by Paul West
The 2016 NFL playoffs are upon us yet again, and the Wild Card round has both star power and sleepers. Here’s a breakdown of this weekend’s matchups.
Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans, Saturday 1/9/16 4:35pm EST
The Kansas City Chiefs are on a serious, and still somewhat under-appreciated, roll. They opened the season with a win, then lost their next five games; since then they’ve gone on a ten-game winning streak, all despite the long-term loss of star running back Jamaal Charles and the Week 12 loss of explosive pass rusher Justin Houston. In an interesting twist, their playoff opener is against the team they beat 27-20 in Week One: the Houston Texans, who have weathered some ups and downs of their own this season. The Chiefs’ win streak has largely come on the strength of their explosive, play-making defense, which has been strong from front to back and has seen the emergence of rookie cornerback Marcus Peters. But it would be improper to omit the contributions of running back Charcandrick West, who has filled in admirably in Charles’ absence to the tune of 634 yards and four touchdowns. Quarterback Alex Smith continues to be understated but effective, running just enough to keep defenses honest and throwing just enough to complement the running game that fuels their attack. Jeremy Maclin, their leading receiver, is more explosive than he is prolific; he finished the season with 1088 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns, and is capable of hitting a home run on most plays.
The Houston Texans have been up and down all season, and for a while it might have seemed outlandish to talk of them as a playoff team. They, too, lost a star running back, but even earlier than their opponent; dual-threat All Pro Arian Foster was lost for the season all the way back in September, felled by a torn ACL. They’ve rotated starting quarterbacks and used the unpredictable Alfred Blue as their primary running back, but they won the AFC South with a 9-7 record and find themselves hosting their first round game. Journeyman Brian Hoyer has settled in as the team’s starting quarterback and been quietly solid, throwing for 2606 yards and 19 touchdowns. His primary target, DeAndre Hopkins, continues to be a coverage nightmare and is one of the league’s elite receivers. But the real strength of the team has been its defense. Led by do-it-all superfreak J.J. Watt, and wrapped around Vince Wilfork at nose tackle, the Houston pass rush can play like twice their number. Houston is third in the league in yards allowed and third in the league against the pass, and their success begins with pressure up front.
The line of scrimmage is obviously important in any playoff game, but this matchup in particular holds intrigue in the trenches: the Chiefs gave up 46 sacks this season, sixth most in the NFL, and the Houston pass rush is their biggest threat on defense. Despite their offensive line woes, however, the Chiefs are still a run-first team who finished sixth in the league in rushing; this will make things interesting, as the Texans’ defense is better against the pass (due in part to the aggressiveness of their rush) than against the run.
X-factor: Alex Smith. At his best, Smith is patient, accurate, and faster and more athletic than many realize. If he can get rid of the ball quickly and find open receivers, it will keep the Houston defense honest and keep them from selling out against the run. This will allow West and red zone battering ram Spencer Ware to move the chains and dole out punishment. Speaking of running, if Smith can break loose for a couple of downfield scampers, it will open things up even more. Smith may also want to keep an eye out for their highly athletic but tremendously erratic tight end, Travis Kelce, who’s been boom or bust for two years now.
Prediction: 24-13, Chiefs. Either one of these defenses is capable of having a field day, but the Chiefs’ balance will prevent Watt & company from teeing off up front. Hoyer will put up a good fight, but Houston’s weak running game will hurt them. The red-hot Chiefs will make it 11 in a row.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals, 1/9/16 8:15pm EST
The Pittsburgh Steelers squeezed into the playoffs, by virtue of a win against the Cleveland Browns and a New York Jets loss to the Buffalo Bills. They’ve looked vulnerable at times this season, and they, too, lost their premier running back when Le’Veon Bell suffered a season-ending knee injury. But now that they’re in, not many teams want to have to play them. They have one of the league’s best big-game quarterbacks in Ben Roethlisberger; they have arguably the league’s best wide receiver in Antonio Brown; and the two of them together have the kind of quarterback-receiver chemistry that only happens once in a while. Of course, Brown isn’t Big Ben’s only target. Tight end Heath Miller has been a favored red zone (and third down) target for years, and Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant can turn any play into a big one. Unfortunately, the Steelers’ defense often struggles to make important stops, and they can be vulnerable against the pass. The Steelers are also thin at running back: veteran DeAngelo Williams was a pleasant surprise for much of the season, running for 907 yards and 11 touchdowns and showing power and speed that belied his mileage, but he’s currently battling a foot injury and has been ruled out for this weekend’s game.
The Cincinnati Bengals started off 8-0 and looked like one of the league’s most dangerous teams for several weeks in a row. They have a plethora of weapons on offense, and when they’re clicking, they can put up huge numbers. A.J. Green is an elite wide receiver who racked up 1297 yards and 10 touchdowns. Marvin Jones a dangerous and steady possession receiver, and 6’6″ tight end Tyler Eifert has emerged as both a downfield threat and a matchup problem in the red zone. Giovani Bernard has fallen off somewhat, but he’s still a pass-catching threat out of the backfield; Jeremy Hill has asserted himself in recent weeks as the primary running back, and while he isn’t flashy he’s quite capable of a big game. Unfortunately, the Bengals are currently without their primary signal-caller, Andy Dalton; Dalton broke the thumb on his throwing hand on a freak play in Week 14 against the Steelers (yes, really). The offense has since been run by A.J. McCarron, who won consecutive national titles for the Alabama Crimson Tide and has experience playing in pressurized environments. The Bengals’ defense is talented and capable, but also mercurial, exemplified by the oft-troubled Adam Jones and the penalty-prone Vontaze Burfict.
