2018 NFL Wild Card and Full Playoff Predictions

The 2018 NFL season has been so competitive that I can’t help but think we’ll get some stunning playoff results this year. The point spreads being quite small (1-to-2.5 points) in three of the games this week looks like a good start for that. The last five chalky postseasons have produced nine No. 1 seeds in the Super Bowl and the 2016 Falcons were a No. 2 seed. The wild card teams aren’t necessarily strong this season, but the Chargers had a good year, the Colts are hot with Andrew Luck, the Eagles won the Super Bowl with Nick Foles last year, and the Seahawks are always a tough out. Throw in Baltimore’s old-school approach and the Chicago defense, and there’s a better chance we see a non-bye team go on a good run again.

Before I pick the whole tournament, I’m going to preview each of the four wild card games. I’m really just throwing out some thoughts at 5 A.M. (sleep schedule is FUBAR) rather than building a structured narrative or detailed analysis of the matchups. You can read the previews on FO for more of that.

Colts at Texans (-1)

It’s amazing these teams are here with double-digit wins after starting 0-3 and 1-5. Both defenses have benefited from a soft schedule (the softest of any two defenses in the NFL), though that’s a bit immaterial when they’re playing each other this week with a good quarterback matchup. I like the over. Houston has won a lot of close games and relied on some opposing coaching mistakes, including that memorable Frank Reich move in overtime in the 37-34 win by Houston. Had he taken the tie, this game would likely be in Indy this week, but I don’t think it’s a huge deal for the Colts in the end. They have won in Houston this year, they’ve won there before, and if you’re going to win a Super Bowl this year, you have to go beat a team like Kansas City anyway. Hell, it might even set up better if the Ravens or Chargers can knock off the Patriots, Indy’s personal nightmare venue.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, it’s Round 3 with Houston and a roster with some really talented players. None of those players are on the offensive line however, and I think Deshaun Watson’s tendency to hold the ball and take sacks can really help out an Indy defense that doesn’t have a dominant pass-rusher. Watson took 5 sacks in the last meeting and had to lead his team in rushing against a Colts defense that stops the run well. DeAndre Hopkins is always a problem, but T.Y. Hilton has been incredible in his career against Houston. He had 199 yards in the last matchup and has been playing at a high level despite his health. The Colts protect Luck much better this year, he’s changed his playing style to be more dart thrower than gunslinger, and I think the Colts can win this one on the road as long as he avoids the dumb interceptions like we saw on the pick-six in Tennessee on Sunday night.

Houston was 1-4 this year when allowing 24+ points with the only win being 37-34 over the Colts in overtime. Indy has scored 24+ in 11 games this year, including both against Houston. I like the Colts to score enough in this one and close it out late.

Final: Colts 27, Texans 24

Seahawks at Cowboys (-2)

Like the first game on Saturday, these teams are hot, and in Dallas’ case, playing a schedule with the AFC South and NFC East has helped out too. The Cowboys are 7-1 in their last eight, and 7-2 since the trade for Amari Cooper. He’s turned in some huge games that helped the Cowboys win the NFC East, but he also has 13 catches for 83 yards and a lost fumble in his last three games combined. That’s the problem with Cooper in that he’ll put up 180 and a score one week, then struggle to break 20 yards the next. The Seahawks don’t have Richard Sherman anymore, and while a respectable defense overall, they were 25th in DVOA against #1 wide receivers. Cooper needs to come up big in this one.

I like that Dallas has put more responsibility on Dak Prescott in recent weeks. He threw for 455 yards against the Eagles and added 387 against the Giants in Week 17, a game where Ezekiel Elliott and a couple star lineman didn’t even play. Prescott has been playing better the last eight games, but his problems this year are that he takes way too many sacks and he doesn’t pull the trigger as much as he should. If he’s not taking a sack, he’s settling for a checkdown, which is why he has the worst third down ALEX in the league. Those third-down struggles are also why his advanced stats aren’t too hot.

