Good Morning, Bolts From the Blue!
The Chargers are into offseason mode but those teams who have been fortunate enough to make it through the gauntlet of the regular season now face an even steeper task in their pursuit of the Lombardi trophy. There seems to be a theme of revenge games that are so enticing that the league schedule makers surely deserve a bonus of some kind. To be honest as writers, we owe them a drink as these kinds of storylines make our job a lot more fun. First up on Saturday we will see the Houston Texans take on the Cleveland Browns that paid them a king’s ransom for their former quarterback who may not have been starting even if he was healthy. Then later on that day we will see the Miami Dolphins’ Tyreek Hill return to face his former Kansas City Chiefs teammates in the freezing cold of Missouri. Before on Sunday we get to see Jared Goff and Matthew Stafford face off against their old teams which they departed as part of potentially the best win-win trade of all time between the Los Angeles Rams and the Detroit Lions.
Wild Card Weekend is one of football’s best slate of games where teams who scraped into the playoffs get to face off with teams who have had their eyes set on a championship since day one of the 2023 season. It’s usually a David vs Goliath tale and sometimes the narrative comes true with the underdog striking down their giant opponent and setting their names into folklore. There has been a recent drought of any dramatic usurpations with the last one happening in three years ago however this buckled a trend of 10 between 2017 and 2020 which included the Bolts’ win over the Baltimore Ravens in 2018. Will we finally see some upsets this year? Will it kick start another spell of unpredictability? Let’s dig into the games to find out.
Cleveland Browns vs. Houston Texans
This game has many narrative angles that could be explored but I think my favorite is that they represent entirely opposing ways of getting into the postseason. The Browns started the season off as a defensive juggernaut that suffocated opponents to such an extent they didn’t really need an offense before finally finding one with their fourth option at quarterback. They then ended the season with Joe Flacco, the oldest quarterback in the playoffs, leading the league in yards and touchdowns before he sat out Week 18 having earned his rest. In stark contrast the Texans started the season off with an explosive offense led by the playoffs’ youngest quarterback, the rookie sensation C.J. Stroud, before DeMeco Ryans’ young defensive pieces started to put it together to end the season with some excellent displays that pushed them over the line to win the division.
Now I have embellished how fun this game will be, let’s get to talking about who is going to emerge victorious. First thing to say is that we need to take the regular season result between these two teams, where the Browns won 36-22, with a pinch of salt because C.J. Stroud was not playing. Whilst that might seem like an oversimplification, it is not because of how special the rookie truly is when you turn on the tape. In reality this game comes down to how well the young quarterback can play to overcome that 14 points differential so let’s take a closer look at the context. In my eyes the Browns’ defense may have faded a bit towards the end of the season but that seems to be caused by the fact they could finally relax a bit after holding up their season for 12 weeks before Joe Flacco jumped off his couch and sparked life into their offense. They also had key injuries across all three levels and the scary news, for the Texans at least, is that a lot of them are potentially returning for this game.
The Texans’ offense kicked back into gear as soon as Stroud came back from his injury however they haven’t put up more than 26 points since Week 10 and to rely on their defense to win this game seems a risky ploy. Every single defensive line starter missed Tuesday’s practice heading into this win or go home game and this tips the balance for me as I don’t see them keeping Joe Flacco, Amari Cooper and David Njoku quiet enough without being able to apply pressure to the less than mobile quarterback. This for me is enough to take the Browns moneyline at -135 according to DraftKings Sportsbook. My lock of the day is for this game to hit over the projected total of 44.5 at -110, both teams’ defenses are banged up and both teams struggle to run the ball against good front sevens. All of this will mean two red hot quarterbacks will have an above average amount of drives to hit the endzone.
Miami Dolphins vs. Kansas City Chiefs
I’ll hold my hands up and say that I, like many Chargers’ fans, let myself smile on Sunday night when the Miami Dolphins fumbled away the AFC East title despite having a three game lead heading into Week 14. Their fans seem to go out of their way to enjoy the Bolts’ misery so we are well within our rights to occasionally return the favor. That said, they are going up against a team we dislike even more, our seemingly insurmountable AFC West rivals, the Kansas City Chiefs, who somehow earned the number three seed despite losing double the amount of regular season games they did last year.
