There are no sure things in the NFL, but you just knew Raiders-Texans would be the first game of wild-card weekend and Giants-Packers, deservedly so, would be the grand finale. In between you get a pair of OK matchups, with the Lions-Seahawks in prime time Saturday night and Dolphins-Steelers at 1 p.m. Sunday.
So can any of the wild-card weekend teams make a run? Sure. The Packers, Steelers and Giants have the best shot, but the belief here is that the playoffs’ top four overall seeds will be tough to beat in the divisional round.
If you’re not pumped up for all of this weekend’s games, we understand. But Saturday night’s late game in Seattle could be a thriller (more on that later), and the battle at Lambeau should live up to the hype.
NO. 5 RAIDERS (12-4) AT NO. 4 TEXANS (9-7)
SATURDAY, 4:20 p.m.
TV: Ch. 7, ESPN; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)
Texans by 3.5; O/U: 36.5
Houston finds itself in the same spot as last year: hosting an AFC West team to kick off the wild-card round. Only this time, the Texans should be thankful they didn’t draw the Chiefs, who beat them 30-0. The Raiders’ loss in Week 17 coupled with the Chiefs’ victory meant Oakland missed out on the division title and a first-round bye. On top of that, it lost backup quarterback Matt McGloin a week after losing MVP candidate Derek Carr. Now, they turn to Connor Cook, a rookie making his first career NFL start. Not exactly how the Raiders pictured their first playoff game since 2002. The Texans were 7-1 straight up at home this season, and their No.1-ranked defense should lead them to a win. Brock Osweiler, benched but back as the starter after Tom Savage suffered a concussion last week, can use this second shot as his “let’s forget about the first 15 weeks of the season” moment. This is a rematch of a Week 11 Monday night game in Mexico City, a 27-20 Raiders win in which they got some favorable calls late. Houston hasn’t forgotten that game, and must feel that if it had the Raiders on the ropes with Carr, it definitely can provide the knockout punch against Cook. Look for DeAndre Hopkins to catch a touchdown pass and Jadeveon Clowney to wreak havoc on defense as the Texans earn the right to lose by 20 next week at New England. Texans 20, Raiders 13.
The pick: Texans
NO. 6 DOLPHINS (10-6) AT NO. 3 STEELERS (11-5)
SUNDAY, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 2; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)
Steelers by 10; O/U: 45.5
On paper, this is the biggest mismatch of the wild-card round. Matt Moore vs. Ben Roethlisberger? No wonder this spread is double digits. But wait, is the line inflated? Even with Miami starting its backup quarterback, and even with the Steelers having the firepower to turn a close game into a rout thanks to Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, the belief here is that Miami is a gritty, gutsy team that has surprised many this season. It will do so again on Sunday. The Dolphins won’t win, but they’re not going to get run out of Pittsburgh, either. After a 1-4 start, Miami got hot in Week 6, blitzing the Steelers in a shocking 30-15 win in which Jay Ajayi rushed for 204 yards. That was the start of a six-game win streak for Miami, which finished the season on a 9-2 run. If Ajayi can help sustain drives to keep Pittsburgh’s stars off the field, the Dolphins will make this a game. Pittsburgh wants revenge for the bad loss at Miami, but there’s also the chance it can be looking ahead to the Patriots or Chiefs. The Steelers will win, but don’t be surprised if the Dolphins have a chance to drive for the tying score late. Take the points. Steelers 27, Dolphins 20.
The pick: Dolphins
LOCK OF THE WEEK
NO. 6 LIONS (9-7) AT NO. 3 SEAHAWKS (10-5-1)
SATURDAY, 8:15 p.m.
