Without an ounce of football hyperbole or hot-takes, you could very easily argue that all eight of the teams playing in the 2018-2019 Wild Card weekend of the NFL playoffs could make a reasonable case to win their respective conference and make it to the Super Bowl. In other words: arrange your schedule accordingly, because we’re in for one heck of a weekend of playoff football. Here’s everything you need to know for a potential wacky wildcard weekend:
Indianapolis at Houston (-1.5)
They say you’re supposed to throw out the record books when two divisional rivals play each other. Considering that the sportsbooks have put Houston Texans as a 1.5 point favorite over the visiting Indianapolis Colts, meaning they’re not even getting the former the “standard” three-points to lay as the home team, that’s the approach the oddsmakers have taken with this game.
Consider the symmetry of these two teams. The Colts became just the second team in the last 40 years (in the 16-game schedule era) to reach the playoffs after starting the season with a 1-5 record, while the Texans became the fifth team in that same time frame to reach the playoffs after a 0-3 start. Over their last eight games, the Colts finished with a 7-1 record, while the Texans went 6-2.
Both of these teams rank in the top 10 in defense according to FootballOutsiders.com’s DVOA metric, with the Texans ranking 7th overall and the Colts ranking 10th overall. They’re both just below average against the pass (the Texans have the 18th-ranked passing defense DVOA while the Colts have the 20th-ranked passing defense DVOA), but they’re both extremely stout against the run (Indianapolis is ranked fourth, and Houston is ranked first in rushing defense DVOA).
The two division rivals split their two games this year, with each one winning the game in the other’s house. While this weekend’s slate of game features multiple fascinating quarterback duels, this matchup features two quarterbacks who started off the season slowly but played spectacularly down the stretch.
After perhaps shaking off the rust from an offseason spent recovering from a torn ACL, Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson has looked just as spectacular for large portions of this year as he did during his meteoric (if not curtailed) rookie season. In addition to showing off his ability to make defenders miss and then deliver passing strikes down the field, Watson finished among the top 12 quarterbacks in passing yards (4,165), passing touchdowns (26), yards per attempt (8.25), and completion percentage (68.3%).
Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck didn’t even have a 2017 season to which he could be compared. Yet, Luck went on to finish with the second-most touchdown passes in the NFL (39), the fifth-most passing yards (4,593), and the 11th-highest completion percentage (67.3%).
Both quarterback just so happened to put up big numbers when playing against each other’s teams this year. Watson had 642 passing yards and four total touchdowns (passing and rushing) in his two games against Indianapolis, while Luck had a staggering 863 passing yards and six touchdowns in those two games.
So, this game should effectively come down to the team that’s going to be able to get a stop when it matters most. The Colts have a very underrated group under defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, headlined by Defensive Rookie of the Year contender Darius Leonard. But Houston still has J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and linebacker Benardrick McKinney (named to his first Pro Bowl this season), coupled with a bit more postseason experience overall.
Pick: Houston (-1.5)
Seattle at Dallas (-1.5)
If you’re one of the true “football purists” who want to see a game in which two teams try to win the “old school” way – by running the football and playing stellar defense – then the Saturday night matchup featuring the Seattle Seahawks visiting the Dallas Cowboys.
Even if quarterback Russell Wilson was a darkhorse MVP candidate towards the end of the season (that nobody outside of the Pacific Northwest was really talking about), Seahawks’ head coach Pete Carroll has remained true to his modus operandi of controlling games with the ground game and sound defense, even if those two aren’t quite at the same level of what we’ve seen from his squads in years past. Seattle was the only team in the NFL who ran the football more than they threw it. With their top three running backs — Chris Carson, Mike Davis, and Rashad Penny — combining for over 2,000 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns on the ground; that’s also not even mentioning the 376 yards that Wilson got with his legs.
Perhaps most importantly of all, Carroll preaches one thing repeatedly: protect the football. Not coincidentally, the Seahawks turned over the football only 11 times this year, while taking it away 26 times.
But as mentioned, the Seahawks’ defense isn’t quite as formidable as the units we’ve seen in years past. While middle linebacker Bobby Wagner might’ve been the best player at his position in the NFL, and defensive linemen Frank Clark and Jarran Reid were among the best in the NFC this year, Seattle still finished the season ranked just below average (17th) in rushing defense DVOA.
Naturally, that’s the spot where Dallas is likely to focus their game plan on Saturday: cramming running back Ezekiel Elliott down Seattle’s throat as much as the game flow will possibly allow. During the Cowboys’ five-game winning streak, Elliott ran the ball just under 24 times per game, averaging over 116 yards per game. It’s also worth noting that when the Seahawks beat the Cowboys in Week 3 of the regular season (in Seattle), Elliott still ran for 127 yards on 16 carries.
Of course, it’s not like the concept of Dallas handing off the ball to Elliott is going to come as some major surprise to Seattle; expect them to load up as much as possible to stop him, and force quarterback Dak Prescott to beat them through the air.
And therein lies the proverbial rub for this game. Seattle knows that, even if Dallas – and their 5th-ranked rushing defense DVOA – were to stop them from running the football, they still have a battle-tested quarterback who ensures they’re never truly out of the game. But can the Cowboys say the same thing? As always, the question remains as to whether Prescott can be the guy who puts the team on his shoulders, as opposed to being one of the guys that are along for the ride.
