Friday, January 8, 2016

Zach's Fearless NFL Playoff Predictions 2016: Wild Card Round

            I do not claim to be a savant when it comes to predicting the NFL, but one thing is for sure: When it comes to Wild Card weekend, in the immortal words of the second-greatest Russell of all time, I am a golden god.  Last year at this time, I went 4-0 in my picks and way back in January 2014, I also went 4-0.  Of course, going 4-0 on picks for Wild Card weekend is probably the equivalent of going 4-0 against the AFC South like certain one seeds did this season, but undefeated is still undefeated.  The reason for my success?  Hard work, determination, and strong faith.  And copious illicit supplies of human growth hormone sent to me under my spouse’s name.  But since that is apparently a less serious offense than not deflating footballs, we can say in total confidence that the captain is back! 

Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans (+3½)
Saturday, January 9, 4:20pm EST, ABC/ESPN.

            Wild Card Weekend starts out with a bang – the uber-sexy matchup of Brian Hoyer versus Alex Smith!  These two teams share a surprising number of similarities: Both had atrocious starts to the season (the Texans started 2-5, the Chiefs 1-5) followed by substantially better finishes (the Texans 7-2, the Chiefs 10-0); both spent the majority of the season struggling to overcome season-ending injuries to star runningbacks; and both had quarterbacks with remarkably similar statistics (Hoyer threw for 2,606 yards, 19 TDs and 7 INTs, Smith threw for 3,496 yards, 20 TDs and 7 INTs).
            In addition, these two teams played each other in the first week of the season.  In that game, the Chiefs jumped out to a 27-6 lead before Houston benched Hoyer, put in Ryan Mallet, and scored 11 points in the game’s final five minutes to make the final score respectable (27-20).  Looking up that game, I couldn’t believe the final score was that close; it’s hard to overstate how thoroughly Kansas City completely dominated Houston for the majority of the contest.  After their first drive ended in a punt, the Chiefs scored on their next five drives, Hoyer and Mallett were sacked for a combined five times, and the Texans finished 3-of-14 on third down conversions.  As unlikely it seemed at the time that the two teams would rematch in the playoffs, it may have even been more unlikely that Alfred Blue and Charcandrick West would be the respective starters at runningback – let alone the most unlikely wrinkle at all, which is that the winner of this game may have a decent shot at beating Denver or an injury-decimated New England next week.
            For the Texans of course, it’s not really about the offensive firepower – it’s all about J.J. Watt, who willed himself to another compelling MVP campaign and made an otherwise pedestrian defensive units one of the league’s very best. Watt recorded multiple sacks in six games, and since November 1 (when they entered the week three games under .500), the Texans have given up 60 or more rushing yards to a single player only once (LeSean McCoy).  Also in that time span, they’ve held six of their nine opponents to ten points or below.  Sure, some of those games against the Titans and Jaguars weren’t overly impressive, but let’s not forget their out-of-nowhere Monday night win in Cincinnati against the previously unbeaten Bengals or their home victory against the Jets in which DeAndre Hopkins torched Revis Island for 118 yards and two touchdowns.  The Texans are 9-0 in games where they surrendered 20 points or fewer; in games of 21 or more points, they are 0-7.
