Vegas has got me right where they want me. Every single time I’ve tried to make a decision on a game for this upcoming Wildcard Weekend, I’ve been this guy:
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we dive into the 1st round picks, let’s get a high level view of the entire 12-team playoff field. By the way, is anyone else excited for Saturday so we can stop paying attention to the overload of stories about all the teams that didn’t make the playoffs?
It seems over the past 96 hours that the only football news I read/see/hear is related to the 24 teams that did not make the playoffs. The media is flooding us with stories on what the sad franchises of the NFL will do to try to turn things around. The 49ers, the Browns, the Dolphins, the Colts, the Giants. Maybe it’s just me, but once the regular season ends, I only want to talk about the playoffs. There are 12 teams vying for the Lombardi Trophy and there has to be a ton to pick apart and analyze about each of them. I know the media has to cover coaching changes and other end-of-season housekeeping stuff, but I hate that we don’t get any real playoff analysis in the meantime.
Let’s be better than that. I really don’t care what color wig Johnny Manziel might have been wearing in Vegas because I try not to obsess over the personal lives of guys who are going to be selling insurance in two years.
So what are my first impressions of this year’s playoff field? Glad you asked.
The Haves & The Have Nots
The playoff field is split almost evenly between the current crop of marquee teams, and a bunch of teams that are on the long-suffering list. Here’s the breakdown:
- New England, Pittsburgh, Denver, Green Bay and Seattle represent annual success over the past five years, 10 years, even 20 years. Only three of the past 12 Super Bowls haven’t featured at least one of these teams. Going back a bit further, these five teams have 20 combined Super Bowl appearances in the past 20 years, with 11 combined Super Bowl wins to show for it. (They also have 17 Super Bowl wins overall, but now I’m just rubbing it in.)
- So yeah, it’s safe to say these next seven teams will be getting all the love across the country from people who don’t have a dog in the fight.
- Cincinnati, Houston, Kansas City, Carolina, Arizona and Minnesota represent failure in the NFL. These six teams have combined for one Super Bowl win. That win belongs to the Chiefs way back in 1969. While the Panthers and Cardinals have both made a single Super Bowl appearance in the 21st century, the other four teams haven’t even been part of the festivities since 1988 (Bengals), 1976 (Vikings), 1969 (Chiefs), or in the case of Houston, forever.
- The one team I haven’t touched yet is Washington. Historically, they fall into the once-proud franchise group. After all, they have three Super Bowl wins so it would seem they belong more in Group 1. But the last Lombardi Trophy came all the way back in 1991, and they haven’t even sniffed another once since then. On top of that, they have the distinction of being run by the worst owner in football. If you think the ‘Skins don’t belong in the “failure” group, make sure to read what I wrote about them a year ago.
- As usual, the NFL can’t lose no matter who emerges as this year’s Champ. Either a tortured fan base gets its first trophy in a long time / forever, or one of the marquee (read: popular) franchises adds another to the trophy case.
But What About 2015?
The history of these 12 teams is nice and all, but what about how they’ve performed this year? Are we looking at a stacked group or a mediocre group? Is one conference noticeably better than the other conference overall? In certain areas? Let’s try to answer some of that stuff now. (All rankings in this section come from FootballOutsiders.com, where their DVOA and efficiency metrics are far better indicators for team & individual performance than traditional stats):
- Of the 12 playoff teams, 10 of them rank in the top 12 in Team Efficiency. The eight best teams in the NFL all made the playoffs. The Jets (9th) and Bills (12th) are the two non-playoff teams to crack the top 12. Washington (15th) and Houston (18th) are the teams that got into the final 12 without being one of the 12 best teams. Green Bay (10th) and Minnesota (11th) complete that non-top-eight foursome.
- So if you’re scoring at home, the best eight teams in football are, in order: Seattle, Cincinnati, Arizona, Carolina, Kansas City, New England, Pittsburgh and Denver.
- While the AFC has five of the top eight teams, you can understand why Vegas has installed the NFC as 2.5-point favorites in the Super Bowl. They have three of the top four teams.
- Furthermore the #1 team in football, Seattle, is light years ahead of everyone else. According to FootballOutsiders, the 2nd best team in the NFL, Cincinnati, is closer to the 7th ranked team (Pittsburgh) than they are to the Seahawks. The last time the #1 team had such a huge lead in DVOA was two years ago when Seattle won the Super Bowl. Just warning you.
- On defense, only Minnesota (14th) and Washington (21st) rank outside the overall top 12. Denver is #1 in this category, followed by three NFC teams: Carolina, Arizona and Seattle.
- On the offensive side, the AFC is unbalanced. They have four teams ranked in the top six, but then their final two teams, Houston and Denver, rank 24th and 25th respectively. Over in the NFC, all six teams are between 2nd (Seattle) and 16th (Minnesota) on offense.
