The NFL Playoffs are upon us, and the football writers here at VAVEL give their picks for Wildcard weekend.
Oakland Raiders vs. Houston Texans
Harry Harris: The first game of Wildcard weekend isn’t exactly jumping off the page at first look. The Oakland Raiders travelling to face the Houston Texans, with rookie QB Connor Cook making his first career start against Brock Osweiler.
It’s not a QB matchup that excites many people but I think it could be a sneaky good game. Despite Cook being merely a rookie making his first start, I think Oakland have enough weapons on offense and a good enough offensive line to keep Cook upright and able to make plays.
The Oakland Raiders win on the road in their QB’s debut with a big game on the ground from Latavius Murray and Jalen Richard.
Cameron Hogwood: A Derek Carr-led Oakland Raiders would instantly get my backing but the absence of the MVP contender makes this matchup a difficult one to call. Oakland’s rookie quarterback Connor Cook faces a monumental task coming in as the starter for this weekend’s Wild Card game against a Texans side that are 7-1 at home this season. The Houston defense will be too much for the 23-year-old in my opinion and will see the home side edge this one.
Christopher Jeter: With Derek Carr on IR, this becomes much tougher to pick. It has become a coin flip game. I have no strong feelings about either team. Both teams will look to run the ball and limit turnovers. I'm just amazed the Texans keep making the playoffs. Only this team would have a quarterback controversy after they clinched the division. I'll pick Houston since they are at home and have the better defense. Not that it matters, the winner here will get carved up in Foxborough.
Jamie Joslyn: If you asked me two weeks ago I would have picked the Raiders for a blowout win, but now I have to go with the Texans because of the uncertainity at the quarterback position. The Texans are not a good football team in my opinion, but their strength is the defence and I think they'll get right after rookie QB Connor Cook.
Other teams have the ability to win games purely based on defence, but the Raiders are not one of these teams and they've been carried big time by the now injured Derek Carr. Brock Osweilier has certainly had his struggles this season, but he knows all about Oakland and can bring some big game experience into this one to lead Houston to the win.
Youssef Machkhas: A quarterback getting paid $72 million but playing like a second string at best on one side. On the other, the first quarterback whose first NFL start is in the playoffs. This must be the quarterback matchup of the century, forget those Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning AFC championship games. Seriously though, both teams have horrible quarterback situations. The Houston Texans benched Brock Osweiler for Tom Savage, hoping he may play better. However, he ended up with a concussion and now Osweiler’s starting again. For the Oakland Raiders, Derek Carr broke his leg and Matt McGloin hurt his shoulder, so Michigan State rookie Connor Cook has a chance to prove himself.
Look at both teams to focus on their running game more than anything. Lamar Miller, after a slow start, has picked it up and will have a field day against the weak Raiders defense. Latavius Murray has been a scoring machine for Oakland and the trio of him, Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington can also rack up the yards. However, the main difference is that the Texans’ run defense is one of the best of the league as of late, and they stuffed all three in their Week 11 matchup. Unless the Raiders trust Cook to give the ball to star receivers Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper and he successfully does so, they will be unable to run any semblance of an offense against the tough Texans defense. The Houston offense will do enough to get the win.
Kudzi Musarurwa: Even without the services of Derek Carr, the Raiders have too much on both sides of the ball for the Texans. Matt McGloin has proved to be a capable backup to Carr and will be helped by the offensive skill players around him in Houston this Saturday. Michael Crabtree is always a threat especially deep down the field and Mychal Rivera is probably one of the top tight ends in the NFL right now. On the defensive side of the ball, Khalil Mack will lead an amped up team that will be looking to prove that they belong in the playoffs.
Houston are a healthy JJ Watt away from winning this playoff game and with Watt racing against the clock to be fit for this Saturday, the Texans will have to look at Jadeveon Clowney to lead the way for them. An injury to quarterback Tom Savage last weekend will not help Houston’s cause against the Raiders and I think this game has come one week to early for Houston to have enough difference makers healthy and on the field.
