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 NFC Wild Card round is a much deeper and wide-open field than the AFC. The games feature a matchup of a strong offense vs. a strong defense. And two of the hottest teams in the league facing off against each other once again in the playoffs.
#6 Detroit Lions at. #3 Seattle Seahawks
Where to begin in this matchup? Matthew Stafford has been the comeback kid for the Lions, winning eight of their nine games after trailing in the fourth quarter. Even with the loss of Calvin Johnson, Stafford put together arguably his best season, cutting down on his turnovers while still showing off his rocket for an arm. With the lack of a running game (30th in the NFL) and no true elite weapon (sorry, Golden Tate), what Stafford has done this year has been outstanding. Marvin Jones was one of the steals of the offseason, while Eric Ebron finally showed up in his third year in the league despite only scoring once. Also, Anquan Boldin is still in league and is still effective. Good for you, Anquan.
Conversely, that prolific offensive aerial attack will be going up against a vaunted defense in the Seattle Seahawks. The Legion of Boom is down to two, with Earl Thomas being done for the year and maybe the rest of his career? Who knows? What we do know, however, is that this is still a top defense.
Cliff Avril, Tony Clark and Michael Bennett make up one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL and combined for 26.5-sacks on the season. Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright are the best linebacking duo in the league, combining for 293 tackles on the year.
Richard Sherman proved once again to be the best shutdown corner in football, and picked off four passes on what I’m assuming was only four pass attempts his way. Kam Chancellor is still a stud strong safety, but will have to help out more in coverage with the lack of Earl Thomas and the tandem of DeShawn Shead and Jeremy Lane not being that great on the opposite side of Sherm.
It will be interesting to see if Stafford throws at Sherman, or completely avoids him a la Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. Seattle allowed the eighth least passing yards per game over the course of the 2016 season, so something will have to give. With two starters potentially out along the offensive line, I would expect Pete Carroll to let his dogs loose on Stafford.
On offense, no Marshawn Lynch and a brutal offensive line have knocked the Seahawks down a peg. Russell Wilson had a down year following an excellent 2015 campaign, but his favorite target still remains Doug Baldwin. Jimmy Graham had a solid year at tight end, while Tyler Lockett is an explosive playmaker on runs, passes and in the return game. Seattle used a running back of committee this year, and Christine Michael was the team’s leading rusher with just 469 yards on the ground.
The offense could be in for a solid day, going up against Detroit’s middle-of-the-road defense. Tahir Whitehead came out of nowhere to lead the Lions in tackles while DeAndre Levy and Ezekiel Ansah battled injuries. Ansah played in 13 games but only recorded two sacks, likely due to a lingering ankle injury. With Seattle’s offensive line in shambles, a team that only mustered 26 sacks on the year could be in for a good day getting after the quarterback. If Wilson and his running backs can use the read option early and often, they could force Ansah and Kerry Hyder (eight sacks) to become more cautious while trying to get to him.
This has the makings of yet another instant classic in Seattle, where the 12’s will be out in full force. With two evenly matched teams, it’ll be up to the coaches to make the right calls and push the right buttons. Special teams and field position will also play a huge factor in this game, as I anticipate a close game right to the very end. The very last play, to be exact. Gabe, and the rest of the Lions faithful deserve a playoff win, they’ll get one in the toughest place to play.
PREDICTION (OT): Detroit 23, Seattle 20
#5 New York Giants at. #4 Green Bay Packers
Easily the toughest out of all the games to predict, the final game of the weekend might be the best game of the entire playoffs. Both teams are smoldering hot, with Green Bay running the table, as Aaron Rodgers said they would. The Giants, on the other hand, are 9-2 in their last 11 games.
The Packers may be one dimensional on offense, but Aaron Rodgers but together yet another MVP caliber season while dazzling down the stretch in route to another NFC North division title. Rodgers threw for 4,428 yards, 40 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Jordy Nelson is likely to win Comeback Player of the Year after tying for the league lead in touchdown receptions with 14. Davante Adams stepped up big time in place of Randall Cobb, while Jared Cook’s health played a large factor down the stretch.
As previously mentioned, the Packers attack is one-dimensional. Their leading rusher was Ty Montgomery, a converted receiver, and he had just 457 yards on the ground, but averaged 5.9 yards per carry, showing explosiveness and big play ability out of the backfield. Of course, a top offensive line in the league helps both the passing and running games.
The Packers weakness, like in many previous years, has been their lack of defense, especially when opponents are airing it out. Green Bay gave up the second most passing yards in the NFL. LaDarius Gunter, Quinten Rollins, Micah Hyde and Damarious Randall make up THE worst cornerback group in the entire NFL. After Sam Shields went down with yet another concussion, this group fell apart. However, HaHa Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett is a solid safety pair.
Unfortunately for the Pack, their weaknesses play right into the Giants strengths.
Nobody has been able to stop Odell Beckham Jr. the last two months, and it doesn’t look as though Green Bay will be able to either. I could easily see Odell racking up close to 200 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns. Something that could bail Green Bay out is their pass rush, which notched 40 sacks on the year.
Outside of OBJ, Sterling Shephard is the second leading receiver with just under 700 yards. Victor Cruz is still kicking, but does more talking than actually catching footballs.
The ground game shouldn’t be too much of a factor in this one for the Giants either. Rashad Jennings is the leading rusher at 593 yards, but Paul Perkins has stepped up and gotten the majority of carries the past couple of games, and has been solid, but not spectacular.
But, as always the case, this game will come down to Eli Manning either commandeering a game winning touchdown drive, or throwing a game sealing pick. In the playoffs, Eli does more of the latter.
For the G-Men defensively, Landon Collins is an absolute freak at safety, while Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Janoris Jenkins and rookie Eli Apple make up a solid secondary. The linebacking corps isn’t outstanding, and the defensive line does an average job of getting to the quarterback. The Olivier Vernon signing has paid off in big ways, and now with Jason Pierre-Paul most likely out for this game with an injury (no, not THAT injury), they’ll have to rely on Vernon more than ever to try and get Rodgers out of his rhythm.
Like I said, this was the toughest game to pick. These squads match up so well, and have met two times in the last 10 years in the playoffs. Both times, the Giants went on to win those games, and the Super Bowl. If you know me personally, you know the Packers are my second favorite team, so I tried to put all biases aside. Both teams are hot, with proven quarterbacks, no running game, and weak defenses. All signs point to this game being a shootout, but Lambeau Field is an unforgiving place in January.
PREDICTION (OT): New York 27 Green Bay 30
Cover Photo via New York Daily News