Breaking out the crystal ball once more for the first round of the NFL Playoffs
Editor’s note: Don’t call it a comeback! We’re reviving the Psychic Is In Feature, last seen in its full form during the NBA Finals. A quick reminder of how this works: Every so often, I’ll get out my crystal ball and take a look at an upcoming series, game, event, album or some other thing I have predictions about. Some of them will be more serious, others much less so. I’ll probably be wrong more often than I’m right, but you can guarantee I’ll talk much more about the correct calls than the bad ones. Them’s the breaks–And this time, we’re wheeling out the heavy artillery.
Ah, the NFL Playoffs. I may be as much of an NFL-critic as anyone, but the first two rounds of the playoffs, with a single big game on for eight consecutive hours on both Saturday and Sunday, are up there with the start of the NCAA Tournament for sports fans.
It’s only right that I spoil it for myself by making predictions that are sure to make me look foolish, either by how wrong they were or by just how much pride I take in getting a few right.
We’re going to break a bit from the old Psychic is In format for the NFL Playoffs. We’re going to look at each game from three angles: a key stat, a key player and any relevant history between the two teams. We’ll round it off with brief predictions from the ChinMusicPod crew of Tim “Hot Takes“Culverhouse, Matt “Stat” Tardiff, and Tom “Culture” Dragani and a more lengthy pick and explanation from yours truly. Hang on, it may be a bumpy ride.
Oakland Raiders vs. Houston Texans (HOU -3.5)
Saturday, January 7, 4:05 PM, NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas
Key Player: Connor Cook, Oakland Raiders
The Raiders are the ultimate example of how quickly things can change in the NFL. One minute you have one of the top offensive lines in the NFL, sitting atop a strong division and taking relative royalty in the New England Patriots to the year’s final game in the race for the #1 seed in the AFC.
The next, they’re readying a third-string QB to make his first start in the NFL during a Wild Card game on the road. His NFL is resume is so thin, I had to use his Michigan State graphic because the pro one wasn’t anything exciting. Not exactly ideal.
Especially if you consider when we last saw Mr. Cook. He was wearing the green and white of the Spartans and spent most of his final game picking green and white turf out of his helmet and running away (or throwing the ball to) the crimson-colored jerseys of Alabama. Also not exactly ideal.
But hope springs eternal, and if memory serves, there’s a certain QB with a bye this week who played college football in the Mitten State and got his start as an injury replacement on a strong playoff team. The Raiders match up well against the Texans, despite what the seeding would say, and Houston is not starting any game breaker at QB themselves.
Perhaps Cook can start his meteoric rise by avenging that Michigan QB’s defeat of the Raiders during his remarkable rookie run.
Key Stat: 59.6% completion rate, Brock Osweiler, Houston Texans
To put it simply, Brock Osweiler was bad this year. Bad and expensive, thanks to a hefty guaranteed contract the Broncos wisely said “no thanks,” to in the offseason.
He was inaccurate at best this year, only completing 60 percent of his passes on three occasions and finished with a dreadful 59.6 completion rate, besting only the dregs of NFL QB’s, including Cam Newton’s regression year, Ryan Fitzpatrick’s dumpster-fire year and Blake Bortles not-quote coronation. So, yeah, very not good.
This is going to be the Raiders, and Cook’s saving grace. Thanks to the magic of seeding and an MVP-level season from starter Derek Carr, Oakland was able to win enough games to avoid matching up against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round. If Oakland were going against the Steelers, the tone of this section would be entirely different. But they aren’t.
The Raiders defense is nothing to write home about, but it’s not terrible either. It finished in the top half of the league in points per game, and in the top 10 in interceptions. Granted, it finished near the bottom in yards per game, but it kept teams off the scoreboard, and that’s what really counts.
The Oakland D, for all its flaws, is competent. That’s likely going to be enough to send Houston home.
Recent History: Raiders 21, Texans 17 on November 21 in Mexico
This is a strange case, these teams played each other this season, and in fact, just less than two months ago. But it was played on a neutral site, in a foreign country, featuring a fast-rising star at QB that won’t be suiting up in this contest.
