NFL Wildcard Weekend Picks: The March to 11-0 Begins

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Welcome to Wildcard Weekend!

Wooooooooohooooooo!!!

Or maybe it’s more like wooooooooh (LOUD MOUTH FART SOUND)…

If your memory is as sharp as mine, you’re probably having trouble getting excited for this first round of the NFL playoffs because last year’s opening round sucked major nutsack.

To refresh your memory:

  • All four favorites covered (Houston over Cincinnati, Green Bay over Minnesota, Baltimore over Indianapolis, Seattle over Washington).
  • Six of the eight teams didn’t crack 20 points (and the two that did only put up 24 points each).
  • Four of the eight quarterbacks threw for less than 200 yards (and not one of them got to 300).
  • There were few memorable individual performances (Anquan Boldin had 145 yards on 5 receptions, Arian Foster had 174 total yards…but you never would have remembered those performances if I didn’t write them here).
  • Three of the four games saw at least a 10-point final margin of victory.
  • While I would argue that there can be plenty of excitement in a blowout, it doesn’t come by way of a 24-9 final score. There wasn’t that 45-28 jaw-dropper like the 2011 wildcard round when New Orleans handled Detroit by 17 points in a super-exciting game.
  • I’m not exaggerating when I say the most interesting moment of last year’s wildcard round was when the Vikings announced just minutes before their Saturday night game that Joe Webb would be starting at QB over the injured Christian Ponder…because for a second there was hope that we’d get treated to a decent game. But then we all saw Webb’s first pass attempt and remembered this was a guy who couldn’t overcome Christian Friggen Ponder on the depth chart.
  • We also witnessed a maniacal head coach blatantly try to ruin the career of one of football’s newest stars when Mike Shanahan continued to march Robert Griffin out onto FedEx Field on one good leg. I’d hate to think the lingering memory of the 2012 playoffs is “the day the RGIII magic went away for good.”

Let’s move on because this is getting depressing.

While the wildcard round traditionally has at least one blowout, there’s reason to be hopeful for a much more entertaining slate of games this time around. Look no further than the offenses that are getting ready to play this weekend. Exit Baltimore, Minnesota and Houston. Enter Philadelphia, San Diego and New Orleans. Seven of the eight teams playing in round one ranked in the top half of the league on offense according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings.

That may not seem like a big deal, but for reference, last year’s opening weekend saw five teams in the bottom half of the league from an offensive standpoint.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s back up a step and take stock of the entire 12-team playoff field. It’s a particularly intriguing one.

In the AFC we have…um…well, what the hell do we have with these six teams? No overwhelming favorite. No team really peaking on its way into the playoffs. No quarterback having a record-setting year that we can look to as the X factor of the conference (I’m kidding, I’m kidding). Oh, and let’s not forget backbreaking injuries to the top four seeds that could easily be used as an excuse if/when any of them lose over the next month. The AFC is up for grabs because everyone kinda sucks.

In the NFC we have…well, we also have a cluster fuck, but it’s not a cluster fuck of mediocrity. It’s a cluster fuck of competence and goodness. The obvious names that we expected to be here in September are here: Seattle, San Francisco, Green Bay and New Orleans (Green Bay’s 8-7-1 record seems like it belongs in the AFC, but let’s not forget Aaron Rodgers missed eight games). And the two surprises, Carolina and Philadelphia, are beyond scary. The Panthers have won 11 of their last 12 games (while only allowing an opponent to score more than 20 points once…in the loss at New Orleans). The Eagles have won seven of their last eight (including five wins by two touchdowns or more). These two newcomers to the playoff party might be the most dangerous. The sucky part of all this for the NFC teams (but to the delight of us fans) is that wildcard weekend features two incredible matchups between four NFC teams that could lay claim to being the best in the conference.

Can we petition the NFL to have the two AFC games decided by computer simulation while extending the length of the two NFC games to 120 minutes each? Would anybody be upset with that?

Before we jump into this weekend’s picks, let me throw some random numbers and facts out there for you. Use the info, don’t use the info, I don’t care…I already got you to click on this blog post, didn’t I?

