NFL PLAYOFFS: It’s that time of year again, when irrelevant teams, games, and players have melted away, with only the worthy few left to vie for the NFL’s ultimate prize. Yes, it’s playoff time, and after wading through the slop of Weeks 16 & 17, I think I speak for the majority of NFL fans when I say that Saturday can’t come soon enough. Tie me down and inject some of that playoff football straight into my veins: I’m ready.
Wild Card Weekend kicks off with a rubber match between AFC South rivals, as the Colts and Texans meet for the third time this season and the second time in the past month (we may as well rename the first Wild Card Weekend time slot the “Texan Window”, right? Every. Year.). Saturday night brings us the Seahawks and Cowboys from Dallas, and Sunday kicks off with the week’s premier game (in my humble opinion), Chargers vs. Ravens, before the Eagles and Bears wrap things up on Sunday evening. Questions will be answered, lessons will be learned, dreams will be crushed, money will be made (and lost, but don’t say it out loud)… it’s a glorious time of year for those of us who spend an unhealthy amount of time following and obsessing over this sport.
Here are my thoughts on this weekend’s games:
Indianapolis Colts @ Houston Texans (Hou -1.5, 48.5)
Recommendation: Indianapolis moneyline at 2.04
The Texans don’t lose at home often— they did lose to these very same Colts in Week 14, but aside from that their only other setback at NRG Stadium this season came courtesy of the New York Giants way back in Week 3. But the Colts have been playing as well as any team in the AFC, as they’re currently riding a 4-game winning streak and have lost just once in their last 10 contests. Andrew Luck has returned to form after looking a bit rusty to start the season, and the Indy defense, long considered a weak spot, has played like a top-10 unit over the past couple of months, surrendering just 15.0 ppg over the team’s last seven games.
When these teams met four weeks ago Luck threw for 399 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and it’s that matchup— Luck and the Indy receivers vs. Houston’s 28th-ranked pass defense— that gives Indianapolis the slight edge here. To win this game, the Texans are going to have to pressure and disrupt Luck, and the good news for them is that they’re well-equipped to do so, as Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt are two of the NFL’s most feared pass-rushers. But the Colts o-line has done a great job in protection this season and Luck is a smart player who gets rid of the ball quickly, so pressuring him is much easier said than done.
As a matter of fact, Indy led the NFL in QB protection this season— Luck was sacked on a fewer percentage of his dropbacks than any QB in the league. The Texans got to him twice in 41 attempts back in Week 14, and if they hope to win this game, they’re going to have to do better. They did sack him 4 times in their 37-34 Week 4 victory, but even then, when Luck had yet to hit his midseason stride, he threw for 464 yards (!) and 4 touchdowns, so clearly Houston hasn’t figured out (or, more likely, doesn’t possess) the formula to stop him. For that reason, I think Indianapolis is a good bet to pull off the minor upset here.
Seattle Seahawks @ Dallas Cowboys (Dal -2, 43)
Recommendation: Dallas -2 at 1.98
If you like old-fashioned, smash-mouth football, you’re going to love this one— the Seahawks and Cowboys are both physical, no-frills, run-it-right-at-you type of teams, and this game will be decided in the trenches. The ‘Hawks lead the NFL in rushing by a wide margin, averaging 160 yards per game on the ground and 4.8 yards per attempt, while the Cowboys have the league’s premier running back in Ezekiel Elliott, who won the rushing title with 1,434 yards this season despite resting in Week 17. Seattle may have the slight edge at quarterback with Russell Wilson, but Dak Prescott is a quality player in his own right, and the Dallas passing attack has improved dramatically since the team added wideout Amari Cooper in a midseason trade with Oakland.
The difference here, I believe, will be on the defensive side of the ball. Seattle dismantled the Legion of Boom in the offseason but still held up fairly well in the secondary, frustrating some of the league’s best quarterbacks— in their Week 16 win over Kansas City, for instance, the ‘Hawks limited Patrick Mahomes to 273 yards on 23/40 passing, and in their Week 14 victory over Minnesota they held Kirk Cousins to 208 yards on 33 attempts. Up front, however, it’s been a struggle, as the Seahawks have surrendered 4.9 yards per rush, the third-worst mark in the league and a number that’s pretty ominous with Zeke Elliott next up on the schedule. Dallas, meanwhile, has been terrific in the front seven, as young linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith have proven to be difference-makers on a unit that ranks 5th in the NFL against the run, allowing just 94.6 rushing yards per game and 3.8 yards per carry.
