Amari Cooper, Andrew Luck, Bill O'Brien, Chris Carson, Dallas Cowboys, Darius Leonard, DeAndre Hopkins, Deshaun Watson, Doug Baldwin, Eric Ebron, Ezekiel Elliott, Frank Reich, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jason Garrett, Jaylon Smith, JJ Watt, Josh McDaniels, Legion of Boom, Leighton Vander Esch, Marlon Mack, NFL, Pete Carroll, Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks, Ty Hilton, Tyler Lockett
So here we are at the start of the playoffs with a Wildcard Saturday that features two games.
Indianapolis Colts (6th) @ Houston Texans (3rd)
The first game of the playoffs is an AFC South divisional rivalry game that sees the Texans host the Colts.
The Texans took a slightly strange route to the playoffs as they lost their opening three games and there was talk that Bill O’Brien’s job was in danger, but then they went on a nine game winning streak before alternating wins and losses. The strength of this team is their top ten defence, even if their special teams unit does rank higher by DVOA, but this defence features a strong front seven including a healthy JJ Watt and a slightly suspect pass secondary. Meanwhile on offence they have relied on running the ball and Deshaun Watson’s legs to compliment DeAndre Hopkins amazing ability as receiver. Hopkins should be considered amongst the best receivers in the game but does not have a lot of help around him and the Texans’ offensive line is definitely a problem. We’ll take a look at how this might play out shortly, but firstly let’s talk about how the Colts got to this game.
The Colts also had a tricky start to the season that included an overtime loss to the Texans that sparked the Texans’ nine game winning streak. However, slowly all three phases of the team came together in Frank Reich’s first season in charge and that in of itself is something worth talking about. The Colts were ready to officially announce Patriots’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as their new head coach once the Super Bowl was over, only for McDaniels to pull out at the last minute and leave the Colts scrambling to find a new coach and what a coach they found. Frank Reich left the Super Bowl winning Eagles and was able to use the staff that had already been assembled for McDaniels to turn the Colts from a team who went 4-12 last season to a 10-6 team that returned Andrew Luck to health and form. The defence was the first thing to come together, ably led in tackles by rookie linebacker Darius Leonard, they dragged themselves into the tenth best unit in the game by DVOA. Meanwhile, for pretty much the first time in his career Andrew Luck has an offensive line that gives him more than a couple of seconds to get rid of the ball and Marlon Mack has given them enough balance as a runner to make this offence effective. We all knew that TY Hilton was a great receiver but free-agent acquisition tight-end Eric Ebron has also benefitted from his new surroundings, contributing thirteen touchdowns to go with his seven hundred and fifty yards.
This should be an interesting matchup between two teams who obviously know each other well. Earlier in the season Deshaun Watson was over exposing himself running the ball and had to deal with bruised lung and ribs that were serious enough that he was bussed to one road game rather than flown. The defence of the Colts should be able to match up to the Texans’ offence, particularly as they will be able to double Hopkins without too much worry as long as they can contain Watson. Meanwhile if the Colts offensive line can protect Luck as they have recently then the Colts should be able to move the ball effectively on the Texans. The Texans lost their last home gain against the Colts, and whilst I can see it being another close game I actually kind of fancy the road underdog to spring the upset.
Seattle Seahawks (5th) @ Dallas Cowboys (4th)
The Dallas Cowboys are another team who started relatively slowly, going 3-5 before turning things around and only losing one more game this season. The catalyst for this transformation appears to be the trade for Amari Cooper, and whilst his success does not negate the argument that the Cowboys traded away too much to get him, the move certainly helped this team. As did the defence’s transformation from one that was overly reliant on linebacker Sean Lee to one that thrived on the play of rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith finally beginning to show some of the college form that excited so many before his horrible knee injury in his final bowl game. The Cowboys are actually only ranked twenty-first in the league by DVOA, although their defence is top ten but their winning formula has been utilising the NFL leading rusher Ezekiel Elliott more effectively whilst Amari Cooper has opened up the passing game enough to make the Cowboys a functional offence if an uninspiring twenty-fourth by DVOA.
This Saturday they host a Seattle Seahawks team that many had written off in pre-season as they overhauled their roster, moving away the last vestiges of the Legion of Boom defence and collecting young talent. However, Pete Carroll has returned to the formula that saw him have so much success and so whilst the defence only ranks fourteenth in the league by DVOA, the offence ranks in the top ten thanks to their run first approach and Russell Wilson efficient play in the passing game. The now thirty-year old quarterback threw thirty-five touchdown and only seven interceptions, relying on his chemistry with Tyler Lockett and Doug Baldwin when available. However, Chris Carson has run for eleven hundred yards in fourteen games and it is the run first approach that has allowed the Seahawks to remain competitive and overcome an 0-2 start to make the playoffs.
This should be a bruising old school game that is going to feature two tough defences and a lot of running the ball. The Seahawks actually rank nine places better than the Cowboys by overall DVOA and given Pete Carroll’s playoff experience, not to mention a Super Bowl win, it is hard not to give them the edge over Jason Garrett’s Cowboys. It might be one for the football purist but I’m certainly looking forward to it.