It’s hard to believe as it feels we just got started, but the NFL postseason begins this weekend. As the only major sport with a “win or go home” playoff, postseason games can be incredibly fun to watch. However, with that scenario it is possible that the “better team” doesn’t always win. With just one game there is no little if any room for error in terms of executing a gameplan and a team could always just matchup very poorly against their opponent. On paper, for casual fans this might not be a very exciting slate to open the postseason, but there will almost certainly be drama as teams compete to keep their seasons alive for one more week.
Last week: 11-5, Season: 159-97
Last week against the spread: 8-8, Season: 127-129
Raiders 13 Texans (-3.5) 17: Nothing quite says “Saturday 4:30 pm start” like a Connor Cook/Brock Osweiler “showdown” in the playoffs of all places. At this point, you just have to feel awful for the Raiders who quickly went from having a season to remember turn into an absolute worst case scenario. Losing an MVP candidate quarterback in Derek Carr to injury is tough enough. But losing backup Matt McGloin in the first half of their very next game is just downright cruel. Now the Raiders turn to rookie Connor Cook, who likely wasn’t even getting reps in practice up until week 17.
The good news for Cook is that he has a strong supporting cast around him, and it’s unlikely he’ll have to put the team on his shoulders. With a fantastic offensive line, look for the Raiders to run the ball early and often with Latavius Murray leading the way. Cook will figure to look for Amari Cooper (who needs to be more involved) and Michael Crabtree when he does drop back to pass, so despite going up against one of the league’s top rated defenses, things could be much worse.
In a sentence I never thought I’d write about a playoff game, the main reason I’m taking the Texans here is I have more faith in Osweiler. While he has obviously been less than stellar in the first year of his big deal, the Texans have shown they can win even without a big performance in the passing game. Lamar Miller figures to return and should see plenty of work running the ball and contributing in the passing game which is a huge boost. If Osweiler was smart, he would also look to get DeAndre Hopkins heavily involved early and often. While the tandem hasn’t been on the same page most of this season, Hopkins is still an upper echelon receiver and it’s hard for him to make an impact without the opportunities.
Lions 21 Seahawks (-8.5) 27: The Seahawks at home, in the playoffs against a team on a short week? On paper this looks like a lock, but don’t count out the Lions. Despite his injured finger on his throwing hand leading to some inconsistency in recent weeks, Matthew Stafford has just finished the best year of his career. While the Seahawks defense is obviously a tough task, they haven’t been the same since losing Earl Thomas for the season. To this point, the Seahawks haven’t found a formula to make up for it. Zach Zenner has given the Lions a nice boost in the running game of late, which is always crucial come playoff time and could help them dictate the tempo. It’s also worth noting that Richard Sherman has more trouble with shorter, shiftier receivers such as Golden Tate than he does bigger wideouts.
On offense, the Seahawks have their question marks as well. With Marshawn Lynch retiring, and injuries at the position they haven’t been able to get a stable rushing attack going this season. Like much of Russell Wilson’s time in the league, the Seahawks offensive line is also a giant question mark. The reason I’m still taking the Seahawks here is I don’t believe the Lions have the personnel defensively to take advantage of those offensive weaknesses. With Ziggy Ansah dealing with nagging injuries most of the year, the Lions haven’t been able to produce much of a pass rush, their secondary has been decimated by injuries, and Wilson has shown he can flourish if he has the time to create. On top of that, the Lions have struggled to cover opposing tight ends all season and they now face one of the top receiving threats at the position in Jimmy Graham.
Dolphins 17 Steelers (-10.5) 28: The sudden emergence of the Dolphins was a nice story line in the 2016 season. However, to this point we still don’t actually know if the team is good. It’s true you can only play the teams on your schedule, but for the Dolphins that proved to be pretty favorable. Their most impressive win was against these very Steelers in a game Ben Roethlisberger left early due to injury. Despite that, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about the Dolphins future. They just might of reached the national stage ahead of schedule.
With Ryan Tannehill still out, Matt Moore makes his first career playoff start and has done what’s asked of him to this point. You’re probably not going to win a shootout if he’s at the helm, but Moore should keep the Dolphins in this one if they protect the ball and get Jay Ajayi going. Ajayi as you probably know by now, ran for over 200 yards when these teams last faced off. The Steelers defense is much improved since then, but a big day from Ajayi is huge for the Dolphins chances.
Along with the improved defense, Roethlisberger (who has ridiculous home game splits) paired with Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown is awfully difficult to stop. While Brown struggled when these teams last faced off, that was against Byron Maxwell, who has missed the last two weeks with a high ankle sprain. Even if he does return, chances are Brown will win the rematch against a corner who would be battling through a very tough lower leg injury. Bell has been simply fantastic this season and when factoring that the Dolphins have allowed over 5.2 yards per attempt rushing the past six weeks, he could be in for a big day. Another player to watch in this one if he does play is Steelers tight end Ladarius Green. With both of the Dolphins starting safeties on injured reserve, Green should find some seams in the middle of the field, and has the ability to capitalize in a big way.
Giants 21 Packers (-4.5) 24: In what figures to be the game of the weekend, we have two teams the rest of the NFC doesn’t want any part of. The Giants have shown they can win with their current formula before, but they’ll need Eli Manning who has struggled most of the year to get hot at the right time yet again. The good news for Manning is that the Packers secondary is vulnerable and he has one of the game’s biggest weapons in Odell Beckham at his disposal. Beckham will likely see double coverage or face help over the top but if left alone one one one, he should feast. Don’t be surprised if rookie running back Paul Perkins ends up playing a big role in this one. He has impressed down the stretch, offers ability as a receiver out of the backfield and has gotten more involved in recent weeks.
To nobody’s surprise, Aaron Rodgers found his groove this season and at a perfect time. The Giants defense however is a much more difficult task than they were when these teams met earlier in the season. With the Giants ability to stop the run and the Packers lacking a back they can truly count on, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Packers offense got rather one dimensional. However maximizing the amount of times someone of Rodgers’ caliber gets the ball is never a bad thing. An interesting matchup to watch will be Jordy Nelson against Janoris Jenkins. Nelson wasn’t fully up to speed returning from his ACL surgery earlier in the year, and he struggled when these teams first met. Jenkins played very well in that meeting, and has kept it up throughout the season. In what figures to be a close contest, the winner of that individual battle could end up being a key factor in eventually determining the outcome.