It’s that wonderful time of the year once again where anything can happen and everyone is watching to see who goes home and who makes it to America’s greatest game: Super Bowl 50. The 12 teams that are in this year’s playoffs each poise their own interesting strengths and weaknesses, especially the eight who are playing on Wildcard Weekend.
BYES: Carolina Panthers (15-1), Arizona Cardinals (13-3)
5 Green Bay Packers (10-6) vs. 4 Washington Redskins (9-7)
Where: FedEx Field, Landover, Maryland
When: Sunday Jan. 10 at 3:40 p.m. CST
Where To Watch: Fox
After beginning the season 6-0 everything seemed as the norm for the Packers since Aaron Rodgers took over as quarterback and Mike McCarthy as coach. The unthinkable has occurred as after the bye week Green Bay would go on to finish 4-6, lose to all divisional foes at home, and finish second to the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC North to enter the playoffs; all seemingly with a healthy Rodgers and a defense that ranked in the top 15 in passing yards and points allowed during the regular season. The problems lie in the pieces of the machine as it’s well known that receiver Jordy Nelson has been out all season after tearing his ACL during a preseason game against Pittsburgh, and every offensive lineman besides guard Josh Sitton has missed time in some capacity due to injury. Because of Nelson’s absence the Packers do not have a viable deep threat that can get quickly open as Green Bay’s current receivers Davante Adams, James Jones, and Randall Cobb have all proven this season that they cannot be number one targets, as they are much more effective as a two or three; while second year tight-end Richard Rodgers does not have the size or speed of a Rob Gronkowski so the Packers should stop using him like the New England Patriots use their tight end. Since the receivers cannot get open quickly or at all, Rodgers is forced to either hold on to the ball longer than he should and take a sack because his injured offensive line cannot sustain protection as long as they would like, scramble or throw the ball away which all three will not get an offense down field and score. Additionally, even though their defense is highly ranked they are working with two rookie cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins who are respectively hungry and talented but lack the needed experience to play full time at that position. A defense can only do so much to prevent opponents to progress down the field and score, especially playoff teams whom rank among the highest offensively in the NFL and because of the offense’s inability to score or even get first downs you have a team that is going into the playoffs as the underdog against a 9-7 team.
This year the NFC East has been a laughing stock and the Redskins are the champions of that laughing stock. By how they played to close out the season, Washington isn’t a team to laugh at and their quarterback Kirk Cousins may be the most underrated at his position entering the playoffs as he’s averaging 256 yards passing a game, a total of 29 touchdowns, and a 101.6 passer rating during the regular season. One of Cousins’ weapons is the second or third best tight-end in the playoffs: Jordan Reed, who’s 87 receptions got him a total of 952 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. He also has veteran deep threat DeSean Jackson who in limited playing time due to injury has racked up 528 total yards and has the ability to stretch the field to get the attention of multiple defenders. Lastly the Redskins can claim a huge amount of momentum going into this game finishing the season 4-0 and had a home record of 6-2. It is no wonder many are picking the 9-7 Redskins to go over the 10-6 Green Bay Packers.
My Pick: Packers 24 – Redskins 16: Cousins has been hot in the last two months but I believe his inexperience in the playoffs will cool him down. Additionally, Washington does not blitz so Rodgers will have plenty of time to get his passes off. Watch for the Packers’ rookie secondary against Cousins.
6 Seattle Seahawks (10-6) vs. 3 Minnesota Vikings (11-5)
Where: TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minnesota
When: Sunday January 10, 12 p.m. CST
Where To Watch: NBC
In the season of the lowest of lows, Seattle is entering the playoffs as the hottest team and heavy favorites to win the NFC. Many believed the Seahawks team have lost their window of opportunity after beginning the season 2-4, especially with the injuries and lack of production out of star running back Marshawn Lynch. Even their fabled defense was off not producing as many turnovers and covering opposing receivers. To answer they ended the season 8-2 and they once again rank either first or second in all defensive categories. It’s their defense that has been consistent but it’s really been the Seahawk’s offense that has stolen the show and that’s without Lynch and tight-end Jimmy Graham. That offense ranks third in rushing at 142 yards and fourth in points at 26 a game. This is because of quarterback Russell Wilson whose 4024 passing yards, 34 touchdowns, along with 553 yards rushing, make him deadly to any opposing defense. Because of his year he has made a star receiver out of Doug Baldwin who has over 1000 yards receiving and 14 touchdowns. The Seahawks are the team no one wants to play during this postseason.
At the beginning of the season would’ve thought the Minnesota Vikings would get a home playoff game, being the NFC North Champions. Possibly the having the best home field advantage in this postseason since they are outdoors and the game against Seattle is projected to be below zero degrees Fahrenheit. The weather can be a huge advantage as the Vikings running game ranks fourth in the league, led by star running back Adrian Peterson who won another league rushing title, this time over the age of 30. They will really need it because their passing game is second to last in the NFL, even though it isn’t necessarily all of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s fault, due to a patchwork offensive line and already being a run centric offense. What has really gotten them far is their defense, which is in the middle of the pack in allowing yards but is fifth in the league in allowing points. It is their dangerous front seven that does most of the job with names such as Eric Kendricks, Chad Greenway, Anthony Barr, Captain Munnerlyn, Everson Griffen and Sharrif Floyd, who all have the ability to quickly rush the passer and stop the run. Lastly, for a psychological edge the Seahawks destroyed the Vikings 38-7 at Minnesota in a week 13 matchup. Vengeance can be a motivator for the Vikings come Wildcard weekend as this is their do-over.