I’ll still take Russell Wilson any day over Prescott, but I think in many ways the Seahawks are the team Dallas wants to be when it comes to running and defense. The Seahawks are running the ball as much as anyone not named Baltimore, and it’s worked for the most part this year. Wilson didn’t even throw for 3500 yards, but he was efficient, had a dominant efficiency season with Tyler Lockett, and he still threw 35 touchdowns. Wilson hasn’t even broke 200 yards against Dallas in the last two meetings, and this Cowboys defense is playing better, but it didn’t matter. The Seahawks still won 21-12 and 24-13 after Prescott and the offense struggled in both matchups. I can see that happening again here, though with Cooper in the mix, Elliott back in action, and Prescott having experience to pull games out late, I think Dallas has a good shot in this matchup.

I’m still going with Seattle just because I trust Wilson and Pete Carroll more than I do Prescott and Jason Garrett. But it really is a game that could come down to Prescott hitting Gallup on a deep shot and Wilson not connecting with Lockett on a similar play like they have done so well this year.

Final: Seahawks 23, Cowboys 20

Chargers at Ravens (-2.5)

This was my big preview at FO, so go there for 3500+ words on the matchup. Basically, it boils down to both teams need to have a good start, but it’s even more important for the Ravens so they can keep up their style of running the ball and pressuring on defense. Philip Rivers can lead a comeback, but probably not from 14+ late against this defense. Can Lamar Jackson deliver enough with his arm if called upon? It’s best if the Ravens don’t find out yet, but with the way they play defense, special teams, and one of the best home-field advantages in the league, I think they take care of the Chargers in this one.

Final: Ravens 26, Chargers 20

Eagles at Bears (-6.5)

Outside of Colts-Texans, this might be the game with the widest range of possible outcomes this week. The Bears have a great defense that gets the most turnovers, but the Eagles have played better offensively with Nick Foles at quarterback. He’s also been prolific in the postseason, albeit that’s four starts. He seems to be good to go this week with the rib injury. With Mitchell Trubisky, the Bears aren’t exactly sure what they’re getting. I see him as a deluxe Rex Grossman with scrambling skills maxed out, but as a passer, he’s either Good Mitch or Bad Mitch each week. If the Eagles can pressure him and force him into mistakes, then they have a great shot of advancing as a true underdog this year.

Something I really like about the Bears under Matt Nagy is that they haven’t had a bad game yet this season. They finished 12-4, but they lost two games in overtime. They blew a huge lead in Week 1 against Green Bay and would have won that game if Kyle Fuller held onto Aaron Rodgers’ interception late. They would have beat the Dolphins with a field goal in overtime. They had a Hail Mary completed to the 1-yard line vs. New England, so maybe go for two there to win in regulation if they could have got that yard. They should have gone for two at the end of regulation against the Giants on a day Chase Daniel was QB1. Nagy, like Doug Pederson, hasn’t been afraid to try unorthodox fourth downs or two-point conversions this year. So the Bears haven’t laid any eggs this season, which is impressive for a rookie head coach with a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2010.

The Eagles definitely win out at big-game experience, but I’ll trust the Bears to deliver on defense at home. The Bears are 12-0 when allowing fewer than 24 points this year (0-4 when allowing 24+). The Eagles have gotten to 24 points in Foles’ last three starts, but none of those defenses are on the level of Chicago.

Final: Bears 26, Eagles 19

In the end, I’m going with road dogs on Saturday with the better quarterbacks and the top two scoring defenses at home on Sunday.

2018 Full NFL Playoff Predictions

Here is my crack at predicting the whole tournament.

