Long time, no see, everyone! For those of you following me on Facebook, you know I haven’t been inactive as I finished the NFL regular season with another successful 63% prediction rate. Now, as Sports Thoughts begins its third year online, it’s time for some playoff predictions. With an exciting week ahead of us in a wide open field of playoff contenders, let’s take a look at who will move on to the Divisional Round.
Colts at Texans (Saturday 4:35 PM ET ESPN/ABC)
We start in Houston with an AFC South clash. As the Indianapolis Colts and the Houston Texans both claimed a three-point road victory against each other already this season, these teams could hardly be more evenly-matched. As the two prepare for their third meeting, the difference in the game will come from coach’s strategies and in-game adjustments to the familiar foe.
The Texans are far from the hottest team in the League right now, scuffling into the postseason winning only two games last month, and squandering a chance at a first round bye. However, for a team that started 2018 with an 0-3 record, I think Houston fans can still be delighted to finish with the third-best record in the AFC. Riding a midseason nine-game win streak, the Texans’ electric offense led by the Clemson combination of Deshaun Watson and Deandre Hopkins spreads opponents with their pace and explosiveness. The defense isn’t bad either, with a front four that has J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney pressuring the quarterback. A team with talent all over the field, the Texans certainly seem to be flying under the radar as a dangerous contender.
The Colts have scratched and clawed their way to their first playoff berth since 2014. After a 1-5 start, the Colts went on a tear to win nine of their last 10 games to earn the sixth seed, the only loss being an odd 0-6 score in Jacksonville. Indianapolis needed every win too, as a loss to the Titans in Week 17 would’ve ended their season. The constant must-win scenario took a toll on the Colts’ health, as T.Y. Hilton and Marlon Mack in particular have played through injuries nearly every week. As the pressure mounts and lack of recovery time continues to add up, it remains to be seen just how long these star players can hang on. Defensively, Indianapolis has been admirable, led by Rookie of the Year candidate Darius Leonard. So, while the Colts are smoldering hot right now, do they have the health, stamina, and balance to escape Houston with another win?
When it comes to match-ups that feature so much familiarity, the result goes beyond the Colts’ hot streak and the Texans’ slightly superior talent. Houston coach Bill O’Brien and first-year coach Frank Reich go toe-to-toe in decision-making during crucial times of the game. Who goes for it on fourth and one? Who kicks the field goal on fourth and goal? While O’Brien has the edge in experience as a head coach, Reich just won a Super Bowl with the Eagles and certainly has an idea of what it takes to get back. I look forward to watch this chess match kick off this afternoon.
Prediction: Texans win 23-20.
Seahawks at Cowboys (Saturday 9:15 PM ET FOX)
The night cap features two fan favorites. The Cowboys are back in the playoffs after being quickly eliminated in their last appearance in 2016, despite having the best record in the NFC that year by far. Some blame the decision to rest their star players in a meaningless Week 17 game before a first round bye as one reason for their upset to the Packers. So, this year, in another meaningless game, the Cowboys played nearly everyone in the last game against the Giants. This allowed both Ezekiel Elliott to rest, and star linebacker Leighton Vander Esch to get hurt. Whether these roster moves come from coach Jason Garrett or owner Jerry Jones, I believe Dallas needs to take a very close look at what successful teams’ strategies are as the playoffs near.
The Seahawks, who many thought were heading toward a rebuild after an 0-2 start, have made it into the playoffs. Despite a defense that is a shell of the “Legion of Boom” that made it to the Super Bowl a few years prior, linebacker Bobby Wagner has left his mark and helped the Seahawks cruise to a five-seed, only missing out on the division title because they had to deal with the Los Angeles Rams. On offense, Russell Wilson continued to get better as the season went on, piling up yards through the air and on the ground against good teams like the Chiefs and the Vikings down the stretch. Chris Carson balances the attack with a powerful run game and a relentless motor. Similar to the Texans, the Seahawks go to Texas balanced, healthy, and hungry.
The hometown Cowboys are favored in this game, but you wouldn’t know it if you watched their last few games. Dallas’ once-scary offense of Dak Prescott, Elliott, and one of the best offensive lines of all time has plummeted. Whether it’s Garrett’s tired play-calling or injuries to the big men, the offense has noticeably scuffled to just 21 points per game. In other terms, the Cowboys went from the third-best offense in the NFC in 2016, to the fourth-worst in 2018. In addition, they enter this game following a 23-0 drubbing by the Colts, and two narrow victories to teams with top-6 draft picks.
