Saturday, Jan. 7
Oakland Raiders (12-4) at Houston Texans (9-7)
One of the most intriguing elements of this matchup is that last month, few could have seen it happening.
The Raiders were 10-2 and looked in place to clinch at least one of the top two seeds in the AFC and the Texans had stumbled to a 6-6 record and were in danger of missing the postseason.
Thanks to division inequality, Oakland’s 12 wins weren’t enough to win their division while Houston’s nine wins were.
But the bigger storyline in this matchup is at the quarterback position.
Oakland had a potential MVP candidate in Derek Carr, but his broken leg and Matt McGloin‘s shoulder injury means Connor Cook will be the first quarterback in NFL history to make his first career start in a postseason game.
Houston’s QB situation isn’t much better — after a dismal year from Brock Osweiler, Tom Savage was expected to be the team’s savior by the end of the season. Now that a concussion has forced Savage out of Saturday’s game, Osweiler will be asked to lead the same team that benched him a few weeks ago to a win.
It’s seems more likely, though, that defenses will decide the winner of this game, not the quarterbacks.
The Texans allowed only 301.3 total yards per game this year, the fewest in the league. Oakland allowed 75 yards more per game and ranked 26th.
Houston also has the second-best secondary in the league, statistically, and that’s bad news for Cook who threw for only 150 yards and an interception against a similarly impressive Denver defense last weekend.
Oakland’s defense isn’t good enough to contain Osweiler or Lamar Miller. The Texans should get the upset win at home.
Q’s Pick: Texans, 27-24
Detroit Lions (9-7) at Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1)
When Seattle plays in a postseason game at home, they win. At least, that’s what history shows as the Seahawks have not yet lost a playoff game at CenturyLink Field.
But this isn’t the same Seahawks team from seasons past.
They struggled to finish the year on a high note and will now be forced, for the first time, to endure the grind of the postseason without their star defensive anchor Earl Thomas.
His absence might be tested by the Lions who have shown that Marvin Jones and Golden Tate can both serve as deep threats; the only question being if Mathew Stafford and his broken fingers can throw a ball that far in what could be cold, snowy weather.
The forecast calls for a chance of “freezing rain” (to wit, I’ve never seen written that way before), but that usually means more utilization of the run game — something neither team is good at.
The Seahawks went from averaging more than 140 yards per game on the ground last year to a hair over 99 yards per game this season, thanks in large part to Marshawn Lynch‘s absence and slew of injuries to Thomas Rawls and others.
Detroit, on the other hand, never seemed to recover from Ameer Abdullah‘s leg injury early in the season and averaged only 81.9 yards per game on the ground, third-fewest in the league.
The lack of run game means the better quarterback may end up being the difference maker.
Russell Wilson is 7-3 in his postseason career with 16 passing touchdowns, and he will have a healthy Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham to orchestrate the air game against a Lions defense that gave up four touchdowns and 300 yards to Aaron Rodgers last week.
CenturyLink Field will be rocking and the Seahawks should be able to rally behind it to get a close win.
Q’s Pick: Seahawks, 24-23
Sunday, Jan. 8
Miami Dolphins (10-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
In spite of Miami’s impressive and well-earned record, I’m really struggling to see how they are going to contain Pittsburgh’s offensive three-headed monster.
The Dolphins, thanks to a dreary run defense, ranked 29th in terms of yards allowed per game. They are one of only three teams in the league that allowed more than 140 yards per game on the ground this season and they will now get the luxury of being the first team the Steelers’ “Big 3” gets to play against in the postseason together.
Bell missed the past two playoffs with knee injuries, but this year, on the heels of becoming the first player in NFL history to average more than 100 rushing yards and 50 receiving yards per game, he is ready to show why he is considered one of the most dynamic players in the league.
On the other side of the ball, the Dolphins will also have to try to work around the absence of Ryan Tannehill, although Matt Moore has looked like this has been his team since the start of the season.
Jay Ajayi has anchored Miami’s rushing attack which has been surprisingly good this season, hovering around 114 yards per game. The Steelers run defense (and secondary for that matter) rank right in the middle of the league in most major categories so there’s a chance they could be exploited.
Still, the Steelers have only lost one playoff game at home since 2007 and the Dolphins haven’t won a playoff game since 2000.
Q’s Pick: Steelers, 30-23
New York Giants (11-5) at Green Bay Packers (10-6)
I like what the Giants have done this season but Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are on a tear right now and showed no signs of slowing down last week.
Green Bay essentially played their way into this matchup by beating the Lions for the NFC North crown last weekend, their sixth-straight win.
But now they get to play in somewhat unfamiliar territory — a postseason game at home.
Since 2009, eight of the Packers 12 playoff games have been on the road.
The Giants, on the other hand, are in unfamiliar territory by verge of just being in the postseason, somewhere they haven’t been since they won the Super Bowl in 2011.
This year’s New York squad has struggled on offense to the point that it’s almost a wonder they won 11 games. In spite of having Eli Manning and Odell Beckham, the Giants were one of only eight teams in the league to average fewer than 20 points per game.
New York’s run defense has been among the league’s best this season, but it won’t help much against Green Bay who hasn’t been able to get anything going on the ground all season.
The Packers should keep rolling in this one.