TV: Ch. 4; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)
Seahawks by 8; O/U: 43
When the Seahawks play in prime time, you always can expect drama. Lots of it. A quick refresher: 10 years ago Friday, the Seahawks beat the Cowboys in the wild-card round after Tony Romo botched the field-goal snap. The most memorable late-game drama was the “Fail Mary” play in 2012. Last season, the Seahawks beat the Lions, 13-10, on Monday night on a controversial play at the goal line involving Calvin Johnson. He won’t be involved this time, but Matthew Stafford has provided plenty of late drama himself this season. The Lions won a record eight games in which they trailed in the fourth quarter. Don’t be surprised if the opportunity presents itself again. Hear me out, hear me out. While history suggests the Lions don’t stand a chance — Detroit has lost eight consecutive playoff games, tied for most in NFL history, and Seattle has won nine consecutive home playoff games, the longest streak in NFL history — there’s something about this Seahawks team that isn’t right. More than once this season defenders have been seen fighting on the sideline, and the offense has looked puzzling at times (see: 9-3 loss to the Rams and 6-6 tie vs. the Cardinals). The biggest reason why Stafford can go into Seattle and pull off the upset is that he won’t have to worry about safety Earl Thomas. In three of the four games since he was sidelined, Seattle has given up 38, 34 and 23 points. Detroit enters the playoffs on a three-game skid after losing the division to Green Bay, and Stafford will be playing with a big chip on his shoulder. Stafford has weapons who can stretch the field in Marvin Jones and Golden Tate. Speaking of Tate, he was the Seahawk who “caught” that controversial TD pass in 2012. He could be at the receiving end of another dramatic game-ender. This game is going down to the final minutes, with Stafford quieting the crowd and keeping them sleepless in Seattle. Lions 27, Seahawks 24.
The pick: Lions
NO. 5 GIANTS (11-5) AT NO. 4 PACKERS (10-6)
SUNDAY, 4:40 p.m.
TV: Ch. 5; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)
Packers by 4.5; O/U: 44.5
Run the table. Three words that have defined the Packers’ season, as Aaron Rodgers said his team could do just that and go from 4-6 to 10-6 and the playoffs. Now, they have to turn the tables against a Giants team that has had recent postseason success at Lambeau Field, winning there both times en route to their last two Super Bowls. After the magical runs in the 2007 and 2011 seasons, many are talking about the Giants running the table again. Unb-ELI-evable stat alert: Eli Manning (2-0) has as many postseason wins at Lambeau as Aaron Rodgers (2-2). Big Blue has the defense to pull off the upset, but it’s their offense that is most concerning, a season-long question mark that has averaged 19.4 points per game and has yet to hit the 30-point mark. The narrative all week, other than the Giants’ dominant defense having what it takes to stop the red-hot Rodgers (18 TDs, no INTs in his last seven games), has been that the Giants can take advantage of the Packers’ banged-up secondary. Interestingly, that was the same talking point entering the teams’ Week 5 matchup in Green Bay, a 23-16 Packers win that wasn’t that close. But can Manning and the Giants’ offense pull it off? With Odell Beckham Jr., you would think they could, but Green Bay will have a plan to keep the playmaker in check (watch out for those quick slants, guys!) As great as the Giants’ defense has played (second-fewest points allowed per game at 17.8), you have to think Rodgers is going to find Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams enough in the passing game to put up 20-24 points. The belief here is that the Giants aren’t going to all of a sudden pull 27 points out of a hat just because it’s the playoffs. This will be a close game, probably low scoring in the first half. Then, Rodgers will make a couple of big throws in the second half to give the Pack some breathing room. Ty Montgomery, receiver turned running back, could play a big role. For a good portion of this season, Green Bay was more mess than finesse, but it has turned it around at the right time, averaging nearly 31 points per game during the six-game win streak. The Giants are the popular pick to pull off the upset (everyone really wants to see a third matchup with Dallas), but Rodgers and the Packers are too hot to pick against right now. Packers 24, Giants 16.
The pick: Packers
STAFF STANDINGS AND PICKS
(best bet in bold)
Record: 136-109-11 overall, 11-6 best bets
Last week: 12-4
Texans Lions Dolphins Packers
Record: 129-116-11 overall, 10-7 best bets
Last week: 9-7
Texans Seahawks Steelers Giants
Record: 138-107-11 overall, 7-9-1 best bets
Last week: 9-7
Texans Seahawks Steelers Giants
KIMBERLEY A. MARTIN
Record: 116-129-11 overall, 11-5-1 best bets
Last week: 9-7
Texans Seahawks Steelers Packers