2015 NFL Wild Card Predictions

This weekend probably more than any is where you try to weigh the value of full-season statistics vs. recent performance when a team is playing much differently, such as in the cases of Chiefs-Texans and Packers-Redskins.

We can’t just ignore Green Bay started 6-0, but man that sure feels like a long time ago based on the way the last 10 games went. To some extent we’ve seen a turnaround from Minnesota too, but the last awful performance was unfortunately against this same Seattle opponent coming back to the scene of its 38-7 assault. But we also have a multi-year trend of Seattle blowing fourth-quarter leads, so that 2-4 start was not as shocking as it appears now. Seattle is a little more vulnerable than it was heading into the playoffs the previous three years in my opinion. Then you have a team like Cincinnati playing without its starting quarterback after a career season from Andy Dalton. Is it fair to put the same lofty offensive expectations on AJ McCarron? Of course not. Likewise, the data on the Pittsburgh running game basically gets thrown out the window with DeAngelo Williams unable to go this week after an ankle injury. Do we worry about a one-dimensional Pittsburgh offense given that Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t had a stellar playoff game in five years and has his highest interception rate since he was 24 years old?

Then there is the process of tuning out the narrative-driven bullshit from the media at playoff time.

“The Chiefs have all the momentum; 10 wins in a row!” – Yeah, and the last four teams to enter the playoffs on a winning streak of 10-11 games all went one-and-done, and they were at home even. The last time the Chiefs won a playoff game, I had yet to watch a full NFL game in my life.

“Pittsburgh is the scariest team in the AFC; no one wants to play them!” – The 2015 Ravens wouldn’t mind, seeing as how two of their five wins came against this team, including Week 16 with a lot on the line. We do realize the Bengals are the 12-4 home team with better balance, right?

“Cancel the tournament, Seattle has already won according to big dog Mike Silver!” – Backwards-Hat Jeff Fisher would like to remind you he swept this team, including a Week 16 win with Case Keenum barely doing anything on the road. Think Teddy Bridgewater can hand off to Adrian Peterson at home in the bitter cold?

“Green Bay just sucks this year; how you like that!?” – Well, this one might be true, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to just start trusting the Washington Redskins to take care of business. What happened to our season-long ridicule of the NFC East?

But since this is the playoffs, people will boast about being proven right by the win-loss outcome even if they had all the wrong reasons. Let the play on the field this weekend speak for itself. What happened in Week 1 or last week really doesn’t matter at this point. The teams that play better on Saturday and Sunday will move on.

Chiefs at Texans

I wrote a good 4,300 words on this game as my preview at FO, so please check that out along with our other wild-card previews. We put a lot of work into them, including 1994 Royal Rumble references.

Houston has a fighting chance thanks to home-field advantage and having the best player on the field (J.J. Watt). You won’t impress me with AFC South wins, but holding Drew Brees and the Bengals to 6 points each was impressive. If the defense can keep this limited KC offense to 10 points, they definitely have a shot here. I just think Brian Hoyer’s struggles while pressured against a strong defense are going to put the Houston defense in a few bad spots for field position and that will be the difference again. But I’ll be pretty surprised if this isn’t low scoring.

Steelers at Bengals

You can probably look up my blog entries from the last few years and find me pointing out each time that Marvin Lewis is just 2-12 at home against the Steelers in his career. That’s incredible. I’ve come to expect Pittsburgh to play well in this building, and for the Bengals to play better in Pittsburgh. That’s just how it has been for a dozen years, and sure enough, the road team won each game this season. What seems to be the main difference for Pittsburgh is the play of Ben Roethlisberger. His numbers are much better in Cincinnati than they are at home against the Bengals, and again, we’re talking about over a sample size of 12 years and 25 games.

benroeth

The comp. % and YPA alone are big, but obviously the interceptions are the key difference. Roethlisberger has never thrown more than one interception in the 13 road games. He has five multi-INT games at home, including some of his worst home games ever. Now does he play better in Cincy because the team is playing better, or does the team play better because he is much more efficient? That’s a little chicken-or-the-egg dilemma, but Roethlisberger obviously has to show up big, which is not something he’s really done in the postseason since the 2010 AFC Divisional against Baltimore. Even that game had a bad first half to it.

For all the hype about Pittsburgh’s offense, 17 of its 28 turnovers have come on the road this year (at least one in every game). That could be a big problem. Roethlisberger has 5 TD to 9 INT on the road this year, though his other numbers look great. He’ll have to protect the ball better.

The other troublesome part here is Roethlisberger has not played that well against the Cincinnati defense this season, and he will likely have little support from a running game since DeAngelo Williams is out. Incredibly, this is the fourth time since 2007 that Mike Tomlin and Roethlisberger go to the playoffs after losing the lead running back to injury in Week 16 or 17.

