NFL Wildcard Weekend

The NFL playoffs begin this weekend with Wildcard Weekend. Before we get to a preview of the games, let’s take a look back to Week 1 and how I thought things were going to pan out this season.

NFC Playoff Picture

I was 50% on my predictions for the NFC, with only two division champions picked correctly. I had the Rams and Saints correctly predicted as winners of their divisions. I also predicted that the Eagles would make it as the NFC East winner, and they instead made it in as the #6 seed with a stretch down the season behind last season’s Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles.

Two clubs I severely missed on – including my pick for the NFC representation in the Super Bowl – were mostly out of the playoffs by midseason. The 49ers were hoping to ride Jimmy Garappolo to an improvement over last season; instead, he was lost for the season after tearing his ACL during Week 3. The 49ers finished with a 4-12 record on the season.

The Packers, on the other hand, were technically still in the playoff hunt as recently as Week 13, but a loss to the lowly Cardinals all but eliminated them and cost head coach Mike McCarthy his job. Aaron Rodgers managed to play in all 16 games and had a pretty respectable season, but the Packers just could not find sustained success. They finished the season 6-9-1.

Finally, the Minnesota Vikings entered its Week 17 game against the Bears needing a win to make the playoffs. Instead, they laid a figurative egg and failed to compete, and their loss allowed the Eagles to instead return to the playoffs with a chance to defend their Super Bowl title. The Vikings finished 8-7-1.

AFC Playoff Picture

I did a little better predicting the AFC playoff participants, only missing on two teams. The Patriots were my preseason pick to win the Super Bowl, but I don’t think they are necessarily favored right now, with the Chiefs looking much more dominant from week-to-week. Still, they are the Patriots and have represented the AFC in the last two Super Bowls so you can never really count them out.

The Ravens ended up making the playoffs as the AFC North champion, though they are rewarded with a visit from the 12-4 Chargers. The home game should help, but this might just be the year that Philip Rivers gets to the Super Bowl for the first time in his career.

My two wrong predictions weren’t both terrible; the Steelers were in the playoff mix and controlled their own destiny until a Week 14 loss to the hapless Raiders made it a little more difficult. After losing to the Saints during Week 16, they needed a tie between the Colts and Titans to back into the playoffs… which obviously didn’t happen. They finished the season 9-6-1.

The Jaguars were another story. They were a mess all season, and finished fourth in a division I thought they were going to win. After facing off against the Patriots in last season’s AFC Championship, there were high hopes, hopes that the Jaguars could not reach. They finished the season 5-11.

This Weekend’s Games

Saturday

#6 Indianapolis Colts (10-6) at #3 Houston Texans (11-5)

4:35pm EST, ESPN/ABC; Line: Houston (-1), O/U 48.5The fact that Houston is only favored by one point at home indicates that this game is probably fairly close to a toss-up. The Colts won their way into the playoffs by defeating the Titans in Sunday Night Football last week, while the Texans clinched the division by defeating the lowly Jaguars. The two teams split their two regular season games, with each club winning on the other’s home field with a combined score of 58-58. Will we get a repeat of that in the third matchup of the season? Or will the Texans benefit from home-field advantage now that the playoffs have started?

According to Football Outsiders’ Weighted DVOA metric, the Colts are playing better recently, ranking 4th compared to the Texans 13th. Overall, the Colts are 8th, thanks to Top 12 DVOA rankings in offense, defense, and special teams. The Texans, on the other hand, are 11th overall, mostly due to their 21st-ranked offense.

Something will have to give in this matchup, and I’m leaning towards an upset from the Colts, and I expect it to be a low scoring one at that. Prediction: Colts 19 – Texans 16

#5 Seattle Seahawks (10-6) at #4 Dallas Cowboys (10-6)

8:5pm EST, FOX; Line: Dallas (-2), O/U 43.5With nothing to play for – they were locked into the 4th seed, the Cowboys played their starters for most of the game against the Giants, securing the victory and assuring that all division winners finished with 10 wins. The Seahawks clinched a playoff spot after a Week 16 victory against the Chiefs, and needed a win to ensure that they remained in the #5 spot.This game is also a rematch, with the Seahawks prevailing 24-13 (in Seattle) when the teams met in Week 3.

Dallas is the lowest-ranked playoff team according to Weighted DVOA (19th), meaning that their play down the stretch didn’t exactly inspire confidence despite winning the division. The Seahawks aren’t markedly better (ranking 12th), but they performed much better than expected in what a lot of folks expected to be a rebuilding season.

The Cowboys were 7-1 at home in the “House that Jerry Built,” while the Seahawks were 4-4 away from the 12th Man in Seattle. I think home field prevails in this one (as much as I like to see the Cowboys lose). Prediction: Cowboys 21 – Seahawks 13

Sunday

#5 Los Angeles Chargers (12-4) at #4 Baltimore Ravens (10-6)

1:05pm EST, CBS, Line: Ravens (-2.5), O/U 42The Chargers have the second best record in the AFC, yet are relegated to the 5th spot as a wildcard. Had they beaten the Ravens at home two weeks ago (they lost 22-10), they may have overtaken the Chiefs for the AFC West title and clinched home field themselves. The Ravens needed a victory against the Browns during Week 17 to clinch the AFC North, and it was their clearest path to the playoffs. They managed to hold on against the Browns, winning 26-24.

DVOA likes the Chargers more than the Ravens, both overall (LAC 3; BAL 6) and recently (LAC 3; BAL 7) and I would have to agree. The Chargers were 7-1 away from the soccer stadium they play their home games, and their four losses on the season were to teams that are all in the playoffs (Rams, Chiefs, Seahawks, and Ravens).

I don’t know if I like a Los Angeles team traveling to the other side of the country in January, but it is expected to be near 50 degrees tomorrow when the game starts, so maybe it won’t matter that much. The Chargers have the edge, and would travel even further east next week should my other AFC prediction come to bear as well. Prediction: Chargers 27 – Ravens 14

#6 Philadelphia Eagles (9-7) at #3 Chicago Bears (12-4)

4:40pm EST, NBC, Line: Bears (-6.5), O/U 41.5The Bears would have a first round bye if they were in the AFC; instead they get a home game against the defending Super Bowl champions. The Eagles looked like they might miss the playoffs entirely, but a 5-1 stretch to close out the season – coupled with the Vikings loss on Sunday – allowed them to make the playoffs to defend their title.

I’d like to think that the Nick Foles magic could continue for another run, if only so that the Patriots could exact revenge for last season’s Super Bowl. But the Bears’ defense is terrifying at times, with Khalil Mack wreaking havoc from multiple spots along the defensive front. (Unless the Raiders find a true diamond in the rough with the picks they acquired for Mack before the season, that trade may end up being one of the most lopsided trades ever). The Bears offense is not scary, however, but they do just enough to come out on top.

DVOA says the Bears defense is the best by a pretty substantial margin, but their offense is pretty pedestrian, ranking only 20th. The Eagles are pretty average overall (at least according to DVOA), with an overall rank of 15th. The line in this one is the largest for a reason, and I don’t see it going any other way. Prediction: Bears 23 – Eagles 7

 

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