My NFL Picks: Wild Card and Playoff Predictions — The Eagles look to repeat in a stacked NFC

The 2018 NFL regular season is now in the books, and it’s time for the playoffs to get under way. Only five of this year’s 12 playoff teams were in the postseason last year, meaning seven teams are returning to the tournament after at least one season out of the playoffs. The defending Super Bowl champion Eagles needed some help in Week 17, but they ultimately snuck into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed to look to successfully defend their title. The other holdovers from last year are the Rams and Saints in the NFC and the Patriots and Chiefs in the AFC. The teams returning to the postseason after an absence are the Colts, Texans, Chargers and Ravens in the AFC, and the Bears, Seahawks and Cowboys in the NFC. The Eagles are the only team returning from last year’s postseason that did not earn a first-round bye. The Chiefs hold the No. 1 seed in the AFC, with the Patriots behind them at No. 2, and the top two spots in the NFC went to the Saints and Rams, respectively. The 12 teams entering the postseason are all hoping to make it all the way to Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

I didn’t have a good year picking games against the spread during the regular season, going 129-127 — although I went 14-2 in Week 17 — but I was better picking straight up, with a 156-98-2 record.

Now we’ll get to my detailed Wild Card picks, followed by how I think the whole postseason will go.

Saturday

No. 6 seed Indianapolis Colts (10-6, Wild Card) at No. 3 seed Houston Texans (11-5, AFC South champions) (-1.5, over/under 48.5)

This is one of the most unlikely playoff matchups we could have expected to see early in the season after the Texans began the season 0-3 and the Colts were 1-5 in their first six games. Both teams also had nice bounce-back seasons after finishing with identical 4-12 records a year ago to get to double-digit wins this year. A big piece of the improvement for both teams was the return to health for their quarterbacks, with Colts QB Andrew Luck returning to the field after missing all of the 2017 season with a shoulder injury and Texans QB Deshaun Watson playing his first full season after missing more than half of his rookie campaign with a knee injury.

Neither team should be worried about the performance they’ll get out of the quarterback position. Luck is the likely Comeback Player of the Year award winner after throwing for 4,539 yards and 39 touchdowns in a season in which people weren’t sure how he’d do after missing more than a year since he last played. Watson also had a good season, throwing for 4,165 yards and 26 touchdowns, with just nine interceptions. He is also a threat on the ground, with 551 rushing yards and five touchdowns.

The running game is where the Colts have their biggest question mark on offense, with their 1,718 rushing yards good for just 20th in the league, with their 13 rushing touchdowns ranking middle-of-the-pack. RB Marlon Mack did have two of his best games late in the season, running for a season-high 139 yards and two touchdowns in Week 15, and putting up a 119-yard performance in Week 17. Backup RB Nyheim Hines started four games, but never ran for more than 78 yards in a contest. The Texans were eighth in the league with 2,021 yards, but they only had 12 touchdowns on the ground. Their workhorse was veteran RB Lamar Miller, who had four games in which he ran for more than 100 yards in his 14 starts, including a season-best 162 yards in Week 12. Backup RB Alfred Blue started two games but didn’t have much success, with a total of 499 rushing yards on the season.

The Colts’ receiving corps was top-heavy this season, led by WR T.Y. Hilton, who had 76 catches for 1,270 yards and six touchdowns. TE Eric Ebron was the other significant part of the passing game, totaling 66 receptions for 750 yards and an impressive 13 touchdowns, which were not only a career-high but more than his total number of scores in his four seasons with the Lions combined. The Texans have been hit hard by injuries in the receiving game. WR DeAndre Hopkins, who is the team’s top receiver, is pretty much the last  man standing. He had 115 receptions this season for 1,572 yards and 11 touchdowns. WR Keke Coutee, who has missed the past five games with a hamstring injury, has 28 catches for 287 yards and a touchdown in six games, including two starts. Miller and TE Ryan Griffin added 26 and 25 receptions, respectively. WRs Will Fuller and Demaryius Thomas are both out after suffering season-ending injuries. 

The Texans have the advantage defensively. They allowed 316 points, the fourth-fewest in the league, and were 12th in yards allowed. The Colts were just ahead of the Texans in the latter category, ranking 11th, but they were 10th with 344 points given up to opponents. Texans DE J.J. Watt played in his first full season since 2015, and put up good numbers coming off injuries in recent years. He forced seven fumbles and recorded 16 sacks. DE Jadeveon Clowney added nine sacks — .5 off his career high — in 15 games. DE Denico Autry led Colts defenders with nine sacks in 12 games. Both teams accounted for 15 interceptions, which was tied for ninth-most in the league.

