The 2015 season’s Wild Card weekend features an abnormal set of circumstances — at least, regarding the spreads and expectations. All four road teams are now the favorites in their respective games — three opened as favorites, with Green Bay’s spread moving over the course of the week — and many would argue the best four teams playing this weekend will all sit on the visitors’ sidelines. Of course, nothing is ever as it should be in the National Football League, but divisional races concluding how they did yielded an unorthodox open to the postseason.
The Steelers travel to Cincinnati to face a division rival with whom they split their season series, but still may not have all its pieces in place. The Seahawks, notorious for being deadly at home — especially in the playoffs — will play nothing but road games for as long as they remain alive. The first of said games will be Sunday afternoon in Minnesota.
The first and last games of Wild Card Weekend carry the same rough storyline. That is, a team that has generally viewed as worse than the rest of the postseason participants won a comparatively weak division and will now host a playoff game. By virtue of their records, only, the visiting teams — Kansas City and Green Bay — are widely considered the ‘better’ squads. But, if history has taught us anything, it is that these road teams don’t always win.
Dating back to the 2010 season, four teams have won their divisions with nine or fewer wins. Three times said team won its first home game. For this trend to continue, either the Texans or Redskins — possibly, both — will win, this weekend.
Below are predictions for each game against the spread. Spreads have been taken from various websites and are subject to change. The spread in parenthesis denotes the selected team.
*Confidence Picks – 2015 Season: 69-45-2 (Last Week: 4-2)
(2014 Season: 61-46-2)
All Picks Against Spread – 2015 Season: 137-113-6 (Last Week: 9-6-1)
(2014 Season: 149-114-4)
Kansas City Chiefs (-3) at Houston Texans
After the first seven weeks of the 2015 season, both the Texans and Chiefs held identical 2-5 records. Nearly one dozen weeks later, the two will meet to open the AFC playoffs.
Both teams’ respective routes to the postseason have been well-documented, but each comes with its level of justified concern. For the Chiefs, winners of ten consecutive games, are they truly as legitimate as their 10-0 record or closer to their 1-5 start? For Houston, whose defense has come alive to the tune of six out of its last nine games allowing ten points or fewer, is the offense ready to march to victory on the arm of quarterback Brian Hoyer?
While Kansas City’s winning streak was nothing short of incredible, what the Texans achieved via four different starting quarterbacks is equally stunning. Granted, the AFC South allowed a 9-7 team to host a playoff game, but the league is often dominated by quarterbacks, and the Texans were parading one passer after another onto the field in an attempt to land on the right one.
Brian Hoyer is the right quarterback for the team. He is, however, not the right quarterback to win a playoff game.
While Kansas City’s relative weakness is its run defense — 16th in the league in yards-per-attempt but fourth in the league in net-yards-per-pass-attempt — Houston’s non-existent running game — totaling the fifth-fewest yards-per-attempt — will be incapable of taking advantage. Houston’s defense includes a similar split, as it is far more susceptible to a solid running game — 17th in yards-per-attempt as compared to the third-fewest net-yards-per-pass-attempt — but the Chiefs’ third-ranked rushing attack is in prime position for success.
In addition to the Chiefs’ advantage on the ground, quarterback Alex Smith is a fortunate wild card. Often forgotten in discussions regarding the league’s best quarterbacks, Smith has an uncanny knack for not only winning games — since 2011, Smith is 49-21-1 in regular season starts — but stepping up in the postseason. In his three career playoff starts, Smith averages 291 yards-per-game and has totaled nine touchdowns without throwing an interception. By comparison, he averages fewer than 200 yards-per-game during his career in the regular season.
The Chiefs may have won ten consecutive games against a lower class of opponents, but they enter Saturday largely ignored for their overall talent. Even at their low point, only once were they defeated by more than one score, and four of their five losses came at the hands of eventual playoff teams. Kansas City is every bit deserving of its 11-5 record.
The Chiefs win by two touchdowns and cover.
Pittsburgh Steelers (-2.5) at Cincinnati Bengals
Entering Saturday night, there appears to be only one question that could potentially tilt the scales of the matchup: Will quarterback Andy Dalton play? Naturally, the status of Dalton — at the time of this writing, reports hint that he still won’t be ready to start, even though his hand is out of a cast — remains paramount for Cincinnati’s chances to win the game. While Dalton plays the most important singular position on the field — thus having the most impact on the outcome of the game — he will either be replaced by backup A.J. McCarron again or likely be operating at less than his best. Therefore, Cincinnati is simply unable to field its best team.
Despite the uncertainty at the quarterback position, the Bengals’ strength is found elsewhere — its defense. Ranked second in the league in points allowed, the Bengals have given up more than 24 points only twice, this season — in Arizona and against the Steelers. Cincinnati also features a stellar pass defense, allowing the second-fewest touchdowns through the air despite seeing the second-most passing attempts — likely because the 12-4 Bengals held leads in most of their games, forcing their opponents to pass.
With Cincinnati holding firm against Pittsburgh’s strongest weapon — the second-best passing attack in net-yards-per-attempt — why aren’t the Bengals — playing at home and with a better record — the favorite in the game? More importantly, if Andy Dalton is active and capable of playing, would the spread move towards Cincinnati?
Without a definitive answer on Dalton’s health, there was no real reason for the spread to be released as early as it was; especially with Cincinnati as a home underdog. What the number suggests is that Dalton’s presence on the field would either not move the spread enough or that he actually plays no significant role in the outcome. Basically, the Steelers will win the game, regardless of Cincinnati’s personnel.