            Hopkins and Watt both have transcendent abilities to take over games, but in terms of raw firepower, that is about it for Houston.  Alfred Blue is a mediocre runningback at best (3.8 YPC this season) and is one of the worst pass-catching backs I’ve ever seen.  Hoyer’s numbers, while solid, ignore the fact that he was technically only 5-4 in games he started (three of those wins came against the Titans and Jaguars).  A lot of the gaudy numbers between him and Hopkins came in garbage time, not only against the Chiefs in Week 1 but also the Falcons (Atlanta led 42-0, but the final score was 48-21) and Dolphins (Miami led 41-0, final score 44-26).  Ten of Houston’s games were against the AFC South and NFC South, and they had no impressive wins outside of the Bengals and Jets games.  Hoyer threw for 123 yards and an interception against Cincinnati, and did not play against New York.
            The Chiefs are similarly fraudulent in the sense that few of their wins were genuinely impressive; they beat the Broncos in Denver in the game where Peyton Manning threw approximately 8,467 interceptions and defeated a Roethlisberger-less Steelers team at Arrowhead Week 7.  It also happened to be the same game where Le’Veon Bell suffered his season-ending MCL injury.  Since Week 10, Kansas City’s victories have come against Oakland (twice), San Diego (twice), Buffalo, Baltimore and Cleveland.   This would appear to diminish the integrity of the Chiefs’ 10-game winning streak, but on the other hand, it’s still fairly remarkable that they got up for each game and didn’t lose a trap game.  Maybe it’s because they knew the Broncos were even more fraudulent and that the AFC West crown was always mathematically possible.
            Whatever the reason, the 10-game winning streak doesn’t really convince me of anything beyond the fact that Kansas City’s schedule happened to be frontloaded with its tough matchups (six of its first seven games came against playoff teams).  Does anyone else remember the 2009 Chargers or the 2008 Colts?  While the Chiefs will have a healthy Tamba Hali and Justin Houston in the lineup (and mostly likely Jeremy Maclin), something about this team still doesn’t feel quite right.  Is it the Andy Reid Stench?  Is it the fact that this team hasn’t won a playoff game since the (first) Clinton administration?  Is it the fact that the most memorable thing that happened to the Chiefs this year was this unspeakable play (VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED)? 
            Picking the Chiefs in this game is undoubtedly a risky proposition, yet I cannot get that Week One game out of my head.  Sure, it was a somewhat fluky first half, but if history should repeat itself and one of these teams goes up 14-0 or 17-0, the game might as well be over. The team I project with a better chance of that occurring for is Kansas City.   Remember that stat about Houston allowing more than 21 points?  Well, the Chiefs are 9-2 in games above 21 points, and six of their eight highest-scoring games came on the road.  Kansas City’s defense has also blossomed this season, picking off 22 passes in 2015 (compared with only six interceptions in 2014).  Hopkins and Watt may be the two most talented players on the field this weekend, but Alex Smith and Andy Reid have considerably more experience than Hoyer and O’Brian.  And Houston fans need to come to grips with the fact that their playoff birth had considerably more to do with Andrew Luck’s torn abdominal muscle than anything they did on the field.  Against all odds, one of these teams will actually win this game.

