NFL Playoff Predictions: Bleacher Report's Expert Consensus Wild-Card Picks
The NFL's second season is underway.
On Saturday, the Wild Card Round of the 2015-16 NFL playoffs will begin. Thirty-two teams entered the season with dreams of making it to Santa Clara, California, and Super Bowl 50. For 12 teams, that dream still lives.
There are the usual suspects in both conferences. The Denver Broncos and New England Patriots (neither of whom plays this week) in the AFC. The two-time conference champion Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers in the NFC.
There are some new faces as well. The NFC's top seed (the Carolina Panthers) lost more games than it won in 2014. Four of this year's postseason participants weren't even in the playoffs last year.
Wild Card Weekend is sure to be, well, wild. More so than any other playoff weekend, the first is the one most likely to deviate from the script.
Which games will play out as expected? Who's cooking up an upset special?
We've gathered the NFL Analysts and National Lead Writers at Bleacher Report to answer those questions and more.
It all came down to the last game of the season.
Heading into Week 17, yours truly trailed NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller by four games. By the time the Minnesota Vikings and Packers kicked off at Lambeau Field, that lead was gone.
Miller chose the visiting Vikings. I did not.
And that made all the difference.
So, just as in 2014, Miller and I finished No. 1 and No. 2 in this year's picks competition. He knows his football. I am the epitome of the blind squirrel.
But there's a new sheriff in town.
Congratulations to Matt Miller, the 2015 Bleacher Report NFL Picks champion!
Gary Davenport: NFL Analyst 11-5 (159-97)
Mike Freeman: NFL National Lead Writer 8-8 (155-101)
Brad Gagnon: NFL Analyst 9-7 (153-103)
Matt Miller: NFL National Lead Writer 8-8 (160-96)
Ty Schalter: NFL National Lead Writer 10-6 (149-107)
Brent Sobleski: NFL Analyst 10-6 (156-100)
Mike Tanier: NFL National Lead Writer 7-9 (142-114)
Sean Tomlinson: NFL Analyst 11-5 (154-102)
Consensus: 10-6 (158-98)
No. 5 Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) at No. 4 Houston Texans (9-7)
When: Saturday, January 10, 4:35 p.m. ET
Where: NRG Stadium, Houston
Line: Kansas City minus-3.5
The first game of Wild Card Weekend features two of the hottest teams in the National Football League.
And two teams who didn't appear to be headed anywhere at Halloween.
When October turned to November, the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans were a combined 4-10. The Chiefs lost five straight after winning the season opener. The Texans' only win in their first five games was in Week 3.
Since then? The teams are a combined 16-2. The Chiefs haven't lost since October. The Texans' only setbacks over that span were at Buffalo and the following week against the No. 2 seed Patriots.
As Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star reports, the Chiefs' amazing run sailed past remarkable a ways back:
Going into week 7, the Chiefs were a 300:1 longshot to win the Super Bowl, according to Bovada. Only the Ravens, Bears, Browns and Jaguars had worse odds. Now, the Chiefs are a 14:1 bet. Only the Patriots and Broncos have better odds among AFC teams. Football Outsiders' leading metric has the Chiefs as second in overall team efficiency, and first among AFC teams.
This is more than a market correction. The closer you look at both the Chiefs and the teams they'll compete against, the better you feel about their chances to win a playoff game for the first time in 22 years, and possibly more.
Some of this is the simple logic that most of the reasons to doubt the Chiefs are buried under more than two months of nothing but success. They are giving up 13.2 points per game since week 5. Since the turn of the century, only five teams have been more effective defensively. Two of them made their conference championship games. A third was the 2000 Ravens, the Super Bowl champions and one of the best defenses of all time.
Of course, as the Star's Pete Grathoff wrote, Houston's defense is nothing to sneeze at either:
Perhaps you've heard of defensive star J.J. Watt. He broke his left hand before a December game against the Patriots, and played with a cast for three games. However, Watt played Sunday without the cast and had three sacks, giving him 17 1/2 for the season.
Houston held opponents to 17 points or fewer eight times. The Texans were third in total defense entering Sunday's game (316.5 yards per game) and third in pass defense (212.2 yards per game).
