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NFL Picks – Wildcard Weekend

Even the great Aaron Rodgers has had trouble getting the Green Bay offense to produce. Can that change in the playoffs? (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Last Week:  11 – 5 – 0
Season:     164 – 92 – 0

Saturday, January 9 (4:35PM ET)

(5) Chiefs at (4) Texans
The Chiefs started the 2015 season 1-5. The Texans stumbled out of the gates to a disappointing 2-5 record. Combined, Kansas City and Houston finished the season on an impressive 17-2 run. Only the combined records of Arizona and Carolina could match 17-2 over that stretch. In other words, you could make a strong case these are the two hottest teams in football.

In addition to two of the hottest teams, two of the NFL’s most underrated receivers will be featured Saturday afternoon. In any other season, DeAndre Hopkins would have been lauded with accolades and national attention. Unfortunately, Hopkins’ 111 receptions, 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns were “only good enough” for 3rd best in the NFL in 2015. That’s how insanely good Julio Jones and Antonio Brown were this year. Regardless, Hopkins dominated defenses and accumulated career highs despite FOUR DIFFERENT STARTING QUARTERBACKS, the absence of injured All-Pro running back Arian Foster, and the NFL’s 19th ranked offense. In other words, Hopkins was the only offensive threat on that roster for most of the season and the Texans still won 9 games and the AFC South title. Did I mention Hopkins is only 23?

Jeremy Maclin isn’t as young or as talented as Hopkins, but he’s every bit as valuable to his team. Prior to Maclin’s arrival, the best season a wide receiver had in Kansas City during Alex Smith’s tenure resulted in 57 receptions for 673 yards and 5 touchdowns. In only 14 ½ games in 2015, Maclin accumulated 87 receptions, 1088 yards and 8 touchdowns. Like Hopkins, Maclin’s season came with the team’s All-Pro running back sidelined for most of the season.

Despite the NFL’s 27th ranked offense, the Chiefs managed to score 25 points per game, good enough for 9th in the league. If the offense isn’t moving the football it’s safe to assume the defense is either scoring or handing the offense points via field position. The answer is turnovers. The Kansas City defense forced 29 turnovers this season (5th in the league). As is typical for an Andy Reid offense, the Chiefs protected the football and finished 2nd in the NFL in turnover differential (+14).

In a game featuring two top 7 defenses in both yards allowed and points scored, turnovers will be the deciding factor. Believe it or not, I trust Alex Smith more than Brian Hoyer. Although I’m taking the Chiefs, I don’t feel great about it. Kansas City was 3-4 against playoff teams this season, but one of those victories came against Pittsburgh without Roethlisberger. Another was against the Texans way back in Week 1. Andy Reid is also 0-4 in the postseason since his last playoff victory on January 11, 2009. I should stop before I completely talk myself out of this pick. CHIEFS If I were Charles Barkley; Chiefs -3.5

Saturday, January 9 (8:15PM ET)

(6) Steelers at (3) Bengals
This has very little to do with this game, but I found it interesting anyway… Only 4 of the NFL’s 15 leading rushers played for a playoff team in 2015. Similarly, only 5 of the NFL’s top 15 passers (in yards) and 7 of the league’s top 15 receivers reached the postseason. Only 4 of the NFL’s top 10 offenses (in yards) got to the playoffs. Meanwhile, 7 of the top 10 defenses are vying for Super Bowl glory. Is it possible we overrate offensive production in the NFL? Possibly, but I’m not convinced since this was not the case in 2013 or 2014. The amount of top 10 offenses to reach the postseason vs. top 10 defenses was nearly equal or favored offenses. Is 2015 an anomaly due to injuries (Green Bay, Dallas) or have NFL defenses adjusted to the new style of play/officiating that drastically favors offense?

As for this AFC North rubber match, I have no idea what will happen. While I have a hard time believing the Steelers will lay an egg in the opening round of the playoffs two years in a row, it’s hard to grant them a victory after they fell flat on their faces to Ryan Mallet and the Ravens two weeks ago. The Steelers passing attack is obviously elite, and Antonio Brown is 2nd only to Julio Jones in terms of game-changing receivers (and even that’s debatable). However, in two games against the Bengals this season, Ben Roethlisberger failed to get to 300 yards and threw 1 touchdown and 4 interceptions. Brown also was limited against Cincinnati. In two games he had 13 receptions for only 134 yards.

