It’s the first round of the playoffs and I’m excited for two reasons: No Ben Roethlisberger (because the Stealers missed the playoffs) and no Tom Brady (because the Patriots have a first-round bye). Also no chance of the Patriots losing three Super Bowls to the Giants, thankfully. Eight of the 12 quarterbacks in the playoffs have never won a playoff game, and six will be making their playoff debuts. So let’s sit back, order some Papa John’s pizza with Peyton Manning, and enjoy what should be an exciting wild-card weekend, with potentially three exciting games.
Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans (-4.5)
Saturday, January 5, 4:30pm EST, NBC.
The Texans became the first team to start a season 11-1 and not clinch a first-round bye. You could point to their losses in three of their final four games as the major indicator that this team is going through problems. The truth is, however, that Houston has struggled since Week 11, when they needed 653 yards of offense (527 on the passing arm of Matt Schaub) to beat the two-win Jaguars in overtime at home. In the first nine games of the season, the Texans gave up an average of 15.8 points per game; in their last seven games, that average has gone up to 26.8.
Optimistic Houston fans can find reasons to be hopeful. Their 42-14 Monday night shellacking by New England was their third straight road game; their Thanksgiving overtime win against the Lions came on four days rest; and it is arguable how determined Houston really was to beat Indianapolis last weekend. Yes, had they won that game, the Texans would have clinched the 1 seed. But remember that five of the last seven Super Bowl champions did not have first round byes. One of those teams was the 2006 Indianapolis Colts, another team which backed into an AFC South crown after a 10-1 start, but stumbled into a 2-3 record down the stretch and a disappointing 3 seed. But the rest was history, as the Colts steamrolled through the postseason and claimed a title almost no one saw coming at the beginning of January.
It’s not unreasonable to argue this year’s Texans squad could do the same. They did provide the Broncos with their only loss in Denver all season, and they have not lost to an AFC team at home all season. They come saddled with an impressive playoff win over Cincinnati last year, and have not lost to the Bengals – regular season or playoffs – since 2005. They still finished in the top ten for both offense and defense this season, and have truly frightening players on both sides of the ball.
So why am I not picking them to beat the Bengals? Because when the Colts entered the playoffs in 2006, they had key defensive players (such as Bob Sanders) come back from injury reserve; because their last home game, a 17-point loss to the Vikings, was extremely disturbing; and because Matt Schaub has never played in a playoff game (T.J. Yates was their quarterback in the postseason last year). In the last two weeks, the Texans defense had a total of two sacks; in their other 14 games, J.J. Watt and crew had 42. This team is stumbling at the time they should be surging.
On the complete other hand, the Bengals are a team that is surging. They have won seven of their last eight games (their one loss was the Cowboys game, when they blew a nine-point lead with seven minutes to go). If you can believe it, Cincinnati has not lost a road game since October 14. And it isn’t just that they’re beating the Jaguars and Chiefs of the league; among their 10 wins include victories over the Redskins, Giants, Steelers, and Ravens. In their first eight games, the Bengals gave up an average of 27.2 points; in their last eight, that number is 12.8 points.
Are they winning in spectacular fashion? Not exactly. The offensive line surrendered 46 sacks, which makes J.J. Watt fans understandably salivate. But A.J. Green (1,350 receiving yards, 11 touchdowns) is a huge receiving target, and Andy Dalton threw more touchdowns than Schaub, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, and Philip Rivers. And for all the discussion of the Texans’ defensive line, the Bengals front four has been one of the league’s most underreported stories. As a unit, they led the league in sacks with 50, and haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher since Week 7.
This is a matchup about momentum, and Cincinnati has it and Houston doesn’t. The “rematch” factor will undoubtedly favor the Bengals, who are still bitter after last year’s 31-10 defeat, and are desperately seeking their first playoff win since 1990 (Andy Dalton is also no longer a rookie). When I saw this team handle the Steelers in Pittsburgh two weeks ago, I knew they were for real, and although the name “Cincinnati Bengals” is synonymous with disappointment, failure, and stupidity, there is something decisively different about this team. A deep playoff run is not out of the cards at all, provided the offensive line holds up and a consistent running game can be established.
