Friday, January 4, 2019

Wild Card Weekend Primer (With Picks): Close Games Expected

Andrew Luck and Eric Ebron are primed to potentially pull an upset in the first game of the weekend.

By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

So, we dropped the ball a little bit.

With all of the hectic traveling and revelry around the holidays, we forgot to actually write down our picks the last two weeks and publish them in this space. In lieu of that, we just texted each other our picks and used the honor system. Joe held a six-game lead entering Week 17 and the way our picks lined up, we didn't disagree on six games. So Joe technically clinched the season win in Week 16. This is his fifth win in six years.

It was the worst showing in the six years of picking head to head for both players. Jeremy finished 115-132-9, and Joe finished 121-126-9. Cumulatively, for the six-year history, Joe holds a 20-game lead (760-722-56 to 740-742-56).

Historically, however, Jeremy has taken home the postseason crown, winning all six years picking against the spread (Joe has won two years picking playoff games heads up). So we'll see if Joe can finally take down the postseason title.

We're going a bit more in-depth for the playoff games, as we always do. In the "By the Numbers" section preceding each game, we'll list each teams DVOA ratings for the season. DVOA is a stat developed by Football Outsiders designed to measure each team on a per-play basis, adjusting for down, distance, time, and score. For example, gaining six yards on 3rd-and-5 is more valuable than gaining 11 yards on 3rd-and-12. Furthermore, it's easier to convert a 3rd-and-5 from your own 20 yard line when you're down by 28 points early in the fourth quarter than it is to convert that same 3rd-and-5 at the opponent's 10 yard line when you're down by four points with a minute remaining. DVOA adjusts for all of these things to some extent. DVOA is represented as a percentage better or worse than average, so good offenses will have positive scores and good defenses will have negative scores.

Here we go.

Indianapolis at Houston (4:35 p.m. Saturday, ESPN)

Opening Line: Texans by 2
Current Line: Texans by 1

By The Numbers:

Record: 10-6 Overall, 4-4 Road; 8-7-1 Against the Spread, 5-3 Road
Average Score: 27.1 (5th) - 21.5 (10th)
Average Scoring Margin: +5.6 (8th); 10.1 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +8.2% Offense (10th), -3.4% Defense (10th), +0.9% Special Teams (12th); +12.6% Overall (8th)

Record: 11-5 Overall, 6-2 Home; 7-7-2 Against the Spread, 4-4 Home
Average Score: 25.1 (11th) - 19.8 (4th)
Average Scoring Margin: +5.4 (9th); 10.2 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: -3.6% Offense (21st), -7.1% Defense (7th), +3.5% Special Teams (5th); +7.1% Overall (11th) 

Player(s) To Watch: Secondary Receivers

Each team has an upper echelon wide receiver that receives the lion's share of the team's targets. DeAndre Hopkins had another spectacular season, finishing in the top five in the league in receptions, yards, and touchdowns, and 2nd in Football Outsiders' DYAR. Meanwhile, T.Y. Hilton didn't have quite as prolific a season as Hopkins did, but again was a steady, reliable deep threat, and finished in the top 10 in both of Football Outsiders' key stats (DVOA and DYAR).

However, come playoff time, teams often make a more concerted effort to take away the other team's primary threat and make the secondary players win one-on-one matchups. For Indianapolis, it's Eric Ebron. For Houston, it's, well, Ryan Griffin and Keke Coutee?

Ebron finally blossomed in Indianapolis after fizzling in Detroit. He put up a career high in receptions, yards, and more than doubled his career touchdown total. He was particularly deadly in the red zone, scoring 11 of his touchdowns inside 20 yards. Houston's defense struggled to cover tight ends this year, ranking 23rd by Football Outsiders, giving up big games to Rob Gronkowski, Denver's Jeff Heuerman, Jordan Reed, and Zach Ertz, and, it's worth mentioning - Ebron scored in both games against Houston this year.

