Now that the wild regular season is over, it’s time to turn our attention to the NFL’s wild-card weekend, which figures to be just as wild. All four road teams are favored. So can any of these teams make a Super Bowl run?
I think at least half of the field has a legitimate shot at lifting the Lombardi Trophy. The playoffs have more story lines than the Netflix hit documentary series “Making a Murderer.” Here are just a few:
* Can the Patriots get healthy in time to repeat? If Julian Edelman and the offensive line are feeling better, they’ll look more like the 10-0 team instead of the one that went 2-4 in its last six. Stay tuned.
* Does Peyton Manning have one last run in him? No. Next question.
* Can a No. 5 or No. 6 seed win it all? Maybe, but I doubt it. The Chiefs and Steelers are dangerous, and I can see the Seahawks going all out to make it to a third straight Super Bowl. But I think the higher seeds will rule.
* Is this Cam Newton’s year? The runaway MVP pick and Carolina have home-field advantage, but it won’t be easy. If Carolina can get past possible contests with Seattle and Arizona, 18-1 would feel just perfect.
Patriots-Packers was my Super Bowl prediction, and when they both started 6-0, it looked like a slam dunk. Now, the air has been taken out of that pick. The Pats have a chance, but I can’t see the Pack making a run.
In my opinion, the NFC is easier to call. I like the two top seeds, Carolina and Arizona, to meet in the title game. The AFC, meanwhile, is as wide open as Jerry Rice during the 49ers’ Super Bowl runs. I think the Chiefs or Bengals could challenge the Patriots. I want to pick a Carson Palmer Super Bowl, pitting his new team against his old team, but the quarterback situation in Cincinnati is too shaky for me to say Cardinals-Bengals. So I’ll bank on the Pats getting healthy and predict a Cardinals-Patriots matchup in Super Bowl 50. Enjoy the playoffs, everyone.
CHIEFS (11-5) AT TEXANS (9-7), 4:20 p.m.
TV: ESPN; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)
Chiefs by 3.5; O/U: 40
These teams were 2-5, and now they’re in the playoffs. This should be the lowest-scoring game of the weekend, as defenses with excellent pass rushes dictate the tempo. The last time the Chiefs won a playoff game was in January 1994, against another Houston team, the Oilers. Joe Montana led that playoff win, and while Alex Smith is no Joe, he’s a smart quarterback who has had a strong year. Notice how there’s no more “When was the last time a Chiefs receiver caught a TD pass?” jokes. Andy Reid has done a remarkable turnaround job. The Chiefs have won 10 in a row, and I trust Smith more than Brian Hoyer. Houston’s season ends the same way it started: Losing at home to the Chiefs.
The pick: Chiefs, 23-16
LOCK OF THE WEEK
STEELERS (10-6) AT BENGALS (12-4), 8 p.m.
TV: Ch. 2; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)
Steelers by 3; O/U: 45.5
The only rivalry of the four games, the best matchup of the week pits Pittsburgh and Cincinnati against each other for the third time this year and second time in less than a month. The Steelers won at Cincy in Week 14, avenging a loss to the Bengals at home. If Andy Dalton were able to play, this line would be flip-flopped and the Bengals would be the 3-point favorite. AJ McCarron isn’t Dalton, but he has tons of confidence. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since January 1991, and have lost in the wild-card round the last four years. Well, guess what? This is the year Marvin Lewis & Co. finally snaps the streak. The Bengals’ defense is far superior to the Steelers’, and I think Cincinnati’s familiarity with Pittsburgh’s offense will help it limit the big plays. The Steelers likely will be without running back DeAngelo Williams, and that will make pass-happy Pittsburgh too one-dimensional. McCarron and the Bengals jumped out to a 14-0 lead at Denver, and that showed me something. McCarron and the A.J. with points, A.J. Green, could put some points on the board. I also think Tyler Eifert will have a big game. Go figure: The Bengals finally win a playoff game . . . without Dalton.
The pick: Bengals, 30-27
SEAHAWKS (10-6) AT VIKINGS (11-5), 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 4; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)
Seahawks by 5; O/U: 39.5
Minnesota’s prize for winning the NFC North? A matchup with the Seahawks, who five weeks ago flew into their building and won by 31. It didn’t even look that close. Seattle is the popular NFC Super Bowl pick, but I don’t see them winning three road games. Just one. If you think Seattle is just going to go back into Minnesota and win by 20-plus, you haven’t been following the NFL. That kind of thing rarely happens. The Vikings will be prepared. But it’s hard to overlook that Week 13 matchup, when Minnesota mustered only seven points. The single-digit temperatures should favor the home team, but Russell Wilson will be hard to cool down. Seattle’s experience is a big factor here, and I just can’t take Teddy Bridgewater in this spot.
The pick: Seahawks. 27-17
PACKERS (10-6) AT REDSKINS (9-7), 4:30 p.m.
TV: Ch. 5; Radio: WFAN (660, 101.9)
Packers by 1; O/U: 45
So it turns out Redskins coach Jay Gruden, aka JG2 (the other Gruden), knew what he was doing when he chose to go with Kirk Cousins over RG3. Cousins has had a breakout season, completing a whopping 69.8 percent of his passes for 4,166 yards with 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He did most of his work at home, going 6-2 with 16 TDs and only two picks. While his counterpart, Aaron Rodgers, will go down as an all-time great, there haven’t been too many discount double checks the last two-plus months. The Packers started 6-0, then lost four of five, and finished on a two-game slide entering the playoffs. Rodgers wishes he had Jordy Nelson, whose absence is a big reason Green Bay is struggling. The offensive line can’t keep Rodgers upright, which is kind of important, don’t you think? If you are just parachuting into the playoffs, and saw a Packers-Redskins matchup, you’d probably bet the house on Mr. Rodgers and the Pack. Don’t do it. You have to look at the recent body of work, and the Redskins are playing better football. The “You Like That!” chants live on for one more week.
The pick: Redskins, 28-24
Staff picks for wild-card weekend
Best bets in bold
JOE MANNIELLO 121-130-5, 9-7-1 best bets
Chiefs Bengals Seahawks Redskins
BOB GLAUBER 124-127-5, 8-9
Chiefs Bengals Seahawks Redskins
TOM ROCK 131-120-5, 9-7-1
Chiefs Steelers Seahawks Redskins
KIMBERLEY A. MARTIN 119-132-5, 8-9
Chiefs Steelers Vikings Packers