Did I close out the regular season as badly as the New York Jets did? No, I wouldn’t go that far. Although 8-8 straight-up is a stumble to the finish line, while 8-7-1 against the spread left me oh so agonizingly under .500 for the season vs. Mr. Vegas. And that .613 season mark overall is our worst since 2010. It was a tough year in general for most prognosticators, but still. All in all, I’d say my 25th anniversary season of Friday Page NFL predictions was worth celebrating about like the Dolphins’ 50th season was. I’m just thankful I wasn’t Philbined by the Herald and replaced by an interim picker. Anyway, clean slate. Playoffs. Let’s go!
CHIEFS (11-5, No. 5 seed) at TEXANS (9-7, No. 4 seed)
Line: KC by 3 1/2.
Cote’s pick: HOU 20-17.
TV: 4:35 p.m. Saturday, ABC/ESPN.
Saturday’s kickoff to the four NFL Wild-Card Weekend games is a duel of no-quit teams. Chiefs once were 1-5 and lost star RB Jamaal Charles. Texans were 2-5 and without star RB Arian Foster. Yet here they are, nobody’s Super Bowl picks but in the playoffs nonetheless. KC did it with 10 wins in a row. HOU did it by becoming first team since 1950 to make the postseason with four different QBs winning games. Chiefs defense has been really good but Texans’ might be better, averaging 12.7 points over past nine games and holding five of those foes to six points or fewer. I sniff an upset. KC last won a road playoff game in 1993. Texans are 2-0 at home in playoffs. Watch J.J. Watt and crew to force a rare mistake (or two) by Alex Smith. “Aawwk!” blurts the Upset Bird. “What? Oh. Forgot. I only appear during the regular season. Too bad. Too baawwk!”
STEELERS (10-6, No. 6 seed) at BENGALS (12-4, No. 3 seed)
Line: PIT by 3.
Cote’s pick: PIT 24-20.
TV: 8:15 p.m. Saturday, CBS.
Cincy coach Marvin Lewis is 0-6 in playoffs, and Bengals have lost seven in a row since their last postseason win in 1990. Usually we can blame that on Lewis and Andy Dalton. Now we can pin it on Dalton being injured. AJ McCarron gets his fourth pro start, and last QB with that little experience to win in playoffs was Gifford Nielsen … of the Oilers … in 1979. Pittsburgh sackers (48, third in league) could make it a tough night for McCarron. I’d feel better if I were sure RB DeAngelo Williams (leg) would play for Pitt, but even without him, Ben Roethlisberger’s Steelers have the firepower to outscore McCarron. These rivals’ second-ever playoff meeting and first since ’05 finds ’Burgh on a 4-1 series run and Big Ben 11-2 in his career at Cincy. May those trends continue for another game, if only in the blatantly selfish interest of this prediction.
Broncos (12-4, No. 1 seed): As if there were much (or any?) doubt, Denver confirmed Thursday that Peyton Manning will start next week over Brock Osweiler. Peyton’s healthy again, although in his case that’s a relative term.
Patriots (12-4, No. 2 seed): Two weeks ago Pats won overtime coin flip and didn’t take the ball. Last week in Miami, Tom Brady threw five passes the entire first half. Is Bill Belichick showing early senility or what?
SEAHAWKS (10-6, No. 6 seed) at VIKINGS (11-5, No. 3 seed)
Line: SEA by 5.
Cote’s pick: SEA 27-13.
TV: 1:05 p.m. Sunday, NBC.
I don’t disrespect or underestimate Minnesota. I don’t. Teddy Bridgewater is on a 9-2 run in home starts, Adrian Peterson led the NFL in rushing, and the Vikings well earned their first division title since 2009. But I wonder: What has really changed in the five weeks since Seattle clobbered Minny 38-7? It’s a rhetorical question. Answer: Not nearly enough. Minny is a happy-to-be-here playoff team. Seattle is one that could reach the Super Bowl for a third consecutive season. Seahawks have won five road games in a row, are rolling behind a good-as-ever defense and have a QB, Russell Wilson, who has played to an MVP caliber in season’s second half. And now (oh by the way) it looks like RB Marshawn Lynch will finally return from injury. I doubt these teams’ first playoff meeting will go well for the fellas in purple.
PACKERS (10-6, No. 5 seed) at REDSKINS (9-7, No. 4 seed)
Line: GB by 1.
Cote’s pick: GB 23-21.
TV: 4:40 p.m. Sunday, Fox.
It’s weird, right? Before this season, or even early in it, the quarterback disparity would have marked this matchup, and it would have been a decisively a big edge for Aaron Rodgers over Kirk Cousins. But now? It’s “You Like That!?” Cousins who has had a better year, is playing better lately and deserved to make the Pro Bowl ahead of Rodgers. And that (as much as the home field) is why the cleanup game of Wild-Card Weekend is a near pick-’em contest. These franchises’ third playoff meeting (1936, 1972) finds Washington on a 6-1 run at home, and finds the Gee Bees decidedly mediocre since a 6-0 start. So why do I back the Pack? Postseason experience, a continuing belief in Rodgers, and this: GB’s strong pass defense will challenge Cousins, and Eddie Lacy should get untracked against an average Skins run-D.
Panthers (15-1, No. 1 seed): For Carolina and likely league MVP Cam Newton, the pressure wasn’t trying to go 16-0 in the regular season. The pressure is to not be the 15-1 team that loses its first playoff game.
Cardinals (13-3, No. 2 seed): Arizona was becoming a trendy pick to win the Super Bowl. Then they lost 36-6 at home to Seattle last week. Now they must prove they’re as good as that record would claim they are.