The wait is over! The NFL Playoffs are finally upon us, starting with this weekend’s wild-card games. Listen to the national call for each game wild-card weekend on SiriusXM NFL Radio. For home and away broadcasts, visit the SiriusXM NFL schedule.
Here’s a preview and prediction for each game:
AFC wild-card games
Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans, Saturday, Jan. 9 at 4:35 p.m.
After starting the season 1-5, the Chiefs ride a 10-game winning streak into their wild-card match-up with the AFC South champion Texans. Quarterback Alex Smith looks to have shed his “game-manager” label thanks to potent connections with wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and tight end Travis Kelce. Smith, who has a completion percentage of 65.3, has thrown 13 of his 20 touchdowns to Maclin (8) or Kelce (5). But Smith does struggle throwing the deep ball, and the Texans excel in defending the short passing game, which may lead to the Chiefs relying on their rushing attack. Since losing star running back Jamaal Charles for the season, Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware have proven to be viable options out of the backfield. If West and Ware can get going on the ground, it will open up the play-action pass game. Kansas City also boasts a stout defense with virtually no holes, ranking seventh in the NFL in total defense. The Chiefs love to get after the quarterback as seven players have at least four sacks, including star pass rusher Justin Houston, who will be returning from an elbow injury. Translation: Life could get difficult for Texans starter Brian Hoyer.
Houston went 9-7 and made the playoffs thanks to their spot in the league’s most abysmal division (outside of the NFC East, natch). The AFC South champs will rely on their third-ranked defense to keep the game close. J.J. Watt is the league leader in sacks with 17.5, and is an absolute menace to opposing offenses. Brian Cushing leads the team with 110 tackles and is just as important as Watt. On offense, Hoyer must go to DeAndre Hopkins early and often to give them a chance. The Texans have almost no rushing attack, running for just seven touchdowns during the season with Alfred Blue (698 yards) leading the way. Hopkins is a stud on the outside, totaling 111 receptions and 1,521 yards (good for third in the NFL) to go with 11 receiving touchdowns. He will likely be matched up with rookie cornerback Marcus Peters, who is tied for the league-lead with eight interceptions.
The Texans’ only real option on offense is Hopkins, which will make things easy on the Chiefs defense. Kansas City might struggle early, but eventually will put points on the board.
Prediction: Chief 17, Texans 6.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals, Saturday, Jan. 9 at 8:10 p.m.
It’s always fun when division rivals meet in the postseason, and this game will be no different. The AFC North champion Bengals went 12-4, but have yet to prove that they can win in the playoffs despite years of regular-season success. It’s looking like Andy Dalton will have to sit out this game as he is listed as doubtful, still healing from a broken thumb, leaving the reins in the hands of A.J. McCarron. McCarron took over for Dalton in Week 14 against the Steelers and finished with 280 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He will have to take advantage of the Bengals’ weapons in the passing offense in receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones and tight end Tyler Eifert. Green has been reliable for his entire career, and the threat of his breakaway speed opens things up for Jones. Eifert, meanwhile, is a touchdown machine with 13 scores. Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard rushed for 794 and 730 yards, respectively, giving the Bengals a 1-2 punch at running back. Cincinnati’s versatile defense features five players with at least 70 tackles, and ranks third in the league with 21 interceptions.
The Steelers finished 10-6 and made it into the playoffs by virtue of owning the tiebreaker over the New York Jets. Still, Pittsburgh is arguably the most dangerous team in the playoffs thanks to the combination of a high-octane offense and an opportunistic defense. The Ben Roethlisberger–Antonio Brown tandem is the best quarterback-receiver connection in the league. But in two games against Cincinnati, Brown failed to crack the 100-yard mark and caught just one touchdown. Unfortunately for the Bengals, even if they can contain Brown, they will have to deal with Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton. Steelers leading running back DeAngelo Williams is questionable with a foot injury. After losing Le’Veon Bell for the season, Pittsburgh cannot afford to be without Williams, as the team’s third-leading rusher is backup quarterback Michael Vick. The Steelers defense ranks third in the league with 48 sacks, and will look to challenge the inexperienced McCarron all game long.
