NFL Wild Card Weekend game picks: Seahawks outlast Eagles
Gregg Rosenthal went 14-2 on his predictions for Week 17, bringing his season record to 162-93-1. How will he fare on Wild Card Weekend? His picks are below.
SUNDAY, JAN. 5
1:05 p.m. ET (FOX) | Mercedes-Benz Superdome (New Orleans)
If this spicy meatball of a game is the biggest mismatch of the weekend on paper, it should be a satisfying Wild Card Weekend. While it’s understandable that the Vikings’ embarrassing Monday night loss to the Packers has eclipsed the memory of their first 14 games, this remains a balanced Minnesota team. It’s one of three teams that finished in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. The other two teams have home-field advantage.
For the Vikings to pull off a road upset, they will need the versions of wideout Adam Thielen and running back Dalvin Cook that we saw back in October. The Saints’ secondary has looked more vulnerable lately, and the Titans were the one team that recently exposed what should be a softer Saints front after losing starters Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins. The Vikings can pilot a similar path with a strong running game and explosive passing plays. Kirk Cousins is capable of keeping up in a shootout. It’s happened before. Promise.
The bigger issue for Minnesota is what happens when New Orleans has the ball. The Saints have averaged 36.3 points in their last seven games. Their combination of unstoppable route combinations created by Sean Payton’s playbook and Michael Thomas’ ability to make contested catches is unparalleled. A year after losing a playoff game in the most excruciating way possible, the Saints enter this postseason at 13-3 looking a lot more like the 2009 Saints than last year’s group did late in the 2018 campaign. That should result in another big total on Sunday and a lot of soul-searching in Minnesota about the efficacy of building around Mike Zimmer’s defense.
4:40 p.m. ET (NBC) | Lincoln Financial Field (Philadelphia)
The Seahawks have lost three of their last four games. The Eagles have won four in a row. It’s worth remembering those trends would likely be reversed if the Seahawks played in one of the worst divisions in NFL history. The Eagles finished 4-6 overall outside the cozy confines of the NFC East and haven’t won a game against a non-division foe since Nov. 3. That streak includes a 17-9 home loss to the Seahawks in Week 12.
Then again, the Seahawks’ good fortune has also been a huge part of how they reached this moment. They somehow won 11 games despite outscoring opponents by only seven points this season. The regression that many expected all year happened in December, along with a cascade of injuries. So much of this matchup could come down to which players that suit up on Sunday best resemble their former selves.
The Seahawks are not expected to get left tackle Duane Brown back, which should have the Eagles’ pass rushers licking their chops. Brandon Graham vs. Seahawks backup George Fant or right tackle Germain Ifedi is a problem. Seattle’s pass protection has been weak all year, requiring Russell Wilson to search for space that isn’t there in the pocket to make big throws. He started running more last week, but both Wilson and Marshawn Lynch don’t have the same burst they did five years ago.
If the Seahawks are to win, some newer faces need to show up. Travis Homer certainly looked like Seattle’s best back a week ago. Quinton Jefferson might be the team’s best pass rusher left standing unless Jadeveon Clowney looks healthier this week. Linebacker Mychal Kendricks is out for the season with a torn ACL, hurting the Seahawks’ one big defensive strength at the second level.
The Eagles, meanwhile, will be without Pro Bowl guard Brandon Brooks. The status of tight end Zach Ertz and right tackle Lane Johnson may not be known until game time. Rookie running back Miles Sanders, the fulcrum of the offense, is coming off an ankle injury and did not practice on Wednesday. Eagles coach Doug Pederson hasn’t figured out Pete Carroll’s defense in the past, failing to score more than 15 points in three meetings. Seattle’s offensive upside — shown in the second half against the 49ers last week — still appears higher.
All this uncertainty should result in a game decided in the final minutes, with two of the most entertaining quarterbacks in football trying to overcome their circumstances. That’s where Wilson does his best work.
UPDATE: The Seahawks have ruled Brown out for Sunday’s game. Ertz has been cleared to play and Johnson will not play, per NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo.
4:35 p.m. ET (ESPN) | NRG Stadium (Houston)
Trust offense over defense in the year 2020. As the 49ers, Patriots and even Steelers showed this season, even the best defenses only slow down the opposition so much.
The Bills know this well. They would be AFC East champions if their money side of the ball hadn’t allowed a sluggish Patriots offense to control their biggest game of the year in Foxborough. With that in mind, can they be trusted to stop Deshaun Watson?
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The Texans are an offense-first squad which explodes at unpredictable times. It didn’t happen enough in the second half of the season, and it usually happens when Will Fuller is on the field. The receiver is trending toward a return from his groin injury this week. With Bills corner Tre’Davious White trying to lock down DeAndre Hopkins, Fuller’s status is crucial. Buffalo’s defense can get very creative with its blitz packages without giving up big plays. That puts the onus on Watson to find open receivers quickly and stay patient in long drives. It also makes Texans running backs Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson key figures against a vulnerable Bills rush defense.
For all the progress that second-year quarterback Josh Allen made this season, the Bills are still a mediocre offense by any measure. They finished 24th in yards per drive and points per drive, while the Texans finished in the top seven in both categories. In a matchup where a single playoff win would mean so much to either franchise, the slight edge goes to the home team with the true franchise quarterback. If J.J. Watt makes another early-Saturday-afternoon playoff memory, all the better.
8:15 p.m. ET (CBS) | Gillette Stadium (Foxborough, Mass.)
Ryan Tannehill was the primary reason the Titans had the NFL’s best offense over the second half of the season. That Tannehill and first-year offensive coordinator Arthur Smith could pilot a unit that’s been even more efficient than the Ravens’ and Chiefs’ attacks down the stretch is perhaps this season’s most pleasant surprise.
The Titans match up well with an aging Patriots team that could have seriously used a week off. The New England defense’s all-out blitzes are no longer confusing opponents, with the Dolphins showing just how to beat them last week. Tannehill’s ability to make accurate throws on the run is a problem for a group that struggles with mobile quarterbacks, while Derrick Henry’s dogged excellence keeps the Titans on the field, setting them up for explosive plays. A.J. Brown, like DeVante Parker last week, has the physical attributes that even Stephon Gilmore can’t stop in one-on-one coverage.
Could the Patriots force Tannehill to hold the ball too long with exotic coverages, create a turnover or two and set up Tom Brady to have one last great home playoff performance? Of course they could. As rough as Sunday’s loss to the Dolphins was, the team’s offensive line has shown improvement over the last few weeks. Brady’s apparent elbow issue (which he insists is not an issue) and accuracy are unpredictable, but this is a favorable matchup against a Titans defense without much juice in the secondary or pass rush. (Although the expected return of cornerback Adoree’ Jackson helps.) The Patriots were a 10-6 team given a couple extra wins by their cake schedule, but any 10-6 team piloted by the greatest week-to-week coach in NFL history is capable of winning a home playoff game.
Ten years after the Ravens helped inspire the first “Is the Patriots dynasty . ?” articles to be written, Brady is clearly fighting an uphill battle. It’s easy to imagine him playing well and the Patriots still falling short, another example of a team built around defense losing to a high-flying offense in Foxborough in January.
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.