- As quarterbacks go, so go the offenses. The AFC has the 2nd (Tom Brady), 4th (Andy Dalton) and 5th (Ben Roethlisberger) best QBs. But they also have the 16th (Alex Smith), 20th (Brian Hoyer) and 36th (Peyton Manning) ranked guys.
- If AJ McCarron had enough passes to qualify, he would be ranked 23rd, just behind Brock Osweiler.
- The NFC’s QB ranks are: 1st (Carson Palmer), 3rd (Russell Wilson), 7th (Kirk Cousins), 11th (Cam Newton), 17th (Aaron Rodgers), and 21st (Teddy Bridgewater).
- From a non-stats standpoint, it certainly seems like the AFC trumps the NFC in wide receivers / tight ends. The AFC will feature Antonio Brown, A.J. Green, DeAndre Hopkins, Demaryius Thomas, Rob Gronkowski and Tyler Eifert while the NFC will feature…Larry Fitzgerald and DeSean Jackson? Even if you want to include Doug Baldwin and Greg Olsen in that mix, the AFC wins big time.
- From a coaching standpoint, the playoffs feature only four coaches who are beyond reproach: Bill Belichick, Ron Rivera, Bruce Arians and Pete Carroll. Joke all you want about the way last year’s Super Bowl ended, but Carroll is solid with all decision making. And even though Arians and Rivera haven’t sniffed a Super Bowl, their track records in the regular season over the past couple years speak for themselves.
- We also have some relative newcomers to the playoff coaching ranks. Bill O’Brien, Mike Zimmer and Jay Gruden have 0 combined playoff games as head coaches while Gary Kubiak has a 2-2 record from his time with Houston.
- And then there are the four enigmatic coaches. All of them have vast playoff experience and yet they are the four leading candidates to massively screw something up at the exact wrong moment. I’m talking of course about Marvin Lewis (0-6 playoff record), Andy Reid (10-10 playoff record including five NFC Championship game appearances), Mike Tomlin (5-4 playoff record with two Super Bowl appearances) and Mike McCarthy (7-6 playoff record with one Super Bowl appearance/win). I can’t stress enough how brutal the decision making and clock management of these four guys can be at times. Proceed very cautiously if making any sort of bets on their teams.
I don’t think we can attach a single title to this playoff group like “stacked” or “underwhelming.” I think we have a couple potential juggernauts, a couple punching bags, some awesome quarterback and receiver combinations and a handful of volatile coaches. It should be a lot of fun.
The Non-Bye Teams and The Picks
Now that we have a sense of the overall playoff field, let’s see if we can decide on the picks for each Wildcard game and maybe point out a couple burning questions / astute observations about each matchup. I’m sure we could find dozens of angles for every team, but let’s limit it so that you can finish reading this before J.J. Watt’s first sack on Saturday afternoon.
Kansas City (-3.5) at Houston
The Pick: Kansas City
The Score: Kansas City 19, Houston 13
- There’s a narrative out there (that I might have helped create) that says Houston’s schedule was a piece of cake, and if you look at their nine wins, all but one or two are against awful teams. That’s true. But Kansas City also had an easy schedule. If we focus on the Chiefs’ 10-game win streak to end the season and Houston’s 7-2 record in its final nine games, it actually works out to this: Kansas City, on average, faced the equivalent of the St. Louis Rams (16th in DVOA) every week while Houston’s opponents averaged out to be as good as the Chicago Bears (19th in DVOA).
- The reason the Chiefs get a slight nod from me on how they closed out the season is threefold: 1) They won all 10 games while Houston lost a couple in December, 2) Their opponents were tougher, even if only slightly, and 3) Their average margin of victory on the road during the 10-game win streak was 20. The road is where they’ll be throughout the playoffs.
- When I guessed the line for this game five days ago, I thought the Chiefs would be closer to a 7-point favorite. Being that far off makes me nervous.
- But another thing greatly in KC’s favor is that they’re getting their best pass rusher back in Justin Houston (22 sacks in 2014) at the exact same time as the Texans play their first game without offensive tackle Duane Brown. THIS IS HUGE (even if the Justin Houston / Houston Texans thing is confusing).
- Another thing to keep in mind, especially in this age of massive injuries, is the QB situation. Alex Smith has proven to be very durable, almost never missing games during his time in Kansas City. Brian Hoyer, on the other hand, has been very breakable. He came back from a torn ACL suffered in 2014, but has sustained two concussions in the last two months. Whatever you do, DO NOT FORGET THAT BRANDON WEEDEN IS LURKING. One big hit to Hoyer and the Texans’ fate lies squarely on the shoulders of the former baseball player / Cleveland 1st round draft pick / Dallas backup.