(P.S. With the dismissal of Andy Reid earlier this week, Bill Belichick now becomes the longest-tenured current head coach in the NFL. Can you guess #2? That’s right . . . Marvin Lewis! In an era when Reid [10 playoff victories, 1 SB appearance], Lovie Smith [3 playoff victories, 1 SB appearance] and Ken Wisenhunt [3 playoff victories, 1 SB appearance] get fired for their inability to win important games, there’s no controversy in Cincinnati about Lewis [0 playoff victories, 0 SB appearances, now in his 10th season] because Bengals fans know what a good coach he is. He deserves this game.)
Prediction: Cincinnati 17, Houston 10.
Playoff Doppelganger: 2010 AFC Wild Card, NY Jets 17, Indianapolis 16. This was a playoff rematch too (after the Colts handled the Jets 30-17 in the 2009 AFC Championship Game), but the Sanchize was no longer a rookie, and the Jets went into Indianapolis with renewed confidence, ran the ball effectively, and eeked out a last-second field goal victory. Wasn’t always pretty to watch, but a victory is a victory.
Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers (-7.5)
Saturday, January 5, 8:00pm EST, NBC.
It is strange that NBC opts to go with this matchup instead of any of the other three games this weekend. To me, this seems like the easiest game to predict and, to be blunt, probably the least interesting. It doesn’t seem very likely that either of these teams will reach the Super Bowl, and they just played last week (this will be the third time they play in 34 days). Of course, Aaron Rodgers and Adrian Peterson are very sexy names . . . but Christian Ponder, Alex Green, and Jarius Wright, not so much.
Playoff success for the Vikings rests on a simple formula: Run the ball, and then run some more. When Minnesota gains 145 yards or more rushing as a team, the Vikings are 8-2. Interestingly, those two losses were the two best rushing performances Minnesota had as a team all season, and one of those games was their Week 13 loss to Green Bay. By contrast, the Vikings are 2-4 when Christian Ponder attempts more than 32 passes.
So apparently, Minnesota lives and dies on the feet of Adrian Peterson. Fans will remember that he ran for 210 yards when the Vikings played in Green Bay . . . but they still lost by nine points. Thus, the most telling statistic indicating why Minnesota will lose this weekend is not related to Adrian Peterson, but to the team’s overall performance on the road: The Vikes are only 3-5 on the road this year. They did not win a single road game in October, November, or the first half of December. They did win their last two road games (over St. Louis and Houston), but that doesn’t provide a great deal of evidence why they should win in Green Bay against the Packers, a team that is 7-1 at home and hasn’t lost at Lambeau since Week 1. It may also be noteworthy that the Vikings have won a grand total of one road playoff game since 1997 (OK, OK, it was in Green Bay against the Packers, but this was the pre-Love Boat Daunte Culpepper team.)
Green Bay isn’t a perfect team either. Aaron Rodgers’ statistics (4,295 yards, 39 TDs, 8 INTs) are phenomenal, but they cover up the fact that the Packers haven’t been able to mount a consistent running game all season. Their lead rusher, Alex Green, still has yet to score a touchdown. Only two of their 11 wins came against playoff teams, while all five of their losses came against teams above .500. But the reality is, while Adrian Peterson is hot, the Packers are quietly hotter. They’ve only lost two games since October 7 (one of which was last week) and Aaron Rodgers hasn’t thrown an interception in 18 quarters (the loss of Antoine Winfield is a major liability for the Vikings’ secondary). The defense has improved since last year, too: In 2011, the Pack allowed seven different quarterbacks to throw for 310+ yards; this year, they’ve only allowed two.
Last year, everyone mistakenly assumed that because the Packers were playing in the safe confines of Lambeau Field and because Aaron Rodgers is actually awesome at things other than photobombing or the discount double-check or career day, Green Bay was a lock to beat the Giants. Well that didn’t happen. This year, they will atone for that. And unfortunately for NBC, it will be the least interesting game an otherwise exciting weekend.
