NFL Wild Card Round: Mike Tanier's Game Previews and Score Predictions
Four playoff games. Four road favorites. The Wild Card Round is here, and it is weird.
This weekend's action is dominated by teams that started the season slowly but ended it red hot (Seahawks, Steelers, Chiefs) and September contenders that clung to their playoff berths for dear life late in the season (Bengals, Packers), with a pair of dubious division winners and the Vikings tossed into the mix.
It's no wonder there are so many road favorites. The Wild Card Round looks like the end of a long race, when the pace-setters fall off so the real challengers can zoom past them.
But appearances can be deceiving. The division champions aren't licked yet, and the challengers may not be as overpowering as their billing suggests.
As always, these previews are presented in the order you should read them. All times are Eastern, and odds are via Odds Shark.
Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (12-4), Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
The Bengals aren't the only team reliving a recurring nightmare in the playoffs.
Yes, on Saturday they must deal with all the things they spent the season trying to avoid. They must play in the first round. They must face the Steelers. They must do it in prime time. Fate seemed to be dealing cards from the bottom of the deck to make much of it happen. A Jets loss? Sure. A Peyton Manning comeback? Why not? Force the Seahawks to play at 10 a.m. Seattle time just to make sure the Bengals have the most possible mojo working against them? Done and done.
It's all happening to the Bengals again.
It's all happening to the Steelers again, too. They are entering the playoffs with no running backs and expecting Ben Roethlisberger to lead them to victory all by himself (well, with Antonio Brown, but little else).
The Steelers lost Le'Veon Bell to a knee injury late in the 2014 season. Having already gotten fed up with LeGarrette Blount (who helped the Patriots win a Super Bowl), they turned to someone named Josh Harris, who had nine carries in the regular season, to carry the load against the Ravens. "Carry the load" is a relative term. Harris and backup Ben Tate combined for just nine first-half carries and 14 carries overall in the 30-17 loss. The Ravens figured out pretty quickly that the Steelers were skittish about running the ball. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked five times and had two interceptions as a result.
The Steelers were without starting running back Rashard Mendenhall the previous time they reached the playoffs, back in the 2011 season. Bruce Arians was the offensive coordinator back then, not Todd Haley (Haley is a bit obsessive about never giving changeup backs more than one carry per game), so Isaac Redman gave the Steelers a viable running game in Mendenhall's absence. But while Redman ran well in the playoffs against the Broncos, the Steelers offense was imbalanced toward the passing game. Roethlisberger endured five sacks and threw an interception, and the Steelers lost to the Tim Tebow-led Broncos 29-23 in overtime.
Yes, folks, the Steelers have not won a playoff game in four years, either. They just haven't reached the playoffs as often as the Bengals, a matter that gets overlooked as a nation prepares for the Bengals to "choke" once again.
The Steelers are unlikely to have DeAngelo Williams (ankle) at running back Saturday. That leaves Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman as their primary ball-carriers. Toussaint, an undrafted rookie from Michigan who spent 2014 on the Ravens practice squad, carried the ball 18 times this season, 12 times after Williams got hurt in the season finale. Todman scattered four rushes across three games in nine weeks. He has been inactive for a month.
Haley is only going to give these guys a few token carries when Antonio Brown needs a breather. The Bengals are going to unleash the full fury of a very good pass rush against Roethlisberger, who has looked shaky at times in his last three starts.
But Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton also isn't healthy. If he were, all the prime-time mojo in the world wouldn't save the Steelers; the Bengals have a better, deeper roster. But AJ McCarron is at his best in small doses against weak opponents. McCarron looks much more comfortable in the pocket now than he did in his debut against the Steelers in Week 14—he didn't look all that terrible in that game, give or take an embarrassing pick-six—but he's still a see-it, throw-it passer who needs extra protection and cannot make the most of the Bengals' deep arsenal.
Last year, Dalton arrived in the playoffs with few offensive weapons around him. This year, the weapons arrived without Dalton.
Or did they? Dalton's cast was removed early in the week. He has been practicing. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis suggested that Dalton might be available in relief, via NFL.com's Dan Hanzus. The Steelers are only in the playoffs because Roethlisberger returned suddenly from an injury, replaced a stopgap replacement and led his team on a season-changing hot streak. Maybe Dalton will suddenly turn the tables. Or maybe McCarron will pull a Tebow.