- The only positive things I can think to say for Houston are:
- This just seems too easy. I hate not being able to think of a good reason why the Texans could win a home game.
- J.J. Watt might ruin your life if you bet against him. Seriously.
Pittsburgh (-3) at Cincinnati
The Pick: Cincinnati
The Score: Cincinnati 30, Pittsburgh 27
- We all know the incredibly hilarious scenario that’s in play for the Bengals, right? Do I even need to say it? OK here it is. AJ McCarron will probably start the Bengals’ Wildcard game, and clearly you can see I’m picking Cincy to win. One week later when they play at New England, Andy Dalton could be ready to go. Of course Cincy has to start him. And of course there’s a good chance the Bengals lose. If their two games play out this way, three interesting things will happen: 1) Marvin Lewis will get a 30-year contract extension, 2) the “Dalton can’t win in the playoffs” narrative will be alive and well (stronger than ever actually), and 3) More than a couple idiot fans will be screaming for the Bengals to make McCarron the team’s starter in 2016. Sometimes a funny and almost-too-convenient narrative is nice to have because it saves me from doing any real analysis.
- One of the reasons this AFC North matchup on Wildcard Weekend is so intriguing is because of what happened during their two regular season meetings. In week 8, the Bengals won at Pittsburgh, 16-10, but Ben Roethlisberger was making his first start after rushing back from a sprained MCL and clearly wasn’t himself. It still took a late comeback by Cincinnati to get it done. Then in week 14, the Steelers won in Cincinnati, 33-20, but that was the game where Dalton broke his thumb in the first quarter and McCarron got shoved into action at QB. Still, the Steelers only put up two offensive touchdowns on the Cincy defense. So the Steelers will have their preferred guy at QB for this game, and the Bengals will have their backup who’s at least had several weeks to prepare and get to as good of a point as he can possibly be.
- But here’s the thing no one is talking about when discounting the Bengals because of McCarron and their yearly failures in the playoffs: This is by far the best all around team that Lewis has had in Cincy. In Dalton’s first four years, FootballOutsiders.com had the Bengals ranked 17th, 12th, 9th and 12th overall. This year they are the 2nd best team in football.
- I know the Steelers are the sexy pick. I know there’s talk of “the two #6 seeds are extra dangerous this year.” I get it. And I won’t tell you there’s no way Pittsburgh wins this game. But do not forget that Pitt went 3-3 on the road with a healthy Roethlisberger this year, that they just lost at Baltimore two weeks ago in a must-win game, and that DeAngelo Williams is probably out for this game. I know they didn’t skip a beat when Williams replaced Le’Veon Bell during the regular season, but how many game-changing running backs can they possibly have on the depth chart?
- As far as the coaching matchup goes in this one, we’re talking about an overly conservative coach in Marvin Lewis facing a schizophrenic wildcard in Mike Tomlin. Don’t rule out the possibility of Lewis seemingly frozen on the sideline while Tomlin uses all three of his timeouts and both challenges in a 30-second span.
Seattle (-6) at Minnesota
The Pick: Seattle
The Score: Seattle 25, Minnesota 7
- During Seattle’s three-year dominant stretch leading into this season, one thing you could say was that they were at least slightly more beatable on the road. And sure enough, they got off to an 0-3 road start in 2015. But that feels like ancient history because they’ve won five straight away from CenturyLink Field. By the time this game kicks off, it’ll be almost exactly three months since their last road loss. That’s impressive even if they did struggle to put away Matt Cassel in Seattle’s 13-12 win at Dallas on November 1st.
- Each of these teams played nine games against common opponents in 2015 with the Vikings amassing a 6-3 record in those games compared to Seattle’s 5-4 record. But the game we might want to look at most closely from the regular season is when Seattle went into Minnesota on December 6th and absolutely demolished the Vikings, 38-7.
- In that game, Adrian Peterson was held to 18 yards on eight carries and the Vikings never even scored an offensive touchdown (Cordarrelle Patterson’s 101-yard kickoff return was the lone score for Minnesota). A key player at each level of the Vikings’ defense was either out for the game or injured during the game.
- The biggest thing the Vikings have going for them is that the defense is mostly back to full health.
- There’s also the issue of the weather in Minneapolis on Sunday. Frickin’ Freezing. If nothing more, maybe that slows the Seahawks’ suddenly high-flying offense down.
- But therein lies another problem. The Vikings tend to give up a ton of rushing yards when they lose. Seattle has been pounding the ball on the ground even while Russell Wilson puts up awesome passing stats. And Marshawn Lynch is due back this week.
- Sometimes a team that got crushed by an opponent in the regular season can flip the script in their playoff matchup (see: Patriots vs Jets, 2010). But this doesn’t feel like one of those times.
