By Teddy Gutkin & Eric Margolin
AFC Wild Card Games:
(6) Indianapolis Colts (10-6) vs. (3) Houston Texans (11-5)
Teddy: Both these teams overcame dreadful starts (Texans started 0-3 while the Colts started 1-5) to qualify for the playoffs. The Texans went 11-2 after week 3 on the heels of DeShaun Watson’s stellar sophomore campaign (4,165 yards and 31 total touchdowns) and a top defensive unit led by the two-headed monster known as JJ Watt (16.5 sacks) and JaDeveon Clowney (9.0 sacks). On offense, Watson’s biggest weapon will undoubtebly be star wideout DeAndre Hopkins, who hauled in 1,572 yards and 11 touchdowns on a whopping 115 grabs and, perhaps even more impressively, zero dropped passes, the only receiver in the league to achieve the feat. That being said, Houston has few other playmakers to name after Will Fuller was lost for the season in week 8 with a torn ACL, and Watson will need receivers like Keke Coutee to step up on Saturday to keep their season alive. The team is also adept on the ground, ranking 8th in the NFL in rushing yards with Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue anchoring the backfield.
The Colts seemed to be destined for a top five selection early in the season when they sat at 1-5, but they have since rattled off wins in nine out of their final ten contests, with the only loss coming in a 6-0 shutout against the Jaguars. Andrew Luck was nothing short of spectacular, throwing for 4,593 yards and 39 scores after missing all of last season. While Luck was impressive and is garnering a significant amount of praise (and rightfully so), the Comeback Player of the Year favorite’s resurgent season has been spurred by his offensive line. The unit allowed just 18 sacks (best in the league), and rookie guard Quentin Nelson and rookie tackle Braden Smith helped transform one of the weakest units in the entire league into arguably one of the best. Luck’s biggest targets should be T.Y. Hilton (74 catches, 1,270 yards, 9 touchdowns) and Eric Ebron, who has finally realized his potential to explode for a season that saw him catch 13 touchdowns and haul in 750 yards on 66 catches. On the defensive side, rookie MLB Darius Leonard will be the man to watch after leading the NFL in tackles with 163 and notching 2 interceptions and 4 forced fumbles. Cornerbacks Pierre Desir and Kenny Moore should have their hands full in the secondary, but have proven to hold their own with 8 and 11 passes defended and 1 and 3 interceptions apiece. Overall, this game should serve as a thrilling opener for this year’s playoffs, but ultimately I believe that the Colts’ stout offensive line and some big-time throws from Luck should help Indy continue their white-hot streak and book their tickets to Kansas City.
Prediction: Colts defeat Texans 27-23
Eric: This is by far the most intriguing matchup of wildcard weekend. These division rivals faced off twice during the regular season and each matchup was decided by a field goal. They both have explosive offenses and stout defenses. By all accounts, it seems like the Colts have the advantage. They have a more efficient offense and a statistically equivalent defense. However, I love the Texans’ big play ability on both sides of the ball. Deshaun Watson averaged 8 yards per attempt (a full yard better than Andrew Luck) and DeAndre Hopkins has 23 receptions of 20+ yards, good for 4th in the NFL. JJ Watt is 2nd in the league in sacks and forced fumbles, while the defense itself ranks 4th in points allowed, 1st in sacks, and 2nd in turnover differential. We all know the mantra “defense wins championships,” and with one of the best defense in the NFL and an offensive with explosive play capability, the Texans should beat the Colts in a closely contested battle at home.
