NFL Wild Card Predictions: Bleacher Report's Expert Consensus Projections

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 7, 2016

NFL Wild Card Predictions: Bleacher Report's Expert Consensus Projections

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    Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    Nothing matters in the NFL playoffs but being the best.

    For 17 weeks, our NFL experts have projected the week's sleepers, over/under propositions and other little oddities of that nature. By plurality vote, their collective football brainpower has imagined the very near future for you, the most discerning of NFL fans.

    We helped you set your fantasy lineups, look forward to (or dread) your favorite team's matchups and decide whether to plan on staying awake for the end of the prime-time games. But now, it's time for the playoffs—and the only thing that counts is being No. 1.

    That's why our experts have banded together to project the top player at every skill position, top defensive performance, biggest mismatch and MVP. Oh, and we worked a sleeper and a flop in there too, just for old time's sake.

    After this weekend, four teams will be moving on and four teams will be done. If you want to know where these teams will fall, just consult these expert consensus Wild Card Weekend projections.

Biggest Mismatch

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    Expert Consensus Projection (tie): "Russell Wilson vs. anything, anyone in this or other galaxies," Kansas City Chiefs pass rush vs. Chris Clark/Houston Texans offensive line—three votes

     

    Not all of our NFL experts were as colorful as National Lead Writer Mike Freeman when picking Russell Wilson to dominate the Minnesota Vikings, but two enthusiastically concurred.

    Wilson is on an otherworldly hot streak. Since a tough midseason loss to the Arizona Cardinals, Wilson has completed 71 percent of his passes for 1,906 yards, 24 touchdowns and just one interception. Per Pro Football Reference, no quarterback in NFL history has a higher touchdown-to-interception ratio or passer efficiency rating (132.8) over the last seven games of the season.

    Meanwhile, Justin Houston and the Chiefs' fourth-ranked pass rush will face a Houston Texans offensive line missing its blindside protector, three-time Pro Bowl tackle Duane Brown.

     

    Others receiving votes: Michael Bennett vs. Minnesota Vikings offensive line; Aaron Rodgers vs. Washington defensive backs

Top QB Performance

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Expert Consensus Projection: Kirk Cousins—four votes

     

    For all the talk about Russell Wilson's incredible hot streak to finish the season, don't overlook how amazing Kirk Cousins has been. As discussed in the Biggest Mismatch slide, Wilson is the highest-rated passer over the last seven weeks the NFL has ever seen—and Cousins is ninth, per Pro Football Reference, alongside names like Wilson, Tom Brady, Steve Young, Tony Romo, Drew Brees and Brett Favre.

    Going up against the flailing Green Bay Packers in what will surely be an electrified FedEx Field atmosphere, Cousins will have every opportunity to cement his status as a breakout star.

    It's no surprise Wilson himself received two votes. However, so did Aaron Rodgers, in whom National Lead Writers Mike Freeman and Mike Tanier have apparently boundless faith in.

     

    Others receiving votes: Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson—two votes each

Top RB Performance

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    Gary Landers/Associated Press

    Expert Consensus Projection: Jeremy Hill—four votes

     

    In a season where six of the league's seven top rushers didn't make the playoffs and the only exception—league leader Adrian Peterson—is facing the Seattle Seahawks, finding a workhorse running back who'll have a big day is kind of a big ask.

    But Hill, who's fallen well short of many fantasy owners' expectations, has flashed some of that studly form down the stretch. In fact, he's coming off his best game of the season: a 16-carry, 96-yard performance that included a touchdown run and a season-high 6.0 yards-per-carry average.

    Despite going against the Steelers' fifth-best defense in rushing yards, Hill will get a healthy diet of carries to help take stress off AJ McCarron and the passing game. Big production often comes when offense meets defense.

    Three of our experts, though, expect Washington tailback Alfred Morris to roll up even bigger numbers against the Green Bay Packers' 21st-ranked rushing defense.

     

    Others receiving votes: Alfred Morris—three votes; Spencer Ware

Top WR Performance

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    Expert Consensus Projection: Antonio Brown—six votes

     

    Antonio Brown has been arguably the best receiver in the NFL this season. The only other wideout with a legitimate claim on the title, Julio Jones, will be watching Brown and the Steelers' rubber match against the Bengals.