My Pick: Seahawks 28 – Vikings 17: Minnesota will use the cold and Peterson to their advantage but I don’t think their offense will produce enough against Seattle. Watch how well Bridgewater can pass against the Seahawks’ defense and the Vikings’ ability to rush Wilson.
BYES: Denver Broncos (12-4), New England Patriots (12-4)
5 Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) vs. 4 Houston Texans (9-7)
Where: NRG Stadium, Houston, Texas
When: Saturday January 9, 3:35 p.m. CST
Where To Watch: ESPN, ABC
No team in this year’s playoffs define the word wildcard than the Kansas City Chiefs. They began the season 1-5 and won the final 10 games of the season to almost win the AFC West, all without their best player: running back Jamaal Charles. Without Charles the Chiefs are sixth in the NFL in rushing behind running backs Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware who have combined for 900 yards and 10 touchdowns during their 10 game winning streak, along with their solid offensive line. Kansas City’s 25 points a game is most because of their veteran quarterback Alex Smith even though he only has two solid offensive weapons in receiver Jeremy Maclin and tight-end Travis Kelce. Maclin has over 1000 yards receiving and 8 touchdowns while Kelce has 875 yards and 5 touchdowns, giving Smith and his offense many opportunities to score. What has given the Chiefs their win streak has especially been their third ranked scoring defense. For the first time in a while Justin Houston and Tamba Hali will both start, which will only elevate Kansas City’s nasty pass rush. Along with their front seven it has really been the Chiefs’ secondary that has given them a huge edge with rookie cornerback Marcus Peters who has eight interceptions and two touchdowns this season and Eric Berry who locks down from the safety position. If there is a Seattle like team in the AFC that no one wants to play it is the Kansas City Chiefs.
Much like the Redskins, the Houston Texans are winners of a laughable division in the AFC South but they have done so more quietly. At 9-7 they seized the opportunity to take it away from an Indianapolis Colts team that fell short of high expectations without quarterback Andrew Luck, while playing four different quarterbacks themselves this season: Brian Hoyer, T.J. Yates, Brandon Weeden and Ryan Mallett. Hoyer who isn’t injured and has played the most impressively will get the playoff start at home. The credit for Hoyer’s play and Houston’s success can be given to receiver DeAndre Hopkins who has racked up over 1500 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns. Much like Houston’s quarterback situation they have also had multiple running backs since Arian Foster was put on IR early in the season: Alfred Blue, Chris Polk and Jonathan Grimes. This congress of backs have given the Texans the fifteenth best rushing attack in the NFL. What people talk about the most in Houston, it’s their franchise player, defensive end J.J. Watt, who has had another Defensive Player of the Year performance this season, tallying up 17.5 sacks. Along with linebacker Whitney Mercilus and lineman Jadeveon Clowney they will have to rush Alex Smith because of their inexperienced secondary. The Texans have never lost a home playoff game in the history of their franchise and they will do anything they can to keep it that way.
My Pick: Chiefs 23 – Texans 13: Kansas City is the hottest team in football and their offense will continue to produce while their defense will lock down Houston’s limited offense. Hopkins vs. Peters is definitely worth watching the game by itself. Kansas City will get their first playoff victory since 1993 which coincidentally was in Houston against the Oilers when Joe Montana was the Chiefs’ starting quarterback.
6 Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6) vs. 3 Cincinnati Bengals (12-4)
Where: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati Ohio
When: Saturday January, 9, 7:15 p.m. CST
Where To Watch: CBS
The Pittsburgh Steelers have had a season of ups and downs. They are a very talented, fast and dangerous team but mistakes and injuries have given them a 10-6 record this season. Injuries have included quarterback Ben Roethlisberger who has missed almost half of his games, running back Le’Veon Bell who was put on IR early in the season, and running back DeAngelo Williams who, in place of Bell, has been just as impressive in his starts, but will miss the Steelers’ game against the Bengals. In place of Williams, Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman will split the carries to try to get Pittsburgh somewhat of a ground game. Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ offense can give credit to the play of their receivers such as Antonio Brown who led the league with 1834 receiving yards, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton who have 750 yards each, giving Pittsburgh the third most deadly passing attack in the NFL with a banged up quarterback. Many call the Steelers a dangerous team in the playoffs and with that offense it’s difficult to argue that.
It is incredible to think that Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has been the head coach since 2003 and has yet to win a playoff game. Since drafting quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver AJ Green, Cincinnati has made the postseason in all four years and hasn’t won a single playoff game. Dalton is injured and in place second year quarterback AJ McCarron will start. McCarron has been impressive, improving more and more with each start but if anything his big game experience will come into play as he won two national championships as the starting quarterback of the University of Alabama. McCarron will get the help of Green who has almost 1300 receiving yards this season, receiver Marvin Jones with his 816 receiving yards and tight-end Tyler Eifert who has 13 touchdowns. The Bengals also have a pair of running backs who have combined for 1500 yards rushing in Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard, which the Bengals will have to utilize in the cold weather. Lastly, Cincinnati gives up the seventh least amount of points defensively thanks to lineman Geno Atkins’ 11, and Carlos Dunlap’s 13.5 sacks. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict has also been a terror to opposing offenses. The Bengals have only beaten the Steelers twice in their last 14 meetings in Cincinnati, but they look to end that trend Saturday.
My Pick: Bengals 20 – Steelers 17: Cincinnati will not let this opportunity having this talented of a team slip away and finally get their first playoff win since 1991. The Steelers are very dangerous but they make too many mistakes and have too many injured to beat the Bengals’ defense. Watch for how AJ McCarron handles his first playoff start and Antonio Brown’s play against Cincinnati’s secondary.