I decided to forego an intro in favor of going deep on each of the games. I don’t know whether I’ll keep doing it for the rest of the playoffs or not, but I felt it made sense to try it in wild card round.
Wild Card Picks
Vegas Insider’s consensus lines used. Home teams listed in CAPS.
TEXANS -3.5 over Raiders: I won’t claim to have gone through every playoff game in NFL history, but this has to be the worst quarterback matchup of them all. Connor Cook, making his first career start after a discouraging relief appearance in Denver, versus Brock Osweiler, benched in Week 15 for being generally terrible. Somehow, Osweiler—who has featured in a Ringer article last month about the best playoff QBs to bet against of all-time—is the favorite, and the pick.
Here’s my logic in this. When the quarterback matchup is that bad, you might as well throw it out the window and pick the game based on everything else. Neither team is going to do much in throwing the ball, but it’s easier to judge what little passing game each team will have by their offensive lines, receivers, coaches and opposing defenses.
With the latter category in mind, I just don’t see how the Raiders can move the ball. Not that Houston will have an easy time doing so, but Oakland is throwing a rookie into his first ever NFL start against a defense that ranks seventh in DVOA and eighth in weighted DVOA. Moreover, the Raiders have been dependent on the passing game this year to win. Derek Carr was in the MVP conversation before getting hurt and their two most dynamic skill players are receivers. Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree can still make plays, but one of them has to match up with A.J. Bouye, recipient of a 90.9 PFF grade this season, the fourth-best mark in the league at the position. Robert Nelson may be an issue for Houston on the other side, but whether or not Oakland can take advantage is another question entirely. If they go with a healthy dose of screens—which they likely will given that Connor Cook has never started an NFL game—the Texans will be ready. As bad as Bill O’Brien has been as their head coach, Romeo Crennel has done a nice job as defensive coordinator and it doesn’t take a genius to know that the Texans will be loading the box throughout, daring the rookie to throw more than two or three yards downfield. Cook will have an advantage in his offensive line, which leads the league in adjusted sack rate, but it won’t come as a surprise if he gets jittery at the first signs of pressure. And even with that offensive line, it won’t be easy to stop Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney, who have 13.5 sacks and 39 QB hits combined this season, per NFL GSIS—especially if the Texans move around chess pieces to match one of them up with Austin Howard, whose 70.0 PFF grade is significantly lower than his compatriots’.
If Oakland decides to lean on the run, they’ll be depending on that offensive line to win them the game. Even behind Donald Penn, Kelechi Osemele and Rodney Hudson, running the ball into an eight-man box for an entire game probably isn’t the best way to win. Houston has also done a nice job defending runs to the left side—they rank 13th in adjusted line yards against runs to the left end and fifth on runs to the left tackle.
On the other side of the ball, Brock Osweiler will handicap Houston, but we already know that they can compete with the NFL’s version of Josh Smith. Sure, their schedule wasn’t tough and they feasted on the godawful AFC South, but is Oakland much better than the Indianapolis Colts right now? Without Carr under center, probably not. The Raiders finished 21st in weighted defensive DVOA—which seems high given how bad they were for the first part of the season—and ranked a putrid 25th in pass defense DVOA. It’ll likely be Sean Smith matching up against DeAndre Hopkins; a matchup that may not go as well as it did the first time these two teams met. Though Oakland’s sole strength in the secondary has come against #1 receivers, Osweiler (and Tom Savage before him) went out of his way to target Hopkins in Week 17. For all their mishaps, the Texans seem to have finally recognized that they should be utilizing one of the best receivers in football with more consistency. Oakland also has to deal with C.J. Fiedorowicz at tight end, a position they have struggled to cover, and Houston’s Bag of Talented Receivers that Still Need to Figure Stuff Out. Khalil Mack can pressure Osweiler, but subtract his eleven sacks and the Raiders have just 14 total. Without a Von Miller-esque performance from Mack (which isn’t out of the question), he won’t make the difference in this game.
Houston also has a decidedly better chance of running the ball. Oakland may stack the box as well, but they will do so with less consistency against a quarterback who, at the very least, has played a couple seasons in the NFL. Lamar Miller is expected to return from an ankle injury as well and despite being an overall disappointment, cam contribute. The first time around against the Raiders, Miller ran for 104 yards, his fourth-best game of the year.