Prediction: Green Bay 27, Minnesota 10.
Playoff Doppelganger: 2006 AFC Wild Card, Indianapolis 23, Kansas City 8. We already mentioned the 2006 Colts earlier, but this game also featured a future Hall of Fame quarterback playing in his first playoff game since a devastating home playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion the year before (Pittsburgh in 2005, New York in 2011). Like the Adrian Peterson, the Chiefs’ Larry Johnson came in on a tear – he had averaged 130.2 rushing yards per game in his previous 11 games (AP has averaged 159.8 yards per game in his last 10). But that day, the Colts gave up only 32 yards on the ground to him. I’m not saying to expect the same from the Packers defense, but the harsh Green Bay weather will not help (each of the Vikes’ final four games, all wins, came in domes).
Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens (-6.5)
Sunday, January 6. 1:00pm EST, CBS.
Sunday, January 6. 1:00pm EST, CBS.
10 reasons why the Colts should lose Sunday:
1. The Colts won four games on the road this year. The combined record of the four teams they beat in those games: 14-50 (.219 winning percentage). Their most impressive road win was in Week 8, when they beat the Titans 19-13 in overtime.
2. In their four road losses, they lost by a combined score of 164-71 (average score: 41-17).
3. Indianapolis had a negative-12 turnover differential on the season, sixth worst in the NFL. Until their last two games, their turnover differential was -17.
4. Andrew Luck had a lower quarterback rating than Blaine Gabbart, Michael Vick, Nick Foles, Jay Cutler, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Carson Palmer, and Christian Ponder. Luck threw as many interceptions as Mark Sanchez (18) and had a lower completion percentage. Oh yes, and don’t forget they lost to the Jets by 26 points.
5. The Colts’ defense has surrendered 300+ yards in every game this year (including games against the Bears, Jets, Browns, Dolphins, and two games against the Jaguars and Titans each). The offense has not gained over 300 yards in the past four games.
6. Indianapolis was outscored by 30 points on the season. They are the first 11-win team ever to be outscored by their opponents. Teams with a better point differential included Miami, San Diego, Dallas, Tampa Bay, Carolina, and New Orleans.
7. The Colts forced 15 turnovers all year. The only teams which scored fewer were the Chiefs and Eagles. They recovered only three fumbles all year (the Patriots, in contrast, recovered 21).
8. Only once all season did a Colts player rush for over 100 yards: In Week 14, when Vick Ballard ran for 105 yards in their 29-17 loss to the Texans. As a team, they were in the bottom ten in rush yards and average yards per rush. Andrew Luck had a higher yards per rush average than Vick Ballard or Donald Brown. Luck also had the most rushing touchdowns.
9. According to Pro-Football Database, the Colts’ expected win total was 7.2 victories.
10. Nine of Indianapolis’ 11 wins came by a touchdown or less. Three of their five losses were by 20 or more points.
So it’s easy, right? Baltimore should clobber this team, right? Not so fast.
Now it’s that last statistic that is worth noting: Those three losses came on the road to the Bears (41-21), Jets (35-9), and Patriots (59-24). In those three losses, they had a turnover differential of -12. In other words, take out those three losses and their turnover differential on the season is a perfectly mediocre 0 (and their scoring differential suddenly surges from -30 to a more respectable +41).
I’m not saying we should magically forget about those losses – they were bad defeats, on the road, to experienced teams with good defenses (not too unlike the Ravens) that significantly outplayed them. But it could be that the reason the statistical analysis so disfavors the Colts is because those three losses were so lopsided. Forget those three losses for a second (noting that two of them were in the season’s first six weeks) and the Colts are suddenly not such a lowly playoff team.
Remember back in 2009 when Tom Brady came back from his knee injury and led the Pats to a 10-6 record and AFC East title? That year, the offense ranked 6th, the defense ranked 5th, and in their ten victories they won by an average of 18 points. PFD put their expected win total at 11.6, and the statistical analysis indicated a deep playoff run. And guess what happened? They got clobbered by Ray Rice’s legs and the rest of the Baltimore Ravens in an inexplicable 19-point home blowout (just how inexplicable? Only twice in the Brady/Belichick era have the Patriots ever lost by more points in Foxboro).