Wild Card:

  • Colts over Texans
  • Seahawks over Cowboys
  • Ravens over Chargers
  • Bears over Eagles

Divisional:

  • Chiefs over Colts
  • Saints over Seahawks
  • Patriots over Ravens
  • Rams over Bears

Conference Championship:

  • Chiefs over Patriots
  • Saints over Rams

Super Bowl LIII

  • Saints over Chiefs (Super Bowl MVP: Drew Brees)

As always, every postseason has its own narrative and I tried to craft one here but still couldn’t force too many upsets. I honestly think the Colts can win in KC and same with Baltimore in New England, but I’ll go with home-field advantage in the AFC again. After the two No. 1 seeds squaring off (with the better defense winning and the Drew Brees fanboys celebrating his Super Bowl MVP over Patrick Mahomes’ regular season MVP), my 2nd pick for the Super Bowl would actually be McVay and the Rams beating Belichick and the Patriots. That’d be the second year in a row an NFC team with a second-year head coach outdid the Patriots on the big stage. Then again, I can just as easily see the Bears knocking off the Rams in the divisional round to create a much different McVay narrative (0-2 at home!), but I can’t wait to see how things play out here.

One final look at my 2018 results, which were pretty good on straight up picks at least.

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NFL Week 7 Predictions: With or Without Gronk Edition

Not feeling great this Saturday, so just time for a look at the game of the week.

Patriots at Bears

The Patriots are playing an Andy Reid-style offense for the second week in a row after allowing 40 points to the Chiefs (again) last week. The Bears are not nearly as talented at the skill positions, and Trubisky is a big downgrade from Patrick Mahomes, but I think the Bears can score 27+ on that defense. Plus it’s not like we haven’t seen so-so quarterbacks with a little mobility pick apart the Patriots before. See Blake Bortles this year or Jay Cutler last December. Home-field advantage should also help, though the Bears fans need to get up for this one against an unfamiliar opponent.

What would concern me is that the Patriots can usually neutralize one great pass-rusher on a defense (see games vs. J.J. Watt). The Bears don’t have a great running mate to help Khalil Mack out, and they weren’t even able to sack Brock Osweiler last week as he hit a career-high in passing yardage. Akiem Hicks isn’t a bad player, but if Mack can’t get pressure in this one, then it could get ugly. At least the Bears have been getting takeaways again, and in fact have had multiple takeaways in each game. They’ll need that against the Patriots, who aren’t protecting the ball as well this year (10 TO in six games) as in the past.

Perhaps the great equalizer is Rob Gronkowski missing the game, which sounds like it could be the case after he didn’t travel with the team. Gronk has missed 30 games in his career that Tom Brady started since 2010, and the splits with him in and out of the game are very interesting.

GronkWO.JPG

Gronk being in the game raises Brady’s YPA by almost a full yard. Without Gronk, his numbers slip below the league average in completion percentage and YPA. The passer rating (87.7) is barely above league average in those 30 games. The QBR also shoots up 12 whole points with Gronk. He’s the league’s greatest cheat code among receiving weapons. The Bears can only be so lucky for him to miss this game.

I just can’t bring myself to trust Trubisky yet (in his first NE game) to sustain long drives, convert third downs, and finish in the red zone to take down a Belichick team that’s picking up steam. Beyond losing Gronk, don’t ignore that the running game has been very effective behind Sony Michel as of late, and they still have Josh Gordon, James White, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, etc. Maybe none of those players can replicate the insane YAC skills Albert Wilson showed off last week to bolster that Osweiler stat line, but that game gives me pause about trusting Chicago as a legit contender so quickly. Not to mention we have not seen good game management from Matt Nagy in holding these 11+ point leads against Green Bay and Miami (both lost).

Final: Patriots 27, Bears 23

NFL Week 7 Predictions

I had Denver winning on TNF, but did not expect Arizona to put up one of the worst performances by any team this season. Someone had to get fired from that one, and someone (Mike McCoy, again) did.

2018Wk7

I’m feeling a teaser this week with Titans (rebound from 11-sack disaster), Dolphins, Panthers, Colts, Jets to not lose by more than 10, and I really like Dallas in Washington. I also think Drew Brees can notch a win over the Ravens for the first time in his career. I know I should go with the home team that plays defense there, but I think the Saints are a complete offense and can get it done in any way possible with the running back duo and Brees with his receivers. As long as the D isn’t getting killed deep by the likes of John Brown, I like the Saints there.

