• Pigskin Pundit’s Picks, Wildcard Weekend

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    Surge Summary: Finally, after a bizarre season, Wildcard Weekend is upon us. Herein, Pigskin Pundit’s picks for this preliminary playoff round.

    by Pigskin Pundit

    Well, I finished the regular season better than a lot of teams did, at 13-3.  Here we go, PLAYOFFS!!  Strange year, but most of these teams were expected to be here, so only the NFC Least was the outlier.  I certainly thought Minneapolis would be represented, but they drifted farther and farther from the crowd as time passed…and Cousins didn’t.  Coaches are falling left and right, as usual this time of year, opening up new opportunities for teams next season.  I finished up at 170-86, so stayed steady at 65% all season.  Not horrible in a weird virus year, but not my customary flirt with 70%.  Here are the picks.

    Colts at Bills – The Colts are a stingy defensive team, sustaining one of the top ratings in the league this year.  They play the pass and the run well.  Phillip Rivers still has zip on his ball, and Jonathan Taylor has come on strong in the second half of the season lugging the rock.  They are disciplined, and don’t turn the ball over.  All that said, Indy has had trouble getting their defense off the field on 3rd downs, which makes them vulnerable to being gassed in the fourth quarter.  Add to this their penchant for giving up the long ball, and you have the recipe for a loss to Buffalo.

    The Bills have a solid-if-underutilized ground game in Singletary and Moss, and when Josh Allen takes off on broken plays (or naked bootlegs) he tends to chew up enormous tracts of real estate.  Allen also throws ICBMs with alarming regularity, and his prime target is the league’s receiving yardage leader Stefon Diggs, whose arrival from Minnesota this year was the single most impactful trade of the season.  Diggs has accounted for 1500 receiving yards, and lest we think Buffalo is one dimensional in the air, Cole Beasley quietly chipped in 1000 of his own.  The Buffalo defense is top ten in most categories, and top five in takeaways, so rest assured that whatever rare slip-ups Indy does make will be pounced on by the hungry Bills.  Fun game to watch as the playoff opener, but I can’t find a formula where the Colts come out on top.  The Wyoming Winchester shoots down Indy’s playoff hopes.

    Rams at Seahawks – The Scrams head north again to play their nemesis, the Pete Carrolls.  Cookin’ Mr. Wilson has had another superb season, although he has eaten more dirt than usual thanks to some O-line lapses.  Seattle has worked to improve a league-worst pass defense, and they can and do get after the passer.  They are tops overall against the play action pass, which LA employs more than every other team, so the matchup favors neither there.  LA can bring the heat, swat the flies, AND stuff the run.  Their whole game Sunday rides on one thumb, and the so-so quarterback attached to it.  Goff has played decently, but he doesn’t light anyone’s fire as a dominant force.  With his one opposable digit compromised…big question mark.

    Seattle will do what they do best, generate spectacular offense.  Wilson is a 5-tool player as they say in baseball.  If his line can keep the flame-breathing Aaron Donald at bay most of the game, and the Squawks can pick up some modest run yardage, chances are they will be fine.  Their D will need to prevent Akers from gaining acres of turf, in order to get the ball back into Wilson’s hands.  If Tyler can Lockett down deep and DK ‘Doncha Knowme’ Metcatch can get separation from Rams-ey and Co, which they do with everyone else, LA will struggle to keep up.  Squawks walk the talk.

    Buccaneers at WFT – Twift backed into the playoffs this year in the NFC Least on the strength of a ferocious defense.  Ron Rivera’s team was near the top of the league in pass coverage and pass rushing, terrifying opposing QBs as Montez made them Sweat and Young Chased them down.

    Makes for a good matchup, as the Bucs had some of the best pass protection this season, and Brady uncorked 40 tds at age 43.  Pretty impressive, Gramps.  This is probably where the contrast ends though, because Twift doesn’t have a reliable offense.  IF Alex Smith is back, he will be running for his life on a tweaked calf, because them pirates from down Tampa way enjoy playing ‘chase the skinny guy’ more than most.  If Heineke is the starter for the Snyder team, Brady should be wrapped and sitting by the 3rd quarter.  Heineke will need a Heineken to cool his overheated brow.  I love a jacked-up defense, but it only gets you so far.  And that’s not out of the first round, this year.  Buccaneer Brady’s treasure chest of golden receivers proves too rich for DC’s defenders.  Try the smoked safety – it’s delicious!

