NFL Wild Card Playoffs: Everything You Need to Know for Saturday's Games
The NFL postseason is officially here, and the league is giving us quite the lineup for Wild Card Weekend. Eight high-caliber teams and four critical games are about to be packed into two days of postseason pandemonium.
Forget about the regular season and the possibility of bad football—it's time for the playoffs, folks!
Saturday kicks off the opening weekend of action with both of the AFC matchups. We'll get the Kansas City Chiefs vs. the Houston Texans in the early game and an AFC North rematch between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals for the nightcap.
All four teams will obviously fight hard to advance to the next round. Both games should be intense and exciting matchups. Here's everything you need to know about them.
Here's a quick overview of the teams taking the field Saturday.
Houston Texans 9-7 (1st in AFC South)
Though the Houston Texans got off to a slow 2-5 start, they managed to make enough strides down the stretch to take control of an AFC South division that was ripe for the picking.
Houston won seven of its final nine games, thanks in large part to some standout performances from the league's third-ranked defense (just 310.2 yards per game allowed). Defense is easily the biggest strength for the Texans, and pass-rusher J.J. Watt is arguably the team's biggest leader.
However, Houston does have talent on the other side of the football. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (111 receptions, 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns) has emerged as one of the league's brightest young offensive playmakers. Quarterback Brian Hoyer, who recently returned from his second concussion of the season, is a steady, if unspectacular presence under center.
Houston might not be as balanced as some of the other teams in the postseason, but it definitely boasts enough talent to compete.
Kansas City Chiefs 11-5 (2nd in AFC West)
Like the Texans, the Kansas City Chiefs got off to a slow start to the season (1-5). However, they have been the league's hottest team since and are rolling into the postseason with an incredible amount of momentum.
Kansas City has won 10 games in a row, primarily because of a defense that is ranked third in points allowed (just 17.9 per game).
The Chiefs aren't just a defensive team, though. With quarterback Alex Smith, tight end Travis Kelce, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and running backs Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, Kansas City has enough firepower to engage in a shootout if necessary.
K.C. is practically swaggering into the postseason, and with good reason. It's going to take a heck of a team effort for anyone to put an end to the Chiefs' winning streak.
Cincinnati Bengals 12-4 (1st in AFC North)
The Cincinnati Bengals are in the postseason for the fifth consecutive year, but this is only the second time in that span that they've entered as the AFC North champions.
Cincinnati might be the most balanced team in the postseason, and it might have the most overall talent, too. The Bengals finished seventh in scoring offense (26.2 points per game) and second in scoring defense (17.4 points per game allowed). They feature numerous weapons on both sides of the ball.
The only real weakness for Cincinnati is the fact that starting quarterback Andy Dalton suffered a broken thumb in the team's last game against Pittsburgh. According to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, Dalton has been ruled out, and the Bengals will start backup AJ McCarron Saturday.
The good news is that McCarron (passer rating of 97.1) has performed well in Dalton's stead. This is going to be a touch team for anyone to knock off, even with a backup under center.
Pittsburgh Steelers 10-6 (2nd in AFC North)
The Pittsburgh Steelers might be the one team that the Bengals—and any other playoff team, for that matter—wish had stayed home for the playoffs. Pittsburgh is not a particularly well-balanced team, but Ben Roethlisberger and his third-ranked passing attack (287.7 yards per game) are potent enough to scare even the best of opponents.
Unfortunately, the Steelers are also dealing with a key injury and will be without running back DeAngelo Williams. Weapons like Antonio Brown (1,834 receiving yards, 10 touchdowns) and Martavis Bryant (765 receiving yards, six scores) should be enough to keep the offense rolling, however.
Pittsburgh's biggest defensive strength is its pass rush, which produced 48 sacks in the regular season. If it can cover up for a secondary that is below average (271.9 yards per game allowed, third-most in the NFL), then the Steelers defense might not be a total liability.
The quick-strike capability of the offense, though, might make defensive football a mere afterthought.
What: Kansas City Chiefs at Houston Texans
When: 4:35 p.m. ET
Saturday's opening contest features two teams built on defense, with each riding high on the proverbial momentum wave. Combined, the Chiefs and the Texans went 17-3 to finish the regular season.
On paper, the two are evenly matched, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Pro Football Focus rates Houston third overall defensively and Kansas City fifth. The Chiefs have a statistical edge in the scoring department (25.3 vs. 21.2 points per game) but not in overall offense (Houston averages 347.8 yards per game vs. 331.2).
Much of this game is likely to come down to individual matchups. DeAndre Hopkins' matchup with Kansas City's cornerbacks will be a big one to watch. J.J. Watt's matchup with a Chiefs offensive line that is rated just 29th overall in pass-blocking by Pro Football Focus will be another.
