While the numbers behind Wild Card weekend hinted at a potentially historic result, the fact that it actually came to fruition is somewhat surprising. Entering the week, all four road teams were, at one point, the favorite in their respective game — although the Packers and Redskins continued to flip sides with most websites naming the Redskins as the favorite by kickoff. In the end, all four road teams did, indeed, advance.
Considering the system that determines home field advantage in the playoffs — that is, division winners host their game on Wild Card weekend — there is always the possibility that the team with the better record will be traveling to open the playoffs. This often sparks debate, but, as evident by the results of this year’s opening round, it did not stop the four visitors from winning their respective games.
The problem that is presented by the fifth and sixth seeds advancing to the Divisional Round is the inability to directly compare the quality of two teams. The Broncos and Steelers are on opposite ends of the seeding spectrum, but are only separated by two games in the standings. The Panthers and Seahawks are in a similar position based on seeding, but have a five-game cavern between the two. Yet the 15-1 Panthers are only giving three points to the 10-6 Seahawks.
Uncertainty reigns supreme in the Divisional Round, as the final game of the weekend — Pittsburgh at Denver — is highlighted by the statuses of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown. Outside of Denver, question marks continue to lead the charge, as rematches between the Packers and Cardinals, followed by Seahawks and Panthers are littered with attempts to determine the validity of the first meetings.
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
(2014 Season: 61-46-2)
All Picks Against Spread – 2015 Season: 139-115-6 (Last Week: 2-2)
(2014 Season: 149-114-4)
Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots (-4.5)
The Kansas City Chiefs are the rare example of a team on an eleven-game winning streak still with something to prove. Even after dismantling the Texans to open the postseason, the merit of the Chiefs’ wins were called into question. Make no mistake, if they win on Saturday, there will be no debate about the team’s legitimacy.
When the Patriots host the Chiefs on Saturday afternoon, it will mark the seventh consecutive season that a playoff game was played in Foxborough. Not surprisingly, given the success of New England over the years, the team is a staggering 14-3 in home postseason games since Tom Brady took over as the franchise’s starting quarterback.
In addition to history working against them, the Chiefs are swimming in waters that are not only shark-infested, but also uncharted. During the regular season, any team with a winning streak this long would be at-risk for a sudden collapse, especially after shutting out a team on the road. During the playoffs, this regression is a near-guarantee, and it is no surprise that the Chiefs are getting more than a field goal worth of points in the game. They are, however, not getting more than six points, which is an indication that they are gaining some respect in the football world.
In New England’s last seven home playoff games, they have one loss and two one-possession wins — all three of these games came against the Ravens. Removing Baltimore from the equation — the team clearly gives New England a tougher fight than other teams — the Patriots have won the other four games by no fewer than thirteen points, with an average margin of victory of more than 26 points-per-game.
Historical context aside, the Patriots, once again, have a thoroughly complete unit that ranks highly across-the-board. While they lost each of their last two regular season games, the Patriots still have top-ten rankings in offensive and defense points and yards, and, most importantly, have allowed the sixth-fewest rushing touchdowns and rank a respectable eleventh in defensive rushing yards-per-attempt — countering the style of play Kansas City wants to utilize. Naturally, with Tom Brady at the helm, the Patriots are fifth in passing yards and first in passing touchdowns.
The Chiefs have the right personnel to keep the Patriots relatively in check — thus deserving of a spread that hasn’t ballooned to double-digits — but they are simply not prepared to go from Houston — in a game where Kansas City totaled two offensive touchdowns, with only one in the first three quarters — to New England to face a rested Patriots team with most of its weapons at its disposal.
The Patriots win by a touchdown and cover.
Green Bay Packers (+7) at Arizona Cardinals
The football fates wanted more. One week after the Seahawks and Vikings played a one-point contest in a rematch of a blowout, the Cardinals will host the Packers on the same field that acted as a stage for a merciless embarrassment less than one month earlier. Like the Vikings of last week, the Packers enter Saturday night with a hunger for revenge that supplements the team’s obvious desire to continue advancing in the postseason.
As noted in last week’s column, teams that recently suffered a blowout loss at the hands of their current opponent generally play a better game in the encore — the 2010 Jets beat the Patriots weeks after an embarrassing loss, and the Vikings came within a missed field goal of upsetting the Seahawks, last week. The Packers, a 10-6 regular season team with a 6-game winning streak on the resume and coming off a breakout win will continue the trend of rebounding from a big loss with a competitive battle.
The Cardinals were poised to storm into the playoffs on an impossibly-long winning streak, only to fall apart against the Seahawks in the season’s finale. While we normally look for a winning streak to be snapped so that the team can reset and continue on its winning ways, the Cardinals of Week 17 were not the same team that took the field for the entire season — with playoff positioning nearly guaranteed, Arizona took its foot off the pedal. With that, the Cardinals have not only gone two complete weeks without playing a game with meaning, but their last test was a breeze — the aforementioned dismantling of the Packers.
Despite the Packers’ Wild Card weekend win against the Redskins, the team still has some flaws that will make it difficult for an outright upset of the Cardinals. Green Bay’s offense sits in the middle-of-the-pack for scoring and yards, and the 35-point output was the second-highest total of the season. When facing the league’s seventh-best scoring defense and second-best scoring offense in Arizona, the Packers cannot afford a misstep.
