Bleacher Report's Expert NFL Wild Card Weekend Picks and Predictions

NFL StaffContributor IJanuary 4, 2019

Bleacher Report's Expert NFL Wild Card Weekend Picks and Predictions

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    This Wild Card Weekend could be particularly (*looks up synonyms for wild*) untamed, disorderly, rowdy and intense.

    Why? Because the Houston Texans, Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears are favored to beat the weekend's four underdogs—the Indianapolis Colts, Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Chargers and Philadelphia Eagles—by a combined total of just 12 points. 

    By comparison, the combined spreads for last year's wild-card games came to 29.5 points. The year before that it was 28.0, and it's been 12 or lower only three times (1992, 2009 and 2015) since the NFL adopted its current playoff format in 1990. 

    So good luck to those trying to find an open-and-shut case for any of the eight teams in action, including Bleacher Report NFL analysts Gary Davenport, Brad Gagnon and Brent Sobleski. 

    After finishing the regular season with a consensus record of 125-124-7 against the spread, that trio is looking for a stronger run this January. But nothing comes easy in this comically unpredictable, parity-plagued league. 

    Here, anyway, are picks (both straight-up and ATS) and analysis from our group of experts. 

                                           

    Lines based on consensuses at OddsShark as of Thursday.

No. 6 Indianapolis Colts (10-6) at No. 3 Houston Texans (11-5)

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    When: Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET

    Where: NRG Stadium, Houston

    TV: ESPN/ABC

    Referee: Bill Vinovich

    Line: Houston -1.5

    In a nutshell: The Texans and Colts joined the Chargers, Bears, Seahawks and Patriots as the NFL's only teams that ranked in the top 12 in terms of both points scored and points allowed during the regular season. Both excelled in run defense while riding hot quarterbacks down the stretch. Combined score of their two regular-season matchups: 58-58. 

    Injuries to watch: Colts center Ryan Kelly (neck) has been practicing and may be set to return after missing Week 17. Texans cornerback Johnathan Joseph (neck) is in the exact same situation. 

    Random tidbit: Back in Week 4, Colts head coach Frank Reich sacrificed an almost certain tie with Houston by going for it on a 4th-and-4 from his own 43-yard line with 27 seconds left in overtime. Had the Colts punted or converted there, they'd be hosting this game as AFC South champions. But they did not punt or convert, and Houston took advantage of a short field to secure the win.

The Pick: Colts +1.5

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    There's only one pick this week on which all three of our analysts unanimously agree. They're riding with Indianapolis as a small road underdog. 

    But nobody is expecting a blowout.

    "The slimmest of margins separate these rivals," Sobleski said. "However, the Colts are a different team over the second half of the season, particularly on defense. This is important because the best way to attack the Texans is by exploiting Houston's great weakness: its offensive line. The Colts front seven flies to the football and consistently disrupts any semblance of offensive rhythm."

    That Indy D has surrendered just 15.0 points per game since Week 11, which ranks second in the NFL. But they don't get a lot of sacks or takeaways, so pulling away might not be easy. 

    "This is destined to come down to the final possession," Gagnon said, "but Indy doesn't have a glaring weakness like the Houston offensive line, the Colts are the slightly hotter team, and the Colts won at this very site last month."

    The Colts have actually won on five of their last six trips to Houston, with the only loss coming in overtime in 2016. And in seven career games at Houston, star Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton has seven touchdowns and 133.3 receiving yards per outing.

    "If this game follows the script of the first two meetings between these teams, it should make for a pretty entertaining contest," Davenport concluded. "There are a pair of QB-WR duos who aren't afraid to challenge defenses vertically, and there were 116 points scored in those first two matchups. Both were decided by a field goal. The Colts are red hot after rebounding from a 1-5 start, and they're protecting their quarterback as well as any team in the NFL. The Houston secondary can be had if quarterbacks have time in the pocket, and Indy's defense is quietly playing at a high level."

