Chalk Dust Is Supposed to Make It Hard to See, Except This TimeWild card weekend did nothing to alter my conviction 2016-17 has been the dullest NFL season in over 25 years. Four football games with a total score of 121-45, all of their outcomes obvious by halftime, revealed only that the eight teams participating did not get playoff byes for some very good reasons.
If Las Vegas is to be believed, and it should be more often than not, next Saturday night will be even more boring for devotees of competitive football. The early line has the Patriots as modest 17-point favorites over the Houston Texans. That's a line one usually sees for Iowa State-Oklahoma games, not the NFL divisional round. It is the house's way of giving up, a plea to attract at least a few contrarian investors who see taking big points as playing with the house's money. These are the sort of investors who trade on Donald Trump's tweets.
The Patriots are not as unbeatable at home in the postseason as many of their enthusiasts believe. Ask Rex Ryan and Joe Flacco. The Texans, however, appear perfectly suited for their role as prohibitive underdogs. Houston has a competent but hardly overwhelming defense. On offense, they boast a journeyman running back in Lamar Miller, an outstanding receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, and Brock Osweiler, a quarterback whose most impressive statistic is his bank balance. Brock will begin the 2017-18 season in second place on the team's depth chart unless Houston wins the Super Bowl.
Throughout history, there's been one immutable truth about the NFL playoffs. From Jim Brown through Barry Sanders through Odell Beckham Jr. last night, a team with a defense good enough to help it reach the postseason can take any one wideout or running back, no matter how great, out of a game. Take the 17 points if you must, plungers, but the safest bet for this game is that Hopkins will spend most his time running wind sprints alongside multiple New England defensive backs.
In 16 regular season games that included six AFC South opponents, Houston scored an average of a bit over 17 points a game. That'll win in the playoffs if the team in question is the 1985 Bears or 2000 Ravens. The chance Houston's defense will reach that level against the Pats is remote.
Remote does not equal unpossible. Turnovers, plays owing more to luck than ability or design, etc. are football's equalizers, and Houston isn't a sad sack outfit like the Jets, Rams, Browns and 49ers, to cite some random Pats' regular season victims. The Texans have enough ability to capitalize on big breaks. Too bad they need about five of 'em.
Despite the above paragraphs, I wouldn't advise betting ON the Pats. Giving 17 points is basically a declaration that you believe a team is so good bad luck can't hurt it and that this superiority cannot be affected by letting up in garbage time. Betting against both fate and human nature is risky.
Not as risky as betting only on fate and human nature though. Anyone betting Houston this week is investing on the proposition that the football won't take merely funny bounces, they'll be hysterical.