Wild Card weekend is here, and there are no second chances anymore. Welcome to win-or-go-home football.
Four of the twelve teams standing have secured passage to the divisional round as one of the top two division winners in their conference. The other eight will square off in uncompromising and unpredictable battles to earn the right to face one of those fantastic four.
These questions were asked by David Howell, one of the ten Chargers fans. Answering them are two people who also have their team in action this weekend – Tristan Fitzpatrick (who supports the Eagles) and Sam Brown (whose team are the Colts). And also three people whose teams will be watching on the TV like the rest of us – Alan Cole (whose Falcons weren’t meant to be done yet), Ste Hoare (whose Packers weren’t meant to be done yet), and Tyler Arthur (whose Raiders weren’t meant to be… lacking a top-three draft pick).
Colts-Texans starts the playoffs with a battle of divisional foes. How will the teams' familiarity with each other affect this particular contest?
David: Both teams have plenty of tape on the other and will know all about the usual tendencies they can expect to face, so it’s entirely possible that one or both will opt for a big shift away from them. This goes double for such well-matched teams – both have a three-point win over the other (oddly enough, both on the road), and both are coming in hot. Expect a trick play or two.
Tristan: I’m not sure it will too much, mainly because games are often decided by coaches and quarterbacks and Andrew Luck and Frank Reich have limited history against Deshaun Watson and Bill O’Brien. Game 1 ended in OT, and three points was the difference in game 2. A splash of luck could be a bigger difference than familiarity.
Sam: T.Y. Hilton saves his best games for NRG Stadium, so don’t be surprised to see him once again incinerate the Texans’ secondary on Saturday. The impressive Colts offensive line went a long way to neutralising the Houston’s destroyers of worlds in the front seven, so I’m expecting the Texans to try and pull something new to try and sink these red hot Colts.
Alan: Since the NFL moved to their current eight-division setup in 2002, there have been 17 playoff match-ups between division rivals. Nine of them have been one-possession games, and all but two of them were two-possession games. On top of that, the Texans and Colts played two games this year decided by six total points. We know this game is going to be tight because of all of this, and there won’t be any secrets with the two teams.
Tyler: I think that familiarity is a key to beating some teams, but not these two. I think that both teams have shown their hand on offense – one is Andrew Luck and a surprisingly good run game, and the other is DeAndre Hopkins and a — no, sorry for the lack of symmetry, it’s just DeAndre Hopkins. However, I personally think that the main storyline which I am looking at are the defenses. Both of these teams have terrifying defensive players, and I think they will be the ones who win or lose this game.
Ste: It will play a huge part, and the teams who can show something a bit different will be the ones to succeed. I think we’ll see Houston use more designed runs for Deshaun Watson, whilst the Colts will want to attack a weak Texans secondary.
The Saturday night showdown between the Seahawks and Cowboys features two teams that lean on the run more than most playoff teams. Can we expect an old-fashioned ground-game battle in this one?
David: I think it might be more important for Seattle to make the run game work than for Dallas. While Jerryworld isn’t exactly known as a cauldron of home fan noise, the Cowboys are 7-1 there this year, and the noise is sure to crank up a level in January. Winning the time of possession battle is going to be big for the Seahawks… or is it? The strength of the Cowboys defensively is at linebacker – Jaylon Smith has become the player he was advertised to be before his career-threatening bowl game injury, Leighton Vander Esch has stood out right away, and Sean Lee still exists – so maybe the Seahawks try and work around that with a more vertical game plan, which of course Russell Wilson can execute.
Tristan: Yes. Snooze fest, maybe go out and grab the pizza during this one?
Sam: I think so. The Cowboys need to try and avoid putting the ball in Dak’s hands with the game on the line, which is, admittedly, never a place you want to be as a team. If this contest does come down to who has the better quarterback, Russell Wilson will already be thinking about what shoes he’ll wear in the divisional round.
Alan: It’s ironic that both of these teams are ground and pound possession teams, because holding the ball for 40 minutes might be the only way for either of them to win their likely second-round game in New Orleans. Pete Carroll is going to try to do what he’s done all year with establishing the run, and Zeke Elliot will do what he does best. The run plays will outweigh the pass ones more than 2:1 in ratio I think.
Ste: Pretty much! Both sides will look to control the clock by running the ball, whilst looking for the odd deep shot. These two teams are very similar and it should be a very close game.
The Chargers travel cross-country to face a Ravens team who beat them just two weeks ago in Los Angeles. How important is that on a psychological level?
David: On paper, it should be huge, especially as Baltimore in January could be forbidding from a weather perspective (though the weather forecast for Sunday is benign). However, while the Ravens might feel that the Chargers can’t adapt quickly to Lamarball, it’ll be even harder for Lamarball to adapt to the Chargers. And while the early start time works out at 10am in LA, the Chargers are historically the one West Coast team who don’t seem to either suffer from early East Coast starts or benefit from primetime kickoffs.
Tristan: I actually think it will hurt the Ravens. Right now, their offence is limited, their playbook is smaller because of Lamar Jackson. The Chargers are going to remember the run plays and scheme better because of it. There is little time for the Ravens to completely change their offense in 2 weeks. Won’t completely sway the matchup but a small part.
Sam: The previous result is not psychologically significant at all. What is significant is the walking into the seething cauldron of noise and ferocity that is M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens at home in the playoffs? I’ll take that every day.
Alan: I think it could help them actually. Lamar Jackson hasn’t faced an opponent twice yet in his career, and the first defense he’ll have to see twice is this really tough Chargers one. Los Angeles will have an advantage nobody else has had, and I doubt Rivers will be as awful as he was in the last meeting between the two again. 23/37 for 181 yards and two interceptions probably won’t duplicate.
