It was a race to the finish for teams like the Colts, the Ravens and the Eagles, but there is no time to celebrate as they all now have to back up their N.F.L. playoff positions by trying to beat fierce competition. The weekend’s wild-card matchups will be spread over two days, with a trip to the divisional round on the line.
Here are our predictions for how the games will sort out, both in terms of who will win and who will win against the spread.
Last week’s record against the spread: 11-5
Final regular-season record: 139-111-5
Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans
4:35 p.m. Saturday, ESPN and ABC
From 1990 to 2017, only three teams started the season 0-3 and made the playoffs. This season’s Texans (11-5) not only accomplished that feat, but, entering Week 17, they were also in contention to have the best record in the A.F.C.
The turnaround is nothing short of remarkable. It is a testament to the quality of the team’s defense and the star power of its quarterback, Deshaun Watson, and No. 1 wide receiver, DeAndre Hopkins. But to join the 1992 San Diego Chargers as the only teams since 1990 to win a playoff game after starting 0-3, the Texans will have to get through Indianapolis, which had a worse start to overcome: 1-5.
The Colts (10-6) were 9-1 after their terrible start, joining the 2015 Kansas City Chiefs as the only teams since 1990 to make the playoffs after such a poor start. And they did it with quality play all over the field, finishing with the N.F.L.’s fifth-ranked scoring offense and its 10th-ranked scoring defense.
Indianapolis won on the road in Houston in Week 14, ending the Texans’ nine-game winning streak, thanks to an outrageous effort from T.Y. Hilton, who had 199 receiving yards. After that game, Hilton was not shy about his ability to succeed at Houston’s NRG Stadium.
“This is my second home, man,” Hilton said with a laugh. “This is my second home. I don’t know. Every time I come here, I just go off. I don’t know what it is.”
Hilton wasn’t wrong. In his seven career trips to Houston, he has averaged 133 yards a game and scored seven touchdowns while the Colts have gone 5-2.
Indianapolis also benefits from a fully operational Andrew Luck, who went from three years of battling shoulder woes to attempting a career-high 639 passes this season — 39 of which went for touchdowns. The team has an emerging star at running back in Marlon Mack, and a touchdown machine at tight end in Eric Ebron. And its defense got a breakout year from the rookie linebacker Darius Leonard, who was snubbed from the Pro Bowl but managed an N.F.L.-leading 163 tackles to go with seven sacks, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
The Colts don’t typically travel well, but Houston seems to bring out the best in them. They should have the upper hand on Saturday.
Pick to win: Colts
Pick against the spread: Colts +1.5
Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys
8:15 p.m. Saturday, Fox
Ezekiel Elliott won his second rushing title this season — in just his third year in the N.F.L. — despite sitting out Week 17. A dominant running back, he expects to shoulder the load for the Cowboys (10-6) in the playoffs, so the rest was welcome.
“Just knowing that we’re going into these playoffs, I’m going to have the highest workload I probably had all season,” Elliott told reporters.
Since Dallas was 6-1 in the seven games that Elliott carried the ball 20 or more times this season, and the Seahawks (10-6) allowed an ugly 4.9 yards a carry from opposing running backs, keeping the ball in Elliott’s hands is probably a good strategy.
With Elliott, Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper all carrying the offense at different times this season, it’s easy to see why so many people focus on that side of the ball. But the Cowboys are in the playoffs largely because of a defense that has been retooled into something formidable.
It allowed the sixth-fewest points in the N.F.L., was the No. 5 rushing defense, and while the secondary gave up more yards than it would have preferred, it became a far more formidable unit with the help of Kris Richard, a defensive backs coach who was one of the architects of Seattle’s Legion of Boom defense.
Seattle probably deserved more attention for its play this season than it received. Largely written off in the preseason as a team that had reached the end of its contention window, the Seahawks easily qualified for the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons.
Linebacker Bobby Wagner is still among the game’s best defensive players, and Russell Wilson managed to let the offense become more run-focused while still throwing 35 touchdown passes. And, as always, the Seahawks were a true force to be reckoned with at home. But this game is in Dallas, and expecting a team that was 4-4 on the road to win there seems unrealistic.
Pick to win: Cowboys
Pick against the spread: Cowboys -2
Los Angeles Chargers at Baltimore Ravens
1:05 p.m. Sunday, CBS
With Lamar Jackson at quarterback, the Ravens (10-6) were so dominant running the ball that the total of 159 yards they managed in a Week 16 win over the Chargers (12-4) was actually the team’s low point.
It is a style of play that would be more typical of the 1940s than today’s N.F.L., but the Ravens’ run-first approach under Jackson led to a 6-1 finish to the regular season, with a series of opponents walking away wondering what just hit them — including the Chargers, who lost to Baltimore at home, 22-10.
“We couldn’t get them off the field on defense,” Chargers Coach Anthony Lynn said after the game. “And we couldn’t stay on the field on offense. We got outplayed. We got outcoached. It’s just that simple.”
It is hard to figure out what was more dominant once Jackson took over: Baltimore’s running game, which generated 1,607 yards in seven games, or its run defense, which allowed 429.
Now the Chargers get a second crack against them, and while slowing Jackson and Gus Edwards is probably unlikely, Los Angeles can at least hope to generate more than the 10 points it managed at home in Week 16.
There is some room to pass against the Ravens — Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield each threw for more than 300 yards against them in the season’s second half — but the Chargers should proceed with caution as Baltimore generated 10 turnovers in its final six games.
The Chargers had a terrific season, which taken in totality was more impressive than Baltimore’s. But unless they figure something out based on the film of their fairly humiliating loss two weeks ago, quarterback Philip Rivers may have his season end early once again.
Pick to win: Ravens
Pick against the spread: Ravens -2.5
Eagles at Bears
4:40 p.m. Sunday, NBC
The Eagles (9-7) weren’t even supposed to make the playoffs after they fell to 6-7 and lost quarterback Carson Wentz to a serious back injury. Now they enter wild-card weekend on a three-game winning streak, hoping they can recreate the success of last season, when they entered each playoff game as an underdog and still won the Super Bowl.
It is a great story regardless of how it turns out, and the backup quarterback Nick Foles deserves a great deal of credit for revitalizing an offense that had often looked stagnant under Wentz. This time around, the Eagles appear to be underdogs not just in name, but also in terms of overall talent compared with the Bears (12-4).
Chicago rode its suffocating defense and a good-enough offense to the third-best record in the N.F.C., and their formula of forcing turnovers and running the ball tends to play well once January rolls around.
The Eagles might not have to contend with Chicago’s best defensive back, Eddie Jackson, who is questionable with an ankle injury, but the Bears still have plenty of defenders who should give Foles nightmares, including Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and Kyle Fuller.
Chicago’s offense is not nearly as advanced as its defense. Mitchell Trubisky is a tentative passer, but Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen have the ability to grind games out on the ground. Because the defense scores so much on its own, the Bears finished with the ninth-most points in the N.F.L. despite being ranked 21st in total yards.
By no means should Philadelphia be written off in this game, as the Eagles have a championship-winning defense in place and an offense that is on a hot streak. But beating one of the top teams in the N.F.L., on the road, is likely out of the Eagles’ reach.
Pick to win: Bears
Pick against the spread: Eagles +6
Kansas City, New England, New Orleans, Los Angeles (Rams)
All times are Eastern.
Benjamin Hoffman is a senior staff editor and regular contributor to the Keeping Score column in sports. He joined The Times in 2005. @BenHoffmanNYT • Facebook
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