NFL roundtable: Wild-card weekend upset picks

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron. (Gary Landers/AP)

Got a hot topic? Our NFL panel has opinions. The panel includes NFL editor Craig Battle, Sportsnet deputy editor Jordan Heath-Rawlings, staff writers Mike Johnston and Jeff Simmons, and associate editor Geoff Lowe.

Which wild-card round underdog could you see getting a win this weekend?

BATTLE: Cincinnati. Is there a more unsuccessful successful team in the history of pro sports? They’ve now made the playoffs in five consecutive years (and six of the last seven), and if they win at home on Saturday night against the Steelers it will be their first victory in all those games. Of course, given their history of first-round flameouts—and their shaky quarterback situation with AJ McCarron starting his first playoff game and fourth game overall—that’s far from a sure thing, as evidenced by the fact that the home team will play the underdog. Still, McCarron put up 280 yards and two touchdowns on the Steelers despite losing breakout player Tyler Eifert mid-game in a 33–20 loss in Week 14. Plus, if McCarron manages to avoid the two uncharacteristic interceptions he threw in that game (they were his only two of the season in 119 attempts), the result this Saturday could be vastly different.

SIMMONS: This is pretty funny considering I picked Green Bay to win the Super Bowl in our pre-season predictions and chose Washington to finish dead last in the league, but a lot has changed since then and I like the Redskins over the Packers this weekend. Green Bay is a mess. Aaron Rodgers has no confidence in the Packers’ play calls and his receivers aren’t getting open consistently. It’s led to an offence with no bread-and-butter plays and a team without an identity. And that’s trouble for a team going on the road in the post-season.

On the other hand, Kirk Cousins is one of the hottest QBs in the league. He led the NFL in passer rating and completion percentage over the second half of the year and the Redskins are actually playing pretty well, albeit against lesser competition.

Yes, Rodgers is far more accomplished than Cousins but the Packers inspire no confidence right now and I think they are one and done in the playoffs.

JOHNSTON: Is it odd that pretty much every home team is listed as the underdog this week or is it just me? Even though the Steelers beat the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium less than a month ago, I like Cincinnati in this one. Had DeAngelo Williams not gotten injured last week I might have a different feeling. But even though the Bengals haven’t made it past the wild-card round since 1990, that changes this year because regardless of who starts at quarterback the Cincinnati defence will be able to limit the Steelers’ big plays.

HEATH-RAWLINGS: I’m not trying to mess with the editorial process here (editor’s note: yeah, right), but I really, really want to say “none” here. The elite Chiefs defence should rip up the Texans one-note Hoyer-to-Hopkins attack. The Seahawks are one of the hotter teams in the league and have already destroyed the Vikings 38–7 in Minnesota earlier this year. I will take Ben Roethlisberger over AJ McCarron no matter where on Earth the game is played, and—though I feel like this might be an upset pick by game day—as bad as the Packers have been recently I still want to trust Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs over a Washington team that has looked good recently against (hold your nose) the Cowboys, Eagles, Bills and Bears. Washington was 5-7 before that unimpressive four-game win streak. The last two times they faced teams that finished the season above .500, they had 44 points hung on them by Cam Newton and were crushed 27-10 by the Patriots in a game they were never close to winning. I’ll take my chances with the still-reigning MVP on the road, as ugly as his team has looked. So no, I don’t like that.

LOWE: I could see the Texans bringing an end to the Chiefs’ 10-game win streak. First, Houston is undefeated at home in the playoffs (2-0). Second, I think the Texans’ defence matches up well against the Chiefs. Kansas City’s offence achieves success by protecting the football and establishing the run, both of which the vaunted Houston D does a hell of a job disrupting.

J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus and the Texans’ pass rush could give Alex Smith fits, leading to some uncharacteristic turnovers. Houston has forced 11 turnovers in the last four weeks. Over their 10-game win streak, the Chiefs have averaged more than 143 rushing yards a game. Meanwhile, the Texans have surrendered an average of just 77 yards on the ground in the nine games since being blown out by Miami in Week 7, and have given up 50, 30 and 32 rushing yards over the last three games, respectively.

Now I’m not saying I’d personally pick Houston over K.C., I wouldn’t, but if I had to choose an underdog I “could see” winning this weekend, I’d be the Texans.

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