Note: All times eastern.
Four Wildcard Thoughts
Score: 31-24 Steelers
This could be the most intriguing matchup of Wildcard Weekend. The Steelers enter the post-season without Le’Veon Bell for the second straight year, and their intended backup plan -- DeAngelo Williams, who could have been an upgrade at Starter for about 25 teams this season -- has been ruled out as well. But Pittsburgh is an all-around stronger team this year,. The Bengals have some notable injuries of their own, though, and not the least of them is quarterback Andy Dalton, who hasn’t played since the first quarter of the same two teams’ second regular-season matchup. His broken thumb has healed for the most part, but he has still be ruled out of Saturday’s game.
In the end, this game is likely going to come down to a few players. For the Steelers, their success will be dependent on whether Martavis Bryant returns to form after a few down weeks, and also on whether the secondary can step up. Antwon Blake has been victimized a lot lately, and his re-aggravated back injury could easily keep his snaps heavily limited. That might be good news; Brandon Boykin played almost all the team’s sub-package snaps last week against Cleveland, and the team did a good job of keeping the lowly Browns in check. It’s not exactly a major feat, but it could be the confidence booster the embattled group needs. Finally, they will need running back Fitzgerald Toussaint to be at least slightly above average. If he can find a few holes and make a few catches out of the backfield, it will keep the defense honest. It may not matter, though; the last time these teams met, Ben Roethlisberger picked apart the Bengals’ defense with short throws because they made every effort to take away the big-play opportunities.
For the Bengals, the game will hinge on a secondary that has a few of its starters back who were missing when these teams met several weeks back. If they can keep coverage on the Steelers’ dynamic threresome of Antonio Brown, Bryant and Markus Wheaton, they can make the game very difficult for Pittsburgh. The problem is that pretty much no defense has managed to do that this year. Offensively, they just need A.J. McCarron to take care of the ball and get it to A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert a few times each drive to keep the Steelers’ defense on its heels.
Score: 24-20 Texans
I said in the Week 17 wrap-up that this game was going to be a lot closer than it might seem. Sure, the Chiefs are riding the longest winning streak in the NFL, but the Texans are getting hot at the right time and are doing a lot with less talent. That’s a testament to how much these guys believe in themselves and each other, and also to how well they are coached. Thanks to the NFL’s highly questionable seeding method, th 9-7 Texans get to host the game, even though the Chiefs have a better record, and that is a huge advantage for Houston. Kansas City is a tough place for any road team, so eliminating that advantage is huge. So huge, in fact, that this is my upset pick for the week.
Score: 27-17 Seahawks
One of these teams is playing playoff football, and it’s not the home team. Yes, the Vikings have improved a great deal and, yes, they stole the NFC North from the Packers. But it was less of the Vikings taking it than it was of the Packers giving it away. They have a solid defense and a decent offense, but they are facing a suddenly fantastic defense and an offense that are playing out of their collective minds. Russell Wilson may very well end up labeled as a career "game manager", but the final third of the 2015 will go down as one of the best periods of his career, no matter the trajectory it takes from here. He’s just been that good lately. And let’s not forget that they just put up an embarrassing 30-point win over the NFC West champion Arizona Cardinals a week ago.
Packers @ Redskins (Sunday, 4:40 p.m.)
Score: 30-17 Redskins
Aaron Rodgers and the Packers made the playoffs for two reasons: 1) they started off 6-0, and 2) no one else in the NFC bothered to play well enough to keep them out. If you take out the division champions, the NFC can be split into three tiers: the Seahawks all alone on one level, the Packers in the middle, and then 10 more teams in the bottom tier, a long, long way behind. The rest of the NFC was so bad, in fact, that the Packers went 4-6 in their final 10 games and went into week 17 already guaranteed a playoff spot. But let’s not let that detract from what the Redskins -- and quarterback Kirk Cousins in particular -- have done over the last month. They won the lowly NFC East largely by default, but in the final four weeks they actually kind of looked like they deserved it. Cousins hasn’t posted a quarterback rating under 100 since November 22, and he’s been awful close to a perfect game twice in that span. Outside of Russell Wilson, in fact, there may not be a quarterback on more of a hot streak right now.