LOS ANGELES, January 15, 2016 — The NFL Wild Card round saw all four road teams favored. Those road teams all won.
The Steelers defeated the Bengals in a physically brutal game. The Seahawks survived the Vikings in bitter cold conditions that only 88-year-old former Vikings coach Bud Grant could handle. The Chiefs blew out the Texans from the opening kickoff while the Packers as expected steamrolled over the overmatched Redskins.
As great as the games are, this was one of the strangest weeks in the history of the National Football League. Never in recent memory has so much NFL news happened not involving an actual game or the Draft. Before getting to the Divisional playoff matchups, try and absorb the NFL stories that came from every direction.
At the very moment the President of the United States was giving his final State of the Union, the National Football League was holding a major press conference. The roles seemed reversed. The president was holding a pep rally. Leaders of a game were holding a serious news conference with bombshell front page news. This is less a reflection of politics and government than the fact that Americans have an insatiable hunger for football. Normally the NFL would delay their press conference, but sports reporters across the world wanted to hear what the NFL had to say. As President Obama addressed the nation, leatherheads were glued to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Goodell made it official. The Rams are leaving St. Louis. They will be returning to Los Angeles for the 2016 NFL season. The Raiders are staying in Oakland for the 2016 season. The fate of the Chargers is up to the Chargers. They may stay in San Diego, but they have up to one year to decide if they want to join the Rams in Los Angeles. If the Chargers refuse to join the Rams, the Raiders then have one year from that refusal to decide if they want to move to Los Angeles. The fate of four cities hung in the balance. This was theatre.
Major coaching changes happened. The Dolphins hired Adam Gase. The Browns hired Hue Jackson. The 49ers hired Chip Kelly after Tom Coughlin withdrew his name from consideration. The Giants promoted Ben McAdoo to replace Coughlin. Chuck Pagano was supposed to be fired. Instead the Colts gave him a four-year contract extension. The Buccaneers fired Lovie Smith out of nowhere and are expected to promote their own offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. The Eagles are expected to hire Doug Pederson, the offensive coordinator for the Chiefs.
A heartwarming story came in the wake of an agonizing defeat. Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field goal that cost the Vikings the game. He cried his eyes out after the game and took full responsibility. He made no excuses. A bunch of Minnesota first-graders wrote him letters telling him to feel better. He was so touched that he visited the kids at their school. They gave him a stuffed animal and other gifts. This was humanity at its best, and a shining example of how football can be a force for good.
The darker side came with the suicide of former Rams running back Lawrence Phillips at age 40. Phillips went from being a talented but troubled college star to an NFL bust who was sentenced to decades in prison. After killing his cell-mate, Phillips committed suicide rather than face another trial that could have resulted in the death penalty. Phillips is not an accurate representation of NFL culture, but he is a cautionary tale of what happens when young, rich guys cannot handle being young and rich.
After all of this, there are still actual games to play. Here is the NFL 2015-2016 Divisional Preview and Bettor’s Guide, with point spreads provided by FootballLocks.com and all times Eastern.
Saturday, January 16:
5.) 11-5 Kansas City Chiefs at 2.) 12-4 New England Patriots (-4.5) at 4:30 p.m. on CBS
The Chiefs have won 11 straight games, but do not be fooled. They have a good defense, but Alex Smith deserves the label of dink and dunk West Coast Offense game manager. It is one thing to knock off Houston and play with a lead given to you by special teams in defense. It is quite another to play catchup. Tom Brady does not have good offensive line protection, but the Patriots are at home and well rested. This week is the reality check. Patriots cover.
5.) 10-6 Green Bay Packers at 13-3 Arizona Cardinals (-7) at 8:00 p.m. on NBC.
The Cardinals did lose at home by 30 in their regular season finale, but they beat the Packers by 30 points at home last month. The Cardinals may be the most complete team in the NFL. The Packers looked great last week against an overmatched Washington squad, but this is where the rubber meets the road. It will be a better game than last time, but Bruce Arians has a well-rested and very focused team who still is smarting from being robbed of their quarterback last year. Cardinals win but fail to cover.
Sunday, January 17:
6.) 10-6 Seattle Seahawks at 1.) 15-1 Carolina Panthers (-1.5) at 1:00 p.m. on Fox
Carolina won in thrilling fashion in Seattle earlier this year. The previous three years the Seahawks won three straight times in Carolina. Seattle has been a wrecking machine in recent weeks. They will not be intimidated by the Panthers. Champions go down fighting, and until they are beaten the Seahawks are the two-time defending NFC champions. Carolina rested up, but Seattle has beast Mode Marshawn Lynch finally ready to go. Upset special, Seahawks win outright.
6.) 10-6 Pittsburgh Steelers at 1.) 12-4 Denver Broncos (-7) at 4:30 p.m. on CBS
Until last week, Pittsburgh was supposed to be the most dangerous AFC team that nobody wanted to face. That was with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben got rocked last week in Cincinnati. He showed grit and courage in the win but he has a separated soldier. Denver’s defense is going to tee off on him or Landry Jones. Denver can run the football, and Peyton Manning showed that reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated. Denver is well-rested and will win the battle of the trenches. Broncos cover.