Both teams have a good offense, but the Colts are healthier — especially among their receivers. The Texans will be relying on rookies like WRs DeAndre Carter and Vyncint Smith and TEs Jordan Thomas and Jordan Akins to catch passes from Watson. Watt also suffered a hand injury in Week 17’s win over the Jaguars. The severity is unknown, but it would be surprising if it is bad enough to keep him out of a playoff game. If he isn’t able to play at his full potential, the Texans’ defense may have to rely more on CB Tyrann Mathieu and S Justin Reid, who had a good rookie season. The teams split their season series, with the Texans winning an overtime thriller, 37-34, in Indianapolis in Week 4, and the Colts won the return contest in Week 14 by a 24-21 margin. The offensive line is a concern for the Texans, as Watson was sacked more than any other quarterback in the league this season, but I think they’ll be able to overcome it against the Colts. These teams are pretty evenly matched, and I’d expect another close game. I think the Texans’ defense may end up being the difference, stopping the Colts late in the game to solidify the victory. I’ll go with the Texans to win, 27-24, to barely cover the spread and make the over. 

Texans (-1.5), over 48.5

No. 5 seed Seattle Seahawks (10-6, Wild Card) at No. 4 seed Dallas Cowboys (10-6, NFC East champions) (-1.5, over/under 43)

Both teams are returning to the postseason after a one-year absence, with each improving from 9-7 last season to 10-6 this year. Like the Colts and Texans, the Seahawks got off to a slow start in 2018, losing their first two games and being just 3-3 going into their Week 7 bye. But a late push — going 6-1 in their last seven games — earned them a Wild Card and the fifth seed in the NFC. The Cowboys were 3-4 going into their bye in Week 8, but they went 7-2 after the bye to ultimately win the NFC East, helped in large part by the acquisition of WR Amari Cooper, who the Cowboys traded for from the Raiders before the trade deadline.

Seahawks QB Russell Wilson threw for 3,448 yards and 35 touchdowns and seven interceptions — both career highs. He also ran for 376 yards on 67 carries. For the Cowboys, QB Dak Prescott threw for a career high with 3,885 yards with 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also ran the ball 75 times, going for 305 yards and six scores. Like with the AFC game earlier in the day, there should be a good quarterback matchup in this one.

The Seahawks led the league in rushing with 2,560 yards, and their 15 touchdowns were tied for the 11th most in the league. The Cowboys ranked 10th in the category with 1,963 yards, and their 13 touchdowns on the ground ranked them in the middle of the league. RB Chris Carson led the Seahawks’ ground game, running for 1,151 yards and nine touchdowns in 14 games. RB Mike Davis started the two games Carson didn’t and played in 15 total contests, gaining 514 rushing yards and four touchdowns. RB Rashaad Penny added another 419 yards and two scores. On the other side of the field, Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott carried the ball 304 times in 15 games, gaining 1,434 yards and running for six touchdowns. Prescott was the next most productive rusher, and the only other Cowboy to get double-digit carries was RB Rod Smith, who started in Week 17, and had 127 rushing yards and a touchdown on 44 runs during the season.

The Cowboys didn’t have a true No. 1 receiver in the first half of the season, but then they traded for Cooper. In nine games with the Cowboys, he caught 53 passes for 725 yards and six touchdowns — leading the team in the latter two categories. Elliott led the team with 77 catches, going for 567 yards and three touchdowns. WR Cole Beasley had 65 catches for 672 yards and three scores. Seahawks WR Tyler Lockett led the team with 57 receptions, for 965 yards and 10 touchdowns. In 13 games, WR Doug Baldwin added 50 catches for 618 yards and five scores. Davis also had 34 receptions, in addition to his workload in the running game.

The Cowboys had a surprisingly strong defense this season, ranking sixth with 324 points allowed and seventh in yards allowed. The Seahawks weren’t far behind, placing 11th with 347 points and 16th in yardage. The Seahawks had two players with at least 10 sacks, DE Frank Clark led the team with 14 and DT Jarran Reed totaled 10.5 sacks. DE Demarcus Lawrence racked up 10.5 sacks to lead the team, with DE Randy Gregory next on the list with six sacks in 14 games. Both teams were in the bottom half of the league in interceptions; the Seahawks had 12 — which tied them for 18th in the league — and the Cowboys were tied for 26th with just nine interceptions on the season.