Pittsburgh played some of the hottest football of the season when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returned from injury, only to fall in Week 16 to the Ravens. When a win was needed, however, Pittsburgh rose to the occasion against the Browns — albeit, Cleveland is horrifically bad and gave the Steelers a fight. Regardless, Pittsburgh is the perfect example of a team getting hot at the right time and featuring a quarterback with a history of postseason success. With the game on the line, Roethlisberger — not an injured Dalton or healthy McCarron — will be the passer most suited to lead his team to victory
The Steelers win by six and cover.
Seattle Seahawks at Minnesota Vikings (+5.5)
Congratulations, Minnesota. By winning the NFC North, you now get to host the Seahawks, basically a deadly postseason team.
Seattle opened 2015 with as lackluster a start to the year as any back-to-back conference champion can experience. Continually performing at a high level is difficult in any sport, but football — especially the scheduling — makes the task nearly impossible. The Seahawks suffered from a natural letdown throughout half the season, but, as champions tend to do, they performed best when their season was on the line.
Winners of six of their last seven games, the Seahawks closed the year on a tear. As an exclamation point, Seattle rebounded from a home loss to the Rams by pounding the Cardinals in the season’s finale. If the Seahawks were trying to send a message to the league about their level of play entering the postseason, it was heard loud-and-clear.
The Seahawks have been downright unstoppable at home in the playoffs — Seattle has won nine consecutive home postseason games — but they see a noticeable hit when traveling — 1-4 in their last five road postseason games, and 2-6 if neutral sites are included in the equation. If Seattle — the sixth-seed in the NFC playoffs — is going to return to the top of the mountain as Super Bowl champions, it will be without hosting a game in its own building.
The underlying story behind the Seahawks’ visit to Minnesota will undoubtedly be the frigid weather. With temperatures expected to remain in the single-digits — at best — the logical conclusion to draw is that each team will turn to its respective running game for success. Then again, the Seahawks and Vikings rank 28th and 32nd in the league in passing attempts, respectively, in any type of weather.
When these two teams met a handful of weeks ago, the Seahawks ran away and hid from the Vikings almost immediately, burying Minnesota in a 38-7 thrashing. However, teams suffering from massive blowouts against a similar opponent occasionally reset and put forth a more respectable effort in their next matchup — think the 2010 Jets beating the Patriots in the playoffs after losing 45-3 weeks earlier or the Falcons handing the previously undefeated Panthers their first loss after a 38-0 blowout two weeks prior.
The Vikings — at times, 7-2, 8-3, and 11-5 — are a legitimately complete postseason team. Therefore, they should not be hosting a team one-game worse in the standings and giving as many points as they are. Indeed, the Seahawks, with the perfect counter for Minnesota’s rushing attack and the better quarterback, will be able to stave off the Vikings, in the end, but not with ease.
The Seahawks win by a field goal, but the Vikings beat the spread.
Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins (+1)
For the entire 2015 season, the acceptance that one of the four teams from the NFC East would host a playoff game sent many football fans into an outrage. There were even moments when it appeared as if a team with a losing record — or, at least, an 8-8 record — would emerge as division champion.
The Washington Redskins changed the narrative by closing the season on a 4-game winning streak, clinching the division by the end of Week 16. Suddenly, the NFC East victor was no pushover. In fact, it was, at one time, the favorite in Sunday’s matchup.
When the spread first opened for the game, the Redskins were giving as many as two points to the visiting Packers. Washington’s 4-0 December record, coupled with Green Bay’s sad performance against the Vikings on the final Sunday Night Football game of the year, was enough to tilt the scales in Washington’s favor. Slowly, it began to balance out, and the Packers — not the Redskins — will head into the weekend as the favorite.
If the Packers and Redskins each performed exactly as they have, all season, but their team names were removed, would this shift in the number have occurred? Basically, aren’t the Redskins victims of historical bias while the Packers reap the rewards?
Green Bay looked every bit as dangerous as the football-watching world expect in the first six weeks. Cruising into their bye week after a perfect 6-0 start, the Packers were, once again, on top of the NFC. Since that time, Green Bay is a disappointing 4-6, falling to the fifth seed on the heels of a nationally-televised home loss to the Vikings. Green Bay’s performance was so lackluster that people actually began to question the team’s intention, suggesting that losing the game provided the more favorable matchup of facing Washington in the first round. Then again, the Packers also lost any opportunity of hosting a playoff game for the first two rounds by failing to beat the Vikings to close the season.
The caliber of play for quarterback Aaron Rodgers often carries the belief that the Packers’ offense remains one of the best in the game. Unfortunately for Green Bay, it isn’t true. After landing in the top-ten for points scored in eight consecutive seasons and top-ten in yards gained seven times in the same stretch, the Packers rank 15th and 23rd in 2015, respectively. Simply put, this isn’t last year’s Green Bay offense. Instead, Washington is more similar to the Packers teams of the past few years.
Continuing the trend that solid quarterback play is paramount for a deep playoff run, few passers have had a better season than Kirk Cousins. Leading the league in completion percentage — and finishing a campaign that ranked seventh-best all-time in the same category — Cousins heads an offense that has eclipsed 23 points scored in five of its final eight games. Not surprisingly, Washington is 6-2 in that span.
Green Bay and Washington have been trending in opposite directions during the latter half of the 2015 season, and the final reversal of fortunes occurs late on Sunday afternoon. As the initial spread suggested, the Redskins are a hair better than the Packers, as Washington wins by two points and beats the spread.