  • Since the start of the 21st century, the 2007 Giants was the worst team to win the Super Bowl, coming in at #14 on Football Outsider’s DVOA rankings.
  • This year only the Packers are ranked lower than that mark. They’re 21st in DVOA, but there’s a huge caveat there…Mr. Rodgers’ broken collarbone that forced him to the sidelines for eight weeks.
  • San Diego (12) and Indianapolis (13) are the other two teams walking that fine line between playoff-worthy and mediocrity.
  • Five of the top 10 teams in Defensive DVOA made the playoffs (and eight of the top 16 teams).
  • The two worst defenses, statistically speaking, made the playoffs: Green Bay and San Diego (interestingly enough, if Dallas had won the NFC East instead of Philly, it would be the three worst defensive teams in the playoffs).
  • On the other side of the ball, nine of the top 10 teams in Offensive DVOA made the playoffs.
  • No playoff team is worse offensively than Cincinnati (#17). Kansas City (15) and Indianapolis (13) are close.
  • And looking at the unit that correlates the least to making the playoffs, only four of the top 10 teams in Special Teams DVOA made the playoffs.
  • And two of the 10 worst special teams units made it to January: New Orleans (24) and Philly (25). Since these two teams play each other this weekend, are we going to see neither team being able to return a kick or a punt more than five yards? Or does it swing the other way and we see special teams touchdown after special teams touchdown?
  • Eight of the top 10 quarterbacks according to QBR are in the playoffs.
  • Alex Smith is the worst playoff QB, ranking 20th in QBR.
  • Cam Newton (17) and Andy Dalton (16) are right in Smith’s neighborhood.
  • There are four Super Bowl-winning QBs in the playoffs (Brady, Manning, Brees, Rodgers).
  • There are three others who have made it at least to a conference championship game (Smith, Rivers, Kaepernick).
  • There are three more who have made the playoffs but haven’t yet gotten past the divisional round (Dalton, Luck, Wilson).
  • And then there are two making their playoff debuts (Newton, Foles).
  • None of that means anything, of course, as Joe Flacco proved last year.
  • Beware of the #5 seeds. San Francisco and Kansas City both deserved to win their respective divisions in a normal year, but they just so happened to be playing in the same division as their conference’s #1 seeds. Even though neither the 49ers nor the Chiefs are going to play a home game in the playoffs, the rest of the league might want to be on high alert still. Both of those teams went 6-2 on the road this year.
  • So did Philadelphia, who will take their road success to Carolina in the second round if they can get past New Orleans on Saturday.
  • If you’re looking ahead to the Super Bowl already, remember that the NFC went 34-30 against the AFC during the regular season.
  • But here’s the interesting thing: the NFC West went a ridiculous 13-3 against the AFC in 2013, meaning the rest of the NFC went 21-27 against the other conference.
  • Does that mean there is one elite division in all of football and seven mediocre ones? Possibly. If Seattle and San Francisco run rampant through the playoffs, we’ll have our answer.
  • The NFC is currently a 2.5-point favorite over the AFC in the Super Bowl.

A final note before we pick these first four games. I have a sports gambling bucket list that is becoming quite the nuisance, mostly because I haven’t been able to knock anything off the list in my 13 years of gambling. One is to win a March Madness bracket pool (if Illinois had beaten UNC in the National Title game in 2005, I would have been able to cross this off the list). Another is to win an NFL Suicide Pool (have never even come that close…I usually make it to week 5 or 6). The third is to go undefeated during a fantasy football season (there’s gotta be a way to do this). And the final bucket list item is one that I plan to take care of over these next five weeks…going 11-0 against the spread in the NFL playoffs. Last year I went 8-3 (after a 1-3 start in Wildcard weekend I’ll have you know). Not bad. But not the bucket list sweep that I need.

Let’s see if I can keep that dream alive beyond the first game of the first weekend of the playoffs (something I couldn’t do last year). Here are the Wildcard round picks:

Kansas City @ Indianapolis (-1) – Saturday, 1:35pm PST

What the numbers say: It all tilts in Kansas City’s favor, but not drastically. The Chiefs are the better overall team (7th in DVOA vs 13th for the Colts), the better defensive team (9th for KC, 16th for Indy) and they have the best special teams unit in football (compared to Indy’s 17th-ranked group of specialists). Only the offensive numbers favor the Colts (Indy was the 13th-ranked offense while Kansas City was 15th). While the Colts had a respectable +55 point differential in the regular season, Kansas City blew them out of the water by outscoring their opponents by 125 points.