So what can we take from their Mexican meetup?
As you can see in the highlights above, the Raiders defense got the better of the Houston offense in the battle of the middling squads. The defense surely didn’t dominate the game, but it was consistent, giving what was a high-powered passing attack a chance to win the game, and that it did.
Really, the one thing we can look at in this one is the performance of Osweiler. While he wasn’t good, he wasn’t as bad as he was in many starts. But now, Oakland’s D has a game’s worth of experience against one of the league’s worst passers.
I think that Oakland defense puts in one of its best efforts of the season, building on the recent history it has against the Texans.
Chin Music Pod Picks: Matt Tardiff (OAK), Tim Culverhouse (HOU), Tom Dragani (OAK)
Brendan’s Pick: Oakland Raiders 17, Houston Texans 10
This is as unappealing a matchup as it gets, and one of the most difficult ones to pick, given how little we know about the major players in this contest.
I’ve been railing against the Chruch of the Brockening since the preseason, and it hasn’t steered me wrong so far. As we said above, he’s been truly terrible. I think the worst parts of his game show on the biggest stage, the Oakland defense is able to seize on a few opportunities, and the Raiders live to fight another week (that’s probably all they’ll get, though.)
Miami Dolphins vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (PIT -10)
Sunday, January 8, 1:05 PM, Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Key Player: Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
It’s likely that the latter AFC Wildcard game is going to be won or lost on the ground, with both teams featuring 2016 stars at running back. Jay Ajayi has been a pleasant surprise and a nightmare for fantasy owners trying to figure out if his run would ever end, but if the game does become a footrace, I still think the Steelers have the better horse.
For my money, Le’Veon Bell is still the best running back in football. Sure, he might not lead the league in rushing yards (Ezekial Elliot), yards per carry (LeSean McCoy leads those with more than 200 rushes) or rushing TD’s (LeGarrette Blount), but he’s in the top half of the league in rushing TD’s – despite his size limitations and the team’s other options at the goal line – top 10 in yards per carry and top 5 in rushing yards. That’s a deadly combination, one that no other back in the game achieved for more than a season.
There are more reasons to expect a big game out of Bell, too. While he’s in his fourth NFL season and his third as a star contributor on a successful team, he’s never played in a postseason game before and will be eager to shine in the big lights. The Steelers also have the stronger offense, filled with other big name options like Antonio Brown and Heath Miller, which means Bell won’t have quite so much attention on him.
The biggest reason to expect Bell to have the game’s biggest performance, however, may be on the other side of the ball…
Key Stat: 140.4 rushing yards allowed per game, Miami Dolphins
If there is any team that’s not built to stop an all-out ground attack, it’s the Miami Dolphins. That doesn’t bode too well for them considering their matchup in the opening round.
The team let up the third most rushing yards per game in the league in 2016, falling far behind divisional, conference and league averages. In fact, they allowed more yards on the ground than all but the league’s most anemic defenses: the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers. Not exactly the company you want to keep.
The team was middling at best when it came to keeping rushers out of the end zone too. It may not have been spending time in the league’s basement as it had with rushing yards, but it still only finished middle of the road when it came to rushing touchdowns allowed—and while TD’s may not be Bell’s specialty, he’s more than capable of finding paydirt whenever he touches a ball.
The Dolphins run defense is so bad, I’d usually suggest they spend all their time, efforts and resources stopping the ground attack and forcing their opponents to the air, where mistakes are more likely to be made. But with targets like the aforementioned Brown and Miller being thrown to by gunslinger extraordinaire Ben Rothlesburger, the Dolphins can’t afford to go all out on the run, which means Bell should have his run of the place come Sunday.
There may be one glimmer of hope for the Dolphins’ defenders, however…
Recent History: Dolphins 30, Steelers 15, October 16 in Miami
It may have been a bad season for the Miami run defense, but their best performance of the season already came against Pittsburgh back in Week 6 – perhaps they can do it again?
The Dolphins rolled to a two-touchdown victory in Miami, thanks in large part to a sub-standard week from Bell and a definitive performance from the defense. They held the star to just 53 yards (though it took just 10 carries to get those yards) and held him without a touchdown as they mostly shut down the vaunted Steelers defense.