The Bengals’ postseason failures have been well-documented, and this might have been the year they get over the hump – if only Dalton was starting. Pittsburgh is a veteran group who won’t have issues playing on the road, and will relish the opportunity to make a statement against its division rival.
Prediction: Steelers 31, Bengals 16.
NFC wild-card games
Seattle Seahawks at Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, Jan. 10 at 1:05 p.m.
After all the hubbub about the Seahawks starting the season 2-4, Seattle found its groove and won eight of its last 10 games. The offense is clicking at the right time, led by Russell Wilson. The fourth-year quarterback has completed at least 60 percent of his passes in each of the last seven games, throwing three or more touchdowns in six of them. Doug Baldwin has emerged as Wilson’s favorite target, catching multiple scores in four out of the last six games, and finishing the season tied for the league lead with 14 receiving touchdowns. Marshawn Lynch hasn’t played since Week 10, but may be available to return Sunday and complement Christine Michael, who was reacquired prior to Week 15. Thomas Rawls had been a viable replacement for Lynch until suffering a broken ankle in Week 14. Seattle’s defense is as strong as ever, ranking first in the NFL in run defense, second in pass defense and second in total defense.
Minnesota is the surprise of the season after going 11-5 and winning the NFC North. With Adrian Peterson back in the fold, life was made easier for second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Peterson led the league with 1,495 rushing yards after sitting out last season. Bridgewater threw just 14 touchdowns, but spread the ball around, as Stefon Diggs, Kyle Rudolph, Mike Wallace and Jarius Wright all had more than 400 receiving yards. The biggest thing going for Minnesota is confidence; after dismantling the Chicago Bears and destroying the New York Giants, the Vikings defeated the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in the final game of the season to claim the division crown. The Vikings have the fifth-ranked scoring defense, allowing 18.9 points, but it will be a tough task to contain Wilson. Minnesota’s 29th-ranked offense won’t wow anyone, so Bridgewater and company will have to make plays against Seattle’s Legion of Boom.
Seattle’s defense has not missed a step, and asking a second-year quarterback to face the likes of Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas in his first playoff game is asking way too much. Combine that with the way Wilson is playing, and this should be an easy game for the Seahawks.
Prediction: Seahawks 35, Vikings 10.
Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins, Sunday, Jan. 10 at 4:40 p.m.
It’s no surprise that perennial contender Green Bay is in the playoffs, but this isn’t the same team from recent years. The Packers are on a two-game losing streak entering the postseason, and seem to have regressed as a unit as the season has progressed. Aaron Rodgers is struggling to get passes off thanks to an offensive line that resembles the Dairy State’s famed Swiss cheese, allowing 47 sacks this regular season. Rodgers’ completion percentage of 60.7 is his lowest since becoming Green Bay’s full-time starter. No receiver filled the gap left by Rodgers’ favorite target, Jordy Nelson, as the Packers finished without a 1,000-yard receiver. Running back Eddie Lacy was a shell of himself, rushing for over 100 yards just three times and failing to reach 50 yards eight times. Defensively, there’s some good news: Green Bay’s defense ranks sixth against the pass. It’ll need to be sharp facing Washington’s prolific attack.
The Redskins won the NFC East with a 9-7 record, but are clicking at the right time, riding a four-game winning streak. Kirk Cousins has been on fire lately, throwing for over 300 yards and at least three touchdowns in three out of the last four games. Tight end Jordan Reed leads the team with 952 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns, and will likely see a heavy workload, as the Packers do a great job of containing receivers. Washington’s weakness is its defense – their group ranks 28th in the league, worst of any playoff team. The Redskins did finish tied for 14th with 38 sacks, though, with Ryan Kerrigan (9.5) and Preston Smith (8) leading the way. The front seven must make things uncomfortable for Rodgers, who will find the open man if given enough protection. If the defense plays well, Cousins will be able to air it out. Surely, he would like that.
This game will come down to which quarterback has an easier time against the opposing defense. Thanks to Reed, Cousins may be able to find holes in the Packers’ secondary. For Rodgers, the holes in his offensive line may be too much to overcome.
Prediction: Redskins 24, Packers 20.