After the grueling 256 games of the NFL regular season are now in the books, we are left with only a brief 11-game stint that will help us determine the 50th Super Bowl champion. As much as the season can be considered weird, we are now presented with another unique set of circumstances, as the opening playoff weekend includes four games in which the road team is favored. Three of them are repeat matchups that came up in the regular season, so there is an additional layer of intrigue to be added.
Without further ado, here are Sporting Charts’ picks and preview for each Wild Card game.
Through six games, both of these teams were sunk in the bottom of their divisions and far away from the playoff picture. At 1-5, the Chiefs were long shots, while at 2-4, Houston’s only hope hinged on their weak division to have a shot. This is where both squads started turning it around, with the Texans taking advantage of Indianapolis’ rash of injuries, while the Chiefs became one of the best teams in the NFL with a closing 10-0 mark. This level of domination makes Kansas City a rightful favorite, but how will this game play out in the end?
Despite their differences in style and consistency, this matchup presents a similar approach in statistical profiles. Both squads finished in the league’s top 10 in defense and turnover differential, relying on their defensive units to offset their limited offensive weapons. The Chiefs count on the ultimate “game manager” in Alex Smith, who quietly had the best season of his career but still thrives on short throws. Meanwhile, the Texans survived despite using 4 different starting quarterbacks, and now have the best of them all, Brian Hoyer, available for the postseason.
To continue with the similarities, Houston went 9-7 against the spread, just a tad better than KC’s 8-8 mark. Houston’s 5-3 home record is identical to Kansas City’s road mark, while their regular season meeting came on Week 1 and saw the Chiefs beat Houston by a misleading 27-20 score, which began with the Chiefs taking a comfortable 27-6 lead before the Texans stepped things up in garbage time. The Chiefs lead the all-time series 4-3, and have taken the last two by a combined 8 points.
This will mark Andy Reid’s 21st career playoff game, and while his 10-10 record is not too sparkly, his experience over first-time Bill O’Brien can also be considered a big advantage for the Chiefs. Houston has JJ Watt and a scary defense, but the Chiefs can match that and present a better offense with more playmakers, which should be enough to stave off any potential Houston comeback. The opening Saturday game is usually scheduled for the less attractive game on the slate, but this one should be hard-fought and full of strategy, with the Chiefs coming out on top.
Pick: Chiefs -3.5
For the game’s second day, we get a real dandy. Divisional games are usually a playoff hallmark, as we get the chance to see two teams facing each other for the third time in a few months. In the case of the Steelers and Bengals, this will be their third meeting in 70 days, with a trip to the Divisional Round on the line after splitting both regular season contests. Recent history and a few other factors place Cincinnati as a sizable underdog, but we know that anything can go in this type of game.
Despite starting 8-0, the Bengals limped a bit to the finish line, especially considering that they lost QB Andy Dalton and have needed backup AJ McCarron for the past 4 games. Dalton’s status for the playoffs remains questionable, but the Bengals have proven that their depth and roster are the basis of their success. On the other hand, the Steelers were uneven from the start, combining brilliant games with questionable losses, including a season sweep by the 5-11 Ravens that almost knocked Pittsburgh out of the playoffs.
While the Bengals were balanced by being in the top 10 in both scoring defense and offense, the Steelers excelled with the league’s third-best passing attack, but only a middling defense that relied too much on turnovers. With Cincy being the league’s third-best team in terms of turnover margin, taking care of the ball will be essential if they are to have a chance against Pittsburgh.
Counting past numbers, the odds are stacked against the home team. Coach Marvin Lewis is 0-6 in the playoffs, while Dalton is 0-4 by himself. On the other hand, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger has been brilliant against the Bengals in his career, with a 17-7 career mark that includes a 10-2 mark in Cincinnati, and a playoff win in Paul Brown Stadium. However, as the end of the season showed, the window of contention can always close fast for the Bengals, who remain the more balanced team in this matchup.
Despite the brilliance of Antonio Brown and Big Ben’s multiple weapons, the Bengals showed the blueprint to defeat Pittsburgh in their first meeting of the season, when they slugged out an ugly game to produce a 16-10 win on the road. They can’t get into a shootout with the Steelers, but they certainly can slow down the game and rely on the running game regardless if Dalton of McCarron is under center. This is why I’m calling the upset.
Pick: Bengals +3
The Seahawks were a preseason favorite following two consecutive Super Bowl trips, while the Vikings were a pleasant surprise in a season in which they were only supposed to improve slightly. And yet their paths have crossed to produce a rematch of the game that took place on December 6th, with Seattle dismantling Minnesota in a 38-7 walkover that was representative of Seattle’s dominant second half. The Vikings were able to shake off their worst loss of the season and won the season’s final three game to claim a surprising NFC North crown.
This season was eerily similar to last year for Seattle, who started a mediocre 4-5 before turning things around and going 6-1 to close out the year. They again finished with the NFL’s best scoring defense, and added a new wrinkle with Russell Wilson becoming the league’s most efficient passer. By Football Outsiders’ DVOA, the Seahawks were the best team in football by a wide margin, but their slow start relegated them to the sixth seed and thus the knowledge that the road to the Super Bowl requires three wins away from Seattle. Meanwhile, the Vikings may not be elite in any category, but they play a solid brand of football with Adrian Peterson reclaiming his spot as the league’s top running back, and QB Teddy Bridgewater being solid.
The way to predict this game depends on how much importance is given to the regular-season meeting. After all, this is the same Seahawks team that was manhandled by the Rams at home, only to then go on the road and destroy the Cardinals. Meanwhile, the Vikings lost to the 49ers and didn’t fare overly well versus fellow playoff teams, but they also had to win a game in prime-time at Lambeau to reach this position, so they have to be considered a legit team, as well.
In the end, I think the line is just a tad high and not showing any respect for the Vikings. Also, it has been well documented that west coast teams suffer when playing in the 1 ET time slot, so it’s important to also consider this variable. I think the Seahawks will ultimately prevail, but not in a big way.
The Pick: Vikings +5
This is, by far, the toughest matchup to predict in this round, with the betting line representing this level of uncertainty. At this point, any kind of result seems conceivable, from a blowout to an all-time classic is in play as this game closes out the Wild Card weekend. The Packers started 6-0 before stumbling to a 10-6 mark and second place in the NFC North, and even that record was aided by a miracle Hail Mary. On the other hand, the Redskins won their final four games to close the season and take a weak NFC East, but they should be considered a dangerous team.
In all major statistical indicators, neither the Packers nor the Redskins stand out among their playoff peers, but Green Bay still has Aaron Rodgers and Washington has found a new version of Kirk Cousins that makes the passing game a viable threat. While it can be assumed that the winner of this game is only here to then be destroyed by either the Panthers or Cardinals, reaching the Divisional Round would still be a huge positive for the winning franchise.
These teams have only played each other twice since 2010, with them splitting home wins, so the recent history can’t really be counted for any kind of importance. The key to this game will be on Green Bay’s ability to have open receivers and their offensive line being able to protect Rodgers, who has been sacked countless times over the season’s final weeks. While the Redskins go into the game with a 4-0 streak, the Packers lost by 30 to Arizona and then lost the division title at home with Rodgers being harassed constantly.
Surprisingly, Washington was one of the league’s best home teams with a 6-2 record, and even as they didn’t fare well against winning squads, this will be the franchise’s first playoff home game in 3 years, and so a packed stadium should be expected. Despite Green Bay’s acumen, they have sleepwalked for the past two months and are still short on weapons that can make Rodgers look good. This is why I’m calling the mild upset, in a shoot-out game full of points.
The Pick: Redskins +1