These teams both have pretty balanced offenses, though the Cowboys may rely too much on Cooper in the passing game, and good defenses so this should be a close game. The teams met in Seattle in Week 3 with the Seahawks winning 24-14, but the Dallas offense is different now than it was then. The Cowboys also have the benefit of home-field advantage this weekend. I think the Cowboys get the victory 27-24, to cover and hit the over/under number.

Cowboys (-1.5), over 43

Sunday

No. 5 seed Los Angeles Chargers (12-4, Wild Card) at No. 4 seed Baltimore Ravens (10-6, AFC North champions) (-2.5, over/under 41.5)

The Chargers have made it to the postseason for the time since the 2013 season as veteran QB Philip Rivers continues to vie for his first Super Bowl appearance. The Ravens last played in the postseason in the 2014 season. Perhaps the best thing to happen for the Ravens this year was veteran QB Joe Flacco — the MVP of Super Bowl XLVII — getting injured, giving them a chance to give rookie QB Lamar Jackson a chance at the starting job, which he has not relinquished despite Flacco’s health improving. That sets up a quarterback matchup of old school vs. new school, with Rivers facing off with Jackson.

The two quarterbacks in this game have wildly different styles. Rivers had a typically strong season for him, throwing for 4,308 yards and 32 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. But he had just 18 rushes on the season for seven yards. Jackson, on the other hand, is known for his running ability and actually led the Ravens with 147 attempts in which he totaled 695 yards and five touchdowns in his seven starts and sporadic snaps taken in the other nine games. In terms of passing, Jackson was 99-for-170 for 1,201 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions.

The Chargers’ 1,873 rushing yards placed them 15th in the league, while the Ravens were second — helped by Jackson’s numbers — with 2,441 ground yards. Chargers RB Melvin Gordon was limited to 12 games this season, running for 885 yards and 10 touchdowns. Backup RBs Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson started the four games Gordon missed; Ekeler made three of the starts, and played in 14 games overall, rushing or 554 yards and three touchdowns. In 13 games — one start — Jackson totaled 206 yards and two scores. Ravens RB Gus Jackson had 137 rushes for a team-high 718 yards with two touchdowns in 11 games, including six starts. RB Alex Collins made 10 starts, compiling 411 yards on 114 carries and found the end zone seven times.

WR Keenan Allen led the Chargers in the receiving game, with 97 catches for 1,196 yards and six touchdowns. Gordon added 50 receptions for 490 yards and four touchdowns. WRs Mike Williams and Tyrell Williams put up similar numbers; MIke had 43 catches for 664 yards and 10 scores, while Tyrell caught 41 balls for 653 yards but just five touchdowns. Veteran TE Antonio Gates, who contemplated retirement before TE Hunter Henry suffered a season-ending injury before the season, had 28 catches for 333 yards and two touchdowns. WR Willie Snead was the Ravens’ top pass-catcher, recording 62 receptions for 651 yards and a touchdown. WR Michael Crabtree had 54 catches for 607 yards and three touchdowns, with WR John Brown adding 42 catches for 715 yards and five scores. Rookie TE Mark Andrews had 34 receptions for for 552 yards and three touchdowns despite getting the start in just three of his 16 games.

The Ravens have the clear advantage on defense. They allowed the second-fewest points in the league at 287 and they led the NFL in yards allowed with 4,687. The Chargers ranked eighth with 329 points, and they were ninth in opponents’ yardage, so they were good but still at a level below the Ravens. DE Melvin Ingram was Los Angeles’ sack leader with seven. Ravens DE Za’Darius Smith led his team with 8.5 sacks. Both teams were tied for 15th in the league with 13 interceptions.

The Chargers will be able to move the ball against a tough Ravens defense if they want to win the game. They had a top 10 scoring offense during the season, so they’re able to put points on the board, but they were able to put up just 10 points in a Week 16 loss to the Ravens at home. The Chargers may get Henry back from his torn ACL, but if he plays he probably won’t be very effective in his first game action of the season. The Chargers have to head across the country and play an early game, which is being played at 1pm Eastern, which will be 10am on their body clocks coming from the West Coast. I think that plays a factor in the end result. I expect the Ravens to win a low-scoring affair, 24-17, to just miss the over/under number.

