Wild Card Weekend made it here, just in time.
If we did any more speculating about who will make the playoffs, who is postseason-ready and who plays "January football," we would all turn into Cabbage Patch Kids. As someone who lived through that era, you don't want that. Guesswork can be fun, but after (almost) 18 weeks, it's time to do some deciding. What makes this weekend cool is that every game on the slate is worth talking about. Each matchup is unique:
Colts at Texans: Division matchups are always interesting, as these teams know each other's personnel through and through, and will be facing off for the third time this season.
Seahawks at Cowboys: The rematch of the game that brought us that infamous Tony Romo gaffe. Really, that 2006 Wild Card contest was a nail-biter worth remembering for more than merely the end sequence. Such great names involved, too: Parcells, Holmgren, Hasselbeck, Ware, Alexander, T.O. and the vastly underrated Terry Glenn (rest in peace). This year's game should be as tight as the one that night in Seattle 12 years ago.
Chargers at Ravens: Forget a matchup from 12 years ago. How about 12 days ago? That's when these two teams last met. The Bolts look to contain the league's hottest running game, something we're not used to saying in this pass-heavy era. This wild-card affair is still about the QBs -- Philip Rivers and Lamar Jackson -- even though one is more adept as a runner.
So take a gander below, and see how these games should (might) play out. No guarantees on the outcomes, but feeling confident. As usual, send your take on any of the sterling matchups: @HarrisonNFL is the place.
Elliot Harrison went 14-2 on his predictions for Week 17, bringing his record for the season to 175-79-2. How will he fare in Wild Card Weekend? His picks are below.
SUNDAY, JAN. 6
1:05 p.m. ET (CBS) | M&T Bank Stadium (Baltimore)
Maybe the best pure matchup of Wild Card Weekend: contrasting styles, a team full of stars versus a team that plays like, well, a team. The Chargers come into Baltimore as one of the top wild-card outfits in years. Think about it: How often do you see a 12-4 team not be a division winner? The Bolts boast stars at QB1, RB1, WR1, DE1 and S1! Still, Anthony Lynn's group got taken apart by the Ravens a couple weeks ago. So what's different this time around?
You must weigh the fact that the Chargers will be better prepared to deal with the unique challenges posed by Lamar Jackson and a ground game that hums like a locomotive. That means Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa will play their edge responsibilities conscientiously, lest Jackson go scampering outside while they go careening inside. The inside 'backers must peel off blocks and wrap up Gus Edwards. That's the issue when you play a quarterback like Jackson: There isn't the advantage of using that extra player in the box to get to the RB, because somebody has to be minding the store -- or, more specifically, hesitating enough to recognize whether Jackson leaves the ball in the running back's belly or keeps it himself. Everyone's seen the highlights, but have they seen Jackson's production? He's racked up 695 yards rushing despite starting just seven games. Another key thing to watch: If Chargers TE Hunter Henrydoes indeed play, how much can he contribute in his first meaningful action in a year? The guy is a red-zone force when healthy.
4:40 p.m. ET (NBC) | Soldier Field (Chicago)
The Bears aren't losing this week. Fans and analysts alike have pushed the Eagles as Super Bowl contenders now that they've reached the tournament. It's understandable, given Nick Foles' heady play (he's completed 77 percent of his throws and averaged 321 yards per game since returning to the starting lineup) and Philadelphia's re-emergence over the last three weeks. But let's not forget the issues this group suffered through prior to Santa Foles flying sleigh-high over the Coliseum, The Linc and Landover during their three-game win streak. The secondary is playing a little better, but as an overall group, this season has been a campaign to forget. Not sure Doug Pederson or Eagles fans ever know what they are getting out of the running game, either.
Philadelphia's key to winning will be making Mitch Trubisky look more like an inconsistent sophomore quarterback and less like a Pat Mahomes sophomore quarterback. But if Fletcher Cox, Chris Long and Michael Bennett can't close the pocket in on him, yeeeeeesh -- don't know if the Eagles will be able to stop the Bears. TruBearsky has engineered quite a few plays out of the pocket this season. The disadvantage for the Bears, and clearly an edge for Jim Schwartz's defense, is the manner in which Matt Nagy deploys his running game. For a team that leans so heavily on its defense to set the tone, the Bears don't always complement their championship-level unit with a productive run strategy like past Super Bowl champions. Chicago ranks 11th among the playoff field in rushing yards on first down. You know who's last? Yep, the opponent on Sunday. Both the Bears and Eagles need to make life easier on their quarterbacks by putting them in manageable second and third downs. This is particularly true for Foles because the Bears' defensive unit is top shelf. And aggressive. And should have Eddie Jackson back. The second-year safety's return from injury is a huge reason why I am taking the Bears. Will leave you with this Jackson masterpiece from Thanksgiving:
4:35 p.m. ET (ESPN) | NRG Stadium (Houston)
This game comes down to how well the Colts' offensive line can block J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. If Andrew Luck enjoys time to throw -- or, put another way, if the Texans pass rush can't reach Luck -- all signs point to Indianapolis winning. The Colts have been one of the hottest teams in the league going all the way back to mid-October (9-1 in their last 10 games). Luck remains the central figure in their resurgence, while also being the main cog in Indy's success in Houston over the years. For his career, Luck has riddled the Texans for 11 touchdowns in five games at Houston. He's also won three of his five starts at Reliant/NRG/Enteryourfavoritecorporatenamehere___ Stadium. The only issue has been the amount of sacks he's taken. That's not an issue anymore, though, as the Colts boast arguably the most effective offensive line in the league, a unit that has allowed opponents to get to the quarterback just 18 times this season, despite the fact he's attempted 639 passes.
Deshaun Watson hasn't enjoyed that kind of protection, as he's been hit more than any quarterback in the NFL this season. If ever there were a game where he needs Lamar Miller to go off -- limiting Luck's opportunities to get hot while taking the onus off Watson -- this is it. Miller was much more effective than he was given credit for this season, nearly eclipsing 1,000 rushing yards at 4.6 yards per tote, despite dealing with nagging injuries. Will Miller and Watson be enough? Don't think so. This Colts defense is viable enough to keep Indy's quarterback-centric offense close enough to win.
8:15 p.m. ET (FOX) | AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas)
Did Dak Prescott prove the naysayers wrong last week? Sorta. He was able to pull out a road win sans Ezekiel Elliott's services against the Giants. Then again, it was the Giants. More important than Prescott carrying the load will be his defense -- one of the top units in the league -- taking a load off of him. The Cowboys' D suffocates offenses early, putting the pressure on them to make up ground late in the game. The problem for Seattle is, how many possessions will Russell Wilson get if Elliott runs for over 100 yards, taking valuable clock with him on those jaunts through the Seahawks' front seven? You know how many first-quarter scores Dallas gave up this year? Three. Three touchdowns and no field goals. All year. That's why it's imperative that Seattle not sleepwalk through the early going. Once the Cowboys' run game gets moving, Wilson and the offense might not get enough opportunities to compensate for a multi-score deficit.
Seahawks RB Chris Carson might be the most interesting player in this game. Unless David Moore starts the game off by hauling in a 50-yard Wilson moonball for a touchdown, the Seahawks' methodical approach on offense might be the most important factor in this juicy matchup. Seattle led the NFL in rushing this season, and as long as Carson finds creases, he will present the same issue that Elliott presents -- less chances for the opposing offense. Thus, we could be staring at a 17-13 kind of game here. One problem for Seattle: The Dallas LB trio of Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and (when healthy) Sean Lee is now an NFL brand. Those guys aren't gonna be easy-peasy to run on, even if Lee continues to play a limited role.