NFL wild-card picks: Forecasting a first weekend known for surprises
In the 13-season span from 2000 to 2012, seven different Super Bowl champions came out of the wild-card round of the playoffs and went on to take the big confetti shower and hold up the shiny silver trophy. The most recent of those were the 2012 Ravens, the 2011 Giants and the 2010 Packers.
So this weekend’s four playoff matchups are no mere appetizer for the main course to come in the next two weeks. The Chiefs will bring the league’s longest winning streak (10 games) into their showdown at Houston. The Steelers have the sheen of a team playing with house money after staring down playoff-race extinction last week.
In Sunday’s NFC doubleheader, we have a blast from the past in an outdoor Minnesota playoff game that could harken back to the epic Ice Bowl, not that the Seahawks or Vikings are likely excited about braving the elements. And then there’s Green Bay at Washington for a finale to the weekend, in a game where the quarterbacks have seemingly switched bodies, reputations and statistical records. Kirk Cousins and Aaron Rodgers are not who we thought they were.
As the postseason arrives, let the surprises continue to unfold. Now on to this week’s picks.
• Last week: 8–8; Season: 160–96 (.625).
• Best pick in Week 17: Indianapolis 13, Tennessee 7 (Actual score: Colts 30–24).
• Worst pick in Week 17: Arizona 26, Seattle 21 (Actual score: Seahawks 36–6).
The Chiefs started their 2015 season with a Week 1 win in Houston, and they’re hoping their long, strange trip—and current 10-game winning streak—doesn’t end there as well. Kansas City fans have endured seven consecutive one-and-done playoff trips starting with a Chiefs first-round loss at Miami in 1994, so absolutely nothing is taken for granted in January. The memory of that 2013 playoff meltdown in Indianapolis remains fresh for Andy Reid’s club, because it’s still unfathomable that a 38–10 third-quarter Chiefs lead could turn into a 45–44 Colts comeback victory. A Kansas City lead of any size on Saturday should not make anyone comfortable on the Chiefs’ sideline.
Very quietly, Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith has been a force in the postseason, throwing for nine touchdowns without an interception in his three career playoff starts, to go with 873 yards passing and a 108.6 rating. But Houston’s talent-laden defense is capable of winning this game by itself, so Smith and Reid need to stay aggressive and keep the throttle open all game long. The Texans can use their home field advantage to generate some noise problems for the visitors if the roof is closed, and an early Houston lead could be the worst-case scenario for the Chiefs, who are not a quick-strike, come-from-behind team.
Oh, the irony of perhaps seeing Bengals backup quarterback A.J. McCarron earn his first career playoff victory while the still-healing Andy Dalton and his 0–4 postseason record watches from the sidelines in Paul Brown Stadium. Now that would be a plot twist no one was predicting back when this time-to-get-it-done season started in Cincinnati. McCarron showed me enough in his three-start late-season stint to believe the end of the Bengals’ 25-year playoff-victory drought could be at hand late Saturday night. Taking care of the football is McCarron’s top priority, but he also has to be able to let it rip when opportunities for big plays present themselves.
For all the talk of how dangerous the No. 6 seed Steelers are offensively as they enter the playoffs—and their passing game is second to none in the AFC field—they hardly resembled a juggernaut in losing at Baltimore and winning unimpressively at Cleveland the past two weeks. And the ankle injury to starting running back DeAngelo Williams could be very damaging indeed if it turns Pittsburgh’s offense one-dimensional. The Steelers won big in Cincinnati in Week 14 and certainly could do it again, dealing the Bengals a first-round playoff loss for the mind-boggling fifth consecutive year. But Cincinnati’s turn has finally come, and there will be a party in the Queen City that rages well past midnight.
While I can’t see the Vikings entirely closing the 31-point gap that existed between these two teams when they met in Minneapolis in Week 13—a 38–7 Seattle rout—the extremely cold conditions that are forecast for this game should serve to somewhat restrict the Seahawks’ productive passing game and thus narrow the margin of Seattle’s dominance. The Vikings will probably try to put matters on the shoulders of running back Adrian Peterson, asking him to carry the bulk of the offense and hopefully shorten the game. But if the freezing temperatures make passing treacherous, perhaps the return of Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch is a fortuitous turn of events that will help Seattle tough out the win in a difficult road setting.
The Vikings’ best chance to stay in the game could be with some playmaking from their defense and special teams, and through trying to disrupt Russell Wilson’s smoothly efficient execution. Minnesota’s gloved quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, will find it difficult to deal with the conditions, but he might wind up impacting the game with his legs more than his arm.
I know road teams are all the craze this weekend in the NFL playoffs, but Washington has some serious mojo going for itself at home in FedEx Field this season. If you throw out that lousy Week 1 performance in a loss to Joe Philbin’s Dolphins—that’s how long ago that was—Washington is 6–1 at home since opening day, and quarterback Kirk Cousins has been on fire in Landover. Cousins has thrown 15 touchdowns with zero interceptions and a gaudy 123.7 passer rating in those seven games, and he’s in a comfort zone all his own after emerging as the most consistent quarterback in the NFC East this season.
Green Bay simply has not been able to find its stride offensively for any length of time since that 6–0 start, and the Packers often look like they just want this perplexing season to be put out of its misery. Aaron Rodgers has been buried under constant pass pressure in recent weeks, and if Washington’s defense can create some steady heat on him, the frustration that has been Green Bay’s calling card on offense will again start to show.