The defense will need to be even better in the sequel if they want to win a playoff game, though. With a young question mark at quarterback playing in unfamiliar and inhospitable cold conditions in Pittsburgh, the defense can’t afford to let Bell, or any one of the Steeler’s skill position stars, burn them on Sunday.
Chin Music Pod Picks: Matt Tardiff (PIT), Tim Culverhouse (PIT), Tom Dragani (PIT)
Brendan’s Pick: Steelers 22, Dolphins 13
Beating the same team twice in one season is one of the toughest things to do in football, even when you have a roster advantage over the other squad (just ask the Patriots and the Giants). It’s damn near impossible to do it when the other team is seemingly more talented at every turn, and I don’t think the Dolphins pull it off.
Yes, Bell only rushed for 53 yards in October, but that was in October, with Pittsburgh trailing for much of the contest. And he had 5.3 YPC, so I’m not buying the Miami run defense in this one. And while Matt Moore has looked good in relief of average NFL QB Ryan Tannehill, I remain unconvinced either guy can break through against a sea of terrible towels in Pittsburgh.
We’re finally seeing the Pittsburgh offense at its full potential, and there’s a good chance we see just how high-flying it can be on Sunday. Between Bell, Brown, Ben and Miller, it’s going to be nearly impossible for the Dolphins to stop all the Steeler’s potent (and healthy) weapons.
The Dolphins are a fun team, with fun jerseys, and hopefully, they can build on a good finish to 2016 and perhaps come up with a team to actually challenge the Patriots in the AFC East next season. I hope they do because they won’t be getting another shot at the king this year. The Steelers are our only hope.
Detroit Lions vs. Seattle Seahawks (SEA -8)
Saturday, January 7, 8:15 PM, Century Link Field in Seattle, Washington
Key Player: Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks
Richard Sherman is almost always the most noticeable member of the Seattle Seahawks defense, whether because of his play or his mouth. If the Seahawks plan on flexing their muscles and showing why they’re favored at home, they’ll need it to be the former.
Seattle’s defense remains one of the best in the league. They hold opponents to the fifth-fewest yards per game, allow the third-fewest points per game, and posted double-digit interceptions again in 2016. They are to be feared, especially by an offense like the Lions that relies so heavily on throwing the ball. The Lions were 11th in the league in pass attempts and passing yards, and about average in throwing the ball into the endzone, but they were even worse on the ground, finishing third from the bottom in rushing yards
The Lions were no-great-shakes in throwing the ball, finishing 11th in the league in pass attempts and passing yards, and about average in throwing the ball into the end zone. But they were even worse on the ground, finishing last in rushing attempts, third from the bottom in rushing yards and 26th in rushing TD’s. If Lions score, it’s through the air, so it falls on the vaunted Seattle secondary to stop them.
With batterymate Earl Thomas out with an injury, all of that responsibility will fall to Sherman. We’ll see if the most famous and feared corner in the game can live up to his own reputation in this one.
Key Stat: 3 straight losses, Detroit Lions
The Lions are reeling, and the fact that they’re playing a divisional champion on the road rather than wild card team from the comfort of Ford Field is already a significant loss.
The Lions seemingly had the NFC North right where it wanted them. Four weeks ago, the team was 9-3, leading the division over the surging Packers and the flailing Minnesota Vikings who each stood at 7-6. It would have taken a collapse not to win the Division over the next three games, and that’s exactly what they delivered. The team is in dire straights now, heading to a building that’s hell for teams on the road, and in which the typical tenants are 5-0 in playoff games dating back to 2010.
Call me a pessimist, but I don’t think the Lions get off the ropes here. Unless the stone-faced Jim Caldwell can rally his team, find a way to energize and convince the players they have some kind of chance in this one, his job may in jeopardy as the team posts a fifth straight lost in a disastrous end to what was once a promising season.