Houston, on the other hand, is in a little bit more trouble. Their receiving options after Hopkins are pretty miserable, and it's tough to imagine any of them putting together a huge game. The Demaryius Thomas injury really hurts them. He wasn't really playing up to his previous standards (not career lows, but the lowest totals since his breakout year in 2012), but he was still a supremely talented receiver who demanded attention from the defense. A defense doesn't need to scheme up a way to defend Ryan Griffin and Keke Coutee (or whoever else ends up lining up at wide receiver for the Texans). That doesn't really bode well for Houston.


Hidden Points: Planned and Unplanned Runs

You probably wouldn't think this at first, but Indianapolis had a better rushing offense than Houston did this year. The base-level stats don't even seem to support the idea - Indianapolis finished 20th in rushing yards and 22nd in yards per rush, Houston finished 8th in rushing yards and 19th in yards per rush. When you dig deeper though, you realize that Houston's numbers are propped up by how effective DeShaun Watson was as a runner, or more specifically, a scrambler. If you look solely at how each team's running backs performed, the Colts averaged 4.55 yards per rush (15th-best), while the Texans averaged just 4.01 yards per rush (27th in the league). Marlon Mack actually finished as the 8th-best runner in the league on a per-play basis according to Football Outsiders, while Lamar Miller finished just 28th.

Most of Houston's success on the ground came when DeShaun Watson would take off running when receivers weren't open. He gained 550 yards on the ground this year, third-best among quarterbacks. The problem here is that you can't always count on those yards. Sure, you can expect Watson to pick up yards here and there, but if your plan is to ice away a lead late in the game, you can't exactly plan on Watson to pick up those yards with designed runs, because Houston's best rushing offense this year was not by design.

Overall, one of the keys to this game is each team's offensive line. Indianapolis allowed the fewest sacks in the league this year (just 18), while Houston allowed the most sacks in the league (62). Indianapolis rated in the top handful of teams in the league at run blocking by both Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus, Houston was in the bottom third of the league. Obviously, this game will also involve each team's defensive lines as well, but the fact of the matter is, Indianapolis has a much better offensive line than Houston does.


The State of the Colts

The Colts, uh, maybe, perhaps, the hottest team in football. I shutter to say that, because this team lost to the Dolphins a little over a month ago, but since then have rattled off four consecutive wins, and before that, had won five in a row. Yep, you need to do a lot of winning take make the playoffs after starting 1-5, and Indy has done so on the back of franchise QB Andrew Luck, who is finally playing the the guy we all thought he would be coming out of Stanford.

Nearly 4,600 yards and 40 TDs look pretty good, but Luck hasn't been perfect. His 16 interceptions are tied for the second-most in the league behind Ben Roethlisberger, but he has also attempted the second-most passes.

But you probably already knew about Luck. What you may not know is that Indy's defense has been on fire lately.  Over the last 10 games, nobody has scored over 30 on the Colts, and Indy has held teams under 20 points in five of those games. Rookie linebacker Darius Leonard has done just about everything (except make the Pro Bowl, somehow) amassing over 160 total tackles, 7 sacks, 12 TFL and 2 INTs to lead the group.

This team is surging, but the running game is still mediocre, and Luck has been prone to spells of turnovers. Indy will rely on a potent passing game to move the ball against Houston's shaky secondary (more on that in a bit), but will still need to maintain some form of balance and ball control.


The State of the Texans

Speaking of streaks, Houston won the AFC South title on the back of nine straight wins from the end of September to the beginning of December, but have come back down to Earth a bit over the past month. Houston closed the season losing two of its final four, including a home loss to the Colts on December 9th, and had given up 21 points or more in three straight games, before shutting down the Jaguars in Week 17.

For context, Houston has only allowed 21 or more points three times during its nine-game winning streak. Still, the Texans boast the league's fourth-best scoring defense, despite a back seven that has struggled shadowing opposing receivers. Houston has given up over 4,100 yards passing and 28 TDs through the air, and its 43 sacks rank right in the middle of the league.

Add that to the fact that Houston has surrendered the most sacks in the league on quarterback DeShaun Watson, and that the injury to Demaryius Thomas creates a hole opposite Pro Bowler DeAndre Hopkins (Will Fuller is also still out), and this seems like a team primed to be upset.