Meanwhile, as I mentioned, the Seahawks are playing some of their best football down the stretch. Though they got upset by their arch-rival 49ers in Week 15, they still won six of their last seven games including prime victories against the aforementioned Chiefs and Vikings, as well as the Packers and the Panthers. Though Seattle doesn’t dominate anybody, their ability to win away from their infamous home crowd against big time opponents is crucial in the postseason, and their hot streak will ultimately lead them to the Divisional Round.
Prediction: Seahawks win 31-22.
Chargers at Ravens (Sunday 1:05 PM ET CBS)
Following the trend, the Ravens steamrolled through the back-half of their schedule, winning six of their last seven games to narrowly top the Steelers as AFC North champions. Ever since Lamar Jackson took over as quarterback (who, by the way, I still think is the best QB of his class), the Ravens have been nearly unstoppable, falling only at a raucous Arrowhead Stadium by a field goal. Now, their staple of a physical defense with a new dual threat quarterback gives Baltimore a unique dangerous look as a popular dark horse for the Super Bowl.
I really like the Chargers this year. They were my pick to win the AFC West this year, and as it turns out, they were a tiebreaker away (or a win over the Ravens in Week 16 away) from not only taking the division, but the entire conference. Instead, they take to the road at 12-4 to travel across the country and face a really motivated Ravens team. Led by Philip Rivers, perhaps the best QB without a Super Bowl appearance, the offense can hurt opponents in a number of ways. With a healthy Melvin Gordon in the backfield and a speedy Keenan Allen out wide, the stout Ravens defense will have their hands full.
However, the matchup to watch is on the other side of the ball. Lamar Jackson is undoubtedly inclined to use his legs more than his strong arm, and the Chargers have one of the best defensive lines in the League. Joey Bosa will certainly get his shots at the quarterback, but it’s up to the rest of the front to contain him. If Coach Anthony Lynn over-pursues his blitz, Jackson will have a field day. If he mixes up coverages at the line for the young QB, the Chargers have the ability to shutout an inexperienced offense. As the Ravens don’t have a bunch of playmakers, it’s easy enough to dedicate a man or two to the spy position as a failsafe which should always keep the L.A. defense in third down positions.
Of the fourteen years Philip Rivers has been in the NFL, this has got to be his best team to date. He has good chemistry with the first-year head coach, and plenty of weapons surrounding him. The Ravens defense is as good as they come, but his veteran leadership and decision-making will be vital to get points on the board. This one is going to be fun for neutral fans, as it promises to be low-scoring with plenty of momentum swings throughout.
Prediction: Chargers win 17-16.
Eagles at Bears (Sunday 4:40 PM ET NBC)
The final wild card game features the reigning World Champions and the Cinderella story Chicago Bears. Last year, Philadelphia won the Super Bowl after their star quarterback Carson Wentz went down in Week 14, leaving Nick Foles to start in Week 15 and beyond. Eerily, the same scenario unfolded for Foles and the Eagles this year. Will history repeat itself?
I don’t like betting on defending champs often, because usually the drive to go back-to-back isn’t there. However, with their backs against the wall after a brutal defeat to the Cowboys late in the season, the Eagles won their final three games to clinch the last playoff spot. In addition, the underdog role isn’t new to Philly, as they weren’t favored in any of their playoff victories last year. With so many similarities to last season, think twice before ruling out the Eagles again.
Speaking of last year, the Bears were 5-11 and dead last in the NFC North a year ago. Now, with first-year head coach Matt Nagy and the addition of Khalil Mack, the Bears have made a complete turn around to Division Champions. The offense is okay under young quarterback Mitch Trubisky and the running back duo of Tarik Cohen and Jordan Howard, but the real star is the defense. As much of a problem as Mack is for the backfield, Eddie Jackson and Kyle Fuller boast an impressive secondary. If “defense wins championships”, the Bears have little to worry about as they try for their second Super Bowl in history.
The Eagles have their work cut out for them in Soldier Field, but they have invaluable playoff experience that the Bears don’t have. Advancing in a win-or-go-home format is unlike anything in the regular season, and the Bears could find that out the hard way. However, the Bears have a feisty defense, and they are relentless to the ball which often frustrates offenses and takes them out of rhythm. If the Bears and their fans can break up the Eagles’ playbook early, they can cruise, even if they can’t put up a lot of points on offense.
Prediction: Bears win 21-13.