Prediction: Texans defeat Colts 28-21
(5) Los Angeles Chargers (12-4) vs. (4) Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
Teddy: The Chargers, despite being the number five seed, are one of the conference’s biggest Super Bowl contenders, sporting a 12-4 record and narrowly missing out on the AFC’s best record due to a tiebreaker with the Chiefs. With wins on the road against the Chiefs, Seahawks, and Steelers, Anthony Lynn’s club is clearly battle tested, with Philip Rivers having an MVP-caliber season (4,308 yards, 32 touchdowns) and Melvin Gordon (885 yards, 10 touchdowns) and Austin Ekeler (554 yards, 3 touchdowns) helping to pace a strong backfield. In the passing game, Keenan Allen continued his stellar play with 97 yards for 1,196 yards and 6 touchdowns, while Mike Williams (66 catches, 664 yards, 10 touchdowns) and Tyrell Williams (65 catches, 653 yards, 4 touchdowns) remain dangerous weapons on the outside. On defense, rookie Derwin James notched 105 tackles and 3 interceptions, while Joey Bosa (5.5 sacks) and Melvin Ingram (7 sacks) help to anchor the Chargers’ dangerous front seven. To put it in more basic terms, this team is stacked on both ends of the football.
The Ravens sat at 4-5 when John Harbaugh finally inserted rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson into the starting lineup after Joe Flacco went down with an injury. After two straight wins, Jackson was permanently named the Ravens starter, and he has led them to a 6-1 record in their final seven games. Since the change, Jackson has wowed fans everywhere with his running ability as a dual threat quarterback, and the Ravens have upgraded their playcalling to integrate a college-like read option offense to suit the play style of their young star. The move was clearly the right one, as Jackson helped the team clinch their first division title since 2013. The rookie threw for just 6 scores on 1,201 yards, but dominated on the ground, rushing for a whopping 695 yards and five touchdowns. Gus Edwards should be a factor at tailback after rushing for a team-high 718 yards in the regular season, and John Brown and Michael Crabtree should be weapons to watch in the passing game along with Jackson’s security blanket, tight end Mark Andrews (34 catches, 552 yards, 4 touchdowns). On defense, CJ Mosley anchors the unit with 105 tackles, and cornerbacks Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr, and Marlon Humphrey (all with 2 interceptions) lock down opposing offenses to allow the fifth-fewest passing yards in the league and the fewest total yards. Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce will team on the defensive line to anchor one of the league’s most fearsome interior units.
When these two teams met in December, the Ravens prevailed 22-10 in an ugly road win that turned into a defensive slugfest. While the Ravens have proven they can win ugly, I worry about how Lamar Jackson will respond if the Chargers’ offense gets going. It should also be noted that the Chargers have already seen Baltimore once with Jackson under center, and should be better prepared to stop their fairly predictable gameplan. Los Angeles has already proven they can shut down better offenses with the likes of the Chiefs and Seahawks before, and I don’t see them letting Baltimore’s run-heavy offense down them once again. The Chargers win and set up a date with Tom Brady and the Patriots in Foxborough.
Prediction: Chargers defeat Ravens 23-13
Eric: The Chargers are fantastic team that got stuck in a bad situation. Most 12-4 teams don’t play on wildcard weekend. In the last 10 seasons, only 5 wildcard teams had 12 or more wins. Most of these teams made deep runs in the playoffs, but the Chargers will be the exception. In their first meeting of the season, the Ravens won 22-10 in LA. They held the Chargers to 198 yards (only 51 on the ground), and allowed rookie Lamar Jackson to account for for 243 yards and a TD. Jackson has now played an entire NFL season and has the experience to read a defense. Baltimore’s wishbone-esque offense will keep the ball out of Philip Rivers’ hands, and allow the tenacious Ravens defense to stay well rested and ready to play. Speaking of the Ravens defense, they allow the fewest yards, second fewest points, and have an all around fantastic defense. But the real kicker, will be the Ravens kicker. Justin Tucker is possibly the best place kicker of all time (fight me in the comments later). He has made the 2nd most field goals in the NFL this season, has missed a single extra point this season, and converted 5 of his 7 attempts from over 50 yards. He is as automatic as they come in the NFL. WIth the Chargers’ stout red zone defense, Tucker will be the leading scorer in a low scoring affair, helping the Ravens move on to the divisional round.