But not so fast. The Texans can still run the ball, behind a physical offensive line, with the one-two punch of Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue, and no defense stops the run better on a per carry basis that Houston's. Bill O'Brien's team will want to make this a rock fight, and out-tough the Colts, with the help of a surely energized home crowd.


The Picks

Colts 28, Texans 24

I've been saying for most of the season that Houston isn't quite as good as they look on paper. During their nine-game winning streak, they let (seemingly) inferior teams like Denver and Buffalo and Washington hang around, and then down the stretch they lost two of their last four games.

Both teams had impressive runs this season. Houston started 0-3, then rattled off nine straight wins. Indianapolis started 1-5, then won nine of their last 10 games. Both came against relatively mediocre opponents (it's not like they steamrolled over the Rams or Saints or Chiefs or Bears) - for the most part, these teams lost to the teams you'd expect them to lose to. Both teams lost to the Patriots, both teams lost to the Eagles on the road, and they split their season series against each other (each team winning on the road). Neither one is exactly a juggernaut, just the beneficiaries of a pretty easy schedule at the perfect point in the season. On paper, this is the closest matchup of the weekend (and the spread within the margin of error backs that up).

If you're looking for a harbinger, you can look to the Week 14 tilt between the two teams in Houston. Neither team ran the ball well, but the Colts torched Houston in the air while sacking DeShaun Watson five times. The game was probably only as close as it is because of a timely interception by the Texans as Indianapolis was driving for a score that would put them up double-digits in the second quarter. The Colts certainly seemed like the better team that week, and I'm not sure much has changed since then.

If I'm looking at two teams that seem mostly even on paper, I'm going to take the team that has Andrew Luck.


Colts 31, Texans 21

I actually do think Houston is about as good as its record says, but I simultaneously don't think the Texans are built to win in the playoffs. They just don't do one thing REALLY well, and can't overwhelm you with any single aspect of their game. Houston's biggest strength (its run defense), may not even be a factor as Indy has gone pass happy over its 10-game stretch of brilliance, and Houston's secondary has fallen apart as the year has gone on.

Indy's defense is also better than you think, and with Houston's protection struggles, I just don't trust them to put enough points on the board to keep pace.


Seattle at Dallas (8:15 p.m. Saturday, FOX)

Opening Line: Cowboys by 2
Current Line: Cowboys by 2.5

By The Numbers:

Record: 10-6 Overall, 4-4 Road; 9-5-2 Against the Spread, 4-3-1 Road
Average Score: 26.8 (6th) - 21.7 (11th)
Average Scoring Margin: +5.1 (10th); 9.9 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +8.8% Offense (9th), -0.2% Defense (14th), -2.2% Special Teams (24th); +6.7% Overall (12th)

Record: 10-6 Overall, 7-1 Home; 9-6-1 Against the Spread, 5-2-1 Home
Average Score: 21.2 (22nd) - 20.3 (6th)
Average Scoring Margin: +0.9 (14th); 8.4 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: -6.5% Offense (24th), -3.5% Defense (9th), -2.1% Special Teams (23rd); -5.2% Overall (21st)

Player(s) To Watch: Ezekiel Elliot, Amari Cooper

Here's the good news for football fans - Seattle's strength (running the ball) matches up up nicely with Dallas' strength (stopping the run). Seattle's Plan B (playaction passes to their top two receivers) matches up nicely with another one of Dallas' strengths (shutting down opposing top receivers). When Seattle has the ball, interesting things should happen one way or the other.

Here's the bad news for football fans - that's just about all that's going on. Dallas doesn't have a particularly exciting offense, and Seattle doesn't have a particularly exciting defense. There's just not much to write home about. Sure, Dallas has Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliot and Amari Cooper (all household names so long as your household plays fantasy football), but that's it.

At least, that's what it looks like on paper.

Here's the rub - Dallas' offense was actually pretty decent on the snaps where the ball ended up in the hands of Elliot or Cooper. In the regular season, that's nowhere close to every possession. You can't hand the ball to Elliot 40 times and throw it to Cooper on the other 25 snaps. They'll (quite literally) break down over the course of the season. However, now that we're into the playoffs, there's a reasonable chance that the Cowboys could actually do that. In fact, it might be the only way for them to make a deep playoff run for them to just imagine they're playing 8-on-11 on offense and ignore the likes of Cole Beasley and Michael Gallup and Allen Hurns and Blake Jarwin. If Elliot and Cooper can put the offense on their back, Dallas has a puncher's chance. If the Seahawks successfully slow those guys down, though, it seems like Seattle has an easy win.


