Gregg Rosenthal went 15-1 on his predictions for Week 17 of the 2020 NFL season, bringing his total record to 166-88-1. How will he fare on Super Wild Card Weekend? His picks are below.
Sunday, Jan. 10
Baltimore Ravens 30, Tennessee Titans 28
It should be obvious by now the Titans match up well with the Ravens. Tennessee can handle the physicality and diversity of Baltimore's defense. The Ravens' increasingly efficient but low-volume passing attack doesn't take full advantage of the Titans' biggest weaknesses in pass rush and pass coverage. The Titans prove they can hold on to a big lead against the Ravens last January and completed a double-digit comeback this November.
Baltimore's Week 11 loss to Tennessee proved to be the Ravens' low point. Instead of trying to hammer teams with interior runs, they adapted to a spread attack that emphasized Lamar Jackson and J.K. Dobbins on the edge. They have fewer tight ends on the field on early downs and more creativity with players like Devin Duvernay. The team's defensive resurgence may be more about the opponents and the offense holding the ball so long.
There is every reason to expect a shootout. The Titans aren't just bad on defense; they are ranked 28th in special teams DVOA. (The Ravens are second.) Ryan Tannehill is seemingly built to withstand vicious hits, blitzes and pressures. Derrick Henry, after 378 carries, appears indestructible and can victimize a Ravens front that's not as good as its reputation.
I'm picking the Ravens here because Jackson is still my choice as the best player on the field and I don't want to imagine another offseason of talking about his playoff struggles. But I don't understand the folks saying this matchup sets up well for the Ravens and I don't like the looks of Baltimore as the overwhelming consensus pick. That's underestimating the Titans -- and an offense that ranks with any in the NFL -- yet again.
New Orleans Saints 30, Chicago Bears 20
The score projection above could change depending on the health of the Bears. Chicago hasn't had two starting cornerbacks (Jaylon Johnson and Buster Skrine) for weeks, and it showed last week against Green Bay. Linebacker Roquan Smith, who has been nearly as valuable as Khalil Mack this season, could be out. No. 2 receiver Darnell Mooney may also be unavailable.
For most of the season, including during the Saints-Bears overtime game in Week 8, Chicago's defense was a big plus. The Bears make opposing attacks earn it. I'm not sure that's the case anymore because of injuries, and the matchup on Sunday is tricky. In theory, the Bears can win if they pressure Drew Brees into mistakes. Brees has been holding the ball and more hesitant at times over the last three weeks. But he has the luxury of a prime running game and the best tackle combination in football, ready to snuff out Mack and Robert Quinn.
Mitchell Trubisky's resurgence over the last month has more to do with improved play-calling, weak opponents and dropped interceptions than any real development. Analysts touting a change are either seeing what they want to see or haven't watched the games. There's little reason to think he's capable of playing four quarters against a quality pass rush without coughing the ball up a few times.
Pittsburgh Steelers 27, Cleveland Browns 20
A handful of the Steelers' best players are more rested than they've been all year. The Browns, meanwhile, have barely practiced in weeks and will be missing their head coach and players like guard Joel Bitonio due to COVID-19. The team's best pass rusher down the stretch, Olivier Vernon, just tore his Achilles’ tendon. It's a shame that the Browns' well-earned first playoff season in eons is so impacted by bad luck, and it's also a shame these teams played last week.
The key for the Browns will be protecting Baker Mayfield. While he threw the ball well against Pittsburgh in Week 17, most of the four sacks Pittsburgh recorded without T.J. Watt or Cameron Heyward came because of Mayfield's indecisiveness. Most of the pressure that Cleveland generated came from Sheldon Richardson, matched up against the Steelers' backup center.
Even without Bitonio, the Browns' offensive line is the best unit in this game. Jack Conklin and Wyatt Teller can maul anyone in the running game. Cleveland's tight ends will have favorable matchups against Pittsburgh's iffy linebackers at times. The Browns have the better offense in an offense-first league. That gives the Browns a shot to win in a matchup likely to feature few possessions, but it still feels like they are fighting uphill because of the circumstances entering this game in addition to their lackluster defense.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27, Washington Football Team 15
The Football Team overachieved. No one can take away the fact that Alex Smith, after all his surgeries, was the quarterback getting interviewed on the field by Michele Tafoya after making the playoffs in Game 256 of the NFL season. The Team should keep the nickname and the uniforms, but they should not keep playing after this weekend.