Fortunately, it seems the Chiefs will have their own star pass-rusher back in time for the game. Justin Houston, who missed the last five games of the regular season, appears set to return.
"That's the plan, to play,'' Houston said, per Adam Teicher of ESPN.com. "I've definitely got some rust to knock off. After the first quarter, I'll be all right.''
Expect this to be a bruising, physical matchup for all four quarters.
What: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals
When: 8:15 p.m. ET
If the Texans vs. Chiefs is going to be a bruising contest, the battle between the Steelers and the Bengals is going to be an all-out war. The Steelers won the last round, knocking off the Bengals in Cincinnati late in the season and knocking out Dalton in the process.
The Bengals, who are rated seventh overall offensively and 12th overall defensively by Pro Football Focus, should be able to handle almost any postseason opponent. The Steelers, however, are not just any postseason opponent.
Pittsburgh is 7-3 against its AFC North foe over the past five years.
In order to win Saturday, not only will the Bengals need to beat a dangerous opponent, but they will also need to defeat a team that holds the psychological edge of a gridiron bully.
Little hype is needed for this one. Expect it to be as tense and brutal as any game this weekend.
Can AJ McCarron Hold His Own Against Pittsburgh?
McCarron played well in his three starts to end the regular season. He wasn't asked to put the offense on his shoulders or anything, but he showed both poise and the ability to run Cincinnati's system on a full scale.
He was also efficient. Pro Football Focus rated McCarron 10th overall among quarterbacks over the final three weeks of the regular season.
However, he saw his first extended NFL action in Week 14 against the Steelers, and it didn't exactly go smoothly. While he did pass for 280 yards and two touchdowns, he also threw two costly interceptions that helped to give Pittsburgh the victory.
The difference here, of course, is that he heads into the game as a starter. He was thrust into action in the last meeting after Dalton suffered the broken thumb. McCarron should be better prepared to handle the coverage and blitz schemes of Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler.
There is naturally a difference between preparation and execution. If McCarron can avoid making key mistakes, he should have a good chance to earn his first playoff victory before Dalton does. If he makes a couple of critical mistakes, Cincinnati may find them difficult to overcome.
Can the Steelers Defense Make Enough Big Plays to Win?
In terms of yardage, the Steelers were scraping the bottom of the barrel in pass defense during the regular season. The Pittsburgh defense ranked 30th in passing yards allowed (271.9 per game) and is rated 24th in pass coverage by Pro Football Focus.
Yet, the Pittsburgh defense isn't always a liability because it is stout against the run (just 91.2 rushing yards allowed per game) and has a penchant for making big plays. During the regular season, the group produced 48 sacks, 16 forced fumbles and 17 interceptions.
This will likely be the key to stopping Cincinnati's potent offensive onslaught. Hoping to contain A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and the rest of the Bengals' talented receiving corps for four quarters would be a fool's strategy.
However, the Steelers can utilize their defensive front to limit the ground game and then hope to create enough big plays to counteract any surrendered yardage. A couple of turnovers and a few timely sacks could be enough to give the Steelers the win.
If the Bengals can manage to play mistake-free football, though, it will be hard for Pittsburgh to steal the road win.
Do the Texans Belong in the Postseason?
Similar questions come up anytime a team slips into the postseason by winning a weak division. The 9-7 Texans are hosting the 11-5 Chiefs because they managed to secure the woeful AFC South. If the Texans put forth a miserable showing Saturday, the cry to consider reseeding the playoffs will likely continue in some form.
We took a look last week at why Houston and Washington can't just be seen as postseason fodder, but these teams are still going to have to prove it on the field.
The Texans certainly have the weapons, especially on defense, to hang with any opponent. If Houston can win, or at least come close, it will validate both the current playoff format and the direction of the franchise.
A lot will ride on the performance of Brian Hoyer at quarterback, as well. If he can operate like a playoff-caliber signal-caller, he might have a chance to lock down Houston's starting job for another year. If not, the Texans will likely be seen as one of those teams that is a quarterback away from legitimate contention.
Stats to Know
Combined yards receiving produced by Steelers receiver Antonio Brown and Bengals receiver A.J. Green. The game is going to be physical, but expect plenty of aerial action, as well.
Passes that Bengals quarterback AJ McCarron attempted over his three starts to end the season. He tossed four touchdowns in that span with zero interceptions. Pittsburgh cannot count on the second-year signal-caller making critical mistakes.
Rushing yards produced by Cincinnati's tandem of Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill. The Bengals backfield certainly isn't hurting, and their offense won't be one-dimensional. Pittsburgh cannot exactly say the same.
Sacks produced by the Texans defense in the regular season. J.J. Watt was responsible for 17.5 of them. Stopping him will be the key to Kansas City minimizing the effects of inconsistent pass protection.
