Saturday Games

- Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans (-3.5)

Neither team has its desired starting quarterback, which makes this one of the least appealing playoff matchups in recent memory. With Derek Carr (broken leg) and Tom Savage (concussion) both out, it’s the battle of the backups.

Or in Oakland’s case, the backup of the backup. Rookie Connor Cook gets his first career start after Matt McGloin got hurt in his dismal performance in last week’s loss to Denver. Cook player better than McGloin, but that’s not much of an achievement.

The Raiders managed just 11 first downs, or two less than the number of penalties accepted against them. It was their worst performance of 2016 and harkens back to the miserable performances of seasons past. If they don’t play a lot smarter and help Cook by avoiding mistakes around him, Oakland is in big trouble in Houston.

The Texans go back to Osweiler, who was rightly benched for Tom Savage. There is a redemptive angle here for the big QB, and the Raiders' defense is vulnerable. As long as the Houston offensive line holds up, Osweiler will get chances to attack down the field with Nuk Hopkins, Will Fuller and even tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz. No team allowed more yards per attempt than Oakland’s 7.6, and that figure is 8.0 over the last three games. Given one of those games was against Denver’s sputtering attack, that doesn’t bode well for the visitors.

Texans 20, Raiders 13

- Detroit Lions at Seattle Seahawks (-8)

Conventional wisdom has the Seahawks romping the Lions, who backed into the playoff berth only because Washington lost last week. Yet my friend Kent Platte properly notes the Seahawks aren’t exactly peaking at the right time either…

Kent’s point is a good one, and an underreported one too. Seattle’s offense limped against better teams, notably the Packers and Buccaneers. They are reliant on big plays from Russell Wilson and the occasional long run. Detroit’s defense does a better-than-expected job of limiting big plays and forcing teams to be more patient than they typically like to be.

Detroit’s problem is that the defense does in fact allow offenses to methodically drive the ball and make chunk plays, if not the home runs. They allowed the highest completion percentage and recorded one of the lowest sack rates. Seattle’s offensive line is a major vulnerability, but the Lions D-line just doesn’t roar enough to take advantage.

Matthew Stafford can keep it close, and Detroit has found some success on the ground with Zach Zenner. If they can win the turnover battle by more than one, I think they pull off the upset. Unfortunately the Lions defense doesn’t make enough plays to bank on that. You shouldn’t bank on a Seattle blowout either, however.

Seahawks 27, Lions 21

Sunday Games

- Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers (-10)

This sure seems like the one safe bet on the weekend. Pittsburgh is relatively healthy entering the playoffs and features the most dynamic “triplets” in the league with Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.

When coming up the forecast here, I took the approach of “how can Miami win”? I came up with a three-pronged approach:

  • Dominate the time of possession with the run game and ball control passing. That keeps Pittsburgh’s explosive offense off the field and perhaps creates impatience when they have the ball. That’s exactly how lowly Cleveland took the Steelers deep into overtime last week
  • Win the turnover battle. They did just that in the 30-15 win back in Week 6, a victory which launched the 1-4 Dolphins on their impressive tear to the playoffs
  • Make field goals. It sounds petty and simplistic, but Pittsburgh is a tough place to kick. With temps expected in the 20s and the notorious circling winds at Heinz Field, it’s even tougher. Andrew Franks made just 16 of his 21 attempts this year, and he’s 4-for-7 in the last five games

In true meteorological fashion, I give that a 30% chance of happening. That’s the default forecast when you’re incredibly sure but not 100% certain in the day’s weather. Very apropos here…

Steelers 32, Dolphins 17

- New York Giants at Green Bay Packers (-4.5)

The NFL saves what seems like the best game of the weekend for the prime Sunday spot. These are the NFC’s two hottest teams entering the playoffs, and both feature Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks who have impressive weaponry at their disposal.

If this game were in New York, I would have zero hesitation in picking the Giants. That’s no knock on Aaron Rodgers or the Packers’ ability to win on the road, either; New York’s turf is friendly for the home team, and the defense plays a lot better at home.

But this game is in Green Bay. So was the Week 5 game, a Sunday night affair where the Packers prevailed 23-16 and comfortably led throughout. The Green Bay defense played outstanding that night, pressuring Eli Manning (3 sacks) and not allowing anything deep. The Packers D has only gotten better, holding three of the last four opponents below 300 yards while forcing 9 takeaways in those four games.

Green Bay’s offensive line deserves more credit than it gets, too. I voted for right tackle Bryan Bulaga as the Most Improved Player on my PFWA ballot, and left tackle David Bahktiari earned my All-NFC nod at tackle (Trent Williams was the other). Given how dialed in Rodgers is right now behind them, I have trouble seeing New York’s pass rush impacting the passing attack much. The outstanding, opportunistic Giants coverage will have a say, but I am not picking against Green Bay in Green Bay.

Packers 26, Giants 20 

College Football Championship

I thought Washington’s defense was the one unit that could go toe-to-toe with Alabama and maybe prevail. That didn’t happen, but then I saw Clemson’s defense absolutely dominate Ohio State. If their middle-of-field defense plays Bama the way they played the Buckeyes, Clemson has a very good chance of winning. I’m not a big Deshaun Watson fan as a draft prospect, but as a college playmaker he’s exactly what an offense needs to find success against the Crimson Tide’s defense which is chock full of future NFL starters. 

Clemson nearly pulled it off last year, and I think this year’s Tigers team is better overall. Alas, so is Alabama’s. This Tide team might be the best all-around college football team I’ve seen. Of course the last team I thought that about was the 2002 Miami Hurricanes…and they lost to Ohio State in the national title game. History repeats itself.

Clemson 28, Alabama 24