Wild-Card Weekend Forever, Y'all
Johnny Manziel has to know he's in trouble when rumors of him gallivanting around Las Vegas in a wig and fake mustache sound all too plausible. Perhaps he—like many Browns fans and players—has realized that, to quote Freddie Mercury, "nothing really matters." On a more existential level, perhaps Johnny Football can't figure out who he is after college—or at least recognizes that, in Cleveland at least, everything is absurd and nothing has any meaning.
Who gives a shit, really, you know? Who expects the Browns to do anything of importance before the close of this decade? Who expects Manziel not to take advantage of the fact that people want to party with him, with that goofy face of his? Imagine trying to have a serious moment as Johnny Football—you look into the mirror, mind heavy with questions about what you should do, the choices you've made, the type of person you're becoming, and you see that looking back at you. Is it any wonder the kid seems self-destructive?
In many ways, Cleveland is the perfect place for the ridiculous, farcical pageantry that is Johnny Manziel. He distracts from the systemic dysfunction that plagues the franchise like a rash—one that was picked up during a series of tequila-plagued decisions at a Spring Break party hosted by Johnny Maziel. (It's all so cyclical, don't you see? The Cleveland Browns, like time, are a flat circle.)
Other Ohioans still have a reason to get out of bed in the mornings, however, and perhaps we should direct our attention to them. The Cincinnati Bengals' season is still alive, even after Big Red (or the Red Rifle whatever Andy Dalton's nom de plume/ginger pun is this week) went down. Hell, looking back at the Bengals' postseason woes, there may be some corners of Cincinnati where fans are quite happy to learn that Dalton will be riding pine. They're at least relieved that T.J. Yates isn't coming to town, having owned Cincinnati's number twice in recent history. (And, you know, Yaters gonna yate.) (I stole that from my friend Cole. She may have stolen it from elsewhere—I'm just citing my sources, like a proper journalist.)
Cincinnati Bengals (3) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (6)
Saturday—CBS, 8:15 pm Eastern/5:15 pm Pacific
It causes me great personal displeasure to have to write about the Pittsburg Steelers in any situation, let alone when the word "playoffs" are involved. (Really, I have a bone to pick with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but that unhappiness has spread, like a rash. See? Cyclical. Everything is connected.)
I didn't really think this would happen, not this year. There wasn't a doubt in my mind that Fitzmagic and the revitalized New York Jets were going to beat the Bills. It seemed fitting, somehow, that the Jets would find a way into the playoffs after a preseason dominated by a punch to the face that would sideline Geno Smith. I guess it's somewhat of an homage to how weird this season has been that the Jets couldn't find a way to win, and the loathsome Pittsburgh Steelers snuck into the playoffs (even after losing to the Baltimore Ravens' B-Squad just weeks before).
But this is the NFL, which means you have to deal with shit you didn't think possible. And so here we are, talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers. In the playoffs.
Prediction: Pittsburgh does not "get hot at the right moment," à la the New York Giants every time they made a Super Bowl run and beat the Patriots. Cincinnati's defense comes up big, taking away Big Ben's ability to chuck the ball deep. (Sorry, Antonio Brown; you're welcome, Markus Wheaton.) Amazing name aside, Steelers RB3 Fitzgerald Toussaint (!!) just can't get enough done to establish the running game. A.J. McCarron—who really never impressed me while under Nick Saban's tutelage in Alabama—continues his relatively strong play of late (with plenty of help from "the other A.J." and "that TE who isn't Gronk"), and the Cincinnati Bengals finally get that playoff monkey off their back. Cue ESPN's 24-hour coverage of Andy Dalton's inability to win playoff games, and whether the Bengals should stick with McCarron going forward. There will be coverage of Tom Brady taking the reigns from Drew Bledsoe to complement ESPN analyst's arguments. I'm just giving you guys a heads up, that's all.
Cincinnati Bengals 24 - Pittsburgh Steelers 20
Houston Texans (4) vs. Kansas City Chiefs (5)
Saturday—ESPN, 4:35 pm Eastern/1:35 pm Pacific
Do we really need to talk about this game?
Okay. Fine. The Chiefs have won ten games in a row. The only real answer I see as to why the Chiefs might lose is "Alex Smith," and that's lazy, hack-y sports journalism. "Alex Smith" was decent answer during some ugly years in San Francisco, but with hindsight even that seems lazy and wrong. What young quarterback could be expected to succeed in the spiraling darkness that was the 49ers organization he was drafted into? (Makes me sad for whoever Trent Baalke nominates as the next savior of the Crimson and Gold. And, well shit, Chip Kelly just interviewed at Santa Clara, and people are talking about this seriously. Hmm. But back to business. The 49ers' continued implosion can wait.)
I'd have to actually do research to get real numbers, but let's just say Alex didn't have much in the way of consistency when it came to head coaches, offensive coordinators, quarterbacks coaches, systems, personnel, etc. Then, finally, Jim Harbaugh came along and, with a semblance of stability, Alex Smith had some of the best football games of his life. He was having a banner year before a concussion sidelined him and Harbaugh rode "the hot hand" in Colin Kaepernick all the way to the Super Bowl. (During which Alex was the picture of professionalism—no hissy fits, no subtle digs at Kaepernick, Harbaugh, the 49ers, just straight up class. That speaks volumes.)
Suffice it to say, I don't buy that "Alex Smith is a weakness" argument. He is the perfect quarterback for a team that's modus operandi is "Don't beat ourselves." (The man at one point this season threw 312 passes without an interception.) This is also a team that went on a ten-game win-streak after losing Jamaal Charles. (Read that sentence again. Let it sink in.) Yes, the Texans' defense is pretty good—you won't catch me saying a bad word about J.J. Watt and company. That said, the Texans will have to put their offense on the field every now and then. That's not going to work out so well.