Pittsburgh went one-and-done the previous three times, though I would not put any of the losses squarely on the running game. Isaac Redman did a solid job in Denver in 2011, but Ben had a high ankle sprain to deal with and Dick LeBeau drew up an embarrassing defense for “Him” to throw for 316 yards on 10 completions. Let’s not even go there right now. Bad memories. I also cannot blame the Steelers this year for not having a backup plan since DeAngelo was the backup (and was excellent) to Le’Veon Bell, who also was lost this season. That also reminds me of something. Cincinnati fans point to the Bengals losing Andy Dalton and Tyler Eifert in Week 14, but in the first meeting this year, Roethlisberger was rusty in his return from injury and Bell went out early in the second quarter. So both teams have had some big injuries in the loss. Hopefully this game is the healthiest one yet.

I just do not have good expectations for Fitzgerald Toussaint, though it’s not like the offensive line stinks anymore. I think a pass-heavy approach like the Steelers used against Denver and Seattle, two superior pass defenses to the Bengals, should be the game plan here. Live and die by Ben’s arm with this receiving corps. I did not get the sense the Bengals have an answer for Antonio Brown based on that last game. I also think Markus Wheaton is gaining more confidence, Heath Miller has two 10-catch games vs. CIN this year, and Martavis Bryant, if healthy, will react well to the “call out” from Ben to play tougher. The offense has to be smart and take what’s there this game instead of forcing deep shots. The Bengals rank 1st against deep passes (thrown 15+ yards) and 27th against short passes. Let’s not overthink this. Be smart, Todd Haley.

Cincinnati’s defense is really the key to this game. If it plays well, the Bengals are likely to win. If this gets into a track meet, I’m not sure AJ McCarron won’t screw up enough times to blow the game. Marvin Lewis has gotten nothing out of his offense in six playoff games (never more than 17 points), so I’m curious to see how that pans out here. The drop-off from Dalton to McCarron is not as huge as it would be for some of these other playoff teams, but there is one. McCarron’s lack of experience causes him to hold the ball longer and be less decisive. That will open him up to more pressure, more sacks and takeaway opportunities. McCarron threw a really awful pick-six on a delayed play to William Gay in the last meeting. He should play better with more experience and prep, and he has a nice cast around him of receivers. I expect A.J. Green to play big, especially if Antwon Blake is anywhere near him. Well, that’s assuming Blake can catch up to Green after he’s beat after his 8-yard cushion. I don’t expect Jeremy Hill and the running game to do much, so McCarron will have to make plays against a defense that is totally reliant on takeaways and red-zone stops. On a per-drive basis, Pittsburgh’s defense is 13th in points allowed, 7th in takeaways, 3rd in red zone and 26th at forcing punts/three-and-outs. Pittsburgh only has 10 takeaways in 8 road games, though got a big trio of them in Cincinnati.

This does feel a little similar to last year when the Steelers lost to the Ravens. Pittsburgh brings the better quarterback, but the Bengals have a more balanced roster and can win the game in a greater variety of ways. I made the mistake of trusting the Steelers last year, though I also think Baltimore’s coaching and big-game history trumps that of the Bengals, who have a lot to prove here. A win would be huge for this franchise. I just wish it was Dalton getting the opportunity to do it for them.

Seahawks at Vikings

This is the game I have the least to say about, because I frankly just think Seattle has always been the better team this year and should win. Yes, it is really dumb that the NFL scheduled this for 10:00 A.M. PST, but I don’t buy that as a great excuse if Seattle doesn’t play well. They played at this time in the 38-7 beatdown in Week 13 in Minnesota. And how do you not get ready for a playoff game? It’s the season on the line.

This should be one of the coldest games in NFL history, so hey, great f’n timing on the roofed stadium, Minnesota. One year too late. But I don’t think the playing surface will be bothered and both teams should be able to run their usual offense, which is a lot of physical running anyway.

I just think Russell Wilson will handle the adversity and elements better than Teddy Bridgewater, who has been pedestrian for much of the year. Wilson won’t be as spectacular as he has been, though I don’t think he needs to be. I don’t see the Vikings scoring many points at all here. They were shut out the last game with Cordarrelle Patterson providing the only points on a return touchdown. This offense is just too limited to attack Seattle’s defense and the Seahawks can go all in at stopping Adrian Peterson, who hasn’t had many great games down the stretch here. It sucks that we won’t be seeing Marshawn Lynch in this one, but I think the Seahawks will manage in a game that might need the cold element to stay interesting since I think it will be the weekend’s most boring watch. Al Michaels might need thawed out by the fourth quarter.

