It’s good to be the road team on Wild Card Weekend, apparently.
The first round of the NFL playoffs opens with three out of four road teams favored to beat their home counterparts, and it’s hard to argue with Las Vegas here. In the AFC, both home squads — the Houston Texans and Cincinnati Bengals — have considerable questions at quarterback, while over in the NFC, the Minnesota Vikings’ prize for winning their division was an opening-round showdown with the rolling Seattle Seahawks.
As in the regular season, NESN.com’s team of experts is back to handicap the postseason. After being edged by Ben Watanabe for the regular-season title, runner-up Mike Cole will look for revenge, while cellar-dweller Ricky Doyle is just happy the slate gets wiped clean for the playoffs. And newcomer Michaela Vernava sweeps in to try to steal the glory at the 11th hour.
Without further ado, let’s kick off our NFL Wild Card Game picks.
SATURDAY, JAN. 9
(-3.5) Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans, 4:35 p.m. ET
NRG Stadium, Houston
Ricky: Chiefs. Losing Duane Brown, a two-time Pro Bowl tackle, is huge for Houston, especially with Kansas City’s pass rush — fourth in the NFL with 47 sacks — circling the waters. It could be a long day for Texans quarterback Brian Hoyer, especially if Defensive Rookie of the Year frontrunner Marcus Peters minimizes DeAndre Hopkins’ impact in the receiving game.
Ben: Texans. The Chiefs have been playing teams very tight of late, and that’s not a good thing when the opponents are Oakland, Cleveland and San Diego. If Alex Smith continues to protect the ball, K.C.’s stout offensive line should be able to mitigate the damage of Watt — but not enough for the Chiefs to run away with the victory.
Mike: Chiefs. The return of Justin Houston will be the difference. If Kansas City’s able to pressure the quarterback, Brian Hoyer’s going to be forced into some bad decisions, which is exactly what the Chiefs have taken advantage of all season. It doesn’t help the Texans’ case that they’re banged up, especially the receiving corps.
Michaela: Chiefs. The quarterback shuffle spells discontinuity for the Texans. Historically, teams who’ve started a myriad of QBs in the regular season have not fared well in the playoffs. The Chiefs’ last two wins were close and against weak opponents, but they’re on a roll and will end their two-game against-the-spread losing streak.
(-2.5) Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals, 8:15 p.m.
Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati
Ricky: Steelers. Throw home-field advantage out the window — the Steelers are 13-2 straight-up in their last 15 games in Cincinnati — and look at this game for what it is: Ben Roethlisberger versus AJ McCarron. Take the former in spite of Pittsburgh’s secondary issues.
Ben: Bengals. This might seem like a foregone conclusion, as Pittsburgh just beat Andy Dalton (who could return) and Los Tigres by 13 points here four weeks ago and is 12-2-1 ATS in its last 15 in Cincinnati. Yet as much as the Steelers earned the late-season title of “Team Nobody Wants to Face,” they limped to the finish, and D’Angelo Williams’ balky ankle is a game-changer.
Mike: Bengals. As Mark McGwire infamously said, “I’m not here to talk about the past.” The Bengals’ playoff issues have been well documented. But the matchup isn’t great here for the Steelers. The Bengals can run on the Steelers (100 yards per game), and as long as they can protect the football, they’ll be in good shape. The Steelers failed to force a turnover in four games this season. All four of those games were road losses.
Michaela: Steelers. If there are two things the Bengals don’t do well, they are winning playoff games and beating the Steelers, especially at home. Since Marvin Lewis took the reins in 2003, Cincy is 0-6 in the postseason both SU and ATS, and is 7-19 SU and 8-18 ATS against Pittsburgh in the regular season.
SUNDAY, JAN. 10
(-5.5) Seattle Seahawks at Minnesota Vikings, 1:05 p.m.
TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
Ricky: Vikings. I know the Seahawks crushed the Vikings 38-7 in Week 13. I know Seattle has been steamrolling teams since mid-November. And I know Pete Carroll’s squad is more experienced. But is it possible we’re not giving the Vikings enough credit? Minnesota finished the season with three straight victories (two in convincing fashion) and has a defense capable of keeping things close, if nothing else.
Ben: Seahawks. The Vikes were a betting juggernaut all season, going 13-1 ATS, but no NFC team has looked as fearsome in the second half of the season as the Seahawks. Since Nov. 22, Seattle’s margins of victory have been 16, nine, 31, 29, 17 and 30. We’ll forgive the Week 16 hiccup versus the Rams.
Mike: Seahawks. The good news for the Vikings is they’re considerably healthier on defense than when they got stomped by the Seahawks in Week 13. The problem, of course, is that this still isn’t a very good matchup for the Vikes. Seattle already has the blueprint, too. Get out to an early lead like they did in November and make Minnesota one-dimensional, limiting Adrian Peterson’s impact on the game.
Michaela: Seahawks. Seattle dismantled the red-hot Arizona Cardinals (who were on a nine-game win streak) in their regular season finale thanks to yet another impressive performance by Russell Wilson. In the Seahawks’ past seven games, Wilson has thrown 24 touchdowns and only one interception.
(-1.5) Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins, 4:40 p.m.
FedExField, Greater Landover, Md.
Ricky: Redskins. Washington has been much better at home (6-2), where quarterback Kirk Cousins has thrown 16 touchdowns to just two interceptions. The ‘Skins have defensive flaws that can be exposed — and should be exposed by a team with Aaron Rodgers at the helm — but I’m not trusting the floundering Packers to get out of their own way.
Ben: Redskins. Bettors are split almost 50-50, which I think is giving Rodgers too much credit to save the dreadful Packers. While it’s true the Redskins didn’t beat a .500 team all season and wouldn’t have made the playoffs if they weren’t in the NFC East, Green Bay’s also failed to cover against the likes of Detroit, Chicago and San Diego.
Mike: Packers. Pssst. Washington’s defense isn’t very good. And while no one — and I mean, no one — would say the Packers’ offense has been good lately, they’ll have their chances against the Redskins. They just have to actually commit to the game plan. On Sunday, that should mean a run-heavy attack against a Redskins defense that allowed 4.8 yards per carry, 31st in the NFL.
Michaela: Packers. Although Green Bay hasn’t been able to beat anyone worthwhile since Week 3, the Packers still are better than the Redskins. Washington wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for its atrocious division. The Packers’ record is only one win better than the Redskins’, but not a single one of Washington’s wins has been against a team better than .500 — and as 1 1/2-point favorites, the Redskins would have to win to cover.
Thumbnail photo via Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY Sports Images