NFL Wild Card Preview: The Home Teams Should Reign
The first round of the NFL postseason starts this weekend with two games on both Saturday and Sunday. Here’s a preview of the wild-card round:
Saturday, January 7
AFC Wild Card: (5) Oakland Raiders at (4) Houston Texans
NRG Stadium, Houston | 3:35 p.m. (CT) on ESPN/ABC
How They Got Here: The Houston Texans (9–7) won the AFC South title in spite of new free agent quarterback Brock Osweiler turning out to be a huge bust. Houston’s defense rallied from the loss of J.J. Watt and reigned in opposing offenses. Osweiler eventually was benched for unproven Tom Savage.
The Oakland Raiders (12–4) rode a high-powered offense to their first playoff berth since the 2002 postseason. Oakland seemed to be a lock to win the AFC West all season long, but two losses to Kansas City and the loss of starting quarterback Derek Carr in Week 16 put the Raiders on the road for the wild-card game.
History: The two teams have never met in the playoffs. The Raiders rallied to beat the Texans, 27–20, in Mexico City on November 21.
Outlook: The first game of the NFL postseason might be so bad, that it could be very good — or close, at least. Both teams have serious questions at quarterback. With Carr (fibula) and second-string QB Matt McGloin (shoulder) both hurt for Oakland, rookie Connor Cook will make his first career start. Meanwhile, with Savage still in the NFL’s concussion protocol, Osweiler figures to be under center for the Texans. It’s hard to see how this game won’t be a defensive struggle. Does the NFL use penalty kicks in case of a scoreless tie?
Regardless of who is throwing the ball for either team, they’ll need to not get their head knocked off by Texans stud rusher Jadaveon Clowney or Raiders sack master Khalil Mack, respectively. Has anyone asked who the backup quarterbacks will be? Are David Carr and Rich Gannon healthy? Are Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart busy?
If this game does come down to defense, the Texans’ top-ranked squad is more effective than the Raiders’ 26th-ranked unit; even Osweiler should lead his team to a few points against the suspect Oakland defense. If the lauded Raiders offensive line can protect Cook, control the ball and pave the way for running back Latavius Murray, the Silver and Black have a chance.
NFC Wild Card: (6) Detroit Lions at (3) Seattle Seahawks
CenturyLink Field, Seattle | 7:15 p.m. (CT) on NBC
How They Got Here: Extending their near-dynasty into 2016, the Seattle Seahawks (10–5–1) played inspired defense and competent offense to easily win the NFC West and qualify for their sixth postseason in the last seven years.
Thanks to many heart-stopping fourth-quarter comebacks led by quarterback Matthew Stafford, the Detroit Lions (9–7) roared back into the playoffs for the first time since 2014. Detroit could have won the NFC North, but they squandered the title away with a three-game losing streak to end the season.
History: The teams have never met in the playoffs, and they did not meet in the regular season.
Outlook: This edition of the Seahawks isn’t as intimidating or talented as the Super Bowl teams of a few years ago, but they can play at that level at home, where they are almost unbeatable. Seattle’s biggest question mark is its offense. If they protect quarterback Russell Wilson, he’ll put points up on the Lions’ defense.
Stafford gives Detroit a chance to win its first playoff game since 1991. He’s the type of gun-slinging quarterback that could put up a 400-yard passing day on any secondary, especially a post–Legion of Boom unit that won’t have injured safety Earl Thomas to make plays. The Lions best shot is this game turning into a shootout.
Sunday, January 8
AFC Wild Card: (6) Miami Dolphins at (3) Pittsburgh Steelers
Heinz Field, Pittsburgh | 12:05 p.m. (CT) on CBS
How They Got Here: Blessed with Pro Bowl–level offensive talent like quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown, the Pittsburgh Steelers (11–5) surged to the AFC North title with a seven-game winning streak to end the regular season. No team has played better football over the past two months.
Powered by the emergence of surprise 1,000-yard running back Jay Ajayi, the Miami Dolphins (10–6) qualified for an AFC wild-card spot, their first postseason berth since 2008. Much like Houston and Oakland, Miami has a shaky quarterback situation. Journeyman Matt Moore has been thrust into the starting role since Ryan Tannehill went down with a knee injury a month ago.
History: Thanks to Ajayi’s 200-yard rushing day and an injury to Roethlisberger, the Dolphins ran over the Steelers, 30-15, in Week 6. The teams have met three times in the playoffs, with Miami holding a 2–1 edge. Their last postseason meeting was after the 1984 season.
Outlook: With a fully healthy offense and home-field advantage, Pittsburgh should control this game. Miami’s best opportunity will come from pressuring Roethlisberger into turnovers and controlling the game tempo with Ajayi. Moore is not going to overwhelm any defense, especially not the playoff-tested Steelers. If the Dolphins can’t contain Bell, this game could slip away from Miami quickly.
NFC Wild Card: (5) New York Giants at (4) Green Bay Packers
Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wis. | 3:40 p.m. (CT) on Fox
How They Got Here: After a midseason swoon that had everyone questioning the future of head coach Mike McCarthy and the talent of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers (10–6) stormed back to win their last six games and the NFC North crown. They are arguably playing the best football in the NFC at the moment.
Overlooked by most pundits, the New York Giants (11–5) had a very impressive season, landing an NFC wild-card spot thanks to the play of quarterback Eli Manning, all-world wideout Odell Beckham Jr. and an underrated defense. Given Manning’s past playoff success and the way the team won games it should have lost this season, they are a very scary opponent.
History: Green Bay topped New York, 23-16, at Lambeau Field in Week 5. The teams have met seven times in the postseason, with the Packers winning four of those matchups. Green Bay’s last postseason win over New York came in the 1962 NFL Championship Game.
Outlook: Behind a rejuvenated Rodgers, who threw 40 touchdown passes against just seven interceptions, the Packers have looked unstoppable over the past seven weeks. The Giants' defense presents a formidable challenge, though. They’ll get after Rodgers and force Green Bay to do more than just throw. If Rodgers gets time and stays turnover-free, the Packers will likely win this game.
Eli Manning never seems to be that good…until he’s hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, which he’s done twice. The Beckham-led receiving corps can bend — and break — any defense. The Giants don’t offer much of a running game, something that could hurt them if Manning isn’t totally on point. It will be cold and wintry at Lambeau, but that might not be enough to chill these offenses.
AFC: (1) New England Patriots | (2) Kansas City Chiefs
NFC: (1) Dallas Cowboys | (2) Atlanta Falcons