Prediction: Kansas City 23, Houston 13

Playoff Doppelganger: 1993 NFC Wild Card, New York Giants 17, Minnesota 10.  Well Jeem, we were just talking about how great Peyton Manning is, and then we talked a little more about how he’s the greatest quarterback of all time, then we talked about Phil Simms’ final win of his career – a less-than-stellar victory over a Vikings team quarterbacked by Jim McMahon and Sean Salisbury (that’s right, Sean Salisbury).  Like the Chiefs, the Giants were a boring, vanilla team with an excellent but boring and vanilla defense.  They ran the ball a lot, never turned the ball over, and were coached by the ultimate Andy Reid of the 1980s and 1990s, Dan Reeves.  Neither of these teams was really going anywhere (the next week the Giants lost to the 49ers 44-3), and although I doubt Alex Smith will retire after the season, I would much rather see him in the CBS announcing booth next to Jim Nantz, talking about what a better announcer he is (or anyone would be) than Phil Simms.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals (+2½)
Saturday, January 9, 8:15pm EST, CBS.

            Hmm, haven’t we seen this scenario before?  The dangerous six-seeded Steelers traveling to the vulnerable division champion Bengals, with Cincinnati’s star quarterback injured and unable to play?  Of course, Andy Dalton probably won’t be rolled to the ground in a vicious hit by Kimo Von Oelhoffen, but that’s probably because Dalton likely won’t be ready to start this Saturday period. 
            That begs the natural question, what are we supposed to think of A.J. McCarron?  Besides the fact that his girlfriend is still hot, it’s difficult to say.  He did throw for 280 yards in three quarters against the Steelers on December 13 (in a home game where Dalton really was injured in the first quarter and Cincinnati lost) and has looked serviceable in the three games since (2-1 overall, 4 TDs, no picks, over 62 percent completions in each of the three games).  In previous years, the thought of Andy Dalton missing a playoff game may have sounded potentially advantageous to long-suffering Bengals fans, but the truth is, Dalton was enjoying the best season of his career before his Week 14 injury.  Gone was the hesitancy, the indecisiveness, and the ability to only win divisional home games at 1pm Eastern (here’s the proof).  There’s a chance he may be able to return next week, which should hopefully give the Bengals extra motivation to come out strong.
            As competent as Dalton and McCarron have played, the key for Cincinnati is still the ground game; they were 9-1 in games where they rushed for over 100 yards, and 11-1 in games where they scored 24 or more points.  If the Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard can have success against the Steelers’ 21st ranked defense, Cincinnati can control the flow of the game (as well as the clock).  However, Pittsburgh was substantially better against the run (ranking 5th in the NFL) than they were against the pass (30th), meaning Cincinnati will have to make some considerable A.J. (McCarron)-to-A.J. (Green) connections downfield. 
            If this game feels familiar to pessimistic Bengals fans, it should also feel familiar to pessimistic Steelers fans: Last year, Pittsburgh hosted a Wild Card game to a Ravens team they had also handled only weeks earlier, but Le’Veon Bell was unable to play due to a hyperextended knee.  They lost by 13.  Now Bell’s backup, DeAngelo Williams, will not play this weekend against a division opponent.  That is cause for concern, and if you don’t believe me, look at their loss against the Ravens two weeks ago: Big Ben forced passes while under pressure and even in spite of Williams having a good day, the turnovers wreaked havoc on Pittsburgh.  Roethlisberger had 16 interceptions in 12 games this year, and the Steelers were 1-4 and all six of the games where Pittsburgh had a negative turnover differential resulted in losses.
            Other bad signs for Pittsburgh: They were 4-4 on the road this year, with the four victories coming against St. Louis (by 6), San Diego (by 4), Cincinnati (without Dalton), and last week at Cleveland.  Also, they gave up 27 points in one half to Brock Osweiler, a 95 QB rating to Ryan Mallett, four touchdown passes to Derek Carr, and 385 total yards or more surrendered in eight of its games. Of course, Antonio Brown usually made up for the Steelers’ defensive woes, but in two games against the Bengals this year, he had “only” 13 catches for 134 yards and one touchdown.  By comparison, his single game average this season was 8.5 catches for 114 yards and just under a touchdown (A.J. Green’s two games against the Steelers?  A combined 17 catches for 250 yards and two touchdowns).
            Pittsburgh feels like the obvious pick in this game due to the Bengals’ postseason woes, the Steelers’ postseason successes, and Dalton’s injury.  But in picking Pittsburgh, you’re also going with a team that was mediocre on the road, has a highly suspect running game at the moment, and quietly hasn’t won a road playoff game since . . . you guessed it, their improbable Super Bowl run in 2005.  The Bengals’ defense, meanwhile, gave up the second-fewest points, surrendered the second-fewest passing touchdowns, and picked off the third-most passes. Remember that although Dalton is injured, the rest of the team is at the healthiest it has been all season.  Remember that in its final ten games, Pittsburgh has committed 25 turnovers, while Cincinnati is 7-1 in games where they forced more than one turnover.  It would be naïve to completely overlook the Bengals’ woeful playoff record in the Marvin Lewis era (0-6), but I also think the public is being oversold on the Steelers, whose players are more likely to start on a fantasy football championship team than any real one.  So why not.

Prediction: Cincinnati 27, Pittsburgh 24

Playoff Doppelganger: 2000 AFC Wild Card, Miami 23, Indianapolis 17 (OT).  Another one of those Peyton Manning playoff gems.  Like the Steelers, the Colts had all the offensive firepower and most of the public betting line on their side.  Like the Bengals, the Dolphins had the better defense, the better run game, were playing at home, and were fairly comfortable in the underdog role. At the time, the two teams played in the same division and had split the regular season series with the road team victorious in each game.  This game is popularly remembered as the “Lamar Miller game” because of his unreal stat line (40 carries, 209 yards, 2 TDs); if Hill and Bernard can combine for those numbers, the Bengals should overcome the limitations of Jay Fiedler A.J. McCarron and emerge on top.

Seattle Seahawks at Minnesota Vikings (+6)
Sunday, January 10, 1:05pm EST, NBC.