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NFL Week 1 Predictions: Awards Edition

NFL 2018 Award Predictions

Let’s start with my picks for the top awards this season. I was 0-for-8 last year after Aaron Rodgers, David Johnson and J.J. Watt all suffered serious injuries before Week 6 ended.

  • Most Valuable Player: Aaron Rodgers, Packers
  • Coach of the Year: Mike Zimmer, Vikings
  • Assistant Coach of the Year: Teryl Austin, Bengals
  • Offensive Player of the Year: Aaron Rodgers, Packers
  • Defensive Player of the Year: Jalen Ramsey, Jaguars
  • Offensive Rookie of the Year: Saquon Barkley, Giants
  • Defensive Rookie of the Year: Derwin James, Chargers
  • Comeback Player of the Year: Deshaun Watson, Texans

For comeback player, I’m sticking with my predictions that have the Texans edging out the Colts for the playoffs, so Deshaun Watson gets it over Andrew Luck (another great candidate for that) after proving he is the real deal over a full season. I had Aaron Rodgers as MVP last year, and I think that had a decent shot had he not broke his collarbone again. Give Rodgers a mediocre defense and a soft schedule and I think he’ll be on top of things again this year. I struggled with the coaches because I didn’t really pick surprise teams to come out of nowhere this season. So I’m sticking with my No. 1 seed in the NFC in Minnesota as Zimmer wins again with another quarterback.

NFL Week 1 Thoughts

Steelers at Browns

The weather for this one sounds brutal with a ton of rain in the area this weekend. I’d imagine they’ll keep the field in better working condition than the time Heinz Field had a 3-0 game with Miami in town (when the punt stuck in the ground). But it could be pretty nasty so I definitely like the under in this one.

It was only a 21-18 win by Pittsburgh in Week 1 last year, one of Cleveland’s closest calls on the way to 0-16. The offense scored just 14 points after getting a punt blocked for a touchdown to start things. That’s right, even with Le’Veon Bell, who finished with 10 carries for 32 yards, the Steelers’ starting offense scored 14 points on the Browns last year.

That’s why I’m hoping people can be rational, especially if the field is a mess, if the results of this game are not favorable to the offense with Bell holding out. For one, I think James Conner will be just fine in his absence. But as I just showed, the bar was already set so low for the offense with Bell in Cleveland last year. You know the Browns, with a much improved roster, will be fired up to finally win a game by beating their hated rival. If Myles Garrett and company wreck the line like they did a year ago, it wouldn’t matter if Bell was playing or not.

So I’m a bit worried about the outcome of this one driving a ton of irrational “Pay the man!” and “This is what you get Steelers!” hot takes. Since 2014 the Steelers are 12-6 without Bell. They score just about as many points without him as they do with him. Let’s not act like Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger haven’t had first-round bye seasons and been to multiple Super Bowls before Bell.

As long as the offensive line plays well, Conner should be just fine. However, this is a game the Steelers should win on the road against a team not expected to be anything this year. So you know I’m already skeptical of a good performance coming from Pittsburgh in this one. If the weather evens the playing field even more, well we could be looking at the upset of the week right here.

Texans at Patriots

This was one of the better matchups in 2017, a game that Houston should have won had it not dropped a late interception by Tom Brady. That was only Deshaun Watson’s second start and our first glimpse at just how exciting he can be as a dual-threat quarterback. He threw for over 300 yards in that game and had the Texans over 30 points in Foxboro, a very difficult feat to pull off. I’m excited to see him and J.J. Watt back, but the Patriots have done a very good job of limiting Watt in past matchups. It’s also a fact that we haven’t really seen Watt playing at a high level since the 2015 season.

