NFL Playoffs Preview: Week 1

Two years ago, I did playoff predictions and I really worked hard on them– 2-3 hours per game, working through everything. I got almost every game right. Last year, I was working on what I hoped would be a book on the Browns, did a sloppy job of preparation and got cruddy results.

I’m working on a book again, so I thought about not doing predictions. Especially since I have a lot of other things I’d like to write about (nothing on the Indians or Cavs). But I feel it is important to do predictions– I view them as a test of my analytical skills.

So I decided to compromise. I’d do the predictions, but average no more than an hour per game. I’ll probably be somewhere between 2014 and 2015 in accuracy and hate myself. But at least I’ll be on record.

Oakland (12-4) @ Houston (9-7)

Here’s life for you. The Raiders finally break their streak of seasons without a playoff berth (they went to the Super Bowl in 2002; the year the Browns made the Wild Card). But since they lost the AFC West on tiebreak to the Chiefs, they have to travel to Houston (AFC South champs)– a stadium so loud that even veteran quarterbacks can have trouble.

Worse than that, they lost both starting quarterback Derek Carr and backup Matt McGloin to injuries. It’ll be rookie Connor Cook, who has played a total of 32 snaps (all in week 17). He didn’t do badly (14-21 for 150 yards, and a TD and INT)… but he came into the game with 1:44 left in the second quarter, and the Raiders 17-0. Denver was more than happy to let him complete short passes, as long as they went to receivers who stayed in bounds.

The only reason not to pick the Texans is that Brock Osweiler will be starting at quarterback. Osweiler was, if not the biggest bust in free agency, certainly one of the biggest disappointments. He was Denver’s second-round pick in 2012– groomed for four years to take over from Peyton Manning.

The Broncos luck into the Super Bowl, win largely due to a world-class choke act from Carolina’s Cam Newton. Manning retires– but rather than take the reins, Osweiler cuts and runs to Houston.

To be fair, he accepted a 4-year, $72 million deal ($37 million guaranteed), which was more than Denver was planning to pay him. But a friend who works for an NFL team insists Osweiler showed a lack of character on two counts:

  • Osweiler knew, the moment he was drafted, what his role would be and when he would get to play. He never indicated any dissatisfaction with being Manning’s insurance policy and heir apparent. But once his turn to play arrived, he abandoned the Broncos, leaving an unexpected gap in the roster.
  • A great quarterback would welcome the challenge of taking over the reins of Super Bowl champion, and be eager to show everyone that he could play at the same high level Manning did. But unlike Steve Young (who stepped into the 49ers job after Joe Montana was traded), Osweiler ran away because he was afraid he wouldn’t measure up.

That’s a front office executive– who tends to think of players as the team’s property– talking. But his pre-season prediction  (“That bum will never make it. Never!”) has not been disproven. Osweiler threw for 5.8 yards per pass, had a negative TD-INT ratio (15-16) and went only 8-6. In one of those wins Osweiler was pulled for non-performance, and his backup, Tom Savage, went 23-36 for 260 yards to come from behind.

But Savage got a concussion in the final game and can’t play.

Game Preview: It’s impossible to use any of the data from the season to predict the outcome.We have backup facing reject– a rookie with no track record against a veteran underachiever.

I’m picking Houston for three reasons. First, they’re playing at home, and home teams usually win. Second, rookies usually struggle in their first trip to the playoffs– the only exception being rookies who won the job very early in the year, and have played out all their butterflies. Cook obviously hasn’t.

Third– most importantly– Carr’s loss is a much bigger blow to Oakland than Savage is to Houston. The Texans are in the playoffs largely due to their defense. They’ve averaged 17.4 points per game (28th) and allowed 20.5 (11th). Getting rotten quarterbacking won’t be a disruption– that’s usually what has happened. They’ve had 11 games where they scored 21 points or less– they’re 4-7 in those games.

The Raiders, on the other hand, won due to a great offense (26.0 points; 7th) and sucky defense (24.1; 20th). They’re 10-1 when they score more than 21 points and 2-3 when they don’t. The only low-scoring games they won came against two teams good at self-destructing: San Diego (19-16) and Tennessee (17-10).

I’d guess we’re in for a sloppy game, with a lot of points off self-inflicted wounds– something like Houston’s 30-0 loss to the Chiefs last year.

Prediction: Houston 23, Oakland 6

Detroit (9-7) @ Seattle (10-5-1)

There’s no reason to think this game is in doubt:

  • Seattle has more wins
  • Seattle (22.1 points per game) has outscored Detroit (21.6)
  • Seattle has allowed fewer points (18.3 per game) than Detroit (22.4)
  • Seattle is a veteran team

But neither team got to the playoffs in impressive fashion. The Seahawks jumped out to a 7-2-1 record; the closest team to them were the 4-4-1 Arizona Cardinals. Knowing they probably had the spot locked up, they coasted, resting players and not going all-out. They went 3-3 and still won the division by three games… but their last game was a 25-23 victory over San Francisco, where Russell Wilson played the first three quarters, and nobody on the defense was rested..

Detroit jumped out to a 9-4 record and then choked their way into the Wild Card. They lost their last three games: 17-6 to the Giants (who were beatable), 42-21 to the Cowboys (a better team, but that was too wide a margin). They were 9-6 going into the final game, and still had a chance to win the division– they were playing Green Bay in Detroit. They lost 31-24 to the Packers.