Richard Sena: The Raiders will travel to Houston to play a team they narrowly beat in Mexico - with the help of some timely calls. That win came with Derek Carr behind center in a neutral site, both things the Raiders will not enjoy this weekend. This time around, the Raiders will travel to Houston with third string rookie quarterback Connor Cook. The biggest obstacle the Raiders face comes at the hands of the first ranked Houston Texans defense led by breakout cornerback A.J. Bouye and a resurgent Jadaveon Clowney. If the Raiders hope to have any chance to win, they’ll have to heavily lean on their 6th ranked rushing offense, where the Texans dropped to 12th in defensive rankings. Without the legitimate threat posed by Cook, the Texans will likely focus on halting Oakland’s formidable stable of backs.
Norman Tall: If this question was asked a few weeks ago the easy pick would have been the Raiders. With an explosive offense and a solid defense, the Raiders were picked to make it as far as the Super Bowl in these NFL playoffs. Recently that has all changed. With Derek Carr done for the year and the defense slowing down in recent weeks, I have to take the Texans in this one. With Carr and McGloin both out, the Raiders will be rolling with Connor Cook, a rookie out of Michigan State. The Texans finished with the top ranked defense this season and should wreak havoc on the young QB. While Brock Osweiler isn’t a great quarterback by any means, he should be able to do enough to get a W for the Texans.
Aidan Thomas: I think the Texans are the only team the Raiders could beat with a 3rd-string rookie quarterback who hasn’t made a start in his career on the road. While the Raiders’ Super Bowl dreams have taken a huge hit, Oakland has a chance to at least snag one playoff win against the Texans, who benefited from a notoriously weak AFC South. Really the only reason they got here was because of an injury to Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota and the Titans’ sudden collapse on Christmas Eve that gave the Texans the title. Connor Cook did not look bad against Denver, and Houston’s defense, although good, is not as good as Denver’s. Not to mention, their offense can’t put up points. Whether it’s Tom Savage of the $72-million man Brock Osweiler, the Texans’ lackluster offense leaves a lot to be desired. While the divisional round at New England Patriots or Kansas City Chiefs looms large, I think Oakland has enough skill players to edge out probably the weakest team in the playoffs for either conference and give their long-suffering fans at least one playoff victory.
Detroit Lions vs. Seattle Seahawks
Harris: CenturyLink Field is arguably the most difficult place to play in the NFL. The Seattle Seahawks haven’t lost a playoff game at home since 2004 but have been extremely inconsistent all season. Detroit let the NFC North title slip away toward the end of the season and will need Matthew Stafford to play his best football to make up for the NFL’s worst run game.
As good as the Detroit Lions offense is, their offensive line will have their hands full with Seattle’s terrifying pass rush. Seattle wins a close one at home to set up a meeting with the Atlanta Falcons.
Hogwood: It’s hard to look past a win for the Seahawks in front of their own fans. Coming away with a victory at the CenturyLink Field is a difficult task for even the league’s very best teams and I sense Detroit will fall short. The records don’t bode well for the Lions either as they enter the game having lost eight playoff games in a row. In contrast, Seattle enter the game having lost only one of their last 15 home games.
Jeter: I'll take the Seahawks here. Centurylink Field is still one of the toughest places to play. Detroit has a good passing offense and Matthew Stafford had an MVP type season. However, the Hawks still have one of the best defenses in the league, albeit without Earl Thomas. The Lions won't have anything to turn to if Richard Sherman and company shut down the passing game, Detroit has one of the worst rushing attacks in the league. The Seahawks still have Russell Wilson on offense. Wilson has the likes of Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham to throw to against a shaky Lions secondary. While the offensive line is still trash, it may not matter much against the Lions toothless pass rush. Seattle at home is just too tall a task for the sixth seed.
Joslyn: Seattle are big favourites to win this game and I have them down for a victory, but it will be tighter than most people might expect. Matthew Stafford is the Lions only hope of keeping them in this game, but his a big hope after arguably one if not the best season of his career even without the retired Calvin Johnson Jr.
