And with that... on to the picks!
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KANSAS CITY (-3) at Houston
The case for KC: Semblance of balance between offense and defense. One of the best TEs in the game in Travis Kelce. QB Alex Smith moves the sticks with effective running, and has had surprising amounts of playoff success for a guy with no wins. WR Jeremy Maclin has produced consistently, despite no real second threat. RBs Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware have kept the team stable. The defense has been very good for half a year or more, with the DBs in particular producing well. They avoid turnovers, and when HC Andy Reid's teams have done that, they've been genuinely dangerous.
The case against: Reid's clock management skills have not gotten better with age, and the good parts of his playoff record came a long time ago. Took advantage of a cotton-soft schedule, more than any other factor, to recover from the early stumbles. Aren't at home, which is usually a major help for them.
The case for Houston: Maybe the best defense in the AFC, especially recently and against the pass. The best defensive lineman in the game, JJ Watt, is now operating without a cast on his hand, which pretty much makes him genuinely unfair. The offense plays at pace and gets more out of a rotating cast of QBs than you might expect. WR DeAndre Hopkins is one of the very best in the game.
The case against: Winning the AFC South isn't exactly a high bar. Home field has not been hard to overcome. HC Bill O'Brien hasn't been on this stage before. Running game won't be able to prevent KC from teeing off.
The pick: Chiefs 24, Texans 17. It'll be a slog, and the Chiefs will need to be patient when the offense gets off to a slow start. But eventually, they'll get it done.
Pittsburgh at CINCINNATI (+3)
The case for Pittsburgh: Explosive aerial game, with WR1 Antonio Brown being damned near historically great this year. Defense can get heat on the QB and generate turnovers. QB Ben Roethlisberger has a massive experience edge here, can extend plays with his physicality, and stretch the field better than anyone in the post-season. HC Mike Tomlin is correctly aggro more often than not, and is fearless on things like going for two points early in the game, and dialing up exotic blitzes. They have no fear at all of the home team, and when they hit on all cylinders, they look like the most dangerous club in the AFC.
The case against: This just isn't a good defense, and they needed a last week fold by the Jets just to get here. Offense will be almost entirely pass based, as they are on RB3/4 with benchies following injuries. Offensive line is intermittent at best. Special teams have been a bit of a mess, with Brown having to put returns on his plate with everything else. Roethlisberger has been turning it over far more than usual, and also injury-prone.
The case for Cincy: At home. Better on the lines, and by a significant amount. WR AJ Green has been a nightmare for the Steelers, and will continue to be. TE Tyler Eifert has been amazing in the red zone, and could go off here. RB Gio Bernard moves the sticks with ease a lot. QB AJ McCarron has more confidence than you'd expect from a back up, and has gotten a lot of playing time recently. Given their playoff history, maybe not having QB1 in the lineup is a plus. Defensive backfield, when good, is among the best in the game.
The case against: HC Marvin Lewis in the playoffs has been an absolute disaster. Not having an experienced QB in the playoffs is rarely a plus. Running game has been erratic at best, with RB Jeremy Hill in particular being maddening.
The pick: Bengals 31, Steelers 30. This has just got shootout writ large all over it, but I think the Bengals finally break through with a timely turnover.
SEATTLE (-5) at Minnesota
The case for Seattle: Defending NFC champions, playing the best ball of the year, with genuinely terrifying proficiency right now. QB Russell Wilson has been unstoppable, with best in class mobility and a soft deep ball that stretches the field. Running game has been resurgent, and they might get back a fresh Marshawn Lynch. WR Doug Baldwin has somehow turned into Prime Jerry Rice for the past six weeks. Defense isn't quite the world-crushers of the recent past, but they still rank as the best in the NFL in preventing points, and when they get on a roll, they feel the same. Special teams have been the secret sauce that kept them afloat early, and still are dangerous. If they had home field, they would be the clear favorite to run the table in the NFC.
The case against: They don't have home field, and Minny is going to be crazy cold. The offensive line can have sieve moments, and when that happens, Wilson can have ball control issues. The WRs have been historically weak, and there are long stretches where the offense just doesn't work. The defense has given up more late leads than any Seahawk team in recent history, and sustaining drives has never been easier.
The case for Minnesota: Best RB in the tournament in Adrian Peterson, and a surprisingly potent defense. QB Teddy Bridgewater has excellent game manager skills, and doesn't make the big mistake. WR depth is stronger than you might expect. Patient offensive game, with good special teams. As a home underdog, playing with as much ease and motivation as you'll find in the playoffs.
The case against: Cold weather will hurt the kicking game more than anything, which has been the Vikings' biggest edge on competitors. Peterson isn't nearly as dominant as he used to be. Bridgewater just doesn't seem special enough to beat a team that was absurdly close to being repeat Super Bowl winners.
The pick: Seahawks 27, Vikings 19. To my eyes, the single best chance for a bad game on the weekend, but Seattle's laid enough road eggs to make me think it stays close longer than it should.
GREEN BAY (+1) at Washington
The case for Green Bay: QB Aaron Rodgers has a massive experience edge, and can make any throw in the book. He's also effectively mobile. Running game is erratic, but when they get on a roll, everything else opens up. Defense can bait turnover-prone QBs and look better than they are. Edge in coaching goes to Green Bay. Team won more games, and played a harder schedule, to get here.
The case against: Haven't really played a good game in a long while. WRs don't get open consistently against good press coverage. Defense isn't special, and can really be taken advantage of by a good running attack. They pretty much need the opposition to make mistakes to get off the field, and that's rarely a recipe for success on the road. RBs Eddie Lacy and John Starks have been fumble-prone, and with the WRs struggling, the offense hasn't been able to overcome very low margins for error.
The case for Washington: Home field, in front of an utterly desperate and ready to mark out like mad fan base, because they've spent most of the past 20 years without hope, and this game is totally in the toss-up realm. QB Kirk Cousins has been one of the best in the game for the past half season. The RBs have found holes, and now that WR DeSean Jackson is back, WR Pierre Garcon is better, and TE Jordan Reed might actually be one of the five best in the league. Defense has played better recently, and gets more pressure on the QB than expected. Special teams don't hurt them.
The case against Washington: Won a trash fire of a division, with a defense that's in the bottom third of the league. Have done more along the lines of beating bad teams, rather than taking out anyone of substance. Cousins may still be a turnover machine masked by an easy schedule, rather than a young guy turning the corner. RBs have been hurt. The home crowd will turn on them badly in the face of adversity, because they know in their hearts that the franchise will never win anything of substance with this ownership. Just don't have it on the lines.
The pick: Packers 27, Racial Slurs 23. I know that Rodgers has left people down a lot this year, and that this Packer team isn't a real contender. But I also know they have more wins, against a tougher schedule, and have loads more playoff experience and a better coaching staff. Whoever wins this game is getting absolutely trucked next week, but at least it won't be the NFC lEast team.
Last week: 8-8