Oakland Raiders (12-4) at Houston Texans (9-7)
The Texans won the AFC South and will host a home playoff game, but they had probably the worst regular season of any team that made the playoffs. Their 9 wins came by a combined 44 points with their biggest margin of victory being 9 points, back in a 23-14 week 1 victory over the Chicago Bears, who ended the season with 3 wins. Their 7 losses, meanwhile, came by a combined 93 points, giving them a -49 point differential, 7th worst in the NFL, right between non-playoff teams Carolina and Jacksonville. They also enter the post-season 7th worst in the NFL in first down rate differential and with a -10 offensive touchdown differential, 5th worst in the league. Their 23 offensive touchdowns scored were the lowest in the league by any team, but they were able to make the playoffs thanks to a weak division and a lot of close wins, as well as a capable, but far from elite defense.
The Texans luck out again though, as they get probably the easiest playoff matchup they could have gotten. The Raiders won 12 games, but enter the playoffs in about as bad of an injury situation as possible. After hardly having any injuries to starters this season, the Raiders are now without starting quarterback Derek Carr and probably Donald Penn, their valuable blindside protector and one of the best left tackles in the league. Those are two major blows to their offense. Connor Cook will make the start for the Raiders this week, even though he’s a 4th round rookie who has never made a start in his career, making him the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to make his first NFL start in the post-season.
Cook played about a half last week against Denver, in relief of Matt McGloin, a veteran backup who struggled before leaving the game with a shoulder injury. Cook outplayed McGloin, but only by default. He’s also only seen practice reps the past two weeks because he was the 3rd string quarterback until Carr went down and 3rd string quarterbacks don’t practice during the week. He even admitted after last week’s game that he was calling plays he didn’t know. He’ll get a full week with the first team in practice this week, but he’s still in a very tough situation. McGloin is expected to be active this week as the backup, meaning we could easily see both quarterbacks in this one if Cook struggles early.
Even before the injury, the Raiders were not as good as their record. Eight of their 12 victories have come by 7 points or fewer, including a 5-0 record in games decided by a field goal or less and they have a point differential of just +31, just behind non-playoff teams in the Eagles and Ravens (both at +36). That’s despite the fact that the Raiders have a league best +16 turnover margin. Turnover margins are incredibly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and, if we assumed turnover neutral football for them going forward, which we always should, it was hard to see them advancing deep in the playoffs even with Carr. I’m taking them as 4 point underdogs in Houston because of how many close games the Texans have played this year (4 wins by 4 points or fewer), but the Raiders, without Carr and Penn, are one of the worst teams in the league, so I can’t take them with any sort of confidence, even as bad as Houston is.
Houston Texans 16 Oakland Raiders 13
Pick against the spread: Oakland +4