2019 NFL Wild Card and Full Playoff Predictions

To this point it is hard to say if the NFL’s 100th season is the Changing of the Guard Year some of us thought it should be. Half of the NFC field has very familiar faces in Green Bay, New Orleans, and Seattle. The Eagles are also back for the third year in a row. The AFC had all the same division winners as last year, but the Ravens, Chiefs and Texans were all able to defeat the Patriots in 2019 with their exciting, young quarterbacks.

Can they do it in January too? They’ll have to wait as Ryan Tannehill gets first crack with the Titans — yes, this is real life in 2020.

If the 2019 season has taught me anything, it’s that having a mobile, playmaking quarterback is more important than ever in the NFL. We saw much of the old guard decline (Brady, Rodgers, Rivers) or get demoted (Eli, Flacco) or injured (Roethlisberger, Newton, Stafford) this season. Of course, this probably means we’ll get a Brady-Brees Super Bowl, but I think the game is changing before our eyes as the league enters a second century. Maybe 1,200-yard rushing quarterbacks like MVP favorite Lamar Jackson won’t become the norm, but the statue-esque pocket passers do seem to be going the way of statues: relics of the past.

Before I reveal my full playoff predictions, let’s preview each of the four Wild Card games this weekend.

Bills at Texans (-3)

I called this matchup over a month ago on Twitter:

“The knock on Josh Allen has always been his accuracy. But I’ll tell you this much, Tess. If he’s throwing the ball and these receivers are catching it, his completion percentage will in fact increase.”

— Booger McFarland, 2020

Houston kicking off the playoffs has become a tradition no one asked for. This is Bill O’Brien’s fourth postseason and the fourth time his Texans are opening up the playoffs at 4:30 on Saturday. Their only win so far was against the 2016 Raiders, who had to start Connor Cook at quarterback. Last year the Colts beat Houston 21-7, the first time Deshaun Watson lost an NFL start by more than 8 points. So he doesn’t want to quickly build up a legacy of underperforming in home playoff games, because we know that stuff sticks with a quarterback forever.

Josh Allen is at least better than Cook, but the Bills are largely here because they hit the Schedule Lotto: In addition to six wins against the brutal East divisions, they have a 17-10 win over Duck Hodges in Pittsburgh, a late comeback against the 2-win Bengals, a 20-3 win over the Brandon Allen-led Broncos, and they beat the Mariota-led Titans 14-7 in a game Tennessee missed four field goals.

The Bills are 1-4 against teams with a winning record and didn’t score more than 17 points in any of those five games. Buffalo never scored more than 28 points against anyone but Miami (twice).

I’m not going to say Buffalo didn’t deserve to make the playoffs, especially when the Steelers and those 7-9 teams were so unimpressive, but the Bills are arguably the least threatening team in the whole tournament. Houston has been terribly inconsistent, but at least we know Watson can play at an elite level any given week. At least the Texans can say they’ve won in Kansas City and embarrassed the Patriots on SNF. Granted, Watson hasn’t looked really good in any game since that Patriots win, but hopefully the week of rest will have done some good. J.J. Watt is also back in the lineup for the first time since Week 8.

Houston has better elite talent while the Bills are going to rely on their very good defense to play excellent, force turnovers, and to keep the game close for Allen to sneak out a win late. That may not be an edge this time though. Allen, Watson and Russell Wilson all tied for the league lead with five game-winning drives in 2019, so both teams are used to winning the close ones. When these teams met in 2018, Watson tied the game late before Nathan Peterman threw a pick-six in a 20-13 loss for Buffalo. That game was a low-scoring struggle, which could be the case again on Saturday since Watson will see a lot of the same defenders.

Fun fact: Allen is 11-0 when he completes at least 60% of his passes (min. 20 attempts). That’s a low bar in this era, but more than half the time he doesn’t clear it. The Bills have the highest rate of dropped passes (7.4%) in the league according to PFR so it’s not always his fault this year, but his progression from 2018 is not as significant as some think. The good news is the Texans are the worst defense in the playoffs. Houston (26th) and Tennessee (21st) were the only playoff teams to field a pass defense in the bottom half of the league in DVOA. Houston (27th) and Seattle (17th) are the only defenses in the playoffs to rank in the bottom half in points per drive allowed. Finally, Houston ranks 31st in yards per play allowed (6.1) and 31st in third-down conversion rate allowed (48%).

A couple of YOLO QBs putting their bodies on the line in the playoffs could be fun, but I have to think this will be a slugfest possibly decided by a huge turnover from one of the star players. Maybe that’s Tre’Davious White jumping a pass for DeAndre Hopkins and picking it off, or maybe that’s Watt getting a strip-sack of Allen.

If Allen brings his ‘A’ game then this is a Houston defense that can be had. I’m just going to put my trust in Watson this time.

Final: Texans 20, Bills 16

Titans at Patriots (-4.5)

Just like Miami fans imagined for years, Ryan Tannehill has a chance to end the New England dynasty. I’ll give you a minute to let that one sink in.

