There’s one thing I love about January: the NFL playoffs. There’s also one thing that disappoints me about January: the NFL season is nearly over. So, if it’s nearly over, let’s enjoy it while it’s still here.
Looking at my detailed statistics, fine-tuned for the 2016-17 season and more accurate than ever due to my top-secret new formula, I’ll take you through the AFC Wild Card games…
Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans
Last season, the Houston Texans won their division and hosted an AFC West team in the playoffs. They lost. If the Oakland Raiders had won in week 17, this would be a rematch with the Kansas City Chiefs, and I suspect they would lose again.
As it is, the Raiders’ star quarterback is out for the season, their backup is also injured, and they travel to Houston for an intriguing match up.
On paper, this Raiders team (12-4) is better than last season’s Chiefs (11-50, whilst the Texans are again merely an average team winning a poor division. So what are they good at?
The Texans are very good at home, going 7-1 in the regular season. They even beat the Kansas City Chiefs 19-12 in week 2. They have allowed fewer than 15 points at home in half of their home games, although their opposition haven’t been particularly strong.
Still, you can only beat the teams in front of you, and four of their seven wins were by seven points or more – not bad considering they haven’t scored 30 points in a single game at home all season.
Their other strength, as you may have picked up, is their defense. Overall, their defense ranks 10th in the league for points allowed, but at home, only the Chiefs, Patriots and Seahawks have meaner defenses.
In short, they may be an average team, but that’s averaged out between a good home team and a poor road team. Only the Seahawks have a larger disparity between home and road performance. Good thing they’re at home then!
So, what of the Raiders?
Let’s be honest, if Derek Carr wasn’t injured, Oakland would be hot favourites. But, he is injured. So is their backup. They will likely need to start their third-string quarterback, rookie Connor Cook.
Good news for Oakland: the Texans average around 20.5 points at home, and the Raiders average around 22.5 on the road. However, the Raiders’ road defense is as bad as the Cleveland Browns on the road, and as I’ve mentioned, the Texans are in the top 10. Everything points to a home win.
My projections give it to the Texans by 2.5 points, before you account for the Raiders’ quarterback issues, despite being ranked #26 in points difference in the whole NFL – ahead of only the Jaguars, Jets, Bears, Rams, 49ers and Browns.
The teams met in week 14 in Oakland, where the Raiders won 27-20.
My pick: Texans.
Predictor says: Texans, 100% confidence, by 2.5 points.
Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers
At the start of the season, people talked of the Steelers as potential Super Bowl champions. After the first couple of weeks, it all went a bit wrong.
After winning four of their first five games, they lost four on the bounce, including to the Cowboys, Patriots and Dolphins, before winning out in their last seven games.
The trouble is, only one of those final seven games was against playoff opposition (the Giants), although in week 3 they did hammer the Chiefs 43-14 at home. So, overall they are 2-3 against playoff opposition.
The good thing for the Steelers? Their two losses at home were to the AFC and NFC #1 seeds, so they only lose to really good teams. And the Dolphins aren’t really good.
The Dolphins are 1-3 against playoff opposition. The Patriots beat them comfortably in Foxboro back when Tom Brady was suspended in the interests of trying to stop the Patriots winning. They were squeaked out by the Seahawks in week 1 when the Seahawks looked very lost. And in week 17, they were annihilated by the Patriots.
Don’t get too excited by the 9 wins in 10 games between weeks 6 and 16 either. Yes, they beat the Steelers, but that was at home, and their other wins were against the Bills (twice), Jets (twice), Chargers, Rams, 49ers and Cardinals. The Steelers aside (who are 3-5 on the road), none of those teams even went .500 this season. This is a team flying high on a weak schedule, who get beat against quality opposition.
The Dolphins are 4-4 on the road, and are middling at best in terms of points scored and points allowed. They average 19 points on the road (the Steelers average 28.5). They don’t give up any more points on the road, but it won’t be enough to save them.
Points difference gives this to the Steelers by 12.5.
The teams met in week 6 in Miami (another reverse fixture!), where the Dolphins won 30-15.
My pick: Steelers.
Predictor says: Steelers, 100% confidence, by 12.5 points.
Bye Week: New England Patriots
The Patriots are the best team in football, even without Gronkowski, and without Jamie Collins. Forget the hype around the Cowboys, Packers and Seahawks – they’re all good, but the Patriots are the team to knock off the top of the perch.
The Patriots may not win the Super Bowl – plenty of favourites don’t – but they are by far the team to beat. The Dallas Cowboys look very good, but their rookie quarterback will need to step up a gear in the playoffs to hold off two of the Falcons, Packers, Seahawks and Giants to just get to the Super Bowl (don’t worry about the Lions, they’re toast).
So why are the Patriots so good? Well, we know all about Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, but the standout reason the Patriots are so good this year is that they give up fewer than 16 points a game – that’s two points a game fewer than the next best team (the Giants). They win their games by an average of 12 points – nearly 4 points more than the next best team (the Falcons).
People questioned trading Jamie Collins to the Browns. Things might change in the playoffs, but they haven’t looked like they’ve missed him much so far.
Then there’s Martellus Bennett. The Patriots have a second tight end who can win any matchup – with one upside on Rob Gronkowski. He’s not a walking hospital case.
Finally, there’s the run game. The Patriots aren’t known for the run – or at least, they weren’t. But with Dion Lewis, LaGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, James White and James Develin in the backfield, this Patriots team can run the ball down any team’s throat.
And that’s why they’re the team to beat.
Bye Week: Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs secured a bye on the back of Oakland’s bad fortune. They’ll be glad they did, as a trip to Houston would have been tricky, having lost there in week 2.
If any team in the AFC can beat the Patriots to the Super Bowl, this is probably the team to do it. They won 6 out of 8 on the road on the back of one of the toughest schedules in the league. Of their road games, four were against playoff teams, and two more were against last year’s Super Bowl teams, and they were 4-2 in those games.
So, if they get to to the AFC Championship and it’s in Foxboro, they have certainly shown they’re good enough to compete. The question is, can they get there?
Their home form hasn’t been as good as it should be. They’ve only played one home game against playoff opposition – against the Raiders, which they won. They lost twice, to Tampa Bay and Tennessee, both games by two points. Six of their games were decided by one possession.
Their most likely opposition in the Divisional Round is the Pittsburgh Steelers, and that would be juicy match-up. They’ll be glad to get this week off to prepare.