After a memorable regular season flew by, the playoffs are now upon us. The wildcard weekend is always fun, and the “win or go home” factor makes for high drama. In football more so than other major sports, it’s harder for the most “talented” team to always win. Usually over a five or seven game series, those can sort themselves out. Given the NFL’s postseason format, any team can get hot late in the year and ride that to a Super Bowl victory. We’ve seen it done before, and this weekend could very well be the stepping stone for the Super Bowl LIII champion.
Last week: 12-4, Season: 163-93
Last week against the spread: 11-5, Season: 117-139
Colts 26 Texans (-2.5) 23: After winning nine of their final ten games, the Colts enter this one red hot. We all know Andrew Luck is healthy now, but the biggest surprise has been the Colts offensive line. A unit that had been a weakness for Luck’s entire career, the line has been strong in pass protection and opening holes for the ground game. For that reason, Colts center Ryan Kelly could be a huge factor in this one.
Despite a neck injury, Kelly expects to suit up and the Colts running game has been much more efficient with him in the lineup. Up against the Texans run defense that’s tops in the AFC, an effective performance from Marlon Mack and company would give the Colts a spark.
While it’s Deshaun Watson’s first career playoff game, we know he’s not afraid of the bright lights (or in this case, the inevitable 4:30 PM Saturday time slot). The Colts have limited running quarterbacks, but Watson and DeAndre Hopkins are going to get theirs. Ultimately, this game for the Texans will likely come down to their shaky offensive line and secondary. If Watson has a clean pocket to throw from and the older corners can contain T.Y. Hilton, it would be a huge boost to the Texans’ chances.
Seahawks 21 Cowboys (-2.5) 17: While these two teams met in week three, the Cowboys drastically improved since that meeting. Considering both teams have placed an emphasis on running the ball and defense, this likely comes down to which quarterback has more success.
Stats show Dak Prescott to this point has struggled against zone coverage schemes. He didn’t have Amari Cooper at his disposal in the earlier meeting, so that should open things up. Surprisingly, it was the Cowboys not the Seahawks pass protection that has struggled this season. While he’s not accustomed to it, that has to be music to Russell Wilson’s ears.
The Cowboys defense is very talented, but Wilson will be able to attack a nice matchup in the slot. Anthony Brown has been playing through injury there and has struggled. That should open things up for both Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett who are frequently lined up inside. With a heavy dose of Chris Carson and Mike Davis, the Seahawks are in prime position for an upset here.
Chargers 21 Ravens (-2.5) 23: The Chargers are also squaring off against their body clocks on Sunday in a game that starts 10:05 AM Pacific time. For the team, the positive is they’ve won on the road before. Heck, playing in a 30 some thousand seat stadium the past two years, the case could be made they haven’t had a “homefield”advantage in that time anyway. Given the Ravens game plan, the deciding factor in this one will be if the Chargers offense can find a rhythm.
When these teams played a few weeks ago, Philip Rivers and company couldn’t do it. That resulted in quick drives, followed by the Ravens chewing up six to eight minutes of clock at a time. The good news for the Chargers is Melvin Gordon will give it a go in this meeting, but he’s still under 100 percent. The bad news is, the Ravens defense is one of the league’s best, and this offensive philosophy keeps them fresh. Allowing 4.30 yards a rush attempt in their last five with numerous injuries to linebackers, this talented Charger defense could have their hands full.
Is this style of play sustainable for Lamar Jackson’s entire NFL career? Probably not, but for now it’s winning and helped him get acclimated to the league. Making his first career postseason start, Jackson won’t have to display phenomenal passing ability throughout. However there will be three or four times he will need to rise to the occasion and make big throws. Other than that, it should be a full load for Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon in this one.
Eagles 20 Bears (-6.5) 23: Do you believe in destiny? If so the Eagles might be your pick to win it all. Despite bleak odds, the team overcame them with Nick Foles replacing an injured Carson Wentz to sneak in as the final wildcard. Foles’ reward is to play the league’s top defense on the road, while playing through bruised ribs. The safety valve of the Eagles passing attack seems to change depending on what quarterback is there.
With Wentz under center, that guy seems to be Zach Ertz. When Foles take the reigns, it’s Alshon Jeffery’s time to shine. Jeffery has 80 plus yards and/or a touchdown in six of his eight career games with Foles starting. Even against a tough secondary, Jeffery’s “go up and get it” style could lead to double digit targets. With the Bears missing their impressive slot corner Bryce Callahan, this could be a nice spot for Nelson Agholor. That provides a favorable matchup for Golden Tate as well, but it’s Agholor who has run more routes from the slot in Foles’ last three starts.
Another quarterback making his first playoff start, Mitchell Trubisky is a bit of an enigma with some drastic home vs road splits. The good news is, the Eagles have struggled against dual threat quarterbacks, and their secondary is banged up. With his established role, Jordan Howard should see around 20 touches in this game. The Eagles had been gashed on the ground late in the year, but have bounced back the past few weeks.
Tarik Cohen will once again be the X-factor for the Bears offensively. The Eagles were vulnerable to pass catching backs, and there are few who are as dangerous as Cohen after the catch. Against a smaller secondary, this could be a favorable matchup for Allen Robinson who has shown he’s more than capable of winning “50/50” balls. The new quarterback/head coach going against a team that just won the Super Bowl last year has the makings of a potential upset. However, there’s enough going in the Bears’ favor that they should pull out the win here.