NFL Predictions 2019: Divisional Round

I can’t complain, but to paraphrase Joe Walsh I’m going to anyway. I had a really great weekend and it could have been epic. I was 3-1 picking winners. My only loss was the Saints because they couldn’t kick a 43-yard field goal as the half ended. Well, that and the ridiculous final play where Rudolph clearly pushed off and the refs ate their whistle because plays are officiated differently in every sport when the game is on the line. I was 3-0-1 against the spread, with a push on the Bills. I went 4-0 on the over/under and considering all the games went under I couldn’t be happier about that. Defense still matters apparently. The +7 week has left me +45 against Vegas on the season. I’d like to keep it going.

Minnesota (11-6) @ San Francisco (13-3): The Vikings are at a slight disadvantage here relative to other winners from the first weekend. They played on Sunday and now play on Saturday so combined with the double travel it’s going to be harder on them. The 49ers are rested and they really needed it. Players are back, focused and ready for this moment. It would be crazy if Minnesota somehow made a run through a trio of 13-3 teams en route to the Super Bowl wouldn’t it? They are built for it. I was resistant to pick them to win last week because of Cook’s status. Injuries are tough to figure out. Gurley was a non-factor in the big game, for example. Availability is the best ability and the NFL is a battle of attrition. This is a great matchup of power teams and figures to be fun to watch. Weather could factor in if showers roll through the Bay Area, but that only lends itself to the physical way these teams want to play.

These teams met to start the 2018 season and both teams had promise at that time. Minnesota was coming off a playoff berth and San Francisco had Jimmy G healthy. The Vikings got after him and won the game 24-16 en route to being a playoff contender until the final game of the season. Jimmy G got hurt and the 49ers collapsed to 4-12. The venue has changed and the stakes are a bid to the championship game. You like that! Cousins won a big game last week on the road, but that was in a dome and I expect him to take more of a beating here. He was only sacked twice and more importantly didn’t turn it over. The offense was 10/18 converting third downs and even a low average rush (3.4) didn’t cost them. The Saints averaged 5.7, but ran it only 17 times. The 49ers might run that many times in the first quarter.

The 49ers started the season 8-0, but hadn’t faced an eventual playoff team yet. They closed 3-2 against the field with a loss here against Seattle who at the time was peaking, and win here over Green Bay in a rout. Those were both in November. Their December including wins at Seattle when it mattered most, and at New Orleans which ultimately had a drastic impact on playoff seedings. The loss was in Baltimore and a rematch of that one could decide who gets the Lombardi. Their defense definitely softened up down the stretch, starting with allowing 46 to the Saints. The Falcons upset them, and they allowed 31 to the Rams. I would say the peaked a month ago and need to regain that momentum. A bye week can be a blessing and a curse.

These passing offenses are fairly comparable. San Francisco is stronger statistically, but has allowed more sacks (36-28) and thrown more interceptions (13-8). Their pass defense is best in the league even though Minnesota has the same number of sacks (48) and has allowed the same number of TD passes (23) with their middle of the pack unit. The visitors have more interceptions (17-12) as well. Sometimes rankings don’t tell the whole story. The 49ers are second in rushing offense and have punched in 23 touchdowns on the ground. The Vikings are sixth and have 19. It’s a very even stat sheet. Both defenses are average against the run and whoever steps it up is going to win this game no question about it. Home field does matter here quite a bit. Santa Clara might be a trek from SF and the stadium is very corporate, but it will be raucous. Being on natural surface and pounding the ball it’s a matter of which team has more in the tank. I think that’s the home team. They are rested and prepared. Either team could win this if the turnovers go their way. It figures to be tight, fairly low scoring and competitive start to finish. I can’t really see the hosts crushing them unless they get up big early, like with a defensive score or special teams play. They will a thriller: San Francisco 23, Minnesota 20 (MIN +7/under 46)

