2017 NFL Wild Card Predictions

{Originally Published January 6, 2017}

The 2017 NFL Playoffs kick off this Saturday, and there are plenty of reasons to watch. Two quarterbacks battling as they make their first career postseason starts, three teams trying to reach the Super Bowl for the first time in 32 years or longer, four coaches trying to cement their legacy as a future Hall of Famer, and of course, America’s team is back. Let’s take a look at the Wild Card round.

RAIDERS AT TEXANS    Saturday 4:20 PM ET

NFL: International Series-Houston Texans at Oakland Raiders
At first glance, you see two talented defensive lines looking to get to inexperienced quarterbacks. The Texans signal-caller, Brock Osweiler, has never made a postseason appearance thanks to Peyton Manning returning for the Broncos just in time for the playoffs in 2015. The Texans subsequently signed Osweiler to an astounding 4 year, $72 million contract in the offseason. Many have claimed that they overpaid for an unproven Osweiler, as he was merely a role player for a very talented Broncos team that won the Super Bowl without his help in the playoffs. This is also proven by last year’s already suspect passer rating of 86.4 dropping to a dismal 77.2 this year. Not to mention he was benched in week 16 in favor of the backup, Tom Savage. However, when Savage went down with a concussion in week 17, it’s Osweiler’s team again. You better believe he has something to prove.

Meanwhile, the Raiders’ quarterback situation might be even worse. Derek Carr led his team to a 12-3 record seemingly out of nowhere, vaulting him up the MVP Rankings and putting the Raiders in position for a 2 seed in the AFC. Along with his elite receiving core,  the Raiders earned their first winning season since 2002. With everything going their way, the unthinkable happens. The MVP candidate dropped back to throw in the fourth quarter up big over the Colts. He would get sacked, and fracture his leg, ending his season. Backup Matt McGloin would step in and the Raiders would hang on for their 12th victory of the season. All seemed to be okay, until McGloin suffered a shoulder injury in a very meaningful game against the Broncos in week 17. Enter rookie Connor Cook. It was too late to salvage a win, or even more than a touchdown, as the Raiders lose and surrender the 2 seed, and home field advantage to the Chiefs. Now Cook, with a mere 32 minutes of NFL experience under his belt, must turn around a demoralized team in his first career start, on the road, in the playoffs. Can he handle the pressure?

You may recall Connor Cook’s last playoff appearance. No, not in the NFL, but the College Football Playoffs. His Michigan State team never scored as Alabama rolled 38-0. Don’t think he’s forgotten. But don’t think Brock Osweiler hasn’t been waiting for his shot since Manning replaced him last year. These are two motivated quarterbacks with a lot on the line.

In an defensive struggle, Raiders use their offensive weapons and prevail 20-14.

LIONS AT SEAHAWKS    Saturday 8:15 PM ET

x-1The Lions have the longest Super Bowl drought in history, never having been to the pinnacle since 1957, back when it was just the NFL Championship. Furthermore, their last playoff win came in 1991. As the 6 seed this year, it’s highly unlikely the drought ends any time soon. The Lions limp in to the postseason, losers of three straight in part due to a fractured finger of quarterback Matthew Stafford. However, with no real standout players its hard to put the blame solely on him. Fortunately, an emerging running back, Zach Zenner, could be a much needed spark plug for Detroit. With star safety Earl Thomas out for the Seahawks, look for Stafford and company try to exploit the weakened secondary. That said, the toughest test for the Lions will the famed 12th Man. Nobody wants to play in Seattle, especially in the playoffs. The fans are well known for their loud, overwhelming support of the hometown Seahawks. If Detroit doesn’t let the volume affect their play, look forward to a well played game that goes down to the wire.

The Seahawks look to return to the Super Bowl after the heart breaking loss suffered two years ago. This year’s team has talent all over their roster, despite the injury to Thomas. In fact, much of Seattle’s depth chart is the same as their previous Super Bowl run. Russell Wilson will look to utilize his many options on offense, including veterans Baldwin and Graham. He’s also a versatile dual threat quarterback that can burn teams with his arm as well as his legs. The smothering defense makes few mistakes, not to mention the boost of the home crowd. On a roll and with momentum on their side, Seattle will make it hard on Detroit to gain any kind of momentum of their own. Problems can arise if the Lions mix up play calling effectively, allowing Zenner and Stafford to work in tandem and keep the opposing defense on their heels.

