Friday, January 06, 2017

NFL Wild Card Predictions

Let's take a welcome break from the whirlwind of corruption and doom waiting on the horizon in a few short weeks, and return to our time-honored tradition of making semi-educated guesses on the outcomes of NFL playoff games. Wager responsibly. All times EST.

Saturday's Games (1/7/17)
Oakland Raiders (12-4) at Houston Texans (9-7) (4:35 PM)
Spread:  HOU -3.5

Oy. While my hard-luck Raiders have finally put together a nice winning season, you can see by the header -- having to visit a team that won three fewer games -- that something went tits up for Oakland. In their penultimate game against the worthless Indianapolis Colts on Christmas Day (naturally), QB Derek Carr caught his foot in the shitty Oakland turf as he was being sacked, thus turning and breaking Carr's fibula, and essentially ending the Raiders' playoff hopes right there.

They went on to win that game, and had already secured a playoff berth anyway, but needed to win their final game last week in Denver to get a #2 playoff seed and home-field advantage. Not only did they not win, they barely showed up in Denver, failing across the board on offense, defense, and special teams. The loss put Oakland in a 12-4 tie with the Kansas City Chiefs, who won both regular-season matches against the Raiders, and therefore the tiebreaker, dropping Oakland to a #5 wild-card playoff slot.

While it's true that the Raiders have put together their best season since their 2002 Super Bowl season, and have won (by a couple) more games this season than in the last two seasons combined, that final Denver game nonetheless exposed this team badly. Nine of their twelve victories were by eight points or less; three of those by field goals and two by one point. Most of those close games involved some degree of derping around the first half, and heroically climbing out of the hole in the fourth quarter, which makes for exciting football, but was utterly dependent on a quarterback playing at an elite level to bail them out. With backup Matt McGloin getting injured in the Colts game as well (along with him not being very good in the first place), the Raiders are forced to start Connor Cook, the Michigan State QB who Oakland picked in the fourth-round last May.

The Texans have their own problems at quarterback, wildly overpaying in the off-season for Denver backup Brock Osweiler, who stands 6'8" and set passing records at Arizona State, but so far has not been able to click in a pro offense. Houston head coach Bill O'Brien, formerly the OC and QB coach at New England, prides himself on being a QB whisperer of sorts, but maybe working with a once-in-a-generation QB like Tom Brady will fuck with your head that way. At any rate, the Texans gave up on Osweiler a few games back and went with third-year backup Tom Savage, who was just good enough to squeak the Texans past Jacksonville and Cincinnati before sustaining a concussion in the final game at Tennessee.

So the Raiders are throwing a stone rookie into the playoff flames, and the Texans are forced to go with an experienced vet who has poor field vision and footwork, which means there's going to be a lot of running. The Raiders can win this, if their defense gets their shit together and starts strong and makes plays, but that has only happened in one game this season, their November 6th home stand against Denver. In the four main defensive statistical categories (points, total yards, passing yards, rushing yards), the Raiders finish no higher than 20th, while the Texans finish no lower than 12th, and are in fact first and second in total and passing yards allowed. Raiders DE Khalil Mack is a beast, and a legit contender for Defensive Player of the Year, but the defensive backfield is a fucking mess. They need to snap up at least the cornerbacks and/or safeties in the offseason, whether in the draft or free agency. It's all going to come down to which defense makes mistakes and gives up big plays, and if last week's shitshow in Denver was any indication, they have absolutely no discipline or focus.

In other words, the Raiders are probably fucked, though it wouldn't be shocking if they played just hard enough to beat the spread. Some prognosticators have mentioned that Oakland beat Houston "at home" in the regular season, without mentioning that that game was actually played in Mexico City, but was for statistical purposes considered a "home" game for the Raiders. The only saving graces here are that Carr will be fine and fully rehabbed well before training camp, and for the first time since the first Fredo Arbusto administration, they have enough pieces in place to be contenders for next season.

Final Score:  Texans 24, Raiders 17.

Detroit Lions (9-7) at Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1) (8:15 PM)
Spread:  SEA -8.0

Somehow, in the few years since Seattle's Legion of Boom defense crushed Peyton Manning's record-setting offensive output in Super Bowl 48, the Seahawks have shed the image of endearing, hungry underdogs, and become more like the mid-'80s 49ers -- arrogant, insufferable, bandwagoneering dickheads who don't seem to appreciate that part of their success is due to the fact that they're the only competent team in their division. And it's doubly true of their fans, who probably wouldn't have been caught dead anywhere near a Seahags game before 2004, if that.