On the other hand, I can’t trust the Bengals. While AJ McCarron has done well filling in for the injured Andy Dalton, he doesn’t have a reliable ground game to bail him out if things go to custard. Sure, the Bengals ground game isn’t awful, but Jeremy Hill watched his average per rush drop even more significantly than DeMarco Murray’s in 2015. If Hill struggles to the move the chains as he did all season, McCarron will be a sitting duck. I can’t back a rookie quarterback with an offense that can’t chew clock and move the ball. STEELERS If I were Charles Barkley; Steelers -2.5

Sunday, January 10 (1:05PM ET)

(6) Seahawks at (3) Vikings
A few months ago the thought of a zero degree game time temperature working against the Seahawks would’ve been silly. Seattle relies on running the ball and defense. At least they did until Russell Wilson unleashed 2,000 yards and 24 touchdowns over a seven week stretch from late November to early January. Now Seattle is a bona fide airborne juggernaut. Unfortunately for the Seahawks, passing attacks tend to slow when the temperature dips into single digits. Without Thomas Rawls, Seattle could be in trouble here. I know Marshawn Lynch is supposed to play, but he hasn’t played in nearly two months, and when he did play this season his production was as low as it’s ever been in his time with Seattle.

On the flip side, Minnesota is as one-dimensional as they come. The Vikings ranked 2nd to last in passing offense and 4th best in rushing. That’s bad news against any decent defense. On Sunday, Minnesota will meet the league’s top rush defense and the 2nd best pass defense. The Seahawks also surrender the fewest points in the league. Adrian Peterson is great. He’s the only dominant back in the NFL right now. But there’s a reason Barry Sanders never had much playoff success. When your offense revolves around one player it’s too easy to stop, especially for a historically great defense. The weather should keep Minnesota closer to Seattle than they found themselves a month ago, but the result will be the same. SEAHAWKS If I were Charles Barkley; Seahawks -6

Sunday, January 10 (4:40PM ET)

(5) Packers at (4) Redskins
I’m messing with fire here. Picking all road teams is an easy way to look like a fool. I suppose picking the Redskins would be wise. It’s not that crazy of a pick, either. The Packers have been atrocious of late while the Redskins have only lost once since Thanksgiving.

Aaron Rodgers’ production has been especially alarming. Throughout the first six weeks of the season, Rodgers averaged 249 yards per game and tossed 15 touchdowns and 2 interceptions over that span. Over Green Bay’s final ten games, Rodgers averaged 233 yards per game and had 16 touchdowns to go along with 6 interceptions. Furthermore, Rodgers’ Quarterback rating reached triple digits in four of those first six games. His rating in the other two games was 99.0 and 82.8. Rodgers’ rating in the next ten games never reached 100, touched the 90s only three times and fell below 70 four times. For comparison, Rodgers’ rating was over 100 eleven times in 2014 and dipped below 80 only once. He also had eight games in 2014 where he surpassed 300 yards as opposed to only two 300+ outings in 2015. Essentially, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers really, REALLY, REALLY miss Jordy Nelson. It only took NFL defenses six weeks to figure out Rodgers had no deep threat. After that, defenses smothered Packer receivers knowing they lacked the speed to run past safeties.

So I’m taking the Redskins, right? Nope. Look at Washington’s schedule. Find me their best win of the season. Is it smothering the Rams in Week 2? Taking out the Giants after Thanksgiving? Ending the Eagles’ season after Christmas? Washington was 0-4 against teams that won at least eight games. Their margins of defeat against winning teams were 14, 17 and 28. Kirk Cousins is having a nice season, and sure, the Washington defense has been respectable. However, I’m not backing a playoff team that hasn’t beaten a good team all season. I don’t care how bad Green Bay’s offense has been since Halloween. PACKERS If I were Charles Barkley; Packers +1

*****

Last Week: 8 – 8 – 0
Season:    130 – 122 – 4

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