Wild Card Games (Sunday)

Well, I certainly made a steaming mess out of my sparkling record as a forecaster Today I went 0-2, with one of them being about as wrong as I could have gotten. The list of mistakes was pretty obvious:

  • In both cases, I picked a team with a quarterback who had never played in the playoffs over teams with quarterbacks who had not only played, but played well.
  • I picked a coach who juggled his quarterbacks and one with an 0-6 record in post-season.

And the reason, to be honest, was that I was in a hurry. Normally it takes me a couple-three days to do a preview. I don’t mean days of solid work. It’s more like “Take a long look at the teams, step away and let the facts percolate in the back of my mind. Then come back and do a draft with much of the heavy lifting… then walk away and come back to see if I still agree.”

Had I done that, I almost certainly would have have said “Hold on a minute. The data says this and you’re going with your subjective impressions. You know that way lies madness.” I started doing that after I filed the piece, in fact.

When you have a system that works, you use it. Whatever its faults, it’s better than overriding it with hunches. If you do that, you don’t get the benefit of either approach. So I got what I deserved. OK, lesson learned.

The hitch is that I don’t have the time to do that work with Sunday’s games– I didn’t leave myself the time. So this probably won’t work any better. But having started the process, I won’t back away.

Seattle at Minnesota

It’s always a little dangerous when you handicap a playoff game where the two teams met recently. On December 6, Seattle won 38-7, in Minnesota.

Both teams should have been giving the game everything they had. Minnesota (8-3) was only a game ahead of Green Bay (7-4); Seattle (6-5) was tied with Atlanta for the second wild card (behind Green Bay).

The only significant player in that game who will be absent was Seattle RB Thomas Rawls (19 carries for 100 yards and a score).

And it wasn’t a close game– or a contest where a few plays put the Vikings behind the 8-ball, where they never recovered. In fact, the Seahawks fumbled on their opening drive.

The Vikings took the ball over on their 30, did nothing with it and punted. The Seahawks went 81 yards for a score.

The game didn’t get out of hand until late in the second quarter. The Seahawks scored a TD with 2:11 left to make it 14-0, then Teddy Bridgewater got intercepted trying to do a Two-Minute drive and the Seahawks punched it in again.

Bridgewater had a horrific game: 17-28 for 118 yards, no TDs, an interception, four sacks and a fumble (the Vikings recovered). Adrian Peterson gained 18 yards on 8 carries.

Minnesota is making its first trip to the playoffs since 2012; very few players from that team are still here. The Seahawks have a big edge in veteran ability– and, despite the missing running backs, talent. The Seahawks were confident enough to announce that Marshawn Lynch (hernia) would not return, so they could let him rest a little longer.

Maybe the Vikings learned things from the encounter and are filled with a burning desire for revenge. After what happened yesterday, I’m not going to bet on that. The indicators all show that Seattle can throw on the Viking secondary, while the Seahawks should have no problems shutting Bridgewater down again.

Prediction: Seattle 27, Minnesota 14

Green Bay at Washington

While writing up the Seahawks-Vikings game, I looked at the standings the day the game was played. At that date, Green Bay (which is now 10-6) was 7-4. Washington (now 9-7) was 5-6.

So that is thing #1. Green Bay didn’t play well down the stretch– they lost their last two games, in fact. Arizona winning 38-8, maybe I could excuse. But losing 20-13 to the Vikings in Green Bay– with the division title there for the taking? Good teams don’t do that.

The Green Bay defense did its job in that game– it stopped both Adrian Peterson (19-67) and Teddy Bridgewater (10-19 for 99 yards). The score (20-13) is misleading because 7 of the Vikings’ points came when Aaron Rodgers fumbled and it got run back all the way.

Rodgers also threw an interception late in the fourth quarter, on a drive that would have tied the score. Rodgers’ game rating (80.8) was his highest in four weeks. He’s had four games in the 60’s– three in the last six games.

It’s that fact– Green Bay expects Rodgers to play like an MVP and he hasn’t– that has the offense down to 15th in the league (23.0 points per game). The defense (20.2 points allowed) is ranked higher (12th).

Part of the problem might be the decision to promote Edgar Bennett to coordinator (or former OC Tom Clements deciding to step back). Or maybe it’s because the Packers have had two decent backs this year (Eddie Lacy and James Starks) and can’t decide which one to feature.

Or maybe it’s the growing pains of two 23-year-olds: TE Richard Rodgers and WR Devante Adams. Or maybe Aaron Rodgers (now 32) is getting old.

Nonetheless, it’s not the Green Bay you’re used to. The 10-6 record is misleading; the Packers outscored opponents by only 45 points. The only thing you can say on their behalf is that only five teams played tougher schedules this year.

Washington is equally misleading. The Boehners (see here) have a 9-7 record– seemingly just a game worse– but that’s a sham. They outscored opponents by only 9 points. Only five teams played a weaker schedule– and because the NFL schedules the final games of the season against division opponents, they had it easy down the stretch.

You could say they were coming together– they beat Buffalo 35-25, Philly 38-24 and Dallas 34-23. Or you could say they just played a bunch of teams that were coming unglued.

Washington is the prototypical parity team– 24.2 points scored; 23.7 points allowed. When Mike Shanahan was fired after the 2013 season, he bequeathed Jay Gruden QB Kirk Cousins, RB Alfred Murray, WR Pierre Garcon, TE Jordan Reed. and Pro Bowl LT Trent Williams. They’re still the guts of the offense. Gruden did add WR Jamison Crowder and Cousins has developed, but that’s been it.

The defense is still led by DE Ryan Kerrigan. DL Chris Baker had a good year this year; Rookie LB Preston Smith had a good year. The best player in the secondary is CB Breshaud Breeland… who honestly isn’t that good.

This is not an epic battle of two great teams– it’s a match between a pretty good team that has been struggling, and a mediocre team that was better than all the alternatives in its division. Washington went 4-2 against its division opponents, but the AFC East went 3-1 against them (Miami beat them 17-10, the Jets 34-20 and New England 27-10). The NFC South is hardly the cradle of champions, but Washington lost to Atlanta in overtime, beat Tampa Bay by a point and got barbecued by Carolina (New Orleans they did crush).

The Packers have been struggling to figure out how to win– the Boehners did win three straight. And the game is in Washington. But that’s the only evidence saying that the veteran team won’t win.

Prediction: Green Bay 21, Washington 16.

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