However, I would warn that Seattle fans better hope the team’s head isn’t getting too big after all the hype following that domination in Arizona. You still have three road games to get to another Super Bowl, and Mike Zimmer is a tough coach. He’ll have his guys ready to hit in the cold and all it takes is a few fumbles to turn a game like this one. The hype, the early start time, the Lynch downgrade, the fact that Minnesota is playing much better since the last meeting…it all adds up for me to expect a much closer game than 38-7, but I still think Seattle should win. If they lose, we know it won’t be clinched until the final minute of the game.

Packers at Redskins

This is the weekend’s most volatile game. Stay away, gamblers, because you just don’t know if Aaron Rodgers will throw five touchdowns or if the Redskins will win by 17. Okay, both of those outcomes are pretty far-fetched, but I would be very careful about trusting either team in this one.

When you look at the stats this season, you’ll swear someone switched Aaron Rodgers’ stat line with Kirk Cousins’. I never thought we’d see Rodgers under 7 YPA until his old-man decline stage, but he finished the season at 6.68 YPA as Green Bay’s offense has really struggled for 13 games now. He’s at a horrific 5.97 YPA over the last 10 games, and that’s boosted a little by that Hail Mary in Detroit that shouldn’t have happened, dropping Green Bay to 3-7 in its last 10 games instead of 4-6. Rodgers just had the 5th-largest decline in YPA (2.22) in the last 10 games of a season vs. first 6 games since 1978.

Coinciding with Green Bay’s 10-game slump is Cousins’ “You like that!” moment in the comeback win over Tampa Bay. In the last 10 games, Cousins leads the NFL in completion percentage (72.38%) and YPA (8.72). He has 23 touchdowns to 3 INT, which again, looks like MVP-form Aaron Rodgers. This is crazy stuff, but I still have a hard time trusting him. Interceptions were his red flag coming into the season, and he threw multiple picks in four of the first six games before this hot streak. Did he turn the corner as a still relatively young quarterback, or is this just a hot streak against a soft schedule? Out of Washington’s 9 wins, the Bills had the best record at 8-8, and Rex Ryan’s defense was a huge disappointment this year. Cousins is pretty decisive. He gets rid of the ball quickly and with good short-throw accuracy, so he takes very few hits. He can hit some impressive passes down the field, but he’s not exactly Rodgers in the arm department despite the Rodgers-esque stat line. I think Jay Gruden is doing a fine job with Cousins and he’ll be more likely to continue his success for Washington than the smoke and mirrors of Robert Griffin’s rookie season, but I’m still a bit skeptical about him ever repeating these numbers again. It reminds me of where I stood on Nick Foles after 2013, though I don’t think Cousins will sink that low.

Can I see Cousins getting into some interception trouble and getting sacked a few times in this one from a Green Bay defense that is really the best part of the team? Yes, I sure can. And I think it will be necessary for Green Bay to win, because the offense cannot be trusted anymore. You know how I feel about Rodgers playing from behind, and I think that strengthens his slump this year since he’s not getting the hot start he wants, so Mike McCarthy struggles to adjust and games just snowball from there. That Arizona game was a disaster; easily one of the worst performances of Rodgers’ career. Washington can’t do that to him, but I think they’ll be stout against an unreliable running game and amp up the pass rush on Rodgers. James Jones might have a good game on broken plays, but you flat out cannot trust Randall Cobb at this point. Calling him a No. 2 wide receiver right now would be an excessive compliment.

In the way that Colin Kaepernick seemingly “let it all hang out” in the playoffs with his running a few years ago, I think Rodgers may have to scramble more in this game to make plays for his offense. That’s either scrambles for yards or to extend plays for some backyard football. There is no next week if you lose, so why not go all out? The traditional Green Bay offense is broken, and I don’t think simply adding Jordy Nelson is going to cure everything in 2016. The Packers will need to make some changes in the offseason, but winning a playoff game after this sustained stretch of poor play would be some achievement.

FINAL PREDICTIONS

There have been four seasons in NFL history (2004, 2005, 2010, 2013) where 3 road teams won on wild-card weekend, but never a year with four. The closest we came was in 2013 given the only home winner (Colts) had to come back from a 38-10 deficit. Hey, Chiefs. I feel like this slate has solid potential for four road winners, but I’m not going to pick it to happen.

  • Chiefs over Texans, 20-16
  • Steelers over Bengals, 23-16
  • Seahawks over Vikings, 17-6
  • Redskins over Packers, 27-20

Season Results

  • Week 1: 10-6
  • Week 2: 6-10
  • Week 3: 14-2
  • Week 4: 11-4
  • Week 5: 9-5
  • Week 6: 8-6
  • Week 7: 10-4
  • Week 8: 10-4
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 4-10
  • Week 11: 9-5
  • Week 12: 8-8
  • Week 13: 11-5
  • Week 14: 10-6
  • Week 15: 11-5
  • Week 16: 9-7
  • Week 17: 8-8
  • Season: 156-100 (.609)

This might have been my worst record since I started picking games a decade ago. Last season was one of my best.

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