The last time the Patriots played a Wild Card game, they were a 4-point home favorite against the 2009 Ravens. Baltimore won 33-14. The fact that New England is playing on Wild Card weekend for the first time in a decade is almost as crazy as Tannehill having a breakout year in his eighth season. The Patriots were once 10-1 with a death grip on a first-round bye for months, only to see the Dolphins take it away from them in Week 17 as a 17-point road underdog. The Patriots have lost three of their last five games and their best wins all year are stopping the Bills (once with Matt Barkley at QB) from scoring a late touchdown twice. At least the Titans can say they beat the Chiefs.

Tennessee was one of the surprising non-playoff teams to stomp the Patriots in 2018, a 34-10 win during coach Mike Vrabel’s first year on the job with Marcus Mariota as his quarterback. The Titans just finished 9-7 for the fourth year in a row, but things feel different this year thanks to the switch from Mariota to Tannehill in Week 7.

Tennessee was going nowhere fast with Mariota, who started 2-4 and was taking a sack on 13.5% of his dropbacks. Tannehill’s sack rate is still alarming at 9.8%, but he has consistently hit big plays and has thrown multiple touchdown passes in nine of his 10 starts (7-3 record). While he didn’t do it over a full season, Tannehill’s 2019 ranks as the fourth-highest season in passer rating (117.5) and the eighth-highest season in YPA (9.6) in NFL history. Absurd. We don’t know how Tannehill will perform in the biggest game of his career, but he’s now on the list of QBs with odd career arcs by breaking out so late and after lost injury years. Part of what makes those guys so odd is that they performed unexpectedly well in the playoffs too. I’m talking about Jeff Hostetler, Kurt Warner, Alex Smith and Nick Foles to name four examples. Maybe Tannehill is the next one.

Mobile quarterbacks also have been giving the Patriots fits for years, so this should be an interesting matchup between an improbably hot passer and a No. 1 defense that has to prove its early-season historical dominance wasn’t just the result of a pathetic schedule. If you look at New England’s top nine games in defensive EPA on PFR, eight of them are Weeks 1-8 (the other game was lowly Cincinnati).

The Patriots are 0-4 when allowing more than 17 points this year and no one has held Tannehill under 20 yet.

The Titans execute the type of offense coaches gloat about, but don’t actually run. They pound you consistently with Derrick Henry, the league’s leading rusher and one of the most north-and-south runners. Henry hasn’t dipped under 4.0 yards per carry in any of Tannehill’s starts. Then they use play-action with the best of them and average almost 11 yards per play doing that. Overall, Tannehill’s average pass comes 9.7 yards down the field, third highest in the league according to Next Gen Stats. They limit Tannehill’s throws — he’s only surpassed 33 passes in two games they lost playing catch-up — and he takes a good share of sacks, but the Titans are fully embracing the “run the ball and throw deep” philosophy that teams only tend to talk about doing. Rookie WR A.J. Brown has also been an exceptional big-play threat for Tannehill this year. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore can have his hands full there.

Then you have the New England offense that peaked in the first two weeks of the season. Since Week 3, Brady’s YPA is 6.29 and it usually takes some type of trick play for him to throw a touchdown pass these days. Antonio Brown was too much of a distraction to last more than a game. They cut Josh Gordon before he could be suspended again. Mohamed Sanu was a poor value trade for a second-round pick. Julian Edelman isn’t 100% right now. Ben Watson is almost as old as Brady and they have done very little in replacing Rob Gronkowski at tight end. This offense is basically gadgets, James White’s YAC and an improved running game that ranks sixth in yards and 10th in YPC since Week 12.

Brady is still getting adequate protection, but he needs it more than ever to move the offense. The Titans aren’t a good pass defense, but they have sacked the opposing quarterback at least three times in 10 of 16 games, and they are 8-1 when the QB passes for 260 or more yards. Tennessee’s comfort zone is making big plays early and pounding Henry late.

Could this be Brady’s final game with the Patriots? Certainly could be the final home game, unless the Patriots luck out again and draw the Bills for the AFC Championship Game. But this doesn’t feel like New England’s year. Maybe they have enough in the tank and the experience and edge from Belichick’s coaching to squeak past the Titans at home, but this doesn’t look like a team ready to go on the road to beat what should be two superior opponents in Kansas City and Baltimore.

But first is Tennessee’s chance to earn the team’s biggest win in a long time. For Tannehill, an impressive game could lead to a contract exceeding $30 million per year. My only concern is the Patriots blitz him relentlessly, he can’t find any receivers underneath, and he takes eight sacks like Mariota did in the playoffs two years ago.

The difference is he could still throw three touchdowns too, which might be enough to beat this version of the Patriots.

Final: Patriots 23, Titans 20

Vikings at Saints (-8)

This game having the weekend’s largest spread makes sense to me. Drew Brees has been on a tear since Week 11 with 22 touchdowns to one interception. The only loss the Saints have in their last seven games was after scoring 46 points against the 49ers. Meanwhile, the Vikings had a good 10-6 season with Kirk Cousins also producing an excellent seven-game stretch (18 touchdowns to one pick), but that ended in Week 11 while Brees’ streak was just beginning. Cousins had his best overall season yet, but there were familiar issues with his team not stepping up against the better competition. Green Bay swept Minnesota, including that horrific Monday night game where Cousins was looking for the signature win of his career. He finished with 3.94 YPA and we haven’t seen him since after he rested for the playoffs in Week 17, another Minnesota loss to Chicago.

