NFL Picks – Wild Card Weekend

This weekend, the NFL’s ‘Second Season’ begins.  The road to the Super Bowl glory begins, and along the way the dreams of 11 teams will end in heartbreak.  I’m just here to make the picks.  Here we go!

(Home teams in CAPS.  All lines per Sportsbook.com as of 8:00 pm on Thursday, January 3rd, 2013)

HOUSTON (-4.5) over Cincinnati

The last time these two teams met – in the Wildcard round of the 2011 NFL Playoffs – Texans defensive linemen J.J. Watt unofficially became J.J. Watt and gave the world a glimpse at why he’s likely going to be the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.  His snag and sprint to the end zone turned a 10-10 deadlock into a 17-10 Texans halftime lead.  From there, Houston would go on to win convincingly, 31-10.

In addition, Cincinnati has never won a playoff game under Marvin Lewis.  Still, the Bengals are arguably one of the hottest teams in the NFL entering the playoffs as winners of seven of their last eight games (the loan loss being a one-point loss to Dallas following a fourth quarter meltdown).  Bengals QB Andy Dalton is better now than he was a year ago.  So are his weapons, including receiver A.J. Green, who has developed into one of the most dangerous deep threats in the NFL.

Meanwhile, the Texans are entering this game as losers of three of their past four, falling from the 1-seed in the AFC to the 3-seed in the process.  As Grantland’s Bill Barnwell pointed out in his well-written column this week, despite Houston’s struggles, the Bengals have also been relatively inconsistent during their recent 7-1 stretch, especially struggling in the passing game (the biggest reason noted in the article for Houston’s recent slump).

In a game of pretty even-matched teams, I’m inclined to take the home team, especially given the success the Texans have had in this very game last year against the Bengals.

My prediction:  Houston 24, Cincinnati 17.  The Texans will move on to play at New England in the divisional round.

GREEN BAY (-7.5) over Minnesota

Just a week ago, Adrian Peterson and the Vikings defeated the Packers in Minnesota to clinch a playoff berth and knock the Pack from the 2-seed to the 3-seed in the NFC.  Their reward?  A January trip to Lambeau and a rematch with the Packers, once again with the entire season on the line.  The only other post-season meeting between these teams – in 2004, also in Lambeau – resulted in a 31-17 Minnesota upset.

Preliminary weather reports for Green Bay on Saturday night call for an approximate game-time temperature of 24 degrees (16 degrees with the wind chill).  This type of forecast would seem to favor a strong running game, since gripping / throwing the football will become more difficult as the game progresses.

Over two games this season, Peterson has diced the Packers for over 400 yards, looking nearly unstoppable in the process.  It goes without saying that the primary focus of the Green Bay defense will be on containing him and forcing Vikings QB Christian Ponder to beat them through the air.  Ponder looked especially effective in the Week 17 match up, throwing for 234 yards and three touchdowns, as well as making multiple timely throws in big spots to help seal the win for Minnesota.

Based on last week’s results, it appears the Vikings are riding the wave of momentum while the Packers may be reeling a bit in search of a way to corral AP and slow down the Minnesota offense.  The edge in this game would have to go to Minnesota, right?  After all, they have nothing to lose, have the momentum edge, and have a player in Peterson that the other team’s defense has shown no signs of stopping.  Not so fast.

This game has the makings of a classic Packers-at-home-in-the-playoffs beat down.  Here’s why:

(1) Although AP has run all over the Packers this season, they’ve already proven they can allow him to have a big game and still win.  In Week 13, Peterson ran for 210 yards in a 24-15 Packers victory.  QB Christian Ponder, on the other hand, was just 12/25 for 119 yards, 1 TD, and 2 INTs in statistically the worst game of his career.  While Ponder played much better in a dome last week (16/28 234 yards, 3 TD 0 INT), he’ll likely have to duplicate that solid performance for the Vikings to pull off the upset in Lambeau.  In 20-degree weather – in a hostile Lambeau environment – I just don’t see that happening.