Recent History: Seahawks 13, Lions 10, October 5 (of 2015) in Seattle
The lone matchup not to be a repeat of a 2016 regular season game, we’ll have to climb into the Wayback Machine and set the dial all the way to October of 2015 to find the last time these two teams played.
And while a year may not seem so different, it’s a lifetime in the NFL. When Matthew Stafford last visited Seattle, he still had Calvin freaking Johnson lined up wide, meaning that any play could be part of a future Hall of Fame induction highlight reel. The Seahawks were 1-2, coming off a tough Super Bowl loss to the Patriots and wondering whether they could reload for another run.
Even with all that going in their favor, the Lions couldn’t scratch out a win in 2015. Seattle scored first on a Russell Wilson pass early in the second quarter, and would never look back. The defense frustrated Stafford and Johnson, barely allowing the passer to throw for 200 yards or the receiver to pick up 50 yards.
Now, to be fair, Stafford’s 2016 as outclassed his 2015 in every imaginable way, which is all the more impressive in Johnson’s absence. He’s not outplaying his former self in this one, however.
Chin Music Pod Picks: Matt Tardiff (SEA), Tim Culverhouse (SEA), Tom Dragani (DET)
Brendan’s Pick: Seahawks 17, Lions 13
I like this to be one of the closer games of the weekend. The 2016 Seahawks are probably the weakest Seattle team we’ve seen in years, and this year’s version of the Lions are the best since the Barry Sanders days, or at least they were. In a vacuum, that bodes well for Detroit.
But the Seahawks are still the Seahawks, the Lions are still the Lions and Seattle is still the toughest road win in football. All of those things bode very poorly for Detroit. Even with the absence of Earl Thomas, I expect the Seattle secondary to continue it’s run of stellar play against what is an average at best Lions receiving the core. And against maybe the league’s worst running game, the Seahawks can prey on Stafford’s weaknesses all game.
Marshawn Lynch is gone, and Russell Wilson is nursing an injury, so I don’t think the Seahawk offense will do enough to put this game away early. But even if the Lions do keep it close, expect Seattle to fly here.
New York Giants vs Green Bay Packers (GB -4.5)
Sunday, January 8, 4:40 PM, Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin
Key Player: Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants
How could it really be anyone else? As I’ve written about time and time again, the Giants offense has been very not good this year, and you could have given this title to really anyone on the offensive line. But if there’s one thing the Giants and their fans have learned this season, it’s that as Odell Beckham goes, so the Giants go.
Take a look at the team’s highest and lowest points. We’ll start with the bad. The Giants were 2-3 after five games, reeling after three straight losses to the Redskins, Vikings, and Packers (more on that in a moment). And Beckham was right at the center of the storm. He was held without a touchdown for more than the first quarter of the season, and only scored one TD during that three-game losing streak. He was being called a headcase, a baby and worse after another series of on-field and off-field outbursts, and it seemed that OBJ could be about to help sink Ben McAdoo’s maiden year with the Giants.
Now, fast forward to the height of the Giants season, a six-game winning streak that came right on the heels of the three-game slide. In those contests, Beckham was rejuvenated, putting up seven touchdowns over those six weeks, learned to laugh at himself by proposing to his once hated rival the kicking net, and showed that he may just be the most talented receiver in football.
Perhaps the best indication of Beckham’s importance to the Giants’ offense is this: the team is 3-0 when he finds the end zone twice, and 6-1 when he finds it at least once. Big Blue won just two games in which Beckham was held scoreless this season, and lost four. Most impressively, his scores lately have seemed to come out of thin air, as he takes a five-yard slant dozens of yards for a score, sometimes the only one the offense could manage.
If the Giants hope to go on another road run through the playoffs, it needs to start and end with Lucky #13.
Key Stat: 6-1 in games without INT’s, Eli Manning, New York Giants
Even with all the talk about the prowess of the Giants defense, we’re going to keep our focus squarely on the big blue offense in this one. This is nothing new with the Giant teams of the past decade or so, but this game lies on the shoulders of Eli Manning even more than it does in the hands of Beckham.
After all, the mercurial reciever can only catch the balls Eli throws him. And many of those throws have been shaky at best in 2016.