In a matchup that features a top-five total defense, a top-five scoring defense and arguably the NFL's two best pass-rushers in J.J. Watt and Kansas City's Justin Houston, points are going to be at a premium.
So which team will have more at game's end in the eyes of our voters?
The Pick: Kansas City Chiefs (8-0)
In the opinion of Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Ty Schalter (and every other member of our panel), the same team that prevailed 27-20 in Houston all the way back in Week 1:
Way back in July, I called 2015 a make-or-break year for Andy Reid with the Chiefs. He had the right mix of talent on offense and defense to challenge Denver for the AFC West title and win at least one playoff game (if not more). Halfway through the season, it was looking like "break"—but an incredible 10-game win streak has them right where I thought they'd be. Now, though, if they trip up against the "champion" Texans, it'll be fair to hold Reid accountable for yet another playoff failure. Fortunately for him, I don't see that happening.
In that game, Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith passed for 243 yards and three touchdowns without an interception, while Houston's Brian Hoyer completed barely half his passes en route to being benched.
ESPN.com's Adam Teicher thinks that edge under center could play a big part in the Chiefs' potentially ending an eight-game postseason losing streak:
Smith didn't have a career season for the Chiefs, though he did set a personal record for passing yardage with 3,486. But he had what was perhaps the best extended stretch of his career and certainly of his time in Kansas City over the season's final 10 games. Five times his passer rating was over 100 during the Chiefs' 10-game winning streak, and it was 99.9 in a sixth.
Smith also has playoff experience, having made two starts for the San Francisco 49ers in the 2011 playoffs and one for the Chiefs two seasons ago.
The Texans will counter with Brian Hoyer, who was benched this season before righting himself and improving. But Hoyer, discarded by four other teams before joining the Texans this year, will be making his first career playoff start.
Hoyer will also be without his blindside protector. As Deepi Sidhu of the team's website reported, left tackle Duane Brown is done for the season after injuring his quad in Houston's Week 17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
J.J. Watt told Sidhu the Texans are going to rally around their injured teammate:
It's such a terrible feeling to see a guy like that go down because you know how hard he works, you know how much it means to him. It's kind of a chance for us to rally around him. And you know go out there and say, "Let's win this one for Duane. Let's go out there and make sure we make him proud because we know how badly he wishes to be out there with us."
Of course, that's easy for Watt to say. He won't be the one tasked with stopping the Chiefs' best pass-rusher.
That would be Justin Houston, who practiced Tuesday, according to Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid wouldn't confirm that Houston will play in Houston (see what I did there?), but Reid sounded optimistic.
"We'll just take it day by day," Reid said. "But I think he feels pretty good."
In a game with defenses this stout, one mistake—one turnover—can make all the difference.
And not only do the Chiefs have the second-fewest giveaways in the league this season, but they also have the second-best turnover differential at plus-14.
Chiefs: Davenport, Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson
Texans: Look on the bright side. We got two unanimous picks wrong in Week 17 alone.
No. 6 Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6) at No. 3 Cincinnati Bengals (12-4)
When: Saturday, January 9, 8:15 p.m. ET
Where: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati
Line: Pittsburgh minus-2.5
If familiarity breeds contempt, then these two teams are no doubt sick of each other. After all, Saturday will mark the third time the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers have locked horns this season.
The teams split the first two games, with each team winning in the other's stadium. Back in Week 8, the Bengals spoiled Ben Roethlisberger's return to action, downing the Steelers 16-10. The Steelers returned the favor and then some in Week 13, forcing Andy Dalton from the game in a 33-20 win.
Dalton hasn't played since, with second-year pro AJ McCarron winning two of three starts in Dalton's absence.
ESPN.com's Coley Harvey reported that Dalton has had the cast removed from his broken thumb, but head coach Marvin Lewis indicated it will all but certainly be McCarron under center Saturday night.
"We're preparing for AJ McCarron to be the starting quarterback," Lewis said. "Whether Andy's the backup or where Andy is [later in the week], we'll know down the line. Andy continues to progress well. He's doing what he's supposed to do. ... He'll be ready when he's ready."