So we have two teams coming in on entirely different wavelengths, but at least for Minnesota the game isn’t on Saturday night where we know Brees is even more ridiculous in the Superdome. Brees hasn’t lost a home game he finished in which the Saints allowed fewer than 25 points since December 2009.

It goes without saying that Cousins has to play exceptional football to get this win. That’s been the case his whole career. He’s the only QB in NFL history to have a record of 0-26 when his passer rating is under 85.0. The Vikings like to run the ball with Dalvin Cook (should be available) and use play-action passing, but it was still a top 10 offense without using play-action this year too. The Saints are below average at defending play-action, but not terrible. Their biggest luxury is that they usually play from ahead and teams give up on using it against them. Cousins has very capable receivers in Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and TE Kyle Rudolph, but it’s been a while since this group has put together a complete game due to injuries for Cook and Thielen. They should have all these weapons available Sunday, but getting into a shootout is still not ideal for the Vikings.

These are two of the best tackling teams in the league, and their last playoff matchup should be all the warning in the world to not blow a tackle in the open field. According to Pro Football Reference’s advanced data, the Saints (2) and Vikings (1) combined for three RPO plays all season, so that’s not their game. Cousins rarely leaves the pocket while Brees is still a little nimble for 40, but generally these quarterbacks are going to play the game from the pocket. Cameron Jordan and Danielle Hunter were two of the top four pass rushers in getting pressures this year, according to Sports Info Solutions. They’ll have to come through this week, but it is worth noting that Next Gen Stats has Cousins as the only quarterback holding the ball for an average of over 3 seconds this season. We’ve seen strip-sacks cause him problems before, especially as a Viking. Brees doesn’t have a single fumble this year, let alone any lost.

Speaking of turnovers, the Saints just made history by turning the ball over eight times in 2019, a new single-season record low. The Saints only have three giveaways in their last 11 games. If you’re an optimist, then this is awesome. If 2020 hasn’t changed you from being a cynic, then you might think this is a regression disaster in the making, especially in regards to the fumbles. The Vikings also finished third in takeaways per drive, so we’ll see what happens here. It’s hard to see the Vikings winning this game without a big turnover or two.

In a perfect world, you’d match Xavier Rhodes up with Michael Thomas and double team him to force the ball elsewhere. After Thomas and Kamara in the backfield, no one on the Saints caught more than 43 balls. Unfortunately, Rhodes has had a horrible season and no defense seems to go the extra effort to take Thomas away like they should. At this point you just expect him to put up numbers as the Saints continue to pile on the points.

This year basically did set up as a perfect revenge tour for the Brees-Payton era after last year’s blown call in the title game cost them a Super Bowl appearance.

  • Saints won in Chicago, site of the first playoff loss (2006 NFC-CG) for the Brees-Payton era
  • Saints won in Seattle, site of the Beastquake playoff loss and the 2013 divisional round loss
  • Saints returned the favor from last year and beat Dallas in a low-scoring game. Dallas also ended New Orleans’ perfect season at 13-0 in 2009.
  • Saints stiff-armed division rival Matt Ryan into oblivion on Thanksgiving night.
  • Saints could beat the Vikings on Sunday as revenge for the Minnesota Miracle two years ago.
  • Saints could see the 49ers again in the NFC Championship Game, taking revenge for 2011’s playoff loss and the 48-46 game this year.

The only thing missing would be a win in LA against the Rams, but that was the Week 2 game where the refs botched a fumble touchdown call and Brees suffered his injury. Brees is back and playing as well as ever and the Saints are poised to do something great this postseason.

However, I went through the history here just as a reminder that this team has suffered some heart-breaking playoff losses over the years. If Rex Grossman, Alex Smith and Case Keenum can have the biggest wins of their careers against the Saints, then what’s holding Cousins back but his own history?

Final: Saints 30, Vikings 20

Seahawks at Eagles (+2.5)

Let me make sure I frame this one properly. The Seahawks are 11-5 and on the road because of how good the 49ers were this year. But Seattle also outscored its schedule by just 7 points, getting to 11 wins thanks to Russell Wilson leading the league in comebacks (four) and game-winning drives (five). This is the worst defense Wilson has had in the NFL, and his run-heavy offense lost its best back in Chris Carson. They also don’t have Rashaad Penny, who rushed for 91 yards on a single touchdown drive for Seattle in its 17-9 win in Philadelphia in Week 12. Yes, that was not a big Wilson day, as most lately have not been. Wilson has gone from MVP front-runner through nine games to merely decent play over the last seven games. Meanwhile, the Eagles were left for dead at 5-7 after a loss in Miami, but have won four straight against division foes to claim the league’s worst division and a home playoff game. The Eagles remain banged up too, but actually have a better scoring differential (+31) than Seattle this year. Seattle’s played a tougher schedule of course, but that’s still surprising.

This sounds like it’s adding up to another disappointing early exit for Seattle, but this team is 7-1 on the road, including the aforementioned 17-9 win in Philly. An 8-point win for this Seattle team is like a 17-point win for a regular playoff team. They just don’t know how to blow anyone out and Wilson is usually too good over the course of 60 minutes to get blown out. So it would be a surprise to not see a competitive game with two teams fielding a lot of middling units right now.