 Ravens (-2.5), under 41.5

No. 6 seed Philadelphia Eagles (9-7, Wild Card) at No. 3 seed Chicago Bears (12-4, NFC North champions) (-6, over/under 41)

This game has the biggest spread of the four games this weekend, which isn’t surprising because I think this is the biggest mismatch as an Eagles team with a quarterback who is potentially not 100% faces the best scoring defense in the NFL. Eagles QB Nick Foles left last week’s game early with bruised ribs, but he is expected to be ready to play this week. Among the Bears defenders he’ll be opposing is LB Khalil Mack, who they traded for prior to the start of the season. The Eagles are in the postseason for the second straight year, and looking to defend their Super Bowl LII title, while the Bears are playing into January for the first time since the 2010 season, when they made it to the conference championship. They’re looking for their first Super Bowl title since 1985.

For the second straight year, Foles stepped in as the Eagles’ starting quarterback for injured QB Carson Wentz. Foles made five starts this season — in Weeks 1 and 2, then again in Weeks 15-17 — and threw for 1,413 yards and seven touchdowns, with four interceptions. With Wentz not expected back for the postseason, QB Nate Sudfeld will be Foles’ backup if his ribs get worse or he suffers a new injury. The Eagles went 4-1 in his starts. Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky started 14 games and took a step forward from his rookie season. He threw for 3,223 yards and 24 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. 

The Eagles were 28th in the league this season with 1,570 rushing yards, while the Bears’ 1,938 yards on the ground put them in 11th place. The Eagles’ rushing woes were caused in part by injuries to RBs Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement. RB Josh Adams, who only started five games, was the Eagles’ leading rusher with 511 yards and three touchdowns on 120 rushes. RB Wendell Smallwood, who started six games, ran the ball 87 times for 364 yards and three touchdowns. RB Jordan Howard was the Bears’ leading rusher, with 250 carries for 935 yards and nine touchdowns. RB Tarik Cohen had 99 rushes for 444 yards and three scores. Trubisky ran for 421 yards and three touchdowns on 68 carries.

Eagles TE Zach Ertz had a career year en route to being the team’s top pass-catcher, recording 116 receptions for 1,163 yards and eight touchdowns. Next up was WR Alshon Jeffery, who had 65 catches for 843 yards and six touchdowns in 13 games. WR Nelson Agholor added 736 yards and four scores on 64 catches. Rookie TE Dallas Goedert caught 33 balls for 334 yards and four touchdowns. In eight games with the Eagles after being traded by the Lions, WR Golden Tate had 30 catches for 278 yards and a touchdown. Cohen was the Bears’ leading pass-catcher with 71 receptions for 725 yards and five touchdowns. WR Taylor Gabriel wasn’t far behind him, with 67 catches for 688 yards and two touchdowns. WR Allen Robinson had 55 receptions for 754 yards and four scores in 13 games, while TE Trey Burton added 54 catches for 569 yards and six touchdowns. WR Anthony Miller had 33 catches for 423 games and seven touchdowns in 15 games, but just four starts.

The Bears had the NFL’s best scoring defense, allowing opponents to score just 283 points, and they ranked third in yards allowed. The Eagles were 12th with 348 points allowed and 23rd in opponents’ yardage. In addition to having the allowing the fewest points, the Bears had the most takeaways, becoming just the fourth team in the Super Bowl era to lead outright in both categories. Acquiring Mack had a big impact on the team’s strong defensive performance; he forced six fumbles and recorded 12.5 sacks in his first season with the team. DT Fletcher Cox led the Eagles with 10.5 sacks, and DE Michael Bennett wasn’t far behind him with nine. DE Chris Long added another 6.5 sacks.

Foles is 9-2 as a starter over the last two seasons, including last year’s postseason, but this will be one of his biggest challenges in that stretch as he faces the dominant Bears defense. The lack of a bonafide No. 1 running back could hurt the Eagles because the Bears will be able to focus on defending against the passing game. I think the Bears win easily, 28-17, to cover both the spread and the over/under.

 Bears (-6), over 41

Based on the above picks, here is how I see the rest of the postseason playing out:

Divisional Round

Chiefs beat the Ravens
Texans beat the Patriots
Rams beat the Bears
Saints beat the Cowboys

Conference Championships

Chiefs beat the Texans
Rams beat the Saints

Super Bowl LIII

Rams beat the Chiefs

(Spreads and over/unders from Vegas Insider)

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1 thought on “My NFL Picks: Wild Card and Playoff Predictions — The Eagles look to repeat in a stacked NFC

  1. Pingback: My NFL Picks: Divisional Playoffs — Rivers battles Brady for spot in AFC Championship | Thoughts From Scott

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