Of course, the Steelers have injury issues of their own. Veteran tailback DeAngelo Williams, who resurrected his career subbing for the injured Le'Veon Bell this year, suffered an ankle injury in the season finale against Cleveland.
DeAngelo is being evaluated and getting treatment as we speak. I just spoke with him probably about 10 minutes ago, he can be characterized as day to day. I don't know what his availability will be in terms of the game. ...
Meanwhile, I think it's prudent for us and appropriate for us to build our plan around Fitz [Fitzgerald Toussaint] and around [Jordan] Todman -- guys that have been here, guys that are healthy, guys that are willing and capable to be positive contributors to our effort.
Actually, it would probably be prudent to throw the ball to Antonio Brown. A lot.
Another home team featuring a quarterback (likely) making his playoff debut. Another road favorite with a battle-tested signal-caller.
So who's the pick in Saturday's finale?
The Pick: Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3)
The road team rides again.
I will freely admit that I am one of the three dissenters who picked the Bengals to get their first playoff win since 1991.
Maybe it's that I trust the Bengals defense (second-fewest points allowed) more than I do Pittsburgh's up-and-down unit. Maybe it's my belief that the loss of Williams puts the Steelers behind the offensive eight-ball.
Without him, the Steelers will be completely one-dimensional. The Bengals' stout front four will be able to pin its ears back and rush Roethlisberger with abandon. And that's bad news given Roethlisberger's alarming tendency to throw ill-advised interceptions in 2015 (two more last week gave him 16 this year).
Andy Benoit of the MMQB disagrees. In fact, Benoit recently posited that a one-dimensional Steelers offense isn't just enough to get past the Bengals.
It's good enough to get all the way to Santa Clara:
The 10-6 Steelers are this year's Team That Nobody Wants to Face. Start with their offense, which possesses more aerial firepower than any other in the league, save for maybe Arizona's. Ben Roethlisberger is the game's most improved pocket quarterback over the last five years. He's also a 12th-year veteran with 15 playoff starts on his resume, including three Super Bowls (2-1 record there, 10-5 overall). ...
Entering what could very well be a fourth AFC title run, Roethlisberger...has also become a cerebral point guard for a dynamic spread passing attack. It's a passing attack that features lethal speed and quickness at all four wide receiver spots, plus a stalwart possession tight end (Heath Miller) who remains adept between the field numbers.
Benoit has a point. Wide receiver Antonio Brown has been impossible to defend this year. Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton are both capable of hurting defenses over the top.
And in Roethlisberger, the Steelers have a quarterback with 10 playoff wins and two Super Bowl titles on his resume—including one from the sixth seed.
Meanwhile, the Bengals have McCarron, who is making his first career playoff start (and only his fourth start overall). A head coach in Marvin Lewis who is winless in six playoff tries. And four straight one-and-done trips to the postseason.
Check that. If the panel is right, make that five straight.
And the beginning of what could be an interesting offseason in the Queen City.
Steelers: Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Sobleski, Tomlinson
Bengals: Davenport, Schalter, Tanier
No. 6 Seattle Seahawks (10-6) at No. 3 Minnesota Vikings (11-5)
When: Sunday, January 10, 1:05 p.m. ET
Where: TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
Line: Seattle minus-6
When is a win a loss?
There are those who would tell you that very thing happened last Sunday night.
Yes, in defeating the Packers 20-13, the Vikings earned the NFC North title and the right to host a playoff game.
However, their reward for doing so is a matchup with a soaring Seahawks team that capped its second-half surge with a blowout win over the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17. The same Seahawks that pasted the Vikings 38-7 in Week 13.
According to Brian Billick of NFL.com, if Pittsburgh is the team no one wants to play in this year's tournament, Seattle is the opponent people want to face even less:
Russell Wilson is in the middle of a seven-game stretch like no other QB hot streak we've seen in NFL history. Only Steve Young has enjoyed a comparable run -- in 1994 -- and even that doesn't truly compare to Wilson's 24 touchdown passes against just one interception in those seven games. (And it should be noted that Young had Jerry Rice, while Wilson has Doug Baldwin -- not exactly the same.) ...