Hidden Points: The Two Seattles

Dallas, for the most part, was a pretty consistent team this year. Outside of their win over New Orleans, they don't really have any results that jump off the page. They (mostly) took care of business against the bad teams, and otherwise went around .500 against the teams of similar quality.

Seattle, on the other hand had a much more up-and-down season. They beat up on bad teams like the Raiders and Lions. They went toe-to-toe with the Rams (twice) and just barely came up short. They held their own against the Chargers. They beat the Chiefs. They had convincing wins over Minnesota and Dallas. And then they lost to the 49ers and needed a last-second field goal to beat Arizona. It's especially confusing when you notice that those two duds sandwich their win over Kansas City over the last three weeks of the season. So which team are they?

Sure, every 10-6 team usually ends up with a few head-scratching games, but the sequencing of Seattle's season is especially weird to me. They started 0-2. Then they won two straight. They lost to the Rams (but looked good in the process). They blew out the Raiders and Lions. They lost to the Rams and Chargers (but again, looked good). They rattle off four straight wins and I put a few simoleons on them at 22-1 to win the NFC. Then they lose to San Francisco as a road favorite. Then they beat Kansas City. Then they almost lose to Arizona. There just doesn't seem to be much consistency there. If the Seahawks that played against the Rams and Chiefs and Cowboys and Vikings show up, the Seahawks could win this game by 20. If the Seahawks that looked lost against the 49ers and Cardinals show up, the Cowboys (and their 7-1 home record) should win easily.


The State of the Seahawks

Another team playing its best football at the best time, Seattle has won six of its last seven, and has done so with two seemingly mediocre units. The Seahawk offense (18th total) and defense (16th total) have come alive, of late, and have both been incredibly efficient. On offense, it's been a league-leading ground game that has rushed for over 2,500 yards, plus Russell Wilson's astonishing 35-7 TD to INT ratio that have allowed Seattle to punch above its weight, while the defense has forced multiple turnovers in nine different games this season.


The State of the Cowboys

Several big plays in big moments, pulled off by a talented offense and smothering defense have Dallas hosting a playoff game. Winners of 7 of their last 8, Dallas' best path to the Super Bowl seems to be recreating its physical win over New Orleans in late November, where the Cowboys bodied up the Saints' receivers, and slowed down the New Orleans rush attack, all while possessing the ball and avoiding mistakes.


The Picks

Seahawks 24, Cowboys 16

I've been high on Seattle all season, and I don't especially feel like letting their end of the season dissuade me on them. I won't lie - Dallas' run over the second half of the season has been impressive, and Amari Cooper has been a huge pickup for them. All that being said, Seattle just seems like the better team top to bottom. They grind out long drives with their running game, and actually have serious big play potential in their passing game.

I'm not sure how I didn't bring this up all season because it's been on my mind just about every week - Tyler Lockett has been absolutely bananas this season. He only had 57 catches on the season, but it seems like 74 of them were on 3rd down and 127 of those went for first downs. He was money. He scored ten touchdowns on the season, and seven of them were for 20 yards or more. As mentioned above, Football Outsiders uses both DVOA and DYAR to measure individual players. DVOA measures everyone on a per-play basis, and then DYAR adjusts for how many plays each player was involved in (i.e. is it better to be 20% better than league average on 50 carries or 15% better than league average on 150 carries?). Lockett ranked No. 1 in DVOA by an absurd margin (more than 25 percentage points higher than anyone else in the league). He was so far ahead in DVOA that he ended up in DYAR also despite being targeted less than half as many times as the guys after him (like Hopkins, Julio Jones, Mike Thomas, Adam Thielen, etc.). He had an absurdly high catch rate (81 percent, second best in the league of all players with at least 50 targets), but then also averaged almost 17 yards per reception (6th best in the league). Guys with catch rates that high don't average that many yards per catch, and vice-versa. It just doesn't happen. He might only be targeted four or five times in this game, but he'll come up with a few huge third down conversions, maybe a long touchdown, and the Seahawks will win.