Either way, don't be surprised if the Steelers turn out to be the team that relives an annual nightmare.
Prediction: Bengals 22, Steelers 20
Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) at Houston Texans (9-7), Saturday, 4:35 p.m.
How the heck is this game even happening?
The Texans and Chiefs each had a 2-5 record on Halloween. The Texans needed four different starting quarterbacks to get through the season. The Chiefs lost their most important offensive and defensive playmakers, Jamaal Charles and Justin Houston, for huge chunks of the year. The Texans only got four games from their most reliable offensive weapon, Arian Foster, while J.J. Watt played most of the playoff chase with a cast on his hand.
Are we sure the Colts and Jets aren't going to run out of the tunnels holding banners that say "Surprise!"?
Nope. The Colts squandered opportunities they didn't even know they had. The Jets trapped themselves behind the tiebreaker by doing things like losing to the Texans and their third-string quarterback. Those teams don't belong here. The Texans and Chiefs do.
The Texans belong here because T.J. Yates led them to wins against good teams like the Jets and Bengals, while Brandon Weeden did what he had to against the Colts and Titans. They are here because throwing to DeAndre Hopkins is like throwing pebbles in a lake. They are here because Whitney Mercilus had some huge sack games to take pressure off Watt, while Jadeveon Clowney became more than a famous name on an injury report. They are here because Bill O'Brien juggled running backs deftly (most of the time) when Foster was out and wasn't shy about sprinkling Wildcat plays into the game plan to extend the shelf lives of emergency quarterbacks. They are here because Brian Hoyer is not a terrible quarterback.
The Texans are also here because the AFC South was a cakewalk. That's a rather important detail.
The Chiefs are in the playoffs because they have one of the NFL's best defenses. Despite Charles' absence, they have one of the best and least predictable running games (lots of counters and option concepts) in the NFL. They have a plus-14 turnover differential, second only to the Panthers this year, and they earned it through design, not luck. They have a deep secondary and a scheme built to generate interceptions, while Alex Smith has one of the lowest interception rates in NFL history. They have outstanding special teams, giving them a big edge against opponents (like the Texans) who are adequate at best in the kicking game.
The Chiefs have also spent the last two months compensating for a banged-up, patched-together offensive line and a receiving corps consisting of Jeremy Maclin and four guys who make Todd Pinkston look like Jerry Rice. Maclin suffered a minor hip injury in the season finale and may not be 100 percent Saturday. Center Mitch Morse is going through concussion protocol. The Chiefs have had a hard time putting away opponents—such as the Chargers, Browns and Raiders—in recent weeks. No matter how creative the scheme or disciplined the players, a lack of playmakers inevitably catches up to an offense.
The Texans defense matches up very well with the Chiefs offense: Johnathan Joseph can slow Maclin, none of the other receivers are equipped to exploit the weaknesses elsewhere in the Texans secondary and the Watt Gang will threaten Smith much more than most recent opponents could.
Both teams have improved since Halloween. The Chiefs improved more, but the margin is not that extreme. The Chiefs should win not because they are Super Bowl contenders facing the fluke victors of a mid-major conference, but because they excel at little things like goal-to-go efficiency and field-position management that tilt low-scoring games in their favor. Those aren't advantages you want to lean on against the Patriots, but they can get you past the Houston Diet Patriots.
Adam Teicher of ESPN.com reported this week that Alex Smith had to pause when asked the name of the last Chiefs quarterback to win a playoff game, writing, "Then he blurted the answer: Joe Montana, who led the Chiefs to a 28-20 win over the Houston Oilers in January 1994. The Chiefs have lost eight playoff games since." Yes, it has been 22 years since the Chiefs won in the postseason. The team they beat long ago changed its name and location.
