[The great Adam “Shem” Shemesh gives us the definitive guide to NFL Wildcard Weekend. There are some solid games on paper including what could be a couple of epic match ups between the Lions and Seahawks and then also the Packers and Giants.
Of course, a set of fans are eagerly awaiting these results as they look out to the divisional games next weekend. The Chiefs got stomped by the Steelers early in the season, but may well play them if Pittsburgh can get past Matt Moore and the Dolphins. Fish! Fish! Fish!
You have to love playoff time in the NFL. In the voice of NFL Films’ John Facenda, “They call it Pro Football. It starts with a whistle and ends with a gun.”]
Another four months of NFL football have come and gone. Now, the playoffs are set to begin. Here is your guide to NFL Wildcard Weekend:
A. Houston Texans @ Oakland Raiders (4:40 EST, ESPN). Out of any game this weekend, this contest will feel the most like a preseason game. This is because of the already infamous quarterback matchup featuring Brock Osweiler and Connor Cook. Osweiler was signed to a $72,000,000 contract this offseason, but was benched late in the year as Tom Savage road Houston to AFC South glory. Cook built up a nice career at Michigan State, but he has never made an NFL start. His services are needed following injuries to All-Pro QB Derek Carr and backup Matt McGloin.
How the Texans Can Win: I’ll admit it. Their quarterback situation is dicey. Osweiler threw more picks (16) than TD’s (15), and that’s not exactly a winning formula. However, he does have a 1,000 yard rusher in Lamar Miller. The bright spot on this team is their defense. The Texans led all of football in yards allowed per game with 301.3- that’s just over three lengths of the football field. If the defense continues to play at a high level, Houston can sneak by the Raiders by using a run-based offense that capitalizes on good field position.
How the Raiders Can Win: Oakland’s situation under center is even more worrisome. Connor Cook spent the majority of his NFL career taking third-string snaps, and now he’ll make his first NFL start under the bright lights of playoff football. Having played with the Spartans, Cook is no stranger to big games. Some of his most notable victories came in the 2014 Big 10 Championship where Cook was named MVP and the 2014 Rose Bowl vs. Stanford. The Raiders have plenty of offensive weapons for Cook including veteran Michael Crabtree and second-year Alabama receiver Amari Cooper. Like the Texans, Oakland also has a serviceable running back in the form of Latavius Murray. According to ProFootballFocus.com, the Raiders have the league’s sixth-best O-Line, and their pass blocking is second-best. As for the Raiders’ defense, they house an MVP-caliber player off the edge in Khalil Mack. Mack totaled 11 sacks this year, and he’s facing a Texans’ line that’s one of the worst in football.
THE PICK: Raiders 31, Texans 17
B. Detroit Lions @ Seattle Seahawks (8:15 PM ET, NBC). Now, this one will feel more like a playoff game. Two veteran quarterbacks in Matt Stafford and Russell Wilson going at it in primetime. The Seahawks obviously have the most proven postseason record, but the Lions have built up a reputation as fourth quarter mastermind this year, winning eight games via the comeback.
How the Seahawks Can Win: After their gut-wrenching loss in Super Bowl 49, many believed Seattle’s dynasty was over. However, they’ve made it as far as the NFC Championship game in each of the past three seasons. While the Legion of Boom is not as formidable as it was in 2014, the Seahawks still boast some of the game’s top talent. Bobby Wagner led the league in tackles with upwards of 140, and Richard Sherman is still a top ten cornerback. On the offensive side of the ball, Russell Wilson has continued to blossom into a superstar. He passed for 4,219 yards and ran for 259. Tight end Jimmy Graham returned to being one of the best in the business in 2016. His 65 receptions, 923 yards, and 6 TDs all ranked in the top five of NFL tight ends. He is also a very good pass blocker and will be a formidable weapon in this game. I didn’t even mentioned that this game will be played in Seattle, where the ‘Hawks were undefeated (8-0) this year. My only concern for the Seahawks is their running game. Seattle tried to use a combo of Thomas Rawls and Christine Michael this year, but Marshawn Lynch’s absence was evident and sorely missed.
How the Lions Can Win: When Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson were in their primes, Detroit made the playoffs just once, losing in the Wild Card round in a blowout versus the Saints. Now, Calvin’s out and Stafford isn’t getting any younger. The Lions posted an 0-5 record vs playoff teams this year, including an 0-3 stretch to close out the year against the Cowboys, Giants, and Packers. All hope is not lost, though. Those three games were not blowouts. The Giants’ potent offense was held to 17 points, the Cowboys didn’t take the lead until the third quarter, and the Packers game was decided by a touchdown. Detroit posted an NFL-record eight fourth-quarter comebacks this year, so they can never be counted out. Don’t be surprised if this game is closer than you think.
