GENERALLY, WILD CARD Weekend is the best NFL weekend of the season.
Not only do you get Saturday and Sunday games but, because of the structure of the league — whether you like it or not — they tend to be really compelling, competitive encounters.
Sadly, for a variety of reasons, this may not be the case this weekend and, as Around The NFL’s Gregg Rosenthal said this week, one game is so bad that:
Oakland Raiders @ Houston Texans (-3.5) – 9.30pm, Saturday
Of course, it’s not the Raiders’ fault they’re now bad. Up until the moment Derek Carr broke his leg on Christmas Eve, the Silver & Black were regarded by many as a real threat to the New England Patriots in the AFC.
However, tonight, they become the first NFL team ever to start a rookie at quarterback in a playoff game after Carr’s back-up, Matt McGloin, injured his shoulder in last week’s loss to the Broncos.
With Brock Osweiler — who has just completed one of the worst statistical seasons in NFL history and only starts because his back-up Tom Savage suffered a concussion last week — on the other side, this is likely to be a low-scoring game for the purists.
Verdict: If… IF… the Raiders can get a run game going, they’ve a chance with one of the league’s best offensive lines. However, if it becomes a defensive battle, Houston will win. Texans by 2.
Detroit Lions @ Seattle Seahawks (-8) – 1.15am, Sunday
The other day, I suggested in my ranking of the 12 playoff teams that the Lions could cause a shock, despite the fact they’ve stumbled into the postseason on the back of three successive losses. Most of this is, again, down to a quarterback injury.
Before Matthew Stafford dislocated his middle finger, he completed 67% of his passes for 21 touchdowns and five interceptions as the Lions went 8-4. Since the injury, his completion rate has dropped to 60% and his touchdown to pick ratio is 3-5 as Detroit slumped to 1-3 in that time.
However, Seattle haven’t exactly been setting the world on fire of late. On defence, they’ve ranked 30th against the pass since Earl Thomas got injured and looked poor in a home loss to an injury ravaged Cardinals two weeks ago before just about overcoming the 2-14 San Francisco 49ers on the road last week.
Verdict: Stafford looked much better last week against the Packers, despite the loss, and Detroit’s strength — the passing game — is Seattle’s biggest weakness. However, it is worth pointing out that the Lions have lost eight straight playoff games while Seattle have won nine-in-a-row at home. Still, Lions by 3.
Miami Dolphins @ Pittsburgh Steelers (-10) – 6.05pm, Sunday
Way back in week six, Miami beat Pittsburgh by 15 points thanks, largely, to 204 yards on the ground from Jay Ajayi. Now, it’s very unlikely that the Steelers will allow that sort of yardage again but they are giving up 4.3 yards per carry this season — 19th in the NFL — so he will do some damage.
The 10-point spread is largely down to two reasons; gamblers love the Steelers and nobody trusts a back-up quarterback (see Raiders/Texans above). But Matt Moore isn’t that much worse than Ryan Tannehill. In fact, he’s probably not worse at all.
However, the deciding factor in this game is the Pittsburgh offence. When firing, the Steelers have the most potent attack in the NFL and if Antonio Brown doesn’t beat you, Le’Veon Bell is very likely to get the job done.
Verdict: The spread is ridiculous but Pittsburgh will still get the job done. Steelers by 8.
New York Giants @ Green Bay Packers (-4.5) – 9.40 pm, Sunday
The most intriguing game of the weekend is also the final one. The Giants’ defence has been one of the best in the NFL this season and are built to take away pretty much every weapon the Green Bay offence has. But still, when has that ever stopped Aaron Rodgers winning games?
Key to this match-up could well be tight end Jared Cook and wide-receiver turned running back Ty Montgomery. With a great secondary and brilliant defensive line, the Giants have hidden a relatively poor linebacking corp for most of the season. Cook and Montgomery will severely test that.
There’s not a huge amount to say about the Giants’ offence other than Odell Beckham Jr is likely to take a five-yard slant from Eli Manning and turn it into a 60-yard touchdown on any given play.
Verdict: This is honestly the hardest game of the weekend to call. The Packers are streaking but somewhere in the back of my head I still can’t help but feel we will see the third installment of New England v New York next month. Giants by 4.