Perhaps the only areas where Oakland can claim advantages are special teams and coaching. Oakland is 11th in special teams; Houston is 32nd, so field position may favor the silver and black if Houston proves unsuccessful in moving the ball. On the sidelines, I don’t think anyone other than Bill O’Brien’s parents will dispute that Jack Del Rio has been a decidedly better coach this season.
Those two factors, however, are nowhere near enough to win the Raiders a playoff game on the road. Before Connor Cook was forced into the starting job, they were dependent on the passing game to win. Now, without it, they don’t have a chance.
Lions +8 over SEAHAWKS: This pick came down to one stat for me. Per Sheil Kapadia, the Seahawks pass defense is 30th in DVOA since Earl Thomas broke his leg. The thing about playoff football is that the smallest hole in your team is going to be exposed. The team that can expose the opposition’s weakness better is probably going to win. In Super Bowl 50, the Broncos won because they exposed Mike Remmers and the Panthers couldn’t expose Peyton Manning. In Super Bowl XLIX, the Patriots mercilessly went after Tharold Simon after Jeremy Lane broke his leg early in the game. If those little flaws made big differences, then glaring flaws decide games and without Earl Thomas, the Seahawks have two glaring, ugly flaws.
The first, obviously, is their pass defense. They just haven’t figured out how to compensate for everything Thomas does—the Lions can attack them deep without fear of the repercussions that come with throwing at the best safety in the league. Matthew Stafford hasn’t been as aggressive, or generally good at football, since hurting his middle finger, but Detroit has a deep cast of receivers. Golden Tate, Anquan Boldin and Marvin Jones are going to get open against this defense and Stafford is going to find them eventually.
Seattle will likely pressure Stafford to some extent, but to what extent depends a lot on Travis Swanson’s status. If the center can return from a concussion, he and Taylor Decker can help out Laken Tomlinson enough to at least slow down Michael Bennett. Riley Reiff makes you nervous at right tackle, but it’s more likely he makes one or two errors than being a liability throughout the game. The Lions probably won’t find much success running the ball, but neither will their counterparts. As long as Stafford’s finger isn’t the same crippling issue as Carson Palmer’s a year ago, Detroit will be able to move the ball.
Seattle’s second major issue their offensive line, which has been unbelievably bad. Only one of their five starters has a PFF grade over 50, they rank 26th in adjusted line yards, 27th in power success, 30th in stuff rate and 25th in adjusted sack rate. The line has singlehandedly neutered their run game, which has dropped to 23rd in DVOA, and handicapped their passing attack. Detroit’s defensive line is an issue of its own, but even they can likely find success at the line of scrimmage. Ziggy Ansah’s play has picked up in recent weeks with both of his two sacks coming in the last three games, and Kerry Hyder has been a consistent presence on the edge this year.
However, Detroit’s defense is the most convincing argument against them. It ranks dead last in DVOA and pass defense, a bad sign when they have to go into Seattle and face Russell Wilson. They don’t have an answer to Doug Baldwin—even with Darius Slay healthy, he hasn’t been the same player this year—never mind Jimmy Graham. Detroit has allowed a 23.1 percent DVOA to opposing tight ends this season and that number won’t improve against the player ranked second in DYAR at the position.
The Seahawks also have a clear advantage at quarterback in Wilson. He’s thrown for over 4,200 yards and 21 touchdowns and has capabilities in the pocket that allow him to stand a chance with such a disastrous offensive line. Stafford has had a great season, but the finger injury looms over every throw he makes. It’s also worth noting that the Lions have been extremely dependent on winning close games, something that typically regresses.
Seattle’s offensive line and pass defense will allow Detroit to stay in it—and cover—but the Seahawks should still win the game.
Dolphins +10 over STEELERS: Matt Moore is not a good quarterback. In three starts, he has yet to throw for over 240 yards or make any plays of note, which doesn’t inspire confidence in a playoff game on the road. However, he has been adequate.
The Dolphins don’t depend on their quarterback to make tough throws downfield. Much of their passing game comes from screens and short throws designed to get Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker in space for yardage after the catch and Matt Moore can perform that relatively simple duty. Miami doesn’t need a big game from him; if they keep this game close, it will be because they run the ball and play good defense and both of those things are doable here.
