Another NFL regular season has come and gone, but as many will say, the real season is just beginning.
It was one of the most compelling regular seasons in league history, from Andrew Luck’s astonishingly triumphant return and the redemption of the Cleveland Browns (coming within one play of clinching their first winning season in 11 years, and improved by seven wins following an 0-16 campaign last year), to the Bears winning their first division title in eight years and the historic debuts of several rookies, such as Baker Mayfield and Saquon Barkley, and second-year man Patrick Mahomes joining Peyton Manning as the only other player to throw for 50 touchdowns and 5,000 yards.
It was also a season in which scoring and offenses were as prolific as ever; teams averaged 352.2 yards per game and 23.3 points per game, the second-most ever in both categories. That directly coincides with an all-time great season universally for quarterbacks, as signal callers around the league combined to register a collective 92.9 passer rating, by far the highest ever. More passing touchdowns than ever were thrown, with quarterbacks averaging 1.7 touchdown passes per game.
But that was the regular season, and now the playoffs are here. I will make my picks for all playoff rounds, including the Super Bowl. This week will feature the Wild Card matchups, and without further ado, let’s get right down to it!
Colts vs Texans: As previously mentioned, Andrew Luck provided an enthralling return to football, as did his Houston counterpart, Deshaun Watson. These two AFC South foes split the season series, with the road team winning both games, and both games were decided by three points.
The most prominent factor in this game is the discrepancies in the trenches, as Andrew Luck played behind one of the best offensive lines in football for the first time in his career, and Deshaun Watson was sacked 62 times, the fifth-most ever, and played behind an offensive line that ranked dead last in adjusted sack rate, per Pro Football Outsiders.
T.Y. Hilton posted 314 yards against a decimated Texans secondary during the regular season, including 199 during the last game against Houston. The Colts’ secondary has proven it is capable of containing DeAndre Hopkins (four catches for 36 yards on December 9th), and a lot of that is due to the fact that they double-teamed him given the fact that Will Fuller sustained a season-ending injury.
Ultimately, the Colts will win this game. Houston limped into the playoffs without Will Fuller, Demaryius Thomas, and potentially Jonathan Joseph and J.J. Watt. The Colts are simply more healthy, have a dominant offensive line, and Andrew Luck has a career 3.29 TD/INT ratio against the Texans.
Seahawks vs Cowboys: Neither of these teams were supposed to be here, and yet, here they are. In what was supposed to be a rebuilding season, the Seahawks, even after effectively dismantling the Legion of Boom by parting ways with Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman, and losing Earl Thomas to a broken leg, overcame an 0-2 start and became one of the few such teams to advance to the playoffs.
Russell Wilson put together yet another MVP-caliber campaign, as he posted the third-best passer rating in the NFL (110.9), and former seventh-round pick Chris Carson facilitated Seattle’s return to a West Coast power running game, running for nearly 1,200 yards, including 357 during Seattle’s final three games.
In Dallas, Ezekiel Elliott captured his second rushing title in three seasons, but the biggest story of the season for the Cowboys was their trade for the previously embattled Amari Cooper, who accrued 725 yards in nine games and gave the resurgent Dak Prescott a vertical threat.
Seattle won rather handily against Dallas back on September 23rd, but both were radically different teams then, to say the least.
The x-factors for the Seahawks and Cowboys are Chris Carson and Demarcus Lawrence, respectively. Carson will be matched up against a Dallas run defense that was fifth-best overall and allowed just 3.8 yards per carry. Lawrence, who was held in check against Seattle in Week 3, must be able to get to Russell Wilson and force him to stay in the pocket.
The verdict? Dallas is far better defensively, and Ezekiel Elliott should excel against a porous Seattle rushing defense that conceded 4.9 yards per carry and ranked just 13th against the run. But these Seahawks are 4-1 against Dallas in the Russell Wilson era, Wilson is clearly the better quarterback between the two, and Dallas’s 29th-ranked red zone offense is no match for Seattle’s fourth-best red zone defense, in addition to the fact that Pete Carroll’s Seahawks have never lost in the Wild Card round.
Chargers vs Ravens: Both squads ended lengthy postseason droughts, as the Chargers are in for the first time since 2013, and the Ravens for the first time since 2014. Baltimore emerged victorious during the previous encounter between these two AFC dark horses just nine days ago, as Eric Weddle and Baltimore’s top-ranked defense held Philip Rivers and the Chargers to an exiguous 198 total yards and 3.5 yards per play.
Both teams will have key starters returning for their rematch. Melvin Gordon and Hunter Henry will both return for the Chargers, and Terrell Suggs and John Brown both played in Baltimore’s win against the Browns on Sunday, and should be fully ready for this game.
A major factor entering this game is the fact that Philip Rivers and the Chargers offense had six games against weak defenses in the AFC West, as Denver, Oakland, and Kansas City ranked 22nd, 26th, and 31st in total defense, respectively. Against Baltimore, Rivers concocted a 51.7 passer rating with two interceptions.
Also working against the Chargers is the blatant mismatch in the trenches, much like the Colts-Texans game. The offensive line of the Chargers ranked just 14th in adjusted sack rate, whereas Baltimore’s defensive line ranked 4th in adjusted sack rate, and Baltimore’s offensive line ranked ranked eighth in adjusted sack rate, compared to 16th for the Chargers’ defensive line.
Finally, there is also the experience factor. This is the seventh playoff appearance for the Ravens during the John Harbaugh era, and a lot of players wearing a Ravens uniform have been with Harbaugh for a long time. Save for Philip Rivers, most of the players on the Chargers’ roster have little to no playoff experience, and that counts. It was a great year of convalescence for both of these teams, but the Ravens have the best defense in football and a dynamic rushing attack, two things the Chargers lack. The Ravens will win this game.
Bears vs Eagles: Matt Nagy led the Bears to their first playoff appearance and division title since 2010. Bears GM Ryan Pace was aggressive during the offseason and acquired Allen Robinson, Trey Burton and Taylor Gabriel in free agency, and then traded for and extended Khalil Mack, perhaps the most transcendent defensive player in the game right now. Matt Nagy implemented an Air Raid-based, West Coast spread offense, and Mitchell Trubisky’s development was accelerated this year.
For the Eagles, it was a typical year to the mysticism surrounding defending Super Bowl champions. Carson Wentz, Jay Ajayi, Rodney McLeoud, Ronald Darby, Corey Clement, and Mike Wallace, among others, all succumbed to injuries that truncated their seasons, and the Eagles were marred by inconsistent play all year, with their playoff aspirations being kept alive only by a Bears team determined to keep their NFC North rival Vikings out of the playoffs. Super Bowl hero Nick Foles will once again be tasked with leading the Eagles to the promised land.
Give Doug Pederson and his staff credit for doing all they could to get the Eagles this far, but this is the end of the line for the Eagles. An inconsistent Eagles offensive line going up against Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and the bloodthirsty pass rush of the Bears is already bad enough. In addition to that, the Eagles secondary, as previously mentioned, is decimated, and against speedster Taylor Gabriel and Tarik Cohen running routes from the backfield, could be in for a long day.
Doug Pederson is one of the most sagacious coaches in the NFL, and he deserves every credit for getting an injury-ravaged team this far. But the Eagles simply do not have enough healthy talent in order to compete against the Bears, and because of that, the Bears will have their first playoff win of the decade. One might argue that the Eagles have the edge in experience, and that is not even a debate. But a lot of that experience will be watching the game in street clothes on the sideline, and that is the ultimate factor in this game.