Continuing our Wild Card Preview, let’s take a look at how the 4 teams playing on Sunday fared vs the expert consensus and look for any patterns or trends that we can use to make our picks this week.
Miami @ Pittsburgh
I’m not sure where to put the Dolphins. I didn’t rate them headed into the season, and I’m not a Ryan Tannehill fan, but like any sane and rational person (or at least rational), I am an Adam Gase believer. The man makes QB’s do good things, and much like the Texans and Raiders on Saturday, getting the best out of a backup is probably going to be the defining factor in how the Dolphins perform in Pittsburgh.
Here’s how the fins did vs the expert consensus this year:
The important part is that Matt Moore only took over in week 15. As an individual, Moore didn’t play badly, and in fact the Dolphins scored 30+ points in the two meaningful games they played (weeks 15 and 16) to clinch a playoff place. I’m not saying he’s great, but he is definitely more reliable than some of the backups around the league.
The Dolphins were favored a playoff low 6 times in 2016, however they won those games 5-1. Unfortunately, those games were against bad teams with the exception of Tennessee (who were merely ‘mediocre’. They did upset the expert consensus against them a number of times, most notably in week 6 against the Steelers themselves, where they were picked by just 3% of the NFL media to upset the Steelers, and of course, promptly did just that. The main reason behind the Dolphins emergence as a playoff team was the strong run game, led by Jay Ajayi, who in fact broke out for the first of two consecutive (and three in 2016) 200 yard rushing games. That was a low point for the Steelers however, and their running defense was not as bad as that game indicated. Apart from that game, the teams upset were the Chargers, the Bills twice and the Cardinals.
In fact, here’s a statistic for you – the Dolphins’ average pick percentage in 2016 was just 41% – the lowest of all the playoff teams, including the Lions who managed just 47%. In contrast, the Steelers were picked on average 80% of the time regardless of opponents.
The Steelers have definitely improved as the season went on, and you’re about to see a whole lot of green here (something I assume Le’Veon bell will be happy about)
Much like Green Bay, the Steelers became a different team after the midseason point and seemed to rise to their status as favorites. That’s an important characteristic for any playoff team, because as I mentioned yesterday, there are dynamics outside of the gameplan and personnel that have a big effect on the outcome of games. Clearly the Steelers do not have the doubt that can sometimes accompany expectation.
Now, on to that game. In week 6 the two teams met and the Dolphins ran riot over the Steelers, but since then, the Steelers have improved markedly against the run. In fact, the Dolphins allow a far worse 4.8yds per rushing attempt, joint worse in the league with the 49ers. Whenever your defense is joint with the 49ers in anything, it’s not a good thing. It sounds obvious, but Le’Veon Bell is the defining player in this matchup and I would expect him to be the focal point of any attack. This is the first playoff game the Steelers triplets of Big Ben, Antonio Brown and Bell have played together, but he has been by far the most potent and consistent this season.
The spread for this game is +10 which is enticing, and my head says that these games often become closer affairs than expected, so even though I think the Steelers will have a comfortable victory, I think getting within 10pts is very attainable for a Dolphins offense with Moore, Ajayi, Landry and Parker playing as they did at the crucial points of the season run-in.
Straight up: Pittsburgh
vs Spread: Miami (+10)
New York Giants @ Green Bay
The real ‘must watch’ game of wild card weekend is a rematch of a million old cold games between Favre/Rodgers and Eli. Ok, something like 3 games, but it feels like a classic matchup.
The Giants have had a strange season, quietly establishing themselves just below the Cowboys as a playoff team, losing just 2 of their last 11 (Eagles and Steelers). Their defense is their strength and their offense is often their weakness, something that I think will cause them enormous problems tonight in the cold of Lambeau.
The Giants are heavy underdogs tonight, and in a twist, they are also on the road in green Bay, an exact rematch of their week 5 game. The media is less confident in the Packers this time around (80% vs 93%), but the Giants have not proven especially adept at beating the odds, managing two upsets out of a potential five – and not against the Packers. I think there’s also a pretty big difference in the final game of the season where they weren’t favored against the Redskins – the media pounced on the idea that the Giants would rest starters and play within themselves with a playoff berth secure. Discount that game, and you’re looking at a 1-3 record as underdogs this season.
As for Green Bay, well first off, nothing gives me more amusement than highlighting how wrong Mike Florio was in calling for Mike McCarthy to be fired in November, and then getting into a war of words with Aaron Rodgers. There was a perfect storm of idle speculation (Something was genuinely written about whether Rodgers may not go down as ‘great’ if he simply continues doing what he is doing (ie: turning absolute nobodies into superstar receivers and doing so without any run game). That, for me, is the point when the plot has been lost. I get that sometimes it’s good to ask honest questions about people and nobody should be off limits, but much like our friend Sam Monson 3 years ago when he called out Tom Brady, if you get it wrong, expect to hear about it…
The Packers had it all in those last 6 games. The Bears were the easiest team they faced, and the handled it. They faced down Seattle in what for me was the defining moment of their season, a complete shellacking of a playoff rival with every game a ‘must-win’. To me, it was the manner of the 6 wins, with the Packers at their imperious best, and finally hit an offensive rhythm.
Can we ignore the failures earlier in the season when favorites against Indy, Dallas, Tennessee and Minnesota? No, of course not, but I think those 4 teams are offensively potent, whereas the Giants are a defensive unit that tries to hit opponents with the odd huge play to Odell Beckham. I don’t wish to denigrate the Giants, but the Packers have a habit of picking apart those defenses, and my spidey senses tell me that having handled the Texans, Seahawks, Vikings and yes, the Giants defenses in 2016, the Packers will exploit holes the Giants don’t even know they have.
Straight up: Green Bay
vs Spread: Green Bay (-4.5)