It's a new year, and in the NFL that means a whole new ballgame for the 12 teams still standing.
With the regular season in the rearview mirror, it's full speed ahead on the road to Super Bowl LI. But you wouldn't know it based on the confounding cast of characters in action on Wild Card Weekend.
Some of what we're about to witness is sure to resemble preseason more than postseason: Brock Osweiler vs. a rookie third-string QB making his first career start in Houston. The league's worst defense on the road in Seattle. And courtesy of frigid conditions in the Steel City, a reminder why the only time anyone's ever seen a dolphin in Pittsburgh in January was during a visit to the local aquarium.
While Giants-Packers is the glaring exception to an otherwise underwhelming slate of games, a lack of line value at Lambeau Field means the focus goes elsewhere on this week's board.
Raiders/Texans 1st Quarter Under 7
On both sides of the ball, the logic fits for a low-scoring first quarter in Houston.
When the Raiders are on offense it will be Connor Cook under center, marking the first time in the Super Bowl era that a QB's first start will come in the playoffs. To nurse Cook along, expect Jack Del Rio to call for a cautious approach early.
As far as the Texans' defense goes, one would be remiss not to see through the unit's ranking atop the NFL.com charts. It's difficult to come up with a lazier, more obsolete way to measure a defense than the league's official criterion of yards allowed. For a better sense of the truth backed by analytics, Football Outsiders pegs the Houston defense as #8 in the league. So the Texans' D is a far cry from the best but still good, and a top-10 defense at home is more than enough to contain an offense led by Cook.
When Houston has the ball, arguably the NFL's most toxic QB situation will rear its ugly head as Osweiler steps back into a starting role by default. With Osweiler incapable of striking fear into anyone, a conservative start is the Texans' optimal path to victory.
Oakland's defense brings little to the table aside from Khalil Mack, but it doesn't take much to limit the league's most expensive starter-turned-backup-turned-starter again.
Considering the QB carnage each team has endured to get here, a safe and scoreless first quarter would likely suit both head coaches just fine.
Lions/Seahawks Over 43.5
According to the Football Outsiders rankings linked to above, the Lions have the NFL's worst defense and it's not even close. Coupled with Russell Wilson's return to health, this has the Seahawks primed to put points on the board.
On the other side of the ball, Seattle's defense has struggled mightily to fill the void left behind by Earl Thomas. In four games without him the Seahawks have surrendered a triple-digit passer rating to opposing QBs, despite two of those contests coming against Jared Goff and Colin Kaepernick. With an MVP candidate in Matthew Stafford and a slew of pass-catching options on hand, the Lions should be able to move the ball on Seattle.
Although the Seahawks' stellar defensive reputation is suppressing the projected scoring output, their secondary without Thomas plus a porous Detroit defense should equal a more free-flowing affair than the current total calls for.
Pick of the Week: Teaser - Seahawks -1 vs. Lions, Steelers -3 vs. Dolphins
The Lions' defensive deficiencies are built into a point spread favoring the Seahawks by more than a touchdown, and because Detroit should also have some success on offense it's not a given that Seattle wins going away. But as the better team with an elite home-field advantage, the Seahawks are a great bet to simply win the game. That makes them a fit for the first leg of a 7-point teaser.
In the second leg, the only team favored by more than Seattle this weekend comes into play. Even as double-digit favorites there's a lot to like about the Steelers against the spread, so the opportunity to lay 3 points and put them on the same ticket with the Seahawks jumps off the screen. As with Seattle, Pittsburgh is clearly better than its opponent and poised to benefit from home-field advantage. With a single-digit wind chill in the Sunday forecast, taking on the warm-weather Dolphins makes the setting at Heinz Field an even bigger edge for the Steelers. And while they don't get a first-round bye they essentially used Week 17 as one, bringing their key cogs into the playoffs as fresh as possible while Miami tried and failed to keep up with the Patriots.
Little more than outright wins by this weekend's biggest favorites will get the job done, and in Pittsburgh the stage is set for the Steelers to eat the Dolphins alive.
Last week: 1-2
Picks of the Week: 9-8