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Saturday, 9 January 2016

NFL Wild Card Round Play Off Picks 2016 (January 9-10)

It is hard to imagine that a seventeen week regular season in the NFL has whizzed past us, but that is certainly the case as we have reached the Play Offs.

There are just twelve teams left that will fight it out to become the final two to compete in the Super Bowl which is played next month. On current form, I think the NFC West is likely going to provide the NFC representative with both the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks looking the teams to beat, especially with the way the Seeding has come out.

In fact I wouldn't be at all surprised if there is a repeat of Week 17 with the Seahawks visiting the Cardinals, but this time for the NFC Championship Game.

The AFC picture looks a little more scrambled, but I think I am perhaps leaning towards the New England Patriots as the team that can get back to the Super Bowl to defend the trophy they won last season. The Patriots are getting healthier Offensively and I think there is a real chance they will host the AFC Championship Game with the Denver Broncos looking a vulnerable Number 1 Seed in the Conference.

Of course this weekend will clear the picture up somewhat with four of the twelve teams eliminated and I am looking forward to the Play Offs which are some of the best games you will see in any sporting environment.

Saturday 9th January
The first two Play Off games are both coming from the AFC side of things and both will be played on Saturday.

Kansas City Chiefs @ Houston Texans Pick: Two of the hottest teams in the NFL come into the first game of the Play Offs knowing a streak will come to an end and one of their seasons will be over. The Houston Texans were not expected to come through the AFC South, but they took advantage of the injuries suffered by the Indianapolis Colts to win that Division and have the opportunity to host this Wild Card game.

Their three game winning run to end the season and seven wins from their last nine are nothing compared with the Kansas City Chiefs who looked down and out at 1-5. However, they won their last ten games to end the season at 11-5 and take away the Number 5 Seed in the AFC and also make them the favourites to win this game.

The public seem to think it is simply printing money to back the Kansas City Chiefs in this game and Vegas is reporting huge amount of bets focusing on the Chiefs covering the spread. However, the oddsmakers have removed to move this spread above the key number it opened with in fear of getting the 'wise guys' backing the Texans and you can understand the thinking.

One of the key indicators I look to in games is whether the yardage battle is being won consistently, regardless of the final score. That hasn't been the case for Kansas City who have been outgained in four of their last six games, while the Houston Texans have actually earned more yards than their opponents in eight of their last nine games.

That is partly down to the big improvements the Houston Defensive unit have made in recent games and JJ Watt is now back to his full capabilities with the cast off his hand. Watt was dominant for much of the season, but his supporting cast is now helping and they have been particularly strong against the run which is key to stopping the Kansas City Offense from picking up speed.

Even without Jamaal Charles, Kansas City have found a way to run the ball effectively which is a key to keeping the Offense in third and manageable spots to keep the chains moving. However, the Texans have allowed just 2.5 yards per carry in their last three games and should be able to limit the damage the Chiefs can do on the ground and force the pressure onto Alex Smith and the passing game.

Smith is a mobile Quarter Back that can pick up yards with his legs so Houston have to be aware of that, but his passing is very much looking for the short routes that his Receivers can potentially turn into big gains. However, Smith needs the Offense to be in third and manageable if they are going to move the chains, especially with the pressure that Houston can get from their pass rush which should surround the Quarter Back.

That pressure has seen the Secondary take advantage by earning some turnovers and I really think the Texans are playing well enough Defensively to give the Chiefs plenty of problems when it comes to moving the chains.

Brian Hoyer is making his first start in the post-season for Houston which has to be a concern, but he has plenty of experience of being around teams that reach the Play Offs. That should help Hoyer who is also going to be reliant on his running game to help the team move the chains consistently.

The Kansas City Secondary has played well and they have a ball-hawking crew that can turn the ball over, which will also make it tough for DeAndre Hopkins to find separation. However Hoyer will throw the ball up for Hopkins who has shown he can make the tough catches through the course of the season, although Houston know the key to the game is making sure they are running the ball effectively.