X-factor: The Bengals defense. It was tempting to put McCarron here; McCarron has the skill set and mental toughness to make use of the Bengals’ arsenal, but it’s doubtful he’d win a shootout with Brown, Roethlisberger and company if they get clicking. It will be up to the Bengals’ defense to avoid unnecessary penalties and keep the Steelers offense under control. If they can keep the game within reach, the Bengals might be able to finally avoid the postseason doldrums have have plagued them in the Dalton/Marvin Lewis era.
Prediction: 31-27, Steelers. The Bengals’ best chance is to keep the score low–not because McCarron can’t make use of the Bengals’ talent, but because a high scoring game will mean the Steelers’ trio of receivers are lighting things up. This might be the most exciting game of the weekend.
Seattle Seahawks at Minesota Vikings, 1/10/16 1:05pm EST
The Seattle Seahawks roared into the playoffs with a 36-6 dismantling of the Arizona Cardinals, and quarterback Russell Wilson is in high gear. For about a month now, he and receiver Doug Baldwin have clicked in a way reminiscent of the aforementioned Roethlisberger/Brown combo; when Wilson extends the play and keeps his eyes downfield, Baldwin always seems to know how to get into his line of sight on a dead run. But Wilson’s greatest virtue might be his ability to do so much without an elite receiving corps: against the Cardinals, he spread the ball around so much that Baldwin actually had a slow day while the offense lit up one of the league’s toughest defenses. But as explosive as the Seahawks can be on offense, they’re also hit or miss, and the injury woes of Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch haven’t helped. Thomas Rawls has been solid at times in Lynch’s absence, but he’s now lost to injury, as well–and the offensive line has struggled all season, even when Lynch was around to mask their deficiencies. Unfortunately for the Seahawks, Lynch will not play this weekend; this means the onus will likely be on Christine Michael to lead the ground attack. Michael has performed solidly for the Seahawks in the past, but a playoff game against an improved defense will be a tough test. Speaking of defense, any discussion of the Seahawks would be incomplete without mention of perhaps the most highly touted defense in a decade. The “Legion of Boom” secondary, led by Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor, anchors a top-down defense that ranked first in the league in both scoring defense and rushing defense while ranking second against the pass.
The Minnesota Vikings wrapped up the regular season by beating the Green Bay Packers 20-13, claiming the NFC North title and finishing 11-5. Running back Adrian Peterson paced the offense with 1485 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. Second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was mostly steady under center, but came up with some big plays in clutch situations. Rookie receiver Stefon Diggs was explosive earlier in the season, but he has slumped in recent weeks. Kyle Rudolph is a tight end who flashes highlight-reel athleticism but can be strikingly inconsistent. And the Vikings defense has slowly become more solid.
At first glance, this appears to be the biggest mismatch of the opening weekend. But Minnesota ended the season fourth in the league against the run, and the Seahawks have been struggling to run the ball. This means the pressure will be on the Vikings’ secondary to sustain coverage long enough for the front four to close in on Wilson, which is no small task.
X-factor: Teddy Bridgewater. Diggs has high upside as a playmaker, as do Rudolph and speed merchant Mike Wallace. If Bridgewater can get the passing game going, this will thin out the Seahawks up front so Peterson can do some damage. This will limit Seattle’s time of possession and keep Wilson and company from getting in rhythm.
Prediction: 24-17, Seahawks. Bridgewater will be cool under pressure, and the Vikings will run the ball more effectively than the Seahawks. But Wilson will spread the ball around and slash and dash, and this will prove to be the difference.
Green Bay Packers at Washington, 1/10/16 4:40pm EST
The Green Bay Packers have had a disappointing season, by the lofty standards they had established. Aaron Rodgers has struggled, behind an offensive line that’s battled injury and reconfiguration. The loss of elite receiver Jordy Nelson has had a dramatic ripple effect, as well, as slot receiver Randall Cobb has been far less electric and secondary receivers like Davante Adams have failed to pick up the slack. The re-acquisition of James Jones, a seasoned veteran who still clicks well with Rodgers, has helped the offense at times show flashes of its past glory; he and steadily improving tight end Richard Rodgers have allowed the Packers to pass more effectively of late. The run game has been up and down, with time being (often unpredictably) split between Eddie Lacy and James Starks. Lacy is a ground & pound battering ram with surprisingly nifty feet for a power back, while Starks is a veteran who can break off long runs and is a capable pass catcher.
Washington went 9-7 to win the NFC East, almost certainly the weakest division in the NFL. Quarterback Kirk Cousins had a resurgent season, throwing for 4,166 yards and 29 touchdowns. DeSean Jackson recovered from a hamstring injury and has returned to being one of the NFL’s best playmakers, and he leads a receiving corps that’s emerged as a real strength. Jordan Reed has emerged as one of the most consistently dynamic tight ends in the NFL, and Jamison Crowder is capable of big games from the slot. Pierre Garcon, who would be higher on many teams’ depth charts, is a possession receiver with speed who has experience in big games.
This game has the potential to be a high-scoring affair. Washington’s defense has had spectacular moments, but can be exploited by the run and is also subject to big plays downfield; the Packers’ defense might struggle to contain the versatility of Washington’s attack, especially is Alfred Morris or Matt Jones can get the erratic running game going. Green Bay will also be playing away from Lambeau Field, which confers one of the NFL’s best home-field advantages.
X-factor: Randall Cobb. There was a time when Randall Cobb was considered perhaps the best young slot receiver in the league. If he and Rodgers can get clicking, it will prevent Washington’s defense from keying on any one aspect of the Packers’ offense. This will get Rodgers into a good rhythm, in which case, look out.
Prediction: 34-24, Packers. The Packers have playoff experience and a ton of talent, and Washington’s defense isn’t the sort that can pressure Rodgers enough to get him off-kilter. This might be a thriller, but the Packers should pull away in the end.