Tyler: This game is going to be interesting. I have heard the narrative of ‘well they’ve seen that Ravens offense now, so they can make adjustments’, and I understand. The thing is though, I don’t care whether you’ve played them or not before, you know what they’re going to do, they’re going to run it a lot in the college-style QB option offense. You have to stop it, and you have to force Jackson to pass the ball. If you can do that, you’ll win against them. Sounds simple doesn’t it?
Ste: I feel for the Chargers. Having to go on the road to play an early kickoff in the East, despite going 12-4 in the regular season. I do think the loss will be in the Chargers’ mind, but one possible advantage is that they’re the first team to be playing this Baltimore ‘Navy-like’ offense for a second time so they might have learned a few things from the last meeting.
The Eagles are carrying a ton of momentum into an unlikely playoff appearance, but go in as big underdogs despite being defending champions. Does their January experience help them out against the Bears?
David: Well, it certainly can’t hurt them! The key for the Bears is to go out there and just let it be another game. It’s not like they aren’t used to playing in big showcase games – they’re 3-1 in primetime this season, with a fourth win under the national spotlight from a Thanksgiving game they played on dubiously short rest – and they do have a few players who know what January football is all about (including, of course, former Eagle Trey Burton).
Tristan: Yes, but not much. Home field advantage and a healthy team are bigger advantages for the Bears, but the experience won’t hurt the Eagles.
Sam: Yes, this Eagles team do have a great deal of self-belief. The Bears are new to this, but don’t forget – so were the Eagles this time last year! This is a game between two stalwarts of the league with fantastic fanbases, and we should be glad that it’s even happening. I expect the Bears to outlast the defending champs here though, largely due to a certain Mr Mack.
Alan: I don’t know how much it’ll matter, but if it does matter we’ll know quickly. I think back to the 3 vs. 6 game in the NFC last season, where the hot but inexperienced Rams came up against an inferior Falcons team that had much more playoff experience, and the Rams struggled under the lights in a loss. I think the Eagles have to get them early though with the inexperience. If the Bears settle in, I think it’ll be lights out for Philly.
Tyler: This is the ultimate playoff storyline. I like the Bears a lot, and I may or may not win some money if they win the Super Bowl, but I would love nothing more than to see another playoff push from big Nick. I am so excited. The momentum from the end of the regular season cannot be underestimated, and Nick Foles is elite in January. It’s time to see whether this Bears team has real playoff potential. I think that this match will be won or lost by the Eagles O-line and the Bears D-line.
Ste: I think it does to an extent, but I’m not sure how big a factor experience will be for the Eagles when it comes to stopping the Bears pass rush. I think Nick Foles won’t be feeling any pressure at all though, which could relax him more than Mitch Trubisky, who might feel a few nerves.
The postseason is often a time for lower-profile players to make a name for themselves. Who do you fancy to potentially do that this weekend?
David: The Chargers have a well-earned choking reputation that has been particularly well-earned in the kicking department of late. However, Michael Badgley won the kicker job, inexplicably lost it to the incumbent Caleb Sturgis, didn’t get claimed off waivers (think you might be regretting that one, Steelers?), and is 42/44 on all kicks this season, with one of the misses being from outside 50 (the other was a PAT, but Sturgis missed six of those in as many games). Kickers can make names for themselves in January… why not him?
Tristan: Marlon Mack. I think the Texans-Colts matchup is the most exciting and potentially highest-scoring. Mack’s averaging 4.7 YPC in 12 games after starting the year injured. Colts will lean on him hard if they get a lead.
Sam: Keep an eye on Nyheim Hines of the Indianapolis Colts. Perhaps not entirely unknown around the league, the rookie running back has two things: 1) game-changing speed, and 2) a head coach calling plays who knows how to use that speed. If you want a cheap addition to a DFS fantasy football lineup, you could do worse than Hines.
Alan: I’m going to take Zach Pascal of the Indianapolis Colts here. He scored a touchdown in both regular season games against Houston, and the Texans struggled to cover tight ends all year. Houston was one of only two teams in the playoffs (Kansas City) to allow at least eight touchdowns and 1,000 yards to tight end this year. If Eric Ebron draws the majority of Houston’s attention, Pascal could go wild on Saturday.
Tyler: I think this week is a chance for Gus Edwards to make a name for himself. If you’re an avid fantasy player I hope that you already know his name, but this is his chance to make a name for himself in the league, and most importantly cement his role alongside Lamar Jackson in the Ravens offense for next season.
Ste: I think the Baltimore run game will do well against Los Angeles, so keep an eye on Gus Edwards.
Last but not least... make your predictions!
David: I’ll bank on the power of January home advantage and go for a sweep of home wins – Texans, Cowboys, Ravens, Bears. And I expect one of them to be wrong. Hopefully the third one!
Tristan: Colts 34-31 Texans (OT). I changed this 4 times on my phone, it’s a razor thin edge… Chargers 21-17 Ravens. As mentioned above eventually I think a team will figure out how to defend Jackson. But then again it’s not very Chargers to win a close game… Eagles 17-24 Bears. Philly is still too injured, their defense would have to hold the Bears to under 17 points because I don’t see Foles tearing apart this Bears D, especially without a run game. Turnovers could decide this one… Seahawks 20-27 Cowboys. I feel dirty. This is about… whose run game is better? Who has home field? Who’s less likely to turn the ball over? It’d take something real special from Russell Wilson… here’s hoping.
Sam: Colts, Seahawks, Ravens, Bears.
Alan: I’m taking the Colts, Seahawks, Ravens, and Bears. All four games will be within ten points and come down to the fourth quarter.
Tyler: I take the Texans over the Colts, the Seahawks over the Cowboys, the Ravens over the Chargers, and the Bears over the Eagles.
Ste: Wins for Houston, Baltimore, Dallas, and Chicago.