One thing I’m pretty certain about is that the Seahawks still have the QB edge in this matchup. While Wilson’s play has been down for his standards, Carson Wentz is getting way too much credit for his play — tale as old as time — over the last month. Head coach Doug Pederson deserves more credit for changing the offense to adjust for injuries and these players, including Wentz, have played well against bad division foes that failed to adjust to these changes.

It would go against everything I’ve ever written about quarterbacks to pretend this is some MVP stretch of QB play from Wentz. Let’s review the facts:

  • Since Week 14, Wentz ranks dead last in average depth of target. He’s the only quarterback throwing his average pass shorter than 6 yards beyond the line of scrimmage in that time.
  • Wentz has 14 more passes than the next closest player that were thrown at or behind the line of scrimmage since Week 14.
  • Since Week 14, Wentz ranks 16th in passing DYAR and 17th in DVOA (-2.8%) among 32 qualified passers. That’s mediocre.
  • Wentz’s QBR in his last four games: 40.2, 63.5, 72.3, and 32.1. That’s not good and none of those games were higher than his 78.3 in the Miami loss.
  • Since Week 14, Wentz is one of 10 quarterbacks to throw at least seven touchdown passes. He has 7. Wentz ranks eighth in passer rating (100.8) and 20th in yards per attempt (6.93).
  • Wentz’s last four opponents were the lowly NFC East: Giants twice (31st ranked pass defense in DVOA), Redskins (24th) and Cowboys (23rd).
  • The 2019 NFC East finished 12-28 (.300) in non-division games, one of the worst records since 2002 realignment.
  • Wentz’s 2019 vs. NFC East: 5-1, 67.65% complete, 11 TD, 1 INT, 101.9 PR, 7.16 YPA
  • Dak Prescott’s 2019 vs. NFC East: 5-1, 70.65% complete, 15 TD, 3 INT, 115.6 PR, 8.65 YPA.
  • Josh Allen threw five touchdowns and no picks against the NFC East this year with 101.4 rating and 7.53 YPA.
  • Sam Darnold was 3-0 against the NFC East with 112.6 rating and 9.36 YPA.
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick also had his best 2019 numbers (104.8 PR and 8.05 YPA) against the NFC East.

I didn’t even mention that Wentz fumbled seven times (two lost) in that four-game stretch. This is not what the pinnacle of QB play looks like, folks. This is a quarterback executing a dink-and-dunk offense that is taking advantage of the matchups the Eagles have at running back and tight end and exploiting them against crap competition in games they had to eek out in the fourth quarter or overtime. Has he made some great throws? Yes, I’ve tweeted about the dart TD throw against Washington and the two longer throws against Giants in Week 17. But he’s still under 7.0 YPA and relying on YAC in these games. Is it good that he’s finally finishing off game-winning drives? Of course, though it’s not like beating terrible Giants and Redskins teams has been an issue for him. I’ve said a long time ago that’s his jam. Four of his eight game-winning drives are against the Giants. He’s won three games he finished in which the Eagles allowed more than 24 points, and two of them are the 2019 Redskins (3-13 team).

There’s a cottage industry dedicated to making Wentz’s career sound better than it has been so far. For example, this stat has gained traction since last Sunday: Wentz is the first ever 4,000-yard passer who did not have a 500-yard wide receiver. And? Alshon Jeffery had 490 yards in 10 games before going on IR. Would an extra 10 yards from him change anything this season?

Let’s frame the stat better. Wentz is the NFL’s first 4,000-yard passer that had a running back and two tight ends go over 500 yards in the same season. Yes, that’s never been done before either and it’s a better way to highlight the type of offense the Eagles operate. It’s not a badge of honor for Wentz like the no WR stat sounds like, but a sign that their offense is unique. Also, if the 2019 Eagles are the sample size of one for having an offense like this, then it’s not really a good thing. The Eagles finished 17th in points per drive and are only in the playoffs because of their terrible division.

As I ranted about in December, wide receivers are the position most dependent on good quarterback play. Throws to running backs and tight ends are easier to complete, but they’re not necessarily as valuable to an offense. With Wentz’s accuracy problems, it makes sense that the Eagles would build more around Miles Sanders (impressive rookie back) and the best tight end duo in the league (Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert). No matter what Eagles fans try to sell you, Wentz has accuracy issues. The Eagles had issues with drops early in the season, but finished 19th in drop rate (4.8%). They also had the eighth-worst rate of on-target throws because that excludes throwaways, which isn’t something Wentz does that often.

Accurate quarterbacks can make household names out of nobodies, which is the final point I’m going to make about this Wentz run. It’s being led by the line that he’s carrying — by totally “shredding” defenses — the Eagles to the playoffs with practice squad players. This is the kind of angle you’d only get for a player the media loves to pump up. When Matt Ryan throws a 93-yard touchdown to a rookie UDFA no one’s ever heard of (Olamide Zaccheaus), the media doesn’t blink an eye. Yet when Wentz completes a 6-yard pass to Robert Davis, they act like he cured cancer.

