2016 NFL Picks: Wild Card Round
Last Week: 6-8
- Oakland Raiders +3.5 at Houston Texans
- Seattle Seahawks -8 vs. Detroit Lions
- Pittsburgh Steelers -10 vs. Miami Dolphins
- New York Giants +4.5 at Green Bay Packers
Last week didn't go quite as planned, adding my ability to pick NFL games against the spread to the list of 2016's victims. We wrapped up the regular season four games below .500 including the picks posted to our Facebook page on Sunday afternoon. I'm disappointed, probably more than someone picking against the Vegas oddsmakers should be.
Luckily for fans of the NFL, we still have four weeks of competitive professional football left before the season ends. Most of those games will even be good, once the backup quarterbacks are eliminated from the field. We'll be here to pick all of them, even with the Bachelor ramping back up. Let's get to it!
Oakland Raiders +3.5 at Houston Texans
Brock Osweiler is starting this game, due to some combination of Tom Savage’s concussion in Week 17 and Houston’s desperate hope his $72M contract isn’t an albatross of Gozerian proportion.
Connor Cook is starting this game, due to a combination of Derek Carr’s broken fibula and Matt McGloin’s injured shoulder.
If this game is decided on offense, it will be through turnovers. So let’s talk about the defenses! Houston finished the season ranked 7th in defensive DVOA, well ahead of the Raiders, in 23rd. The teams are about the same against the run, though, where the Texans rank 17th and Oakland 18th. In a game neither coach should feel comfortable placing in the hands of his quarterback, the running game will take on greater importance; the Raiders were 15th in rushing DVOA while the Texans were 30th. Unless one defense decisively wins the turnover battle, it should be a slow, low-scoring game. This would seem to favor the Raiders, who have a superior offensive line, more offensive weapons, and in my opinion, a better coach. Oakland is also better on special teams, where they rank 11th to Houston’s 32nd. Derek Carr’s injury ended Oakland’s Super Bowl hopes, but did it really make them worse than the Texans?
Final: Houston 5, Oakland 3? You could convince me of almost anything here, but I’ll say Oakland 16, Houston 10.
Seattle Seahawks -8 vs. Detroit Lions
Seattle’s defense has struggled since losing Earl Thomas in their 40-7 trouncing of Carolina in Week 13. They gave up 38 points to the Packers in Week 14 and 34 points to the Cardinals in Week 16, but most embarrassing was allowing the 49ers to break 20 points in a meaningful Week 17 tilt. It’s impossible to replace a player of Thomas’s caliber, but the injury sword is double-sided, and it might have already dealt a fatal blow to their opponent this week.
The Lions are, by most objective measures, not a very good team. They finished the season ranked 27th in total DVOA, and their only strengths were offensive passing (13th) and special teams (6th). Since Matthew Stafford dislocated the middle finger on his throwing hand in the second half of a narrow victory over Matt Barkley in Week 14, he and the Lions’ offense have struggled. After throwing 7 interceptions in the first 13 games, Stafford threw 3 interceptions in the last three, as the Lions scored 6, 21, and 24 points against the league’s 4th-, 18th-, and 22nd-ranked passing defenses. The first is understandable, as you’ll see when I rave about the Giants’ defense further down the page. The other two are concerning, especially given the stakes and the 7 points from a late hail mary against the Packers.
But hey, they still scored over twenty points against the middling Cowboys and Packers, right? Should we expect them to fare considerably worse against the Seahawks’ 13th-ranked passing defense? I do, but I understand if you think they can scratch their way into the low 20s. Unfortunately for many of my friends, this is the point in the night when the Lions’ 32nd-ranked defense answers a call from its ex, slams a few shots of tequila, and starts crying in the middle of the sidewalk. The Seahawks don’t run the ball very well, ranking 23rd; the Lions are 23rd against the run. The Seahawks don’t pass the ball very well, either, ranking 16th; the Lions are 32nd against the pass. Much of Seattle’s struggles have been traced to their poor (and inexpensive) offensive line; Detroit is 25th in adjusted sack rate. For all of their weaknesses on offense, Russell Wilson is a magician, which explains how they’ve managed to score at least 25 points in six of their last nine games.
If Stafford was healthy, I think he’d help the Lions keep this game close with whatever strange juju they rode to a 9-4 record. He’s not, and the magic is gone.