Prediction: Ravens defeat Charger 16-14
NFC Wild Card Games:
(5) Seattle Seahawks (11-5) at (4) Dallas Cowboys (10-6)
Teddy: This is arguably the best matchup of the entire weekend, pitting two talented dual threat quarterbacks in Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson against each other in a matchup that should feature a plethora of offensive fireworks. After missing the postseason for the first time in his seven-year career, Wilson finds himself back in the fold after a season that saw him throw for 35 touchdowns to just 7 interceptions and lead four fourth-quarter comebacks. In the backfield, Chris Carson finally had the breakout season the Seahawks have been waiting for, rushing for 1,151 yards and 9 touchdowns. In the passing game, Tyler Lockett leads the team with 965 yards and 10 scores on 57 grabs, while Doug Baldwin scored 5 touchdowns and hauled in 618 yards on 50 catches. On defense, Frank Clark (14 sacks) and Jarran Reed (10.5 sacks) anchor a strong front seven, while Bobby Wagner led the team with 138 tackles and an interception. The Cowboys, meanwhile, salvaged what appeared to be a lost season when Jerry Jones traded a first round pick to the Oakland Raiders for Amari Cooper. Since the move, the wideout has become Dak Prescott’s favorite target, notching 753 yards and 6 scores in nine games. Prescott, meanwhile, has rediscovered his stroke after a terrible first half led many Cowboy fans to call for his starting job. The third-year passer threw for 3,885 yards and 22 touchdowns, and rushed for 282 yards and 6 scores on the ground. Rounding out Dallas’ big three on offense is Ezekiel Elliott, who led the league in rushing (1,434 yards) and scored 6 touchdowns while also racking up 567 receiving yards and 6 scores through the air. On defense, rookie LB Leighton Vander Esch has become a key piece, leading the team with 140 tackles and picking off two passes. DeMarcus Lawrence (10.5 sacks) and Tyrone Crawford (5.5 sacks) should be factors on the line, and cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Byron Jones have played extremely well in the secondary during the Cowboys’ recent surge. This game should be the best of the weekend, but ultimately I feel that Wilson’s impressive postseason track record coupled with a white-hot Carson on the ground (3 100-yard games in December) will help carry Seattle to a close victory and punch their ticket to the divisional round.
Prediction: Seahawks defeat Cowboys 38-33
Eric: The Cowboys have already lost to the Seahawks once this season and I believe history will repeat itself in this wildcard game. The Cowboys have been inconsistent at best. Starting the season 7-1, they closed out 3-6, beating three rebuilding teams (the Jaguars, Lions, and Giants). Dak Prescott has been his usual mediocre self while Ezekiel Elliott and newly obtained Amari Cooper have carried the team. Dallas does have a top 10 defense led by rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (3rd in the league in tackles), fully recovered linebacker Jaylon Smith (2nd on the team in TFL), and defensive end Randy Gregory (1st on the team in failed drug tests). They have a solid secondary that will make the Seahawks compete. However, the Seahawks offense has come alive late in the season behind the arm of Russell Wilson, the legs of Chris Carson, and the hands of Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett. Wilson has been one of the games most efficient QBs in the league down the stretch (5:1 TD:INT ratio), Carson has been like a bowl in a china shop (82 yards and 5 broken tackles a game), while Baldwin and Lockett have had magnet hands (a combined 75% catch rate and 15 TDs). Although the Legion of Boom has disbanded, Seattle has an above average defense, relying on a fantastic linebacking core of Bobby Wagner (4th in the league in tackles), former first round pick and freak athlete Barkevious Mingo, and up and coming rookie Austin Calitro. The Seahawks will go into Jerry’s world, soundly beat the Cowboys, and break Skip Bayless’ heart.
Prediction: Seahawks defeat Cowboys 28-17
(6) Philadelphia Eagles (9-7) vs. (3) Chicago Bears (12-4)
Teddy: It may not be 1985, but the Bears defense is arguably the best unit left in the field. Khalil Mack helped transform the Bears into one of the best defenses in all of football after coming over in a trade from the Raiders before the season started, totaling 12.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, 1 interception, and a touchdown. Akiem Hicks had a huge season as well, notching 7.5 sacks and forcing 3 fumbles to team with Mack to create on the NFC’s most fearsome pass rush duos. Rookie Roquan Smith led the team with 122 tackles and notched 5 sacks, while Kyle Fuller had his best season yet with 7 interceptions. Eddie Jackson netted 6 interceptions himself, and ran two of them back for touchdowns.