What continues to get left out of most debates involving the Packers is the team’s defense. Allowing the twelfth-fewest point-per-game, the Packers have only allowed 24 or more points four times throughout the years — against the Chiefs, Broncos, Panthers, and Cardinals, all of whom are playing this weekend. The Packers won’t be able to completely shut down the Cardinals, but they will keep them in check.
Green Bay, ready for revenge, falls just short of an upset to an overall more complete team with only two legitimate losses on the season. The Cardinals win by a field goal, but Green Bay beats the spread.
Seattle Seahawks (+3) at Carolina Panthers
It is always the same story with the Panthers — after another win, the spread for the next game is tantalizingly small, yet we continue to pick against them. For the first three-quarters of the season, this was a mistake. Finally, by the end, the Panthers slowed down, entered the atmosphere of earth, lost a few games against the spread, then cruised to a blowout victory in Week 17.
It is time for another regression.
If the Chiefs are suffering from having their wins discounted, why shouldn’t the Panthers? Despite an absurd 15-1 record, Carolina has only beaten four teams with winning records. Clearly, the Panthers are near the top of the league thanks to dominating those teams they should beat, but are they the top of the league? Most importantly, are they ready to host a playoff game against the back-to-back NFC Champions?
The spread for the game opened at a perfect two-and-a-half points. In addition to enticing people to back the favorite — since a field goal-win would cover the spread — the number continued to creep downward, making the Panthers look more appealing in the process. Since then, the number has fluctuated from as low as one point from the Panthers to as many as three.
It doesn’t matter. The Seahawks are going to win the game, outright.
The beauty in how the Seahawks’ Wild Card game ended is that the team basically lost to the Vikings. At the end of nearly 60 minutes of football, the Seahawks should have been forced to drive the length of the field on a prayer. Instead, they were gifted a missed kick and another life in the postseason.
For many teams, surviving on the heels of such a game only prolongs the inevitable — where said team would subsequently lose the next time it took the field. The Seahawks are anything but an average team. Although they struggled to get their footing in the early portion of 2015, their ‘never-say-die’ mentality helped erase a 10-0 fourth quarter deficit in Minnesota that resulted in a lead that they could lose. In essence, the Seahawks are no different from the Kansas City Royals of the past two Major League Baseball seasons, frequently at risk of death, but never allowing the same fate as the previous postseason — a heart-breaking loss in the final moments — to resurface.
Despite their 10-6 regular season record, the Seahawks rank in the top-four for points and yards in both offense and defense. They are statistically excellent in nearly all aspects of play, and they played a whopping seven games against eventual playoff teams. The Panthers played four such teams.
Carolina may have torched the league during the months of September, October, November, and December, but January still belongs to Seattle.
The Seahawks win by four and beat the spread.
Pittsburgh Steelers (+7) at Denver Broncos
What a shame. With nearly fifteen minutes remaining in the latter AFC Wild Card game, Landry Jones and A.J. McCarron were squaring off to propel either the Steelers or Bengals to the next round of the playoffs. Now, the Steelers will likely send an injured Ben Roethlisberger to Denver to try to pull off an upset with a skeleton crew.
If any team can do it, it is the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Completely ravaged by injuries throughout the season, the resilient Steelers enter Sunday afternoon’s game in an unenviable position. As a result, the spread has jumped four points since its open; an unprecedented move. Then again, the initial spread of three points from Denver did not do justice to Roethlisberger’s shoulder.
Often times, in injury to a starting quarterback has a perceived impact on the game. Surprising many, however, the number typically does not move a significant amount. In addition to the spread already including the probability that a specific player may miss the game, the definitive answer on said player’s status is only a small factor in the eventual outcome. In essence, most quarterbacks are not worth as many points in the spread as it ultimately moves. Roethlisberger, however, is the exception.
The key to the final outcome does not lie in the final number. Instead, the opening spread is more curious than its eventual resting place. At the conclusion of the Steelers’ game in Cincinnati, it was apparent that both Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown were significantly injured. While the extent for both players was not known, it was clear that neither were leaving last weekend’s game with their bodies at 100 percent.
Knowing that Brown and Roethlisberger were not perfect, why was the spread only three points? Had no news been released, and business continued as usual, would the number have ever moved? Instead, Roethlisberger is likely to play injured, and Brown is questionable — although, with the current concussion protocols, he seems unlikely to play — but the number has grown. This could have only happened because the perception that an injured Roethlisberger cannot compete is outweighing the reality that he can.
The Broncos are also getting a boost from recent play, as they stopped a potentially catastrophic skid at the end of the season to finish the year with a gaudy 12-4 record. Suddenly, quarterback Peyton Manning — with a history of struggles in the postseason and only a few short weeks removed from an overall poor regular season — is back on top of the world. Granted, Denver’s defense is fantastic — top-ranked in yards allowed and allowing the fourth-fewest points-per-game — but its offense has committed the fourth-most turnovers and ranks in the bottom half of the league for points scored.
In the end, the original spread on the game is the most accurate depiction of the outcome. The Broncos will be able to move the ball against a Steelers secondary allowing the third-most yards through the air, and the team’s defense will keep an injured Roethlisberger from running away, but the game will not be won with ease.
The Broncos win by a field goal, but Pittsburgh beats the spread.