Road teams on Saturday, home teams on Sunday. That’s the short answer for who I like in this weekend’s first round of the NFL playoffs. (As an aside, why is it called Wild Card Weekend when as many division champions are in action as wild card teams, four of each?)
If you’re paying attention, you know that means I’m forecasting a tough night Saturday for the two Texas teams in the playoffs, both of whom are opening up at home: the No. 3-seeded Texans (11-5) in the AFC and the No. 4-seeded Cowboys (10-6) in the NFC.
While the top two seeds in each conference have exclusively owned the route to the Super Bowl in the past five seasons, No. 5 and No. 6 seeds have done just fine in the first round, and I predict they will again.
From 2013-2107, the last five seasons, No. 6 seeds are a very healthy 5-5 in the first round, while No. 5 seeds have gone a respectable 4-6. Road teams to win the first round last year were the AFC's No. 5 Tennessee in comeback style 22-21 at Kansas City, and the NFC's No. 6 Atlanta doubling up the Rams 26-13 at the Los Angeles Coliseum. As recently as 2015, all four road teams (No. 5 or No. 6 seeds) won in the opening round, with Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Green Bay all prevailing that season.
If anything can be divined from this weekend’s schedule ahead of time it’s that these four pairings look extremely tight, with evenly matched teams and in three cases this season prior history to lean on. Whomever survives to take on the Chiefs, Patriots, Saints and Rams next week should already be battle-tested this postseason.
Last week: 11-5 (.688); Season: 162–92 (.638).
No. 6 Indianapolis (10-6) at No. 3 Houston (11-5)
The Texans’ launched their season-turning nine-game winning streak by defeating the Colts 37-34 in overtime in Indianapolis in Week 4, but that’s the game Frank Reich gambled and went for the win instead of accepting a tie that potentially could have meant his club won the AFC South title instead of Houston. Indy got even by winning 24-21 on the road against the Texans in Week 14, starting the four-game season-ending win streak that produced the Cinderella Colts’ first playoff berth since 2014. The combined score of those two games was 58-58, if you’re counting.
While Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson will make his first career postseason start, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck played six playoff games in his first three seasons (2012-14), going 3-3 in those games. The supremely talented Watson will rise to the occasion and give Houston a chance to win, but his shaky offensive line could again betray him (a league-high 62 sacks), while Luck will do damage through the air behind a Colts offensive line that has stood strong all season (allowing just 18 sacks). It’ll be close for three quarters, but Indianapolis is the hotter team and will find a way to win late and punch its ticket to Kansas City.
No. 5 Seattle (10-6) at No. 4 Dallas (10-6)
You can all but forget about the last time these two teams played, in Week 3 in Seattle. The Seahawks won 24-13, but Amari Cooper wasn’t a Cowboy yet, and Earl Thomas saw his season end for Seattle, flipping off his own coaching staff or sideline as he left the field injured (broken leg) on the back of a cart. Both teams figured out who they were identity-wise and what they did best in the year’s second half, changing the trajectory of their seasons. Seattle won six of its last seven after being 4-5, and Dallas won seven of eight after reaching midseason at 3-5.
The Seahawks turned into a rushing steamroller of a club, gaining 160 yards on the ground per game, and averaging an impressive 4.8 yards per rush. They have a blueprint of rushing and defense, and they stick with it. The Cowboys can run, too, but Cooper added a receiving threat that was much needed, and Dallas wound up averaging 122.7 yards rushing per game, with a 4.5 average rush. But Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott led the NFL in rushing with 1,434 yards in 15 games (4.7), and added another 567 receiving yards, so they can put the hammer down in a number of ways against opposing defenses as well. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson will be key. He’s 8-4 in 12 playoff starts, and that experience will help him make the pressure plays that Dak Prescott (0-1 as a playoff starter) has yet to master in the postseason.
No. 5 Los Angeles Chargers (12-4) at No. 4 Baltimore (10-6)
The Chargers are a marvel of sorts. They’re not homeless, but they certainly seem more comfortable on the road. Anthony Lynn’s team won in five different time zones this season, and went 8-0 when playing outside of Los Angeles (including a “home’’ win in London against Tennessee). When they stayed in Southern California, the Bolts were just 4-4, including a road loss to the cross-town Rams in the Coliseum. So they’re not going to shrink and melt away playing on East Coast on a Sunday at 1 p.m., 10 a.m. body clock time. This is a team that likes taking the road less traveled.
But we just saw this matchup two weeks ago in Carson, when Baltimore went into the StubHub Center and punched the Chargers in the mouth, winning 22-10 in a game that wasn’t decided until a late Antonio Gates fumble. That was the game that ended Philip Rivers’ MVP candidacy (he was anemic) and cost Los Angeles the AFC West title and the No. 1 seed in the conference, putting them on the road to this game in Baltimore. Nobody has really figured out how to stop the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson-led running game for seven weeks now (they are 6-1 in that span, with an overtime loss at Kansas City), and I think we’re in for another low-scoring but compelling Baltimore win. Jackson, the only rookie starting quarterback in the playoffs, will get to advance and play in Foxboro next week, against a Patriots team he thought was going to draft him last April.
No. 6 Philadelphia (9-7) at No. 3 Chicago (12-4)
Almost 30 years to the day after the infamous “Fog Bowl’’ in Soldier Field, we get another Eagles-Bears playoff showdown that’s hard to see clearly. Will Chicago’s stout home-field advantage and swarming takeaway-minded defense be impossibly hard for Philadelphia to overcome, or are we silly to think anything can stand in the way of the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles and Nick Foles, now that they have survived the regular season to recreate last year’s magic act?
It feels like the trickiest game of the weekend to forecast and the fact Chicago hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2010 would make me nervous if I were a Bears fan. Sometimes cities and teams that have waited that long sometimes get over-amped and that doesn’t usually lead to success in the postseason. I’ve seen it happen to some Bears teams of earlier vintage, like the 13-3 No. 2 seeded club of 2001, which happened to lose its opener at home to the visiting and underdog Eagles. It’s the only non-rematch of the weekend, and I’m eager to see how second-year Chicago quarterback Mitchell Trubisky is going to respond to the pressure, facing a defense that has played a host of big games the past two years. If it’s not close throughout, I’ll be surprised, but I’m giving the Bears the slightest edge.