On the offensive side of the ball, Mitchell Trubisky rebounded from a poor rookie campaign to throw for 3,223 yards and 24 touchdowns. Jordan Howard (935 yards) and Tarik Cohen (444 yards) create a formidable pairing in the backfield, and Cohen should also be a major factor in the passing game (71 catches for 725 yards and 5 touchdowns). Allen Robinson led the team in receiving with 754 yards and 4 scores, while Anthony Miller has flashed big-play potential on countless occasions en route to a team-high 7 touchdown catches. The offense has a plethora of contributors and Trubisky tends to spread the wealth fairly evenly, and the offense is a hard one to prepare for given the fact that no one receiver truly dominates the touches on the outside.
After Carson Wentz was shut down for the season in week 14, Nick Foles was called upon to lead the Eagles back to the playoffs, and he responded by leading the team to a 3-0 mark and qualifying for the postseason. Where have we seen this story before? It’s impossible to see the Eagles as anything but a team of destiny right now: their star quarterback goes down once again only for their backup to lead the squad on a magical run to the promised land. Foles was sharp in his five games of action this season, throwing for 1,413 yards and 7 scores, including a franchise-record 471 yards and 4 touchdowns against the Texans in week 16. After Jay Ajayi was lost for the season in week 4, Josh Adams has emerged as the lead back for Philly, rushing for 511 yards and 3 touchdowns. Zach Ertz led the team with 116 catches, which broke the NFL record for receptions in a season by a tight end, to go along with 1,163 yards and 8 touchdowns. Alshon Jeffrey should also be a major weapon after a season that saw him catch 65 yards for 843 yards and 6 touchdowns, and Nelson Agholar presents major big-play potential despite his wildly inconsistent play.
On defense, the Eagles are led by safety Malcolm Jenkins, who led the team with 97 tackles and notched 1 sack and 1 interception. Fletcher Cox led the team with 10.5 sacks, and Brandon Graham (4.5 sacks) and Michael bennett (9 sacks) helped hold down the front seven with routinely excellent seasons. The Eagles secondary is extremely banged up, and Rasul Douglas (3 interceptions) is currently projected to be the starting cornerback alongside Sidney Jones with Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills on IR.
While the Eagles seem like a team of destiny right now, luck isn’t going to carry them to a second consecutive Lombardi trophy. The Bears defense possesses the toughest challenge Foles has faced all season long, and their weak secondary should have Matt Nagy licking his chops as he watches film this week. The Bears are 7-1 at home this year with wins against the Rams and Seahawks, and they should pick up yet another impressive home win to send the defending champs packing.
Prediction: Bears defeat Eagles 27-14
Eric: After a miraculous super bowl run in last year’s playoffs, are the Eagles primed to win it back to back? The simple answer: no. This team is nowhere as good a last years. Due to injuries at the cornerback position, they have the worst defense of any playoff team, allowing over 350 yards and 22 points a game. Despite Nick Foles’ revival of the offense, the Eagles don’t play good enough defense to win. The Bears are the exact opposite. Led by edge rushers Khalil Mack and Leonard Floyd, they have the best defense in football, forcing turnovers, scoring touchdowns, and racking up sacks at an ungodly pace. During the regular season, they were a well-oiled, quarterback-eating machine. The Bears have “10 God” Mitch Trubisky and the dual headed rushing attack of Tarik Cohen (725 yards passing) and Jordan Howard (935 yards rushing) to produce the big plays their offense is predicated on. The only knock against the Bears is a lack of playoff experience, which I don’t believe will matter that much in the wildcard round. If this game wasn’t in Chicago, the Eagles would have stood a chance. But I expect this to be a total annihilation.
Prediction: Bears defeat Eagles 35-7
This has been a crazy NFL season and the playoffs won't be any different. There will be heartbreaking defeats, improbably victories, and (thankfully) no ties. As players, teams, and the league itself continue to make amoral or awful PR decisions, use this weekend to remember why football is still America's game. Remember the emotions it brings and the beauty within the game. And remember what Jim Mora said all those years ago...