Jay Ajayi finished the year seventh in DYAR and yards per attempt, fourth in rushing yards and first in PFF grading among running backs. The man is an absolute monster—he sheds tacklers in a way reminiscent of Marshawn Lynch. The first time these teams played, he was arguably the deciding factor, rushing for 204 yards and 8.16 per carry. He may not be the deciding factor in the game—I don’t think Miami is winning this one—but he will be the deciding factor against the spread.
While I generally believe in numbers, they have overrated Pittsburgh’s defense. They’ve been overly dependent on red zone defense—an area where they rank fourth in DVOA, per Football Outsiders’ premium data—which has compensated for the rest of their defense. That evens out over a long period and furthermore, Miami has been equally immaculate in the red zone on offense.
Other than Moore—who I don’t consider a liability so much as a neutral piece of their offense—the only area of concern for Miami’s offense is the line. Brandon Albert has struggled all year at left tackle and the team is 22nd in adjusted sack rate. With Moore under center, the Dolphins need to get the ball out quickly, but they’ve done that all year. They can do it here as well—Adam Gase has adjusted well in the wake of Ryan Tannehill’s injury and much of that was already in the scheme.
Defensively, Miami has a challenge on its hands, but they are capable of slowing down the Steelers enough to eke out a cover. Part of that formula is going to be running the ball well on offense and keeping the defense off the field, but while Vance Joseph’s unit is on the field, they need to win at the line of scrimmage.
Miami’s pass defense needs to play well because things are not looking up for their run defense—they rank 22nd in run defense DVOA—but Suh has a solid 85.9 run defense grade from PFF. There are some tough matchups as well—Pittsburgh’s entire offensive line has PFF grades above 80. In short, Le’Veon Bell is going to have a nice day on Sunday. However, good pass defense is something we’ve seen out of Miami all year.
Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake are going to wreak havoc no matter how good the offensive line is. Wake has a clear advantage against Alejandro Villanueva at left tackle while Suh will have a tougher game going up against David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey in the middle of the line, but both have done it against tough opposition before. Undoubtedly, the biggest challenge for Miami’s defense is containing Antonio Brown.
There’s no way to completely stop Brown, but the Dolphins did a nice job throwing blitzes at Pittsburgh and Byron Maxwell played just well enough in coverage to contain him back in Week 6. Maxwell is questionable this week; it would be a big boost to the Dolphins if he plays and does a similar job. With a slowed-down version of Brown, the Steelers’ passing game isn’t much. Ben Roethlisberger can conjure up a few deep balls, but Cobi Hamilton, Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates don’t make for an intimidating group of receivers.
The Steelers will almost certainly win this game outright—the difference in quarterbacks alone is likely too much for Miami to compensate for—but the Dolphins can keep it interesting. If they can play ball-control, string together a few drives and cover Brown adequately, they’re going to cover.
PACKERS -4.5 over Giants: This is not the 2007 or 2011 Giants. Going into a chilly Lambeau Field and beating one of the best quarterbacks this game has ever seen is not something they are capable of doing.
New York’s defense is very good, but it is decidedly not great. Much of their strength comes in run defense—where Damon Harrison has arguably been the best in football this year—but stopping the run doesn’t get you far against the Packers. Ty Montgomery has been productive since being given the running back job, but his success is more a luxury than a necessity for the Packers. During Green Bay’s winning streak, dating back to Week 12, Montgomery only has one game of over 100 yards. That game, Week 15 against the Bears, is also the only game in which he received 10 or more carries.
The Giants may be able to muster a pass rush, but it won’t be as easy as in other games. Olivier Vernon has to go up against David Bakhtiari, whose 90.8 PFF grade is third among tackles, while Jason Pierre-Paul hasn’t played since Week 13 and is questionable to play on Sunday. Even if he does, his success is far from a guarantee—he’ll be returning from a hernia in a tough environment and going up against Bryan Bulaga. Harrison has been much more of a run stopper than pass rushing presence—understandable given his position—while Johnathan Hankins has struggled as a three-tech this year. Romeo Okwara has had some nice moments in Pierre-Paul’s absence, but overall his rookie season is inconsistent at best.
