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Tuesday, August 21 2018

NFL Predictions 2012: Wild Card



Overall the regular season was a success. My final week I went 11-5 straight up (173-82-1 overall) and in my recollection that is the second most wins I have ever recorded. I was 10-6 against the spread (137-110-9 overall) which might be the best I have ever done in any season. Unfortunately I was just 5-11 on the over under (119-133-3 overall) and if I could understand my misery in that category I would have corrected it long ago.


Cincinnati (10-6) @ Houston (12-4): In the entirety of the season this is actually an even matchup. The Bengals are 6-2 on the road and the Texans are 6-2 at home. In terms of momentum, it’s all on the side of the visitors. Cincinnati has had three seasons really. They started 3-1 bolstered by wins over two bad teams (Cleveland, Jacksonville) and a 38-31 shootout over Washington who had not hit their stride yet. The loss (44-13 at Baltimore) was convincing. All three teams they beat had inexperienced quarterbacks, two of which were rookies.


Then the Bengals lost four in a row including games against two more rookies (Miami, at Cleveland) to drop to 3-5. Their light switch went on though during a 31-13 win over the Giants. Their only loss in the second half was a narrow 20-19 setback to Dallas. Of course, only one team (Baltimore) they played is in the tournament and the Ravens rested their offense for the most part. In all, discounting that win, they finished 1-2 against playoff teams.


Houston has lost three of four, but they had the luxury of knowing their playoff spot was secured while dropping these games against teams with something at stake. All four of their foes were fighting for playoff spots or positioning. The MNF blowout loss at New England was their third road game in as many weeks. Overall they finished 3-4 versus playoff teams and with 7 wins by double digits at times they did flex their muscles. People tend to have short memories and a “what have you done for me lately?” attitude about teams. The Texans are back under duress now and have an underdog mentality. With their combination of offense and defense that’s dangerous since they are at home.


Passing offense tilts slightly in favor of Houston (252.9, 22 TD) over Cincinnati (237.9, 28 TD) because the Texans allow far fewer sacks (28-46) even though they have slightly more attempts. They also have fewer interceptions (13-16). On defense the Bengals (212.5, 16 TD) are better with an awesome pass rush (51) and 14 interceptions on their ledger. The Texans (228.1, 15 TD) are just fine though with 44 sacks and 13 interceptions. Their problem is not enough sacks behind J.J. Watt in their 3-4. They do limit teams to a very low completion rate (53.0%).


If both teams throw for 230-250 yards I would expect each side to have an interception. It’s really a matter of what the teams do with that turnover, and how the sack totals impact drives. I believe Houston can get 3 in this game and Cincinnati can get 2 at a minimum. If either side musters up more, or forces a fumble with one of those the game can turn. At home I like the Texans to get the best of this.


Running the ball is a strength for Houston (4.2, 132.7, 19 TD) with Arian Foster. Cincinnati (4.1, 109.1, 11 TD) has BenJarvus Green-Ellis a little bit limited with a balky hamstring. He sat out last week, a week after Pittsburgh completely shut him down (15 rushes for 14 yards). Even at his best he is not a dominant “take over the game” type player anyway. There is really no one behind him capable of turning in a huge performance here. On defense the Texans (4.0, 97.5, 5 TD) can put Andy Dalton in a situation where he is forced to throw. The Bengals (4.1, 107.2, 13 TD) are a little less likely to do that to Matt Schaub. The other key there is touchdowns allowed. Cashing in red zone opportunities typically is the difference in playoff outcomes.


It’s a nice story for the Bengals to be back in the playoffs. They have a chance to win this game. They also have a chance to get routed if the Texans get mad. Houston should be able to double up A.J. Green and force the ball into the hands of other receiving options. Cincinnati might try to do the same thing with Andre Johnson because Kevin Walter is the only other receiver on the radar when looking at the stat sheet. They will definitely address this in the draft unless they believe Lestar Jean is ready to step up. In this game I think the hot team flames out and the “struggling” team grinds out a win: Houston 23, Cincinnati 20 (CIN +4.5/over 42)


Minnesota (10-6) @ Green Bay (11-5): Didn’t I just preview this game? I thought the Packers would be able to do just enough to get by the Vikings last week and avoid this rematch, but it didn’t happen. Minnesota road their dome field advantage to a thrilling 37-34 win in a game featuring 849 total yards of offense. Adrian Peterson fell just shy of Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record, but his 34 carries for 199 yards were definitely the difference in the game.


It’s easy to say Aaron Rodgers outplayed Christian Ponder looking at a 365-234 edge in passing yards, but it’s not that simple. Rodgers was sacked 5 times and Ponder only once. Mixing in those losses and adding 16 yards of rushing for Ponder (Rodgers had none) it’s not such a dramatic difference. Neither player threw an interception and Rodgers won the touchdown pass battle 4-3. Rodgers also threw 12 more passes. It might not matter if Ponder can’t answer the bell.


