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The Thinking Man's Guide: NFL Wild Card Weekend Predictions

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The Thinking Man's Guide: NFL Wild Card Weekend Predictions
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Having already looked at what could be the fatal flaw for each NFL playoff team, it is time to dive into this week’s four Wild Card Games. Usually we get at least one spectacular finish in this round, which has featured some of the greatest comebacks in NFL history.

First, here are a few handy postseason studies I have done in the past, updated to reflect the most recent data.

 

Postseason studies for reference

Home-field advantage is very important in the playoffs. The home team went 8-2 last season, and has won 67.6 percent of all playoff games in NFL history.

Having “quality wins” or wins over teams with winning records in the regular season, or being “battle tested” is nice, but not a real indicator of playoff success. Last year the New York Giants (1-3) and the New England Patriots (0-2) only had one win against a winning team in the regular season, and that came from playing each other. They still made it through to the Super Bowl.

Here are the quality records against winning teams for this year’s playoff field.

Given last season’s playoff field only had six teams with a .500 record or better against quality opponents, this is quite the difference. But in the end, still not a big deal moving forward. The good records could help explain why this is the first postseason where all 12 teams had at least 10 wins since 2005.

Tying together ideas of home-field and quality matchups, we recently looked at the season of marquee blowouts. Now that we know the 12 playoff teams, we can update the table with exact data for 2012 regular season games between playoff teams.

Not sure if it will mean anything this postseason, but that is very interesting how much more dominant the home team was this year compared to the previous five.

I am still picking two road teams to win this week.

 

Bengals at Texans: The rematch that feels new

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The sky is falling in Houston after a 1-3 finish. Of course, last season the team finished 0-3, but no one remembers that. To be fair, expectations were low last season following Matt Schaub’s injury. Houston was just happy to be in the playoffs, clinching its first AFC South title.

This year the team had expectations of a No. 1 seed and Super Bowl appearance. It was going to be the Houston Texans’ year, and for some of the early weeks, it was looking that way. But a bad finish has dropped the Texans to right back where they were last year: the third seed, hosting the sixth-seeded Cincinnati Bengals in the first game of the postseason.

Are you not curious to see how the biggest game of Schaub’s career goes? He just had one on Sunday in Indianapolis, and it was not too appealing. Not every year you see a quarterback in his ninth season making his first playoff start, but that is the case here. Schaub is 2-0 against the Bengals, but those games were back in 2008-09.

It is a considerably different defense for coordinator Mike Zimmer now, and one that has been downright stingy in the last eight games of the season. In the final eight games of the season, Cincinnati is 7-1, has allowed a league-low 102 points (12.8 PPG), and the plus-9 turnover differential is the fourth-best mark in the league.

Gary Kubiak is 4-0 against Marvin Lewis’ Bengals, including the two wins last season. But that was T.J. Yates at quarterback in 2011, and the Texans used J.J. Watt’s huge pick six before halftime to swing the game in their favor, 31-10.

Andy Dalton did not have a good postseason debut, throwing three interceptions last season. He did not suffer a sophomore slump, though his play in December, especially on the road, leaves something to be desired. Not being able to block Watt again could be very hazardous to the Bengals’ chances of winning this one.

Still, 7-1 is a strong team finish, and the kind that Houston wishes it would have had this year.

While the Bengals have been thriving, Houston has been sliding. Bad losses have been a big part of their season, and it all started with that wake-up call in Week 6 when Aaron Rodgers threw six touchdowns to snap the undefeated season in prime time. Houston was actually outscored by 15 points in its final eight games.

The Texans are the 32nd playoff team since 1940 to lose at least four regular season games by at least 12 points. The Indianapolis Colts have also done it this year.

Of the previous 30 teams, only three reached the Conference Championship, including the 1979 Los Angeles Rams (9-7) and 2008 Arizona Cardinals (9-7) both losing the Super Bowl to a Pittsburgh team.

Besides Houston, only the 1984 Seattle Seahawks finished 12-4. While they defeated the Raiders at home (13-7), they lost the following week in Miami to a red-hot Dan Marino, 31-10. That is the type of fate one may expect for the Texans, as should they win, they will have to return to the site of another upsetting loss they suffered this season in New England.

Houston has lost three games by at least 17 points: 42-24 to Green Bay, 42-14 to New England and 23-6 to Minnesota. The NFC North losses were at home. The 1988 Chicago Bears are the only other 12-win team in NFL history with three losses by at least 17 points during the regular season. They beat Philadelphia at home 20-12 in the Fog Bowl, before losing to the San Francisco 49ers 28-3 in the NFC Championship.

It does not appear the Texans have a roster deep enough to go on a Super Bowl run. They need to find another weapon to pair with Andre Johnson, and another impact player in the secondary would help.

For now, Houston will just hope to live up to the standard set last year, which means beating the sixth-seeded Bengals at home on Wild Card Weekend again. Should the Texans do that, which I think they will in a low-scoring game, then we can talk about how they can possibly hang with New England the second time around in the Divisional round.

But a loss this weekend would be devastating for the direction of the franchise.