The home field advanatage alone could get the win for Seattle in this one, but they obviously still have the core of their roster in place which took them to back to back superbowls. The defence will always make some plays up front or in the secondary and quarterback, Russell Wilson is arguably the best guy around in managing must win football games and I'd back him to do it again on saturday.
Machkhas: The Seattle Seahawks have got to be the most inconsistent team in the playoffs. Their offense struggled throughout the first half of the season mainly due to a horrible offensive line that allowed Russell Wilson to get pressured and hit often. After that first half, whenever it looked like the offense was ready to start clicking, they fell back and had trouble putting up any points at all. The Detroit Lions have an average defense in terms of yards and points allowed. However, there’s good news for the Seahawks: the Lions are second to last in sacks. This means that they won’t pressure Wilson much giving him time in the pocket. The Seahawks also have Thomas Rawls, a solid running back.
On offense, the Lions rely on quarterback Matthew Stafford heavily. It’s obvious that he can get yards, as he ranked sixth in the regular season, but it doesn’t always correlate into points; he ranked 14th in touchdowns. However, he does have solid weapons in Golden Tate, Marvin Jones and Eric Ebron, so there is always a chance for him to go off. They also have the “best white running back” in the league in Zach Zenner according to Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett. However, he has only played well in the past couple of games, so who knows if it will last. Despite going against one of the worst sacking teams, the Seahawks’ offense is too inconsistent to put any faith in, and so the Lions will win.
Musarurwa: The Seahawks have had an up and down season and the season-ending injury for Earl Thomas has only exacerbated that issue. However, the Hawks are at home and if there’s one thing the Seahawks tend to do well these days, it’s show up at home in a playoff scenario. Russell Wilson is having another good season and his chemistry with Jimmy Graham is beginning to pay off. This combination is dovetailed by the play of Tyler Lockett and Doug Baldwin who have been in great form this season as well.
Matthew Stafford has been just as good, if not better than Wilson this season but the Seahawks defense still has the likes of Richard Sherman, Cam Chancellor and Cliff Avril in its ranks. After a poor start against the 49ers last time out, the Seahawks will want to make sure they start this game with a bang and I can’t see the Lions being able to keep Stafford clean the entire game against the pressure that the Seahawks bring in the pass rush.
Sena: The Lions traveling to Seattle poses unfavorable matchups for the road team. Despite Matthew Stafford’s best efforts, the Lions remain a one dimensional offense - ranking 11th in passing and 30th in rushing - going up against a playoff tested defense. Conversely, the Lions defense remain depleted after a season’s worth of injuries. Apart from Darius Slay, it could be argued the Lions don’t have another starting caliber NFL cornerback active for Saturday’s game. Further, the Lion’s tepid pass rush - producing a second worst 26 sacks on the year - lines up well for the Seahawks who have a comparably inept offensive line.Even if the matchups don’t all go Seattle’s way, playing at home in front of the infamous “12s” will net them the victory.
Tall: This should be a great game over in Seattle. Just as many people have done, I will be taking the Seahawks in this one but I believe it will be much closer than some might anticipate. Recently these two teams have struggled as the Lions enter the playoffs on a three game losing streak while the Seahawks are just 2-2 in their last 4 games. The difference in this game will be defense. The ‘Hawks have the league’s 5th best defense while the Lions rank in the bottom half of the league in that category. The weak link for the Seahawks has easily been their O-line as Russell Wilson was sacked 42 times, enough for sixth most in the league. The Lions on the other hand have just 26 sacks, second worst in the NFL. If the Lions are able to get to Wilson they might have a chance. But it looks like that is unlikely to happen, therefore I’m taking the Seahawks.
