2016 will be remembered as the year of the rookie quarterbacks (QBs). The Rams, Eagles, Cowboys, Patriots, Bills, Browns (2), and Raiders all employed rookie QBs at one point or another this season. For the Raiders, their rookie, Connor Cook, will make history this Saturday as the first quarterback to have his first start be in a playoff game. The National Football League (NFL) in recent years has become a quarterback driven league.
With the exception of the Broncos (2015) and Ravens (2000), every team that has won the Super Bowl has had an elite or very capable starting quarterback. As such, the heavy favourites in the AFC are the Patriots and Steelers with Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. Brady and Big Ben have six Super Bowl titles and nine Super Bowl appearances between them. Oakland, Houston, and Miami have backup quarterbacks forced into action due to injuries, and Kansas City is helmed by the capable if unspectacular Alex Smith.
The National Football Conference is a different story. Green Bay (Aaron Rodgers), New York (Eli Manning), and Seattle (Russell Wilson) all have Super Bowl winning quarterbacks. The other QBs are all legit talents such as Atlanta’s Matt Ryan whose outstanding season may garner him the MVP award; Detroit’s former first overall pick, Matthew Stafford, who has a 5000-yard passing season to his credit; and the great unknown, Dallas’ Dak Prescott, the rookie phenomenon who led the Cowboys to a sterling 13–3 record. Hopefully this will be a “wild” wild card weekend.
Oakland (12–4) @ Houston (9–7) Saturday 1:35 p.m.
Houston has the privilege of hosting the Raiders despite their record because they won the American Football Conference (AFC) South, which was by far the worst division in football this year. Led by Jadeveon Clowney, the Texans’ defence played very well as a unit this year despite losing former NFL defensive MVP JJ Watt to a season ending injury. The Texans also have a good running back in Lamar Miller, and one of the best receivers in football in DeAndre Hopkins. They also went out in the draft and grabbed a major speed threat to complement Hopkins in Will Fuller. Despite these weapons, the Texans sported one of the worst offences in the league. This was due in large part to the poor play of free agent signee Brock Osweiler. Osweiler got a big time contract after playing decent football last season for the Broncos. However, late in the season he lost his job to backup Tom Savage. Savage suffered an injury last week which thrusted Osweiler back into the spotlight.
The Raiders meanwhile, are underdogs in this game since injuries to starter Derek Carr and backup Mitch McGloin have left them relegated to playing third string rookie Connor Cook. The Raiders have a good offensive line, an explosive running back in Latavius Murray, and two 1000-yard receivers in Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper. They also have one of the best pass rushers in the league in Khalil Mack. Cook played well last week in limited time against the Broncos, who still sport an elite defensive unit. He also was praised prior to the draft by former Raiders coach and quarterback guru Jon Gruden as the best quarterback in this year’s crop. Cook fell to the fourth round despite many draft experts thinking he was the most pro-ready quarterback. Cook was a three-year starter at Michigan State and played in several big time games during his college career. The Raiders are far and away a better team than the Texans, and Cook will make enough plays to get them the win and the road “upset.”
Prediction: Raiders 24 Texans 16
Detroit (9–7) at Seattle (10–5–1) Saturday 5:15 p.m.
The Lions limped into the playoffs with a three-game losing streak and made it only because Washington blew it and lost to the Giants last week. Detroit is a mediocre team that won the majority of their games in close fashion by overcoming fourth quarter deficits. They have a good defence, which is not great, and an offence which is devoid of big time playmakers. They are also going to one of the hardest places to play in all of football.
Seattle is undefeated in the playoffs at CenturyLink field and is a squad with a tremendous amount of post-season experience. Since 2013, Seattle has the most playoff wins in the NFL. The team still has a good defence which fell back a bit this season from elite status and is missing injured safety Earl Thomas. Offensively, their patchwork offensive line did not play consistently this year and the team has really suffered from the retirement of Marshawn Lynch. Russell Wilson is a special talent though, and will get the ball to his playmakers. Look for a big game from receiver Doug Baldwin and a double-digit win by the Seahawks in what should be a lopsided game. The Seahawks also signed Devin Hester this week to return kicks. Hester is one of the most prolific punt and kick returners in NFL history and will hopefully have some magic left for Seahawks fans.
Prediction: Seahawks 30 Lions 18
Miami (10–6) at Pittsburgh (11–5) Sunday 10:05 a.m.
The overwhelming consensus is that the Steelers are the only team in the AFC capable of beating New England and as such they should dominate the Dolphins in this matchup. The Steelers have reeled off seven straight wins and will have star running back Le’Veon Bell healthy for the playoffs for the first time in his career. With All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown and with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger starting his 18th playoff game, the Steelers have an edge in both skill and experience.
The key sticking point to this sentiment is that the Dolphins crushed the Steelers 30–15 earlier in the season in a game which saw their running back Jay Ajayi sprint to one of his three 200-yard games this season. They also sport a fierce pass rush led by former BC Lion, Cameron Wake, and league bad boy Ndamukong Suh. The Dolphins are quarterbacked by a capable backup in Matt Moore who played well down the stretch, but will be making just his first career playoff start. One key factor is that the warm weather Dolphins will be travelling to Pittsburgh in the dead of winter where temperatures are expected to be -13 degrees Celsius with the windchill; advantage Steelers. The Dolphins have demonstrated that they have the team to beat Pittsburgh, but not on this day.
Prediction: Steelers 28 Dolphins 13
Game of the Week and Upset Special
New York Giants (11–5) at Green Bay (10–6) Sunday 1:40 p.m.
The football gods have brought the world a trilogy between these two storied franchises. In both the 2007 and 2011 seasons, the Giants went to Lambeau as underdogs and pulled off the victory en route to their two most recent Super Bowl titles. The 2007 season was the last in Green Bay for Brett Favre, and the 2011 season saw the Packers get thumped 37–20 despite a 15–1 record and being the consensus Super Bowl favourites.
Once again the Packers are favoured at home against the one team they did not want to play. The Packers looked in trouble of missing the playoffs after a lackluster 4–6 start to the season. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers confidently boasted that his team could “run the table” which they promptly did. Rodgers has been outstanding during this stretch with 15 touchdown passes and zero interceptions. His top receivers, Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams, have also played very well of late. The Packers have converted wide receiver, Ty Montgomery, into their new running back after injuries to Eddie Lacy and James Starks. Montgomery is an x factor due to his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
The Giants meanwhile, like their past two Super Bowl teams, are built on defence. This year’s edition is led by pass rusher Olivier Vernon and a pass defence which yielded a whopping 17 interceptions. On offence, they will need a great performance from Eli Manning who has the ability to shine, but also make critical errors. Manning does have one of the best receivers in football in Odell Beckham Jr. who will undoubtedly be heard from in this game one way or another. The Packers have a shaky pass defence and that is not the way to win in January. The third time will not be the charm for the Packers as their nemesis knocks them off to the dismay of the Lambeau faithful.
Prediction: Giants 27 Packers 26