The Chiefs enjoyed three 13-win seasons since that last playoff victory. Smith and head coach Andy Reid have led them to three straight winning seasons. Several Hall of Famers (or soon-to-be Hall of Famers) spent the bulks of their careers with the Chiefs during the long playoff drought. They have been a well-run organization for most of that span, though they have a taste for coaches (Reid, Marty Schottenheimer) who excel at reaching the playoffs with iffy on-paper talent, then lose to opponents who simply put 22 better guys on the field.
The Chiefs have better guys this week. That won't be the case next week. But at least Smith has a chance to make some new playoff memories while erasing any lingering memories of this season's awful start.
Prediction: Chiefs 23, Texans 14
Seattle Seahawks (10-6) at Minnesota Vikings (11-5), Sunday, 1:05 p.m.
The poor Vikings.
They did everything right. They stockpiled seven first-round picks between 2012 and 2014 and used just about every one of them wisely. They cut through the predraft chatter, saw Teddy Bridgewater plummeting out of the first round and traded up to select a quarterback who may not get the toes tingling but makes good decisions with the ball.
They turned the burners down on a boiling-over Adrian Peterson offseason melodrama and brought back a Hall of Famer who turned out to still have at least one signature year left in him. They minimized a mini-controversy when Peterson griped about his touches (he wanted all the touches in the NFC) and survived an early-December slump when their best defenders were injured. They won the division with three straight wins to end the season, including a resilient effort against a Packers team that appeared to put them in their second-place place just six weeks earlier.
Congratulations, Vikings. Here is your reward: You get to play the sixth seed. The Seattle Seahawks. The team that beat you 38-7 in Minneapolis a month ago. They are going to crush you like slush under a boot heel.
Rest assured, poor Vikings, that you have laid the groundwork for a perennial contender, a team that will dominate the NFC in future seasons as Bridgewater matures and that nucleus of young talent learns from the vicious, painful lumps it takes in this Sunday's playoff loss to…
OK, this has gone too far. The Vikings are certainly underdogs. They don't match up well against the Seahawks defense; it's hard to imagine Bridgewater completing enough shallow crosses and Peterson breaking free often enough for the Vikings offense to climb past the 17-point barrier, and that's with a 50-yard Blair Walsh field goal factored in.
But the Vikings do have two equalizers. The first is the weather: Conditions in Minnesota are expected to reach Ice Station Zebra levels. Cold weather may not favor the Vikings the way it did in the 1970s, but cold weather always lowers offensive totals and adds a random element, as it did when the Seahawks lost to the Rams in the rain two weeks ago.
The second equalizer is the Vikings pass rush against the Seahawks pass protection.
The Seahawks offensive line improved in the second half of the season, but it remains the team's Achilles' heel. Russell Okung has missed two games with a calf injury, and Alvin Bailey has been overmatched in his place. Even if Okung returns Sunday (he is expected back), the Seahawks are surviving, not thriving, with Garry Gilliam at right tackle and Justin Britt at left guard. The Rams proved two weeks ago that a strong defensive line can dominate the line of scrimmage against the Seahawks to such a degree that it changes the dynamic of the game.
The Vikings defensive line has no real weaknesses. Linval Joseph is one of the best run defenders in the game, while fellow tackle Sharrif Floyd is very good. Everson Griffen and Brian Robison are experienced bookend pass-rushers, with Danielle Hunter providing both quickness and solid run defense off the bench. Anthony Barr brings blitz capability, and Mike Zimmer is not shy about sending Harrison Smith on a safety blitz or Captain Munnerlyn from the slot.
The Vikings defensive line should consistently beat the Seahawks offensive line four-on-five and can overwhelm it with some timely blitzes. That still may not be enough to win the game. The new, improved Seahawks offense is designed to get the football out of Russell Wilson's hands quickly, minimizing his line's self-sabotage capabilities. But the trench battle will bring the Seahawks down to the Vikings' level and create a close, low-scoring game. If the margin of victory in a low-scoring game comes down to special teams, the Seahawks will find that they have met their match there as well.
So pick the Seahawks, but hold off on the requiems for the Vikings (since they are Vikings, the requiems are technically called "sagas," but never mind). This is no mismatch. And for a team that has been building to this moment for three years and has a long playoff history of using icy temperatures to its advantage, an upset would be more of a mild surprise than a shock.