I talk about these passing numbers because the regular season stats paint a blowout when comparing these offenses. Green Bay (271.4, 40 TD) is an elite team throwing the ball. They complete a high percentage (67.0) and have just 8 interceptions. Those pesky sacks (51) are their weakness and a lot of it comes from not having a running game. We’ll get to that below. Minnesota (183.4, 18 TD) has the worst passing offense in the league. If it’s Joe Webb starting this game then I’m really worried. Ponder has been feisty so we’ll see.


On defense Minnesota struggles to stop the pass (244.3, 28 TD) but gets bailed out with their 44 sacks. Those are harder to come by on the road though, and they have just 10 interceptions. Rodgers just threw for 365 yards on this defense and has his receiving options back healthy. Green Bay’s pass defense (218.3, 24 TD) limits opposing passers to a low completion percentage (55.0) and has 47 sacks to go along with 18 sacks. I like their chances to flip the script on last week’s no turnovers, one sack outing now that they are at home, at night and in the chilly elements.


Obviously the Vikings are awesome running the ball (5.4, 164.6, 16 TD) and Adrian Peterson has ruled this defense in two matchups. The Packers (3.9, 106.4, 9 TD) have a cast of characters trying to carry the rock. Dujuan Harris might be their version of James Starks from the Super Bowl run. Or Ryan Grant could muster up some old magic back at Lambeau Field. Last week he wasn’t a factor.


On defense Minnesota (4.0, 105.8, 10 TD) is better than Green Bay (4.5, 118.5, 12 TD) and they need to be in order to stay in this game. If their offense turns one-dimensional it’s over. Ponder or Webb will not be able to match passing numbers with Rodgers. Their offense needs to be efficient as they were last week. Even at that, they barely scratched out a win and let’s face it the Packers weren’t in a desperate spot with only a bye week on the line. They wanted to win and failed. Now they have to win, and won’t: Green Bay 27, Minnesota 17 (GB -7.5/under 46)


Indianapolis (11-5) @ Baltimore (10-6): It’s mind boggling to consider that the team that picked first in the most recent NFL draft enters this game with a better record than a team that probably should have gone to the most recent Super Bowl. There was really only one thing for Ray Lewis to do once he found out this was the matchup. He realizes the Colts are returning to their former home city with an emotional story trying to win a playoff game for their courageous head coach Chuck Pagano, himself a former coach for the Ravens. Lewis announced his retirement whenever this season ends and he doesn’t want it to come in what is likely his final home game.


Another forgotten storyline is Jim Caldwell, jettisoned as head coach of the Colts after last year’s post-Peyton Manning disaster, now calling the offensive plays for the Ravens. Caldwell and Pagano both have inside information from the opposing locker room. It’s going to be interesting to see how the knowledge impacts the game. Baltimore comes in reeling a bit, but just played a murderer’s row of opponents. Their 2-4 record against playoff teams is alarming although last week they laid down at Cincinnati. Down the stretch they lost four of their final five games. All of their opponents are in the playoffs or fighting for a spot. Other than getting whipped by Denver 34-17 at home I’m not too concerned about any of those results.


The Colts have been in playoff mode for a while, and unlike most teams in the tournament really never went into a slump. For a team that just had the worst record in the league, it’s pretty amazing to consider they never lost consecutive games. Their low point was falling to 1-2 when they let Jacksonville complete a Hail Mary on them late. If not for that result, this is a 12-4 team. It’s true, as I pointed out last week, that their ability to keep winning close games is likely to catch up to them. They are 9-1 in one-score games with the exception being that aforementioned fluke loss to the Jags. A 3-2 record against playoff teams is strong, but a 4-4 road slate is a bad sign.


On the road Indy really hasn’t shown an ability to compete the way a playoff team should. They were blown out at Chicago, New York (Jets) and New England while also losing by double digits at Houston. Three of their wins were close, the exception being a wipeout of 2-14 Jacksonville, and the teams they beat all lost 10-plus games. Baltimore might be fading, but they just effectively ended the season for the defending champion Giants with a week 16 blowout 33-14 before shutting it down last week. The Colts might regret not taking a rest themselves. Their bye was in week 4 so this is their fourteenth straight week with a game. Tight games and fighting for a playoff berth put extra duress on them.


Baltimore’s passing offense (249.8, 22 TD) has been erratic, but they have just 11 interceptions and not a terrible sacks total allowed (38). Indianapolis (273.4, 23 TD) exceeded all expectations with rookie Andrew Luck. He did throw 18 interceptions and take 41 sacks though, and his complete percentage (54.0) leaves a lot to be desired. Errant throws are inviting disaster on a defense featuring Ed Reed. The Colts have allowed some passing yards (236.8, 23 TD) with only 12 interceptions and 32 sacks. Plus, they won’t have the dome field advantage. The Ravens (228.1, 15 TD) don’t let teams score and while their interception (13) and sack (37) totals are in line with the visiting defense, I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt with the boost of Ray Lewis in their ear before the game.


Ultimately, I’ll take the experienced Joe Flacco at home over a talented rookie in his first playoff game on the road. Luck is great, but he is bound to make a mistake or two here and one of those could go to the house. Running the ball is always a great thing to support a quarterback. Baltimore (4.3, 118.8, 17 TD) has Ray Rice running hard. Indianapolis (3.8, 104.4, 11 TD) has been leaning more on rookie Vick Ballard in recent weeks. He has churned out 346 yards on 84 carries in the “fourth quarter” of the season. The 4.1 average carry isn’t great, but it’s solid and that production translates to almost 1,400 yards for a full season. He is a key factor for the visitors. As he goes, so will their chances.


