Imagine before the season if someone told you that Joe Flacco and C.J. Stroud would be facing off on wild-card weekend. Oh, and that Mason Rudolph and Baker Mayfield would be starting in this round, as well. You would’ve never believed it! But that’s why we watch. So what additional surprises are in store now that the playoffs are officially here? On to the picks!
Lines are from FanDuel as of Thursday morning. Stats are from TruMedia and Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.
Week 18 record: 8-8
Season record: 133-131-8
Cleveland Browns at Houston Texans (+2.5)
The case for the Browns: Dominant defense. Joe Flacco throwing bombs. Kevin Stefanski stroking his beard. Are we done here?
Let’s start with a defense that finished second in the NFL in DVOA this season. This unit is built on getting after the quarterback and playing an aggressive style of coverage. The Browns played man at the fourth-highest rate in the NFL. Meanwhile Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud finished 27th out of 32 quarterbacks in expected points added (EPA) per pass play against man coverage. In other words, the way the Browns want to play has been effective against Stroud this season.
Offensively, this version of Flacco is in full YOLO mode. His average pass in the regular season traveled 9.3 air yards, which was third-highest among all starters. And this Texans defense has been vulnerable to downfield passes. They ranked 26th in DVOA against deep passes in the regular season. Flacco doesn’t have to be perfect. He just needs to make enough plays downfield to give the Browns a chance.
The case for the Texans: Stroud has been one of the most impressive rookie quarterbacks of my lifetime. That’s not hyperbole! It hasn’t been a perfect situation in Houston, but Stroud has elevated his teammates and been unusually consistent for a first-year player, finishing the regular season seventh in EPA per pass play. Stroud plays the position like a seven-year vet, and wide receiver Nico Collins (1,297 yards) has been a revelation. I mentioned above that Stroud’s numbers haven’t been as good against man coverage, but the Browns may be without their best corner, Denzel Ward, for this game after he suffered a knee injury during Thursday’s practice.
Defensively, the Texans have been mostly mediocre this season, but they can get after the quarterback. They don’t need to completely shut the Browns down. They just need to force enough negative plays and turnovers. We know Flacco is going to give them opportunities. It’s just a matter of capitalizing.
How I see it: DeMeco Ryans did a fantastic job this season, but like most defensive coaches, he can get a little conservative with his in-game decision-making. We saw that in Week 18 against the Colts. Stefanski, on the other hand, has been excellent with that stuff all season long.
It’s no fun to go against the Texans, given how well Stroud has performed, but they still waste a lot of early-down plays by being too committed to the run. Houston has a bright future, but Cleveland’s defense keeps the Browns in every game, and I think Flacco and Amari Cooper can do enough offensively to get them the win.
The pick: Browns (-2.5)
Miami Dolphins at Kansas City Chiefs (-4.5)
The case for the Dolphins: When this offense is rolling, Miami can score on anyone, and it can do so in different ways. The Dolphins finished the regular season second in offensive DVOA, and they were one of only three teams to finish in the top five in both rushing and passing efficiency (the 49ers and the Ravens were the others). Running back Raheem Mostert and wide receiver Jaylen Waddle are questionable for this game. But there’s at least a chance that the Dolphins offense could be at close to full strength Saturday night.
The defense? Well, that’s a different story. NFL coaches and GMs hate nothing more than when a bunch of injuries pile up at one position. That’s what’s happened with the Dolphins this year, having lost edge defenders Jaelan Phillips, Bradley Chubb, and Andrew Van Ginkel to season-ending injuries. Hope for this unit rests with veteran defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Knowing that he’s working with a bunch of backups, can Fangio scheme up a game plan to keep the Chiefs in check? I don’t know the answer to that question. But if you’re the Dolphins, this is why you hired Fangio in the offseason. When these two teams played in Week 9 (a 21-14 Kansas City win) the Chiefs had just 16 first downs and 267 yards. This K.C. offense is nowhere close to the versions we’ve seen in previous seasons. The Chiefs have obvious issues at wide receiver, but they’re also vulnerable at both offensive tackle spots. The Dolphins should theoretically be able to target those weaknesses.