(2) The Packers are the healthiest they’ve been at any point since the beginning of the year, especially on defense.  Clay Matthews has been steadily eased back into the lineup over the past few weeks.  His presence has been immediately felt, especially in the Packers’ pass rush, which was seemingly non-existent without him.  In addition, Charles Woodson has been cleared to play after suffering a broken collar-bone in Week 7 against St. Louis.  Not only is he the defense’s emotional leader, but is also capable of playing the line of scrimmage and helping to make tackles to slow down the Vikings running game.  Lastly, the Packers will have their full stable of wide receivers since Week 13, where Jordy Nelson injured his hamstring after just one catch (Greg Jennings had previously missed several games with a groin injury and abdominal surgery).

(3) Green Bay still has this guy.  The one constant over Green Bay’s up-and-down season has been the play of its quarterback.  Rodgers once again posted the highest QB rating in the NFL (108.0).  Through injuries, blown calls, and memorable performances by opposing players (read: Andrew Luck and Adrian Peterson), he has once again led the Packers to the top of the NFC North and into a home playoff game.  Sure, Green Bay didn’t get a first-round bye, but they’ve proven in past years to play better without it.  As long as the Packers have Rodgers, they’ll be a threat to not only win this weekend, but to play in New Orleans in February.

Prediction: I like the Packers to win 34-20 and head west to play San Francisco.

Indianapolis (+7) over BALTIMORE

Two words:  CHUCK STRONG.  Maybe it’s only one word (ChuckStrong, like LiveStrong?).  Either way, the Colts really have no business being in the playoffs this season.  The team was 2-14 last season, declined to resign one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever live, drafted Andrew Luck as their QB of the future, and then started the 2012 season off by learning head coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with a treatable form of Leukemia.  How did they respond?  An 11-5 record, the AFC’s 5-seed, and a chance for Pagano – now in remission – to coach a playoff game.

I’m not extremely religious, or even superstitious, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a sports fan over the years, it’s to never bet against the sentimental / emotional favorite.  Ever.  I don’t know the exact stats, but I’m pretty sure they win approximately 99% of the time.  Just trust me.  Besides, how awesome would Colts versus Broncos be in the second round?  Peyton Manning versus his former team and Andrew Luck.  New school versus old school.

Baltimore has lost four of five, with two of those losses coming at home.  Take the points.

Prediction: Indianapolis 21, Baltimore 20.

Seattle (-3) over WASHINGTON

If I told you at the beginning of the season that one of the NFC Wildcard match ups would feature an NFC West team with a rookie QB who beat out a highly-touted free agent for the starting job against a team that finished last in its division in 2011, started this season 3-6, and then won seven straight games to win its division and clinch a playoff berth, you would either:

(a)  Have no idea what I was talking about, since nothing this crazy could actually happen;

(b)  Not predicted Seahawks versus Redskins, of all matchups; or

(c) Straight up ingnored me altogether.

Either way, this matchup – at least on paper – shapes up to be the gem of the weekend.  Two elite rookie QBs in Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III.  Two solid ground games. All the makings for an incredible prime time match up.

RG3 hasn’t been quite as dynamic since nearly having his leg snapped off at the knee.  While the ‘Skins have found a way to win the NFC East and get into the playoffs, they have done so in large part to Alfred Morris and the running game.  Seattle’s defense is unlike anything they’ve faced during their improbable 7-game winning streak, and the odds of them being able to run all over the Seahawks aren’t extremely high.  RG3 will have to make some plays (with his arm and his legs) in order for Washington to emerge victorious on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks are 7-1 over the second half of the season, with the lone loss coming on the road against Miami in large part due to a questionable-at-best roughing the passer call (which occurred after the pass, nonetheless) that negated an interception that would have sealed the game.  Nevertheless, Russell Wilson has looked fantastic over this stretch, posting the 4th highest QB rating in the NFL this season (100.0) and tying Peyton Manning for the most ever TDs thrown by a rookie QB (26).

Overall, I expect this game to be a run-heavy, low-scoring contest, which favors, well….both of these teams.  I think the Seahawks are overall a better team than the Redskins, and so that’s where I’m leaning.  If this game were in Seattle, the spread would be almost double-digits.  Since it’s in D.C., I expect it to be a bit closer, but think Russell Wilson leads the Seahawks on a late scoring drive for the win.

The prediction:  Seattle 17, Washington 13.

Last Week’s  Record:  10-6

Season Record:  67-53-1

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