            The most intriguing matchup of the weekend.  Like Pittsburgh-Cincinnati, the game feels deceptively easy to predict: The Seahawks, who haven’t lost a playoff game to an NFC team in three years, get a rematch with the same team they annihilated by 31 points on the road only five weeks ago.  Seattle gets back its star runningback (who missed the game due to injury).  Minnesota finished in the bottom five of total offense and is led by Teddy Bridgewater, a quarterback making his playoff debut.  He also threw only 14 touchdowns all season – fewer than Tyrod Taylor, Andrew Luck, and Marcus Mariota (none of whom played all 16 games like Bridgewater).
            Let’s continue to wax poetic about Seattle for a moment. Though they finished with 10 wins on the season, they finished ranked first in advanced metric’s DVOA rankings.  For the fourth straight year.  They finished first in scoring defense (also for the fourth consecutive year) and boasted the first quarterback in history with 4,000 pass yards, 500 rush yards, and 30 touchdowns thrown (and he’s a Good Person too!).  In fact, the offense (which finished fourth in the league) seemed to get better after it lost what most people thought to be its two most explosive players, Marshawn Lynch and Jimmy Graham.  Since Week 12 (Graham’s last appearance), Seattle’s offense has averaged 32.5 points per game while allowing just over 14 points.
            Let’s also look at criticisms of Seattle which I have had in the past: Namely, their poor play on the road and the subpar quality of their opponents.  After losing its first three road games, Seattle hasn’t lost away from the friendly confines of Qwest Field since October 11 – a hot streak that will prove pivotal if they hope for success in the playoffs as a 6 seed.  They did beat a lot of bad teams down the stretch (San Francisco, Baltimore, Cleveland), but also played Arizona, Carolina, Cincinnati and Green Bay.  It’s not realistic (as it was in 2013 and 2014) to claim Seattle had an easy schedule in 2015; in fact, according to standard SRS rankings, the only playoff team with a tougher regular season schedule was Green Bay.  They don’t have a great deal of injuries (although it remains to see how effective Lynch will be after his sports hernia surgery), and are eager to restore their postseason dignity after the worst hiccup in the history of football.
             The Seahawks have played the Panthers, Cardinals (twice), Packers and Vikings already, and played competitively against each of them. In fact, the Rams game two weeks ago marked the first game in Russell Wilson’s career where the Seahawks didn’t enjoy the lead at some point of the game (we’ll get back to the Rams game in a second).  T.J. Lockett patched up the holes in the special teams game; Doug Baldwin led the NFL in receiving touchdowns; Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, and Bobby Wagner are probably the three best defensive players in the league not named Watt.  Simply put, this team has no ostensible shortcomings.
            And yet, they somehow lost six games in 2015, which costs them any hope of enjoying the league’s most feared homefield advantage in the postseason.  Early on, Seattle had a bad case of giving up fourth quarter leads, which was probably the most uncharacteristic problem imaginable for this defense.  They did give up big passing days to Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer, and finished in the middle of the pack in takeaways.  They got lucky a few times (remember that they are the Seahawks), but no one doubts that they come into the playoffs as the league’s hottest and most feared team.  It’s possible that the Packers intentionally lost to the Vikings on Week 17, costing them the division crown and a home playoff game, just to avoid playing Seattle.
            So the best case scenario for the Vikings has little to do with the talent on the field – they need strange, extraordinary things to happen off it.  In this category, Minnesota is getting some help from the football gods: The game is scheduled to be played in sub-zero temperatures, which certainly could slow down the Wilson-to-Baldwin connection through the air.  It is also being played at 10am Pacific time Sunday; Seahawks fans will remember the last two postseason games played in that time slot were losses (to Atlanta in 2013, Chicago in 2011).  Of course, the December 6 game between the two teams was played at 10am Pacific time, but the temperature that day was a balmy 37 degrees.
            Another good sign for Minnesota: They finished the season with the league’s best record against the spread: 13-3 (13-2 if you don’t count their Week One clusterf*** against the 49ers).  And let’s be honest: the spread in this game is ridiculous.  Remember what happened after Pittsburgh was favored over Tim Tebow by 7.5 and the Saints were 10 point favorites over Beast Mode?  The Vikings certainly don’t mind being underdogs.  Finally, there’s one more important thing that should frighten Seahawks fans: The kryptonite to Seattle has been the St. Louis Rams, who swept them this season and consistently play them tough.  By my estimation, the Vikings are essentially a better version of the Rams: Outstanding defensive line, run-first ball control offense, the league’s best special teams.  Like the Rams, the offense isn’t talented enough to overcome a 14-0 or maybe even a 10-0 deficit.  That is not their game.  The game plan for the Vikings is to build an early lead, force Seattle into three-and-outs (not impossible), and have Adrian Peterson run the clock out so they can hit the warm showers early.
            All of this is good in theory, and I really want to pick the Vikings here. But I also wanted to pick Minnesota in the December 6 matchup, and we all know how that turned out (it is worth noting that Harrison Smith and Anthony Barr missed most of the game).  Minnesota did everything they were supposed to this year, and they deserve praise for a great season.  But unfortunately in this instance, they drew the short straw.  The six-point line is too high (did everyone magically forget about this?) and the game could be close, particularly if the Seahawks cannot match the Vikings’ ground attack, but there is a reason Seattle has been the league’s best regular season team four consecutive years and running.

