Picks for Wild Card Weekend: AFC
Colts vs. Texans
This game should be wild one as it features two pretty evenly matched AFC South foes who are familiar with each other’s schemes. The game will come down to the wire, as it did when the two teams faced off five weeks ago and the Colts won by a field goal.
The Colts are an incredibly talented and a legitimately fun-to-watch team when Andrew Luck, Eric Ebron, Marlon Mack, and T.Y. Hilton are all on fire. Luck has looked like a number one pick this year, as he came back from a nagging shoulder injury to throw for 4,593 yards (fifth in the NFL), 39 touchdowns (second), and a 98.7 quarterback rating (good for 10th amongst QBs with 200+ attempts).
Marlon Mack emerged from a crowded Colts backfield as a size/speed talent that could compliment the pass-catching Nyheim Hines. To see a little of what I am talking about, take a look at this play where he threw former number one overall pick Jadeveon Clowney to the ground like rag doll:
Mack finished the season strong too as he ran for over 300 yards and five TDs in his final four games. T.Y. Hilton is just a flat-out speedster who can be inconsistent at times, but he too finished the season strong as he totaled 1,270 yards and six TDs on just 76 catches. Hilton was second to only Tyreek Hill in catches for 40 yards or more with six (Hill had eight).
Meanwhile, Eric Ebron—who was widely labeled a bust just last season—has had the most productive season of his career. This season he finally showed what his combination of size, speed, leaping ability, and superior ball skills can do in the red zone. Ebron led all tight ends in touchdowns with 13, and was tied with Devante Adams for the second-most receiving TDs amongst all players in 2018 despite having nearly half as many receptions (Adams totaled 111 receptions while Ebron totaled 66). Ebron also finished fifth among TEs in yards and catches with 750 yards to go along with 66 receptions. Plus Ebron always reps a visor. Players with visors always get bumped up a couple extra slots in my book.
Make no mistake, the Colts have plenty of defensive firepower as well or they wouldn’t have gotten to this point in the season. According to USA Today, the Colts have allowed the eighth-fewest rushing yards per game and the sixth-fewest yards per carry per game. In particular, the Colts have done a nice job bottling up the Texans rushing attack during their two matchups for the most part. Against the Colts, Texans running back Lamar Miller has been held to 82 yards on 28 carries, averaging a measly 2.9 yards per carry.
Much of that defensive success has to do with rookie phenom Darius Leonard. In just his first season in the NFL, Leonard led the league in solo and total tackles with 163, and set a new Colts record for tackles in a season. The next closest player had 144 tackles. Leonard isn’t just a run stuffer, but a well-rounded linebacker. Leonard also had seven sacks, two interceptions, ten pass deflections (PDefs), two fumble recoveries, and four forced fumbles as he tied Von Miller for fifth in the forced fumble category. In my opinion, he is up there with Luke Kuechly and C.J. Mosely in terms of the best linebacker in the NFL conversation after just one season. The dude is incredible.
The Colts are a talented team that is set up for future playoff runs; however, the Texans will likely eat the W in this one.
Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, J.J. Watt, and Jadeveon Clowney simply present larger problems than the Colts can handle right now. Watson is playing in just his second season and despite coming back from a torn ACL he has thrown for 4,165 yards and 26 TDs to only nine interceptions, earning him a 103.1 QB rating which ranks sixth among QBs with 200+ attempts this year. Watson’s arm is just one side of the coin however as it is his legs that terrify defensive coordinators. In his final two games against the Eagles and Jaguars, Watson ran for over 100 yards and scored three rushing TDs. Watson’s athleticism effectively makes him either a taller, faster Russell Wilson with a stronger arm, or it makes him a slightly more accurate Lamar Jackson depending on your perspective. Either way, the Texans have undoubtedly found their franchise quarterback.
