Jan. 11, 2019
NFL Wildcard Preview/Predictions
All roads lead to Atlanta, as eight teams duke it out to claim the Lombardi Trophy. Up first, is the wildcard round. Let's take a look at the games coming up this weekend.
Texans vs. Colts
The first game on the docket features two AFC South teams facing each other for the third time. It was in Week 4 against the Colts that the Texans turned their season around. After a 0-3 start to the season, the Texans won a tough game in overtime to defeat the Colts. That was the same game Frank Reich decided to go for it on fourth down in Colts territory. The Colts would later avenge this loss with a 24-21 win in Houston. The Colts are one of the hottest teams entering the postseason, as they’ve won nine of their last 10 games. Andrew Luck has had a resurgent year under center behind a stout offensive line. The Colts defense has also been one of the best units in the league. Meanwhile, the Texans rounded into one of the best two-way teams in football following their slow start. Their offense is capable of big plays while their defense rebounded with a healthy outing from their key players.
Keys for Colts: Number one on the Colts game plan should be to put pressure on Deshaun Watson. The Texans second-year quarterback was sacked a league-high 62 times this season. In two games against the Texans, the Colts were able to sack Watson 12 times. If they’re able to sack Watson on earlier downs, they can force the Texans into third and long situations. Conversely, the Colts must keep Andrew Luck clean and give him time to make plays. Houston ranked just outside the top ten in sacks this season with 43. They still have capable pass rushers that can make an impact.
Keys for Texans: The Texans must keep Watson clean in the pocket for the reasons explained above. They should try and get the ball out of Watson’s hands quickly and keep third downs at a manageable distance. They should also try and control the clock. That means more time for their defense to rest and less time for Andrew Luck to hurt them on the field. And when Luck is on the field, the Texans have to take away the deep ball. In particular, they need to contain T.Y. Hilton. Hilton has had big games against the Texans this season. Also, the Colts are 3-6 this season when Luck is held to under 7.5 yards per attempt.
Prediction: The hot team is always the safe bet at the start of the playoffs. The Colts are cooking on both sides of the ball. I believe they’ll get after Watson early and force him into a few mistakes. The Colts will capitalize and hold off a late charge from the Texans. Colts win 30-26.
Cowboys vs. Seahawks
Whenever I think of these two teams in a playoff game, I go back to Tony Romo’s botched field goal hold. Anyway, not many people outside the Cowboys fanbase thought they’d make it this far. After a 3-5 start to the season, the Cowboys looked destined for 8-8 at best, but they eventually caught fire. They began to turn things around with a new receiver, the NFL’s leading rusher, and one of the best defenses in the league. Seattle is another team that few believed would make it this far. After dissolving the Legion of Boom, the Seahawks were supposed to be rebuilding. After Earl Thomas went down, they were supposed to be done. But Russell Wilson and Pete Carrol had other plans. Led by core players with championship DNA, the Seahawks went back to what brought them success. Steady QB play, a dominant run game, and a physical defense led to their return to the playoffs.
Keys for Cowboys: Clock control is the key for the Cowboys. Over the second half of the season, the Cowboys went 7-1 and beat two playoff teams along the way. During that span, the Cowboys possessed the ball for 14 more minutes than their opponents on average. When these two teams faced off earlier in the season, the Seahawks won the possession battle. Defensively, the Cowboys have to pressure and successfully tackle Russell Wilson. The Cowboys fifth-ranked rushing defense will make things hard for Chris Carson and company, but Wilson’s playmaking ability makes him the ultimate weapon in games like this. The Cowboys will have to contain him as well as tackle him down. Wilson can be elusive and that can lead to big plays the Cowboys don’t need.
Keys for the Seahawks: Seattle has to find a way to get their running game going. It won’t be easy against the Cowboys fifth-ranked run defense won’t make it easy on them, but the Seahawks can’t just abandon their strength so easily. Seattle is 4-1 when Carson carries the ball at least 20 times. The second key is stopping Zeke. Ezekiel Elliot is the top rusher in the league and is the engine that makes the Cowboys offense go. Make Dak Prescott be the reason the Cowboys win or lose and live with the result.
Prediction: I expect a smash mouth ballgame between these two run-centric teams, but ultimately, I give the edge to Dallas. The Cowboys are tough to beat at home and have the better defense between the two teams. If also think they’ll have more success running the ball and thus will control more of the clock than Seattle. So long as Dak doesn’t needlessly turn the ball over, the Cowboys should be fine. Dallas wins 21-20.