All and all, The Seahawks have too much talent and momentum to lose this game. They have the support of the 12th Man, and the valuable postseason experience to pull out a win. As desperately as Detroit wants to snap the droughts, they don’t have the tools, health, or heat coming in to the playoffs to get it done this year.

Seattle cruises at home behind Russell Wilson, 31-14.

DOLPHINS AT STEELERS    Sunday 1:05 PM ET

x-2The Dolphins enter the playoffs with a 10-6 record, second in their division only to the 1 seeded Patriots. This is their best record since their last postseason appearance in 2008. Although their last playoff victory came in 2000, the Dolphins are ready to roll into Pittsburgh and beat the Steelers, just as they did at home back in October. Miami running back, Jay Ajayi, will give the Steel Curtain fits as his speed and athleticism could again prove to be too much. Also, as Ryan Tannehill recovers from his knee injury from Dec. 11, the Dolphins could be at full strength at the perfect time. If not, Matt Moore has done a solid job holding down the fort, locking up a playoff spot without too much drama. While the Dolphins look to ride Ajayi’s wheels into the divisional round, look for Pittsburgh to try to shut down the run game and force Miami to throw the ball. If the Dolphins are forced out of their comfort zone, there may be trouble in paradise.

The Steelers are red hot and fired up to prove themselves in the playoffs. Motivated by former Steeler quarterback and current FOX broadcaster, Terry Bradshaw, calling head coach Mike Tomlin “a cheerleader”, the Steelers have rallied around Tomlin winning their last 7 games to enter play. Even better, Pittsburgh was able to clinch the 3 seed after week 16, allowing their star “Killer B’s” to rest against the Browns in week 17. After pulling off an emotional walk off victory in overtime against their longtime rival, the Steelers have high spirits. Best of all, a healthy Ben, Brown, and Bell means big trouble for Miami. The Steelers will try to avoid their sometimes inconsistant play by limiting turnovers and penalties. If the Dolphins find ways to force these mistakes, and allow Ajayi to gash the defense, the Steelers may have a tough time getting things going.

This will be a back and forth game full of great plays and strategic moves. Ajayi will break the 100 yard mark again, but so will the opportunistic Le’veon Bell. Big Ben will try to avoid big hits and connect on long plays downfield, while the Dolphins try to disguise and balance their stout running game.

Tomlin shows he’s more than a cheerleader, Steelers win 34-21.

GIANTS AT PACKERS    Sunday 4:40 PM ET

x-3This is the game of the weekend. Both teams are ready for the postseason. The Giants at 11-5 have a long history of winning it all from a low seed. Two-time champion quarterback, Eli Manning, is 8-0 as an underdog. 8-0! You never count out this team that’s full of heart. This year is particularly intriguing because of the multitude of playmakers, highlighted by standout receiver Odell Beckham Jr. While his emotions may get the best of him at times, there is no denying he is one of the best in the league.  He will be ready to tear up a weak Packer defense. Meanwhile, the Giants sharp defense looks to make Aaron Rodgers escape the pocket or check down for short gains. Don’t expect them to layoff the hard hits either. Look for the Giants to make the necessary plays on offense, but if they can’t slow down Green Bay while on defense, it’ll be a long, cold night in Lambeau.

The Packers are one of the hottest teams in the NFL. Winners of 6 straight, Green Bay is flying high after clinching the NFC North last week. Aaron Rodgers proves again and again that he is one of the best quarterbacks in the league with his decision making, pinpoint accuracy, and ability to avoid sacks. A top MVP candidate, Rodgers and his many passing targets look to confuse the Giants and force coverage mistakes. Weaknesses come in the running game, and at defense. Without a true running back, it could prove to be very difficult to sell the Giants on a balanced attack. Also, the Packers must stop OBJ and try to avoid putting too much pressure on Rodgers. Luckily, Rodgers has been known to be both clutch and lucky, pulling off countless game-winning drives, even with a couple Hail Mary throws. While the Packers have home field advantage, don’t expect the cold to throw off New York.

This game will be entertaining from start to finish. Manning and Rodgers will match big play after big play. With neither team’s running game shown to be all that strong, there will be a lot of pressure on the D-lines to rush the QB and force errant throws. A key will be ball possession, allowing your defense to rest while forcing the opponent to play tight coverage every down. It’ll be a show of endurance.

Green Bay edges out New York, 28-24.

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