That franchise QB isn’t exactly throwing to scrubs either as DeAndre Hopkins has finally been getting the league-wide recognition he deserves due to his remarkable production. Hopkins was a league leader in a number of categories as he finished second among receivers in receptions (115), second in yards (1,572), fourth in catches for 20+ yards (23), fourth in TDs (11), and led the NFL in receptions for first downs (81).
The craziest stat? Hopkins had zero drops the entire season. 115 catches, no drops. God. Fucking. Damn. The Colts (among many other teams) simply don’t have a defensive back that can matchup with Hopkins.
To top it all off, the Colts offensive line—the same one that allows Andrew Luck the opportunity to be flattened like a steam roller just ran over him about 20 times a game—will have to deal with former number one overall pick Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt rushing the passer. Watt is currently enjoying his best statistical season since 2015 as he has 16 sacks so far, his most since that 2015 season. Come playoff time, teams with disruptive defensive lines create hell for offenses.
GROWN MAN PLAY FROM @DeAndreHopkins https://t.co/oCc210C2Ss
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) December 16, 2018
Just ask the 2007 Patriots. Not to mention, Watt will look to exploit his soft matchup against Colts rookie right tackle Braden Smith. Despite the fact that the Colts have tremendous talent and look poised for future success, the Texans will come on top in this one due to either a dominant performance by Hopkins, Clowney, Watt, Watson, or some combination of the four. Although, Indy’s chances increase if Ebron keeps rocking the visor. Time will tell.
Chargers vs. Ravens
This game features two teams who I believe are both the best the AFC has to offer at this point in the season. The Chargers are possibly the most talented team in football, and the Ravens have a winning combination of a dominant defense and a dominant rushing attack that beat these same Chargers and almost beat the Chiefs.
The Ravens defense finished second in points allowed per game with 17.9, tied for first in yards per play allowed with 4.8, third in yards per drive with 26.3, second in opponent passer rating with 80.6, and finished second in opponent first downs per game with 17.9. The Ravens offense does their part as well as over the past seven weeks the Ravens have 1,607 rushing yards, and have broken the 200-yard mark in five of those games. Baltimore’s 22-10 victory over the Chargers a few weeks ago came with 159 rushing yards despite the Chargers ninth-ranked run defense.
It is a pretty simple formula that leads to traditional playoff success: disrupt the other team’s offense and run the time off the clock by scoring slowly and steadily. That formula’s concoction has everything to do with Lamar Jackson taking the offensive reigns from Joe Flacco.
Jackson’s skillset enables the Ravens to run an even more run-oriented version of the offense the Redskins ran with RGIII his rookie year. The Ravens run read-option all the fucking time, and frequently line up in an empty shotgun just to send someone in motion to either run a jet sweep or serve as a decoy for QB power with Lamar Jackson (who by the way will become the youngest QB to start a playoff game this weekend).
Toooooo fast.@lj_era8 does it himself.
?: CBS #RavensFlock https://t.co/jrx3yrehZp
— NFL (@NFL) December 30, 2018
The Ravens have shown a remarkable willingness to use Jackson’s legs as he has 11 or more carries in every game he has started this year. The result was Lamar ended up leading all quarterbacks in rushing yards despite just starting in the Ravens’ last seven of their 16 games. Jackson ended the year with 695 rushing yards and five rushing TDs. He will get better as a passer too as the years go on, he has the arm strength and talent to do it. Gotta be kind of a scary thought for the rest of the NFL that they could basically be dealing with a John Harbaugh- coached Mike Vick 2.0 for the next 10 years or so. Granted these plays are from high school and college, but just check out what a phenomenal athlete this kid is:
Don’t get me wrong I am a huge Lamar Jackson fan, and if the Ravens can sneak by the Chargers again I think Jackson has a great shot to be the youngest QB to win a Super Bowl. The Ravens haven’t had a defense this stingy since maybe 2000 when Ray Lewis and Ed Reed brought Baltimore the Lombardi Trophy.
