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NFL Picks – Wildcard Weekend

At least one rookie quarterback will advance to the Divisional round. Will it be Russell Wilson or Robert Griffin III? Also, fixing the Texans recent struggles and why Aaron Rodgers (not Adrian Peterson) is the best player in the NFL. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Last Week:  10 – 6 – 0
Season:     160 – 95 – 1

Saturday, January 5 (4:30PM ET)

(6) Bengals at (3) Texans
The Houston Texans lost themselves. Too much Matt Schaub. Not enough Arian Foster. Uninspired defense. I was all in on the Texans in 2011 and again in 2012. I believed… and still do …the Texans would have been Super Bowl champs last year if not for the injury to Matt Schaub. For the first three quarters of the 2012 season, the Texans proved me right. Houston had the most balanced team in the NFL. As the Patriots, Packers, Giants and other favorites all struggled, the Texans cruised to one easy win after another. Then injuries ravaged the defense, the offensive line’s play dramatically fell off, and Matt Schaub was required to do too much.

You see, the Patriots, Broncos and Packers win with complicated offenses managed by elite quarterbacks. The Texans win with a simple offense – punish the opponent on the ground, bury them with the play action. When the run game can’t be established, the play action is useless and Schaub and the offense become sitting ducks. This is where the Texans find themselves right now.

In Houston’s last eight games, Arian Foster averaged more than 3.5 yards per rush only three times. In the first eight games, Foster averaged more than 3.5 yards six times. Does Foster deserve some of the blame? Perhaps, but if you’ve watched the Texans on a weekly basis, you know Foster is greeted at the line of scrimmage by a cement wall more often than not.

The Texan defense may have been good enough to carry a struggling offense early in the season, but not now. The loss of Brian Cushing was devastating and Pro Bowl corner Jonathan Joseph hasn’t been the same since a groin injury forced him to miss two games in late November. A limited defense and struggling ground game equals more pressure on Matt Schaub. This is bad news for the Texans.

Schaub is a solid quarterback. His stats are nice, he rarely kills your team’s chances to win, but he’s never quarterbacked an elite team until these last two seasons. In 2011, Schaub went down with injury as the playoff intensity heated up. This season, his poor play helped drop the Texans from the top overall seed in the AFC to the 2nd seed and then down to the 3rd seed. That bye week would have been a huge benefit to a banged up defense and an offense with confidence issues. Instead, the Texans will run back their first playoff game in franchise history and take on the Cincinnati Bengals again. Only this time, the Bengal defense is significantly better and the Texan offense is noticeably worse, and that’s with Matt Schaub under center.

Regardless, I don’t trust the Bengals. They won’t succeed in running the football and the Texans can’t be stupid enough to drop Schaub back in the pocket over and over again against the NFL’s best pass rush. (Right? Please tell me this is true.) If Schaub throws the football more than 30 times, the Texans lose. Arian Foster, go earn your money. TEXANS If I were Charles Barkley; Texans -4.5

Saturday, January 5 (8:00PM ET)

(6) Vikings at (3) Packers
I said this a few weeks ago and I’m sticking to it: The Packers will win the NFC. They’ve overcome so much to just slip up in the playoffs for the second straight season. Obviously, Adrian Peterson has been the NFL’s most dominant player for the past two months, but let’s not forget what Aaron Rodgers has accomplished this year.

Rodgers finished 8th in total passing yards, 3rd in completion percentage behind only Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan (with a receiving corps. with a bad case of the dropsies, no less), 2nd in passing TDs, first in TD/INT ratio (only 8 INTs), and 1st in QB Rating. Oh yeah, he accomplished all this without a running game, without a capable offensive line, and without his full arsenal of receivers. Greg Jennings missed eight games and was too hurt to finish another three. Jordy Nelson missed four games and was too hurt to be effective in two more. Even Randall Cobb sat out Week 17 with a knee injury. Sometimes we’re so spoiled by greatness that we miss it when it’s staring us in the face. Aaron Rodgers’ 2012 season has been nothing short of amazing. Without Rodgers, the Packers are 6-10. Without Rodgers, the Packers collapse after the Seattle farce. Rodgers is the single best player in the NFL. It’s not even a question. Go ahead and give the MVP award to the well deserving Adrian Peterson or Peyton Manning, but don’t forget who really did the most for his team in 2012.