Thomas: Yes the Seahawks are an injury-riddled team entering January, but I still think they have the tools to take down the skidding Detroit Lions at home. The Lions have dropped three straight to produce just a 9-7 record. Another glaring stat? The Lions are 9-2 against teams that didn’t make the playoffs...making them 0-5 against teams that did. That includes losses to the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, and Green Bay Packers to end the season. The Lions have very little to call a running game and Stafford, while good, has not shown his ability to compete with top-notch teams and quarterbacks. There is no doubt that Russell Wilson is an elite quarterback, and the Seattle Seahawks, with Jimmy Graham and the Legion of Boom is an elite team, especially when playing at home. They have suffered through some injuries, but the Lions’ top rusher of a lackluster running game is out making their offense close to one-dimensional against one of the best defenses in the league. Detroit will keep it interesting, but I think the Seahawks rack up the points and advance to the divisional round.
Miami Doplhins vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Harris: I would’ve liked this matchup a lot more if Ryan Tannehill was ready to go for the Miami Dolphins, especially since the Dolphins were 30-15 winners earlier this season. In the first meeting between the two teams, Jay Ajayi rushed for 200 yards and two touchdowns on Pittsburgh’s defense, but a lot has changed since then and the Pittsburgh Steelers look as dangerous as ever.
If Miami want to go into Heinz Field and win, they’ll need another huge performance from Ajayi (and Matt Moore) to keep up with the Steelers’ explosive offense but I don’t see it happening. Pittsburgh are flying high with seven wins in a row to end the regular season.
Hogwood: The Steelers look a good bet in this Wild Card contest, entering the matchup having won seven games in a row. Their star-studded offense comes up against Miami’s 29th ranked defense and should be enough to see the home side emerge victorious. Despite filling in well for the injured Ryan Tannehill, I don’t think backup quarterback Matt Moore has what it takes to lead his side to a win. His ever-improving running back Jay Ajayi will be a danger to the Steelers though as he looks to end an impressive year on a high and make the most of this playoff experience. I’m going for a high scoring game and an eventual Pittsburgh win.
Jeter: Pittsburgh's defense played better the last few weeks. The Cleveland Browns game does not count since they played the backups for most of the game. The Dolphins actually beat the Steelers in week six to jumpstart their winning streak in Miami. The Dolphins gashed the Steelers to the tune of 222 yards in that game. I don't expect a repeat at Heinz Field. Before the Ravens game, Pittsburgh allowed no more than 91 yards in five straight games. Miami, on the other hand, has allowed more than 100 yards rushing in each of their final seven games. They allowed no less than 244 passing yards in five of their final six games. I think Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown have big games and outscores the pedestrian Dolphins offense.
Joslyn: This is another wildcard match-up which appears to be a definite home win and I am taking the Steelers, but only just. Pittsburgh only just wins this one because Miami has a key factor to keep them close in this game and that is speed. Jay Ajayi had his breakout game against the Steelers earlier in the season and the Londoner has never looked back since, but Mike Tomlin's team now know to watch out for him.
However, you can't look past the Steelers in this one because for one their at home and two, they have arguably the best quarterback, running back and wide reciever trio in football through Ben Rothlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. This high powered offence is probably too much for any defence to handle let alone a beat up Miami one with a few players eithier doubtful or missing through injury heading into the game.
Machkhas: The Miami Dolphins got unlucky. They have to play the toughest team out of the three other AFC teams in the Wild Card Round. Just like everybody is saying the Green Bay Packers are the team to watch out for in the NFC, the Pittsburgh Steelers are the dark horse in the AFC. Four of their five losses came at a time when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had surgery and had to recover from it, the fifth being a blowout by the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles when Le’Veon Bell was suspended.
So don’t read too much into the Dolphins’ regular season 30-15 win over the Steelers. The team has improved tremendously since then, with Bell wreaking havoc on opposing defenses and Roethlisberger linking with Antonio Brown time and time again. The Steelers’ defense is also the best it’s been since the glory days with Troy Polamalu and his Head & Shoulders shampooed hair leading them. Jay Ajayi will have a solid game, but nothing like the 204 yards, 2-touchdown performance last time against the Steelers. The Pittsburgh offense will be too much for the Dolphins to overcome.