Seahawks 20, Cowboys 17

Dang it, we should disagree at some point. Oh well. I too am high on Seattle, but I still think this Dallas team can play with anybody, as long as Zeke is running, and the defense isn't blowing coverages. I think this will be a fight to the finish, but I'll take Russ in a battle of underrated QBs.


Los Angeles Chargers at Baltimore (1:05 p.m. Sunday, CBS)

Opening Line: Ravens by 2.5
Current Line: Ravens by 2.5

By The Numbers:

Los Angeles:
Record: 12-4 Overall, 7-1 Road; 9-7 Against the Spread, 7-1 Road
Average Score: 26.8 (6th) - 20.6 (8th)
Average Scoring Margin: +6.2 (7th); 10.4 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +20.8% Offense (3rd), -4.7% Defense (8th), -2.8% Special Teams (25th); +22.7% Overall (3rd)

Record: 10-6 Overall, 6-2 Home; 8-8 Against the Spread, 3-5 Home
Average Score: 24.3 (13th) - 17.9 (2nd)
Average Scoring Margin: +6.4 (6th); 10.8 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +0.9% Offense (15th), -13.1% Defense (3rd), +2.9% Special Teams (6th); +17.0% Overall (6th)

Player(s) To Watch: Philip Rivers

Rivers hasn't been in the playoffs since 2013. Somehow, it feels longer than that. I almost feel bad for him - the ongoing suckitude of the Chargers has almost nothing to do with Rivers; he put together a few spectacular seasons despite little to no help around him and what little help he did end up with usually finished the season on IR. This is really the first time in a decade that Rivers has had a full offense around him. Keenan Allen and Melvin Gordon don't quite have the ring of Julio Jones and Todd Gurley, but they aren't that far off.

He's played nine playoff games in his career and had middling success - the Chargers are 4-5 in those nine games, and he's had a few duds individually (2006 and 2009 especially). On the other hand, he was fantastic in the 2013 playoffs, although, granted, he wasn't asked to do much in either game. The long and the short of it is that Rivers resume in the postseason is checkered. I'm usually not one to buy into the clutch-or-not argument - I tend to believe that players are who they are and that unusually good or poor performance different than that is usually the result of a small sample size or other pieces of context that people who make the clutch argument usually just hand-wave away.

So what am I saying? I'm saying I don't especially buy into the ongoing narrative that the Chargers deserve to be the underdog because Rivers can't hack it in the playoffs. If the Chargers lose and Rivers doesn't play well, it probably has a lot to do with Baltimore being one of the league's top defenses and Melvin Gordon nursing a lingering ankle injury rather than Rivers "not having it."


Hidden Points: How Baltimore Can Score

The Ravens have been on a nice run since inserting Lamar Jackson into the starting lineup. However, that run has been against Cincinnati, Oakland, Atlanta, Kansas City, Tampa Bay, these Chargers, and the Browns. Not exactly a murderer's row.

Lamar Jackson, plain and simple, is not a very talented passer at this point, completing just 58 percent of his passes (among the worst in the league), averaging barely over seven yards per attempt (safely in the bottom half of the league), and taking sacks at a decent rate. Sure, he can make plays with his arm, but it's just not reliable at this point.

As a runner, he's actually not substantially better. He's racking up yards, but not at an overwhelmingly high clip (4.7 yards per carry for a running quarterback is comparatively low). He's actually the last-ranked running quarterback per Football Outsiders. San Diego held him to just 39 yards on 13 carries when they played a few weeks ago. It wasn't the most impressive performance by the Baltimore offense. Baltimore scored on a long touchdown pass with a long run after the catch, and a 62-yard fumble return. Those were their two touchdowns. Outside of those two plays, the Ravens mustered nine points on 293 total yards of offense. If Baltimore wants to come out of this game with a win, they'll need to find more consistent ways to move the ball.