Eli threw 16 interceptions in 2016, the most he’s thrown since 2012, and a perfect one pick per game average. But that doesn’t mean Eli threw a turnover in every game. In fact, there were seven games this year Eli was able to pick out the receivers wearing the same jersey as him on every throw, and the Giants won six of them. He’ll need a seventh if the Giants want to move on.
Eli’s interceptions have come at seemingly the worst times this year, including one that could have, perhaps should have, cost them a game against the Dallas Cowboys, and one that did end the game against the Philadelphia Eagles. That’s not a good sign for things to come. And even more concerning, this increase in INT’s is coming as the Giants ask Eli to do less as he ages—he threw the fewer passes this year than he had in a few seasons, but his interceptions still went up, and as a result he posted his highest INT rate since 2014.
But those 7 games present a clear counter to the disastrous decisions and terrible throws he made in much of 2017. Eli still has the ability to put up a big game (just look at Weeks 1, 11, 12, and 17 above) and he showed the ability most often late in the season. Plus, Eli’s playoff performances, especially those in Green Bay, are legendary. He’s put up 3 touchdowns and 581 yards while completing 42 of his 77 and thrown just 1 pick in two playoff games at Lambeau, so this may bode well for the Giants after all.
Eli will need Beckham to get open early and often. But the Giants will need him to deliver the ball dependably.
Recent History: Green Bay Packers 23, New York Giants 16 on October 9 in Green Bay
I said it earlier: It’s one of the most difficult tasks in football to beat the same team twice.
That’s my biggest thinking here. Yes, the Packers beat the Giants, in Lambeau, with largely the same roster for both teams as the one we’ll see in the playoffs. But the Giants will know what worked and what didn’t in this contest, a benefit they didn’t have during their three-game losing streak.
There’s also something to be said for the timing and state of mind of the Giants during these two teams’ last tussle. The Giants were at the deepest depths of their season, the locker room fraying around them, the Josh Brown situation still bubbling, Beckham acting like a lunatic, and McAdoo looking very much like a first year coach. The Giants were in the middle of a tough road stretch and playing on a short week of rest and preparation thanks to the NFL schedulers.
And, most importantly, the Giants defense hadn’t truly found itself yet. We’re going to sneak in one more statistical look from our friends at GraphIQ (who’s graphs are littered throughout this blog) to see just how the team has transformed since Week 5:
Through the Green Bay game (Week 5), the Giants allowed an average of 261.5 yards through the air per game. After Week 5, the Giants defense line has come alive with 31 sacks in their final 11 games after netting just four through those first five games. Most tellingly, the team has forced an incredible 24 of its 25 turnovers this season since that Green Bay game. This defense, which might be the best in the league, only started playing its best football after losing once at Lambeau.
The Giants and Packers last matchup saw the Packers reaching an early season high before a big swoon, while the Giants turned a swoon into a midseason win streak. Can the Giants flip the script again?
Chin Music Pod Picks: Matt Tardiff (GB), Tim Culverhouse (GB), Tom Dragani (GB)
Brendan’s Pick: Giants 20, Packers 13
Maybe my fandom is showing, but yes, I do think they can do it again. As we mentioned the Giants under the direction of Eli Manning have been bulletproof in Lambeau come playoff time, with wins in both the NFC Championship game in 2008 and in the Divisional Round in 2012.
McAdoo has progressed as a coach, and seemingly had a better and more consistent control of the team, each week. Beckham has seemed to have found himself in the weeks following the losing streak. The defense is on the upswing, and coordinator Steve Spagnulo has rebuilt his reputation and his defense to among the best in football. Eli’s disastrous season has looked slightly better in the final few weeks, and while the Packers are the hottest team in football, that also means their due for a loss.
And, as I keep saying, it’s tough to beat a good, highly talented team like the Giants twice. I don’t think the Packers can pull it off.
Follow Brendan on Twitter @MurraySpotTalk for more on the NFL Playoffs, and check back to ChinMusicPod.com each Thursday through the postseason for more predictions. Thanks to Tim Culverhouse for helping to edit this monstrosity and to GraphIQ for their open-access graphics.