NFL Wild Card Weekend 2019: Bracket Predictions for Postseason's Opening Round

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistDecember 31, 2018

File-This Dec. 22, 2018, file photo shows Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson running against the Los Angeles Chargers during an NFL football game  in Carson, Calif. Jackson has gotten most of the headlines, yet the former Louisville star is merely one of several rookies that have helped bring the Baltimore Ravens within striking distance of the AFC North title. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

We're done with scenarios and possibilities. Now, there's a clear playoff picture.

Three of the four postseason matchups feature games that we saw during the regular season. This time around, the outcome will either extend or end a team's 2018-19 campaign. One contest pits AFC South rivals against each other for the third time this year.

The top two squads in each conference will take a week off on a bye, but a wild-card team on a hot streak can ride momentum into the next round, posing as a tough threat through January.

Before the coaching staffs dig into their opponents, let's break down each Wild Card Weekend matchup with score projections. Who's going to advance?

             

No. 6 Indianapolis Colts at No. 3 Houston Texans: Saturday, Jan. 5 at 4:35 p.m. ET (ABC/ESPN)

Michael Wyke/Associated Press

Home-field advantage doesn't seem to mean anything between these teams. The Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts won their road games in head-to-head action. The matchups came down to the wire—the winning team won by a three-point margin in both outings.

Aside from T.Y. Hilton, the Colts don't have a dynamic group of wide receivers. Quarterback Andrew Luck has trusted and utilized some of the unknown talents in the passing attack such as running back Nyheim Hines and wideout Chester Rogers. Tight end Eric Ebron scored 13 touchdowns this season as a key cog in the offense.

The Texans can't game-plan to neutralize a specific player. The front seven will need to pressure Luck into tossing ill-advised passes. There's one major issue: He's well-protected in the pocket and only took 18 sacks this season. 

Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson took the most sacks (62) this year. He's thrown to one reliable pass-catcher in DeAndre Hopkins, who's arguably the best at his position, but it's easier to focus on one dominant playmaker. If the All-Pro wideout doesn't have stellar performance, Houston will struggle to score points. 

The Colts have allowed 100 rushing yards twice in the last eight contests. Texans running back Lamar Miller may find it difficult to hit running lanes and balance his team's offensive attack. Unless wide receiver Keke Coutee (hamstring) suits up for the first time since Week 12, Houston's limitations on offense will cost them in this contest.

Prediction: Colts 30, Texans 23

               

No. 5 Seattle Seahawks at No. 4 Dallas Cowboys: Saturday, Jan. 5 at 8:15 p.m. ET (Fox)

SEATTLE, WA - DECEMBER 30: Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks throws the ball during warm-ups before the game against the Arizona Cardinals at CenturyLink Field on December 30, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

On the surface, the Dallas Cowboys' Week 17 win meant nothing, but we saw quarterback Dak Prescott move the ball without running back Ezekiel Elliott in the backfield. Furthermore, wide receiver Amari Cooper put up pedestrian numbers, catching five passes for 31 yards and losing a fumble. 

Still, Prescott threw for 387 yards and four touchdowns against a competitive New York Giants team at MetLife Stadium. He absolutely needed that type of performance going into the postseason. 

The Seattle Seahawks defense will allow yards outside the red zone, but they've surrendered just nine rushing scores this season. Elliott isn't going to run through his next opponent as an unstoppable force. Prescott will need to turn to secondary playmakers for a successful postseason outing. 

Cooper has recorded 13 receptions for 83 yards over the last three games. He's going to need another production outburst to increase the Cowboys' chances at a victory. Against a formidable defense, it's a tough task. The fourth-year wide receiver will fall short of 100 receiving yards, and Elliott likely struggles to rush for 100 yards on the ground. 

The Seahawks have a quarterback who's thrived in critical situations. In seven seasons, Russell Wilson has put together 23 game-winning drives. With a cerebral playmaker in the pocket and the No. 1 ground attack, Seattle wins a close contest on the road.

Prediction: Seahawks 24, Cowboys 20

               

No. 5 Los Angeles Chargers at No. 4 Baltimore Ravens: Sunday, Jan. 6 at 1:05 p.m. ET (CBS)

CARSON, CA - DECEMBER 22:  Philip Rivers #17 of the Los Angeles Chargers passes the ball under pressure in the pocket during the second half of a game against the Baltimore Ravens at StubHub Center on December 22, 2018 in Carson, California.  (Photo by Se
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

It's Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers' chance at revenge. He threw for 181 yards and two interceptions against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 16 at home. Now, he'll go on the road and hope to redeem himself with his season on the line. 

Even though they're listed as the No. 5 seed, the Chargers had their best season since going 13-3 during the 2009 campaign. The offense lost tight end Hunter Henry for the regular season because of a torn ACL. Running back Melvin Gordon missed four games because of hamstring and knee injuries. Yet, this club ranked fifth in scoring through the 2018 term. It's a testament to the depth on that side of the ball. 

Even though general manager Tom Telesco spoke about the possibility that Henry suits up for this contest in an interview with Hardwick and Richards of 1360AM, it's hard to imagine he'd make a significant impact after four months of inactivity. The Chargers will need a role player such as running back Austin Ekeler or their deep wide receiver unit to attack Baltimore's No. 1-ranked defense in yards allowed.

The Ravens have tailored their game plan to quarterback Lamar Jackson's strengths. He's an above-average ball-carrier with the arm strength to stretch the field at opportune moments. Tight end Mark Andrews has emerged as a viable threat in the aerial attack, logging 34 receptions for 552 yards and three touchdowns.

The Chargers will probably go all-in to stop the No. 2 rushing offense in the league. Expect to see a loaded box with rookie safety Derwin James flashing as a physical presence near the line of scrimmage. Rivers' experience shines in this matchup as he makes a few crucial throws to put Los Angeles in position to win late in the game.

Prediction: Chargers 20, Ravens 17

                     

No. 6 Philadelphia Eagles at No. 3 Chicago Bears: Sunday, Jan. 6 at 4:40 p.m. ET (NBC)

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 16:  Head coach Matt Naty of the Chicago Bears talks with Khalil Mack #52 and Eddie Jackson #39 as they leave the field against the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field on December 16, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bears defeated the
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

At least for now, it seems quarterback Nick Foles will play in the wild-card matchup against the Chicago Bears. He left the last game with bruised ribs, per ESPN's Adam Schefter:

Whoever starts for the Philadelphia Eagles at quarterback will have to deal with the Bears' relentless front seven. Edge-rusher Khalil Mack, inside linebacker Roquan Smith and Akiem Hicks have a combined 25 sacks this season. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio may attempt to disrupt the Eagles aerial attack with brute force up front.

Assuming Foles starts, he's going to face his toughest defensive challenge this year. The Eagles don't have the same offensive balance as they did last postseason. Running backs Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount aren't in the backfield to move the chains and control game flow.

Josh Adams, Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement won't have enough production to keep the Bears defense honest in coverage. Chicago's defensive backs will drop into passing lanes, daring the Eagles to run the ball against a stout defensive front.

Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky should continue to show growth in his first playoff matchup. He'll post solid passing numbers against the Eagles' 30th-ranked pass defense en route to victory.

Prediction: Bears 27, Eagles 16

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