    Ravens at Titans – The Titans beat the Ravens last time they met.  Sometimes that’s meat for the planners, to build a win from the lessons of a loss.  John Harbaugh is a planner.  His defense is tough, and stingy…and hungry.  They are the top blitzing team in the NFL.  Where they lack is in Red Zone stops…so they don’t allow most teams to see the Red Zone.  The Titans are a top-5 team in yards per game and points per game, so they live in the Red Zone and take advantage of it.  Nice symmetry there.

    Tennessee is the worst team at 3rd down stops, an awful stat for a playoff team.  If you can’t get the other team off the field, you lose.  Your D gets gassed, your offense fossilizes on the sidelines and then is forced into fewer options, and your ‘game win’ reliance shifts heavily to special teams…where you DON’T want it.  It’s a huge factor.  God only knows how a head coach who’s an ex-linebacker has failed to address this.  Derek Henry is a generational talent, but he can’t get you 200 yards if he doesn’t see the field.  The other factor that hurts Tennessee where it counts is their inability to get sacks or QB hits.  No pass rush on Lamar Jackson means he is free to operate ALL of his talents, not just his legs.  AJ ‘Downtown’ Brown is a beast and Tannehill can get him the ball, so this game comes down to the razor’s edge.  I will go against the conventional wisdom here and say that Vrabel finds a way for his defense to step up and contain the Action Jackson show.  Whiskey Town puts the Blackbirds down.

    Bears at Saints – Chicago gets here on good defense.  Good 3rd down D, 5th best Red Zone D, good against the run and pass.  Good pass rush.

    The Saints get here on good everything.  Top 10 defense in practically all categories, sacks, takeaways, you name it, they shine.  Their biggest weakness is in Red Zone tds allowed, which suggests they know where to be in the open field but lose their sense of coverage when things get congested.  Let’s add in New Orleans’ offense, 5th best in the Red Zone.  Drew Brees’ arm and accuracy, Alvin Kamara’s speed and elusiveness, and Taysom Hill the Swiss Army Knife…Good D isn’t going to be enough, Bears.  You will need points…from one Mitchell Falsebisky, who padded his stats against horrible teams late in the year and only got the QB job back when Nick Foles (who stunk) got hurt.  Who are we kidding, here? Nice run, Bears.  But this week Louisiana becomes Lose-ee-ana for Chicago.

    Browns at Steelers – This is gritty, old-school, blue-collar football.  How’s that for clichés?  They’re all true, too.  The Steelers have gotten this far on what always gets them this far – rock-ribbed DEFENSE.  They have been tops all season, crushing quarterbacks, snapping up errant passes, and presenting a suffocating secondary.  Their offense has been diminished, using short passes and play-action stuff to compensate for an anemic ground game and Roethlisberger’s decreasing range, but it has been enough…most of the time.  This is probably Ben’s last go-round in the playoffs, the end of an era whose highlights are more like taillights now.

    The Browns are Cinderella at the Ball this year, having been held outside the big dance so long they have forgotten the steps.  Baker Mayfield has settled into better game management of late, a sign of NFL maturity at his position.  The superb track team of Chubb & Hunt are the engine of this offense, like the vaunted 351-Cleveland V8 that carried the name of this city into immortality.  Mayfield’s passing has improved, and while he doesn’t hang up huge numbers, he’s efficient and careful with the ball.  The Browns are pretty solid everywhere, balanced on defense between pass rushing (Garrett & Vernon) and pass coverage.  They haven’t been stellar at run defense, but that matches up well with Pittsburgh’s weak ground attack.

    Factors for Cleveland: Covid has hit the team hard at this time.  Head coach Stefanski will be missing on the sidelines, as will Pro Bowl Guard Joel Bitonio, a huge factor against the Steelers pass rush.  The Browns’ secondary has also been hit hard, missing Safety Ronnie Harrison, and Cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Kevin Johnson.  Cleveland’s lack of playoff experience cannot be overlooked as playing a role in this game, particularly without their coach on the sidelines guiding his team.

    Factors for Pittsburgh: They are only missing Cornerback Joe Haden to Covid, but he’s a key on their defense and they are also short the services of Linebackers Bud Dupree and Devin Bush, who are injured.

    This game will be a trench battle worthy of the Rust Belt.  On the basis of experience and relentless D, Pittsburgh Steels another playoff win.

    Enjoy the games!

    -PP (Nate Clark)

    The views here are those of the author and not necessarily Daily Surge

    Image: Adapted from: User:Sevwe2 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25208358

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