    Predictions
    Davenport: Colts 33, Texans 31
    Gagnon: Colts 20, Texans 17
    Sobleski: Colts 27, Texans 21
    Consensus: Indianapolis (+1.5)

No. 5 Seattle Seahawks (10-6) at No. 4 Dallas Cowboys (10-6)

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    John Froschauer/Associated Press

    When: Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET

    Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington

    TV: Fox

    Referee: Walt Anderson

    Line: Dallas -2

    In a nutshell: Seattle has won six of its last seven games, while Dallas has won seven of eight. Both teams have mobile, playmaking quarterbacks and elite running games, but the Cowboys run defense is much stronger than Seattle's on paper. 

    Injuries to watch: For the Seahawks, starting guards J.R. Sweezy (foot) and D.J. Fluker (knee) both have a chance to return, but left tackle Duane Brown (knee) has been missing practice time, as have defensive backs Shaquill Griffin (ankle) and Bradley McDougald (knee). Dallas is a bit healthier, but key offensive linemen Zack Martin (knee) and Tyron Smith (neck) are less than 100 percent. 

    Random tidbit: Dallas went 7-1 at home with an average margin of victory of 6.5 points, while Seattle was 4-4 on the road with an average margin of victory of 3.3 points. 

The Pick: Seahawks +2

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    All four road teams covered the spread as underdogs on Wild Card Weekend last year, and the majority of our panelists figure that trend will continue with both Indy and Seattle covering and winning outright on Saturday. 

    "This game comes down to confidence in Russell Wilson and the Seahawks in the postseason—more so than Dak Prescott and the Cowboys," Davenport said. "While this isn't the same Seahawks team that played in consecutive Super Bowls, there are still several guys on the roster who know the drill this time of year a lot better than Dallas. It won't be a double-digit victory like Seattle's Week 3 win at home, but Wilson's going to make just enough plays to send Seattle on to New Orleans."

    Meanwhile, the difference for Sobleski is Seattle's underrated group of pass-catchers. 

    "The play of Seattle's wide receivers may provide an edge in the Seahawks' favor," he said. "Doug Baldwin has been fantastic as of late despite battling through multiple injuries. Tyler Lockett, meanwhile, is putting together a season unlike any other. Wilson has a perfect quarterback rating throwing to Lockett, and the fourth-year receiver has the highest DVOA registered in 32 years."

    But Davenport and Sobleski both cautioned that this'll be close to a toss-up, especially considering the clear-cut similarities between the two teams. Prescott and Wilson have similar traits and styles, both offenses make their money on the ground (Seattle has the league's top running game, Dallas has the league's leading rusher), and they were two of just six teams with fewer than 18 turnovers in the regular season. 

    Gagnon is on the other side of that coin flip, and it's worth noting that those among this group who picked against the majority as lone wolves were 64-61-1 during the regular season. 

    "I admittedly fear Wilson," he confessed. "He has an edge over Prescott, and he and his team have that playoff pedigree. But Dallas has a significant defensive edge here. Demarcus Lawrence, Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith make up one hell of a trio in the front seven, and they might also have David Irving and/or Sean Lee on Saturday. I could see Seattle's running game hitting a wall in a tough environment.

    "Meanwhile, Elliott has a much more favorable matchup against a run D that ranked near the bottom of the league with 4.9 yards per carry allowed during the regular season. Don't forget that the Seattle D limped into the playoffs by allowing 55 points in back-to-back home games against the Kansas City Chiefs and Arizona Cardinals."

