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Perfect Playoff Picks, Divisional Round

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Went 1-3 last week, would definitely take exact same result again

NFL: NFC Wild Card-Seattle Seahawks at Philadelphia Eagles
past, present and future
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I picked all the important games right, and all the unimportant ones wrong. Total victory!

Buffalo Bills 31, Houston Texans 10? Looked great in the third quarter when the Bills opened up a 16-point lead. But then the Deshaun Watson Texans Russell Wilson Seahawked a win, and, oops.

New England Patriots by one on a fluke play? Looked great when the Tennessee Titans stopped scoring points. Then the glorious pick-six by Logan Ryan ruined everything made our day.

New Orleans Saints 38, Minnesota Vikings 24? Looked great when the Saints came roaring back to tie the game in the fourth quarter. Maybe they should have thought twice about losing the coin toss. (Insert your own Geno Smith joke.)

The only game I got right was a fairly crucial one, the Seattle Seahawks over the Philadelphia Eagles, in which I figured the Eagles’ horizontal offense wouldn’t get far and the Seahawks would score around 20 to keep the home team at bay. Make your field goals next week, Jason Myers, and not just for this column’s sake.

Predicting games based on DVOA and quarterback play failed last week. Therefore everything changes now. All four divisional games will be analyzed through the lens of three important matchups. Then I’ll guess a winner, because tryin hard got me nothin, nothin at all.

Minnesota (6) at San Francisco (1)

The time: Saturday, 1:35 p.m. Pacific

The pick: 49ers 23, Vikings 19

A lot of field goals, that’s how we get to 23-19.

Matchup 1: Everson Griffen & Co. vs. Niners OL

If the Vikings are to pull off the upset, it will be through successful sustained pressure on Jimmy Garoppolo, a quarterback who can make all the good throws when he has the time and all the bad mistakes when he doesn’t.

Griffen had eight sacks this season and Ifeadi Odenigbo added seven more. That’s good. But Danielle Hunter had almost as many as them combined, with 14.5. Minnesota outsacked opponents by 20 total, 48 to 28. The Vikes will be in the Niners’ backfield all day. But will they finish the job?

Matchup 2: Harrison Smith & Co. vs. George Kittle

If the 49ers are to avoid the upset, it will be through successful sustained usage of their bread and butter, who is also their marmalade, honey, peanut butter and maybe even that jalapeno jelly you can get down at Pike Place. He is George Kittle.

Problem for Kittle and the 49ers is, Minnesota gave up the fewest amount of TDs all season to tight ends: one. No other team allowed fewer than three. Something will give!

Matchup 3: Adam Thielen vs. Richard Sherman

The chatspeak artist in me wants to describe this matchup as TY OMG JFC but the actual writer in me prefers: this is what we watch the footballs for. (The writer in me is terrible at ending sentences with prepositions with.)

Thielen was slowed in practice with an ankle laceration but it’s difficult to imagine that’ll keep him out of a divisional playoff game. Sherman secretly wants to see the Seahawks again in the NFCCG.

Thielen has only played in three games since Week 9. In the two games where he logged a reception, the VIkings won — and both road games, at that, at the Chargers then last week at the Saints. To say he’s essential to the Vikings is a bit of a dig at Stefon Diggs. But the Minnesota offense is quite a bit more fearsome with two WR1s instead of one.

Sherman and Thielen might not line up against one another all game long, but there will be a moment in the fourth quarter when they do, at a time the score is close, and one will come out on top. It’ll be interesting to see if that’s one of the big plays of the game. My money, and the official prediction, is on Sherm.

Tennessee (6) at Baltimore (1)

The time: Saturday, 5:15 p.m. Pacific

The pick: Baltimore Ravens 38, Titans 28

Matchups 1, 2 and 3: Lamar Jackson against Ryan Tannehill.

I do know they won’t actually face each other in the field. I do know how the sport works. But I also know that if Jackson has his typical game and Tannehill has his, this game will be competitive longer than people think.

To take it one step further, if Jackson plays like he hasn’t been in the playoffs before (he lost to the Chargers in his first taste last year) and Tannehill plays like it’s the regular season, the game will be decided on the final drive. Which is about all one can expect against Baltimore this year. The Ravens have won 12 straight. During that dirty dozen of games, their six home contests were decided by a total of 99 points. The only close affair was a three-point win over the 49ers, a decent team.

Jackson’s exploits are well documented. Everyone who knows football knows he’s taken games over all season. He will be the MVP, and rightfully so. Conversely, and this column touched on it last week, Tannehill just completed a partial season, a partial silly season, for the ages.

He led the league in:

  • passer rating with 117.5
  • yards/attempt with 9.6
  • yards/completion with 13.6

Furthermore, he posted a new high in TD percentage (7.7) which was almost twice as high as his career rate (4.4) coming into the season. He also scrambled for four scores and 16 first downs.

He had more DYAR than either Matt Ryan, Jimmy Garoppolo or Deshaun Watson — yet he only played in 10 games.

For the entirety of 2019, Jackson was the best QB in the business. For the second half of 2019, it was Tannehill.

I don’t think the Titans have a real chance. But depending on which version of Tannehill shows up, they have a real chance to make it close.

Also, can I drop this here or no? Too bad if no.

Houston (4) at Kansas City (2)

The time: Sunday, 12:05 p.m. Pacific

The pick: Kansas City Chiefs 41, Texans 10

Look, I’m going with a blowout loss for Houston until it actually happens, which is this time. KC’s defense is better than its reputation.

Matchup 1: Frank Clark vs. Deshaun Watson

Remember him? Remember the other him? The first him, Clark, was one of the most productive pass rushers in 2018 with 13 sacks and 27 QB hits. The second him, Watson, led the league in sack percentage in 2018, and not the way you want to.