On defense Baltimore has been very ordinary (4.0, 122.8, 15 TD) and the touchdown number is particularly unlike their reputation as a stout defense. Indianapolis (5.1, 137.5, 14 TD) is really getting roughed up on the ground though. If they can’t hold down Rice here, it’s over and the outlook is pretty bleak. I think the home team remains more balanced on offense. Flacco is feeling the pressure of delivering a deep playoff run and knows it’s basically Super Bowl or bust for him. I don’t see Luck matching numbers with him, and the rookie is going to be subject to bad plays when his running game is slowed down. I do think the points will fly here: Baltimore 28, Indianapolis 23 (IND +7/over 47)


Seattle (11-5) @ Washington (10-6): The last two times the Redskins made the playoffs, they did so as a wild card and both times they had to play these Seahawks on the road. In 2005 it came after they won their opener in Tampa Bay, but either way both of those runs were ended in Seattle. There isn’t too much of a revenge factor here other than players being told about this by the media. They don’t want to have a team knock them out again. Their goal here is to establish this franchise being a factor again. They are just 2-3 in the playoffs over the past two decades.


In the 2007 playoff meeting it was Todd Collins against Matt Hasselbeck, an aging player and established veteran. This time it’s a pair of rookies leading the way. My biggest concern with Russell Wilson is how he performs on the road. His team is red hot, but their last true road game was December 2. They delivered a key 23-17 win in Chicago. Since then they have swept their NFC West foes at home and crushed Buffalo in Toronto. Their defense has not allowed a team to score more than 17 points since Thanksgiving. Only three teams scored more than 20 points on them this season and they led the league in scoring defense (15.3).


Including the “fail mary” win Seattle was an impressive 4-1 against playoff teams. Washington dealt with a competitive NFC East schedule, going 3-1 versus the Cowboys and Giants to ultimately keep both of those teams out of the playoffs, but ultimately were only 2-2 against teams in the tournament. They do have momentum having won seven in a row to close out the season. Entering their bye at 3-6 it appeared their season was over. It was with another loss, but they kept winning including a winner-take-all finale on SNF over Dallas.


Seattle lost out of their bye week, 24-21 at Miami, but it was their only setback during a 7-1 second half run.  Maybe they didn’t play a murderer’s row of teams over that span, just three winning teams, but overall their aforementioned 4-1 mark versus playoff teams doesn’t include quality wins over Dallas (27-7) and Chicago (23-17). This team delivered some big wins, and prior to last week’s sluggish outing over St. Louis they won three games by 58, 33 and 29 points respectively. I expect this to be a fight and the visitors are definitely getting the respect they deserve.


Passing offense goes to Washington (229.1, 24 TD). Robert Griffin III is incredibly efficient having thrown just 8 interceptions. Seattle (202.1, 27 TD) is also efficient with Russell Wilson only having 10 picks. Both guys are completing passes at a high rate with each team in the top 7 for completion percentage. On defense is where things get interesting. The Redskins (281.9, 31 TD) are a mess, bailed out in part by 21 interceptions. The Seahawks (203.1, 15 TD) have 18 interceptions and are bolstered by the return of Brandon Browner. They will be able to match corners up and limit the options for Griffin. Yes, Griffin is mobile but he’s also hurt and will not want to run. He is also more likely to throw an interception if he is on his third read.


Running the ball has been the key to success for Washington (5.2, 169.3, 22 TD) who leads the league. Only Adrian Peterson rushed for more yards than rookie Alfred Morris and in any other season he would be a lock for rookie of the year. Seattle (4.8, 161.2, 16 TD) is third with Marshawn Lynch leading the way. Obviously, whichever team can flex their muscles with the run will likely win the game. The Redskins (4.1, 95.8, 11 TD) have stopped the run on paper and so have the Seahawks (4.5, 103.1, 8 TD) but those average carry totals are troubling on both sides. This could be a battle of patience, and trading punts.


Seattle has had their struggles on the road to be sure at 3-5, 2-5 in other team’s stadiums. All of the losses were close though. Obviously they were undefeated at home, so since their road losses were by 4, 6, 7, 4 and 3 points no team beat them by more than a touchdown all year. Likewise Washington was in most of their games, losing just once by more than 8 points all year. The Redskins are 6-5 in close games this year and the Seahawks are 5-5, or 4-6 if you give them a loss in the “fail mary” game. 


I can paint this game either way and feel good about it. Pete Carroll is a little gutsier and that works on the road. He will call the game free and loose as opposed to trying not to lose. Mike Shanahan has the patience to stick with the run and wear down his opponent. At home that works for him too. I am concerned about Griffin’s mobility and how effective he can be when his primary receivers are locked down. Wilson has the superior defense giving him field position and the better chance at a balanced offense. This should be considered an upset: Seattle 24, Washington 20 (SEA -2.5/under 46.5)



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