The case for the Chiefs: They’ve still got Patrick Mahomes. They’ve still got Andy Reid. And they’ve still got a really good defense. This season didn’t go the way the Chiefs were anticipating, but everything they want is still in front of them, and Kansas City is one of the NFL’s more balanced teams. Only four teams finished in the top 10 of both offensive and defensive efficiency: the Ravens, 49ers, Cowboys and … the Chiefs!
As mentioned above, the Chiefs are going up against a banged-up Dolphins defense. And on the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo did an excellent job against Mike McDaniel’s offense in the Week 9 meeting. The Dolphins had just 292 yards of offense in that game and managed two touchdowns.
How I see it: There are plenty of reasons to fade the Dolphins here. They went 1-5 with a minus-91 point differential against playoff teams this season. Only the Giants and Commanders had worse point differentials against playoff teams. You have a warm-weather team built on speed going on the road and playing in frigid temperatures. As I write this, the evening forecast for Kansas City on Saturday night is minus-4 degrees with a real feel of minus-24! Add in the fact that the Dolphins are dealing with injuries at the worst possible time, and it’d be no surprise to see them get blown out here.
Having said that, I’m feeling a bit contrarian in this spot. I just don’t trust the Chiefs offense to play a buttoned-up game. They’ve been too mistake-prone all season. And I think the Dolphins can run the ball. In the first meeting against Kansas City, they averaged 5.6 yards per carry on 21 attempts. The Chiefs defense was excellent against the pass but just 27th against the run in the regular season.
I don’t know whether the Dolphins have enough to pull off the upset, but don’t forget that they hung tough against the Bills in the wild-card round last year, despite starting Skylar Thompson at quarterback. I think they will hang tough Saturday night, and we’ll get a classic game.
The pick: Dolphins (+4.5)
Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills (-10)
The case for the Steelers: They are the Steelers! Their whole shtick is weirdness! They are capable of dragging any opponent into the mud and creating a scenario in which we all look up with six minutes left and say: “HOW THE $#@* ARE THEY UP THREE POINTS RIGHT NOW???”
Oh, you want actual analysis? OK, fine. I like this Steelers run game with Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. I like the Steelers wide receivers in George Pickens and Diontae Johnson. Mason Rudolph doesn’t need to light it up. He just needs to produce a few explosive plays. That feels doable, given the injuries Buffalo has at cornerback (Rasul Douglas did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday because of a knee injury). Defensively, the Steelers will be without edge defender T.J. Watt, but at least it looks like they’ll get star safety Minkah Fitzpatrick back.
The case for the Bills: THE NERD STATS LOVE THIS TEAM! The Bills finished third in DVOA this season, behind the two teams—Ravens and 49ers—that are widely viewed as Super Bowl favorites.
The Bills finished the season with five straight wins, and no team beat them by more than six points. The best version of the Bills is the one that operates with a structure and a physicality that allows them to gash opponents on the ground or through the air. The most fun version of the Bills (for neutral observers, at least) is the one that operates in chaos with Josh Allen going full superhero mode.
Defensively, after an ugly stretch in the middle of the season, head coach Sean McDermott has been able to find answers. It’s not a great group, but it’s a competitive one that can keep Buffalo in games.
How I see it: I’ve been telling anyone who would listen this season to not give up on the Bills. Having said that, they’re not exactly rolling into the playoffs on fire. This is a team that nearly lost to Easton Stick a few weeks ago. And even against the Dolphins in Week 18, they did 12 stupid things before finally securing a victory. Either the Bills will win the Super Bowl, or they’ll suffer a loss that is so absurd we’ll all be telling our grandkids about it.