Janoris Jenkins needs to have the best game of what is arguably an All-Pro season as well and shut down Jordy Nelson if the Giants are going to cover, or win. Both players are coming into Sunday red-hot—Nelson has been as pivotal as any player sans-Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay’s turnaround while Jenkins is a pivotal cog in New York’s revamped defense—but Nelson has the insurmountable advantage of Rodgers throwing the football. Beyond Nelson, it’s unlikely that Geronimo Allison sees as much action as the past few weeks in a significantly tougher matchup, but Eli Apple has been shaky at times. I like Davante Adams’ chances of getting free against him once or twice and I think Rodgers will take advantage.
When Rodgers is under center and the offense is clicking, it’s near impossible to doubt Green Bay. #12 is like a magician—not a David Blaine who entombed himself in a 3-ton water-filled tank for seven days as an illusion, but a literal magician who walks through walls and levitates off the ground. There’s no player in the history of football that does the things that Rodgers can do at his best—and he’s there right now. It doesn’t matter if Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Landon Collins—three arguable All-Pros—are patrolling the secondary. The Giants may be able to slow Rodgers down, but they sure as hell can’t stop him.
To keep this game interesting, the Giants need to provide some semblance of offense, which they have not done all season. Not once did they reach 30 points in a game—for reference, the Jets and Jaguars both did so more than once. The run game looks better with Paul Perkins than Rashad Jennings, but the fact of the matter is that the Giants are 26th in rushing DVOA—they aren’t going to be successful doing it in the playoffs no matter who’s carrying the ball. It doesn’t help that Mike Daniels has anchored the Packers to a top-10 finish in adjusted line yards either.
If the Giants are going to move the ball, it has to be on the initiative of Eli Manning and the passing game, a proposition that has become almost laughable in recent weeks, as the quarterback has descended into a preview of what Giants fans have feared the team will become post-Eli. The one potential saving grace for New York is Green Bay’s stunning lack of cornerback depth. Sam Shields and Demetri Goodson are long gone, having been placed on IR; Quinten Rollins suffered a concussion last week and is doubtful for Sunday while Damarious Randall and Makinton Dorleant are both questionable with knee injuries. If Randall is out, Green Bay will be depending on Lardarius Gunter and Dorleant—who has played a grand total of five snaps this season—to cover the outside and a Player to Be Named Later (probably Micah Hyde) to cover the slot.
For Odell Beckham Jr., it’s as if Christmas came for the second time in three weeks. The star wideout will be swimming in open space on Sunday—and Sterling Shepard won’t be too far behind in the proverbial Olympic-sized pool. Whether or not the Giants can take advantage with enough regularity to keep up with Rodgers is another matter altogether.
Eli Manning needs to play his best game of the year—by far—if the Giants are to compete. I don’t think he’ll be under much pressure—Nick Perry and Julius Peppers will likely get inside a few times against Ereck Flowers, but the rest of the line has held up well in pass protection this season and Green Bay’s pass rush isn’t notable.
The Giants will keep it interesting—it may be close or tied going into the fourth quarter—but I expect Green Bay to pull away, into the next round. There’s a certain point Aaron Rodgers reaches sometimes where betting against him is like tossing money in the garbage and we’re at that point.
Last Week: 9-7-0
Regular Season: 131-118-7 (.526)
All stats are from pro-football-reference.com, footballoutsiders.com or profootballfocus.com unless otherwise noted
 The over/under for this game has been 36.5 and I don’t know how anybody in their right mind bets on it in either direction.
 I’m trying out this nickname for Will Fuller, Jaelen Strong and Braxton Miller.
 Somehow, Tom Cable’s name is coming up yet again as a potential head coach. Let me make clear that it isn’t a hot take in any sense of the word to say that he has been horrible as Seattle’s offensive line coach. His reckless experimenting in trying to turn non-offensive linemen into offensive linemen has gone just as badly as one might expect. Giving him a head coaching job is like letting Charles Manson do police work.
 Recent reports indicate that Tannehill may, in fact, play. I doubt that he will, but my pick will stay the same regardless.
 There are still some issues with Adams’ game, but his improvement from last year to this year has been downright incredible. He went from 86th out of 87 qualified receivers in DYAR to 16th while improving practically every facet of his game