Ravens vs. Chargers
Normally teams as good as the Los Angeles Chargers wouldn’t be playing during wildcard weekend. But they played in the same division as the Chiefs, and now find themselves against probably the last team they wanted to play. After a season plagued with blown opportunities, the Chargers cleaned up their act and have become one of the best teams in football. Future Hall of Famer Philip Rivers has the most weapons around him he’s ever had. Their defense is fast and skilled at every level. Anthony Lynn is coaching them up and making the bold calls when they need to be made. They look destined for a deep playoff run. But again, they’re playing a team they didn’t want to see again. The Baltimore Ravens had the best defense in the league all season long but didn’t have enough offense to help them. Once Joe Flacco went down, the door opened for Lamar Jackson. Since taking over as the starting QB, Jackson has led the Ravens to wins in all but one game. It may not be pretty, but the Ravens are winning regardless of what we think. The last time these teams played, the Ravens made enough plays on offense and their defense dominated the Chargers offense in every way. Los Angeles will look to flip that script in round two.
Keys for Ravens: Baltimore doesn’t hide their intentions. They want to run the ball at every opportunity. They want to control the clock and keep their defense rested. Why fix something that isn’t broken? But the key will be for Lamar Jackson to make timely throws and to keep the ball safe. He cannot afford to put the defense in compromising situations. On defense, the Ravens will want to repeat what they did to the Chargers in the first matchup. They need to get after Philip Rivers and legally hit him every chance they get. They need to force turnovers and keep the Chargers from making big plays.
Keys for Chargers: Los Angeles should overload the line of scrimmage, single cover all Baltimore receivers, and force Lamar Jackson to beat them with his arm. They should also try to disguise coverages and try to confuse Jackson. He is a rookie after all and is still prone to rookie mistakes. Offensively, the Chargers need to use their weapons. Overall, they’re the most balanced offense left in the playoffs. They need to use Melvin Gordon, Austin Ekeler, their receivers, etc. Also, Philip Rivers cannot turn the ball over. He’s thrown six interceptions over the last three games.
Prediction: I’ve picked against the Ravens with Lamar Jackson plenty of times, and nearly every time I ended up eating crow. But I guess I haven’t learned my lesson. The Chargers are the better team and I believe they’ve learned their lesson after last time they played the Ravens. The Chargers will force Jackson to beat them with his arm, and he won’t be up to the task. A 10-point lead will feel insurmountable for the Ravens in this one. In the end, the Chargers will do enough to win the game. Chargers win 17-7.
Bears vs. Eagles
There’s usually one team that rises from the depths of average and end up making some noise during the NFL season. This year, that team is the Chicago Bears. A trade for Khalil Mack turned good defense into an elite defense. The coaching of Matt Nagy transformed the once inept Chicago offense into a formidable unit. Now, there are not many teams that want to see the Chicago Bears on the opposite sideline. The same could be said about their opponents. The defending Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles were left for dead after a what felt like a season-ending loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Shortly thereafter, Carson Wentz went down with an injury. Surely Nick Foles doesn’t have any magic left right? Oh look, they even have a new gimmick complete with a new mask. Well, the Eagles rose from the quicksand and managed to make the playoffs. And funny enough, the Eagles have the Bears to thank for their playoff berth. Will the Bears regret letting the Eagles in?
Keys for Bears: Mitchel Trubisky will get his first taste of playoff experience. The Philly secondary has seen better days, and Trubisky should be called upon for a big game. The Bears won their last four games, but only averaged 19.3 points over that stretch. Also, look for Tarik Cohen to get involved. His danger factor running or catching cannot be ignored in this game. On defense, all the Bears have to do is replicate what they’ve done all season. Also, quick three and outs lead to good field position.
Keys for Eagles: Philly cannot focus in on Zach Ertz. They’ll need to spread the ball around to everyone and keep the Bears defense off balance. The Bears are notorious for taking opposing tight ends out of games with their safety play. So the Eagles will need the likes of Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor, Daren Sproles, etc. Defensively, the Eagles need to cause chaos in the backfield. That means pressuring Trubisky and stuffing the run. Given the state of their secondary, they cannot afford to give Trubisky any time to throw the ball over the top.
Prediction: I think the Nick Foles magic ends here. The Bears defense specialize in taking away what teams do best. For the Eagles, it’s Zach Ertz that makes the engine go. With him limited and pressure getting to Foles, I don’t believe the Eagles can pull this upset. So long as the Bears offense doesn’t give the Eagles too many opportunities, Chicago should win this game. Bears win 24-17.