Can the Bills blow the Steelers out? Sure. On paper, that’s what should happen. But only one of their final five wins came by more than a touchdown. This team lets opponents hang around, and the Steelers specialize in hanging around. Going on the road in the playoffs and playing a potential snow game with a third-string quarterback? Mike Tomlin was built for this. I’m taking the points.
The pick: Steelers (+10)
Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys (-7)
The case for the Packers: You’ve been watching Jordan Love, haven’t you? In their first season of the post-Aaron Rodgers era, the Packers somehow produced the sixth-best offense and the fourth-best passing offense in the NFL. I think maybe that Matt LaFleur guy—the one with the career record of 56-27—might be able to coach a little bit. This offense has been a blast to watch. The young players went through their ups and downs, but Love now looks like a guy who’s in total command. I trust them to be able to move the ball against pretty much anyone.
This is a “playing with house money” spot for the Packers. 2023 was supposed to be a transition year, but they improved faster than anyone could’ve expected. That could mean one of two things:
- They play free and loose in this game.
- They make a bunch of mistakes and point back to this as a learning experience when they go on to do damage in the future.
Given how we’ve seen Love respond to the pressure of replacing Rodgers, I tend to think the first outcome is more likely.
The case for the Cowboys: Notice how I didn’t say anything about the Packers defense in the section above? This sets up well for Dak Prescott to have a monster game. Prescott was sensational this season, finishing second in EPA per pass play. He’d be second on my MVP ballot behind only Lamar Jackson, and now he gets to face a Packers defense that finished 27th in DVOA. This group was responsible for both Bryce Young’s most promising start and the short-lived Tommy DeVito hype train. It played well the last two weeks of the regular season, against the backup-QB-led Vikings and the rival Bears, but this group is not to be trusted. Prescott, CeeDee Lamb, and the Cowboys should go up and down the field against Green Bay.
There are other factors working in Dallas’s favor, as well. One, they’re at home. During the regular season, the Cowboys went 8-0 with a plus-172 point differential at home. That’s the best home point differential for any team in the past 10 seasons. The Cowboys should have a special teams edge, too. The Packers ranked 31st in special teams DVOA during the regular season, while Dallas was 10th.
How I see it: On one hand, it’s terrifying to take the Cowboys because you’re betting against Love, who’s been hot, and you’re relying on Mike McCarthy in a big spot, which is never ideal. On the other, it’s terrifying to take the Packers because it just seems so likely that Prescott is going to carve up Joe Barry’s defense, and the Cowboys have been so dominant at home.
I went back and forth but ultimately decided to take the points. The Packers were a consistently competitive team once they found their way. In their last 10 games, they went 7-3 and had only one loss of more than four points. I really like how their offense has looked and think they can score enough to keep this one close.
The pick: Packers (+7)
Los Angeles Rams at Detroit Lions (-3)
The case for the Rams: This offense got healthy at the perfect time and is clicking. The Rams dealt with a number of injuries across the season, but they’ve got Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, Puka Nacua, and Kyren Williams, along with an overachieving offensive line, all ready to go for a playoff run. The eye-popping moment for this group probably came in Week 14, when the Rams put up 410 yards on a Ravens team that had been dominating opponents. Now they get to face a Lions defense that let Nick Mullens throw for 396 yards last week. It’s hard to picture a scenario in which this group gets shut down in this game.
Zooming out, there’s a lot to like about this Rams team as a potential sleeper. Veterans like Stafford, Kupp, and Aaron Donald know these opportunities don’t come around often, and L.A. has a veteran coach in Sean McVay who has reinvented himself. This team enters the playoffs as a 6-seed, but it has a Super Bowl ceiling.
The case for the Lions: Jared Goff revenge game! This story line is so juicy. Even when Goff was playing well for McVay, he got no credit. It was all about McVay coming up with brilliant play designs and instructing Goff through the headset like he was a puppet. Then when things went south for the Rams, Goff got all the blame. They had to include an extra first-round pick in a trade just so that the Lions would take on Goff’s contract.