The Chiefs went a ghastly 1-5 against playoff teams this year (caveat alert: Their week 17 loss to San Diego was accomplished with mostly backups). The Colts went 4-2 against eventual playoff teams. And the Colts crushed the Chiefs in their head-to-head matchup 23-7. And that game was in Kansas City!

You can see why Vegas made this game essentially a coin flip.

What I say: Both teams could play the “no respect” card. The Chiefs won 11 games (starting the season winning nine straight), but are underdogs against a team that looks inferior in every aspect of the game on paper?? The Colts beat the Chiefs by 16 points just two weeks ago on the road, but now they’re only favored by one point at home???

I’m siding with the Colts on this one. They should be favored by the standard three points. The biggest knock against Indy in the regular season is that they played down to their competition. Obviously that’s not a concern in the playoffs. These teams are very evenly matched, and I don’t feel right betting against Andrew Luck in his first home playoff game. He got that “welcome to the playoffs” moment out of the way last year, now it’s time for him to make a mark in the postseason. I’ve got a six-point win for Indianapolis (the same margin of victory they had in home wins against Seattle and Denver earlier this year). Indianapolis covers and wins 27-21.

New Orleans @ Philadelphia (-3) – Saturday, 5:10pm PST

What the numbers say: New Orleans rates out as the 4th best team in the NFL according to Football Outsiders. Philly wasn’t far behind, coming in at #8. While the Eagles have the offensive advantage (2nd vs 5th), the Saints have the edge on defense (10th vs 23rd). The special teams difference is negligible as I already mentioned both teams are in the bottom third of the league in this area. As was the case in our first game, one team had a far superior point differential in the regular season. And once again, it’s the road team that wins in this category (New Orleans’ point differential was +110 while Philly’s was +60).

Neither team was particularly awesome against the other good teams of the NFL. The Eagles went 1-3 against playoff teams while the Saints went 2-3. And if you’re into the “Drew Brees struggles on the road” theory, his team did manage to lose five of its final six road games this year.

What I say: I’m eliminating that “can’t win on the road” factor from my decision…because if you’re going to make a decision based on the Saints’ 3-5 road record in 2013, then you also have to ding the Eagles for only going 4-4 at home. Let’s pretend those two anomalies cancel each other out. I have to pick the Saints in this game. If all other things are equal, I have to go with the offensive juggernaut that’s been an offensive juggernaut for many years…the genius NFL coach who’s been a genius NFL coach for many years…and the Pro Bowl QB who’s been a Pro Bowl QB for many years. What I’m trying to say is that while the Eagles offense, Chip Kelly and Nick Foles appear to be on the same level as their New Orleans counterparts, I just have to give the nod to the guys who have proved it over and over.

You know why else I love the Saints in this game? Because this just might be the overflowing bandwagon game. The one where 85% of the public money comes in on one team because of one statistic or narrative that gets overplayed in the media. Drew Brees and the Saints can’t win outdoors and they can’t win in the cold weather! Turns out they’ll be forced to play outdoors AND in the cold on Saturday night! They have no chance!

Give me a Saints mini-upset as they win 31-26.

San Diego @ Cincinnati (-7) – Sunday, 10:05am PST

What the numbers say: A little closer than you think, actually. The Bengals check in as the 9th best team in the league (17th on offense, 5th on defense and 12th on special teams). The Chargers got all the way to #12 in the league after their late season push (3rd on offense, 32nd on defense and 15th on special teams). The Bengals also had a solid +125 point differential while the Chargers outscored its opponents by only 48.

Both teams were awesome against the stiffest competition: San Diego went 5-2 against playoff teams (including the week 17 win over Kansas City’s B team), and Cincinnati went 4-0 (including a 17-10 win over San Diego in week 13).