Between Seattle’s experience under center, and at the coaching spot (one has won championships at multiple levels while the other is known for doing little more than clapping), take the traveling Seahawks to pull off the upset.
Pick: Seattle (+1.5)
Los Angeles Chargers at Baltimore (-2.5)
At the end of the season, what did a 12-4 record (tied for the best in the AFC) get the Los Angeles Chargers? The consolation prize of a Wild Card berth in the AFC West divisional race, and a matchup against the one team that probably nobody in the AFC wants to play in the postseason.
Simply put, the Chargers have all the talent to dethrone the New England Patriots and emerge out of the AFC as the champion, but they have to prove that they’re not the snake-bitten franchise that we’ve become accustomed to for the better part of the last two decades. They have an MVP-caliber quarterback, a Pro Bowl running back, dangerous pass catchers, a good enough offensive line, a very good front seven on defense, and an even better secondary. In any other world, that’s enough to be a Super Bowl team. On top of that, they’re an NFL-best 7-1 on the road this year. But can they overcome their habitual special teams woes and the inexperience of their head coach (Anthony Lynn) to truly cement themselves as a contender?
Ironically, the team that the Chargers are playing is the exact opposite – at least on offense –which makes them rather scary (despite their shortcomings).
For as tremendous as quarterback Lamar Jackson has been since being placed into the starting lineup (he’s led them to wins in six of Baltimore’s last seven games), he doesn’t have a single game with more than 204 yards passing (or more than two passing touchdowns). Baltimore’s wide receivers or running backs are just good enough to complement Jackson, but far away from making defensive coordinators lose sleep at night.
But Baltimore’s defense features everything that Los Angeles does, and then some. They were the #3 defense in overall DVOA, including a #6 ranking against the run and a #3 ranking against the pass. Even with only two players selected to the Pro Bowl (inside linebacker C.J. Mosley and safety Eric Weddle), they’re still as collectively stout as any unit in the postseason.
And in contrast to the other guy on the sidelines, head coach John Harbaugh went from being on the hottest of hot seats midway through the season to leading his team to their third division title – and sixth season with double-digit wins – during his tenure in Baltimore. This is still the same guy who presided over the team when they went from the #6 seed in the AFC playoffs to the eventual Super Bowl champion.
In terms of the actual “X’s and O’s” chess match, this might be the most compelling game of the weekend. Lessons will be learned and adjustments made based off the last time these two teams met (in Week 16). In that game, the Ravens beat the Chargers by 12 points in Los Angeles. This time, it’s in Baltimore, where the Ravens were 6-2 at home in the regular season.
This feels like a game which Baltimore can steal again, given the magic they have under center, perhaps the best defense in the AFC, and the history of the Chargers franchise finding ways to come up short.
Pick: Baltimore (-2.5)
Philadelphia at Chicago (-6)
During their win over the Minnesota Vikings last Sunday, there was ample chatter about whether the Chicago Bears should have “thrown” said game, and not only secure a matchup with their aforementioned floundering division rival in the first round of the playoffs, but avoid having to play the resurrected-like-Lazarus-from-the-dead Philadelphia Eagles.
Of course, the airtight Bears defense completely shut down the Vikings’ offense (and humiliated their infamous $84 million quarterback), earning them a matchup against a Philadelphia Eagles that are energized by a “St. Nick” who’s anything but a portly and jolly old man wearing red velvet and black boots.
By “St. Nick,” we’re of course referring to Nick Foles, who finished the season with a 3-0 record in relief of Carson Wentz, averaging over 320 yards passing and two touchdowns per game. But in the Eagles’ season finale against Washington, after tying an NFL record by throwing 25 consecutive completions, Foles left the game with an injury to his rib cage. There was some initial concern that the injury could potentially hinder him from playing against Chicago this weekend, but all the tests for any major injury came back negative, and he’s well on track to play this weekend.
Regardless, expect the Bears’ defense to test every ounce of the “Foles is Philadelphia’s postseason savior” storyline, pinning their ears back and going right after him as often as possible. The 50 quarterback sacks accumulated by Chicago this year was tied for the third-most in the NFL, as the Bears had eight different players tally at least three sacks this year.
The Bears defense, in general, is ranked both #1 in both overall defensive DVOA and passing defense DVOA (and #2 in rushing defense DVOA). They’re the classic team in which the defense is suffocating enough to where they can overcome an inconsistent offense. Even though there will be opportunities for Chicago quarterback Mitchell Trubisky to take advantage of a problematic Philadelphia secondary, the game plan is going to be for the defense to put the team on its back, and for the offense to simply not do enough to lose the game.
In any other situation, you’d expect Chicago head coach Matt Nagy to incorporate some wrinkles into the offensive game plan, but considering that Nagy and Eagles’ head coach Doug Pederson are former colleagues and proteges of Andy Reid, there’s not a lot that Nagy can likely to that Pederson won’t be familiar with. Plus, while the back four of the Eagles defense might be shaky, that front seven remains the most dominant part of the team.
If we’re to go by the adage that “offenses win games, but defenses win championships,” both of these teams have a version of the latter that’s good enough to make a run through the NFC. But if we’re strictly speaking from an apples-to-apples comparison, the Bears’ defense is the better among the two, and have enough playmakers at all three levels of the defense to make the difference in this game.
Philadelphia will give Chicago all the hell they can take, so while I still expect the Bears to come out of this one, I would recommend for anyone to take the points.
Pick: Philadelphia (+6)