After arguing about football on the internet for two decades, I can honestly say I’ve never seen people ignore draft position and fixate on this practice squad thing like they are with the Eagles. Yes, Robert Davis spent a brief period on the Eagles practice squad before moving up, but he was a sixth-round pick by Washington in 2017 and he’s only caught 1-of-3 targets for 6 yards with Wentz. RB Boston Scott is another player promoted from a practice squad, but he was a sixth-round pick by the 2018 Saints. He’s played pretty well at times, especially in Week 17, and we know RB is a position notorious for producing stars off the street. Hell, Marshawn Lynch hadn’t played in 14.5 months and looked pretty solid for Seattle last Sunday night, scoring on a touchdown plunge.

It’s absolutely true that the Eagles have been rocked by injury, but it’s facetious to sell this offense as one that is thriving by practice squad players. For one, the fans complained about Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor when they were healthy and playing. Jeffery messed with the leadership and chemistry in the locker room. Agholor was statistically the worst receiver in football this year, so his targets going to anyone else is a good thing. Calling Jordan Howard RB1 may be technically true, but he’s not as dynamic as the rookie Sanders, and I can’t believe people are using “rookie RB” as a negative given the rich history of instant success at the position. But hey, anything to pump up Wentz.

Over the last four games, 54.2% of Wentz’s passing yardage has gone through four players the Eagles have spent top 60 draft picks on: Zach Ertz, Miles Sanders, Dallas Goedert, and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. These are players they were expecting to produce for them, but a couple are producing a little more sooner because of the injuries. Wentz made a great 40-yard play to Deontay Burnett last week. It was one play, but at least it was great. Josh Perkins caught a great 24-yard touchdown from Wentz last week. Perkins also caught a TD from Matt Ryan in his 2016 MVP season, but that wasn’t part of the MVP case for Ryan that year.

The guy who has been really producing out of nowhere with no NFL track record is WR Greg Ward, who had his first six catches in the Seattle game in Week 12. He has 254 yards for the Eagles this year. Call me crazy, but is it not possible that Ward is just a decent receiver who has played well for the team so far? He’s been in their building since 2017. He’s not going to be played by Mark Wahlberg in a movie in 20 years for various reasons, but let’s calm down on acting like he’s proof that Wentz is a top QB now.

Even Aaron Rodgers fans aren’t bowing to their God because Allen Lazard has 477 yards this year. I also don’t remember anyone saying this about Zach Pascal on the Colts last year, who had 268 yards and a couple of touchdowns with Andrew Luck. Pascal improved in 2019 without Luck and had 607 yards and five touchdowns. Sometimes guys just slip through the draft process, but that doesn’t mean they’re incapable of playing in this league. I’ll give Ward some respect, and probably more than some of the opposing defenses who won’t cover him as tightly since they don’t understand who he is yet. Like I always said with the early 2000s Patriots, not having someone to draw double coverage or key on could be used as an advantage to the offense where the ball could literally go anywhere on a given play. The Eagles have that type of advantage right now.

So I don’t know if we’ll be talking about the Eagles beyond this weekend, but I just thought there were some really misleading things in the media about this last month’s stretch of play for Wentz and the offense. You can appreciate their effort as an undermanned unit, but let’s stop with the hyperbole and remember which teams they beat to get in this spot. If you want more respect, then beat the Seahawks. Pete Carroll is 5-0 against the Eagles as coach of the Seahawks.

Home underdogs are rare in the playoffs, but they also have a winning record (29-26) since the merger, including two wins by the 2017 Eagles. In fact, home underdogs would have four wins in a row in the playoffs had Minnesota’s Blair Walsh not missed a short field goal against the Seahawks in 2015. Of course, the Eagles won a Wild Card game last year in Chicago after the Bears missed a game-winning field goal. I only point to those two results as this is a game with a spread of 2.5, so it could come down to a kick again. Or maybe Pederson rolls the dice with a two-point conversion with the Eagles only down a point late, placing Football Analytics Twitter into the center of hell.

Who am I kidding? You know it’s going to be hell there regardless of the outcome in this one.

Final: Seahawks 24, Eagles 23

2019 Full NFL Playoff Predictions

Here is my latest crack at predicting the whole tournament.

Wild Card:

  • Texans over Bills
  • Patriots over Titans
  • Saints over Vikings
  • Seahawks over Eagles

Divisional:

  • Ravens over Texans
  • Chiefs over Patriots
  • Saints over Packers
  • 49ers over Seahawks

Conference Championship:

  • Ravens over Chiefs
  • 49ers over Saints

Super Bowl LIV:

  • Ravens over 49ers (Super Bowl MVP: Lamar Jackson)

Last year I predicted Saints over Chiefs. I thought we should have had that matchup, but things went the opposite way on Championship Sunday. This year I’d still prefer to see it over any other matchup, but I think this has been Baltimore and Lamar Jackson’s season. If we get that Chiefs-Ravens AFC Championship Game, I think it could have the kind of career-defining implications that the 2003 AFC Championship Game had for Manning and Brady, but more on that in the weeks to come provided we get there. After all, something crazy could happen any given week. The fact that Ryan Tannehill is here and playing so well could shake things up, and I also think the Bills could blow up some of the playoff matchups we hope to see in the AFC for years to come. The 49ers have also really impressed me in the NFC and I think they have enough to go the distance.

It should be a significant month for legacies.

Finally, here’s the recap of my picks this season:

2019Wk1-17

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.

wk1-17

2014 NFL Wild Card Predictions

I was reading my 2013 Wild Card predictions and I really have no memory of coming up with so many of those sentences. I remember the state of mind I was in that night for personal reasons, but thankfully 2015 has gotten off to a better start for my family.