Washington's rugged defense has slowed down nearly every team it's faced, so that is likely to happen again, even against a peaking Bucs offense. Chase Young, Jonathan Allen and friends comprise a worthy opponent for one of the best offensive lines in football. Washington can make Tom Brady uncomfortable.
Watching Smith and this Washington passing game against virtually any defense right now, however, is equally uncomfortable. The Football Team features one of the worst offenses to make the playoffs in a long time, facing a talented, if erratic, Bucs defense. Ron Rivera has talked about possibly rotating in backup Taylor Heinicke for this game if Smith's calf isn't right. This matchup reminds me of the Seahawks-Eagles Wild Card game last season where Josh McCown had to take the quarterbacking reins for Philadelphia. The Wild Card Round is where the NFL flushes out the nice stories in favor of complete teams.
UPDATE: Smith is inactive for Saturday's game, so Heinicke will get the start.
Los Angeles Rams 20, Seattle Seahawks 19
Jared Goff is a John McVay-era quarterback in a Sean McVay NFL. Goff's inability to hit big plays or create on his own has held the Rams back this season, and McVay's play-calling down the stretch displayed a previously unseen lack of confidence in his well-compensated quarterback. I would love to know if Goff will be starting this game following thumb surgery before making a pick, and I'd really love to know how McVay feels about his quarterback position.
Rams backup John Wolford wasn't perfect last week, but his legs gave the Rams a much-needed boost to their struggling running game. He went through progressions and threw with timing. In a matchup against a Seahawks defense that dominated Goff just two weeks ago, I wonder if Wolford is the better choice.
Russell Wilson's matchup against these Rams is similarly daunting. Pro Football Focus' 19th-ranked quarterback since Week 9 hasn't seen many open receivers. He's faced pressure at the fourth-highest rate in the league, often indecisive and incorrect about when to run. The Seahawks have scored 12 points combined in the first half of their last two games.
I think the Rams are the most likely underdog to win this week because they have the best defense in a defensive matchup. Aaron Donald has 16 pressures in two games against the Seahawks this season and Jalen Ramsey has helped limit DK Metcalf's impact. This game is bound to be ugly, low-scoring and close in the fourth quarter. McVay has a 5-3 record against Pete Carroll and winning on the road with a backup quarterback would get the crown back as the NFC West's best coach and certainly the best division's best defense.
UPDATE: Wolford started for the Rams on Saturday and Goff is active.
Buffalo Bills 31, Indianapolis Colts 21
There's no particular reason the Bills should lose this game. They are a dominant, pass-first team in a pass-first league, peaking at the right time. Josh Allen hasn't just proven previous doubters like me spectacularly wrong this year; he's made the argument for my unemployment during an economic crisis.
The Bills finished first in weighted DVOA at Football Outsiders, which gives added importance to how a team performs later in the season. Even Buffalo's defense, which struggled early in the year, finished the season playing at a higher level than a sound Colts group that is similar to the Bills' D in many ways. Both units communicate well and don't give up big plays. They force opponents into long drives and each finished in the top five in takeaways. That's Indianapolis' best hope.
Despite Philip Rivers' bad decisions when trailing, the Colts finished second in turnover margin with the third-fewest giveaways in the NFL. If Indianapolis' big defensive playmakers like DeForest Buckner, Darius Leonard and Kenny Moore force a mistake or three and get a lucky bounce, the Colts could hang in this game. Jonathan Taylor has evolved from a struggling rookie to one of the 10 best running backs in football, so Indy could try the ol' shorten the game strategy against a superior opponent.
This is the perfect first playoff test for these Bills. The Colts are a quality opponent who will make Buffalo earn it, but they don't have enough firepower to hang in a shootout. If Frank Reich's offense goes stagnant for a few quarters, like it has regularly over the last month, the Bills could overcome any deficit or make this game uglier than the score I'm predicting.