Sacks surrendered by the Kansas City offensive line during the regular season, an average of nearly three per game. If the Chiefs cannot contain the Houston pass rush, quarterback Alex Smith can count on going down multiple times.
Combined yards rushing by Chiefs backs Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware. A strong running game is one way to counter a heavy pass rush, and West and Ware have filled in for the injured Jamaal Charles brilliantly this season.
Here are the odds for this weekend's games, via Odds Shark:
|Game Time (ET)||Away Team||Home Team||Favorite|
|Saturday, 4:35 p.m.||Kansas City||Houston||Kansas City -3|
|Saturday, 8:15 p.m.||Pittsburgh||Cincinnati||Pittsburgh -3|
|Sunday, 1:05 p.m.||Seattle||Minnesota||Seattle -5|
|Sunday, 4:40 p.m.||Green Bay||Washington||Washington -1|
Matchups to Watch
DeAndre Hopkins vs. Chiefs Cornerbacks
We've already mentioned that Houston wideout DeAndre Hopkins is one of the league's most explosive young pass-catchers. He also holds the keys to the Texans offense. If the Chiefs can shut him down, they would effectively hamstring Houston's passing attack.
Of course, even with a couple of talented cornerbacks on the roster, the Chiefs are in for a difficult task.
Since the Chiefs don't typically move their outside corners, both Sean Smith and Marcus Peters are likely to have their opportunities to battle Hopkins. Though Peters was named to the Pro Bowl this season, Smith has been the more consistent of the two. Pro Football Focus rates Smith 18th overall among all cornerbacks.
Peters is rated just 110th overall by Pro Football Focus and is credited with allowing 939 receiving yards, third-most in the NFL by a cornerback. If the Texans decide to go after Peters with Hopkins, though, they need to exercise caution. The rookie posted eight interceptions during the regular season.
The good news for Houston is that Smith and Peters allowed a combined 13 touchdown receptions too.
A.J. Green vs. Pittsburgh Pass Defense
Bengals receiver A.J. Green might not be quite as dominant as Hopkins, but he has given the Steelers defense fits in the past. Just this season, he produced 17 receptions for 250 yards and two touchdowns in two games against Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh, which is rated just 24th in pass coverage by Pro Football Focus, may need to get creative to slow him. At any rate, the Steelers need to figure out a game plan that doesn't involve single-covering Green with starting corner Antwon Blake.
Blake has been a weakness in Pittsburgh's secondary for much of the season. According to Pro Football Focus, he was targeted 110 times in the regular season, allowing 76 receptions for 1,074 yards and eight touchdowns.
Yep, he's one of the two guys to allow more receiving yards than Peters.
The Bengals have a plethora of other pass-catching options, so shutting down Green won't be enough for the Steelers to win Saturday, but failing to do so could cause a Pittsburgh loss.
AJ McCarron vs. Steelers Pass Rush
We've already mentioned that the pass rush is one of the stronger areas of the Steelers defense. If the Bengals hope to beat it, they'll need to get a more polished performance out of AJ McCarron.
Though he showed plenty of promise late in the season, handling pressure has not been one of his strengths.
According to Pro Football Focus, McCarron was pressured on 53 of his 139 passing attempts. Those 53 pressures resulted in eight throwaways, 12 sacks, one interception and just 21 completions. He was sacked just seven fewer times than starter Andy Dalton was in 124 pressures.
The Steelers cannot expect McCarron to make many real mistakes when he has time in the pocket, but applying pressure is one way to force them. How McCarron and the Bengals handle that pressure will have a bearing on the game's final outcome.
Here are the most significant injuries for Saturday's games.
According to the Steelers' injury report, running back DeAngelo Williams has been ruled out with a foot injury. Receiver Martavis Bryant (neck) and linebacker Vance Williams (illness) are both listed as probable.
The Bengals have officially ruled out quarterback Andy Dalton with a right thumb injury. Defensive tackle Brandon Thompson (knee) and H-back Ryan Hewitt (knee) are also out. Cornerback Leon Hall (concussion/back) is listed as probable.
Kansas City Chiefs
Rookie offensive lineman Mitch Morse has been officially ruled out, according to the Chiefs' injury report. Safety Husain Abdullah (concussion), linebacker Dee Ford (concussion) and linebacker Tamba Hali (knee/thumb) are listed as questionable.
Linebacker Justin Houston (knee), tight end Travis Kelce (groin) and running back Spencer Ware (rib) are all listed as probable.
According to the Texans' injury report, linebacker Jadeveon Clowney is listed as questionable with a foot injury. A number of players—including running back Alfred Blue (calf), receiver DeAndre Hopkins (hand), receiver Cecil Shorts (hamstring) and cornerback Kevin Johnson (foot/wrist)—are listed as probable.
Expert Picks and Predictions
Here are this weekend's picks and predictions from Bleacher Reports' panel of NFL experts.