But just because the team turned over the reins to Wilson, it doesn't mean that the defense rode off into the sunset. The unit still led the NFL in scoring defense -- for the fourth straight season -- giving up just 17.3 points per game. And the defense has been even better than that in the past five games, yielding just 11 points per game -- with two of those five contests coming against playoff teams in which they didn't allow double-digit points.
Sometimes it's all about timing. Just like the Giants in 2012 and the Packers in 2011, the Seahawks are firing on all cylinders at the perfect time.
However, despite getting throttled by the Seahawks last month, veteran Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway told Tom Pelissero of USA Today that a blueprint exists for sending the two-time reigning conference champions packing:
Apparently, we just need to watch St. Louis play them and do what they do. ...
It's just so huge the way (the Rams) go and push the tempo onto them. You control the tempo. It's hard to do against a team like (the Seahawks), because they're physical. But I think we're capable of doing it. We've just got to go show it on the field. ...
Obviously, they're a great team. They have great experience, they've done it now two years in a row, and they're not going to be scared of anybody.
So what will it be? Can the Vikings take a page from the St. Louis Rams' playbook and ensure a new NFC representative in Super Bowl 50? Or is it a sixth-seed sweep in the Wild Card Round?
The Pick: Seattle Seahawks (8-0)
Yes, another prediction of a win by the road team. A second unanimous one, no less.
Welcome to the Wild Card Round.
Mind you, it isn't fair to say the Vikings have no chance. This is, after all, an 11-win Vikings team that possesses the sort of pass rush that could find success against the Seahawks, who allowed the sixth-most sacks (46) in the NFL this year.
Then there's NFL rushing king Adrian Peterson, who told Pelissero that the Vikings have learned from their Seattle shellacking: "We were able to look at that film and see all of the things that we did terribly. So, going into this week, we know that, hey, it's either we're going to take care of business or we're going to be sitting at home watching the rest of the playoffs."
The problem is that the Vikings offense relies heavily on Peterson and the ground game. And in their meeting December 6, the Seahawks' NFL-best run defense held Peterson to 18 yards on only eight carries.
In fact, the entire Minnesota offense posted only 125 net yards in that game. The team's only score on the afternoon was a kick return. The Seahawks had more than three times as many yards and almost three times as many first downs.
Not to mention, as Rolling Stone's Kenneth Arthur reported, the Seahawks have the NFL's hottest quarterback in Wilson and are getting healthy at the right time:
Wilson broke single-season franchise records for touchdown passes (34) and passing yards (4,024), while becoming the first player in NFL history with 4,000 yards, 30 passing touchdowns and 500 rushing yards in the same season. He finishes the year third in completion percentage, fourth in Y/A and first in passer rating at 110.1. None of this will knock Cam Newton off of his 15-1 perch for the MVP award, but that shouldn't distract everyone from noticing that there is not a tier of quarterbacks above Wilson.
He belongs with the best of the best, and he proved that against arguably the best team in football in his fourth regular season finale.
Best of all, Seattle looks to be as healthy as they've been in weeks; [Marshawn] Lynch is expected to rejoin the team on Monday, while [Pete] Carroll all but guaranteed that three other starters should be able to come back for the Vikings game. The only question mark is [Kam] Chancellor, but even without their Pro Bowl safety, the defense has looked as stout as ever.
The Vikings are an ascending young team under head coach Mike Zimmer. But this is just a bad matchup for them.
In the opinion of our experts, the road warriors keep rolling.
Seahawks: Davenport, Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson
Vikings: Once again, bright side? Given our luck with unanimous calls in 2015, one of these is all but sure to be wrong.
No. 5 Green Bay Packers (10-6) at No. 4 Washington Redskins (9-7)
When: Sunday, January 10, 4:40 p.m. ET
Where: FedEx Field, Landover, Maryland
Line: Redskins minus-1.5
The final game of Wild Card Weekend features another surprise playoff party crasher as well as two teams headed in opposite directions.
