Oakland Raiders (+3.5) over Houston Texans
In what can only be called the biggest blow this NFL season, only because their team was actually going places, the Oakland Raiders lost their gun-slinging quarterback in Derek Carr only to lose his backup Matt McGloin as well. To say that this was a shocker was an understatement, and Jack Del Rio did a great job of downplaying the loss proclaiming that they train for the next man up because scenarios like this are happenstance in the NFL. You know and I know that he was dying inside and would’ve loved to roll up into a ball, fetal position and just let it out but he did a good job of keeping the troops heads held high.
This was the first time in over 14 years that the Oakland Raiders were going to the playoffs, and it wasn’t just that they were going to be punching their ticket, they looked like they had a legitimate shot to make it as far as their conference championship game, when their cinderella story would run out due to Tom Brady and the Patriots. Now however, they will have a difficult time even upending the Houston Texans, who also have lost their starting quarterback in Tom Savage, so it’s back to the $72 million dollar man, Brock Osweiler. No matter who the quarterbacks in this game would have been, minus Carr, this was going to be a game that was won in the trenches with effective defense.
Even without star Defensive Lineman J.J. Watt, the Texans have been absolute stalwarts on defense, with the number 1 ranked overall defense and the number 12 defense against the run. They also have been able to put up 11 interceptions and 31 sacks, with Quintin Demps and Whitney Mercilus leading the team in both categories respectively. On the offensive side of the ball, the return of Lamar Miller can only be viewed as a positive, with the spark that he will provide in the running game. Along with that, we know that they are absolutely stacked at wide receiver, much like they have always been since I started reporting on them, going from Andre Johnson, to DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller though much like as always has been with them, they have absolute trash players throwing them the ball, limiting production. Look for them to get some significant yardage from Lamar Miller running up the A and B gaps, opening up the play action pass to Hopkins on some of his beautifully run routes, (I think he’s one of the best route runners in the NFL, look at the YouTube video below for some affirmation of that).
The Raiders Defense however hasn’t been anything to laugh at, with a once in a generation type player in Khalil Mack and the 5th ranked front seven in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus. The aforementioned Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin have been an absolute nightmare for opposing offensive coordinators and the play of Reggie Nelson and Sean Smith in the backfield has vastly improved. Again, much like the Houston Texans the Oakland Raiders have some devastating playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. The transition from the NCAA to the NFL for Amari Cooper has been about as seamless as one can hope for, and the scouts in Oakland saw exactly what I saw from watching his tape at Alabama. A threat to score a touchdown every time the ball is in his hands, even if Cooper is covered, he’s open. With 83 receptions for 1,153 yards and 5 touchdowns, he has been a terrific player, though he does suffer with some drops in inopportune times. Luckily, if Cooper is having an off night on Saturday Afternoon, the Raiders have the 10th pick in the 2009 Draft, Michael Crabtree to back him up. With nearly identical stats, 89 receptions for 1,003 yards and 8 touchdowns, it is clear that this tandem will be a force to reckon with every year they have a competent quarterback slinging them the ball.
Even with all of the offensive firepower on both sides of the ball, I don’t believe that this will be a high scoring affair. We will have to see how Connor Cook does in his first game as a starter for the Oakland Raiders. When he was thrust into the last game versus one of the best defenses in the country, the Broncos, he didn’t seem completely out of sorts, though he did throw away the ball more than I would have liked. Overall, I do think this will be a close low scoring game, with the Raiders surprising us all with the upset.
Oakland Raiders 17
Houston Texans 13
Seattle Seahawks (-8) over Detroit Lions (Over/under: 43)
The NFL world has been absolutely confused by the play of the Seattle Seahawks this year. Our very own Paul Johnson even went so far as to say that they are no longer the team that has a defense the entire NFL fears and respects, (http://www.interestology.com/football/the-seahawks-are-not-the-same-team). Now, I don’t completely agree with Paul on this front, though I do believe that the loss of All-World safety Earl Thomas to a broken leg was definitely something they could have done without. Skip Bayless of Undisputed has been on record saying that he believes Richard Sherman has been doing so much talking because he isn’t the same player that he once was. Though Father Time is undefeated, to say that Richard Sherman is no longer the a great cornerback would be absolute buffoonery. According to Ike Taylor, he is still the number 1 cornerback in the NFL, and though I generally like Skip Bayless, I’m taking the word of a former NFL player over a sensationalistic tv show host. The play of Kam Chancellor as of late hasn’t been quite up to the high bar that he has set for himself in his play in the NFL. Though their running game has been in shambles, the connection between Russell Wilson and Jimmy Graham has improved in comparison to last season, with him hauling in 65 passes for 923 yards. Look for Graham to burn Slay and the Detroit Lions defensive backs and linebackers throughout the course of the game, especially as a red zone target.