 

Vikings at Packers: Cold weather gives…Minnesota the advantage?

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The mystique of Lambeau Field used to really mean something late in the season for the Green Bay Packers.

Vince Lombardi’s ground attack thrived in those harsh, winter elements in the 1960s, producing a 5-0 playoff record and never allowing more than 17 points to the opponent. In fact, through the 2001 season, the Packers were 12-0 in the playoffs at Lambeau Field, and only allowed a maximum of 20 points in a game.

Then the Atlanta Falcons came to town with the much-hyped Michael Vick, and a poor performance resulted in a 27-7 loss in the 2002 NFC Wild Card Game. Since then, the Packers are just 2-4 at home in the playoffs, using the road for all of their wins on their way to a Super Bowl title in the 2010 season. Last season’s 15-1 mark was wiped away with a tough 37-20 defeat at the hands of the New York Giants.

Now the Packers return home to host rival Minnesota for the third time since Week 13, and conditions are expected to be frosty. The Minnesota Vikings are 0-5 outdoors this season, though one has to wonder if they are actually more prepared for these conditions than the Packers.

Green Bay is one of the most quarterback-dependent offenses in NFL history, as the Packers, for good reason, put the ball often in the hands of Aaron Rodgers. They rarely ever rush for many yards, and not only is throwing preferred, but they like to get the ball vertically down the field.

The receivers are not the most sure-handed group around, and Rodgers has a tendency to hold onto the ball too long for some bad sacks. In other words, the Packers can sometimes beat themselves offensively.

Minnesota is much more of a dink-and-dunk passing offense, and they love to give Adrian Peterson the ball. He has responded with 2,097 rushing yards this season, and two of his best games have been against the Packers.

But can he do it a third time in just over a month?

Had Christian Ponder protected the ball in Lambeau the first time, the Vikings probably win that game. But two interceptions doomed the Vikings in a 23-14 loss. In Week 17, Ponder played his best game yet, throwing three touchdowns and no turnovers, and the Vikings won 37-34.

The key to this game will not be Peterson, but it will be Ponder again making just enough plays, and the defense has to slow down Rodgers just enough.

If it comes down to a big field goal, close your eyes there with Mason Crosby. You might also want to close them on Minnesota rookie Blair Walsh. Not that he hasn’t been amazing, but because he could be in a pressure situation outside of the cozy dome this weekend.

I like to say the Packers are a team you can predict the outcome of the game for by the end of the first quarter. If they are ahead, chances are they get the win. If they fall behind like last week, then it’s going to be a real struggle.

Since 1990, this will be the 13th time two teams meet in Week 17, then have a rematch in the Wild Card Round the next week. The home team went 6-6 in Week 17, but the home team went 10-2 in the playoffs. The Week 17 winner was only 6-6 in the Wild Card Game, so make of that what you will.

With so many people seemingly flocking to hand Peterson the MVP award, keep in mind the regular-season MVP has not won a Super Bowl since Kurt Warner in 1999. Three of the last four winners have gone one and done in the postseason.

For Green Bay to win, it needs to find something with a resemblance to a running game, and the Vikings need something out of Ponder again. This cannot be a game all on the shoulders of Rodgers or Peterson for their offense to produce.

Despite last week, I will take the team with the better quarterback, better defense, and what should still be a home-field advantage, even if Lombardi would roll over in his grave if he could see the passing approach today’s offenses take outdoors late in the season.

While I am not an advocate of a run-heavy offense, this is not a game the Packers will win if Rodgers is the team’s leading rusher like he was a year ago in the playoffs. A little more balance, and the Packers are heading to the relatively balmy San Francisco.

 

Colts at Ravens: The Inspiration Bowl

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Want to get inspired? Both teams should have no problem finding the motivation to win this one on Sunday afternoon.

The Indianapolis Colts have been overachieving all season on their way to an 11-5 record, as coach Chuck Pagano battles leukemia. He is back now, but the Colts have unfinished business.

Wednesday’s big news was Ray Lewis announcing he will retire after this postseason, which could potentially make this the final game of his Hall of Fame career in Baltimore. You know the team will rally around his return.

It’s simple. This game should only have two possible outcomes: either the young Colts come through with another clutch win late, or the veteran Ravens blow them out well before it comes to that.

Which ending do you feel is more likely?

Hard to believe Indianapolis (11-5) actually enters this game with a better record than Baltimore (10-6), though the statistics would have you believe otherwise.

With a reliance on close wins (9-1 in games decided by 1-7 points and seven game-winning drives), and some really bad road losses, the Colts could easily lay claim as the worst 11-5 team in NFL history.

No other team has ever been 11-5 with a negative scoring differential, let alone minus-30. At least the next three teams on the list reached at least the Conference Championship, but this week alone is a tall order for the Colts.

The Ravens are in the playoffs for the fifth straight year in the John Harbaugh/Joe Flacco era, and they are in the select group of 11 teams in NFL history to win at least one playoff game in four straight postseasons.

Only five teams have ever gone five straight, which the Baltimore Ravens will try to do in the apparent swansong for Lewis.