What does this have to do with the Colts? Well in 2009, the Patriots beat the Titans 59-0 in a memorable October snowstorm at Foxboro (the ridiculous highlights always make for a good antidote when I’m feeling depressed about the NFL, or really life in general.) Take that whalloping away and the Patriots suddenly outscored opponents by only 83 points instead 142 and their +6 turnover differential on the season goes to a paltry +1. In other words, the statistical analysis failed to acknowledge how the lopsided victory misrepresented who the 2009 Patriots really were – a middle-of-the-road team that won ten games in a weak division and shouldn’t have been favored to win in the playoffs. Like the 2009 Patriots, statistical analysis of the 2012 Colts does not tell the whole story.
So the statistical analysis has the Colts wrong – fine. But why should we believe they can march into Baltimore and beat the Ravens, a team which has won at least one playoff game each of the past four seasons? We can look at the month of December and see a Baltimore team which has struggled uncharacteristically: They’ve lost four of their final five games, and in those four losses, the Ravens have surrendered an average of just under 28 points per game. You could argue that the Week 17 Bengals loss came with key starters rested, and the loss to the Charlie Batch-led Steelers was a fluke. You could also point to Baltimore’s giveaways – only 16, which is second-lowest in the league.
But there’s something about this game that statistics cannot measure: The impact of ChuckStrong, and the fact that Indianapolis has been the NFL’s feel-good story all season. Doesn’t it sound odd for the Colts’ magical season to end at the hands of a team which, by all accounts, has underperformed for most of the year and has a shaky offense still adjusting to a new offensive coordinator (one who, perhaps inevitably, used to coach the Colts?) Are we just supposed to ignore the fact that Andrew Luck has four 4th quarter comebacks and seven come-from-behind victories this season? Or that they have the most clutch kicker in the history of the NFL? In contrast, how many games has Joe Flacco blown? (It’s a rhetorical question). We’ve seen this story before, and whether its name is Tebow or Marshawn Lynch or Karlos Dansby, the fact that these first-round upsets are becoming more consistent is a testament to how exciting playoff football truly is.
Prediction: Indianapolis 23, Baltimore 20.
Playoff Doppelganger: 2011 AFC Wild-Card, Denver 29, Pittsburgh 23 (OT). Of course, nothing will ever top the Tebow game (which, after Super Bowls 36 and 42, I would rank as the 3rd-greatest NFL game I’ve ever seen). But something feels very Tebow-esque about this matchup – the team no one will give a chance to vs. the experienced Super Bowl contender forced to play a game on wild-card weekend. Of course, the Colts don’t have the luxury of playing this matchup at home like Denver did last season. But like Tebow, the Colts have the backing of roughly 0 percent of the playoff “experts.”
Seattle Seahawks at Washington Redskins (+3)
Sunday, January 6, 4:30pm EST, Fox.
Is this the most exciting first-round matchup in playoff history? Probably. Part of the appeal is the mirror imagery of these two teams: Rookie quarterbacks, slow, bruising runningbacks, read option playcalls, and successful seasons that few people saw coming (with the exception of some). The Redskins are in the midst of a seven-game winning streak; the Seahawks haven’t lost since Week 12, outscoring opponents by an average score of 38-12. The Redskins haven’t won the NFC East since 1999; the Seahawks haven’t won a road playoff game since 1984. By the end of the weekend, either RG3 or Russell Wilson will have a playoff victory on their resume, and the Atlanta Falcons will (likely) have serious fears about another home playoff upset in the coming weeks.
