NFL Wild Card Weekend Picks: Bears Knock Off Defending Champs
The NFL playoffs are a strange, frenetic universe. Last week we were hanging by a thread to see if the Browns would do as the Bengals did last season and oust the Ravens in the regular season’s final moments. The Ravens held on this time and as a “hot” playoff team have inspired a bevy of stories about their rejuvenated run game and stifling defense. Like the Ravens every team playing in this postseason has at least one magical element that’s easy to glom on to. The Bears’ Club Dub seems to never close (still waiting for my VIP access, Matt Nagy!). Nick Foles is back to his mystical being self. The Colts’ collective facial hair growth is almost as stunning as the team’s rise from 1-5. And so on.
This postseason feels special. There are no clear weak links. The teams are either stacked, have momentum or have Patrick Mahomes. Unlike other Wild Card Weekends (like when T.J. Yates led the Texas, the lovable but overmatched Bills snuck in or the Bengals were on the docket), it’s somewhat easy to ponder a path to the Super Bowl for this year’s entire crop of teams playing this weekend and beyond. But then in three hours – poof. Four teams move on, four teams prepare to clean out their lockers. No slow build and culmination here like other sports that are decided with multiple games. The NFL playoffs are an emotional powerhouse and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
I don’t often write picks columns because there are far more desirable forms of humiliation. But this weekend’s slate of games is so intriguing and my brain has been given such a hearty new year’s workout from toggling between picks that putting them in the ether and calmly waiting for kickoff seems like a more therapeutic option. One game I pick with a dose of confidence, the others, well, if I’m right I was totally confident all along. If not, it was my 4-year-old who made these picks!
As old man Brady, who of course is resting during Wild Card Weekend for the NINTH straight season would say, “Let’s Gooooo…..do some pliability and make some picks!”
Colts at Texans 4:35 ET, ESPN/ABC
When the Colts lost to the Texans in Week 4 in overtime after Frank Reich went for it on 4th down on his own 43-yard-line, who could have imagined we’d be here? Reich was largely criticized as the Colts fell to 1-3, while the Texans were still just 1-3 as well. No one predicted the Texans would rattle off eight straight victories and the Colts’ defense would become an asset. or maybe that did. After all the Texans’ roster is loaded with superstars, and Reich’s controversial decision may have infused his team with a dose of “play to win” confidence.
Both Colts-Texans games this season were decided by three points, and this one shapes up to be another nail biter. Soon-t0-be Comeback Player of the Year Andrew Luck is on a roll, and slashed the Texans for 399 passing yards and 2 touchdowns in their more recent meeting. Luck is a generational talent but he’s also getting much more process time thanks to a revamped offensive line. T.Y. Hilton has a special affinity for playing in Houston – he’s had two games with at least 175 receiving yards – though he does have a tweaked ankle that could cause limitations. The Colts running game was stymied by the Texans in their previous meetings though both occurred before the highly productive Marlon Mack returned from injury. If Mack is up in the 75-100 yard range, and Luck plays like typical Luck, it’s going to be very difficult for Houston to eke out a win.
Of course the Texan’ house arguably the league’s most thrilling wideout in DeAndre Hopkins, whose hands are literally made out of double-sided tape. Deshaun Watson has been hot of late and has the NFL’s longest streak of 207 consecutive passes thrown without a pick. His escapability is always a threat. Unfortunately he also leads the league in sacks with 62. The Texans are going to need some top shelf blocking to stop Darius Leonard, the Colts rookie linebacker who leads the league in tackles.
Houston’s recent playoff history is pretty bleak – they only beat the Matt McGloin-led Raiders in 2016 before getting crushed by New England, a year after they were shut out by the Chiefs in the Wild Card round. I believe the Texans will suffer another disappointment simply because the Colts have too much momentum at the moment.
Colts 31 Texans 28 (keeping the three-point differential streak alive)
Seahawks at Cowboys 8:15 ET, FOX
Ah, the team that was supposed to be in rebuild mode vs. the team who’s coach everyone wanted fired six weeks ago. (No, I didn’t at all write a column to that effect about Jason Garrett.) The NFL works in mysterious ways. The Seahawks have won six of their last seven and the Cowboys have been rejuvenated since trading for Amari Cooper, a wideout who can, you know, actually run routes.
