What started with 32 teams is now down to just 12. The NFL playoffs are set to begin on Saturday in the Wild Card Round and there are plenty of new faces and intriguing matchups to follow. The Oakland Raiders and Miami Dolphins broke lengthy streaks to propel themselves to football in January while the New England Patriots feel right at home with a first week bye.
The 2016 regular season was a memorable one, sparked with controversy over the National Anthem, injuries to perennial Pro-Bowlers and emergence of new, young stars. For the first time since 1997, there were two ties in consecutive weeks, making playoff scenarios much more difficult to determine. And for the first time since 2003, both teams that played in the Super Bowl in the previous year missed the playoffs.
Wild Card Weekend will feature four games, two on Saturday and Sunday, with eight teams battling it out to advance to the Divisional Round.
Saturday Jan. 7
Oakland Raiders (12-4) at Houston Texans (9-7) 4:30 p.m.
Two weeks ago this would have seemed like a no-brainer. The Raiders were one of the best teams in the AFC, and Derek Carr was having himself an MVP-caliber season. Meanwhile, Brock Osweiler was benched for Tom Savage and the Texans were barely getting by in the worst division in all of football. Fast-forward to today and Derek Carr is injured, and the Raiders could barely manage six measly points in week 17.
While the Texans have a major problem on offense, the Raiders aren’t in much better shape. They’ll be throwing rookie QB Connor Cook into the fold on Saturday to make his first career start. Last Sunday, he was 14-21 with 150 yards, a touchdown and interception. Playing on the road against a tough defensive front may be quite unsettling for the former Michigan State quarterback.
If Osweiler can manage to find one of the best receivers in all of the NFL (which he didn’t the entire regular season) the Texans can win this game. Houston had the best total defense in the NFL this season, meaning it’ll be a low scoring game, maybe even the first to 17 points wins.
This is bound to be one of the more lack-luster games of Wild Card weekend, but crazier things have happened.
Detroit Lions (9-7) at Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1) 8:15 p.m.
It’s always exciting to see the Detroit Lions in the playoffs, similar to the Cubs, there seems to be some sympathy and hope for the opportunity for a franchise to finally win a championship. Unfortunately for Detroit, history has never been on their side. In Wild Card games they are 0-8 and in road playoff games they are 0-10. Matt Stafford had led Detroit to what looked like one of their best seasons in a long time. They have an explosive offense and a knack for winning games in the fourth quarter; teams have had a tough time putting them away.
Seattle was consistently up and down through the season. They finished 5-3 in their final eight games, losing to the Buccaneers, Packers and Cardinals. The “Legion of Boom” hype seems to be over as the defense allowed 25 or more points in four of the last eight.
It seems like most aren’t giving Detroit a prayer, but if Seattle’s offense struggles to find rhythm, it becomes a winnable game for the Lions. They scored 20 or more points in six of their final eight games and have plenty of weapons for Stafford to utilize.
While this is seen as a bit of a blowout game, Stafford could make it interesting, especially if it comes down to a final score in the fourth.
Sunday, Jan. 8th
Miami Dolphins (10-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) 1:05 p.m.
The Dolphins are another team cursed with an injured quarterback heading into the playoffs. Matt Moore is a decent backup option, but he is quite a step down from Ryan Tannehill’s recent play. Jay Ajai is bound to get most of the snaps after he destroyed Pittsburgh in week 6, rushing for over 200 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries.
The biggest obstacle for Miami is getting past Ben Roethlisberger. This is Big Ben’s 18th playoff start, compiling an 11-6 record thus far. Even with Miami’s third best rushing defense in the league, they will have to keep Antonio Brown locked down. The Steelers’ offense has plenty of weapons for the veteran to turn to.
Pittsburgh was lucky enough to face a backup in their first playoff game last season, a win against AJ McCarron’s Bengals. If things go as planned, and Roethlisberger plays as he does in the postseason, the banged-up Dolphins shouldn’t prove to be much of an issue.
New York Giants (11-5) at Green Bay Packers (10-6) 4:40 p.m.
It looks like the NFL saved the best for last on Wild Card Weekend. The Giants were one of the biggest surprises in the NFC, exploding with 11 wins and handing Dallas two of its three losses. The defense was lockdown for the second half of the season and iced quarterbacks like Matt Stafford, Dak Prescott and Kirk Cousins.
Green Bay seemed destined to miss the postseason for the first time in years at the beginning of the season. However, Aaron Rodgers did what Aaron Rodgers does and turned it on in the second half. They lack a running game, but Rodgers is the best QB in the league at spreading the ball around.
The key to this game will be the Packers’ secondary. They are brutally banged up with injuries to Quinten Rollins, Damarious Randall and Makinton Dorleant. If injuries limit the play of any of these three, the trio of Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard and Victor Cruz could easily torch them.
It’s hard to tell what way this game will lean. The Giants put together a better complete season, but the Packers have been extremely good under Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs. At the very least, we’re set to see a competitive game in Green Bay.
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