The State of the Chargers

The Chargers won 12 games, but since they play in the same division as the Chiefs, now face the unenviable task of likely following a Super Bowl path that would need to go through Baltimore, then New England and Kansas City, in some order. Not that LA doesn't have the talent to do it. The Chargers rank in the Top-10 in scoring offense (6th) and defense (8th), and have gotten a career year out of QB Phil Rivers.


The State of the Ravens

Is Joe Flacco eli... Wait oa minute. Yep, no Flacco this year, as Baltimore's resurgence came under rookie QB Lamar Jackson, who turned the Ravens' identity back to running the football and playing great defense. Baltimore has done both, leading the league in rush attempts and total defense. It's been a winning formula for the Ravens, who enter this contest as winners of six of their last seven.


The Picks

Chargers 16, Ravens 13

Both of these teams have excellent defenses, and both of these teams have offenses that can just outright disappear at times. A low scoring, grindy game where special teams weighs disproportionately heavy seems like it would favor Baltimore, but I still like Los Angeles here. I genuinely think the Chargers are one of the four best teams in the league, and only happen to be playing this weekend because they have the misfortune of playing in the same division as the Chiefs.

An underrated storyline here is that the Chargers are the league's best road team this year, and have been an unusually good road team for several years now. It might have something to do with many of their home games feeling like road games (the Chargers don't exactly have a rabid fan base, and San Diego and now Los Angeles has historically been a destination for fans of the road team to travel to), but for whatever reason, the Chargers seem to find a lot of success on the road. All things considered, these teams are relatively evenly matched, which again, would seem to favor the home team, but I'm not sure that's necessarily an advantage in this instance.


Ravens 17, Chargers 16

Look, I don't want to see it, because I really like this Chargers team, but doesn't this just feel like a game they blow? Playing on the road, on the East Coast, against the league's best defense, and an offense that protects the football, and runs it down your throat? Yeah, that all checks out for me.


Philadelphia at Chicago (4:40 p.m. Sunday, NBC) 

Opening Line: Bears by 6
Current Line: Bears by 6

By The Numbers:

Record: 9-7 Overall, 4-4 Road; 6-9-1 Against the Spread, 4-4 Road
Average Score: 22.9 (18th) - 21.8 (12th)
Average Scoring Margin: +1.2 (12th); 8.5 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: -0.3% Offense (16th), 0.0% Defense (15th), +0.2% Special Teams (15th); 0.0% Overall (15th)

Record: 12-4 Overall, 7-1 Home; 12-4 Against the Spread, 7-1 Home
Average Score: 26.3 (9th) - 17.7 (1st)
Average Scoring Margin: +8.6 (4th); 11.5 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: -3.4% Offense (20th), -25.6% Defense (1st), -3.2% Special Teams (26th); +19.0% Overall (5th)

Player(s) To Watch: Nelson Agholor, Alshon Jeffery

The Eagles have one of the worst rushing offenses in the league, and the Bears have one of the best rushing offenses in the league. A surface-level understanding would indicate that this is a huge advantage for the Bears, but I'm not sure that I agree. If the Eagles have no real hope of establishing a footing in the ground game, there's a fair chance that they don't even try and decide their only hope of winning is just throwing the ball 50 times. If you're just going to get stuffed for two yards every time anyway, why even bother? It's a legitimate strategy that teams sometimes employ. The 2014 Patriots famously overcame a 14-point second half deficit against the Ravens and their top-ranked rush defense by just, well, not running the ball (they finished with 13 carries for 14 yards and 51 passes for 418 yards). The 2011 Saints tried a similar strategy against the 49ers in the NFC Playoffs and only lost the game in the final seconds. It's not outrageous to think that the Eagles might abandon the running game early and try to just air it out.

If it comes to that, Agholor and Jeffery need to come up huge. Sure, Zach Ertz will be the primary option - especially in that type of gameplan - he's a short yardage safety blanket. But Agholor and Jeffery are the downfield options, and I'm not convinced that you can beat the Bears by just gaining five or six yards on every pass play. Eventually you need to make a big play downfield. Both of them were huge contributors in the postseason last year (particularly in the Super Bowl). If they are able to replicate those performances, Philadelphia can pull off an upset.


