Let the second season begin! I can’t help but think that as the NFL celebrates its 100th anniversary, Pete Rozelle’s vision of league parity is well-represented in this year’s playoff picture. Unlike other pundits, I don’t see any clear, runaway powerhouse leader in this batch of playoff teams, as in years past. Oh sure, there are 1st tier and 2nd tier teams in my view, but not one that stands out as practically invincible. The way this season has played out with unpredictable finishes, it’s anybody’s bet who will emerge as the champ at this point.
Let’s get to the picks.
Bills at Texans – On paper, this looks like a mismatch tilted Buffalo’s way. McDermott’s defense is a lot better than O’Brien’s (sounds like an Irish feud), JJ Watt’s return notwithstanding. Houston has been abysmal against the run this year, and even worse against running QBs, and Allen’s 500 yards and 7 rushing TDs loom in this game. Protecting the passer has also not been Houston’s strong suit, and Buffalo has D-backs that will force Watson to wait for open receivers….and hear footsteps in his pocket. Hyde’s groundwork will be essential, and Watson will have to be extra resourceful finding Hopkins if Houston is going to hang around late in the game. If defense does indeed win championships, then this is the last bus stop for the Texans this season. Bills get paid deep in the heart of Texas.
Titans at Patriots – As you know, New England is my team, and after what I have seen this season from both Tennessee and my Patriots, this game really isn’t easy to call. Tennessee matches up well with New England, because of their balanced offense and that sledgehammer that might as well be called John Henry, and the Titans’ weak red zone D vs the Patriots’ anemic red zone offense. The weather is supposed to be rainy/cold, which usually favors the Patriots (Dallas & Cleveland games), but 60 minutes of trying to tackle a wet O Henry nullifies that edge…not to mention Tannehill’s mobility. After New England inexplicably stepped in it against Miami last week, history suggests they will rebound strong this week. Two things I’m certain of; Vrabel will have his team ready to play hard, and Tannehill will be jazzed to show what he can do on the playoff stage. Belichick’s strength is taking away the one thing your team does best, which would be Derrick Henry. If the Pats can force Tannehill to throw 35-plus times by bottling up Henry, the odds favor them. That is a huge ‘if’. James White is the key to this game if he gets catches. Flying Elvis hasn’t left the building…yet. Patriots live another week.
Vikings at Saints – Minnesota has shown character and depth all season, and Cousins has played much more like a premier QB than his lackluster efforts of last year. Dalvin Cook provides offensive balance and another big-play threat to compliment receiver Diggs, but he is damaged and his durability in this game is questionable. For the Whodats, Kamara hasn’t had his best season this year, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be monstrous in the playoffs, particularly on play-option passes. Michael Thomas owns the new league receiving record, and he is just too good to contain. Add TE Jared Cook’s nine TD catches this season, and Drew Brees distributing precision strikes, and the field tilts in the Saints’ favor. There will be heartbreak for the Purple Pigskinners in Payton’s Place, as the Saints put their faith on the breeze from Drew’s golden arm.
Seattle at Philadelphia – These two teams look like bare-knuckle fighters on the morning after…injuries have riddled both rosters, and ‘next-man-up’ has been the playbook all season. Russell ‘the Hustle’ Wilson is always a force to be reckoned with in close games, as his cagey resourcefulness and pure athleticism find a way to move the chains. The brief return of Marshawn Lynch hasn’t indicated whether he’s Beast Mode or a la mode when filling Seattle’s decimated backfield. I can see him being serviceable, but not the difference-maker in a playoff game. That will fall to DK ‘Difficult Katch’ Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. Philly has spackled and patched their crumbling roster as well, showing a resilience this season that belies their wimpy record. Wentz is using whatever receiver bodies are available to him, punching tough passes through some small gaps in the defense to find his guys. The ground game has somehow maintained position as one of the better ones in the NFC, in spite of injury attrition all season. The Squawks beat the Feebles earlier this year, but I think Philly pulls off the zombie apocalypse, rising from the dead to win at home this weekend. Seattle gets thumped in the city of Brotherly Lumps.
Enjoy the games!
Pigskin Pundit (Nate Clark)