The PICK: Seahawks 34, Lions 23
A. Dolphins @ Steelers (1:00, CBS). On Sunday, the game quality really picks up a notch. We’ll see our first afternoon game tomorrow as the Steelers play host to the surprising Dolphins. Miami will be playing without starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill- Matt Moore gets the nod, more on him in just a bit.
How the Dolphins Can Win: In their first year under the direction of head coach Adam Gase (former O-Coordinator in Chicago), the Dolphins surprised many by going 10-6, finishing second in the AFC East to arguably the NFL’s best team, the Patriots. So what about Gase transformed the team so much? “I believe it’s about the players, not the scheme,” “Doing what’s best for the players, developing the players, developing the team,” says Gase. Rather than building around a certain scheme a la Chip Kelly, Gase is using the talent he has to create what’s best for the players. The result has been tremendous. Running back Jay Ajayi burst onto the scene with back to back 200 yard games in the middle of the year, one of which came against Pittsburgh in a 30-15 Miami triumph. Wideout Jarvis Landry finished with 593 yards after catch, good for fifth in the NFL. Tannehill also saw improvement (2,995 passing yards, 67.1 comp. pct.), but he won’t be taking snaps on Sunday. That honor will go to Matt Moore, who fit in quite nicely as he clinched a playoff spot for Miami. Moore has completed 55/87 passes, throwing 8 TD’s and posting a great 105.6 QB rating.
How the Steelers Can Win: Pittsburgh got off to a hot start, but they hit a big rough patch in the middle of the year. They were 4-5 following a loss to Dallas (one of the most exciting games of the regular season), and things weren’t looking so good. But, like another QB we’ll get to later, the Steelers “ran the table” to close the season at 11-5. That stretch included six non-playoff teams, but the 7-game streak still gives the Steelers tremendous momentum. As for their talent, it may be unequaled in football. Under center, Ben Roethlisberger is one of the best, and the Super Bowl-winning QB threw for 3,819 yards this year. Near Roethlisberger you’ll find maybe the deadliest running back in the game- Le’Veon Bell. Bell earned player of the month honors by posting 748 yards and averaging 5.2 yards on the ground to close the season. Antonio Brown is the best receiver in the NFL. He caught 106 passes, totaling 12 touchdowns and 411 yards after catch. That big three threat is Super Bowl caliber.
The PICK: Steelers 32, Dolphins 20
B. Giants @ Packers (4:40, FOX). The final game of the weekend brings the most history. Manning and Rodgers. January and Lambeau. This one definitely has a playoff feel to it. It should be noted that the Packers beat the Giants 23-16 in Lambeau early in the year.
How the Giants Can Win: While being severe underdogs in this one, the Giants have a few tricks up their sleeve. New York has beat the Packers in Lambeau each of the last two times they won a Super Bowl. The Giants’ defense is led by Damon Harrison, Olivier Vernon, Janoris Jenkins, and Defensive POY candidate Landon Collins. In their first year together, the unit has catapulted the Giants into one of the best defenses in the league, and if they always seem to be coming up with big plays, it’s because New York has allowed the second least points in the red zone. The one area that wasn’t concerning to last year’s 6-10 group was the offense. With former offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo taking over as head coach, expectations were sky-high for a group led by Eli Manning and Odell Beckham, Jr. However, the offense has been a major letdown. The Giants recorded just one 100+ yard game from a running back, and the offense never scored more than 28 points (averaging just 14.8 PPG).
How the Packers Can Win: The Packers started off 4-6 this year, and talks of Aaron Rodgers’ demise were rapid. The (former) star QB admitted that his team needed to “run the table” if they wanted any chance of playing in the postseason. Since that point, he’s thrown 15 touchdowns to zero interceptions while rushing for 110 yards. It’s safe to say vintage Rodgers is back. He’s also armed with a healthy Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson this year, so nobody will have to worry about spelling Jared Abbrederis’ name (I had to search it up). Suddenly, Green Bay are the favorites and Rodgers is an MVP candidate. Normalcy has returned in Cheesehead Land.
The PICK: Packers 18 @ Giants 15 (as hard as this is coming from a Giants fan)
It should be a great weekend of football as we kick off 2017. It is single elimination. Every possession counts. It all makes for must-see TV. Happy Watching!