There is a real chance for the Texans to establish the run because the Chiefs have struggled in recent games in that regards. In fact Kansas City are allowing 5.2 yards per carry in their last three games which haven't come against recognised Running Backs and so a Houston team missing Arian Foster will feel they can do the same.

It will ensure that Hoyer is in a position to make quick throws to keep the chains moving and prevent a fierce pass rush from Kansas City taking the Quarter Back out of his rhythm. Duante Brown is out at Left Tackle meaning Houston have to find a way to get the running game over else Hoyer is being protected by an inexperienced player on his blind side which will potentially lead to turnovers and short fields for Kansas City to work with.

I like the Texans here with the points as I think they are playing well enough Defensively to keep this close. I also think they can establish the run Offensively which is going to be a key for Brian Hoyer and the Texans Offense, but some may point out the Chiefs' Week 1 win here.

However, teams that won a regular season game against a non-Divisional opponent are just 14-29-1 against the spread in the Play Off game when playing in the same venue as the regular season game over the last fifteen years. Also you can't ignore the trend that a team that has won seven or more straight going into the Play Offs are 0-7 against the spread in their first Play Off game.

I haven't really bought into the Kansas City hype through the season and I am not willing to start here with Houston looking like a team that can match up well with them. They might have lost by seven at home in Week 1, but I can see Houston potentially winning this outright, but I will take the points on offer.

Pittsburgh Steelers @ Cincinnati Bengals Pick: There is no love lost between two Divisional rivals from the AFC North and this looks like it is potentially the best Wild Card game of the weekend. Both the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers would have hoped to have come in healthier than they are, but that won't matter when the game kicks off and the teams take to the field.

The bragging rights of the next few months are on the line, but I also think both teams have genuine belief they are good enough to win it all this season.

Cincinnati were hoping that Andy Dalton would recover in time to take his place at Quarter Back for the Bengals, but that is not the case. AJ McCarron will be the Quarter Back for the Bengals and he has plenty of experience having played in National Championship games, and won them, for the Alabama Crimson Tide, while he will also be more prepared than when he had to come in as relief for Cincinnati in the second of the games with Pittsburgh.

The Steelers are no less banged up as Le'Veon Bell went down earlier in the season, ironically in the first game against Cincinnati. DeAngelo Williams had really been playing well in relief at Running Back, but he too has been ruled out for the game which is a big blow to the Pittsburgh Offense.

The injuries in the two Divisional games played against one another has increased some of the dislike between the teams. Both Head Coaches will be looking for calm from their players to prevent anything really getting too emotional, but it is hard to take that away from a game where the winner moves on and the loser looks back on what might have been.

McCarron might have experience from his College days with the Crimson Tide, but a first Play Off game is always a difficult test for a player. He will be under some pressure, but he has seen the Pittsburgh Defense before and that will certainly help the Quarter Back.

A lot of this game is going to be on his shoulders as the new look Steel Curtain has played well through the season. It is hard to imagine Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard ripping off some big gains on the ground against a Defensive Line giving up just 3.8 yards per carry and that will mean McCarron has to make some big plays with his arm.

I expect he will be able to do that because the Pittsburgh Secondary has been terrible for long periods and they won't have a lot of answers for AJ Green, Muhammed Sanu and Marvis Jones. However, one big difference between Dalton and McCarron at Quarter Back is the speed of the decision making which has suddenly seen McCarron take a lot of Sacks.

That is another area Pittsburgh have excelled and I think they will get in the face of McCarron and hope to rattle the inexperienced McCarron into making a couple of key mistakes.

A few weeks ago I would have said the Pittsburgh Offense has too many weapons for the Bengals to cope with, but the injuries at Running Back have changed that somewhat. That does mean it will be difficult for Ben Roethlisberger and the passing game to be in anything but third and long at times especially as the Bengals have played the run very effectively themselves.

