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The keys to each NFL Wild Card game

Can the Texans protect Deshaun Watson? How will the Chargers slow down Lamar Jackson? Here’s how each Wild Card game can be won.

Getty Images/USA Today/Peter Rogers Illustrations

Who knows if it’s right or not, but I feel like Wild Card weekend is the time when most of the playoff upsets occur. Remember last year? The Rams literally fumbled away their Wild Card matchup at home to the Falcons while Marcus Mariota single-handedly beat Andy Reid and the Chiefs at Arrowhead. (Last year’s Wild Card weekend also offered us easily the worst playoff game in the last decade in Bills vs Jaguars, a game from here on out I would like stricken from the NFL records.)

This year promises to be even more exciting. The at one time 1-5 Colts surge to Houston to take on the Texans, the Seahawks and Cowboys meet in a battle of teams that hate to get a lead early and love to win a game late, LAMAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA—but also Phillip Rivers’ best chance at a Super Bowl run, but really LAMAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA, and will the defending Super Bowl champions be able to pull off the same BS magic that they pulled off last year (I’m not bitter, you’re bitter).

Here are the keys for each game this weekend.

Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans

Key to the game: Protect the quarterback like your season depends on it (because it does)

We’re getting the two extremes in this game. Andrew Luck finished 2018 as the hardest quarterback to sack, getting sacked on only 2.8% of his passing attempts. Meanwhile, Deshaun Watson was by far in a way the most sacked quarterback, getting taken to the turf 62 times this season.

For Houston to win, they’ll need to do two things. First, they’ll need to give Watson as much time as they can in the pocket and allow him to pick on the Colts’ 20th ranked pass defense (per DVOA). Second, they’ll need to pin their ears back and get after Luck. The Texans’ pass defense is also subpar and given time, Luck will have no problem finding T.Y. Hilton and Eric Ebron all over the field for big plays. The pressure is going to fall on the massive shoulders of J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney to get after Luck and rattle him in the pocket. I don’t doubt they’ll be up for the challenge, but it’s proven to be quite a difficult task.

Honestly, I have a hard time picking against the Colts in this game. I can see the narrative to how the Texans win—they’re are home, defensive line gets constant pressure, Watson plays perfect, mistake-free football—but I can’t convince myself that this is indeed how the game will play out.

The line for this game is Houston -1.5 which to me seems easy money. Also, if you wanna be extra daring, bet the over on this (currently at 48 points). I could easily see this game going into the third quarter close, like 17-13, and then the barn doors just getting blown off and the game finishing in a sweaty sprint something like 35-30.

Pick: Colts pull off the “upset”

Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys

Key to the game: Running the football to set up the run to run play action off of the run

We know what these teams what to do. The Seahawks were the best team in the NFL at running the football (160 yards per game) and Ezekiel Elliott was the best player in the NFL at running the football (1,434 on the season, 95.6 yards per game). Both of these teams are going to look to force feed their opponent with a healthy dose of run and then look to attack the deep space off play action and bootlegs.

The pressure is going to fall on the Seahawks’ defense who will certainly have their hands full with Zeke. Not only did the Hawks run defense struggle this year—ranked 17th per DVOA—they also gave up the seventh most passing yards to running backs, something Elliott drastically improved this season. This game is going to come down to how well the Hawks can control Elliott and force the ball into Dak’s hands. If the Seahawks can mitigate the damage Zeke can do, Russell Wilson will likely do more than enough to win them the game.

I don’t know how Vegas is setting the over/under at 43 for this game as this game has “throwback” game written all over it. Don’t expect high scoring and don’t expect a ton of yards. Expect long, hard fought drives that end more often with field goals than touchdowns. I’m hitting the under on this game hard. 17-13 seems more true to these teams than both getting into the 20s.

Pick: Update: I originally had the Cowboys sneaking by the Seahawks and then I remembered I made a beer bet that Jerry Jones would fire Jason Garrett after this game so I guess I have to stay consistent and pick the Seahawks over the Boys. I can believe it. Wilson is better than Dak.

Los Angeles Chargers at Baltimore Ravens

Key to the game: Your strength beating their strength

This is almost certainly the game I’m most excited to watch this weekend. Who doesn’t want to see Philip Rivers and the electric Chargers (see what I did there?) head into Baltimore to face Lamar Jackson and one of the greatest rushing attacks the NFL has ever seen. Plus, these teams just played each other a couple of weeks and that game was all kinds of exciting. WHO SAYS NO TO ROUND TWO!?

What makes this game so exciting is how evenly matched these teams are on paper. This year the Chargers had the second best passing offense per DVOA and are facing off against the Ravens’ third ranked pass defense. On the flip side, the Ravens’ 10th ranked rushing attack that has tormented defenses all season is going up against the Chargers’ 10th ranked rush defense. It’s going to be strength verse strength and a battle for either team to move the ball freely.

Plus, you just know that Lamar is going to bust out some kind of crazy shit this game that’s just going to blow people’s minds. I’m predicting he spins out of a Joey Bosa sack, stiff arms Derwin James to the ground, hurdles the Chargers entire linebacking core, and rushes for a 99-yard touchdown. I think that’s a pretty safe bet.

Also Eric Weddle revenge game. You know I’m all over that revenge game narrative.

Pick: As a Patriots fan, I hate to pick the Ravens, but..... LAMAAAAAAAAAAA

Philadelphia Eagles at Chicago Bears

Key to the game: Nick Foles being Nick Foles and not Nick Foles

I know this is the top notch, A+ insight that you’ve come here to read, but look me in the eye and tell me anyone in this game matters more than Nick Foles. Literally no one else in this game matters. No one. Alshon Jeffery could have 150 receiving yards and three touchdowns but the game would still come down to a dumb pick-six Foles threw.

If Foles is the Nick Foles that makes the now yearly deal with the devil to take over the starting quarterback spot late in the season with suddenly the skills of a top 5 signal caller, then the Eagles have a shot at winning this game. If Foles is anything less than that, the Bears and their number one defense win this game with ease.

Pick: For totally unbiased reasons, the Bears

Poll

Which "underdog" is most likely to pull off the upset?

This poll is closed

  • 38%
    Colts over Texans
    (13 votes)
  • 23%
    Seahawks over Cowboys
    (8 votes)
  • 11%
    Chargers over Ravens
    (4 votes)
  • 26%
    Eagles over Bears
    (9 votes)
34 votes total Vote Now