Game Preview: The only reason I’m not absolutely positive about the game is that Seattle has an erratic offense. They’ve had six games where they scored less than 21 points, and are 1-4-1 in those games. One does not normally think of New Orleans (who held them to 20 points). Miami (12), Green Bay (10), Arizona (6), Tampa Bay (5) and the Rams (3) as being the great defense of the NFL.

Seattle can’t run the ball– their top rushers have averaged 4.0 (Christine Michael) and 3.2 yards (Thomas Rawls) per game. They’ve had 10 games with less than 100 yards rushing. They have the third-best defense in the league, so often it takes only a few big plays by Russell Wilson. But I don’t see them going any further than this win.

That said, Detroit has an abysmal pass defense. Opponents have completed 72.7% of their passes, averaged 7.3 yards per pass and thrown 33 TDs with only 10 interceptions. Wilson should have a field day.

Detroit QB Matthew Stafford has had to generate almost all the offense (4,111 of the 5,421 yards), and I just can’t see the Seahawks letting him beat them.

Detroit has held teams under 21 points in 10 games– and scored 21 points or more 10 times. But their schedule has been weak enough that I don’t feel confident

Prediction: Seattle 23, Detroit 14

Miami (10-6) @ Pittsburgh (11-5)

OK, here’s where I sound like the cranky old guy. Neither of these teams are anywhere close to being as good as their records. After getting off to a 1-4 start (which would have been 0-5, had Cleveland’s Corey Parkey not missed three kicks), Miami went 9-2. The problem is than their 9 wins came against:

  • Buffalo– twice, by a total of six points
  • The Jets– twice (once by four points)
  • San Diego (by seven points)
  • San Francisco (also by seven)
  • The Rams (by four)
  • Arizona (by three)

That’s eight wins by a total of 52 points– a clear sign of an overachiever. They did beat the Steelers 30-15, and Landry Jones wasn’t playing, so it was a real win. They lost to Seattle by two points, and that is an achievement. Other than that, the cupboard is pretty bare.

The 31-24 loss to the Patriots wasn’t real. It came in week 2, when Tom Brady was suspended. the 35-14 loss is more a measure of their skill.

The Dolphins actually allowed (380) more points than they scored (363). They should be 8-8 or 7-9, but not 10-6.

You can, if you want, say the Dolphins have been playing without starting QB Ryan Tannehill for the last four games The problem is that Matt Moore is 2-1 with a rating over 100. And, except for his 2010 season in Carolina, he’s never been a truly terrible player. Tannehill has been erratic.

Pittsburgh has won the last seven games, but that streak smells funny too: two wins against the Browns, four-point victories over both the Bengals and Ravens and a seven-point win over Buffalo. The beat the Giants (24-14) and Colts (28-7) by the scores that a good team should win by. Honestly, their most impressive game was the 35-20 loss to Dallas the week before the streak began.

Pittsburgh shouldn’t be 11-5; they’ve scored 399 and allowed 327, which should make them 9-7 or 10-6. But they are clearly a better team than Miami. The rest their key plays got in the final game should let them demonstrate it.

Prediction: Pittsburgh 30, Miami 15

Giants (11-5) @ Green Bay (10-6)

Here’s another battle of overrated teams. The Giants have outscored opponents by a whopping 26 points. Since every 30 points of point differential usually improves you by a win, they should be about 9-7 at best. A .500 record wouldn’t be unusual–some unlucky teams would go 7-9. But New York went 8-3 in games decided by seven points or less, so they reached 11 wins and made the playoffs.

I wouldn’t bet on them repeating next year– often a team that wins a lot of close games loses them next year. But maybe they can add enough talent in the off-season to keep themselves over .500

Green Bay has outscored opponents by 44 points. Their 10-6 record is a little soft– it should be 9-7. But they didn’t have great luck in close games. They went 5-3; the expectation is .500.

The problem with the Packers is that they’ve been very erratic. Losing 30-16 to Dallas is excusable– a 33-32 loss to Atlanta on the road is almost a badge of honor. But losing 47-25 to Tennessee? And 42-24 next week to Washington? Not acceptable.

Two weeks later, they beat Houston 21-13, a fair offensive achievement, given the Texans’ defense. And then they blow out Seattle 38-10.

A sportswriter would look at the 4-2 start, followed by the four-game losing streak and then the six wins in a row and say that the Packers “found themselves” on defense. Maybe that is the right storyline. But it would sound more convincing if the defense hadn’t allowed 27 points to Chicago (with Matt Barkley behind center), 25 to Minnesota and 24 to Detroit in the last three weeks.

Game Preview: Two teams that haven’t run the ball effectively will try to do it, then give up and throw a lot. Green Bay has the better pass offense…. but its defense is a lot worse. The Giants allowed only 284 points– second-lowest in the league– largely because they produce a lot of turnovers.

Green Bay hasn’t turned the ball over in eight of their games– and had only one in three others. In the five where they had two or more, they went 1-4.

The two teams met during the season. Green Bay turned the ball over twice, but they got 147 yards rushing and 259 yards passing to offset it. The reason we can’t expect that to happen is that the backs who rain the ball (Eddie Lacy and James Starks had 114 yards on 24 carries) will both be out with injuries.

Because Green Bay is the veteran team, and the Giants haven’t made the playoffs since 2011, I’ll go with the Packers. But not with a lot of conviction. This game could go into overtime and probably will be decided by less than a touchdown.

Prediction: Green Bay 23, New York 22

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