Saturday, January 09, 2016

NFL Wild Card Predictions

It's that time of year again, where we attempt to brush off our withered pigskin prognostication skills, and make some semi-educated guesses as to the outcomes of the second-most corrupt sport. This opening weekend of the playoffs is highly unusual in that the Washington Redskins are the only home team favored to win, and none of the home-team starting quarterbacks has so much as a single playoff game under his belt. As always, no wagering.

Kansas City Chiefs (-3) at Houston Texans:  One of the more interesting matchups of the wild-card weekend, this is a tale of two teams that got off to miserable starts this season, before getting their respective acts together and finishing strong. The Chiefs overcame a 1-5 start to win their last ten games, barely losing out on the AFC West divisional title to the limping Denver Broncos. The Texans started off 1-6, then winning eight of their last nine and winning the lowly AFC South, which explains the injustice of a 9-7 team hosting an 11-5 team for a playoff game.

Both teams have achieved their competitive momentum with strong, aggressive defenses, and game-managing offenses that feature low-risk, low-yield playbooks. Kansas City's only win in that dismal 1-5 start was a 27-20 victory in Houston in the season opener, and Alex Smith has been a much more consistent quarterback than whichever former Tom Brady backup Houston coach Bill O'Brien has been stuck with starting. (It will be Brian Hoyer for this game.)
Final Score:  Chiefs 24, Texans 14

Pittsburgh Steelers (-2) at Cincinnati Bengals:  Playoff matchups between division rivals are always a coin flip, and it seems to be more true in the AFC North division. The Bengals and Steelers split their two division games this season, winning at each others' stadiums. Cincinnati started 8-0 before losing four of their last eight games, all to playoff-bound teams. Pittsburgh has been extremely sporadic and streaky throughout its 10-6 2015 campaign, with and without Ben Roethlisberger, who has overcome serious injuries this season to regain leadership over the team, and its strong 6-2 finish in the second half of the season.

The big problem for the hard-luck Bengals is, despite a 12-4 record and a home-field playoff game, is that there's a big drop-off from Andy Dalton to A.J. McCarron at quarterback. The Steelers' offense finished fifth in points scored, and third in passing yards and total yards. If McCarron falls behind early and can't figure out Pittsburgh's d-scheme, Cincinnati is headed for yet another one-and-done playoff run.
Final Score:  Steelers 31, Bengals 20

Seattle Seahawks (-4.5) at Minnesota Vikings:  The Seahawks, who crushed the Broncos in Super Bowl 48 and would have won #49 if their OC wasn't borderline retarded, limped to a 5-3 start this year before roaring to a 7-1 finish, without stud RB Marshawn Lynch. Those wins came at an average of nearly 20 points per game, including a 38-7 blowout in Minnesota just last month. Head coach Mike Zimmer has done a solid job in turning around a moribund Vikings team, but they are in the middle of the pack, while the Seahawks are top 5 in all offensive categories except passing yards (20th), and #1 or #2 in every major defensive category. This one could get ugly, even without Lynch.
Final Score:  Seahawks 38, Vikings 13

Green Bay Packers (+1) at Washington Redskins:  To call this a wild season for Washington would be a huge understatement. Hardly any major sports outlet predicted anything better than third place in the division, and maybe six wins for the year. The owner is a toxic asshole. The wife of the general manager was forced to apologize after accusing an ESPN reporter of sucking cock for access to news sources. The head coach, understanding that this was a fuck-or-walk season for his job, benched the franchise quarterback mid-season for a career backup.

And Jay Gruden's gamble paid off -- the 'skins went 4-2 in their weak NFC East division, and come in riding a four-game win streak. The offense is not great (10th in points scored, 11th in pass yards), but has been good enough to win when it needs to. They're hosting a playoff game when no realistic observer expected anything from them this year.

Green Bay, on the other hand, finished second in the NFC North, and so are the other team (besides Kansas City) that has a road playoff game against a team with a worse record. The Packers have simply not been the same since losing #1 WR Jordy Nelson in the preseason, though Aaron Rodgers has made the most of receivers James Jones and Randall Cobb. The game-ending Hail Mary to TE Richard Rodgers in Detroit last month probably saved the Pack's season, and chances are there aren't any other tricks like that in their bag.

Several things work in Green Bay's favor, however:  the Redskins' defense is bottom-10 in three of the four main defensive categories (rushing, passing, and total yards allowed; 17th in points allowed), which means Rodgers should be able to pick them apart with his arm and his extensive playoff experience. The Packers' defense is middling in most categories, but #6 in passing yards allowed, giving them a good chance to neutralize what has been Washington's main asset up to this point. This should be the main upset game of the weekend.
Final Score:  Packers 27, Redskins 21

[Update 1/10/16 9:30 PST:  Much as I'd love to take credit for picking all the winners this weekend, the fact is that Cincinnati and Minnesota really should have won their games. For the Bengals, it's a bit of karma -- at one point in their season opener at Oakland, in a rage over a block, Pacman Jones knocked Raiders rookie receiver Amari Cooper to the ground, sat on Cooper's chest, yanked Cooper's helmet off and beat Cooper's head against the helmet. That was Cooper's first game in the NFL, and instead of being ejected from the game, as it customary in such extreme instances, Jones was merely fined afterward, wasn't even penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. To have their season end on Jones flipping out on somebody once again is perfect. As for Minnesota, that one just sucks, it's proof that there are no sure things in the league, especially for kickers. Onward to the divisionals!]

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