The wild ride of the NFL regular season has come to an end, and as the dust settles, it’s time to look forward to playoff football. The AFC Wild Card features two teams in the Oakland Raiders and Miami Dolphins that have snapped playoff droughts. The AFC North Champion Pittsburgh Steelers are back in the mix, as are the AFC South Champion Houston Texans.
#5 Oakland Raiders at. #4 Houston Texans
The main storyline of this game is the quarterback situation for both teams. The Raiders may be down to rookie Connor Cook after Derek Carr broke his leg in week 16 and Matt McGloin was injured last Sunday in the loss to the Denver Broncos. If Carr was still healthy, this game is a blowout. But, alas, he is not.
For Houston, Tom Savage replaced Brock Osweiler a few weeks ago after Osweiler didn’t live up to his huge contract, but Savage was also hurt in week 17, and his status remains unknown.
For the playmakers these quarterbacks will try and get the ball too, there are a good amount of options for both sides. For the Raiders, Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree are one of the best wide receiving duos in the league.
However, without Derek Carr, those two could become non-factors like they were last week. Expect a lot out of Latavious Murray, both as a runner and a receiver out of the backfield. Murray and the rest of the skill guys should be helped out by arguably the best offensive line in the game.
As for Houston, Lamar Miller eclipsed 1,000 yards for the second time in his career, doing it in the most inconsistent way possible. While Miller is a solid runner, he’s one of the best in the game at catching balls out of the backfield and making defenders miss with his quickness and elusiveness.
At wideout, DeAndre Hopkins is one of the best in the game… when someone can actually get him the ball. After hauling in 11 TD’s and racking up over 1,500 yards, Hopkins slipped to just 954 yards and four touchdowns. Most of that is to blame the QB’s trying to get him the ball. Outside of Hopkins, Will Fuller is a decent deep threat as a rookie, while C.J Fiedorowicz should provide Savage a security blanket across the middle.
Despite all the offensive talk, defense wins championships, and Houston had the best defense in the NFL this year, even without All-Pro defensive end JJ Watt. Benardrick McKinney took a huge leap forward from his rookie year, totaling 129 tackles with five sacks. In the secondary, Kareem Jackson and Quentin Demps were leaders, with Demps intercepting six passes, while Jackson recorded a pick-six. What the Texans do struggle with, however, is their ability to get after the quarterback. They only recorded 31 sacks on the year, tied for 24th in the NFL.
As for Oakland, their defense was leaky all season long, allowing the seventh most yards on the year. Despite strong years from Malcolm Smith and Khalil Mack, this defense struggled across the board. Outside of Mack (11 sacks) and Bruce Irvin (seven sacks), the Raiders had no pass rush, finishing last in the NFL in sacks with just 25.
Reggie Nelson had a nice year at safety with five interceptions, but the secondary is weak and overrated. Sean Smith has seen better days and David Amerson and D.J. Hayden are not good number two corners.
No matter who starts out of the available quarterbacks for either side, the first one to 20 should win this one. I’m also a strong believer in that you have to learn how to lose before you learn how to win. This Raiders team doesn’t know what it’s like to play in the playoffs, and while Kansas City demolished Houston in last year’s playoffs, they have been here before. For me, my money is on the Houston Texans in what should be a defensive struggle.
PREDICTION: Oakland 13, Houston 17
#6 Miami Dolphins at. #3 Pittsburgh Steelers
For as defensive as the first AFC Wild Card battle should be, this game should feature plenty of offense. Despite losing Ryan Tannehill for the rest of the year, Matt Moore has done a serviceable job as a replacement, tossing eight touchdowns and just three interceptions. However, this offense revolves around Jay Ajayi, who broke out this year with over 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. Ajayi has a nice power/speed combo, and at 225 pounds, he’s a load to try and bring down.
At receiver, Jarvis Landry led the team in catches (94) and yards (1,136). Landry, along with DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills (nine touchdowns) create a solid trio at wide receiver for Matt Moore. The Miami offensive line has done a good job all year long in both pass protection and giving Ajayi big holes to run through consistently.
On defense, Kiko Alonso had a nice bounce back year, while Cameron Wake provided the standard 11.5-sack year for a 34-year-old defensive end. However, Miami ranks 29th in total defense, and 30th against the run. Miami’s defense has been “bend but don’t break” all year long, and if you don’t have an elite offense to mask the defensive inefficiencies, you’ll get burned because of it. With or without Tannehill, this offense isn’t elite.
Brown. Bell. Big Ben. The three B’s are a deadly trio for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Antonio Brown is the best receiver in football, while Bell is the best all around running back in the game, totaling almost 1,900 yards from scrimmage. Those two options are pretty much all Ben Roethlisberger needs, but it helps to have complementary pieces like DeAngelo Williams, Eli Rodgers and deep threat Sammie Coats to go to. Le’Veon Bell will be the player to watch going against Miami’s 30th ranked run defense.
A much-improved defense over the last couple of seasons has made Pittsburgh as dangerous as ever. Despite being 31st in the NFL in sacks, the Steelers had the league’s 12th rated defense, thanks to Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier at linebacker. Shazier is a good linebacker already, and has the tools to be a superstar.
In the secondary, Artie Burns played well past the expectations of many across from William Gay/Ross Cockrell. At the ripe young age of 38, James Harrison led this club in sacks with five. While he’s no longer the player he once was, Harrison is still an emotional leader and has experience in big games.
In the playoffs, defense and experience wins 9/10. Big Ben is the toughest quarterback in the league, and the weapons around him are dangerous. While the defense isn’t stellar, it’s good enough to get them to the Divisional Round.
PREDICTION: Miami 20, Pittsburgh 31
Cover Photo via USA Today