Big Ben still has Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton in the passing game that are huge threats for Cincinnati to deal with. The Cincinnati Secondary have given up almost 275 passing yards per game in their last three games and that has to be a concern against Roethlisberger and this Pittsburgh passing game, although the road team has to be concerned with the turnovers coming out of Big Ben's arm.

Being in third and long spots without much of a running game will mean Roethlisberger is put under pressure by the Bengals pass rush. That is another concern, but Roethlisberger has encouraged to get more out of his Receivers and has the power to escape trouble and still make big plays downfield.

That difference at Quarter Back is the reason I think the Pittsburgh Steelers will win their second road game at the Bengals this season and move into the Divisional Round of the Play Offs. I can see this being close but the pressure from the Steelers forcing a big mistake from McCarron which makes the difference and I am expecting both teams to put up plenty of points.

Pittsburgh have a 13-2-1 against the spread in their last sixteen games at Cincinnati and I think they cover the small spread here.

Sunday 10th January
The NFC takes centre stage on Sunday as the Wild Card Weekend of the Play Offs are completed.

Seattle Seahawks @ Minnesota Vikings Pick: The Minnesota Vikings won the NFC North last weekend but I am not sure they would have wanted the prize of taking on the Seattle Seahawks in the Wild Card Round of the Play Offs. They do have the benefit of hosting the game, but the Vikings were blown out here by Seattle last month and it is a big task in front of them.

Being at home and no longer playing under the Dome means Minnesota will be playing in some frigid conditions this week, easily the coldest of the weekend. That is going to be a factor with the ball being that much harder to catch for both teams and might just be an equaliser in the contest between two teams where Seattle are much the favoured.

The revenge factor is in play for Minnesota after they were embarrassed in their first loss to Seattle, but they have some factors going in their favour this time. First of the Defensive unit looks to be at full strength and the second is that the Seattle Seahawks are missing both Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls at Running Back in conditions that will be tough to negotiate.

That hasn't had a big affect on the Seattle performances in recent weeks and the huge blow out of the Arizona Cardinals on the road has made them a team no one really wants to run into. It is the reason so many thought the Vikings winning in Green Bay might be detrimental to them, especially as the Seattle Defensive unit have really picked up their play in the second half of the regular season.

Adrian Peterson has to be expected to have more carries this time than he did the first time Minnesota hosted Seattle. The rushing Champion was highly critical of the game plan after that game and will be given more than the eight carries that he received last time, although it also depends on how his back is feeling.

Peterson versus the Seattle rushing Defense is going to be a huge part of this entire game and could determine the winner or loser. While he has helped the Vikings move the chains on the ground, recent games against Chicago, New York Giants and Green Bay won't have prepared Peterson for facing Seattle who have held teams to 3.6 yards per carry through the season.

Being left in third and long will be very difficult for Teddy Bridgewater and the Minnesota Offense to get going. The second year Quarter Back has had a difficult time through much of the season being little more than a game manager and that might not cut it against the Legion of Boom. Minnesota haven't been as strong in pass protection as run blocking so Seattle could give Bridgewater some problems when the rush is on and it might be difficult to move the chains with any consistency.

It is almost certainly going to be difficult for Seattle too without their first two Running Backs on the field and with the conditions as they are. I still think the Seahawks can establish the run against Minnesota, but they are weakened without Lynch and Rawls and it might be up to Russell Wilson to make sure he can scramble for a few first downs to keep the pressure off of him.

Russell Wilson has been throwing the ball very effectively in recent games, but a lack of a running game would mean the Offensive Line having season long issues come out. They have struggled to protect Wilson at times and Minnesota have been getting plenty out of their pass rush that has helped their Secondary.

However the ability Wilson has in moving away from pressure and hitting Receivers downfield on the run is hard to ignore and that could be a key to this game. Wilson has made some big plays with his arm in the last few weeks, but it might be a little more difficult with the extreme cold that will be in Minnesota which is a concern for me.