On the other hand, the Lions' lovable loser image only got burnished, if anything, by the premature retirement of all-world wide receiver Calvin Johnson after last season. It takes a special level of mismanagement skull-fuckery to make not one (Barry Sanders) but two (Calvin Johnson) once-in-a-generation players, arguably the best at their respective positions during their careers, retire at the age of thirty, in their prime. Detroit was staring a 4-12 season in the face, and in fact did start this season 1-3. But they then peeled off six close wins over their next seven games, and got into contention.

Like their AFC counterparts in Oakland, it is the closeness of all those wins that will probably be the Lions' undoing -- only one of their nine wins was by more than a touchdown, and they dropped their last three games after QB Matthew Stafford hurt the middle finger on his throwing hand. More bad news for Detroit:  while their defense occupies the middle third of the league, the offense is struggling and over-compensating. Stafford has stepped up and had a decent season without his go-to WR, and the Lions are 11th in offensive passing yards. But they are 30th in rushing yards, which means Seattle will just set LB Bobby Wagner in blitz sets to force Stafford to throw early, into the arms of their still-powerful defensive backfield.

Seattle seems to be getting hot at the right time, they feel disrespected because no one gives a fuck about them beating up on the hapless Rams and Niners, and are bound to take it out on an overachieving Lions team. It's too bad, because I literally know Chicago Bears fans who would love to see the division rival Lions take a huge chunk out of Seattle. I don't see any way that happens, though.

Final Score:  Seahawks 34, Lions 10.

Sunday's Games (1/8/17)
Miami Dolphins (10-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) (1:05 PM)
Spread:  PIT -10.0

Miami is another one of those teams that's had one of those back-handed "lucky break" stories -- despite losing starting QB Ryan Tannehill a few weeks ago, rookie head coach Adam Gase has led the Dolphins into one of the few playoff berths they've had in recent years. Second-year RB Jay Ajayi has notched three 200-yard rushing games this season, including one against the Steelers, in a 30-15 victory for the Dolphins in Miami back in October.

But that was then and this is now. Experienced playoff teams understand the value of the long game, and of getting hot at the right time, and Pittsburgh is a textbook example of that principle. After dropping four straight in October and November, the Steelers won their last seven straight to capture the AFC North division and the #3 seed. Running back LeVeon Bell's 1,268 rushing yards place him right behind Ajayi's 1,272 yards, at #5 and #4 in the league respectively (Dallas RB Ezekiel Elliott led the league by more than 300 yards, finishing the season with 1,631 yards).

Miami backup QB Matt Moore is competent enough, and Ajayi is a potent weapon. But the 'Fins D sucks balls (29th in total yards, 30th in rush yards) and they're heading into Pittsburgh in January, where the forecast is 18 degrees. They're just lucky snow isn't in the forecast. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is banged up, but is as durable anyone in the league, and has already won the big one twice. This one may get away from the Dolphins.

Final Score:  Steelers 28, Dolphins 13.

New York Giants (11-5) at Green Bay Packers (10-6) (4:40 PM)
Spread:  GB -4.5

If there's going to be an upset this weekend this is most likely to be the one. The Giants are low-seeded only because the Dallas Cowboys -- who lost both regular season games to the Giants -- had a better record. The Giants' MO in recent years has been to fart around the first half of the season, go maybe 3-5 or even 2-6, and then suddenly get their shit together and make it work to squeak into the playoffs.

In this matchup, that honor belongs to the Packers, who started 4-4, then got slapped down 47-25 and 42-24 by Tennessee and Washington (neither of whom made the playoffs) respectively, then closed out their final six games with victories as the (division rivals) Vikings and Lions started waning. Several of those wins actually were in dominating fashion, especially the 38-10 beatdown of the Seahawks on December 11. However, in most of those wins, the opponent had the dominant rusher and/or passer, indicating a fundamental weakness that they don't seem to have addressed.

It's just a hunch, but somehow I get the feeling that no matter what things look like on paper, Green Bay will find a way to fuck it up.

Final Score:  Giants 35, Packers, 31.

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