Final: Seattle 27, Detroit 17
Pittsburgh Steelers -10 vs. Miami Dolphins
The Steelers finished the season with the league’s 8th-best offense by DVOA, but Weeks 3 and 4 provide a neat microcosm of their season-long performance. In Week 3, I picked them to welcome the upstart Eagles to the real NFL (Philadelphia had played the Bears and Browns); they were beaten like a drum, losing 34-3 to a team that ultimately finished 7-9. “Maybe it just isn’t going to come together for them this season”, I thought, heading into Week 4 against Kansas City; they beat the Chiefs, who finished 12-4, 43-14. So, which team will show up this week against Miami? No, seriously, which one? Can you tweet at me, or send it to our Facebook page? It would drastically reduce my anxiety over this pick.
The Dolphins aren’t much more consistent. They injured Ben Roethlisberger and beat the Steelers 30-15 in Week 6 to kick off a six-game winning streak. I thought they’d be able to hang with Pittsburgh’s division rival Ravens, so I picked them and 3.5 points in Week 13. They lost 38-6 to a Baltimore team who finished 24th in offensive DVOA. The two biggest sources of concern for the possibly mythical Dolphins fans should be their inability to rush the passer (31st in adjusted sack rate) and their struggles against running backs (22nd in defensive rushing DVOA, 10th against passes to RBs). Pittsburgh has a quarterback who loves to stay in the pocket longer than any reasonable person and the first running back to average over 100 yards rushing and over 50 yards receiving per game.
The Dolphins won this matchup earlier in the year when they knocked Roethlisberger out of the game. Since then, their eight wins have come against teams with an average record of 5-11. Now Pittsburgh has a healthy-ish starting quarterback playing at home. The end result is going to be a lot different.
Final: Pittsburgh 34, Miami 13
New York Giants +4.5 at Green Bay Packers
As a Bears fan, I struggle to remain objective about the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers. Objectively, Aaron Rodgers is one of the three best quarterbacks in the NFL and seems like a decent dude off the field. Subjectively, he’s a jerk who lives to ruin my Sundays, hopes, and dreams. Objectively, the Packers are surging, having won six games in a row. Subjectively, they deserve to be beaten down on national television for winning so persistently.
Deep breaths, Truck. Try to stay objective. Here we go: The Packers win streak began after being blown out of the water way back before Thanksgiving. I remember the game well, both because I picked it correctly and because it seemed like the Packers defense would never stop allowing touchdowns, which felt very nice. Despite resembling a Madden defense on rookie difficulty that night, the Packers turned around and held opponents to 18.7 points per game en route to yet another NFC North championship. Did Dom Capers somehow engineer a remarkable, understaffed turnaround? I suppose it’s possible, but the caliber of Green Bay’s opponents certainly helped. Since Aaron Rodgers raised the possibility of running the table before Week 12, the Packers have played zero teams with a top-10 offense. The best they faced was Detroit’s; the Lions rank 15th in offensive DVOA and their quarterback had/has a dislocated finger on his throwing hand. My Bears were next best, and Matt Barkley was our quarterback. He threw three interceptions and the Bears still scored 27 points in a narrow loss. The Packers’ offense looks better, but the best defense they faced was Seattle’s, who was in week one of the no-Earl-Thomas experience.
The Giants’ offense isn’t very good, and has been a consistent source of ridicule in these picks for featuring one weapon and a playcard long enough to impress George R.R. Martin. New York still won ten games because their defense finished 2nd in DVOA. I’ll always harbor at least some small fear that Stupid, Sexy Rodgers will burn down all opposing defenses with impunity, but objectively this Giants’ defense and the forecasted 26-degree weather in Green Bay should slow him down. If they can hold the Packers under 25 points, as they did the potent offenses of the Steelers, Cowboys (twice), Saints, and Redskins, it will be up to the offense to reach 20. That’s not a given for a team that finished 22nd in offensive DVOA, but they should be optimistic about getting a big play or two from Odell Beckham Jr. The Packers’ secondary has been shredded by injuries this season, with Sam Shields out and two other cornerbacks on the injury report. The players forced into action as a result ranked 28th against #1 Wide Receivers.
It will be cold, and neither team is going to set off fireworks on offense. In a low-scoring game, the Giants should cover even if they can’t win outright.
Final: New York 23, Green Bay 20