Despite all those factors, I think the Chargers take the cake in this one mostly due to their superior roster as they will undoubtedly use their film from a few weeks back to create a more effective game plan. Much like the Texans, the Chargers sport an elite and disruptive defensive line. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram give opposing coordinators headaches as Ingram finished the season with seven sacks while Bosa had 5.5 in just five games. While J.J. Watt and Clowney are probably a more talented duo, the Chargers defense is scarier than the Texans. The Chargers have done a phenomenal job of surrounding their disruptive defensive line with speedy playmakers in the secondary, a deadly combination.
Corners Casey Hayward and Michael Davis have been locking down opposing receivers as well as any cornerback duo in the league. Backup/nickel corner Desmond King II meanwhile is talented enough to start on virtually any other NFL team. Safeties Jahleel Addae and Derwin James are an important part of the Chargers superior defensive equation too as they both do a phenomenal job of flying around the back end to force turnovers and make touchdown-saving tackles. Derwin James in particular has played impressively this season.
In just his first season in the NFL, James displayed some of the rarest versatility I have ever seen at the NFL level as he played every position on the Chargers defense with the exception of defensive tackle and middle linebacker. James finished sixth in total tackles among defensive backs with 105, third in PDefs with 16, and added three interceptions and 3.5 sacks for good measure. Again, this was Derwin James’ first NFL season. James is likely the most talented NFL safety with the exception of Landon Collins and maybe Earl Thomas. Neither Collins nor Thomas have James’ versatility either, so he might just be the best safety in the league in a few years.
Offensively, the Chargers are far more talented than the Ravens, and their offense will definitely sustain more production than it did when they only put up 10 points against Baltimore a few weeks back. While the Ravens have a solid stable of running backs and a decent rushing attack, Melvin Gordon’s talent blows the Gus Bus away.
The Wisconsin product finished sixth in rushing TDs (10), seventh in rushes for 20 yards or more (9), and ninth among RBs in total yards from scrimmage (1,375) despite missing four games. Despite leaving the Chargers’ final game early with an ankle injury, Gordon logged a full practice on Wednesday and looks to be healthy heading into the Wild Card round.
The Chargers passing attack is also loaded with more talent and depth than the Ravens. No offense to Willie Snead, Michael Crabtree, or John Brown but Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are far more talented and versatile receivers. Snead and Crabtree are somewhat limited by a lack of speed and explosiveness and are more possession receivers than anything else, and the diminutive but speedy Brown does not possess the size, hands, or consistency to be a legitimate WR1.
Meanwhile, Allen and Williams could both be considered WR1s, and backups Tyrell Williams and Travis Benjamin are lanky speedsters who could start on most other NFL teams. Allen finished ninth in receptions with 97 while adding 1,196 yards and six TDs. Williams actually led all qualified receivers (30 catches or more) in percentage of catches for first downs with 83.7-percent of his catches moving the chains, and he finished 2018 tied for fifth in receiving TDs with ten.
OH MY GOODNESS, @darealmike_dub! ⚡️⚡️⚡️
?: @nflnetwork #SEAvsLAC https://t.co/2xAAklsB4R
— NFL (@NFL) August 19, 2018
The final piece in the equation that results in a Chargers victory is Philip Rivers. Again, I love watching Lamar Jackson and I am a huge fan of his, but more often than not it is the more experienced more traditional passer that gets the win in the playoffs. See the playoff runs by RGIII, Colin Kaepernick, Mike Vick, or Cam Newton. How many Super Bowls between all four of them? Zip.
Rivers is the pocket-passing glue that keeps the 12-4 Chargers and their sixth-best scoring offense together, and he is balling right now. He finished with a 105.5 passer rating this year which was tied for his highest since becoming a starter in 2006, per ESPN Stats & Info. That passer rating was good for tenth-best, and Rivers finished top ten in virtually every passing category. He finished eighth in yards (4,308), sixth in TDs (32), seventh in throws for first downs (213), and fourth in passes for 20+ yards (60).
While the game will be close due to the Ravens defensive dominance and ball-control offense, look for the Chargers to get a measure of revenge in this one as they advance to the divisional round of the playoffs.