DeAndre Hopkins won’t have Malcolm Butler to deal with, but the Patriots still have Stephon Gilmore and will likely make Houston’s other receivers try to beat them. Will Fuller did not play in that game last season. I’m interested to see how the Patriots operate without Julian Edelman (suspended) and Danny Amendola (Miami). At least Edelman will be back soon, but for a month they’ll have to go without one of their prototypical slot receivers. They still have Chris Hogan, Gronkowski and the receiving backs, but it’s another new-look offense for the Patriots, albeit one that’s less impressive than last year’s.

Bears at Packers

I usually groan at this matchup that we probably get in prime-time every single year, but this one could actually be good on Sunday night. Aaron Rodgers is back, which is the only storyline Green Bay really needs. The Bears have a new offensive-minded coach, Mitchell Trubisky is no longer a rookie stuck in a dead-ball passing offense, they have noteworthy receivers again, and they managed to add Khalil Mack. The Bears should finally be watchable again, but how about good?

I think the Packers should feel very fortunate that they get this home game in Week 1. Chicago should be a much better team later in the season when the offense gets to mature together under Nagy. You get Mack and rookie Roquan Smith arriving very late in the preseason, so that too can take time to get the front seven going. I think they can give Green Bay a good fight tomorrow night, because most teams do with the Packers these days. But I wouldn’t count on an upset just yet unless Mack is an absolute monster to spoil several drives for Rodgers.

NFL Week 1 Predictions

I’ll be picking every game against the spread this season. In my first partial season of trying that, I finished 60-59-5 (basically .500) last year. I’m looking to do better, but I already am 0-1 after picking the Falcons to win by a touchdown in Philadelphia, forgetting about the cursed red zone.

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NFL Week 8 Predictions: Saints in Primetime and Losing My Fandom

The NFL’s Week 8 schedule is pretty solid, so here are some thoughts on a few key games.

Packers at Saints: Prime-time Advantage?

I’ve always been better at predicting the AFC than the NFC, but the 2014 Saints have especially let me down this year. I had this team pegged for a first-round bye with an improved defense and Drew Brees finally winning his first MVP. Instead the Saints are 2-4, Rob Ryan’s defense is terrible and Brees has made some really poor throws in crucial spots. The Saints are also 0-3 at upholding one-score leads in the fourth quarter.

You might think Sunday’s game with Green Bay is a must win, but the whole NFC South has been a huge letdown this season. Look at how bad the Carolina defense has regressed. The Falcons were supposed to be improved, but look arguably worse than last year in recent weeks. Tampa Bay has already had two of the worst performances in recent time by an NFL team. At this rate the division will have a 7-9 winner stealing a playoff game (at home even) from a more deserving club. Hell, it might even come at the expense of the Seahawks.

If the Saints are going to climb back into things, they’ll do it with a statement win at home over a hot Packers team. In case you’ve been living under a rock, the Saints, and especially Brees, have been deadly in prime-time games in the Superdome:

BreesSD

That’s special stuff. The Saints are great at home in general, but some of their best games have come under the bright lights.

I expect Brees to have another fine day, but I don’t expect the Saints to stop the Packers enough when Aaron Rodgers has the ball.

Final prediction:  Packers 38, Saints 31

Bears at Patriots: Upset Alert?

I can’t figure out the 2014 Bears either. They’re 0-3 at home and aren’t scoring enough points despite one of the best supporting casts in the league and a coach, Marc Trestman, I want to believe is the right guy for the job. After last week’s loss to Miami, I find it hard to pick Chicago many more times this year. Heading to New England, I really don’t see a win, but let’s play the ebb-and-flow game.

The Bears just had a miserable loss and there’s some tension in the locker room apparently with Brandon Marshall mouthing off last week. Brian Urlacher has criticized Jay Cutler this week by saying he’s only elite in salary, which is a very true statement. The Bears aren’t in a good spot now, but I believe in talented teams turning things around. This isn’t asking for JaMarcus Russell to suddenly play well on a rotten Oakland team. I’m just looking for Cutler, Marshall, Jeffery, Forte and Bennett to score 24+ points on a New England defense missing the likes of Jerod Mayo and Chandler Jones. Let’s not forget the Patriots have barely squeaked by the Raiders and Jets at home this year. This team isn’t dominant. Chicago has the weapons to make this a high-scoring game and if the Bears can win the turnover battle, I think they’ll win the game.

