Based on the predictions, the 2015 NFL playoffs could begin with a Wild-Card Road Show this weekend.
Three of the four road teams are favorites. According to Five Thirty Eight Sports, this is the first time since 1990 that three home teams have been underdogs on wild-card weekend.
Which underdog has the best chance of pulling off an upset? Here’s a look based on the Sports Book Review consensus point spreads as of Friday afternoon.
Seattle at Minnesota (+4)
Sunday, 1:05 p.m.
The Vikings are the biggest underdogs of wild-card weekend, and for good reason.
Third-seeded Minnesota (11-5) took a huge step forward as a franchise this season, winning the NFC North. They could be an emerging power in the NFC, but the sixth-seeded Seahawks (10-6) are an established power. They have a long road between them and their third straight Super Bowl appearance, but that quest won’t end in the wild-card round.
Not only are the Seahawks riding the momentum of their 36-6 obliteration of the Cardinals (13-3) last week at Arizona, but they’re also getting Marshawn Lynch back. The Vikings allowed 109.2 rushing yards per game this season, 17th in the NFL. They allowed 4.3 yards per carry, tied for 21st. Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell told NFL.com that he doesn’t expect Lynch to be eased back into the lineup. He’ll be a full go and provide the Seahawks with the ground attack needed in single-digit temperatures.
— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) January 8, 2016
The Vikings can counter with Adrian Peterson, but he won’t do much good if they fall behind big like they did in their 38-7 loss to the Seahawks at home in Week 13. Teddy Bridgewater’s individual progress this season doesn’t match that of the team in general. He cut down on the interceptions, going from 12 in his rookie year to nine. His passing yards increased from 2,919 to 3,231, but he threw only 14 touchdown passes for the second straight year and his passer rating is a pedestrian 88.7. He’s not ready to vanquish the Legion of Boom.
Green Bay (+1) at Washington
Sunday, 4:40 p.m.
The Redskins are the only home favorite and this is the thinnest point spread of wild-card weekend, but the Packers’ chance of pulling the upset isn’t much better than the Vikings’.
The fifth-seeded Packers (10-6) are visiting the fourth-seeded Redskins (9-7) despite having a better record because the Redskins won an NFC East division in which half the teams are looking for new coaches. Despite the rumblings about wild-card teams going on the road to play teams with inferior records, division winners with records of 9-7 or worse are 4-1 in wild-card games since 2010.
A sea of “You Like That?!” towels isn’t the best environment for the struggling Packers.
Since the “You Like That” game, the Redskins’ 31-30 win over the Buccaneers in which they came back from 24 points down, Kirk Cousins has thrown 23 touchdown passes and three interceptions. None of those picks have come at home. That game also sparked a 7-3 run in the Redskins’ last 10 games.
The Packers, meanwhile, seem to have peaked after starting the season 6-0. They’re 4-6 in their last 10 and haven’t looked like a team that can go far in the playoffs since winning 30-13 at Minnesota in Week 11.
Among the Packers’ worries is their banged-up offensive line. Left tackle David Bakhtiari, right tackle Bryan Bulaga and guard Josh Sitton all are nursing injuries. Aaron Rodgers has been sacked 46 times this season, including 13 in the Packers’ two losses at the end of the regular season. The Redskins’ 38 sacks this season are nothing special, but 17 have come in the last four games. Expect Cousins to lead one more post-game “You Like That” chant as Redskins fans send their team off on the road for a divisional game.
Kansas City at Houston (+3)
Saturday, 4:35 p.m.
Despite winning 10 in a row, the fifth-seeded Chiefs (11-5) are the second-most vulnerable favorite this weekend.
This is the hottest team in the NFL going up against the winner of the sad-sack AFC South. However, a closer look at the Chiefs’ 10-game winning streak reveals that they beat only two playoff teams during that run and neither of those wins came recently. They beat the Steelers at Kansas City in Week 7 to start the streak and they won at Denver three weeks later. Their win over Pittsburgh came against Landry Jones with Ben Roethlisberger injured. Their win over the Broncos came against Peyton Manning on a day when Manning was benched after throwing four interceptions. He then sat out for six weeks with a foot injury.
The Chiefs struggled to put away the Browns (17-13) and Raiders (23-17) at home over the last two weeks of the season. They’ll need to turn it up a notch in the playoffs. There’s something to be said for getting the clunker out of your system late in the regular season, like the Seahawks did in losing 23-17 at home against the Rams in Week 16. The 2011 Giants, who lost four straight in the middle of the season, and 2012 Ravens, who lost four of their last five, showed that you don’t have to be hot going into the playoffs to win the Super Bowl.
The Chiefs (slow start) and Texans (many QB) have both taken interesting paths to the postseason. Here’s a look pic.twitter.com/b6J6W8TlSv
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 8, 2016
Alex Smith gives the Chiefs the edge over Brian Hoyer and the fourth-seeded Texans (9-7) at quarterback, but Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is capable of taking over the game. The Chiefs allowed 46 sacks this season and Watt led the league with 17.5 sacks. Watt has two sacks and a pick-six in two career home playoff games.
Although they missed the playoffs three years in a row, the Texans are 2-0 in home wild-card games since 2011. They also have a win over the Bengals, Cincinnati’s first loss of the season, highlighting their resumé.
The Chiefs better hope they don’t have a clunker waiting to come out of their system.
Pittsburgh at Cincinnati (+3)
Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
The Vikings are probably the only other team getting less respect than the Bengals this weekend, but the Bengals have the best chance of pulling off an upset.
It’s understandable that the third-seeded Bengals (12-4) aren’t being given much of a chance. They’ve lost four straight wild-card games and Marvin Lewis has an 0-6 playoff record as head coach. Furthermore, Andy Dalton is out with a broken thumb.
A.J. McCarron was no match for the sixth-seeded Steelers (10-6) in Cincinnati when he took over for Dalton in Week 14, and the Steelers won 33-20. This time, however, he’s had all week to prepare for a Steelers defense that isn’t very good when it’s not forcing turnovers. Of the 30 turnovers the Steelers have forced, only 10 have come on the road.
The Bengals have a better backup plan for Dalton than the Steelers do for running back DeAngelo Williams, who is out after hurting his foot in Week 17 at Cleveland. Fitzgerald Toussaint, who had just 24 yards on 12 carries against the Browns, will start for Williams.
The Steelers got into the playoffs with a 28-12 win at Cleveland in Week 17 in conjunction with the Jets’ loss at Buffalo, but the Steelers didn’t play 60 minutes of playoff-caliber football against the woeful Browns. Ben Roethlisberger, who’s trying to light a fire under second-year receiver Martavis Bryant, has thrown two interceptions in three straight games.
After the Steelers beat the Bengals in Week 14, right tackle Marcus Gilbert said that all he wanted for Christmas was the Bengals “in the playoffs where they choke.”
That’s called bulletin-board material. The Steelers are favorites and the Bengals are underdogs in this game because of reputation. But the Bengals finally could get the monkey off their back.