    Predictions
    Davenport: Seahawks 24, Cowboys 21
    Gagnon: Cowboys 26, Seahawks 23
    Sobleski: Seahawks 28, Cowboys 24
    Consensus: Seattle (+2)

No. 5 Los Angeles Chargers (12-4) at No. 4 Baltimore Ravens (10-6)

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    When: Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET

    Where: M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore

    TV: CBS

    Referee: Clete Blakeman

    Line: Baltimore -2.5 

    In a nutshell: The Ravens have plenty of playoff pedigree, while the Chargers do not. Baltimore is just as hot as Los Angeles, and it beat the Bolts on the road just two weeks ago. Can L.A. adjust in time to figure out run-happy rookie Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson as well as the league's top-rated defense? 

    Injuries to watch: Running backs Melvin Gordon (ankle) and Austin Ekeler (groin) should be good to go for the Chargers, who might also get tight end Hunter Henry back from a torn ACL. The Ravens are remarkably healthy, with cornerback Tavon Young (groin) the only player missing practice time due to injury. 

    Random tidbit: Jackson will become the 10th rookie quarterback to start a wild-card game this century. The previous nine went 4-5 with an 8-to-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio. But Russell Wilson's Seahawks beat Robert Griffin III's Washington Redskins in a battle of rookie quarterbacks in the 2012 Wild Card Round, and the same thing happened in a battle between T.J. Yates of the Texans and Andy Dalton's Cincinnati Bengals in 2011. The last rookie quarterback to beat a team led by a veteran quarterback on Wild Card Weekend? Mark Sanchez, whose New York Jets beat Carson Palmer's Bengals 24-14 in the 2009 playoffs. 

The Pick: Ravens -3

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    Rich Schultz/Associated Press

    The Chargers haven't lost a game outside of Los Angeles this season (their lone road loss came against the crosstown rival L.A. Rams), but the majority of our experts are expecting that trend to come to an abrupt end Sunday in Baltimore. 

    "Having seen Lamar Jackson just two weeks ago should help the Bolts game plan defensively," Davenport said, "but familiarity doesn't mean the Chargers will successfully be able to slow down Baltimore's ground game. Philip Rivers had his worst game of the year in that loss to the Ravens, and he's 4-5 career in the playoffs with a passer rating over 10 points lower than his career average. Besides, if the weekend plays out like I think it will, it would send Jackson and the Ravens to Gillette next week to face the Patriots. Who doesn't want to see that?"

    Gagnon is expecting that matchup as well, mainly because the Chargers are tough to believe in. 

    "I struggled with this one," Gagnon admitted. "I still don't trust Jackson, I think the Chargers will benefit from having faced Jackson just two weeks ago, and I think Los Angeles is the better overall team. But the Bolts have regressed of late, with nine turnovers to just five takeaways in their last three games. Melvin Gordon isn't healthy, and Rivers hasn't been right. And now they have to go on the road to play a streaking Ravens team that is strong at home and has a superb track record when it gets into the playoffs with John Harbaugh running the show."

    Indeed, Baltimore is 5-0 both straight-up and against the spread under Harbaugh in the Wild Card Round. It has covered the spread in seven consecutive playoff games, and the Ravens have won both of their home playoff games under Harbaugh. Only the Patriots have won more home games during Harbaugh's 11-year tenure in Baltimore. 

    Still, Sobleski is siding with the team that has a better record and a more experienced quarterback, citing the aberrational nature of that Week 16 meeting. 

    "One team beat the Chargers after Thanksgiving," he said. "They happen to be playing the same opponent in the first round of the playoffs. But the second time facing the Ravens plays to the Chargers' advantage because they've already seen the Jackson-led offense. It's similar to playing the service academies at the collegiate level. Their running approach is so different than what every other team does, it's jarring. The Chargers will have a better handle on their assignments, while Baltimore's defense can't expect to stop Philip Rivers from throwing a touchdown pass a second time."

    You'll find the Ravens laying three full points in as many places as you'll see them giving up 2.5, but our crew picked using the 2.5-point spread which was predominant on Thursday. If you're on board with Sobleski's line of thinking, we'd recommend you shop for a three-point line or consider buying a half-point to be safe. 