Cardinals at Panthers

The Ghost of Jake Delhomme might be haunting this game, which feels like something Chris Myers and Ronde Barber would call at 1 p.m. on a Sunday. Not a playoff atmosphere. Winner probably goes to Seattle, so it’s just leading the lamb to the slaughter. I would not even hesitate to pick Arizona at home where they should be playing this game, but because of a flawed playoff system, the 11-5 team has to travel to play the 7-8-1 team. The “bad playoff team” usually wins a playoff game too, because they get that home start. “Bad” may be generous for Carolina with six losses by at least 18 points this year.

The problem is third-stringer Ryan Lindley is easily one of the worst quarterbacks to ever start a playoff game. At least he showed some promise in San Francisco last week, albeit three interceptions and another loss. By promise I mean he actually threw the first two touchdowns of his career and showed he could throw for 300 yards on the road against a solid defense, utilizing the talent around him. His expectations on Saturday are built on his horrific rookie year and having to start against a Seattle defense that has been absurd to close the season, and that’s really not fair. Carolina is a lousy defense regardless of what you think you saw in the last month. The good finish could probably be explained by playing three divisional opponents in rematches, so familiarity was there and those NFC South teams of course struggled this year. They also beat Cleveland, who started Johnny Manziel and nearly finished with a Brian Hoyer game-winning touchdown pass. I know Lindley does not bring much more, if anything more to the table than a Josh McCown, but I think Lindley can produce something in this game. Unfortunately he’s going to hold the team back on third down/red zone chances and gives Carolina an edge in the quarterback department.

Cam Newton, what can I say? It’s been four years and I feel like this is another Jay Cutler situation where we are waiting to see him take the next level and it’s just not happening. The results are average at best.

camprog

This season he had to play through some legit injuries, but he’s lucky to even be playing this weekend with a 5-8-1 record as a starter against a soft schedule. Yet someone still had the gall to tell me on Twitter that this year proves he’s “clutch.”

I think the Cardinals are the better coached team and their defense is going to have to step up here. Arizona’s defense is best exposed by a quarterback making good throws to outside receivers capable of exposing those cornerbacks. That’s not what Carolina has going for them, but I think a steady dose of Jonathan Stewart and capitalizing on Lindley’s mistakes will be enough for Carolina to steal this one at home. But if Arizona does have a fourth-quarter lead, keep in mind this defense has held up a one-score lead in all 11 wins this season. No one has cracked them yet and Todd Bowles will aggressively get after Newton.

Ravens at Steelers

I have written nearly 4,000 words on this matchup at FO, so please go there for my thoughts. One thing I left out: Pittsburgh’s offense has scored exactly 20 points in each of its last three games. That sounds underwhelming, but keep in mind they scored those 60 points on 24 drives (2.5 points per drive). That average would rank 3rd in the league this season, so that’s very good. Scoring 20 again would extend Pittsburgh’s record streak to 17 consecutive playoff games.

Bengals at Colts

An odd one here. This game probably has the widest range of potential scoring margins, yet I still feel more confident in the Colts winning than I do any of the other seven teams this weekend. The Bengals are so inconsistent, and what can Andy Dalton really do if A.J. Green can’t play and Jermaine Gresham is so banged up? Chuck Pagano should be fired Sunday afternoon if he gets shredded by an offense featuring dumpoff passes, Brandon Tate and Mohamed Sanu. The Colts have not been that bad against the run this year aside from the night Bill Belichick used a bye week to drop Jonas Gray and 6-OL sets on them. The pass is howyou beat Indy, yet I don’t see Dalton breaking away from his playoff demons on the road against a team that should load up the box and pressure the hell out of him like they did in this year’s 27-0 shutout.

Yes, Jeremy Hill might put up another 100-yard rushing game, but it doesn’t matter if the quarterback matchup is lopsided, like you would expect it to be. Andrew Luck does not have to play great in this one, but he can’t afford a bunch of turnovers against a Cincinnati defense with little-to-no pass rush, but good coverage and ball skills. Luck didn’t even pass the eye test earlier this year — Bengals actually rushed him well that day though and the Colts are down several OL here — and still had over 300 yards and two touchdowns. He can get this win the ugly way, which fits with how the Colts have played down the stretch anyway. Dan Herron also needs to show up on the ground, because stopping the run has been a weakness in most games for Cincinnati this season.

We talk about the Bengals being inconsistent, but the Indy defense is amazingly inconsistent in its own right. The 2014 Colts are the first defense in NFL history to allow a 500-yard passer (Ben Roethlisberger) and a 200-yard rusher (Jonas Gray) in the same season. Two weeks ago, they were absolutely shredded by the Dallas passing game, allowing 250 yards on 22 dropbacks (11.4 yards per play) and five touchdown passes. To close the season in Tennessee in Week 17, the Colts allowed 50 net passing yards on 35 dropbacks (1.4 yards per play). I know we’re mostly talking about Charlie Whitehurst on a 2-14 team, but that’s still incredible defense, which the Colts show in spurts, like the 27-0 shutout over the Bengals that I don’t think will have much impact on this game, but I still don’t see the Bengals scoring much.

