Wild Card Weekend could be really fun
It's the end of the NFL regular season, which means we can put the likes of Blaine Gabbert and Josh Johnson behind us and turn our focus to the good teams that matter and worth paying attention to. The talent level greatly increases and so do the storylines for an intriguing Wild Card Weekend. The defending champions kicked down the back door to get into the playoffs while an infusion of young quarterbacks is making things more interesting. Let's take a look at all four games this weekend.
Here are the NFL picks against the spread for the Wild Card Round:
Indianapolis Colts (10-6) at Houston Texans (11-5), 4:35 p.m. ET (Sat.)
We start things out with a divisional battle between the top two teams in the AFC South. This is the third meeting between the two with the road team taking the previous two. The first meeting took place back in September with the Texans winning 37-34 in a contest that saw them force two turnovers and get a balanced effort on offense. The Colts beat Houston 24-21 just about a month ago as we saw Andrew Luck go nuts on this defense once again. Indianapolis has won four straight since a head-scratching 6-0 loss at Jacksonville.
The Colts go as Luck goes as the run game is hard to depend on. The defense has been fantastic, limiting six of the last seven opponents to no more than 250 passing yards. Houston, meanwhile, has split its last four games with the wins coming over lowly Jacksonville and the Jets. The Texans have committed just two turnovers over the last six weeks while forcing 12 in that same span. It'll be important for Indianapolis to have Ryan Kelly at center, as he's the glue of the offensive line at center. That group has Luck upright, while Deshaun Watson has been sacked an NFL-high 62 times. The money is coming in on the road team, but I'm going to go against it. I think home field matters in this one and so does the more veteran defense that Houston has. I think Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt make big plays to help get the Texans a win. This is my least favorite pick of the weekend though. SELECTION: Texans -1 (Houston 23-20)
Seattle Seahawks (10-6) at Dallas Cowboys (10-6), 8:15 p.m. ET (Sat.)
I'm going to start out with the fact that I've misjudged the Seahawks a lot of the season. These two teams met back in Week 3 with Seattle holding serve at home, winning 24-13. Dallas turned it over three times in that game with Dak Prescott tossing two interceptions and finishing with 137 passing yards. The Cowboys held the Seahawks in check in terms of yards allowed but still lost the game. I really think if you listed the offensive and defensive units in this round, the Dallas defense would be in the top five. That side of the ball saw a long streak snapped last week of games in which the defense held opponents to 25 points or fewer. The linebacking corps could be one of the best in the league if they all stay healthy. I like the Cowboys' corners against Seattle's wide receivers as well.
It was a gutsy call by Jason Garrett to play Prescott all game last week, but he showed up and should gain some confidence after that touchdown pass to Cole Beasley. Seattle has won six of its last seven with five of those games being decided by three points. This defense has been more susceptible to the pass but it can be run on as well. The key for Dallas is finding a way to limit Russell Wilson's impact on the game, although Chris Carson ran for 102 yards in the first meeting. The Seahawks are averaging nearly 190 rushing yards over their last five games. I have faith in the Cowboys' defense to get stops and in Ezekiel Elliott doing his part to help his team control the clock. I like the home team in this one as well as the under. SELECTION: Cowboys -1.5 (Dallas 20-17)
Los Angeles Chargers (12-4) at Baltimore Ravens (10-6), 1:05 p.m. ET (Sun.)
These two teams played just a few weeks ago on the West Coast with the Ravens winning 22-10. This means the Chargers have had the chance to see Lamar Jackson up close and personal and know what he's capable of. Baltimore put up 159 rushing yards in the win over Los Angeles while the defense forced three turnovers. Melvin Gordon was coming off of injury and didn't get a ton of work.
Now the scene shifts to the M&T Bank Stadium where the Ravens are 6-2 while averaging more than 27 points per game. Since Jackson took over, Baltimore has become a run-heavy offense, which has been successful. This also has allowed the Ravens the opportunity to control the clock and dictate the game tempo. Baltimore's defense has been strong all season and is fourth in the league against the run (82.9 ypg). The secondary has been vulnerable at times as Cleveland (twice) and Kansas City put up more than 300 passing yards. The Chargers' offense has been scuffling with nine turnovers in the last three games. The defense has held up pretty well, especially since the return of Joey Bosa. Los Angeles covered seven of its eight road games. To me, the best play is probably the under in this one. It'll be interesting to see the wrinkles each team has that they may not have shown just a few weeks ago. SELECTION: Under 41 (Baltimore 17-13)
Philadelphia Eagles (9-7) at Chicago Bears (12-4), 4:40 p.m. ET (Sun.)
The biggest spread of the weekend comes with the matchup of the defending champs on the road against the young, hungry Bears. The storyline is fascinating, as Chicago played its starters last week to beat Minnesota, which opened the door for Philadelphia. The Eagles have won three straight and five of their last six overall including victories against the Rams and Texans. Nick Foles has run Doug Pederson's offense very well and the defense is finally playing up to its potential. The return of Darren Sproles has been a big boost as he has complemented Josh Adams and Wendell Smallwood well.
Even with the recent success, Philadelphia's secondary is still very patchwork and exploitable. My problem is that I don't think the Bears can take advantage of this. If you have followed these ATS articles this season, I've faded the Bears on the road whenever I can because I think their offense isn't that great. They are at home and I fully expect head coach Matt Nagy to utilize Tarik Cohen in a bunch of different ways. Chicago's defense at home has been lights out and Khalil Mack's impact has been immeasurable. The Bears clamped down big time on the Rams about a month ago in a 15-6 home win. The Eagles won't mind the cold, have been on this stage before and know what it takes to win the Super Bowl. Foles is playing superbly right now as is the offensive line that fared very well against the Rams and Texans. The defending champs have an upset in them. SELECTION: Eagles +6 (Philadelphia 23-17)
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.