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NFL Wild-Card Weekend Picks: Welcome to the Bizarro World Playoffs

Here’s what to expect after injuries and ineffectiveness drastically altered the shape of the postseason

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The good news is that the NFL playoffs are here! The bad news is that the NFL playoffs are here.

The first two rounds of the postseason are typically the best time of the football year, because we get four immensely compelling games per weekend. This particular opening batch of showdowns, however, wound up being pretty darn weird. A bunch of teams are grappling with serious injuries. Some others are just … bad. It’s like if Homeland, a show you typically love, were coming back but looked really meh. Wait, that’s exactly what’s happening.

Some of our expectations for these teams were subverted early in the fall; others shifted just weeks or days ago. Regardless, the net effect is that we’re not getting the wild-card weekend we thought we’d been promised. Here’s where things stand instead.

What we thought we were getting with Miami: A serviceable, Ryan Tannehill–led offense that paired short-yardage magic from Jay Ajayi and Jarvis Landry with some deep bombs to Kenny Stills.

What we’re actually getting: Tannehill’s out with a knee sprain, and with Matt Moore starting in his place, the offense will be stripped down.

What we thought we were getting with Houston: In August, we thought J.J. Watt would lead an elite unit, while Brock Osweiler would at least be decent enough to hand the ball off to Lamar Miller, manage the game until the defense made some decisive plays, and, basically, not be a historically awful signing.

What we’re actually getting: Well, we almost got Tom Savage! Osweiler was so bad that he got benched, but he’s since regained the job following Savage’s concussion. Meanwhile, Watt has been out since late September, and the Texans have consistently found ways to remind us that they wouldn’t have made the playoffs in any other division.

What we thought we were getting with Oakland: A healthy Derek Carr at the head of the most exciting team in football. The Raiders, who specialized in shootouts, comebacks, and late scores all season, looked poised to earn a bye behind MVP candidate Carr, Latavius Murray’s complementary run game, and defensive genius Khalil Mack.

What we’re actually getting:

What we thought we were getting with Pittsburgh: The best offense in football, which would threaten 30 points per game.

What we’re actually getting: A good offense, but not a season-altering one. The Steelers ranked 10th in scoring in 2016, repeatedly losing momentum to injuries or suspension. Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger, and Antonio Brown haven’t consistently performed in the way they’re capable of performing, which is at the Atlanta Falcons–style scoring bonanza level of about nine more points per game.

What we thought we were getting with Detroit: Matthew Stafford, comeback king.

What we’re actually getting: Matthew Stafford, guy struggling with injured finger.

What we thought we were getting with the Giants: An inconsistent Eli Manning, a great Odell Beckham Jr., and a good defense.

What we’re actually getting: An inconsistent Eli Manning, a great Odell Beckham Jr., and a good defense. Oh, someone actually performed as expected!

What we thought we were getting with Green Bay: In August, we thought Aaron Rodgers would be great and that the defense would be plenty capable of helping him out. In November, we thought Aaron Rodgers had lost it and that the defense was incapable of helping him out.

What we’re actually getting: An Aaron Rodgers who’s been unstoppable in the last six weeks, but a defense that’s forced him to be, because it ranks 31st in pass yards allowed on the year.

What we thought we were getting out of Seattle: A team that, no matter what, could play great defense, score reliably thanks to good quarterback play from Russell Wilson, and enjoy depth at multiple positions.

What we’re actually getting: An Earl Thomas injury that wrecked the defense at the end of the season and has caused a previously untouchable unit to look confused. After keeping opponents below 30 points each game through 13 weeks, the Seahawks gave up more than that twice in the last four contests. Their four-year streak of allowing the fewest points in the league is over, and now even the always entertaining Richard Sherman is boycotting the media.

And now, on to the picks. (Home team in CAPS.)

HOUSTON (-4) over Oakland

Connor Cook is going to be one of the worst quarterbacks to start a playoff game in the last decade, joining the likes of Joe Webb, who started one for the Vikings; T.J. Yates, who started two for the Texans; and 2015 Peyton Manning, who started three for the Broncos! But Cook stands alone in at least one respect: No other quarterback’s first NFL start has come in the playoffs.

But, uh, here’s the rub: I can’t say with certainty that he’ll be any worse than Osweiler, who is amazingly back in the starting quarterback role. Because Osweiler was briefly out of our lives after getting benched in December, you may not remember how bad he was when he played every down. Let me refresh you: Osweiler threw more touchdowns than interceptions in only four of his 14 starts this year. In total, he threw 15 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Throwing more touchdowns than interceptions is not so much an accomplishment as a baseline of competence, but Osweiler rarely reaches it.