Of course, Marvin Lewis is 0-5 in the playoffs and has never scored more than 17 points in any of those games. If he gets embarrassed in Indianapolis, I don’t know how the Bengals can bring him back for a 13th season. Some Colts fans want Pagano gone, but at least he got past the Wild Card round in his second try.

Lions at Cowboys

Some great playmakers in this one and definitely a marquee matchup with Dallas’ offensive line vs. Detroit’s defensive line. Ndamukong Suh is lucky he’s playing this week, because that should give Detroit a better shot. I still have to give the edge to Dallas with the way the offense has been playing. There were three bumps in the road this year (Week 1 vs. SF, the Romo injury vs. Washington, and Thanksgiving), but otherwise this offense has been as balanced and efficient as any in the league this year. They attack you like an elite 90’s team with the one dominant WR (Dez Bryant), workhorse back (DeMarco Murray), loaded OL, a decent No. 2 capable of making big plays (Terrance Williams) and a very good tight end (Jason Witten). The Lions have tried to build their team in a similar fashion over the years, but the OL isn’t up to that level, the rookie TE (Eric Ebron) hasn’t developed yet and the running game isn’t nearly as consistent as what Dallas has enjoyed this season. However, if the Lions can handle Bryant, they give themselves a good shot, but he’s just been playing at such a high level. Dallas is also very efficient at throwing to the backs and Cole Beasley has value as a slot receiver.

We are in for some treat if this game is anywhere close to the past two meetings between these teams. In 2011, Dallas led 27-3 in the third quarter at home before blowing the lead and losing 34-30. Last year, 41 points were scored in the fourth quarter alone with Matthew Stafford’s incredible game-winning drive capped off by a quarterback sneak. The hot takes will scorch the Earth for good if something like that happens on Sunday. Detroit stood tall to those 8-8 Dallas teams and lead the league with 5 4QC/GWD, but this year’s Dallas team has been very good at avoiding blown leads and making their own comebacks/GWDs. Tony Romo had a MVP-caliber season and is playing the best football of his career. The Lions have been stagnant for most of the season offensively, but Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate should be able to do some damage against what is still a subpar Dallas defense. However, one could easily argue the Lions have only played three games against really good offenses all year (GB twice and NE). Dallas is certainly in that class and the game is in Dallas, which doesn’t mean much for the Cowboys (4-4 this year at home), but it matters for a Detroit team that simply does not go out and win games like this.

Since 1992, the Lions are 11-76 (.126) on the road against playoff teams. We know all about the struggles in the Stafford era against quality opponents. No home team is under more pressure to win this week than Dallas, but I have believed in this team since the win in Seattle. They should be able to handle the Lions.

FINAL PREDICTIONS

I really do not like picking all home teams, but so be it, Jedi. This season the home team was 39-23 (.629) in games between teams with winning records.

  • Panthers over Cardinals, 17-13
  • Steelers over Ravens, 23-20
  • Colts over Bengals, 23-13
  • Cowboys over Lions, 34-24

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
  • Week 8: 10-5
  • Week 9: 11-2
  • Week 10: 10-3
  • Week 11: 8-6
  • Week 12: 12-3
  • Week 13: 9-7
  • Week 14: 11-5
  • Week 15: 14-2
  • Week 16: 10-6
  • Week 17: 11-5
  • Total: 172-83-1

I think that’s my best record since I went 178-78 in a 2007 season that was so top-heavy.

2013 NFL Wild Card Predictions

Last season I did an unusually good job of picking playoff games. I even got really close to the final score on Wild Card weekend. My 9-2 record only consisted of losses by the Colts (too much of a heart choice) and Broncos (“Rahim Moore should die of gonorrhea and rot in hell”). This season, I have virtually zero confidence in having a good month of predictions. This is not a lack of confidence in myself. It’s the inconsistency the 2013 playoff field has shown us.

Factor in the declining quality in officiating — you just know at least one team is going to get royally screwed here — and literally anything could happen. Sure, I would never bet on Chargers-Saints in a February blizzard, but that’s really not even that crazy. I feel like any of the 12 teams could go on a run or could go one-and-done. I’ve never felt this way before about a playoff field. Last year I would have never believed the Colts could win in New England or Denver. I didn’t picture Baltimore doing it, but the Ravens did. Even before we found out it was going to be a lousy game with Joe Webb at quarterback, I gave the Vikings little chance to move past the Wild Card round, let alone win another game.

But each year I see more playoff randomness and there are way too many great players on these teams unable to participate due to injury. So the flaws are all very real. We’re in for a bumpy ride.

I did not have time to start it this week unfortunately, but I will be running an epic series of articles on quarterbacks in the playoffs starting on Football Outsiders next week. If you want a great source of data to bookmark, this will deliver. If you want something to shove in someone’s face when they say something stupid, consider it a belated gift.

Speaking of gifts, make sure to download my updated playoff chart for every team in the Super Bowl era.

Chiefs at Colts

Practically everything I needed to say about this game can be found in my preview at Football Outsiders. I do like the Colts in a much closer game than the one in Week 16.

