition, even when that opposition is decidedly mediocre, as is the case here. Osweiler has some dangerous weapons at his disposal, guys like DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, and the aforementioned Miller, so we can expect the Texans to find the end zone a couple of times. With their smothering defense, that should be more than enough to carry them to a comfortable win in a game that promises to be the NFL equivalent of Ambien.
Miami Dolphins @ Pittsburgh Steelers (Pit -10, 46.5)
Recommendation: Pittsburgh -10 at 1.95
When these teams met back in Week 6, Miami had a 1-4 record and was a 7-point home underdog. The Dolphins dominated that game, winning 30-15 behind Jay Ajayi’s 204 rushing yards, and yet they now head to Pittsburgh as 10-point ‘dogs despite winning 9 of their past 11 games. This set of facts has led a lot of bettors to take a hard look at the underdog here, but I’m not buying it. These teams have both changed significantly since that October meeting, and I think we’re going to see a very different result when they take the field on Sunday.
The Dolphins, despite their gaudy record over the second half of the season, are limping into these playoffs. They lost quarterback Ryan Tannehill to a knee injury three weeks ago, and though Tannehill is apparently thinking about giving it a go on a partially-torn ACL, I think we can safely say that quarterback play is a question mark for Miami at this point. Veteran backup Matt Moore isn’t able to challenge defenses downfield, and Tannehill has been inconsistent even when healthy. The Dolphins began to find success this season when they turned to the power running game, but things haven’t been the same since starting center Mike Pouncey was lost for the year— the Fins averaged 60 more rushing yards per game when Pouncey was in the lineup this season, and he was a big reason why Ajayi was able to run all over the Steelers back in Week 6. The holes haven’t been there lately, and Ajayi has rushed for fewer than 80 yards in seven of his last 8 games.
The Pittsburgh defense surely remembers Ajayi’s Week 6 performance, and you would think they’d be anxious to redeem themselves. They’ve been solid this season, ranking 12th in the league in total yards allowed, but it’s the offense that has the Steelers thinking Super Bowl. After a brief midseason rough patch Big Ben and Co. are now clicking on all cylinders, producing 24 points or more in each of the team’s last 7 games, all Pittsburgh wins. Roethlisberger-to-Antonio Brown has been the bread and butter of a top-5 passing attack, and versatile running back Le’Veon Bell is among the best in the NFL at his position. Bell has amassed 835 rushing yards over his past six games, and he’ll be facing a Miami defense that ranked 30th in rushing defense this season while allowing a whopping 4.8 yards per carry, tied with San Francisco for the worst mark in the league. It’s difficult to imagine the Dolphins having any real success in slowing down the Pittsburgh offensive machine, and their own offense isn’t well-equipped for a shootout, especially when you consider the current quarterback situation. The Steelers will deliver a sound thumping here.
New York Giants @ Green Bay Packers (GB -4.5, 44.5)
The Packers have found their mojo again, winning 6 in a row after most had left them for dead. They were able to beat the Giants 23-16 back in Week 5, but the G-Men have been gritty overachievers this season, and they have a defense that can give Aaron Rodgers and the one-dimensional Green Bay offense fits.
For the Giants to pull the upset, however, they need more than they’ve been getting from Eli Manning and the offense, a unit that ranks 25th in total yards from scrimmage and has failed to reach the 20-point mark in five consecutive games. The Packers have issues in the secondary— only New Orleans surrendered more passing yards this season, so the opportunities will be there for Manning— but it’s tough to trust the New York offense after watching them fail repeatedly in recent weeks.
Detroit Lions @ Seattle Seahawks (Sea -7.5, 43)
Seattle is always a difficult place to play, even when a team is playing well, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the fading Lions are such a substantial underdog here. They did lose three straight games to close out the regular season, after all, and they’re not elite on either side of the ball. They also lack postseason experience, something the Seahawks have in spades, and their quarterback has been known for coming up small in big moments since his college days.
All that being said, I’d be very careful about a Seattle -7.5 bet. The ‘Hawks haven’t been playing too well themselves, losing to Arizona and squeaking by a terrible San Francisco team in their last two games, and their offense lacks the power-running component that they’ve relied upon in years past. Plus, the Lions have a knack for keeping it close— 13 of their 16 games this season were decided by 7 points or fewer, and they performed more 4th-quarter comebacks than any team in the league. Don’t be surprised if this game turns out to be very competitive.