It’s hard to argue against Seattle. They have victories over the Packers, Patriots, Vikings, and 49ers. They have the best scoring defense in the league, allowing 245 points on the season (in second place was San Francisco, who allowed 28 more points). You could make the argument that Seattle has the league’s best secondary, with Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Marcus Trufant, and Bruce Irvin assaulting receivers on a weekly basis. Leon Washington is a threat every time he returns the ball, Russell Wilson has 16 TDs and 2 INTs in the second half of the season, and only one runningback (Adrian Peterson) has more rushing yards over the last two seasons than Marshawn Lynch (and he needed nearly 2,100 yards this season to do it). Their biggest margin of defeat this season was 7 points. Their largest margin of victory was 58.
The only question about Seattle is the perennial one about how much different a team they are at home versus on the road. This season, the Hawks were an unimpressive 3-5 on the road this year. Each of their victories occurred while their opponent was in the midst of losing streaks of at least three games. Their only convincing road win was their thrashing of Buffalo in Toronto, and none of those three victories came against a playoff team. They outscored opponents by 148 points at home this year, but only 19 on the road. At home, they were +14 in turnover differential; at home, they were -1.
So it’s hard to imagine Seattle winning this game 58-0. But are these statistics strong enough to predict that Washington will upset them? I think so. Seattle’s homefield advantage is so unique (the 12th man, the rain, the extra length of flights) that it is difficult to adequately assess how this team would play on a neutral field. They won’t get the offsides penalties, delay of game calls, or opponent turnovers (20 takeaways at home versus 9 on the road). Interestingly, Seattle’s offense ranked dead last in the league when the opponent blitzed a defensive back (can you guess who the best offense was? The Redskins). Washington loves to blitz defensive backs, as Tony Romo can attest to.
Washington is only 5-3 at home, but they haven’t lost at FedEx Field since November 4. Like the Seahawks, they are a run-first offense, and five of their top six team rushing performances of the season came at home. They’ve turned the ball over only six times at home (while forcing 14 takeaways) and RG3 and Alfred Morris have 2428 rushing yards between them. Griffin ranked third in QB rating (although Wilson ranked fourth), and boasted the highest rating by a rookie quarterback in league history. In their current winning streak, Griffin has 12 passing TDs and 2 interceptions. When Pierre Garcon is in the lineup (as he will be this week), the ‘Skins are 9-1.
Look, I’m not a Seahawks fan. I spent the years 1999-2007 hating this team. And while I’ve gained slightly more respect for them because I like Russell Wilson, their victories this year over the Packers and Patriots were complete flukes. I’m never cool with calling fake punts when leading by 30. Like I noted with the Colts and 2009 Patriots, their stats are bolstered by their blowouts of the Cardinals, Bills, and 49ers. And while the 49ers win was undoubtedly impressive, it was San Francisco’s fourth road game in five weeks and a game they didn’t really need to win (as evidenced by the fact that they have the home game and first round bye, not Seattle). Not only are they still mediocre on the road, but almost no one on this squad has real playoff experience. And while you could say a similar thing about the youthful Redskins, why shouldn’t that give the advantage to Washington when playing at FedEx Field?
Washington is on an incredible roll, while the Seahawks needed a moderately miraculous 44 yard catch by Golden Tate to beat the Rams (and their six sacks of Wilson) at home last week. The Redskins will be galvanized by the fact that they are underdogs at home in spite of winning 10 games, and that their last two playoff games were losses to Seattle. I can’t really see the magical season of RG3 ending here. Sorry, but there you have it.
(Oh, and here’s a special message for Terry, Todd, and other haters from 12th Man Nation who think my bias against Seattle seeps into my predictions: Back in January 2011, I was literally the only person in the world who predicted that the 7-9 Seahawks would beat the Saints [here’s proof]. On top of that, I even predicted they would beat Chicago in the second round, which they didn’t. So there. Go Thunder!)
Prediction: Washington 27, Seattle 21
Playoff Doppelganger: 2008 AFC Wild Card, San Diego 23, Indianapolis 17 (OT). This isn’t a perfect doppelganger – it’s not often you get two dynamic rookie quarterbacks squaring off against each other in the playoffs – but the Colts were really hot like the Seahawks, and the Chargers somehow overcame a 4-8 start to clinch their division and host a playoff game. It was a better game than the wild-card round deserved, and this weekend’s matchup seems headed in that direction.