Welcome to the first part of one of the best two-weekend stretches of the entire year. It may seem like a waste to use it up this early into 2019, but trust me: the NFL playoffs come at a perfect time. Coming off the bizarro-world that is Holiday SZN, the playoffs help ease the transition back into real life. The first two weekends are an extra four days of eating, drinking, watching football, and generally doing nothing, but there’s a full work week in between them. It’s like weening a baby off the bottle. Slowly take away the holiday revelry and sloth and gently nudge everyone back to actual life.
This is Wildcard Weekend, where the fat gets culled a little before the big boys start playing next week. This week features all your favorite Wildcard tropes: the Texans on Saturday afternoon, multiple way-too-obvious candidates for “darkhorse team that makes a run,” a good old fashion rest vs. rust debate, a game being hosted by the NFC East champ that no one really wants to watch, and, of course, teams licking their chops to play against Andy Reid in the next round. Let’s dive right in. All lines from Bovada.
Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans (-1)
This is the best quarterback matchup of the opening round, which feels like a weird thing to say about a game involving the Texans, but here we are. This is a far more intriguing game than what’s usually thrown at us on Wildcard Saturday afternoon, mostly because these two are so evenly matched. Since they’re division foes, we can draw a lot of conclusions from their two regular-season meetings where… they split the games and both scored exactly 58 cumulative points. The Texans scoring differential on the season was +86. The Colts? +89. The Texans rank 11th overall in DVOA, the Colts 8th (although the Colts were one of two teams to rank in the top 10 in both offense and defense. They were number 10 in both, but it still counts). Both teams are great at stopping the run and soft against the pass. By the numbers, they’re practically the same team. But, as they say, the game isn’t played on paper. The Colts have the advantage in two huge areas: quarterback and head coach. Andrew Luck is a better player than Deshaun Watson, but this isn’t Tom Brady vs. Matt Schaub. Either one is capable of winning a game singlehandedly, but Luck is just more advanced at this stage of his career. Frank Reich was hugely impressive in his first season as head coach. Bill O’Brien might as well be a trained chimpanzee. It’s a total mismatch. And I was about to say that the Texans have more top-end talent, but I actually don’t think that’s true. The Colts have some STUDS on the line and on D. DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt are great, Hall of Fame talents. Deshaun is a beast. But the Colts just have the better team. They’re too hot, too well coached, too deep. I would love to see the Texans win because it’ll mean they have to play the Pats, but I see the Colts coming out on top.
Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys (-2)
The Seahawks should win this game. They have the better quarterback. They have a better coach. They have the better offense and, top to bottom, probably have the better defense. They have better special teams. They have seemingly every advantage. Except one: the game’s in Dallas and the Cowboys were 7-1 at home this year. And rank in the top five in fewest yards per carry allowed and are in the top five in run defense DVOA. The running game sets up everything Seattle does offensively. Yes, Russell Wilson can easily win this game by himself, but it’s hard to win playoff games if you’re one-dimensional (unless you’re the Pats). The Cowboys have shown that, at the very least, they can frustrate good offenses. On the flip side, the Boyz have a very similar offense to the Seahawks, just with kind of wonky personnel. Everything flows through Zeke. Guess which team ranks 30th out of 32 in yards per carry allowed? Seattle (ignore the 29th ranked team). That’s not good. If Dallas slows this game down, makes it a grind, reduces the number of possessions, and avoids turnovers, I like their chances. I know I’m going to hate this halfway through the first, but I’m rolling with the Cowboys. Puke City. If the Seahawks win, look for Jason Garrett to get blamed for playing everyone in a meaningless week 17 game.
Los Angeles Chargers at Baltimore Ravens (-2.5)
God this makes me nervous. This is the classic playoff game that’s so easy to get wrong. The Chargers are the better team. Flat out, they are. They might have the most complete roster in the NFL. They should win. But they’re the Chargers. Going east. For a 1 o’clock playoff game. Against the Ravens, who are perennially one of the most mentally tough teams in the NFL, which is the opposite of any Southern California football team. There’s no point pulling stats out for this game, they don’t matter. All that matters here is grit and balls and having the mental fortitude and experience to recognize this game for what it is. Try to envision the Chargers winning three road playoff games. This is shaping up to be my doomsday scenario, but the Ravens are coming to Foxborough next week.
Philadelphia Eagles at Chicago Bears (-6)
There’s a lot of reasons to like the Bears. They’re at home, they have the best defense in the league, they have the likely coach of the year, and they just have the healthier roster. There are a few reasons to like the Eagles. Nick Foles is touched by God and they might have the best defensive line in the league. Seems like the Bears are rightfully six point favorites, right? Well, logic says yes. But when it comes to Andy Reid disciples, young (kind of crappy) QBs in their first playoff games, and Nick Foles, logic need not apply. The Eagles aren’t going to go back-to-back. I’m comfortable saying that. I’m not comfortable saying Nick Foles won’t win another playoff game against a classic first round loser. The Foles experience is all feel. All gut. My gut tells me Big Dick Nick is going to strike again.