Tennessee (10-7) @ Baltimore (14-2): A couple decades ago these teams had an epic playoff battle with Eddie George and Ray Lewis clashing. Some things never change, or at least I hope not. It would be great if this clash, pun intended, is as good as that one. In the 2018 season these teams hooked up and the Ravens won 21-0, but that was Flacco versus Mariota so even in one year a lot changed. Jackson saw the field for one run and gained 22 yards. Michael Crabtree led all receivers with 93 yards, remember that guy? Henry was bottled up in that shutout loss, and I’m sure he recalls his 21 yards on 7 carries performance. Last week he had 34 rushes for 182 yards in a perfectly executed game plan to smoke the Patriots. The defense took advantage of an aging Brady’s inability to push the ball down the field in part due to lack of receiving options as only one Patriot, running back James White, had more than 3 receptions. Tennessee has a totally different animal to deal with this week in terms of what their defense has to do, but the offensive strategy will remain the same. If they can have Tannehill pass 15 times again they will.

The Ravens really took the NFL by storm this season and had the quietest 14-2 season I can remember. They even went out with backups and ensured Pittsburgh wouldn’t be in the playoffs with a 28-10 win in week 17. They are 5-1 in one possession games this season and have won by 16-plus points in seven of their last nine games. The exceptions were playoff teams (San Francisco, Buffalo). They were also 5-1 against playoff teams and while winning all nine games post-bye week they defeated three of the AFC teams that played last week. Now they get to finish the set. Twelve wins in a row is kind of ridiculous and I would say their luck is due to run out, but nine wins by at least two touchdowns? They have taken care of business. It’s been a month since they played against a good team, and three weeks since they went all out so as long as they can shake out the rust everything should be fine.

Analysts talk about balance on offense. Well, the Ravens are over 200 yards per game on the ground and through the air. They rank low in passing obviously, but 37 TD passes led the NFL. They only threw 440 passes, so their low interception (8) and sacks allowed (28) totals reflect that. The Titans are a different team with Tannehill, clearly. Is he a game changer though? Clearly not, so although he won in his first playoff game last week I still favor the younger Jackson in his first post season start here. On defense Baltimore is sixth and has given up just 15 TD passes. Tennessee allows almost 48 more yards per game and has allowed 25 scores, but has more sacks (43-37). Facing Jackson is like playing an entirely different sport. These are two of the three best rushing offenses in the league, but for comparison let’s remember the NFL best Ravens have over 1,000 yards more than the third-ranked Titans. Each team has 21 rushing scores. Baltimore is ranked higher in rushing defense, but it’s pretty even. They allow more per carry (4.4 to 4.0). Showers are in the forecast and it’s a night game in Maryland. Buckle up. A lot of this comes down to finishing drives. The hosts have a kicker who is money, so when they get close it’s more likely for them to cash in for 3. Which team can get six from inside the 10? I’ll take Jackson over Tannehill. The visitors are tough, and can compete here if things break their way. However, sometimes you just run into a powerful force and it goes downhill in a hurry. A couple turnovers and then you have to go away from the run-first game plan can make this out of hand: Baltimore 27, Tennessee 16 (BAL -9/under 48.5)

Houston (11-6) @ Kansas City (12-4): The other three matchups this weekend took place in 2018 making this the only rematch. When these teams met on October 13, the Chiefs were at the start of a stretch when they lost four of six games. They were 4-0 before entering that period and 6-0 since. Mahomes was injured in the middle of that, but played in the first meeting throwing for 3 scores. He only completed 54% though and turned it over twice. Watson completed 71% of his 42 throws and had a couple picks, but wasn’t sacked. Sacks have been the issue for the Texans who took 7 in last week’s OT wild card win. It’s going to be bitterly cold for the rematch and both teams figure to try the run as much as possible so we’ll see how these fireball mobile quarterbacks deal with the elements.

The Chiefs are here, rested, because of the aforementioned roll down the stretch. The bookend wins were a sweep of the Chargers during a down year and the only playoff team was New England who they beat on the road. In all they are 3-3 against teams who made the tournament including a loss against Green Bay with Mahomes sitting out. The first meeting was of course a home loss, and they beat Minnesota on this field 26-23, also without Mahomes. The 2018 MVP is still really good, but he missed on facing a couple good teams and I’m not ready to call him a seasoned stud in the postseason just yet even though he was great last year. They deserved to go to the Super Bowl, but as we saw with the Saints last week the football gods don’t care about karma. They haven’t lost at home since before Halloween. Houston endured a grueling comeback win last week and has to be tired. Now the freezing cold? It’s going to be tough for them. The Eagles had a -3 turnover differential entering the playoffs and the Texans at 0 were the only other playoff team not at least +4, which also doesn’t bode well.

