Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans (-3.5, 36.5 o/u)
If you find yourself with no chores to do on Saturday afternoon, and are sick of watching Rush Hour 2 on cable, maybe you ought to switch over to ESPN? While I thought they were done showing bowl games nobody cares about, it appears there was one I forgot about. Apparently, it’s known as the “Winner gets slapped by the Patriots bowl”, but its formal name is the AFC Wild Card Game.
Featuring weak programs called the Oakland Raiders (12-4, 10-6 ATS) and Houston Texans (9-7, 6-9-1 ATS), it won’t be a good game, but it could certainly provide more comedic moments than a rewatching of a classic buddy cop movie starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker.
The game wasn’t always shaping up to be a battle of two bad teams. Just two weeks ago, little Oakland looked capable of achieving great things, led by MVP candidate Derek Carr. But in the five quarters the Raiders have played since Carr was lost for the season with a broken leg, they’ve been closer to an FCS school than a Super Bowl contender.
For starters, Oakland never possessed a good defense by nearly any metric. Ranked 26th in yards, 20th in points, and 24th in defensive DVOA, this isn’t a unit that can single-handedly lift this team to victory … against most teams, anyways. But the one thing the Raiders can do well on that side of the ball is generate turnovers, and Texans’ starting QB, Brock Osweiler, loves nothing more than turning the ball over.
On offense, the Raiders have an excellent offensive line and, for most of the season, had an effective run game. But that solid rushing attack was made possible because of the threat Carr and the pass game provided. Without Carr, the Raiders will face a stacked front from a stout Houston defense; success on the ground will be hard to find. In the first meeting between these teams (Week 11 in Mexico City), Oakland only tallied 30 yards on the ground. The Raiders still won, 27-20, thanks to 295 yards and three TDs from Carr, meaning rookie QB Connor Cook will need to have a good day throwing the football.
There’s no precedent for what to expect from Cook, as he’s the first quarterback in the modern era to make his first career start in the playoffs. But there are certainly worse spots he could be in for his first taste of postseason action.
Not only should he get great protection from his line, but Oakland’s receivers are great at gaining extra yards. The Raiders average 5.2 yards after the catch per reception, and have burned Houston this way before. In their regular season meeting, the Raider receivers gained 15, 34, and 51 yards after the catch on three separate scoring plays. As long as Cook can complete a few passes to receivers in space, his playmakers can do the rest.
Of course, offensive success in this game is a relative term. If either team reaches 17 points, it will probably be sitting pretty. The Texans finished the year with a dismal -49 point differential, mostly because their offense is so incompetent. Osweiler’s 5.8 yards per pass attempt put him dead-last in the NFL for starting QBs, by quite a wide margin (second-worst was Carson Wentz at 6.23). Houston’s $72 million man also threw 15 touchdowns to 16 interceptions and only had two games with a passer rating above 90.
The Texans likely won’t give Osweiler too many opportunities to sink their season in this game, opting to ride a healthy Lamar Miller against a porous Raider run D. But that isn’t a formula that yields large margins of victory. In fact, since mid-season, the Texans have won just one game by more than three points (a five-point win over the Colts).
Houston has the third worst total DVOA for a playoff team in NFL history, and now they are favored by more than a field goal. Sure, you have no reason to trust Cook in this spot, but you also have every reason to doubt Osweiler. Take the Raiders to keep it close.
Pick: Oakland (+3.5).
Photo credit: Karen (Flickr)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/]
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