    With everything on the line, there's no doubt the speedy Brown will be revved up and ready to do maximum damage against a bend-but-don't-break Bengals secondary that finished 20th in passing yards allowed. In fact, the Steelers' pass-game matchup against the Bengals is good enough that one of the two dissenting votes—National Analyst Brad Gagnon's—went to fellow Steeler wideout Martavis Bryant.

     

    Others receiving votes: Martavis Bryant, Randall Cobb

Top TE Performance

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    Michael Perez/Associated Press

    Expert Consensus Projection: Jordan Reed—four votes

     

    In a season full of young tight ends breaking out, Jordan Reed's late-season emergence has stood out from the rest.

    National Analyst Sean Tomlinson, writing for the majority, explains why:

    A healthy Jordan Reed has always been athletically terrifying. The whole health thing has often been a problem, though, until this season. He's emerged as Kirk Cousins' cozy security blanket with two 120-plus yard receiving games over the final four weeks. During the same stretch Reed scored five touchdowns, and now he'll be facing a Green Bay Packers defense that has allowed an average of 58.6 yards per game to tight ends, per Football Outsiders. It's no coincidence that Reed's rise and health has come during a time when the Redskins offense surged toward a playoff berth.

     

    Others receiving votes: Tyler Eifert, Richard Rodgers—two votes each

Top Defensive Performance

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Expert Consensus Projection: Michael Bennett—five votes

     

    The above picture is a testament to how truly powerful and frightening Michael Bennett is: even a Darth Vader helmet looks hilariously tiny on his massive frame. The Seahawks' versatile pass-rusher put up a career-high 10 sacks this season and finished fifth in Pro Football Focus' edge defender grades.

    Going up against the Minnesota Vikings' subpar offensive tackle pair of Matt Kalil and T.J. Clemmings (41st and 60th, respectively, out of 76 tackles graded by Pro Football Focus), five of our voters think Bennett should be able to put up monster numbers coming off of either edge.

     

    Others receiving votes: Justin Houston—two votes; Richard Sherman

Wild Card Sleeper (Player/Coach)

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    Expert Consensus Projection: Martavis Bryant—three votes

     

    The Steelers will want to throw early and often against the Bengals—if for no other reason than to force backup quarterback AJ McCarron to throw to keep up with them. Not only did Brown win our Top WR Performance vote in a landslide, but one of the two challengers for the spot was fellow Steelers wideout Martavis Bryant.

    It's no wonder three of our experts liked Bryant as the sleeper pick here.

    Two of our experts, National Analysts Ty Schalter and Brent Sobleski, loved Washington's matchup against Green Bay's offensive line, tabbing outside linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith as their potential X-factors.

     

    Others receiving votes: Ryan Kerrigan/Preston Smith—two votes; Teddy Bridgewater, Marvin Jones, Jermaine Kearse

Wild Card Flop (Player/Coach)

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    Expert Consensus Projection: Aaron Rodgers/Mike McCarthy—three votes

     

    Oh dear.

    Packers head coach Mike McCarthy was the goat of the 2015 NFC playoff bracket with his disastrously conservative first-half play-calling and game management. Aaron Rodgers has been distressingly, well, distressed-looking all season as McCarthy has traded play-calling duties on and off with quarterbacks coach Tom Clements.

    Three of our experts like some combination of Rodgers and McCarthy to be the goat yet again, as the Packers face a surprisingly tough road test in Washington.

    Two experts each tabbed the Bengals quarterback—whether Andy Dalton miraculously gets on the field this weekend, or McCarron gets the call again—as their odds-on flop, while Big Ben Roethlisberger just might be in the crosshairs of an opportunistic Bengals defense. 

     

    Others receiving votes: Ben Roethlisberger—two votes, Bengals quarterback—two votes, Jay Gruden

Wild Card MVP

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Expert Consensus Projection: Russell Wilson—five votes

     

    Kirk Cousins might have the better passing day, but Russell Wilson's tougher matchup against the suddenly healthy, suddenly stiff Vikings defense will call for a more impressive single-handed performance.

    Oh yes, the Vikings defense is much better than you think. In the last four weeks, the Vikes have held Carson Palmer, Jay Cutler, Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers to an average of 18.5 points per game. That's even better than their season average of 18.9, which was already fifth-best in the NFL.

    Two voters gave Cousins their MVP nod, while one—National Lead Writer Mike Tanier—voted for Chiefs safety Eric Berry, arguably the best NFL story of the year.

    Let's hope Tanier is right.

     

    Others receiving votes: Kirk Cousins—two votes; Eric Berry