Prediction: Seattle 24, Minnesota 19

Playoff Doppelganger: 2010 NFC Wild Card, Green Bay 21, Philadelphia 16.  The Packers were the 6 seed and Philadelphia hadn’t been division champs for a while (it was also Michael Vick’s first playoff game in six seasons and his first-ever as an Eagle).  But no one could stop Aaron Rodgers, just as no team could boast the Packers’ depth on both the offense and defensive sides of the ball (in spite of question marks in the running game).  The Packers took a 14-0 lead in the second quarter and survived a late Eagles threat to commence a Super Bowl run that many could see coming in spite of a deceptive 10-6 record.

Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins (Pick ‘em)
Sunday, January 10, 4:40pm EST, Fox.

            The easiest game of the week to predict, although it would not have seemed that way in mid-October, when the Packers looked dominant 6-0 and the Redskins at 2-4 looked like . . . well, the Redskins.  But since then, the Packers have gone 4-6, while the Redskins have exceeded all expectations, finishing the final ten games 7-3.  I anticipate those divergent paths to remain the same this weekend.
            The line for this game is a pick ‘em for one reason and one reason alone: Aaron Rodgers.  No one wants to bet against him in the playoffs.  But in spite of the NFL’s golden boy and his ebullient glow, the Packers have serious problems.  They are incapable of mounting a consistent ground game, with Eddie Lacy oscillating somewhere between Christian Okoye and the Pillsbury Doughboy.  How is this for a stat line: This season, Lacy had more games with under 10 yards rushing (4) than games with over 100 yards (3).  Sure, he was battling injuries but inconsistency seemed to bite everyone on offense: James Jones (three 100 yard games, five games with one or less receptions), Davante Adams (eight games under 40 yards), Richard Rodgers (seven games under 20 yards).  What happened to the prolific Packers offense of three or four years ago? 
            Here’s the most amazing stat about the 2015 Packers: They went 0-3 in divisional home games.  Let me repeat that: 0-3 in divisional games at home.  That’s right, the Bears, Vikings and Lions were all victorious at Lambeau this season.  Of course, they won’t be playing any home games against the NFC North this postseason, but that information is instructive in showing that the Packers were incapable of beating teams they should have.  On the flip side, Green Bay’s most impressive win came against the Seahawks all the way back in Week 2; after that, the only playoff teams the Pack defeated were the Chiefs and the Vikings. 
            So we get that Green Bay is flawed, but . . . the Redskins?  Really?  They don’t have many impressive wins either (their biggest win was probably at Philadelphia two weeks ago) and they benefitted from playing in the NFC’s weakest division.  But there is one thing they did better than almost any other team: Washington was outstanding at home, with Kirk Cousins setting an NFL record for pass completion percentage in home games (74.7 percent).  As a team, the Redskins ran the ball pretty well too, averaging just under 129 yards per game at the friendly confines for FedEx Field.
            Cousins had an outstanding season, and his stats were remarkably similar to Rodgers (101.6 QB rating to Rodgers’ 92.7).  Between DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, and Jordan Reed, Washington has one of the best corps of unheralded receivers in the league.  The running game isn’t much, but Alfred Morris is basically a LeGarrette Blount-type who can move the ball forward on third-and-ones, and rookie Matt Jones (questionable this weekend) frequently provided a spark. 
            They’re not much on paper, but with the way that Cousins is playing right now, Washington is a threat to score from anywhere on the field.  They are 8-0 in games where they score 23 or more points (which the Packers defense has given up in five of its eight road games), and the Skins are 8-1 when turning over the ball one time or less.  Mike McCarthy isn’t exactly a safe bet in playoff games, and since their victory in Super Bowl 45, the Pack are 2-4 in the postseason.  Green Bay also hasn’t won in Washington since 2004.  At some point, these things start adding up and you find yourself going with whoever has the hot hand, which in this case is the Redskins.  Rodgers hasn’t usually been counted out, and on the few occasions he has, his response was as relieving as it was relaxing to fans.  But the Redskins feel very 2008 Cardinals-ish – a doormat franchise with an explosive offense and ragtag defense – and the Packers haven’t impressed anyone since Week Two.  Who wouldn’t like that?

Prediction: Washington 30, Green Bay 24

Playoff Doppelganger: 2000 NFC Wild Card, New Orleans 31, St. Louis 28.  No one thought the Greatest Show on Turf would have any difficulties with the upstart Saints, but everyone forgot that they had a lot of injuries, turned the ball over a lot, and had a defense that couldn’t close out games.  Unlike the 2015 Redskins, the 2000 Saints were actually lousy at home (3-5) but Aaron Brooks and a trio of solid young receivers just enough to earn the franchise’s first-ever playoff win.  It would not be their last.

Thoughts?  Disagreements?  Surprised I went the entire article without mentioning my the league's best quarterback who didn't need HGH?  Let me know below. 

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