But it’s still Jay Cutler and that’s why I expect multiple interceptions in Foxboro and a 3-5 record for the Bears. But it would be so New England to have a shocking home loss to be followed up with a win over the best team in the league next week (Denver).

Final prediction: Bears 20, Patriots 27

Colts at Steelers: Who Do I Really Like?

The Colts and Steelers are meeting for just the fifth time since the 2003 season. It was actually during their 2002 meeting, a 28-10 Pittsburgh win, that I started to appreciate the Colts with Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy. I guess I had enough of the Kordell Stewart  “run, run, incomplete pass, punt” offense and was drawn to Manning’s passing and no-huddle offense approach. So you might think I’m conflicted with which team to root for this weekend. That’s been true in the past, especially in the 2005 playoffs — one of the toughest days of my football-viewing life — and the 2008 meeting.

But on Sunday, I frankly don’t care who wins the game. You can say I’m outgrowing my fandom, and the consistent stream of .500 results from the Steelers has done a good job of accelerating that. I’m not going to drop the line of “I have 32 favorite teams now because I’m a writer”, because that’s a bunch of bullshit. But really, I don’t care who wins this one. I just want to see a good game and I think this can be one with both teams scoring in the 20’s.

These teams have changed quite a bit since the 2011 meeting, which I only bring up because it was the night Curtis Painter almost beat the Steelers and Jonathan Scott tried to block Dwight Freeney with his ass.

It didn’t work out on Monday, but I think this is the first time I’m picking against the Steelers in back-to-back home games. Indianapolis is better on both sides of the ball and has been playing better coming into this game. I expect the Colts will have a good day offensively as long as they control their turnovers. The real matchup is the Pittsburgh offense against Indianapolis’ surprisingly good defense. Two areas I see as a concern are handling the Colts’ blitz on third down and throwing deep. They don’t have Robert Mathis so they’re being really creative with sending guys from anywhere to get pressure, and it’s been working. The Steelers haven’t protected Ben Roethlisberger well (statement pasted from a clipboard) and this could be a game where he takes 5+ sacks (also from a clipboard). Ben’s deep passing has been lacking the last few weeks in regards to his sideline throws. He’s not keeping them in bounds. He did hit a nice one down the seam to Martavis Bryant on Monday, but I think he’s going to have a hard time on those throws against Indy’s cornerbacks, who are playing very well right now.

Final prediction: Colts 27, Steelers 23

NFL Week 8 Predictions

I had Denver on TNF, but again I would have been screwed on the point spread. That’s the first time in 15 meetings Peyton Manning has beat the Chargers by more than 11 points, and the first time he’s beat them by more than 8 points without a defensive touchdown.

Winners in bold:

  • Lions at Falcons
  • Dolphins at Jaguars
  • Ravens at Bengals
  • Vikings at Buccaneers
  • Seahawks at Panthers
  • Bills at Jets
  • Bears at Patriots
  • Rams at Chiefs
  • Texans at Titans
  • Eagles at Cardinals
  • Colts at Steelers
  • Raiders at Browns
  • Packers at Saints
  • Redskins at Cowboys

Really tough call with Vikings-Bucs. Teddy Bridgewater definitely had an easy time with a bad defense (ATL) and struggled with the good ones (DET/BUF). The Bucs are a rotten one, but I’m leaning on home-field, bye week improvements and a big game from Gerald McCoy here. I also think Mike Glennon is solid. It’s the defense that’s the bigger problem, which is the opposite of what you should have expected in Tampa Bay this season.

Season Results

  • Week 1: 8-8
  • Week 2: 9-7
  • Week 3: 11-5
  • Week 4: 8-5
  • Week 5: 11-4
  • Week 6: 9-5-1
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Total: 66-39-1