Kansas City finished fifth in passing offense and took only 25 sacks. Houston absorbed 49 and as previously mentioned another 7 last week with a middling attack. They do have a top target in Hopkins, but his effectiveness is mitigated in this weather. On defense the Chiefs have a 45-31 edge in sacks, 16-12 edge in interceptions and have allowed far fewer TD passes (21-33) while yielding almost 56 fewer yards per game. If the elements allow for it, the home team has the passing advantage. Houston is ninth in rushing with about 27 yards per game more than Kansas City, and they will need it here. Both rushing defenses are below average and allowing almost five yards per carry on the ground. This figures to be a battle for control of the clock. Being rested and used to the weather is a huge advantage for the hosts. On paper, if everything was equal the stats favor them actually. In reality, Reid is a lot more experienced coaching big games compared to O’Brien. Watson made a tremendous play last week, that’s awesome. Watt returned and good for him. The run is over: Kansas City 28, Houston 20 (HOU +10/under 51)

Seattle (12-5) @ Green Bay (13-3): Can we get Matt Hasselbeck to toss the coin in this one? There’s some playoff history here and while it’s only three games in the last two decades, two of them were epic. The most recent one was a tragic collapse by the Packers and deprived the football world of a Brady vs. Rodgers Super Bowl to give historians more to talk about. I suppose it’s his fault a backup tight end couldn’t hold onto an onside kick right? Anyway, whatever that’s old news. Wilson is now charged with carrying the Seahawks because while Beast Mode has been lured out of retirement the running game is dying on the vine. That’s an issue because snow is in the forecast and the tundra figures to be frozen. The Packers have reeled off five straight wins and although only one was against a playoff team, it was a big one at Minnesota to secure the division. They are 7-1 at home, and more than that 13-1 when they aren’t playing in California where Rodgers played his college ball ironically. They finished only 3-2 against playoff teams, with a second win over the Vikings and also beat the Chiefs who were missing Mahomes at the time. The 49ers blew them out and the Eagles beat them way back in week 4.

It’s been an interesting season for Green Bay. They went under the radar at 13-3 with upstart San Francisco flashing and New Orleans doing their thing. Both teams finished +12 in turnover differential, and it’s a little alarming that Seattle couldn’t force any last week against a team led by a 40-year old quarterback who was retired not so long ago. They let the hosts hold the ball for 33:15 and average 4.6 yards per carry even though Wentz was knocked out early, and won just 17-9. Any road playoff win is great, but I’m cautious to expect much more out of them. They limped into the tournament and were lucky to get a team way more banged up than they are. The passing offenses are both efficient if not explosive in the yardage department. The combined TD/INT is 57/10 and for quarterbacks who have been to a couple bowls each with a win each that’s to be expected. Seattle has taken more sacks (48-36) and Green Bay’s defense has a lot more (41-28). Unless Clowney gets in another dirty shot, the rush favors the home team by a lot. The pass defenses are comparable in the other stats although the visitors give up over 30 yards more per game.

Seattle for the season was 25 yards per game better in rushing offense, but actually had fewer scores (15-18) and barely a better average per carry (4.6 to 4.4). Plus they are relying on Lynch a lot and while he’s a fun player to watch this is getting serious now. Like the other cold Sunday matchup, both defenses are allowing almost five yards per carry. The Seahawks have allowed a lot more rushing scores (22-15) and that’s alarming. On paper they could come in here and run on them, but they were not effective last week on the ground albeit against a better defense. Emotions will be high and Carroll can absolutely lift an underdog team over a club led by a first year head coach. The quarterbacks are both great, but home field and health favor Rodgers getting this one: Green Bay 22, Seattle 19 (SEA +4.5/under 47)

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