Musarurwa: Everyone knows how good Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown have been this season but what has been truly impressive is the play of the Steelers defense in the last six games. They have gathered momentum and finished the season in the top five defenses in the league in terms of points allowed, takeaways and yards against. If they can find a way to stop Dolphin’s Jay Ajayi then the Steelers will pretty much kill the Miami offense which will then allow the Steelers offense to work their magic against the Dolphins.
Sena: There is no team in the NFL facing a more demoralizing reality after clinching a playoff berth in week 16 than the Miami Dolphins. Just this past Sunday, the Dolphins were baptized by the de facto AFC East division champs, New England Patriots, and will enter Sunday’s Wild Card matchup against the seventh ranked (but eye test suggest significantly better than seventh) Pittsburgh Steelers offense.Dolphins fans will be quick to point out the convincing week six victory over the Steelers, but if playoff games were won in week six, the Minnesota Vikings would be playing this weekend. Whether it’s a hobbled Ryan Tannehill or Matt Moore under center for the ‘Phins, Pittsburgh’s killer trio of Big Ben, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown may prove too much for the post season novices.
Tall: This game appears like it will be the worst of the four games on Wild Card weekend with the Steelers coming into the playoffs riding a seven game winning streak off of great seasons from Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown. This trio is nearly unstoppable. I find it unlikely the Dolphins do enough to slow them down. For the Dolphins to pull the upset, Jay Ajayi will have to have another superb game, just like he had in the teams’ first meeting, a 30-15 win for the Fins. If Ajayi can have a good game the Dolphins might be able to keep it close but eventually the Steelers will pull away. I’m taking the Steelers in this one.
Thomas: I don’t see this one being close. The Steelers are rolling to the tune of seven straight victories and have looked unbeatable lately. Big Ben, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell are primed to carve up this Miami defense that is largely not used to postseason play. The Steelers will be able to exact revenge for an ugly 30-15 loss the Dolphins handed them during their early-season slump. As the Steelers look to keep the ball rolling, they get a chance to avenge another of their losses that occurred during their ugly 4-game losing streak that saw them drop to 4-5. They’ve already avenged the stagnant loss to the Ravens. The other two losses during that streak? The New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys...we’ll see how that shakes out. Their first obstacle of course is Miami, but, no disrespect to the resurgent Dolphins, Ben Roethlisberger is better than whoever starts at quarterback for Miami. Antonio Brown has postseason experience over Miami’s Jarvis Landry, and Le’Veon Bell is one of the best running backs in the game, again with playoff experience. Miami has the skillset, but inexperience dooms them here.
New York Giants vs. Green Bay Packers
Harris: Playing at Lambeau Field in the middle of January isn’t ideal, unless you’re a Green Bay Packers player. The Packers have won six in a row in order to get to this point but face a New York Giants team that have a good history against Green Bay, including wins at Lambeau Field en route to Super Bowl wins in 2007 and 2011.
Green Bay beat New York back in Week 5 and are getting healthy at the right time. Fun Fact: Eli Manning has as many playoff wins at Lambeau Field as Aaron Rodgers (2).
Rodgers’ makes it three wins on Sunday with a big win in the freezing cold temperatures.
Hogwood: This is one to keep an eye on. The explosive New York defense comes up against Green Bay’s red hot quarterback Aaron Rodgers. If the Giants offense finally springs into action then the Packers have a serious task on their hands. Odell Beckham Jr. will be a tough man to stop as he looks to take full advantage of his first experience of playoff football. I’m backing the Giants to prevail as the supposed underdogs in a matchup I believe will produce the NFC champions.
Jeter: The Giants have the best chance of securing an upset on wildcard weekend. Eli Manning becomes a different player in the postseason and has a number of reliable options to move the ball against a depleted Packers secondary. However, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have the hot hand. Rodgers played his way back into the MVP conversation and Green Bay ran the table, just like he said they would. I think Rodgers is too much for the Giants here, but the game should be the best of the weekend.
Joslyn: This is easily the most exciting game of wildcard weekend for me and the hardest to call. These are two good football teams and storied franchises feeling pretty good about themselves going into the postseason. For having an 11-5 year the Giants are really unfortunate to be having to come to Lambeau field in the new year and I think it's going to cost them their chance at a third 21st century Superbowl.