Prediction: In a game that only budding defensive coordinators (and Chiefs fans) could love, Kansas City does more than enough to hand the Texans a loss. It may be closer than I imagine, but I don't see the final outcome ever being in doubt. Hell, sports people are on NFL Network talking about how Alex Smith might be a good daily fantasy pick.
Kansas City Chiefs 21 - Houston Texans 13
Washington Warriors (4) vs. Green Bay Packers (5)
Sunday—FOX, 4:40 pm Eastern/1:40 pm Pacific
"They're not called the Warriors," I hear you whine. "That's not their logo!" Whatever. I'm not calling the Washington football team by their offensive nickname or using their logo. I'm taking a stand, as other publications have already. (And, to be fair, This City of Islands didn't use the nickname back when we had a sports desk a few years ago.) For the purposes of writing about Washington, I have created a fictional world in my head where people like Dan Snyder realize a few things: (1) Maybe people (for one or two days) wouldn't think he was an awful, sloppy little man who smells like low tide if he made a change to his organization's name, and (2) New name = new jerseys = $$$$. Where is the Dan Snyder I know? The one who would pimp out his valet as a happy endings masseuse at an Arkansas truck stop if it meant a few extra nickels in his pocket every weekend? At least Trump has found a way to monetize his foul and disturbing personality.
"How is this about the game Sunday?" you ask. "I watch football to get away from the polarized bullshit that is American political discourse." Me too, dear reader. Me too. I apologize. This wasn't the place. On to the football.
Maybe it's the memory of Kirk Cousins screaming "You like that?!" at local sportswriters after an incredible come-from-behind victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but I am going with Washington in this game. They are playing at home, they appear to be firing on all cylinders (well, on offense), guys are stepping up, and Captain Kirk has turned in a damn impressive run of games for most of the 2015 season. Little Gruden is due for a big win. Kirk is due for some proper credit. (If you were watching ESPN at all today, plenty of doubters felt the need to remind Kirk enthusiasts that Washington hadn't played a whole hell of a lot of teams with winning records.) Hell, Washington is due for a playoff win. It's been a long damn time. Last time the Warriors were in this position, well... I don't need to remind Washington fans (or RGIII) about that awful moment.
On the other side of the ball, Green Bay are one of the two teams that quite literally limped into the playoffs (along with the New England Patriots). Aaron Rodgers does not look at all like Aaron Rodgers, and that has as much to do with his offensive line and wide receivers (who seem allergic to creating separation, and even when they do, seem equally allergic to holding on to the ball) as it does with him. In any case, the Packers have looked less than spectacular. This is a team that is missing something. I don't see them finding it on Sunday.
Prediction: This will in no way be a blowout. If Aaron Rodgers can actually show up, especially against Washington's secondary, this could even be a shootout-of-sorts. (Granted, his wide receivers will need to cooperate.) In the end, however, I see the team that believes in themselves, believes in their quarterback and their coach, and feels that Lady Luck and Fate are in their corner winning this game.
Washington Warriors 27 - Green Bay Packers 24
Minnesota Vikings (3) vs. Seattle Seahawks (6)
NBC, 1:05 pm Eastern / 10:05 am Pacific
Apparently it is going to be really cold in Minnesota on Sunday. Pete Carroll said today that Marshawn Lynch is "a game-time decision." All that in mind, I am not worried about the Seattle Seahawks.
First off, the Vikings themselves haven't played an outdoor winter home game in the playoffs in 39 years. (And if they find themselves in this position next year, which I imagine they will, the Vikings will again be spared the brutal outdoors inside their new stadium.) And let's not kid ourselves, no matter how hardy a Minnesotan you are, this level of cold is going to be messy. Granted, it doesn't get that cold here in Seattle (We did have snow the other day! No, it didn't stick), but I don't see the cold helping the Vikings in any significant way.
Secondly, if Marshawn can't suit up Sunday, the Seahawks have been finding ways to win without him (and even without the breakout talent Rawls). This is Russell Wilson's team, and he has been proving that over and over again during the last few months. Throwing Marshawn into the mix is just going to reinforce the dominant gear Seattle's offense has found, even against the newly appointed NFC West champions in the final game of the season.
Do I think the Vikings have a chance? Of course. They are a fantastic team with a great head coach. Minnesota beat the Packers handily to take the NFC North for themselves. It's a home game, and perhaps they will get a slight edge from the bitter cold. If this game was happening in 2017, I'd be much more worried. I think the Vikings are one season away from being the team they want to be (and everyone else is scared they'll become). That said, no, as much as I want to, I cannot count the Vikings out. And while some analysts will look at the December 6th game and say, "Well of course the Seahawks will win. They embarrassed the Vikings last month," I offer another read—yes, they were embarrassed, which means they have something to prove. You've seen how the Patriots play when they have a chip on their shoulder. I'm sure Zimmer has found a way to utilize this loss to his own ends: be it redemption, be it revenge—either way, it could prove to be a powerful driving force.
Prediction: The cold is not going to help the score for either team. The Vikings will try to establish the running game, and will have better luck than they did in December (where Peterson was held to 18 yards), but the Seattle defense won't let Peterson break 70 yards. The Legion of Boom will continue its ascendence this season (peaking at the right time), forcing Teddy Bridgewater to step up his game, which he will be able to do, for the most part. The Vikings will play hard enough enough to keep it close most of the game and to give Minnesota fans a lot of hope for the future, but it won't be enough this year. A number of people on Twitter will think they are very clever after the game writing shit like, "Whose playoffs are these? They're Russell Wilson's playoffs."
Seattle Seahawks 24 - Minnesota Vikings 17