Then, both men saw their production fall off somewhat in 2019. One will play in the AFCCG. If Watson does something like this Houdini-Meets-Jermaine-Kearse-in-XLVIII escape, maybe it’s him.

Matchup 2: Pat Mahomes vs. the Texans safeties

You know how the middle of the field can be exploited, but is also dangerous to target because safeties live there? Don’t tell Patrick Mahomes about the safeties. He does not acknowledge their existence.

In the following graphs from @ArrowheadAnalytics, yes do give them a follow, the brown represents good results and the blue is bad. That’s a gross oversimplification, but look at how successful the league in general is at throwing between the hashmarks:

And now look at how successful Mahomes is:

Matchup 3: The Chiefs vs. What The Chiefs Usually Do

What they usually do, is blow it.

They had the AFCCG won last year, on a fourth-quarter interception of Tom Brady, which is apparently a playoff thing now. Until offsides on Dee Ford — a completely unneccessary offsides, which did not impact the play — was flagged.

Andy Reid is notorious for questionable clock management, which matters more in close games, and if it doesn’t, it should.

The Chiefs are historically bad in crunch time. It’s the kind of thing that should have evened out over the decades, but has not. The 13-3 team of 1997 blew a fourth-quarter lead at home in the divisional playoffs. The 13-3 team of 1995 missed field goals of 42, 39 and 35 yards to lose again in the divisional round, 10-7.

Kansas City has been to the playoffs 15 (!) times since 1990 without advancing to the Super Bowl. Imagine the Seahawks, but having lost all three NFCCG. That’s what it’s like to be a Chiefs fan.

Past franchise failures don’t mean anything to Mahomes specifically, who was four months old at the time of the ‘95 meltdown. But like their Vikings counterparts playing the day before, the Chiefs have seen plenty of dark heartbreak. Darkbreak. Will they play past it this time?

Seattle (5) at Green Bay (2)

The time: Sunday, 3:40 p.m. Pacific

The pick: Green Bay Packers 25, Seattle Seahawks 24

Seahawks-Eagles was somehow the most watched TV event since last year’s Super Bowl. Seahawks-Packers’ eyeballs will exceed it. Bet on it. (Do not bet on anything else.)

What am I saying? Keep Seattle in the playoffs, Rog. Don’t care how you have to arrange it, just arrange it. Maybe make the Rams throw away their draft picks and pay an average quarterback $35 million a year. You can do that, right? What am I saying, again? You already did it! Now do more.

I think the Seahawks can win this game in Lambeau Field. I think the Packers can lose it with enough errors. I just don’t think the stars align for Seattle more than half the time. If this game is played five times, Green Bay wins three times.

Let’s catch one of the two out of five then, yes?

Matchup 1: Seattle OL vs. Injury God-Demon

With the status of Mike Iupati, Duane Brown and even George Fant all uncertain two days before kickoff, the possibility exists that third-string practice squadder LT Chad Wheeler plays a significant amount on Sunday. That’s one yikes.

Joey Hunt hasn’t had a good end of season or postseason. A big game from him would go a long way. There’s not anyone to play center behind him. That’s two yikes.

And who will have a big game on the right side of the line? Germain Ifedi? Maybe. Jamarco Jones? Even less maybe. Nothing could be farther from a slam dunk. I’ll even allow a third yikes, if you’re so inclined.

So, three questions to balance out the three yikes. A) Do Brown and Iupati both play this coming Sunday, and at a level that makes their presence worthwhile?

B) Do the extra reps for Fant, Jones and Hunt finally pay off?

C) Can the rest of the healthy offensive linemen steer clear of injury?

If the answer to all three interrogations is “yes,” then the game’s much closer to a toss-up. If even one is answered in the negative, it’ll be a long, long day for Wilson’s ribs.

Matchup 2: Aaron Rodgers vs. Aaron Rodgers

Start-of-decade AR was in the conversation for best quarterback of all time. End-of-decade AR is most decidedly not.

In the graphs, courtesy of former FG writer and current The Athletic contributor Ben Baldwin, great quarterbacks are found above the red dotted line and good ones hang around the thick dotted line. Rodgers is on the wrong side now — well, the wrong side for him. Not for the Seahawks.

There’s more here for those of you unfazed by numbers. In the more basic metrics, Rodgers doesn’t show anything special either, though. His TD percentage and his Y/A are the second-lowest of his career, his passer rating is third-lowest, and he hasn’t led the NFL in any major offensive category since 2014. He’s still elite at avoiding interceptions — four all season — but the statistics tell the story of a man in decline.

If on Sunday he doesn’t bounce back to something approaching the old Rodgers, Seattle will have a sizable advantage at the most important position on the field. Which, in a nutshell, is why I think the game will be its usual palpitating, agonizing, heart-arresting, infuriating amount of close. Like almost always.

Matchup 3: Tre Flowers vs. Pass Interference

Arguably the only defensive factor that kept Philly in the game last Sunday was Flowers’ propensity to commit PI at, shall we say, unfortunate times. His two second-half penalties accounted for 59 yards of “offense” for the Eagles. On said drives, Philly got a field goal, then a chance to tie the game. They wasted the second.

You can’t count on the Packers to fudge similar opportunities. And to make matters more nail-biting (as if that were possible), the receiver quality for Green Bay is Pro Bowls ahead of Philadephia’s. Davante Adams is who is he is, Allen Lazard has borrowed the spotlight several times this year, and Jimmy Graham lurks.

If this is the week Flowers sheds his bad habit of getting there too soon, it’ll boost the Seahawks. More of this:

And less of this:

Please. Because the reward for a Seahawks win is either an NFCCG at home, or a rubber match with the 49ers. Either of those sounds like four hours of delectable terror.