But weird things happen in the NFL, and Goff has shown he can play well outside of the McVay structure. Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson has done a brilliant job, and Goff has shown excellent command, spreading the ball around to Detroit’s different playmakers. The Lions defense has been shaky, but they finished the season 13th in DVOA, which represented a big upgrade from 2022. Great offense plus mediocre defense equals contender. And that’s what we’ve seen with Detroit.
How I see it: Full disclosure: Earlier this week, when we had to turn in our staff predictions, I picked the Rams. Well, guess what? After thinking about it more, I’ve changed my mind.
I think the Rams are going to light up this Lions defense. I hate that Detroit may be without tight end Sam LaPorta, but I think the Lions offense is still going to be able to keep pace. It’s going to be a close game between two evenly matched teams.
Ultimately, there are two reasons I switched to Detroit. One, special teams. The Rams have the worst special teams in the NFL. It’s not even close. They are a complete disaster. This is a group that lost games for L.A. I do not trust them at all in this spot. And two, I like Dan Campbell’s in-game management more than McVay’s. Seriously! I know Campbell got emotional with the two-point attempts against Dallas a couple of weeks ago, but overall, I love that he doesn’t coach scared. He knows that the strength of his team is the offense, and he’s going to be aggressive. McVay is a great coach, but in-game decision-making has long been a weak point.
So there you go. I don’t feel great about it, but I think Detroit will get it done. I can’t wait for this game.
The pick: Lions (-3)
Philadelphia Eagles at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+3)
The case for the Eagles: They are the more talented team. The Eagles offense has underachieved this season, but in any given game, when they have their guys (Jalen Hurts, A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, Dallas Goedert, a healthy offensive line), they can score 30-plus.
When these two teams played in Week 3, the Eagles delivered a dominant 25-11 victory. The offense piled up 472 yards, and the defense limited the Bucs to just 174. We know that the Eagles have stunk down the stretch, but bigger samples are more useful than smaller ones, and this is a team that beat the Chiefs, Bills, Cowboys, and Rams this season. If they can produce an efficient offensive performance and gain an edge on special teams (where they finished first in DVOA), they can get out of Tampa with a win.
Did I convince you? Yeah, didn’t think so.
The case for the Bucs: Anyone can move the ball against this Eagles defense right now. No seriously, go grab 10 of your closest friends. Throw in a little motion before the snap to confuse them. They won’t even know where to line up. The Bucs offense has been streaky, but facing the Eagles defense should offer a nice cure after last week’s ugly 9-0 performance against Carolina. Tampa Bay likes to lean on play-action, and that should open plenty of windows to attack the intermediate and deep parts of the field.
Defensively, the matchup also sets up well for Tampa Bay. The Eagles offense has been a disaster against the blitz, and the Bucs blitz at the third-highest rate in the NFL. Tampa Bay struggled against the Eagles’ run game in the first meeting, but the Bucs run defense has held up well for most of the season. Plus, they’re healthier here than they were in that Week 3 meeting, when Tampa Bay was dealing with injuries at cornerback.
How I see it: This is a tough one to pick, given the injury situations on both sides. Hurts is dealing with a finger injury and was a limited practice participant on Thursday. Brown hurt his knee in Week 18, and he didn’t practice at all on Thursday. Those are obviously two big ones to keep an eye on. Mayfield, meanwhile, is dealing with ankle and rib injuries and did not practice on Thursday.
Other than Troy Aikman complaining about how he once again got stuck calling a game with such little juice, I’m not sure of anything in this matchup. But I keep coming back to the Eagles defense. They can’t rush the passer. They can’t stop the run. They can’t cover. They’re taking direction from Matt Patricia. And everyone seems generally confused about what they’re supposed to be doing. Maybe they create a couple of turnovers and the Eagles offense and special teams lead the way. But I just can’t take this team as road favorites after what my eyes have seen in recent weeks.
The pick: Bucs (+3)