The Dolphins’ story of the season is that against teams with losing records they had a point differential of +194 over 11 games but when facing teams with a winning record they ended up with a differential of -93 over six games. That’s an insane 33.1 points per game difference and whilst most teams have a big swing between the two categories, no one comes close to this and it speaks to how Mike McDaniels’ team are in danger of getting exposed even further.
Injuries are going to hamper the Dolphins’ efforts even further as they have lost a slew of defensive starters over the last month including all of their edge rushers. They have had to sign veterans Melvin Ingram, Bruce Irvin and Justin Houston like some sort of pass rusher version of ‘The Expendables’ just to be able to field a team. Raheem Mostert and Jaylen Waddle missed the critical Week 18 game plus Tyreek Hill and De’Von Achane were limited in practise earlier week so any of those offensive weapons they are not able to make a quick recovery they are going to be adding to the TuAnon’s stress levels. Weather is going to play a factor too as the Dolphins travel up from Miami, where it is 67°, to Kansas City where the game time temperature is going to be around -11° with a prediction for snow.
The two AFC teams have already met this season in Germany where the Chiefs emerged as the victor with a 21-14 win in a more defensive game than fans were expecting. Tua Tagovailoa is a polarizing quarterback, much like Brock Purdy, in that he executes a high powered offense with an embarrassment of riches but on the rare occasion the game is placed squarely on their shoulders, they struggle to carry the load. Steve Spagnuolo specializes in attacking such tendencies so I fully expect him repeat his effort from Week 9 and continue to switch up the pre and post snap coverages all night long to throw Tua’s fast read style off its timing. On the other side of the ball I think the Fins’ injuries are just too much to stay with a motivated Patrick Mahomes, with very little dynamic pass rushers he will have all the time he needs to find a receiver who can actually hold onto the ball. I therefore will be taking the Chiefs to cover the 4.5-point spread at -112 and I fancy the over the total of 44 points at -110.
Los Angeles Rams vs. Detroit Lions
If the schedule makers sat down in the off season and tried to come up with a perfect plot for the prime time Sunday slot, I think this would be close to the game they envisioned. Matthew Stafford is returning to face the Detroit Lions for the first time since he was traded to the Los Angeles Rams in 2021. In a seemingly cruel turn of events, after Stafford spent 12 fruitless seasons trying to drag Detroit to their first playoff win since 1992, he finally won one within a year of joining the Rams. However, this isn’t all one directional traffic, as Jared Goff has found an offense that suits his talents at Ford Field and has been a part of the revival that has seen Dan Campbell’s men win their first NFC North division title since 1993. Something not even Stafford himself could never achieve.
The Lions have been must-see television all season long, winning as underdogs over the Chiefs in Week 1 and barely slowing down for a breather ever since. Their electric offense has put Ben Johnson’s name to the top of head coaching candidate lists and rightly so as they averaged just shy of 400 yards per game. Rookies Jahmyr Gibbs and Sam LaPorta have added more fire power to veterans David Montgomery and Amon-Ra St. Brown to round out a balanced offense which can hurt you in so many ways it’s hard to game plan for. Their defense however has been a mixed bag, they allowed the sixth most yards per game through the air but their front seven has held opponents to the second fewest yards per game on the ground.
Sean McVay’s offense has entered into a new phase where the running game that he previously saw as second fiddle, has become the primary method of attack. Kyren Williams has been the benefactor of this renaissance managing to average 114 yards a game since his return from his mid season injury. That’s not to say McVay doesn’t have passing weapons at his disposal, the receiving corps led by Cooper Kupp has been boosted by the arrival of phenomenon Puka Nacua who broke the rookie receiving record that had stood for 63 years. The Rams’ defense is most certainly the weaker side of the ball, their statistical outputs measure in the middle of the road but they have found a couple of rookie additions in Kobie Turner and Bryon Young to take some attention off Aaron Donald who averaged six pressures a game after the bye.
In terms of a prediction I think the Rams are one of the underdogs I am riding with to upset the Lions. Their offense has too many ways of beating you and the Lions ended the season giving up 26 points a game to some below average offenses, that’s not going to cut it in the postseason. I like the Rams to win outright with the moneyline odds of +145 plus over the total of 51.5 at -112 due to both offenses having serious firepower.
Here is how the BFTB staff sees Wild Card Weekend breaking down:
What do you think, BFTB? Are any of you placing bets on the first week of the playoffs?