The Detroit Lions have been quite the surprise this year, after going 1 and 3 in the beginning of the season, they went on to win 8 of their next 9 games, before going on a cold streak and giving up their last 3 games in a row. It is never a good thing for your team to be cold heading into the playoffs, and that is exactly what the Lions are, cold. It has been a very long time since the Detroit Lions have won a playoff game, over 23 years to be exact and sadly for Detroit fans, this will not be changing on Saturday night. After losing Calvin “Megatron” Johnson, most everybody, with myself included, thought that Matthew Stafford would be in a world of trouble but the case has been exactly the opposite. By being able to open up the passing game rather than it being Megatron and then everyone else, the Lions offense has been more consistent in their delivery of yardage and Stafford has thrown for 4,327 yards, with a completion percentage of 65.3 and a quarterback rating of 93.3. With an early season injury to stud running back Ameer Abdullah who was running for 5.8 yards per carry, the Lions have gone through a committee of running backs before landing upon Zach Zenner who has been pretty strong out of the backfield, accounting for 4 touchdowns in his limited time playing. According to Michael Bennett, he’s good, for a “white guy” but I think he’s just good, period. Golden Tate has once again shown us why it was a mistake for the Seahawks to let him leave a few years ago, putting up another 1000+ yard season, along with Anquan Boldin who apparently is winning the fight with father time, being one of the best red zone threats in the NFL with 8 touchdowns.
Though the Seattle Seahawks are missing one of their most important players, Earl Thomas, look for them to continue their dominance that has been ever present since the addition of Coach Pete Carroll. Look for the Seahawks offense to run through Russell Wilson’s ability to play outside of the pocket and their receiving trio of Baldwin, Kearse and Graham to give the Lions secondary fits all night. Though the Seahawks have a stout defense, look for them to give up 3 touchdowns versus the Lions, winning the game 31-24.
Seattle Seahawks 31
Detroit Lions 24
Pittsburgh Steelers (-10) over Miami Dolphins
In what is the worst game in terms of its’ one-sidedness, look for the Pittsburgh Steelers to absolutely dominate the Miami Dolphins in all aspects of the game, minus Jay Ajayi running down their throats for a 100+ yard game. I don’t even really see a point in writing a full preview for this game since Ryan Tannehill went down after the 13th game of the season.
Though Tannehill has definitely been short of spectacular, he was running the offense smoothly as a game-manager, putting up 2,995 yards on a 67.1 completion percentage, he has been playing better this year than any of his prior years and it was sad to see him go, in favor of the uber journeyman Matt Moore. Now oddly enough, Matt Moore has actually put up a favorable quarterback rating of 105.6 versus Ryan Tannehill’s 93.5 but they still have not put up the offense all season that is needed to beat a dominant Steelers offense. With DeVante Parker and my college buddy Kenny Stills (I had to throw it in there!) putting up a very similar 700+ yards each and Jarvis Landry besting them both with 1,136 yards you would think that this receiving core would do well versus the Steelers but sadly, they stand no chance. Jay Ajayi has been one of the positive surprises of this NFL season, coming in and beasting the league since the first time he put hands on a ball. With an NFL record 3 games with 200+ yards, look for Ajayi to give the Steelers front 7 some problems, especially later on in the game as they are worn down. Look for Kenyan Drake to come in as a change of pace back every now and then, with a very impressive 5.4 yards per attempt for the season. On defense, Kiko Alonso has been the lights out player that he was in Buffalo, before Chip Kelly and the putrid Eagles made it seem as though he was just a flash in the pan. Leading the team with 115 tackles, 2 interceptions and even a fumble recovery, Alonso has been absolutely terrific on the defensive side of the ball. I wish I could say the same for the tremendously overpaid Ndamukong Suh, who only has 5 recorded sacks for the year and not been as disruptive as he has been in years passed. Tony Lippett has been quite a find in the 2015 NFL Draft, taken as the 156th overall selection in the 5th round, Lippett has played fantastic as a cornerback, picking off 4 balls throughout the course of the season while also providing 67 tackles, he has been far better than NFL scouts believed he would be.
What is there to say about Big Ben that has not been already said since he came in the league in 2004. He is an absolute nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators, calling out their defensive packages and doing a great job using audibles to his team's’ advantage. With 3,819 yards and a quarterback rating of 95.4, Ben has had another typical Ben season, doing what is required of him to get the win. It doesn’t hurt that he has one of the best wide receivers in the league with Antonio Brown and quite possibly the best running back in the league with Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers offense is a terror when it is clicking on full cylinders. Bell has put up 1,268 yards on 4.9 yards per attempt, doing a great job of being an extremely shifty 3 down back who though he isn’t the largest running back in the NFL by any stretch of the imagination, he still is very difficult to take down without the use of gang tackling. Along with this, he does a great job out of the backfield as a receiver, running crisp wheel routes and running back screens that are able to put up points up by the bunches. He has an awesome 616 yards receiving in only 12 games this season, putting him in rarefied air as a receiving threat in the NFL. Now it would be one thing if the Steelers had only Ben and Bell to work with, but there’s another capital B that demands you put some respect on his name in Antonio Brown. With another season grabbing over 100 receptions for the year along with 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns for the year, Brown has been his typical self since ‘10 when he entered the league. Earlier in this article I complimented DeAndre Hopkins ability to run routes, but Brown is even better than Hopkins in my opinion and when you see how much I value Hopkins, it should tell you something about Brown’s ability to run routes. He’s such a fantastic route runner that he is able to run slants, outs and curls all while being blindfolded as shown in this Sport Science episode on ESPN below.