The Packers have been in a must win situation since week 11 and this forced mentality is why I think they win this one with the home crowd behind them. Of course they also have a guy called Aaron Rodgers at the quarterback position who can pull out something spectacular when needed and has just had an MVP like season. Even against a strong Giants defence I think Rodgers and Green Bay will pull this one as they did in the regular season to advance to the divisional round.
Machkhas: This will probably be the best out of the Wild Card games. Aaron Rodgers has played out of his mind to lead the Packers into the playoffs after rumors that he was falling apart. And it’s not like he went against bad defenses. He crushed the Minnesota Vikings, who have one of the best pass defenses in the league. Same with the Seahawks and Texans. He also played well enough in the Week 5 matchup between the two teams to get a win. Even with Ty Montgomery becoming the primary running back, the Packers rely far more on their passing attack.
Musarurwa: The Giants have a much-improved defense and in Odell Beckham Jr, they probably have the best wide receiver in the NFL right now. However, Eli Manning is still Eli Manning and the Giants QB can be the best player on the team in one quarter and then be the worst player in the next quarter.
With the way the Packers have found their rhythm again, I just cannot see how the Giants will find a way to win at Lambeau like they did a few seasons ago. Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson are in sync once again but most importantly for the Packers, their defense is getting to the opposition qb on a regular basis again. That, I feel will be what puts the Packers into the next playoff game as Manning is prone to having bad days at the worst possible time.
The New York Giants are in a similar situation in that they have no good running backs. Most of their offense comes from Eli Manning getting the ball to Odell Beckham Jr, who has moved on since his tumultuous relationship with the field goal net. Their defense is what led them to the playoffs, as they have allowed the second least points per game. This will be another test for Rodgers, however he has been playing so well that there is no slowing him down at this point, and the Giants’ offense isn’t good enough to overcome that.
Sena: It seems like a distant memory, but when Aaron Rodgers let the Packers to a historic 15-1 record in 2011 and seemingly on a clear path to the Super Bowl, it was the New York Giants again playing spoiler to the league’s golden ticket holder. There is an eerily similar feeling heading into Sunday night’s matchup. The currently high flying Packers - seeming untouchable - and the meandering Giants who perpetually back into the playoffs before hoisting the Lombardi trophy. The key difference, though, is that Tom Coughlin is no longer helming these New York Giants. Instead, it’s former Packers quarterbacks coach, Ben McAdoo. Eli Manning and Jason Pierre-Paul are the key holdovers from the Super Bowl era Giants, and have more than a punchers chance against the streaking Packers. Perhaps fighting against an innate fear to see yet another Giants/Patriots Super Bowl, I believe the Packers will save us all from the worst timeline.
Tall: On paper this game is by far the best game on Wild Card weekend. This game puts the explosive Green Back offense against New York’s stout defense. This game will be tough for Aaron Rodgers, who has been red hot as of late. If the teams’ first meeting in early October the Giants picked off Rodgers twice and held him to just 23 of 45 passing. If the Giants defense can rattle Rodgers and the Giants offense finally gets it going I think the Giants are in a good position to pull the upset. The Giants have done it twice at Lambeau, so why not a third time? I’m taking the Giants in a very close game.
Thomas: Probably a home underdog, but the Packers are one of the hottest teams in the league and are going to look to erase some bad postseason memories. Some come from when they lost a 19-point lead to Seattle in the NFC championship 2 years ago. Others from 2007 and 2011, when they lost to a lower-seeded Giants’ team that went on to win the Super Bowl. Yes, the Giants have won 8 consecutive playoff games, but the Packers are as hot as anyone right now. I’ll take Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau over Eli Manning any day. Not to mention, the Packers have scored at least 30 points in their last four games. The Giants are averaging 15 points per game in that span, and haven’t scored more than 28 all season. This offense for Green Bay is too good to be slowed down, even by an excellent Giants defense. I’m calling an overtime victory for the Packers.