But while the Ravens have the experience, one could easily argue the Colts have been the better team in recent weeks. While the Ravens are 1-4 to end the season, the Colts are on a 5-1 run ever since their bad loss in New England.

Even when the Colts lost 29-17 in Houston, it was not an easy out for their opponent. The Texans fell in love with the blitz from their success that day, and went after Luck with at least five pass-rushers on a ridiculous 75.9 percent of his drop backs on Sunday.

The Colts adjusted well, and the result was an efficient, impressive 28-16 victory over the Texans. It was arguably the Colts’ finest effort of the season, while the Ravens have little to show for this last month besides their 33-14 thrashing of the New York Giants in Week 16.

Once surrounded by a cloak of invincibility at home, the Ravens have been disrobed after home losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers with Charlie Batch at quarterback, and the Denver Broncos where they opened up a 31-3 lead before some meaningless touchdowns to Dennis Pitta.

Still, the Ravens are 34-7 (.829) at home under Harbaugh, and the Colts beat their toughest opponents only at home this season.

Baltimore would be smart to pressure Luck, as the offensive line is not good enough to handle it. The running game has rarely been a threat for the Colts, and the Ravens could make them one dimensional while feeding the ball to Ray Rice when they have possession.

The coaching histories are interesting this week. Pagano was the defensive coordinator in Baltimore (in 2011), while Bruce Arians was the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh (2007-11), planning against the Baltimore defense multiple times a season.

Ex-Colts coach Jim Caldwell is now the offensive coordinator for the Ravens, though with his lifeless persona and the drastic amount of change in Indianapolis, that is not as much of an advantage as the Colts’ coaches have with their familiarity in this game.

You know the Colts are going to put up a fight. It is just a matter of whether they will pull off another rope-a-dope, or if the Ravens get the early knockout.

While the head says take Baltimore at home, I am taking the Colts and specifically with Andrew Luck getting his eighth game-winning drive of the season.

 

Seahawks at Redskins: One team is a more polished version of the other

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Just about everything in the numbers says to pick the Seattle Seahawks.

Seattle brings the league’s No. 1 scoring defense, a comparable running game, and its quarterback has lately been better than Washington’s. Seattle is second in the league in net points per drive (0.90), compared to Washington ranking No. 12 (0.18).

But this could be the most exciting game of Wild Card Weekend, and it will close things out late Sunday afternoon, which is good news for Seattle. A 1 p.m. start time would have been absurd in this situation.

It is the first Washington Redskin home playoff game since 1999, if you can believe that. The last two playoff games for the Redskins were both losses in Seattle (2005 and 2007), and while both games were close late, neither was particularly etched in postseason lore.

Here they go again, reigniting that Washington (state) vs. Washington (state capital) rivalry. But these teams share practically nothing in common with those past teams, and in fact, they have a lot in common these days, at least on the offensive side of the ball.

Marshawn Lynch and Alfred Morris are two bruising backs not afraid to run through contact, and they were among the best in the league under that Adrian Peterson tier in 2012.

At quarterback, you have just the second playoff game ever between rookies, following last year’s riveting Andy Dalton/T.J. Yates tilt. This should be a bit better when Russell Wilson tries to outscore Robert Griffin III. No quarterbacks use the play-action pass as often as these two.

Wilson may have had the training wheels on early, but in the second half of the season Seattle has implemented some of the read-option plays Washington has used, and Wilson’s passing efficiency and ground effectiveness has exceeded that of Griffin’s.

Not bad for only having to spend a third-round pick. While Seattle fans think their guy has been slighted this season, this is the ultimate stage for Wilson to earn respect by outplaying and beating Griffin in his house.

Seattle has been a real “homer” team with a 3-5 road record, though it’s not like the Redskins are a superior opponent. Seattle has the better record, statistics and has been just as hot in the second half of the season.

Griffin does not appear to be fully healthy. If the Redskins are to win this game, it will likely come on the back of Morris anyway. Throwing the ball a lot plays directly into the strength of the Seattle defense (secondary), so being able to establish a ground game is crucial for Washington. Griffin is still not far along enough to sit back in the pocket and pick a defense apart, especially with a secondary like this one.

Seattle’s defense only ranked 23rd in rushing yards per carry, but it faced the second fewest attempts. Part of that is because Seattle has had many leads, and has led in the fourth quarter in 14 games this season. All five losses were by 3-7 points.

To put it simply, the Seahawks’ offense is currently operating at a higher level than Washington’s, their quarterback is not as dependent on play-action passing (Wilson’s rating actually goes up without it), and they are the better defensive team as well.

While both offenses have few giveaways and both defenses have 31 takeaways, Seattle is still much better at limiting points, which matter most.

As long as the defense is tackling well, the Seahawks should move on.

 

Final score predictions

  • Texans over Bengals, 19-16
  • Packers over Vikings, 24-17
  • Colts over Ravens, 20-17
  • Seahawks over Redskins, 27-20

Do I have a secret formula for picking final scores? Absolutely not.

Enjoy the games.

 

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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