Well, I’ll settle for a .500 record in an incredibly tough year for everyone, and that included trying to pick games in a season with all sorts of bumps, obstacles, and asterisks. Now, the playoffs are here, hopefully the last five weeks of “2020 Football” we’ll have to witness with limited/no fans, masks, and the backdrop of a global pandemic. Of course, next year will have its own set of problems and asterisks as the NFL unnecessarily expands to 17 games, but even that seems less daunting if it means we’re past the pandemic by then.
Alright, with that aside, let’s look at some football games. And a warm welcome to our first-ever No. 7 seeds! Did we say “unnecessary expansion?” The NFL got lucky in the AFC that its No. 7 seed, the Colts, won 11 games, but the 8-8 Bears should and will be overmatched as a charity-case playoff team. Still, this weekend figures to be fun, with three games apiece and less weekend free time (as if we have anything going on in our lives as the pandemic is still ongoing). A look:
Regular season record: 23-23-2 (.500)
Indianapolis at Buffalo (-6.5)
The Bills did it! Kind of. I mean, it their strategy for winning the AFC East was incredibly simple — wait nearly two decades until Tom Brady switched conferences, then make your move. Still, kudos to the Bills for an exciting, 500-plus-point season that could have featured 14 wins if not for a lucky “Hail Murray.” The Bills’ offensive is on fire right now, and whether it’s Josh Allen or Woody Allen, I’ll take any QB over Philip Rivers, any day (side note: how are we overlooking the fact that Bills coach Sean McDermott referred to Rivers this week as a “Hall of Famer?” Talk about overinflating your opponent’s ego).
Call me crazy, but even in a new type of pressure environment for the Bills — who will actually host over 6,000 fans at New Era Field — I like them over a Colts team that I just don’t trust, primarily because of Rivers. What a shame that after 25 years, a town as die-hard about football as Buffalo has to sit at home in quarantine when their Bills actually have a legitimate shot at a Super Bowl run. That’s life in 2020-21. Pick: Bills.
Los Angeles Rams at Seattle (-3.5)
The line on this game moved in favor of the Rams, and I understand why. Obviously, the more likely it is that Jared Goff plays, the better the chances of a Rams win. Also, Seattle may have 10 straight home playoff wins, but two things to note: one, the Seahawks won’t have any fans, thus so much for your 12th Man. Two, the last Seahawks home playoff loss was against the Rams, as Marc Bulger led the St. Louis outfit to a 27-20 win in the 2004 season.
Aaron Donald and the Rams’ defense seems to have recovered nicely from the shock of losing to the Jets, then losing to the Seahawks while seeing Goff suffer a thumb injury. But defense wins in the playoffs, and I trust LA’s much more than Seattle’s. Pick: Rams.
Tampa Bay (-9) at Washington
Oh how I want to pick Washington. The third sub-.500 team to win a division has history on its side, seeing how the previous two (including a Ron Rivera-led Panthers team in 2014) actually won their first playoff games. But Tom Brady may be on a mission here, and he seems due for a bounce-back playoff effort after falling in this round last year. This will be Brady’s first-ever road wild card playoff game, and the Bucs are hitting their stride on offense. Washington was extremely lucky to squeak by the Eagles and ruin the dream of a 6-10 division champion from the NFC Least, as it wasn’t so much that the WFT won but rather the Eagles lost (by their own choosing, no less). Perhaps if FedEx Field had fans (that played a huge role in 7-9 Seattle’s stunning win over New Orleans in 2010), I might take Washington with the points. Instead, give me the Bucs to make an opening-round statement. Pick: Buccaneers.
Baltimore (buying to -3 at -135) at Tennessee
Revenge game? We’ll see. The Titans may have Lamar Jackson’s number, beating him last year in the playoffs and again in the regular season this year, both in Baltimore. These teams have met four times in the playoffs, splitting the games with the road team winning all four. The Ravens are catching fire, especially in their running game, but I can’t imagine this will be easy. Thanks to a predictable Texans meltdown, Baltimore got the much tougher draw with Tennessee instead of Indy, and will have its hands full with Derrick Henry. But in the end, they should have just enough in the tank to sneak out a win… and a cover. Pick: Ravens.
Chicago at New Orleans (-10)
The Bears in the playoffs? Really? C’mon, man. No way, no how am I giving Mitchell Trubisky any shot here. The Saints are flying under the radar, which should bode well for them after continually falling short of expectations in recent years. The Bears did give New Orleans a tussle in taking the Saints to overtime in early November, but that was with Nick Foles and it was in Chicago. Even in a quieter-than-normal Superdome, I like the Saints to roll and prove why we really shouldn’t have seven teams from each conference in the playoff field. Pick: Saints.
Cleveland at Pittsburgh (-5.5)
Oh, the Browns. They waited 18 years to make the playoffs again, and like in 2002 they get the Steelers in Pittsburgh. It’s hard to overlook the Browns losing to the Jets and then barely escaping Mason Rudolph at home last week, and with Kevin Stefanski out of action, it’s going to be a major uphill climb for the Browns. But the Steelers have still slipped quite a bit after their 11-0 start, even if they appeared to catch themselves just in time with their comeback win over Indy two weeks ago. The fact that the Steelers are being counted out somewhat in terms of the overall playoff field could play in their favor, and Pittsburgh still brings one of the game’s top defenses to the equation. But strange things happen in this pandemic universe, and I could see Cleveland hanging around long enough to score a gentlemanly cover. Pick: Browns.