When you look at that tweet, please remember that there are only 12 playoff teams.

At least Osweiler has perspective:

That’s good and noteworthy, because when he was benched in Denver, he left town as a free agent almost immediately after. Though if it means that Osweiler isn’t going to leave town this time, maybe it’s not a good thing for the Texans?

Yeah, upon further reflection, this is all bad. Cook vs. Osweiler basically boils down to a matchup between an unknown but probably bad quarterback against a known but definitely bad quarterback. Take your pick.

This is the playoffs, though, which means that these teams cannot tie 0–0. At some point over this 60-minute football contest, Miller or Murray, both above-average running backs, are bound to do something positive. The tiebreaker here will be defense, and the Texans actually play defense well. They’re first in the league in total yards allowed; the Raiders are 26th.

SEATTLE (-8) over Detroit

Something to consider:

Stafford was pretty good last week against the Packers, posting a 96 passer rating, but he still wasn’t early-season Stafford. Now, let’s be clear: If he were playing in the Raiders-Texans game, they’d build a statue of him and name a library after him; it’s all relative. But after posting a passer rating of 100 five times in the season’s first seven weeks, he’s hit that mark just once since.

Against Seattle, Stafford and Co. will run into the same problem they faced last week against the Packers. The opponent’s weakness is the pass defense, but the Lions don’t currently seem capable of capitalizing. A September, non-glove-wearing Stafford would make the Seahawks pay; this version will not.

Meanwhile, we found out this week that Stafford’s coach, Jim Caldwell, is coming back next season. There are two ways to look at this: (1) He’s 27–21 in three seasons with Detroit, which would make him mayor of Cleveland if he was coaching the Browns. (2) It’s hard not to wonder whether first-year Lions GM Bob Quinn’s plans would be aided by avoiding another year of “Is he coming back?” questions over Caldwell. Eventually, Quinn will want his own guy, so this feels like delaying the inevitable.

I see the Seahawks winning this one by two touchdowns despite the Lions boasting Zach Zenner, whom Seattle’s Michael Bennett says “has to be” the best white running back. It’s been a weird few weeks for the Seahawks, who barely beat the 49ers, signed Devin Hester, and haven’t shown much of anything since losing Thomas. But the Lions are ill-equipped to take advantage — and have been for some time:

Miami (+10) over PITTSBURGH

The Steelers hit 30 points three times in the first five weeks of the season, then did so just twice the remainder of the way. They lost to these very Dolphins, 30–15, in October. Pittsburgh will play better here than in that prior meeting, in part because Roethlisberger probably won’t get hurt like the last time, and in part because this time the Steelers will know that Ajayi is a star-level threat.

The Steelers will win this game, because their depth and blue-chip talent are too much for a Miami team that despite exceeding expectations remains a year and a healthy quarterback away from truly contending. Still, I’m having a hard time envisioning a blowout. It’s understandable to think that Moore will get crushed in a playoff game on the road, but the Miami offense can score some touchdowns even without a downfield passing threat. The Steelers defense won’t allow Ajayi to go for 204 yards like he did before (I don’t think …) but he’ll be able to run a bit on the group that allowed 4.3 yards per carry in the regular season, 19th in the NFL. And then there’s short-catch specialist Jarvis Landry, who doesn’t need a good quarterback to facilitate big plays. Those players will score a few touchdowns and keep this one close.

NY Giants (+4.5) over GREEN BAY

These two tweets from the NFL Network’s Ben Fennell shine a light on how good of a matchup this is:

The Giants are built to take away everything that the Packers do well, but that rarely stops Rodgers, who specializes in leaving the opponent without a soul and maybe a face. Anything is possible here.

Anything including day trips! Some Giants players, notably Beckham, went to Miami on an off day this week and hung out with Justin Bieber. The New York Daily News felt this showed “immaturity;” I think it shows that people hate being cold, and that those with money can do something about it.

The Giants won’t be able to do anything about the weather on their work day, though, as temperatures have been in the single digits this week and are expected to warm up to a boiling 21 degrees by game time. With weather like that and teams this well matched, expect a lower-scoring game. Even after Beckham’s Miami trip, I think he can make the Green Bay pass defense look pretty bad and spark a Giants win on the last possession. Postgame party at Bieber’s.

Last week: 7–9
Regular season: 122–121–10