Prediction: Seahawks 19, Vikings 17
Green Bay Packers (10-6) at Washington Redskins (9-7), Sunday, 4:40 p.m.
In the giddy world of quarterback speculation/adulation/condemnation, where fans in our nation's capital would happily hang a 500-foot Kirk Cousins banner from the Washington Monument if they weren't still spackling over the holes from the Robert Griffin III banner they erected three years ago, Kurt Warner sounds like a voice in the wilderness.
When asked on The Dan Patrick Show whether Cousins should be given a massive new contract, Warner advised caution. "Not yet," Warner said. "I love what Kirk's done this year, especially down the stretch this year. But I just feel like in this league, we throw too much money at young guys too early because they have a good run, and then it puts your team behind, or it messes with too many things in an organization."
I…I think I am man-crushing on Warner. Again.
Cousins, like the team around him, improved considerably as the season wore on, just as the Packers entered a wicked slump in November and have not really climbed out of it yet. But the Redskins are more of a team on a "good run" than a really good team, and despite what the Cardinals did to them two weeks ago (and a limp offensive display against the Vikings in the season finale), the Packers aren't quite ready to pack it in just yet.
Cousins and the Redskins have not faced a defense ranked higher than 17th in Football Outsiders' defensive rankings since their 44-16 loss to the Panthers in Week 11. That 17th-ranked defense was the Eagles defense, which was an indifferent shadow of its former self when the Redskins trounced it in Week 16.
The Redskins faced the 30th- (Giants), 31st- (Bears) and 32nd-rated (Saints, of course) defenses in the league in the second half of the season. That doesn't mean Cousins and the offense failed to make real progress. But if it looks like they skipped some of the steps between "laughingstock" and "unstoppable juggernaut," it's because the offense kept getting better while opposing defenses got progressively worse, distorting the slope of their improvement.
The Packers face a similar distortion. Their slump started with losses to the first- and second-ranked defenses in the NFL (the Broncos and Panthers) and culminated with a beating at the hands of the third (Cardinals). The Packers faced the Vikings twice (14th overall, but trending upward whenever they were healthy), and even many of their weaker opponents fielded middle-of-the-pack defenses (the Raiders and Lions ranked 15th and 16th). The Packers offense has real problems but caught few breaks in the second half of the season, making everything look worse.
We are left aiming for two targets moving across moving backdrops. The Redskins are better than they were three months ago, the Packers worse. But have the Redskins really overtaken the Packers?
That may not matter. It's the matchups that matter.
The Packers' biggest offensive problem is that their receivers cannot get open. But the Redskins secondary ranks 28th in the NFL at stopping No. 1 receivers, according to Football Outsiders, and 30th at stopping No. 2 receivers. Randall Cobb and James Jones will get open against a defense so desperate in the secondary that it dragged Legion of Boom washout Cary Williams off the waiver wire this week.
Cousins' top offensive weapon is tight end Jordan Reed. The Packers rank fourth in the NFL at stopping tight ends.
The Redskins are one of the best third-down passing teams in the NFL; Cousins' ability to consistently convert third downs in the six-to-10-yard range is one of the strongest indicators of his growth as a quarterback. But the Packers excel at defending third-down passes. The Redskins offense ranks fifth in the NFL in third-down percentage, but the Packers rank ninth in third-down percentage allowed.
There are other breakdowns that illustrate the same point. The Redskins are excellent at a handful of very specific elements of offense, but those strengths have been maximized (and some weaknesses in the running game and secondary masked) by an easy schedule. The Packers defense will take away many of those strengths, while the Packers offense will be facing one the weakest defenses it has faced in months.
This is a great matchup for the Packers disguised as a "momentum game" for the Redskins.
It all goes back to Warner's wisdom. A short run of success is evidence of improvement, not proof of greatness. The Redskins have overreacted to seasons like this one too many times (2005, 2007, 2012). What they do with Cousins is one of the offseason's greatest riddles: There isn't really a contract template for a quarterback in his situation. But the organization must interpret this season as a step in the right direction, not an arrival. A loss Sunday might be a blessing in disguise. The last thing the Redskins need is something else to mess with the organization.
Prediction: Packers 27, Redskins 21
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.