Green Bay (-1) at Washington
The Pick: Washington
The Score: Washington 31, Green Bay 23
- The NFC East killed me this year. Not in the sense that I lost a ton of money on the teams in that division, but rather I lost the two bets I made with friends that severely eroded my street cred. The first bet was that Dallas would win the East. I gave my buddy even odds and the other three teams. I was that confident in the Cowboys. And then just the other day my friend who’s a diehard Washington fan reminded me that we also made a bet. If the Redskins’ pick landed in the top 10 in the 2016 Draft, he owed me a bottle of liquor of my choosing. If not, I owed him. They aren’t even drafting in the top 20!
- And all this Washington team has been doing is surprising us at every turn. Oh, they’re competitive within the putrid NFC East? Surprise. Oh, they might have a chance to edge out the Giants or Eagles for that elusive 7-9 division-winning record? Surprise. Wait a sec, they might get all the way to a respectable 9-7? Major surprise. And they’re facing Aaron Rodgers in the first round of the playoffs and they aren’t a massive underdog? Biggest friggen surprise of the year!
- If you think about this game long enough, it will fuck with your mind in a major way. Yes, the Rodgers that we have in our heads should beat this team. Yes, the Packers go to the playoffs every year and Washington’s recent history can’t even fetch the water for the Packers’ pedigree. But none of that really matters right now.
- The craziest thing in my mind that’s not immediately obvious to everyone is how similar the Packers are to this year’s Falcons. Atlanta started off 5-0 before limping to a 3-8 record the rest of the way, finishing 8-8. The Packers started off 6-0 and if the miracle Hail Mary in Detroit in week 13 doesn’t happen, they would have finished 3-6 for a 9-7 record. In the last 10 games of their season, they got blown out by good teams and struggled to put away the shittiest teams (except for Dallas). The sample size seems plenty big at this point. They aren’t a good football team.
- The only thing that scares me even a tiny bit about backing the Redskins is that they’re actually getting some respect (barely an underdog) and they seem a bit cocky about it (The “You Like That?” rally towels that will be given to every fan on Sunday seems like a bit much).
- Also, how can I be sure that Kirk Cousins doesn’t take a knee to end the game with his team trailing by one and being well within field goal range? You can’t tell me that type of mental meltdown isn’t at least in play a little bit on Sunday.
Don’t Forget The Props
Not convinced that you should back my game picks because my arguments weren’t very convincing? Fine, let’s look at some props that I’m zeroing in on for the weekend.
How many Wildcard Teams will win Wildcard Weekend?
The Pick: 2 (+225 odds)
Based on my picks above, I obviously think Kansas City and Seattle are advancing. Might as well try to get a decent payday out of it. The lowest odds are for three Wildcard teams to advance (+175). I know it’s not going to be 0 or four of them winning. If you want some protection, you could also bet one Wildcard team to win (4/1 odds). You’ll still profit no matter which bet pays off.
Who will record the most Passing Yards Wildcard Weekend?
The Pick: Kirk Cousins (+450), AJ McCarron (8/1)
I’m going with two picks. The reason for Cousins is because the guy’s on fire right now. He’s thrown for more than 300 yards in six of his past nine full games. While Green Bay’s pass defense ranks 6th overall, they could be playing without Sam Shields on Sunday. Most impressive of everything I looked at is how Washington is 6-1 in games where Cousins exceeds that 300 mark. If they haven’t figured out by now that Cousins should throw a lot when they want to win, someone should be fired.
The McCarron pick is more of a longshot, obviously. But Pittsburgh does have the 2nd worst pass defense of all the teams playing this weekend. The Steelers also have a great run defense, so here’s another team that should have to throw a lot to have success. When McCarron took over for Andy Dalton the last time these two teams met, he throw for 280 yards without playing the full game. A.J. Green happens to own the Steelers too. It’s worth a few bucks at least.
Who will record the most Receiving Yards Wildcard Weekend?
The Pick: A.J. Green (7/1)
Yes, Green only had four games of 100+ yards in 2015. And yes, his counterpart on the Steelers, Antonio Brown, looks like a much better option on the surface. After all, Brown had nine games of 100 or more yards and it probably would have been more if Roethlisberger played every game during the regular season. But Brown actually had pedestrian numbers in both games against the Bengals secondary. Green, on the other hand, had two of his best games of the year when facing the Steelers. In those two games, Cincy’s leading receiver combined for 17 catches for 250 yards. As I mentioned with my McCarron pick above, I think the Bengals will have to air the ball out pretty good if they want to win on Saturday night.
Even though I’ve made plenty of decisions in this column, I’m definitely still freaking out. Proceed with caution. Remember that next week we get to bet on the cream of the crop, and we’ll have seen what the four teams advancing out of Wildcard Weekend looked like. It’s probably better to go wild with bets next week.
Enjoy Wildcard Weekend.