The experience Seattle have at this time of the season lessens those concerns though and I think they can break the trend I have mentioned about winning teams in same venue rematches in the Play Offs against non-Divisional opponents.

Teams that did win as an underdog in Week 17 have a poor covering rate in the Wild Card Round of the Play Offs which goes against Minnesota this week. I don't think this match up works too good for the Vikings either and I think the Seahawks will use all of their experience to come through with another win on the road at the Vikings.

Green Bay Packers @ Washington Redskins Pick: The most intriguing game of Wild Card Weekend is arguably the last one of the Weekend as the Green Bay Packers travel to the Washington Redskins. Not many would have predicted that the Redskins might be the team in form ahead of the Packers come January, but that looks to be the case although it would be a big surprise if either is able to go all the way to the Super Bowl.

You never know at this stage of the season, but this looks like a match up that will determine which of the teams will lose in Arizona in the Divisional Round (assuming Seattle win as I expect them to do in Minnesota).

It has been a really strange season for the Green Bay Packers who started off incredibly hot, but who finished as one of the Wild Card teams after a home loss to Minnesota in Week 17. The Offensive unit have been so out of sync as to what we expect from the Packers, but Aaron Rodgers is yet to be completely concerned despite those issues.

Rodgers has not had the support from his Receivers that he would have liked as they have failed to win their match ups regularly. It says a lot that James Jones has returned to become the 'go to' Receiver since Jordy Nelson went down in pre-season but he is not a top Receiver and has also had his issues earning separation from man to man coverage in the Secondary.

This might be the kind of game the Packers need to get their Offense back in sync though and Rodgers should have a chance to make some big plays if he can get the time in the pocket. The Offensive Line has struggled to protect Rodgers in recent games, but David Bakhtiari could potentially be back at Left Tackle which would be huge against the Washington Redskins pass rush who have dominated up front.

If, and it is a big IF at the moment, Aaron Rodgers gets time, the Redskins Secondary is pretty beaten up and his Receivers might finally win their battle. The pass rush might also be slowed if Green Bay can run the ball effectively which looks a definite chance of happening as Washington have allowed 6.1 yards per carry in their last three games.

Wth Rodgers having some difficulties in the passing game, it might be a big surprise to hear that Kirk Cousins is the more 'in form' Quarter Back of the two taking to the field. Cousins has been brilliant for much of the season, but confidence is really high in recent games as the Quarter Back has thrown for over 300 yards per game in the last three.

The challenge does come against a Green Bay Secondary that have played well and have been able to turn the ball over, but Cousins might have more support from the running game than he has had recently. The Packers have really had a hard time stopping the run in recent games and that might see both Alfred Morris and Matt Jones have a chance of establishing the ground game for Washington, something that hasn't happened enough through the course of the season.

Establishing the ground Offense will only make things easier for Cousins who has played extremely well while limiting his own mistakes in recent games. Turnovers could be a key to the game, but Washington have a real chance of not just coming out of the poor NFC East, but also getting into the Divisional Round of the Play Offs.

However, I like the road underdog here especially as teams in this Wild Card Round who lost as the favourite in Week 17 have a strong covering record. I think the Green Bay Offense will have a chance to finally get on track this week against this Defensive unit, while Washington have been outgained in terms of yardage in four of their last five games but have still gone 4-1 straight up.

Green Bay have not been at their best down the stretch, but I can't remove the Washington home loss to Dallas from my mind. I think the Packers will find a way to get this done and move into the Divisional Round in a close game on the road so will take the points on offer.

MY PICKS: Houston Texans + 3 Points @ 2.00 Ladbrokes (2 Units)
Pittsburgh Steelers - 2.5 Points @ 1.91 Sky Bet (2 Units)
Seattle Seahawks - 3.5 Points @ 2.00 Paddy Power (2 Units)
Green Bay Packers + 1 Point @ 1.91 Bet Victor (2 Units)

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