    Predictions
    Davenport: Ravens 23, Chargers 14
    Gagnon: Ravens 20, Chargers 17
    Sobleski: Chargers 20, Ravens 17
    Consensus: Baltimore (-2.5)

No. 6 Philadelphia Eagles (9-7) at No. 3 Chicago Bears (12-4)

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    Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    When: Saturday, 4:40 p.m. ET

    Where: Soldier Field, Chicago

    TV: NBC

    Referee: Tony Corrente

    Line: Chicago -6

    In a nutshell: The Eagles have (sort of) been here, done this—but they were a No. 1 seed last year. It'll be a lot harder to make lightning strike twice as a banged-up wild-card team on the road. Still, the hotter and healthier Bears have to avoid emulating the 2017 Rams, who broke out with a division-winning campaign but then fell at home to the previous NFC champion (Atlanta) on Wild Card Weekend. 

    Injuries to watch: Interim starting quarterback Nick Foles should be good to go for Philadelphia despite a rib injury, while defensive lineman Michael Bennett (foot) should be fine as well. For the Bears, the status of playmaking safety Eddie Jackson (ankle) is very much in doubt, while receivers Taylor Gabriel (ribs), Anthony Miller (shoulder) and Allen Robinson (ribs) are all banged up but should play. 

    Random tidbit: The Bears led in the second half of every single game they played this season, and they were the only team in the NFC to win six home games by seven-plus points. But the Eagles had four fourth-quarter comebacks and lost in regulation just once in their last six road games. 

The Pick: Bears -6

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Our crew agrees unanimously that the Bears will bring an end to Philly's improbable and unexpected late-2018 run, but only Sobleski comes across as confident that Chicago will cover a tricky six-point spread. 

    "Since losing a Week 13 overtime contest to the New York Giants, the Bears defense has been eating opposing offenses alive," he said. "During the final four games—which included playing against the Rams' explosive offense, Aaron Rodgers and Kirk Cousins—Chicago allowed only 245 yards and 10.5 points per game. Yes, Nick Foles appears to have the magic back for another playoff run, but he hasn't faced a top-10 defense of Chicago's caliber during Philadelphia's three-game winning streak."

    After going back and forth and thinking long and hard, Gagnon reluctantly sided with Sobleski and the Bears. But he doesn't recommend spending any leftover Christmas money on Chicago at minus-6. 

    "On paper the Bears are a no-brainer pick," Gagnon said. "Their defense is unreal, they're at home, and the Eagles are lucky just to be alive. But there's a part of me that worries about the young Mitchell Trubisky against Jim Schwartz's defensive front, and we know how resilient these Eagles are. With the backdoor cover also in play, I wouldn't touch that six-point spread with a pole the size of the Willis Tower. But I have to go one way or the other, and I'm not sure anyone can score on that Chicago defense right now. Keep in mind the Eagles never had a challenge like this during their last playoff run."

    Davenport, meanwhile, was reluctant to take the Bears to win outright, let alone cover that spread.

    "Of all my wild-card picks, this is the one I have the least confidence in," he admitted. "I don't completely trust Trubisky and the Bears offense, the Eagles are as battle-tested as any team in these playoffs after last year's Super Bowl run, and I expect this game to be close enough that one miscue or turnover could be a game-swinger. But no defense in the NFL has been better at forcing just such a turnover than the Bears—cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Eddie Jackson have more interceptions between them (13) than more than half of the NFL's teams. Add in a banged-up Foles (not that the Bears would intentionally try to whack a quarterback with sore ribs—perish the thought), and I expect the new Monsters of the Midway to carry the day in a relatively low-scoring affair."

    So while our guys are technically on the Bears at minus-6, the moneyline might be a safer road in the final game of the weekend. 

    Predictions
    Davenport: Bears 20, Eagles 17
    Gagnon: Bears 23, Eagles 16
    Sobleski: Bears 17, Eagles 10
    Consensus: Bears (-6)