The Bengals obviously have a decided advantage…more so than any team in the first two games we previewed, but considering the magic it took for San Diego to even get into the postseason, the gap’s not as large as you might expect.

What I say: As improbable as it seemed a few weeks ago, I kept telling people I was rooting for San Diego to get that #6 seed over the other teams vying for the spot. My thinking was that the Chargers’ offense would be far more entertaining this weekend than whatever the hell Miami, Baltimore or Pittsburgh could throw out there. Unfortunately I no longer think that’s the case. Remember how there must be at least one blowout in every Wildcard round? This is it. Cincy has been a monster at home this year. I don’t totally distrust Andy Dalton at home. There are so many weapons on that offense now. AND despite the numerous injuries, the Bengal defense has still performed  very well in the second half of the year. I don’t see where the Chargers will get the advantage (and if you point out that Andy Dalton just tossed a cool four interceptions in his team’s final home game one week ago, I will quickly change the subject and look at you like you’re crazy).

I hate to do it because I’m not rooting for this to happen, but I’m seeing a Cincinnati cover and win by a score of 34-13.

San Francisco (-3) @ Green Bay – Sunday, 1:40pm PST

What the numbers say: This is a pointless exercise for this game. Aaron Rodgers’ half-season injury makes any numbers Green Bay put up in 2013 completely useless. The Packers were 21st in total DVOA (9th on offense, 31st on defense and 19th on special teams). San Francisco was the 6th best team (8th on offense, 13th on defense and 7th on special teams). The 49ers were certainly much more balanced. And that second-to-last rated defense for Green Bay is scary. You can’t blame too much of that on Rodgers’ injury (sure you can blame some…not as many long offensive drives leading to a more tired defense, etc, etc, etc).

The point differential is another useless stat this time around: San Francisco’s was +134 (the 3rd best mark in football), Green Bay’s was -11 (the only team in the negative in the playoffs).

Somewhat surprisingly, both teams were terrible against playoff teams. The Packers were 0-3 (one of those losses coming when Rodgers was out) and the 49ers were 2-4 (including an opening-weekend win over these Packers in San Francisco).

It’s probably best to ignore all stats related to Green Bay’s season when picking this game.

What I say: It seems like almost every year a wildcard team that won 11 games in the regular season is forced to travel to a divisional champ that finished with only seven, eight or nine wins. And every time, we all bet heavily on the road favorite because “how could they possibly lose??” And every time, we’re proven wrong. Don’t you remember Denver 29, Pittsburgh 23 during the 2011 playoffs? The one where Tim Tebow and the 8-8 Broncos got a huge overtime win against the 12-4 Steelers. Or how about the 2010 playoffs? There was outrage that the 11-5 Saints had to travel all the way to Seattle to face the 7-9 division-winning Seahawks. What a slap in the face. Except that Seattle won by five.

What am I trying to say? That I think Aaron Rodgers finally gets his revenge on San Francisco for not drafting him in 2005 (and more recently, revenge for three straight 49er wins over the Packers, including last year’s embarrassing playoff blowout at Candlestick Park).

Rather than flip a coin on this game, which is what I really want to do, I’m going to use the weather as the final deciding factor. I hear it’s supposed to be something like -45 with the windchill when this game kicks off on Sunday night. I’ll take Rodgers in the elements and count on an incredible 38-35 win for the Packers (and if I turn it out to be wrong, maybe Green Bay will at least only lose by 1-2 points so we can still complete the four-cover weekend).

Just for shits and giggles, here are my girlfriend’s picks for Wildcard weekend:

  • Indianapolis (-1) over Kansas City: “Because every time I pick KC they lose, and most of the time that I pick Indianapolis they win. Natural conclusion, Indy wins.
  • New Orleans (+3) over Philadelphia: “The Saints are one of the teams I tend towards usually, and Philly is one of the teams I tend away from…for no real reason.”
  • San Diego (+7) over Cincinnati: “Cincinnati probably got some snow this week so maybe their muscles are tight from all the practicing in the cold? That’s not good for your body.”
  • San Francisco (-3) over Green Bay: “I just feel like San Francisco wins so much.”

Enjoy the Wildcard round. Hopefully we get some actual wildness this year.

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