NFL Wild Card Saturday Preview: Can Oakland and Seattle Advance?
After a grueling NFL regular season, teams are now preparing themselves for the "real" season that starts on Saturday in their quest to raise the Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl champions in Houston.
While the top two seeds in each conference enjoy a first-round bye, a chance to rest up and mentally prepare for their next possible opponent, the other four playoff contenders will continue the week-to-week grind into their 17th game this season.
In the two contests on Saturday, we've got an expected low scoring affair between the home Houston Texans and the Oakland Raiders, while our evening matchup between the home Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions showcases two of the NFL's more efficient signal callers, per our metrics.
Let’s dig in.
Houston versus Oakland
Featuring easily the lowest over-under of the weekend slate at -36.5 points, we have two teams with starting quarterbacks who have struggled or who are wildly unproven.
Connor Cook will become first QB in Super Bowl era (since 1966) to make first career start in a postseason game:https://t.co/oJ1W6dArhd
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 4, 2017
Merely a few weeks ago, this game would have featured a much different storyline. With Carr at the helm, using our opponent-adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) per play metrics, Oakland's offense ranked sixth in the league in 2016. After Carr's injury, they turned to Matthew McGloin, but he too suffered an injury and will perhaps operate in a backup capacity for this contest.
So the Raiders now hand the reigns over to Cook, who was drafted in the fourth round this year by the Raiders and has 21 drop backs to his name. Not the most ideal situation.
The Texans, however, have seen their own carousel at the position, driven partly by ineffectiveness and partly due to injury. Brock Osweiler signed a large, $72 million contract this offseason, but he has not performed up to expectations. Among the 34 signal callers with 200 drop backs or more in 2016, Osweiler ranked 32nd with a Passing NEP per drop back mark of -0.04. Osweiler was one of only five quarterbacks to record a negative Passing NEP per drop back in 2016.
Luckily for Osweiler, it looks like a big piece of the puzzle is set to return in lead back Lamar Miller. Miller has missed the last two contests with an injury, which he originally sustained against Jacksonville in November. Miller, though, was not exactly the most efficient runner in 2016. Among 33 running backs with 125 carries or more, Miller ranked 27th in terms of Rushing NEP per play at -0.07.
The Oakland backfield, meanwhile, is a bit of a hot mess. Latavius Murray, who led Oakland in carries this season and ranked 10th in Rushing NEP per play amongst the same group of runners (0.04), only saw 30% of offensive snaps in Week 17, per Football Outsiders. DeAndre Washington led Oakland in carries and is coming off a strong Week 16 performance where he rushed 12 times for 99 yards and 2 scores.
On the defensive side of the ball, Houston has been one of the best units all year and finished fourth in our adjusted per-play metrics. Even without J.J. Watt, this team has been strong both against the pass (fifth) and the run (sixth). Oakland, unfortunately, cannot boast the same strength on the defensive side of the ball, as they rank 23rd overall and are about as generous against the run (23rd) as they are the pass (24th).
Our algorithm sees this game as a toss up, with Houston appearing to have a slight edge and are expected to win 50.5% of the time. More than likely, this game will come down to who plays better between the ineffective (Osweiler), unproven (Cook) quarterbacks.
Seattle versus Detroit
Wilson leads the Seahawks on the heels of an up-and-down 2016. Wilson ranked 16th in 2016 in Passing NEP per drop back at 0.14 and sported the lowest rushing total of his professional career at only 259 yards. But Wilson certainly appears to enjoy the friendly confines of home -- in 2016 at home, Wilson tossed 13 touchdown passes against only 3 interceptions.
On the road, Wilson tossed an equal number of touchdowns and interceptions (eight). Fortunately for Seattle fans, he will take to his home turf Saturday evening.
For the Lions, Stafford leads a passing attack that, despite the loss of All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson, was one of the more efficient attacks in the league.
Stafford ranked 10th among passers in Passing NEP per drop back at 0.18, which is all the more impressive with his 631 drop backs. Both Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin ranked among the top 30 wide receivers in the league in terms of Reception NEP per target (15th and 29th, respectively), among 68 wide outs who saw 100 targets or more.
And while Stafford suffered a finger injury on his throwing hand not believed to be serious in Week 14, since that point forward, he has thrown more interceptions (five) than touchdowns (three).
Both running games have seen some highs and lows in 2016. As we previewed here in a previous Thursday night tilt, Seattle has dealt with many injuries so far in the backfield, and Thomas Rawls currently owns the starting role. Rawls, however, has been pretty inefficient this year, perhaps due to his fibula injury he's worked his way back from.
Rawls racked up -14.30 Rushing NEP this season on 109 carriers, good for -0.13 Rushing NEP per play. Among 42 running backs with 100 carriers or more, Rawls ranked 38th in per-play efficiency. Alex Collins was effective in a small workload in Week 17, rushing 7 times for 55 yards and could be in line for more work.
Michael Bennett calls Lions' Zach Zenner the best white running back in the NFL, says Golden Tate looks like a birdhttps://t.co/8NGi1eaIF3 pic.twitter.com/EDsqcFskfc
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 4, 2017
Zenner has been slightly below league average as a rusher -- in 88 carriers this season, he's averaged -0.04 Rushing NEP per play. As a pass catcher, however, he has been pretty effective. While he's only received 23 targets due to the limited playing time, he's racked up a Reception NEP per target of 0.44, which puts him 13th among rushers with 80 attempts or more.
In checking out these two defenses, it's a complete mismatch. Seattle ranks sixth in our adjusted per-play metrics, whereas Detroit ranks almost dead last at 31st.
Our algorithm doesn't see this one being too close, as we think the Seahawks will win this game outright 69.9% of the time. And when you factor in this is a night game, the odds for the Seahawks only seem to get better. Per Oddshark, the Seahawks are 20-4-2 against the spread in their last 26 night games.