Unlike most of the other games this weekend, there are a few obvious matchups that should decide the outcome of this one. Russell Wilson is going get blitzed and either his improved offensive line will need to keep DeMarcus Lawrence and company at bay or Wilson will have to sprinkle the magic fairy dust yet again.
If the Cowboys have a shot at winning their linebacking crew of Leighton Vader Esch and Jaylon Smith will have to stop Seahawks rusher Chris Carson who’s had a spectacular December with 516 yards and five touchdowns.
The Cowboys offense has notably improved since Cooper arrived and Ezekiel Elliott’s game has been more multi-dimensional but they have struggled at times and may be too a tad too conservative against the Seahawks. The Cowboys have been stealth at home with only one loss but I think the Seahawks playoff experience and gelling in all the right places will be the catalyst for the upset.
Seahawks 27 Cowboys 23
Chargers at Ravens 1:05 ET, CBS
Ah, the game that has given me the most fits. Thanks to the NFL’s playoff scheduling masters, the 12-4 Chargers have to travel to the 10-6 Ravens who barely got in. For most teams this would be a huge disadvantage, but not for Los Angeles who happens to be a stunning 7-1 on the road this season. That includes wins in three of the most difficult places to play – Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Seattle.
As mentioned earlier, the Ravens defense has been nasty and filled with swagger in the second half of season, mimicking the franchise’s infamous defense of several years ago that starred Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Terrell Suggs and Eric Weddle are anchoring this new version that is bursting with confidence. Only the Browns last week and the Chiefs have scored more than 20 points on Baltimore since Thanksgiving. One of those games was Week 16 when the Ravens crushed the Chargers 22-10. They disrupted Philip Rivers all day, who was sacked four times. L.A. concurrently couldn’t get any running game going but should be greatly aided by rookie back Austin Ekeler’s return this go-around. Ekeler is a huge threat as a pass catcher and a great complement to Melvin Gordon, who appears good to go as well.
The Chargers have started slow in games in the second half of the season, and Rivers’ stat line has been down the past two weeks (under 200 yards in each game). But Rivers is as adept as they come at pulling out rabbit and playing with the right lack of self awareness.
This game may boil down to how rookie Lamar Jackson performs on a bigger stage. The Ravens have adapted to his talents well and it’s hard to see him not making at least a few electrifying plays on options or designed runs. The other factor is how Anthony Lynn and the Chargers adjust to Week 16’s thrashing. Having two weeks to dissect the film is certainly a benefit.
Baltimore’s defense is getting all the pub but the Chargers defense has been very hot as well, and is adept at preventing the big plays. Both kickers – Justin Tucker for Baltimore and Mike Badgley of the Chargers are among the league leaders in field goal percentage.
The more I write about this matchup, more indecisive I become. But for the sake of putting something down, I’ll go with the team that is elite on the road and the craftiness of Rivers, who I believe will perform in the moment.
Chargers 22 Ravens 21
Eagles at Bears 4:40 ET, NBC
There’s a lot to REALLY like about Philadelphia, aside from its vasty underrated foodie scene. The Eagles are 4-1 since Nick Foles the god was lifted from the heavens and plucked under center, and his playoff resume speaks for itself. Darren Sproles has added a needed spark since returning from injury in Week 13. Foles has a clear special connection with Zach Ertz and former Bear Alshon Jeffrey has been consistently productive over the last month. And, of course, you never know what kind of witchcraft play calling Doug Pederson is drumming up for this one. Well, it better be damn good because the Bears are the NFL’s best defense. The Bears are stifling and opportunistic on almost every defensive spot. They lead the league in rushing yards allowed per game (80), rushing touchdowns allowed (5), interceptions (27!) and striking fear (innumerable). If the general trifecta of Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and Roquan Smith wasn’t enough to scare Foles, it appears star safety Eddie Jackson looks he’ll be returning this week. The Bears are healthy and on the prowl and ready to pounce and ok, I’m out of of Bearisms.
Offensively Chicago has thrived with Matt Nagy calling more conservative plays that give Mitchell Trubisky room to run and build confidence, and then getting exotic on the goal line. The Bears have their own Sproles – Tarik Cohen – who can be dangerous in multiple phases. There are more elite offenses in the playoffs but the Eagles defense has not been able to stop anyone other than the Alex Smith-less Redskins over the final two months. The Bears biggest weaknesses are lack of playoff experience and their kicker, Cody Parkey. But overall, the talent disparity on defense and home field make this one a potential blowout.
Bears 36 Eagles 20