Well, this is uncharted territory for me. I told an editor last year that I don’t pick the playoffs, because it is really hard to do, with so many fluid factors that come into play in single-elimination games. Every possible aspect is amplified, from weather, to nagging injuries and sickness, to lost luggage, bad plane rides, late-night fire alarms pulled by hometown fans at the visiting team’s hotel, playoff jitters, players getting caught up in all the pregame celebrations, obscure role-players having breakout performances, and whatever else you can imagine. A million factors to consider, and any single one can decide the outcome. Yikes.
I was a glorious 0-4 on Wildcard Weekend, which confirms my point. Houston found some staunch defense in the second half of their game, while Buffalo’s D faded out in the glare of playoff football. They just weren’t ready for prime time yet. ‘If’ either rusher who got to Desean Watson on that play arrived a half second sooner than the other did, Watson gets sacked for a big loss. Instead, their momentum canceled each other out, and spun him around instead of knocking him over, and The Play happens. ‘If’ New England scores a touchdown on their first-and-goal from Tennessee’s 1-yard line, all those yards Derrick Henry vacuumed up in his epic performance mean nothing. ‘If’ Kyle Rudolph fails to secure that fade route catch in OT as he skitters out of bounds, Drew Brees may be looking at another shot for the Lombardi Trophy. ‘If’ Carson Wentz could ever remain healthy enough to actually play a playoff game, do the Eagles advance? You see what I mean….
So, once more into the breach…here’s the picks.
Titans at Ravens – Last week the Titans blasted New England’s Patriots with endless volleys of DeWreck Henry, leaving these symbols of the American Revolution battered and defeated. This week will be a different story, I think. Even as Baltimore’s Fort McHenry held firm against a relentless barrage of British cannon fire from land and sea to inspire the words of our national anthem, so will the Ravens’ banner fly high throughout this conflict and prevail. Harbaugh’s Heroes can play some defense, but they can also do the one thing New England failed to do that would turn the tables to their favor…score. Once an opponent takes the lead against Tennessee, it forces the team to throw more. While Tannehill has had a nice season, forcing him to win the game with his arm has NEVER been his strong suit. The Patriots’ failure to contain Henry allowed Flyin’ Ryan to attempt a meagre 15 throws with eight completions, two key ones going to Firkser for a td and a crucial first down on a 3rd and eight. Expect Action Jackson & Company to exploit the holes in Vrabel’s D, by mismatching his linebackers on play-option passes (something NE had success with, then abandoned). Give the Titans their due – they fought valiantly and got where nobody thought they could. This Ravens team has more to prove this season…and prove it they will.
Texans at Chiefs – Houston won the regular season matchup here, largely because Kansas City’s run defense was lousy. Steve Spagnuolo has gradually stiffened the entire Chiefs’ D, and they aren’t the same team that lost the first meeting. Sammy Watkins was also missing due to injury, and as of this writing MVP Mahomes will have all his weapons available and armed. I just don’t see how the Texans can win relying primarily on their solid ground game. The Bieniemy Blitzkrieg offense (literally ‘lightning strike’) should leave Houston with too many men to cover adequately. Playing from behind will do the rest. Chiefs scalp the Texans.
Vikings at 49ers – In a week of great games, this is the ‘must see’ game. These teams match up well, with the exception of the short pass-and-run that the Niners love and the Vikes have some trouble defending. San Fran’s Triple Threat ground game will likely determine how the clock is doled out for each team, although Dalvin will Cook up some real estate for his team as well. Can Minnesota solve the Kittle riddle? The Niners rank better in offense, defense, passing and rushing…but they are unbloodied as a playoff team. The Vikings are the opposite; a gritty, seasoned playoff team that resembles their mascot. They are coming off an underdog win against New Orleans. Clearly either team could win this game. Two things tip the scales for me; better defense (Niners) and more versatility in the ground game (Niners). San Fran and Shanahan find playoff gold inside their pan.
Seahawks at Packers – Seattle flaps into frozen Lambeau this week, to try and cut the Cheese out of the playoff picture. Keys to this matchup are Seattle’s excellent red zone offense vs. the Pack’s stingy red zone D, the Seahawk’s problems stopping the run vs. the ‘other’ Aaron, and Seattle protecting Russell the Hustle against Green Bay’s hammer-and-anvil sack combo, fittingly both named Smith. One area the Pack could get exposed is the long strike, where DK ‘Defense Killer’ Metcalf and Tyler can Lockett down. Seattle thrives on the big play, and it only takes a few of those to determine an outcome. This matchup would feel more even if Pete Carroll had a better defense, and my feeling is that the Squawks will get exposed there most of all. The Packers should be able to keep the ball in Aaron Rodgers’ hands longer, and that should spell victory. Green Bay sends Seattle Packing.
Enjoy the games!