So, we’ve made it through the 2020 NFL regular season. Somehow, someway.
Now, the real fun begins — for 14 teams across the league, at least.
The postseason kicks off with Super Wild Card Weekend, which this year consists of six games over two days. An extra playoff team was added to each conference, and the No. 1 seeds — Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC and Green Bay Packers in the NFC — receive first-round byes.
As you’re probably aware (the Cleveland Browns certainly are), we’re still dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, adding an extra (unwanted) layer of unpredictability to the playoffs this season. Per usual, we’ll take any developments as they come and factor them into our against-the-spread (ATS) picks.
Speaking of which, it was an up-and-down regular season for NESN.com’s pigskin prognosticators Mike Cole, Ricky Doyle and Andre Khatchaturian.
But hey, they’re starting off 2021 on a positive note, as Mike and his wife welcomed an adorable little human to the world on New Year’s Day. Maybe he’ll join this column after a few trips around the sun.
Until then, we’ll lean on our in-house knuckleheads, with Ricky and Andre carrying us to the finish line while Mike enjoys the early days of fatherhood and the lack of sleep that comes with it.
Here’s how the guys fared in Week 17 (and the regular season).
Mike Cole: 6-9-1 (117-130-9)
Ricky Doyle: 8-7-1 (124-123-9)
Andre Khatchaturian: 7-8-1 (116-131-9)
Now, here are the Super Wild Card Weekend picks, with all lines via consensus data.
SATURDAY, JAN. 9
Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills (-6.5), 1:05 p.m. ET
Ricky: Bills. No disrespect to Philip Rivers, but Buffalo has a distinct quarterback advantage with the way Josh Allen is playing right now, and Indianapolis won’t keep up offensively. Just three of the Colts’ 11 games since Week 6 have come against defenses not ranked in the bottom six in DVOA: They lost two (Baltimore, Pittsburgh) and won the other in overtime (Green Bay). Sure, Indy can pound the ball against inferior competition. But keeping up with a Buffalo offense ranked second in explosive pass rate? No chance.
Andre: Bills. Allen ranked fifth in yards per pass attempt this season and he’s going up against a defense that allowed 7.3 yards per pass attempt (T-19th). Buffalo is for real. The Bills’ average margin of victory over the last six weeks is 19.8 points. Their last seven wins have been by 10-plus points, and those wins were against some tough competition, including Seattle, Pittsburgh and Miami. They also had blowout road wins against some stingy defenses (San Francisco, Denver and New England). Indy’s biggest strength is running back Jonathan Taylor, especially against Buffalo’s leaky rush defense. But if the Bills get on top early, it might be too little, too late.
Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks (-3), 4:40 p.m. ET
Ricky: Seahawks. Feel weird making this pick, because I’ve been high on the Rams since the preseason. But Seattle really turned a corner defensively, ranking second in sacks, second in pass yards allowed per attempt and third in total yards allowed per game since losing to Los Angeles in Week 10. The Seahawks own the highest-graded run defense, per Pro Football Focus, so the Rams’ inconsistent offense (23rd in expected points added per play) could struggle, especially with running back Darrell Henderson sidelined and quarterback Jared Goff’s availability (or effectiveness, at the very least) in question.
Andre: Rams. Seattle likely wins this game, but I think it’ll be a close battle. The Rams had the best yards per play differential in the NFL this season, which tells me they were the most complete team in football. The Rams allowed the fewest yards per pass attempt and have what it takes to slow Russell Wilson. The question is whether the Rams’ passing attack can take advantage of Seattle’s defense, which allowed the second-most passing yards this season. For what it’s worth, nine of Seattle’s 12 wins were decided by one possession, so the Seahawks definitely play close games.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-8) at Washington Football Team, 8:15 p.m. ET
Ricky: Bucs. Washington admittedly poses a problem defensively, ranking fourth in pressure percentage despite blitzing at just the 13th-highest rate in the NFL. It’s paramount that Tampa Bay’s offensive line step up. But can WFT score enough points to keep pace? They’re banged up in several key spots, most notably at quarterback, and Tampa Bay’s defense is excellent, too. This feels like a blowout win for the Bucs before getting punched in the mouth against better competition in the divisional round.
Andre: Bucs. This game will be decided in the trenches. Washington’s pass rush is elite, but Tampa Bay allowed the fourth-fewest sacks during the regular season. On the other side, Tampa had the fourth-most sacks and is going up against an offensive line that allowed 50 sacks this season. The Bucs’ elite rush defense also will put a lot of pressure on Alex Smith, who has more picks than touchdowns this season.
SUNDAY, JAN. 10
Baltimore Ravens (-3) at Tennessee Titans, 1:05 p.m. ET
Ricky: Ravens. Not only is Baltimore peaking at the right time, particularly on offense. But Tennessee’s defense stinks. Of the 184 teams that have reached the NFL playoffs since 2006, this version of the Titans ranks 183rd in defensive efficiency, per ESPN.com. The Titans were 29th in defensive DVOA during the regular season (trailing only Detroit, Jacksonville and Houston) and allowed the third-most yards per drive. The Ravens usually start fast (T-second in first-half points per game), which could put the Titans (23rd in opponent first-half points per game) on their heels and throw Tennessee’s offensive game plan out of whack.
Andre: Titans. Tennessee has the advantage at quarterback (Ryan Tannehill is a better thrower and had the same number of rushing touchdowns as Lamar Jackson) and at running back (Derrick Henry!). Defensively, the Titans have flaws, but they finished the season with the best turnover differential and they’re going up against a turnover-happy team. (Baltimore had the third-most fumbles this season.) If you give Tannehill a short field, he will burn you. The Titans were No. 2 in red-zone offense. Plus, they’re at home and getting points against a team they’ve done well against the last couple of seasons.
Chicago Bears at New Orleans Saints (-10), 4:40 p.m. ET
Ricky: Saints. Trying not to overthink what looks like a mismatch on paper. New Orleans’ defense, ranked second in Football Outsiders’ total DVOA, is excellent against both the pass and the run. And there’s reason to believe Chicago’s late-season offensive surge with Mitchell Trubisky was a mirage, seeing as the success mostly came against the Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars, all of whom have serious defensive flaws.
Andre: Saints. Chicago has the worst yards per play differential among all playoff teams. New Orleans ranks fourth in that category and sixth in yards allowed per pass attempt. The Bears will struggle against an elite defense like the Saints’. Chicago’s resumé features a 1-6 SU record against playoff teams.
Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers (-6), 8:15 p.m. ET
Ricky: Browns. Loved this pick a lot more, obviously, before the Browns’ COVID-19 cases, which figure to hinder arguably their two biggest strengths (head coaching and offensive line). Nevertheless, I’m sticking with Cleveland, which ranks No. 1 in both pass blocking and run blocking, per PFF. That should help fend off Pittsburgh’s defensive pressure up front and take advantage of the Steelers’ own absences at the second level.
Andre: Browns. Too much is being made about Kevin Stefanski’s absence. As long as Nick Chubb is playing, the Browns have a shot, especially against an exhausted Steelers team that hasn’t had a week off since Week 4. Pittsburgh has played six games since Dec. 1, including three games in a span of 12 days from Dec. 2-13. The Steelers’ rush defense has declined immensely from the first half of the season. Since Week 9, they’re allowing 4.69 yards per carry, eighth-most in that stretch. Chubb will be successful on the ground.