For the Packers, that direction has been reverse for some time. After starting the season 6-0, the Packers limped their way into the playoffs, losing six of their final 10 games.
That includes back-to-back losses to the Cardinals and Vikings, in which Green Bay quarterbacks were sacked an eye-popping 14 times. In fact, Aaron Rodgers told Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com that one of his greatest achievements this season may well be avoiding the emergency room given the team's porous offensive line.
"Yeah, I'm all right," he said. "I'm proud of the fact I was able to start all 16. It's a goal every year. We’re all banged up at this time of year, but a normal week will definitely help with the healing process."
The Washington Redskins, on the other hand, are hot. The team no one expected to be a factor in the NFC East was not just a factor; it won the division. Washington won its last four games of 2015 and five of its last six, propelled in large part by a sterling second half from quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Cousins and the Washington offense have generated most of the press in the nation's capital of late, but Bleacher Report's Kristopher Knox believes it's Washington's underrated pass rush that could prove positively problematic for the Pack:
The Redskins also have a strong defensive pass rush, led by linebacker Ryan Kerrigan (9.5 sacks) and defensive end Chris Baker (6.0 sacks). Pro Football Focus rated that pass rush ninth in the NFL for the season.
That could prove problematic for the Packers, who allowed 46 sacks on quarterback Aaron Rodgers (second-most overall) during the regular season.
Can the Packers get back on track and make it a clean sweep by the visiting teams, or will Washington's Cinderella playoff run move on?
The Pick: Washington Redskins (6-2)
Finally, a home team gets some love.
This is a pick that would have drawn uproarious laughter in August. Guffaws in September. Raised eyebrows and chuckles in October.
However, much has changed since then. The Redskins (recently, anyway) have played better than their record. The Packers have been worse than theirs.
Still, some are having trouble seeing past the pedigree to the production. Many have compared this year's Packers team to the 2010 Super Bowl squad.
That comparison doesn't hold water in the eyes of Bleacher Report's Ian Kenyon:
Because I've seen it about 10-15 times in the past 24 hours, stop comparing this Packers team to the 2010 team. Just because it's the No. 6 seed and 10-6 doesn't make it the same.
The 2010 team had a plus-148 point differential, which led the NFC and was second in the NFL. It ended the season 7-3. Rodgers in Weeks 9-16 threw for 16 touchdowns, two interceptions. And through the course of the season, [the team] never trailed by more than seven points (set an NFL record). That team was freaking legit.
The 2015 team has a plus-45 point differential. Fifth in the NFC, 11th in the NFL. It ended the season 4-6, with three losses of seven-plus points since November 1. Rodgers in Weeks 9-16 threw for 10 touchdowns, four interceptions.
The Packers' problems on offense go well beyond the line. The ground game has been erratic. With Jordy Nelson on the shelf all season long, the Green Bay receiving corps has struggled with everything from drops to separation.
And it's showed in Rodgers' numbers. His completion percentage (60.7), yards per attempt (6.7) and passer rating (92.7) are all career lows.
Meanwhile, the Redskins' Kirk Cousins has had a career season and then some. The fourth-year pro led the NFL in completion percentage this season and set a franchise record for both passing yards and 300-yard games in a season.
Since the team's Week 8 bye, Cousins has thrown 20 touchdown passes—against only three interceptions.
Cousins told 106.7 The Fan's Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier (via Scott Allen of the Washington Post) that the Redskins are eager to play in the bright lights of the postseason tournament:
The word I've always heard is that playoff games are faster and that suddenly the game changes. I don't remember that being true. I think it's still an NFL football game, there's still great players on the field like there were weeks one through 17. So, I think it's still the same game. You don't want to over-hype it. I think what I tangibly noticed in the game against Seattle at the end of the 2012 season was the crowd, the fanbase. There was excitement, there was electricity in the air and the stadium that I hadn't noticed the first 17 weeks even though we had had big games in great environments. It was taken up a notch in the playoff game.
Our writers here at Bleacher Report expect the Redskins to show they belong.
Packers: Freeman, Tanier
Redskins: Davenport, Gagnon, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski, Tomlinson