Am I completely writing off the Vikings? Pretty much. Christian Ponder beat the Packers in Week 17 because Green Bay was asleep in the 1st half. Ponder was also at home. This week he’ll be in Lambeau for his first playoff start. I’m not expecting the Packers to shut down Adrian Peterson but I find it hard to believe the Vikings can keep up with Aaron Rodgers. If Minnesota fans want some hope, here’s some: Aaron Rodgers is 0-1 at home in the playoffs and 4-1 on the road. Sadly for them, he’s also the best football player in the world. PACKERS If I were Charles Barkley; Packers -7.5

Sunday, January 6 (1:00PM ET)

(5) Colts at (4) Ravens
We’re in the 18th week of the NFL season and I still can’t figure out if the Colts are a really good team or just a decent team overachieving and benefiting from a bad schedule. Impressive wins include the Vikings, Packers, and Texans. Lopsided losses include the Patriots, Texans, Bears, and Jets. Interesting. So Indy can hang with and beat teams with suspect defenses but they struggle against teams with better defenses? Good to know.

Granted, the Raven defense has been a shell of its former self this season, but they’re not completely awful, either. The Ravens will also be at home in front of one of the five best football environments in the NFL. Do I believe Andrew Luck can win in Baltimore in his first playoff start? Yes. Do I trust him to protect the football and avoid any costly turnovers? No.

On the other hand, I don’t trust Joe Flacco not to suck, nor do I trust the Ravens to protect a late lead. If you recall, the Ravens collapsed late against the Eagles, Cowboys, Steelers, and Redskins and only held on to win against Dallas. The Colts have been notorious for mounting unbelievable comebacks this season. Like their coach, they’re fighters. Perhaps they’re too naïve and young to know they should fear the Ravens. I have no idea what to expect here, so I’m going with the Ravens because they haven’t gone one-and-done in the postseason since 2006, which, fittingly, was a home loss to the Indianapolis Colts. RAVENS If I were Charles Barkley; Colts +7

Sunday, January 6 (4:30PM ET)

(5) Seahawks at (4) Redskins
Everyone and their mother is picking the Seahawks, and rightfully so. Seattle has been one of the NFL’s top five teams over the past month. It’s also been six seasons since all four home teams swept the Wildcard round. One road team is going to prevail, might as well be the Seahawks, right? Probably. Though, I ‘d like the Seahawks a whole lot more if they weren’t such an overwhelming favorite. (Giving three points on the road in a playoff game is a pretty big swing.)

Despite being the favorite and despite Washington’s “Nobody believed in us” potential, I can’t shy away from the Seahawks. They’re tailor made for winning on the road in the postseason.

Obviously, the Redskins offense has been impressive this season. Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris has been the NFL’s premiere rushing tandem right behind Adrian Peterson’s left and right leg. However, the Redskins offense as of January 4th, 2013 isn’t the same offense from early December 2012. Griffin is hurt. It’s obvious his explosion hasn’t come back. It didn’t matter last week against Dallas’ lackluster run defense. Morris paced the offense and controlled the clock. Running for 200 yards will slow any pass rush. Griffin was protected by a dominant ground game. For Washington to have any chance of upsetting the Seahawks, they’ll need another stellar performance from Morris and the rushing attack.

Seattle will likely crowd the line of scrimmage and force Griffin and the Redskins to beat them through the air. The Seahawks secondary is one of the league’s best and deepest units. Seattle’s front seven is fast, aggressive, and superior tacklers. The Seahawks know Griffin is too injured to escape the pocket and beat them with his legs. Keeping him in the pocket will be significantly easier than it would have been a month ago. If the Redskins are to win, Griffin will have to do it with his arm against a secondary that has already tormented Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.

Let’s not forget about Russell Wilson. Wilson will be the most explosive quarterback on the field Sunday. Most of Seattle’s struggles on the road this season were due to the growing pains of Wilson. Compare his stats from Seattle’s first four road games (1-3 record) to their last four (2-2):

First four: 63/107 656 yards, 59%, 2 TD, 7 INT, 23 rushes, 56 yards
Last four:  83/122 958 yards, 68%, 7 TD, 1 INT, 24 rushes, 210 yards

In addition to improving dramatically in the passing game, Wilson also made better use of his legs. While he didn’t tuck the football and run more frequently, he did so more effectively and that is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of Wilson’s continued improvement.

If Robert Griffin III were healthy and able to outrun Seattle’s defense, I’d like Washington’s chances, especially at home. Unfortunately, Griffin is simply an above average runner right now. Alfred Morris can’t beat Seattle’s defense and Russell Wilson alone. Though it pains me to side with 80% of America (things always go sour in these scenarios), I just don’t see the Redskins winning without a fully healthy Griffin. SEAHAWKS If I were Charles Barkley; Seahawks -3

*****

Last Week: 7 – 8 – 1
Season:    130 – 117 – 9

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