It’s going to be strength vs. strength when Seattle tries to run the ball between the tackles, but when Dallas has it, Zeke should find plenty of running room. That reality has pushed me towards the Dallas side here, even though I have massive respect for Wilson and generally don’t like betting against him in situations like this. Elliott is simply going to be too much for the Seahawks to handle.
Los Angeles Chargers @ Baltimore Ravens (Bal -3, 41.5)
Recommendation: Los Angeles +3 at 1.92
When they lost a Saturday night home game to the Ravens in Week 16, the Chargers all but cemented this matchup— a Wild Card Weekend trip to Baltimore, where the NFL’s top defense awaits. Over the course of the season many have mentioned this L.A. team as a possible Super Bowl contender, and now it’s “prove it” time: can they go on the road and beat a team that is 6-1 in its last seven games, with one of those wins being a double-digit victory over these very same Chargers? To do so, they’re going to have to figure out a way to move the ball against a defense that held them to 198 total yards two weeks ago; a defense that leads the league in yards allowed and ranks second in points allowed.
It should be mentioned, however, that while the Baltimore defense is great, it’s not impenetrable. Last week, for instance, in a must-win game on their home field, the Ravens surrendered 24 points and 376 passing yards to the Cleveland Browns and their rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield, so Philip Rivers, who ranked second in the NFL in yards per attempt this season and third in both completion percentage and QB rating, is certainly capable of doing some damage here. The Chargers averaged nearly 27 points per game this season and they’re 11-2 in their past 13 games, so let’s not allow the Week 16 result to completely distort reality: beating this team again will be a tremendous challenge for Baltimore.
And though they’ve been winning since he took the reins, I still have trouble trusting the Baltimore offense with Lamar Jackson under center, precisely because it’s so unusual to see an offense that is so utterly one-dimensional in today’s NFL. And in Baltimore’s case, it’s not by choice, it’s because Jackson is simply unable to stand in the pocket and consistently complete passes down the field. He’s thrown for 204 yards or fewer in all seven of his starts and has yet to attempt more than 25 passes in a game, so an L.A. defense that ranked 9th against the run this season will certainly know what’s coming here. I have a hunch they’ll fare better than they did the first time around, and I have a bit more faith in Philip Rivers than I do a rookie who will become the youngest quarterback to ever start a playoff game. Gimme the Bolts.
Philadelphia Eagles @ Chicago Bears (Chi -6, 41.5)
Recommendation: Under 41.5 at 1.96
The most intriguing game of this Wild Card Weekend may be Sunday’s final game, when the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles visit Soldier Field for a clash with the upstart Chicago Bears, who are probably the most surprising of this year’s playoff teams. The Bears have a first-year coach and an inexperienced quarterback who can look awfully shaky for long stretches, but they have an elite defense that leads the NFL in points allowed (17.7 ppg), and a thunder-and-lightning running back tandem that provides just enough offense to carry the team to victory most weeks. And when I say “most weeks”, I mean nearly every week, as the Bears are 9-1 in their past 10 games and have lost just once at Soldier Field all season.
As for the Eagles, they snuck into the postseason after winning 5 of their final 6 games, and ever since Super Bowl LII hero Nick Foles replaced a banged-up Carson Wentz at quarterback in Week 15, that “magic” feel has returned— with Foles under center, Philly defied the odds with wins over the Rams and Texans, and then closed the season out in style with a 24-0 shutout of Washington. But Foles exited the win over the Redskins with bruised (cracked? we’ll never know…) ribs, and though he’s set to start on Sunday, he’s been limited at practice all week and will reportedly wear protective padding across his torso. It doesn’t really sound like a great situation when you’re getting ready to face Khalil Mack and the top-ranked Bears defense, does it? Good thing the Eagles defense has been up to the task lately, limiting the team’s past 5 opponents to just 17.8 points per game. They should find success against a Chicago offense that has produced 24 points or fewer in each of the team’s past five victories. All things considered, this one has all the makings of a classic defensive struggle— even a total as low as 41.5 isn’t enough to keep me off the Under.