Hidden Points: Exploiting Weaknesses

By any and all accounts, the weakness of this Philadelphia team is at running back and defensive back. As I mentioned above, Philadelphia has some control as to how much one of those weaknesses is exposed. If they don't want to look bad running the ball, they can just not run the ball.

The weakness that they don't have a lot of control over is their defensive backfield. They're onto their 17th string cornerbacks at this point. Pretty much any team that wants to attack them there can. Well, the good news for Philadelphia is that Chicago's passing offense isn't exactly the 2013 Broncos. Their best receiver is probably Tarik Cohen out of the backfield. They don't have a true No. 1 receiver that can dominate an overmatched secondary. Their wide receivers are mostly castoffs from other teams that found their way to Chicago. Mitch Trubisky has actually played really well considering that - it's not easy to put up efficient numbers when you're a young quarterback with suspect targets.

A big part of this game will come down to how well Chicago takes advantage of Philadelphia's weaknesses. Make no mistake - Chicago is a drastically better team overall. The question is how well the two teams match up against each other. If Chicago can't capitalize, then the door is open for Philadelphia to play spoiler.


The State of the Eagles

Welcome back, Big D**k Nick! That's right, after vanquishing Brady and the Patriots in last year's Super Bowl, Nick Foles has once again come on for Philly and worked his magic, helping the Eagles win their last three games to make the playoffs. As Philly prepares to enter the tourney again, it will be a similar formula to last year: Create big plays in the passing game, opening up room for runs inside, and do just enough on defense.


The State of the Bears

The league's top-ranked scoring defense also created 50 sacks and held opponents under 4 yards per carry. That's been Chicago's identity all year, as the Bears keep you behind the sticks, then unleash Pro Bowl pass rusher Khalil Mack on your QB to get off the field. Offensively, the Bears haven't been as decorated, but Jordan Howard is a bell cow back, with Tarik Cohen providing a nice change of pace (and option in the passing game).

The real question for Chicago is, how far can the Bears go with second-year QB Mitch Trubisky? The kid hasn't thrown a pick in his last three outings, but before that, he threw five in two games.


The Picks

Bears 31, Eagles 20

I know in my two sections above, I kind of laid out a path for Philadelphia to pull an upset, but I'm not really buying what I'm selling. Don't get me wrong - this game is winnable for the Eagles. I just don't think they're going to be able to pull it off.

A big portion of the outline above is Philadelphia throwing on nearly every down. That's a legitimate way for them to hide their weaknesses. The problem there is that another one of their weaknesses for this game specifically is the health of their offensive line. Jason Peters (left tackle), Isaac Seumalo (left guard), and Jason Kelce (center) are all nursing ongoing injuries or questionable to return from injuries that have kept them out of the lineup. I'm not sure if you were following that just now, but that's the entire left side of their offensive line. And they're going up against Khalil Mack, who is, well, only the best all-around defensive player in football. That seems kind of relevant. If we were talking about a team like the Patriots or Colts or Saints who have a stellar offensive line and an all-world quarterback, it might be a legitimate path to victory. Philadelphia's offensive line was only around average to begin with, and they're pretty banged up.

The other part was that Chicago might not have the explosive type of passing offense to truly punish the lack of depth in Philadelphia's secondary. Well, we have some evidence of what Chicago can do in that kind of situation. Trubisky threw for 354 yards and six touchdowns against the Bucs back in Week 4. He threw for 355 yards and three touchdowns against the Lions in Week 10. We've certainly seen Chicago's passing game explode. It wouldn't be unprecedented.

I'm not saying Khalil Mack is going to sack Nick Foles six times and Chicago will put up 500 yards of offense, but I think it's just way more likely that Chicago, the best teams in the league all season, will be able to take care of business against a team that barely snuck into the playoffs because the NFC inexplicably fell apart over the last month of the season.


Bears 27, Eagles 24

To me, this is about which defense generates a stop, and there's no question Chicago's defense is better. Now, can Nick Foles create some more magic and pull off another upset? Surely, but I trust that Chicago will play a relatively clean game, and the Bears' running game and a bit of Trib should be enough to get them through.


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