One thing I will add here: I hope Andrew Luck gets his first playoff win today, just so we don’t have to go through this stupid “when’s he going to win one?” thing that is sure to come in today’s media world. “Oh, Russell Wilson won a playoff game last year. Colin Kaepernick went to the Super Bowl. WHAT’S WHRONG WIT ANDROOW LUCK!?!” We went through this recently with Tony Romo, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers, but none of those players were the No. 1 pick in the draft.

Now I’m not saying we need to absolve Luck of all blame if he has a horrible game against the Chiefs, but I don’t think anyone expected the Colts to go 22-10 the last two years with such a revamped and flawed roster. Just being in this position is worthy of respect. Cam Newton didn’t do this in 2011-12. Robert Griffin III already fell off in year two and the Redskins are a mess.

The Colts have beaten the best teams in the league this year without really being one themselves. Imagine that.

Saints at Eagles

Again, it’s been a busy last few days of playoff preparation. You can read my ESPN Insider article (if possible) on Nick Foles’ totally unexpected elite season here. He might look like he failed to land the lead role in Napoleon Dynamite, but the kid can play and it’s not just the Chip Kelly system. I’m impressed and I think he has a good shot to win this game against a Saints team that, let’s face it, hasn’t played well on the road this season.

So what is it about that “Saints are awesome at home, but forget them on the road” thing? I give my thoughts on that here. It is overstated a bit, but until the Saints win a game like this, people will continue to doubt them outside of the dome. Pierre Thomas reportedly will not play, but the Saints still have plenty of backs. They just don’t have nearly the type of reliable running game the Eagles have. The balance is why I like the Eagles to win at home, because it’s not like Foles has to do it all while Brees is likely to go over 45 pass attempts.

You may recall an article I did on offensive balance this summer. The 2013 Eagles rank 18th in balance-adjusted yards per play since 1970:

t20bal

Should be a lot of points scored, but give me the home team here.

Chargers at Bengals

Here’s one where literally anything could happen. The Chargers probably aren’t happy about the 10 A.M. PST kickoff, but they couldn’t even bitch about a crack of dawn start time after the gift from the officials and Ryan Succop last week to even be in this game.

Plain and simple: the Bengals have the best defense in the AFC, they can contain San Diego’s offense, but Andy Dalton cannot blow the game for them. Dalton threw four picks last week and still won. He can’t throw more than two and win this week, because San Diego loves to shorten the game with long drives (death by papercuts). The Chargers had the fewest offensive drives (158) in the league this year and averaged the most possession time per drive and ran the most plays per drive. That’s just how they play football because the offense makes a lot of successful plays and the poor defense allows a lot of first downs.

That all shortens the game, so Dalton cannot waste possessions for his teams and give up field position with turnovers. I think the Bengals are best equipped in the AFC to handle a bad game from their quarterback due to the defense and surrounding offensive talent, but few teams are equipped to overcome a postseason pick parade.

The Bengals are 8-0 at home this season. I may do a short post on this at FO, but I found 50 teams to go 8-0 at home since 1978. They went 43-16 (.729) at home in the playoffs. Only 11 teams went one-and-done at home in the playoffs.

As long as Dalton keeps the picks under three, the Bengals should move on here, but I’ve been wrong before on San Diego.

49ers at Packers

I guess the weather’s going to be a big story here. What’s the forecast?

itscold

If scoring is down, then I just think that favors the 49ers even more in a tough, grind it out game. The Packers are different now that they have a running game with Eddie Lacy, but the 49ers are such a balanced team on both sides of the ball. They’re frankly just a better team than the Packers, who I think in the future would not be hosting this game as an 8-7-1 team over a 12-4 team they already lost to. But we can’t fix the playoffs this month, so tough shi+.

Dom Capers has had no answers for Colin Kaepernick. By air or ground, it’s been a nightmare the last two games and even Alex Smith picked this defense apart in the 2012 opener. I’m not sure enough has changed for Green Bay to get past the 49ers, which is the exact opposite of this series in the 90s with Brett Favre always getting past Steve Young except for that time Jerry Rice fumbled and no referee cared.

Wait, you mean the NFL referees have always sucked?

The Packers have Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb back, which is great and it means there’s always a chance, but this defense is awful and will be without Clay Matthews. The Packers have allowed at least 21 points in 10 straight games (at least 26 in 9/10). They’ve been behind by a lot of unusually big deficits in the second half almost every week since the Rodgers injury. It was a great effort to rally back and make the playoffs, but I just don’t see the defense being strong like it was in 2010 for this team to put together a run.

The 49ers simply continue to be a bad matchup for the Packers.

FINAL PREDICTIONS

Oh I’m never a fan of picking the scores because they just provide more ways to show how wrong you were, but here we go.

  • Colts over Chiefs, 23-20
  • Eagles over Saints, 34-24
  • Bengals over Chargers, 31-17
  • 49ers over Packers, 23-16

Season results:

  • Week 1: 11-5
  • Week 2: 12-4
  • Week 3: 8-8
  • Week 4: 9-6
  • Week 5: 9-5
  • Week 6: 11-4
  • Week 7: 10-5
  • Week 8: 10-3
  • Week 9: 8-5
  • Week 10: 8-6
  • Week 11: 9-6
  • Week 12: 7-6-1
  • Week 13: 11-5
  • Week 14: 10-6
  • Week 15: 8-8
  • Week 16: 9-7
  • Week 17: 14-2
  • Season: 164-91-1