Look for the Steelers to dominate this game, winning by over 2 touchdowns. I find that -10 line to be underestimating the strength of the Steelers Offense who will be playing with a lot to prove after long time Steelers great Terry Bradshaw was so derogatory in his remarks about one of the best coaches in the NFL in Mike Tomlin, calling him a cheerleader, something that couldn’t be further from the truth when discussing Tomlin, has he ever seen the man? If that’s a cheerleader, than I don’t know who the girls I hung out with in college were.
Giants (+5) over Packers (Over/under: 44.5)
In what is in opinion the most interesting game of Wild Card weekend, the New York Giants will be traveling to Wisconsin to play the Green Bay Packers.
Just a few weeks ago, people in the media were calling for Mike McCarthy to step down as the Packers head coach with a 4 and 6 record. Just like in years prior, Aaron Rodgers told his Packer faithful to just relax and went on to win 6 games in a row. The Green Bay Packers have been the hottest team in the NFL in the last few weeks, with amazing play on offense sparked by Rodgers and aided by wide receiver turned running back Ty Montgomery. In all of my years watching the NFL, I have never seen a player convert positions as seamlessly as Montgomery and to say that he has been a spark for the Packers offense would be an understatement. With an astounding 5.9 yards per carry average, and according to Pro Football Focus, the best ability to gain yards after contact, Montgomery has been a welcome addition to the running back corps in Wisconsin. Along with him, a healthy Jordy Nelson has been giving opposing defensive backs fits, with over 140 yards in just a half versus the Minnesota Vikings along with masterful games versus the Chicago Bears and the vaunted defense of the Houston Texans, he has been unstoppable at times.
Now obviously the man that plays the biggest role in the Packers games whether it be offense or defense is Aaron Rodgers, the BAAAAAAAAD man himself. I love Tom Brady, I think Tom Brady is one of the greatest players to ever put on cleats but I think that he is the #2 best quarterback in the history of the league with Aaron Rodgers being #1. Now I know a lot of you may think of this as blasphemy but almost every single time I watch him play, I find myself to be surprised again by what he is able to do. He is everything that I would want out of a quarterback, calling check downs and annoying the hell out of opposing middle linebackers while being deceptively fast and having a cannon for an arm. If the Packers win this game, it will be on the shoulders of the best quarterback to ever play the game.
The Giants are one of the most perplexing teams in the league. The hire of Ben McAdoo was supposed to be of great assistance to Eli Manning as he is known as one of the coaches that loves to run the ball right down your throat but ever since he stepped in as head coach, I have seen a team that solely relies on throwing the ball sometimes even going as far as putting up a ridiculous 50 passes in a game. Eli Manning has been his regular Eli Manning self, throwing a putrid 16 interceptions on 26 touchdowns for the year with a pedestrian quarterback rating of 86 yet having 4,027 yards. He has always been this confusing character in the regular season but as soon as the postseason begins Eli is a completely different beast. This year he has what is in my opinion, the best wide receiving trio in the nation with Oklahoma’s own Sterling Shepard, UMass breakout stud Victor Cruz and everyone’s favorite crybaby Odell Beckham Jr so look for Eli to be very difficult on the Packers secondary. While a lot was made this week of how the Giants receivers went down to Miami on their day off, who could blame them after they carry such a large burden the entire season for the offense with Beckham putting up 1,367 yards, Shepard with 683 and Cruz with 586 they account for 2,636 or exactly half of the Giants offensive production.
Now enough about the Giants offense, it is the defense that is the driving force behind this team’s success this year. Landon Collins has morphed into the player that we used to see dominate the SEC at Alabama with an astounding 125 combined tackles, 4 sacks and 5 interceptions, I could see a case being made for him being the defensive player of the year. Along with him in the secondary, we have the extremely underrated Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie who closed out the regular season with 6 interceptions, look for one out of these two players to steal a ball away from Aaron Rodgers. You would think that after listing 2 stars of the secondary I would be done, but the Giants also signed for Janoris Jenkins during free agency and drafted Ohio State’s standout Eli Apple to round out their secondary which is top 3 in the NFL, in my opinion. Look for Jason Pierre-Paul and new free agency acquisition Olivier Vernon to continue wreaking havoc much as they have the entire season while having Damon Harrison clog up the A gap, keeping Ty Montgomery in check the entire game. This game will be close throughout it’s entire course with the team that scores last being the winner and as a native New Yorker, I’m going to have to go with the Giants. Though I believe this isn’t an emotional decision, I can’t deny that there is no bias present in this pick.
New York Giants 31
Green Bay Packers 28